'Fringe': A Q&A with Jeff Pinkner
Jeff Pinkner has written for several J.J. Abrams productions, including "Alias" and "Lost," and now he's the executive producer and showrunner for "Fringe," which was just picked up for a full season by Fox.
Here he discusses hidden Easter eggs in "Fringe," scientific accuracy in the series and the necessity of exploding heads in a program about science.
Q. How did getting picked up for a full season change your planning on the show?
A. If we had only done 13 episodes, I think we all would have been immensely disappointed. The story that we’ve created for this show is a multi-year story. We started by figuring out what the ending was. If we’d only done 13 episodes, I don’t think there would have been a way to satisfyingly move everything up that quickly. The answer is, it doesn’t change our long-term plans, except it allows us to see our long-term plans through.
Q: Did you have a tentative 13th episode ending planned?
A: No, to a degree that would have been planning for failure. And we were all hoping for success.
Q: How many years do you have planned?
A: 75. It will go on longer than any of us. [laughs] No, it’s sort of like an accordian file. There are roads we would love to explore if we have the time. The basic framework I don’t want to say out loud because I think it’s a jinx.
Q: Will the format of “Fringe” evolve over time the way “Lost” has?
A: I think of “Lost” as a show that feels like it's changed, but the change is inevitable. It started on the island, then it went into the island and now it’s about protecting the island. Our show, the basic format will not change as drastically, but it will definitely feel like a deepening and enriching of the story we’re telling.
Q: The first few episodes of the season seemed a bit repetitive. But the Observer, introduced in the fourth episode, really changed the scope of the show. Was his late introduction intentional?
A: In some ways the show is an experiment for us. We are not, by our own admission, the best at telling stand-alone stories. Because we’re fundamentally attracted to creating worlds, which inherently have an epic scope. While shows like "Law & Order" are spectacular, it doesn’t have the same epic quality of say, "Harry Potter."
It’s our goal to both tell stories, where if you’ve seen nothing before and nothing after, you’ll see a very satisfying 50 minutes of television. But if you have seen what’s come before, you have a whole other level of appreciation.
We set out to populate our world from the start with characters and little mysteries that will only pay off over time. There’s things in the pilot that won’t pay off until Season 3.
I can tell you that there’s almost nothing that’s accidental on the show. There’s no throw-away lines of dialogue, the Observer being in shots is not an accident. There’s Easter eggs all over the place. Many of them are just for the fun of people who want to play along. Several of them have yet to be discovered. But they’re not necessary for the enjoyment of the show. They’re really just for run. If you were to crack the code, it will raise the level of satisfaction, hopefully. For example, in every episode there’s a clue about what the next episode is going to be about.
Q: Can you give a specific example?
A: In the pilot of the show, if you watch carefully in the establishing shot of Massive Dynamic, there’s a sign on the post that’s a little rebus of a pen and a rose. The serial killer’s dad in the second episode is Dr. Penrose. There’s little fun things like that in every episode.
Q: What can you tell us about what we’ll be seeing in the next few weeks?
A: The next episode is a foundational episode, and a lot of things will be set up which will come to pay off over the next several weeks. The next four episodes are stand-alone in quality, but at the same time we start to peel back another layer of the onion. The first six were a prologue, and now we’re getting into the next chapter.
Q: When will the Observer make a major return appearance?
A: He’s laying dormant at the moment. But in the way that pieces come together and interlock, his story is still being told.
Q: “Lost” has been very secretive regarding its story lines. Do you take secrecy as seriously on “Fringe”?
A: We don’t have the same level of fanaticism. With "Lost," there’s a level of fanaticism that you wouldn’t believe, and so they’re secretive out of necessity. We are definitely protective, and we want the audience to discover the show how we want them to discover it. We definitely try to protect ourselves, but we haven’t found the necessity for the government level of secrecy that “Lost” has needed to maintain.
Q: Dr. Bishop seems like the most fun character to write.
A: He’s incredibly fun to write. I should say it’s fun to write all of our characters and how they see the world through their prism. I think to write a show solely about Walter Bishop might be a little frustrating. The two main characters, Peter and Olivia, balance him out. I think the three of them provide a very stable triangle for our show. He’s incredibly fun to write for because he can say and do anything, which is a blast for a writer. He’s incredibly brilliant and he’s forgotten just how brilliant he is. He’s scared of his own shadow, and he’s scared of the things he’s done in the past, and he’s incredibly childlike. Which is just really fun to write for.
Q: It seems like it would be easy to go too far with the character. Do the writers have rules for him?
A: I think the rule is you have to bring it back to humanity. It always has to be honest. John Noble, who plays Walter, is unbelievably smart and insisted on finding the humanity in the character. He plays it from a believable place and doesn't play him from a goofball, cuddly cute place. That's our prime directive: Keep it real and honest.
Q: The number of characters being abducted and given extraordinary powers made a lot of sense when someone in a recent episode alluded to the building of an army. Is that what’s going on here?
A: Yes, though I think “army” can be taken more than one way, it's more figurative than literal. But I think the basic premise that there are people who are using our world as a scientific playground is sort of the touchstone.
What scares me is what science is capable of and what we know government and private individuals are experimenting with and toying with in the name of science and the spirit of pure curiosity. Science has the capability of rocking the foundation of what we consider to be reality right now. There was a very real fear among very smart scientists when they fired up the Hadron supercollider that our universe would disappear. I suppose none of us would have known it; we just would have been gone. But these aren’t things to be taken lightly.
Our world, as we’ve seen with the recent financial collapse, is controlled largely by private industry, which does not have the same regulations as government. And when you have unfettered imagination married to technological resources we’ve never had before, plus money, it can become quite scary.
Literally everything we’ve done on our show is grounded in actual scientific fact. We’ve trying to tell entertaining stories. We have the license to get a little crazy, but it’s all grounded in fact.
Q: How much scientific fact is present in any episode?
A: In the last episode, “Bellini’s lymphocemia” was a made-up name, though the qualities of the disease are real. We just didn’t want to imply that individuals working on their own could cure it. We didn’t want to be irresponsible to people with the real disease.
Q: Do you always feel that outside pressure?
A: There’s always a degree of responsibility we feel, but all of our science is grounded in reality. We’re not telling any stories that are in the world of potential.
Q: If you’re playing with the reality anyway, why rely on scientific fact at all? Couldn’t you just completely make something up that sounds plausible and go with that?
A: Yes. But our rule is we don’t want to do it if it’s totally made up. I’m sure people would tell you everything we’re doing is totally unbelievable, but for us, if we set out to do an utterly fictional show, it would probably be easier in some ways, but it would be less exciting. I think we all quite like the idea that we’re working in the realm of the real, as opposed to the entirely made-up. Again, it’s not necessary to watch the show and see how it’s ripped from the headlines, because it’s not. But there’s a certain quality of authenticity that it’s much easier to create if you know the parameters.
Q: The show’s more graphic than anything we’ve seen on network TV in a while.
A: I think we always want to have a quality of “Oh, my God, can you believe what they did on ‘Fringe’ last night?” When I was a kid growing up, one my best friends’ dads was an ophthamologist, and at their house he had films of all of his surgeries. All of his surgeries were locked-down camera close-ups of eyeballs with scalpels cutting into them and peeling back the corneas. And they’d be running all the time. It was very real and honest — they were created for the purpose of education. Science is kind of disgusting. The human body is kind of disgusting when you look at it inside out, and our show needs to acknowledge that.
Q: Have you encounted any censor problems with things like expoding heads?
A: No. There’s been one or two shots they’ve asked us to trim back, but I think they do far more upsetting things on “24.” Not to say that “24” is mean-spirited, but none of our stories involve torture. It’s all very organic.
Q: How’s the experiment with “Fringe” having limited commercials going?
A: We’re doing an extra act of television every week. Storytelling-wise, we’ve gotten used to it. It’s fanastic when storytellers are given an extra seven minutes of time, but it’s been hard. It’s impossible on production. We’re doing an extra 20% of television every week. We don’t have 20% extra money and time. We’re getting comfortable with the pace of our production. But the writing is challenging, because with those seven minutes we’re still trying to keep the story energy up, and it’s a very fine line between going deeper with the story and keeping it moving.
— Patrick Kevin Day
UPDATE: Jeff Pinkner was previously misidentified as co-executive producer for "Fringe."
Photo courtesy Fox