Fringe Oral History: Building the World of "Science Fact"
A mad scientist, his genius prodigal son and a noble FBI agent compose the surrogate family at the core of Fox's supernatural drama Fringe that, under the direction of sci-fi kingpin J.J. Abrams (Lost), struggled through five low-rated seasons of endlessly fascinating twists and turns that, quite literally, attempted to tell the story of the universe, er, universes. It will all come to an auspicious end Friday at 8/7c, in what devotees hope will be a satisfying ending to the little series that could.
Fringe Oral History Part 2: Dual universes open up a new world of possibility
TVGuide.com talked to stars John Noble (Dr. Walter Bishop), Joshua Jackson (Peter Bishop), Anna Torv (Olivia Dunham), Jasika Nicole (Astrid Farnsworth), Lance Reddick (Phillip Broyles), Blair Brown (Nina Sharp), Mark Valley (John Scott), series co-creator Abrams, executive producers J.H Wyman, Jeff Pinkner and Bryan Burk, Warner Bros. President Peter Roth and Fox's Chairman of Entertainment Kevin Reilly about the bumpy road to the series finale, starting with the conception of the show. This is the first in a four-part series. Check out Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4.
Fringe Oral History Part 3: How the series changed forever with one sacrificial act
After handing off the reins of Lost to Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, J.J. Abrams wracked his brain for his next TV project, turning to the brain trust of producers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, along with Bryan Burk — who were later joined by Jeff Pinker and J.H. Wyman to oversee the series — to build a show that spoke to their collective love of early sci-fi and genre TV and films.
J.J. Abrams: The idea was to do a show that was in the same vein as some early [David] Cronenberg movies or Altered States, a little bit of Twilight Zone and X-Files, a show that felt super-weird and superhuman at the same time. So I called Alex and Bob and just said it would be fun if we threw together all the stuff that we love and tried to come up with something that we'd want to watch.
Bryan Burk: I went back and watched all the [Cronenberg films] again when we were having these conversations, just to remind myself. They were far more complex than I was able to wrap my head around when I was a kid. So the idea of doing something that tapped into all those fantasies and fears and possibilities that I had growing up, and to be able to do it again, but do it as a TV series was something that sounded really promising and exciting.
Abrams: Then we came up with Fringe. We were at Comic-Con that year and sitting at coffeeshops talking about what the show could be. When I first had the idea, I called it The Lab. It was something that I was thinking about in a vague way, and then the three of us concocted this idea.
Burk: We always talked about the lab. That jumping off point was always like, "How do we make this lab really real and grounded with endless possibilities?" It was the epicenter of the conversation. Everything began with talking about this lab where anything was possible. It's not by accident that Carol Spier, who was the production designer for David Cronenberg and continues to be, was our production designer on the pilot for that. When we found out that she lived in Toronto where we were shooting the pilot, it was totally serendipitous. I also remember J.J. always loved the word "fringe" as a possible title.
Jeff Pinkner: My first interaction with the show, I actually was visiting the set of the first Star Trek, just hanging out with J.J. He and Bob and Alex were talking about the pilot and I guess they all knew that none of them would actually be staying with the show on a day-to-day basis. J.J. pitched the show to me while we were standing on the bridge of the Enterprise. Instantly what appealed to me was, first and foremost, the characters, and then I've always loved that fringe-science arena.
J.H. Wyman: I had always loved science fiction, but I'm more of an existentialist. I mean, at the time I was like, "I haven't written a lot of science fiction," and J.J. said, "Hey man, don't worry about that, it's about family and it is about all the things that you love." I realized that it was a match made in heaven.
Fringe Oral History Part 4: The road to the series finale
Finding a studio for Fringe would actually prove to be easy. With Abrams' pedigree, both Warner Bros. and Fox were dying to work with him.
Peter Roth: Frankly, I pursued him for six years; that's not an exaggeration. For six years I wanted to bring him to the company. I first heard about the project probably before most at a dinner that I was having with J.J., wherein he pitched the notion of these three disparate, but equally brilliant people: a father, a son and an FBI agent, each of whom would come together in an extraordinary way to help solve and uncover the anomalies of "science fact" that exist and could exist in this series. What I remember most vividly about the story is that I was working so hard to keep up with him at this dinner that I mistakenly had ordered a glass of wine. I took one sip of the wine and thought, I can't possibly have a glass of wine and still be able to understand and keep up with J.J. So I put the wine aside. That was August of 2007.
Kevin Reilly: We knew we were going to have a shot with this project. I went to Peter Roth when I first came to Fox, and I said, "Whatever J.J. does next, we want it, and we want to make a really big play." And Peter said, "Well, they're working on something." And I said, "Sold." I remember I just thought it was really cool right from the get-go. But then I met the guys, and what I realized, too, is there's an infectious creativity. One of the things, for anybody who's worked with J.J., is that he's the master of it, in that he's a dynamic guy. He's a kinetic guy, and he just loves creativity, so he has ideas, you have an idea, and next thing you know, you're just cooking on it. Bob's a conspiracy theorist, and Alex is this soft-spoken guy that loves weaving tales and has a great mind, and it was just fun. It was really, I would say, one of the things from the get-go for me that I bonded with. It was just fun to work on.
When time came for casting, the producers had little trouble finding the trio that would comprise the eventual family at the center of the show.
Abrams: We were very lucky to get Josh [Jackson], who was someone I'd known a little bit for years back when we were doing Felicity and they were doing Dawson's Creek. He had a great, wry sense of humor and also a real skill with drama.
Joshua Jackson: I had gone out for Star Trek. I had gone and auditioned for both Kirk and Bones and maybe that was the thing that put me into their mind. Knowing J.J. peripherally long before that — I am really close friends with a guy named Scott Foley, who was in Felicity — so I just happened to be there right around the beginning of J.J.'s TV career. I'd known him off and on through all those years so I think maybe he already had a pretty good idea of who I was.
Abrams: Actors go in for all sorts of roles. I didn't need to see him for anything else to remember him and be aware of him and want to work with him. Any kind of Star Trek thing didn't have anything to do with it.
Reilly: Josh was somebody who I've always liked his work. It was like he was at that moment in time where you thought, "Wow, what a great way to reinvent him to the next level on television."
Jackson: The pilot script introduced almost an endless amount of possibilities for what the show could become, which is what I found so intriguing. Also knowing the pedigree of the people involved, having J.J. involved in the show and Bob and Alex writing the pilot with him, it gave me the confidence in it. Everybody has high hopes, but they actually have a track record.
Reilly: We had a hard time [casting Olivia]. We went through a number of actresses, and what was difficult was that J.J., coming off of Lost and having done Felicity, was known for finding ingénues, and he's just got this magic touch for finding that next great star in the making. We saw Anna [Torv]'s audition and it was perfect: She is the one.
Abrams: Anna had an intensity and a sophistication and a beauty, but still a human being that you'd believe, but she seemed smart and she seemed connected and real. I believe that she would be this agent.
Anna Torv: I think the pilot really read like a movie. It was so very clear, especially Olivia's story. You started it with this young, fresh-faced, gung-ho FBI agent. By the end, her world has just been absolutely rocked. That's where you meet her in Season 1. I feel like she is still not quite healed because just from there, it was just knock after knock after knock after knock. So, that was just a great character and journey.
John Noble: The first attraction for me was the character of Walter, and I knew about that before I read the script. I knew from basically the time I got the sides to audition that this was a character I wanted to do. When I read the part, I thought that I was reading a big motion picture, which it was; it was a two-hour special. I knew the reputation of J.J. too. He could just do these magical things. We were set up in freezing Toronto in 3 feet of snow to do this, so I was very excited about it.
Abrams: John clearly had that wonderful brilliant, heartbreaking, funny mad scientist skill that he made seem effortless. That was awesome.
Reilly: John Noble is a prince. I just can't even imagine anybody else doing that role now, because we had to get somebody that played brilliant, but potentially crazy, and aloof, but warm.
Fringe's final season will pay off big for longtime fans
Their supporting cast would end up being as vital to the series, even though most of those characters would end up dead before the end, including Kirk Acevedo's Charlie Francis and Mark Valley's John Scott, the latter of whom perished in the pilot.
Mark Valley: I read the script and he died in the pilot, so I knew what I was getting into. For somebody who died in the pilot, I thought he got a lot of screen time. It was a good gig with some really talented people on that show. Anna is a fantastic actor. Josh is a really nice guy. I've heard John has done some amazing things with that character. I know I didn't end up being on it very much, but people kept asking me about it [at the time]. "Where are you? Are you in the alternate universe?" And I was like, "I'm on Harry's Law right now. If that's the alternate universe, sure." I'm proud of the work I did.
Blair Brown: The pilot had a lot of connections to Altered States — which was a movie that I did; it was my first big movie with William Hurt — and this whole notion of multiple realities and the extension of the mind, things like that were what that movie was about, so I was very excited. I loved the idea of playing this woman because at that point, it was all about Massive Dynamic in conflict with or in collaboration with the government. Who are the good guys; who are the bad guys?
Lance Reddick: When I first read it, I just remember thinking, first of all, that the only role that I was right for was Broyles. It was my kind of show because it was set up to be very serialized, and I love being part of that stuff and that's the stuff that I loved watching.
Jasika Nicole: The first time that I read a Fringe script was on the plane to Toronto to shoot the pilot. So when I auditioned for it, I never got to see a script. I never even saw actual sides of the character. They were all from other TV shows because it was very hush-hush and this was after Lost had such huge success, so they were trying to keep this very under wraps. The pilot was really weird and it was dark and it was creepy, which were all adjectives that I tend to really gravitate towards anyway.
After Lost, there was some trepidation in the industry about doing a mythology-laden series, which is why the producers attempted to marry procedural and serialized elements in the early days of Fringe.
Abrams: When it first came out, especially because of [the airplane story] in the pilot, there was a lot of talk that the show was trying to be a Lost rip-off. Luckily, we got to be on the air long enough to prove that it was its own animal.
Burk: I think you're always in the shadow of your previous project. We were in the middle of Lost. It definitely felt different enough for us. Lost was its own beast. It's funny because with Lost we started out with this conversation: How do we do a show that's not so serialized and allow people to jump in? That was in essence what we had discussed doing at Fringe.
Reilly: I never bought it to be the next Lost. Lost was such a paradigm-shifting moment, and its own thing. I was very fearful about a show that was just going to go down the rabbit hole. And not just me. It felt like both Warner Bros. and Fox were looking for something that had more of a structure, but could go to inventive and surprising places. That's the line we tried to walk.
Roth: It was never presented or thought of as a serialized drama. There were only serialized elements to the arcing of the characters, but the initial idea was just the opposite. It was designed to be self-contained storytelling in which there was always a Fringe-like story or a story of science anomaly, in which there would be a beginning, a middle and an end.
Burk: When you watch early episodes, you can see where we tried to have self-contained episodes, but the nature of what the show is and what it wanted to be, let alone what we wanted it to be despite denying it to ourselves, was a serialized show. So I don't think we were consciously saying, "Oh, we're going to do another sci-fi serialized genre show." The show often tells you what it wants to be, and this was one of those cases.
Abrams: When the show premiered, it was never a massive hit. It was a show that was doing well enough that we felt like we were at least going to be on the air a couple years. We got some traction. Joel and Jeff, at the time, started working on stories that were both stand-alone and had elements of the larger picture in it so that you didn't have to watch every episode to know it to understand it.
Wyman: It started as more of the freak of the week thing. It's, again, painfully obvious now when you look back and you say, "Wait a minute, here's the struggle." We have the network who's saying we need stand-alones and the fans are saying, "I don't want another stand-alone; I want mythology. I want to learn more about my characters. Please, please tell us."
Brown: This isn't Law & Order. This isn't that kind of CSI procedural, where the people almost don't matter, where we rely on them to be the archetypical people that take us through these stories.
Torv: Our show found its groove when they really started to tell stories that were essentially procedural stories, but where you were connected to one of your leads.
Reilly: Through the first season, fans were circling, where they could see the potential. You know, the show opened to very big numbers; numbers that we never saw again. And then it settled down over the course of that first season. I think for CSI fans, it wasn't really CSI. And Lost fans realized it wasn't really Lost. It was splitting the difference a bit.
Burk: Immediately from the beginning, Kevin Reilly was so open. He was OK with it being a serialized show, he was OK with it being the crime of the week, but he implored us to declare what we wanted it to be and to go forward in that way. To say he was amazing at helping, galvanizing us and allowing us to create a show was this amazing experience for us, to have our leader and the head of the network be able to say, "I support whatever you guys want to do."
Fringe's final season is a 13-episode feature film
The turning point for the series came nearly halfway through its first season in the episode, "In Which We Meet Mr. Jones," which was when Fringe found its footing as a family drama.
Jackson: It took us until Episode 7 or 8 of the first season to figure out really what the show was going to be. We had a pretty rocky start to the beginning of the first season from a creative standpoint. As they say in the pilot, it was the story of Pandora wanting to close the box. It was really a coming-of-age story for a woman. That was a part of the problem in the beginning. You had this really strong, but emotionally remote leading lady who didn't connect to any of the characters in her world because she wasn't in their world. We were showing that she was in Walter's world really.
Noble: Olivia, in the beginning, she was just this woman that we didn't quite understand. She was just a grieving woman. We knew about the John Scott issue, but not much else about her. And we started to find her heart, we started to find out about Cortexiphan and the fact that she was, basically, abused as a child. It allowed us to start to fall in love with Olivia, which has been incredibly successful, as you know.
Jackson: It became a family story halfway through, when the Walter-and-Peter story line started to really take hold. Then it became a real family story when Olivia came more into that fold in Season 2.
Noble: I think it's part of the genius of J.J. He wanted to present a father-son relationship, so he set Josh and I up with this potential. And fortunately, Josh Jackson and I get along really well, so we took it seriously. We started to really work at this. I think the other part in that, which was really important, was the Astrid character, who I don't know what they meant to do with her in the beginning, but we started to really embrace Jasika's character and make her part of it. And then the relationship with Broyles and the relationship between Nina and Walter was always very rich. The family ties just got deeper.
Wyman: I think the show started to work when everybody realized what was so painfully obvious at the beginning that we just took some time to figure out: that this program was always about a family. I mean it was called Fringe for a reason. Just for the people trying to hang on to and create a family at all costs and then trying to connect. Once we got involved in that and we realized we were telling the quintessential kidnapping story, it really opened up the show a lot.
In Part 2 of our four-part series, the cast and producers discuss the introduction of the parallel universe and Seth Gabel's Lincoln Lee, along with some of the more crazy story lines on the Fox series. Check out Part 3 and Part 4.