Friday, January 30, 2009

JJ Abrams talks Fringe, Star Trek

Recently, as Fox held its "2009 Winter All-Star Party" at a Hollywood hotspot called Our House, I cornered JJ Abrams at the end of the night to get some behind-the-scenes insight into his newest hit series Fringe, as well as a sneak peek into his upcoming big screen rendition of Star Trek.

Must Hear TV:  Okay, first of all, on Fringe, what kind of explanation can I wring out of you about all the symbols – the frog, the leaf, the butterfly, etc. 

JJ Abrams:  There is sort of a code to that. 

MHTV:  Planned from the beginning?  You’re not just messing with us with random stuff? 

JJA:  It’s not random.  It’s the images and where the lights are, and it’s a whole thing.

MHTV:  So that’s a clue?  We should go back and freeze frame it?

JJA:  I wouldn’t ask anyone to spend their time doing that, but some people might…  It’s the kind of thing that I for some reason get excited about, which is either strange or odd or pathetic.  I don’t know.  But I love those kind of things.

MHTV:  For example, there was the episode where the guy was killed by hallucinating butterflies -- are those the same butterflies as in the code?  Do some of these symbols then turn up in episodes?

JJA:  There are some things that are definitely connected to some of the imagery.  And there are other things, too, that will happen.  But that code thing is sort of a separate thing.  And there are clues in every episode about the next episode.

MHTV:  Well that certainly clears it up.  How closely should we be watching each episode for hidden clues?

JJA:  What I love about what started to happen is that we started to find the rhythm and voice of the show.  The episodes that started airing this month [January 2009] really are the beginning of those episodes.  They are what Fringe is.  What’s fun is that there are a lot of loose ends that get wrapped up and separate pieces that may have felt standalone actually have reason and purpose.

MHTV:  Your shows are known for their complex plotlines.  Do you plan the whole mystery and story arc before writing episode 1, or are you doing a little as you go along?

JJA:  It’s always a leap of faith.  You do things that you think, “This is cool and I have an idea where this could go.”  We’ll have an idea where we need to go, and then put [plot points] on the board or have cards or whatever.  But a lot of times as you’re working on it, you say, “Wait a minute, I know we talked about this being that.  But what if this is why this happened?”   You could figure out right now what you want to wear ever day for the next 5 years.  But I promise you 3 ½ years from now, you’re going to wake up and there will be a combination you could never have anticipated.  So you don’t try to figure out literally every episode.  There’s no time when you’re working on a pilot to say, ”In episode 106…”  But you can say,  “Okay, I think I know why Walter was put away.”  And the leap of faith is you’ll either land on those ideas or a better one.

MHTV:  In another example, you planted the clue “Little Hill” – the phrase that Peter is able to construct from just a series of vertical lines.  Then, a few episodes later, we learn that it’s a crucial location.  How many episodes do you have to be writing at a time in order to do that?

JJA:  We knew what “Little Hill” what it was going to be, but not exactly how that was going to play out.  For example, if we had had a better idea by the time Jones was broken out, we would have used that.

MHTV:  So Little Hill would have been something else other than a field?

JJA:  Well it certainly could have been.  There are sometimes when an idea will come up, and it’ll work to pay off something, but it’s also clearly a setup for something else.  And all that matters in that episode is that the payoff works.  And then you go, “Ooh, now I have this other thing!”  The best analogy I can think of is Tarzan swinging through vines.  All you need to know is that the vine you’re on is going to sustain, and you’re going to swing along.  And you pray to God there’s another vine when that vine has to swing backwards.  So you work it out the best you can, but you’ve got to trust that there’s something that will come that’s either as good as or hopefully better than where you think this is going to take you.

MHTV:  How much do you worry about the plausibility of all this technology? How much suspension of disbelief are you expecting?

JJA:  What’s very funny to me, like in the pilot, no one said to me, "Wait a minute, so she’s able to go into his consciousness—"

MHTV:  --in her supermodel bra and panties, by the way –

JJA:  --Yeah, you’re welcome.  But what we did hear was, “Wait a minute.  There’s a lab they’re not using -- at Harvard?!”  The stuff that people have problems with are the things that they can relate to.  If someone’s floating, they don’t have a problem with it.  But if Olivia is floating and her hair is perfect, they’ll say, “Oh yeah, like her hair is going to be like that!”  And I’m like, “They’re f-ing floating!  How about that?!”

MHTV:  Where do Fringe’s ideas, like for example the floating, come from?

JJA:  From just sitting around and thinking, “Okay, this is weird, but—“  Most everything is just something I’d like to see.  [In the case of the flotation tank], that was absolutely a complete homage – or if you don’t want the French, rip off – of Altered States.  It is one of my favorite movies.  I have one of the makeup heads from it.  I love that movie.

MHTV:  Speaking of movies, with Star Trek, what was your biggest filmmaking challenge?

JJA:  It was a very ambitious shoot.  So there are a lot of sequences that were challenging.  But it was the most fun I’ve ever had.  It was as hard as everything I’ve ever worked on, rolled into just a quarter of that movie.  It was a huge production.  It was so tricky.  For one thing, having never done a movie, or a show, that took place in space before, it screws with your perception of scale.  It’s like being in Las Vegas.  “Oh, there’s that hotel.  I’m going to walk over there.”  And a half an hour later you’re still walking, thinking, “What the f- is going on?”  An establishing shot in Star Trek can’t be a house or a building or a city – it’s a planet.  It changes everything about how you look at scale.

MHTV:  How daunting are the expectations of the movie?  Does it make you nervous to live up to the Trekkies?  And are you one?

JJA:  Yeah, a little bit.  I want to do them proud and make sure that they’re happy.  And me, I’m a new Trekkie.  I’m a Trekkie now, but I never was.  I’d be lying to you if I said I didn’t I love Star Trek now.  Not just loving what I did, but loving the world of it, the optimism, the characters.  I get it in a way that I never did before.

MHTV:  Sci-fi fans can be so exacting, and mean when they don’t like something…

JJA:  But I’m also beholden to them.  Those are the people who watch Fringe.  Those fans are the people I’m making the movie for, so I hope they’re happy with it.

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