Executive Producers Jeff Pinkner and J.H. Wyman Interview FRINGE Season 4

     September 23, 2011

Executive Producers Jeff Pinkner and J.H. Wyman Interview FRINGE slice

The sci-fi drama Fringe returns for Season 4 tonight, with Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson) wiped from existence, after having saved the day in the last season finale. The two worlds are now forced to work together, as Lincoln Lee (Seth Gabel) joins Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) and Dr. Walter Bishop (John Noble) on the Fringe team under Phillip Broyles (Lance Reddick). With unbelievable new cases and a growing mythology, the fourth season of the popular series promises more shocks and twists that its loyal followers have come to expect from the show’s adventurous, thought-provoking storytelling.

During a recent interview to promote the show’s return, executive producers Jeff Pinkner and J.H. Wyman talked about how important Peter Bishop is to the show and that Joshua Jackson will return in some capacity, the significance of the change in the opening title sequence, the challenge of incorporating both worlds into some of the stories this season, how grateful they are to have such a rabid following, and how things start fresh this season, making it the perfect time for new viewers to dive in. Check out what they had to say after the jump.

Fringe-Joshua JacksonQuestion: For a chunk of last season, you had Joshua Jackson in alternating episodes, and now with the finale, you’ve toled people that Peter Bishop has ceased to exist. What would you like to say to reassure his fans that they will be getting sufficient amounts of Joshua Jackson this season?

J.H. WYMAN: Peter Bishop is part of the DNA of the show. We’ve done some pretty crazy things in the past where people were like, “Well, wait a minute, why are they doing that? What’s going on?” Hopefully, in Season 4, people will trust us enough to realize that we are doing things for a reason. To have Fringe without Peter, in some way, shape or form is not really Fringe. So, while we can’t really comment on how, we can say that he’s part of the show. He’s part of the language of our show, and a very big part of it. There are two things that we want to get across without really ruining anything. Peter is part of the DNA, and he’ll always be that. Just because he doesn’t exist, doesn’t mean that the three years that we’ve all invested in and watched does not exist. It really did happen, and it’ll unfold itself for you to understand in what context I’m speaking of. People shouldn’t worry. We love Peter, and we know how much everybody loves Peter. We can’t imagine telling the series and the story without him.

JEFF PINKNER: Fans around the world stunningly put together this video piece Where is Peter Bishop?, on their own and totally outside of our purview, literally making signs and taking photographs of images around the world, like in the “Where is Peter Bishop?” campaign. It’s amazing, and a tribute to the entire cast and crew. The whole thing plays as a love letter to the show. What we would say is the show constantly tries to re-contextualize your perception of the story. We introduced Walter Bishop in Season 1, and by the time you got to Season 2, you realized that, in many ways, he’s the chief architect. Our most sympathetic character is the chief architect of all the trouble, in two universes. There’s a version of the narrative where he’s the biggest villain of the entire piece. So, the idea that Peter is gone, and ultimately he’s not permanently gone, is an opportunity to re-contextualize the story of everything we’ve seen again, which is something that we love to play with.

Will you have any returning faces, during the first half of this season?

PINKNER: The answer is yes, there will be returning faces. We hate to spoil things, but there will be characters that you’ll be delighted to see again, and some that you’ll be surprised to see again.

WYMAN: And some you may have seen before, that come back in a completely different context.

What is the significance of the opening titles being in amber this season?

PINKNER: There’s always been a significance to the titles. The episodes that take place “over here” were always blue, and then “over there” were red. There were a couple of episodes that took place in 1985, that had a 1985 style title sequence in them. And, the one episode that took place largely in the future was black. The significance of the color is simply just to put out the notion of this being the universe without Peter in it.

WYMAN: Yes, this is basically a different chapter.

Do you guys have stuff mapped out for Massive Dynamic, or is that in the past?

WYMAN: Oh, no, it’s definitely a large part of the architecture, and you will definitely see what I mean as episodes roll out. Like I said about Peter, that’s a huge part of the program that we never want to lose.

PINKNER: You may or may not have noticed that the bridge – the space between the two universes – has Massive Dynamic signage because that is now a joint military-Massive Dynamic operation to protect that area.

WYMAN: Yes, they definitely have the patent on that.

The fans within geek culture have really rallied behind the show. Is there a particular element that you think really provokes such a rabid following, among fans at Comic-Con and the like?

PINKNER: I think they’re just fans of adventurous storytelling, and they are willing to jump onboard a story and really follow it. Not surprisingly, the truth is that they’re treated as this outsider element of fandom, when the truth is that they’re wildly passionate about the stories they like. What separates them is their willingness to really invest and make stories an important part of their lives. We have always said that one of the things that appeals to us about this show is our ability to go deep, both with our characters and with our themes. As we’ve said often, the best form of both ongoing television and scientific fiction is when it really speaks about characters and the human condition and what it means to be alive, at this moment in history. These are certainly things that we try to touch on, and hopefully are things that people are appreciating. Not everybody likes licorice, but the people that do like licorice tend to really, really like licorice, and we’re happy to be making licorice.

WYMAN: Some people just get turned off just by the term “science fiction,” and they’re not really willing to invest, which is peculiar to Jeff and I because all the movies that are so successful right now, like Inception and Avatar, are science fiction. In the cinema, people are willing to say, “Yes, sign me up. I want to go.” But, on television, there’s still a negative connotation to a lot of viewers. Our fans are willing to embrace this form of storytelling and science fiction. They are people that are willing to really go out on a limb with us and check out some really far-out ideas. That’s the difference. They’re willing to just invest 150% because they’re in with the entire genre.

Will viewers continue to see more of the Observers?

WYMAN: Oh, yes. There are a lot of shows that have secrets and string people along and use the secrets of the narrative engine to keep people coming back every week. I don’t know if those programs even have an answer. I don’t know how they build their shows. But, we’re not really fans of that. We want to give answers. We both would be frustrated, if we were watching a show that we’re investing in and they weren’t giving us answers. We believe that the drama is enough to keep people invested. The Observers are a large question and we feel it’s our duty to give some answers and back up everything that you’ve seen in the past with some concrete facts, so that you can start to form your opinion. So, you’re definitely going to learn a little bit more about them this year, and hopefully will be able to conceptualize them in a way that you’ll be happy with and go, “Oh, that’s really interesting.”

How often will the two worlds be working together now?

PINKNER: How often is clearly one of the chief driving conditions of this season. It’s about how these two universes are going to work together, in order to heal their joint damage, now that they have a means of doing so. We will definitely be telling stories where we were bouncing back and forth, and where the two universes have to work together. Certainly, there’s an implication that Walternate, is still a bad guy, manipulating things behind the scenes, despite all promises to the contrary, so that’s also a story that we’re going to be delving into.

What is it like to plan out stories that incorporate both worlds?

PINKNER: Certainly there’s some logistical complications because our actors are playing two roles. From a production standpoint, the episodes are very complicated, but we love that stuff. Those are the challenges that, as hard as they are, our crew in Vancouver is just outstanding. With every episode, we get better and more seamless at being able to really have actors interact with themselves.

WYMAN: Right from the get-go, when we started to decide how we were going to tell the story of that alternate universe, we thought about, “Is it going to be a little bit here and a little bit there in one episode, or are we going to actually go over there for a whole episode?” What we realized was that the reason we were doing it is to highlight and contrast our characters that we love with versions of themselves that maybe are not similar. That offered us a great opportunity to go further with that, and to be able to have them in the same frame, and actually watch how the two Olivias look at a problem very differently and that their solutions are very different. That thought goes back to our major theme, which is our experiences of who we are.

PINKNER: The good news is that Anna Torv and Seth Gabel are finally ready to admit that they’re both one half of a pair of identical twins. Now, we have their alter egos acting. It’s made it much easier for us.

Was does it mean to have that trust from the fans and the critics to do a storyline like this, with one of your main characters gone?

PINKNER: Obviously, it’s outstanding. Currently, in the current landscape, where you can TiVo shows and watch them at your leisure, what seems to be happening a lot is that people are unwilling to invest in new shows right away because they don’t know if they’re going to last and they don’t want to spend their time on them. So, they let four or five shows pile up on their TiVo in the queue, and wait to hear if the show is good, and then check out all the episodes. It seems that with a lot of storytelling like ours, which is about an ongoing journey, people are unwilling to invest in the show because they’re afraid it will die, it will get cancelled or it will lose its way, and their time will not be rewarded. Because we’ve always had a plan and because the audience has started to understand our season finales pay off what was said, at the beginning of the seasons, over time we’ve developed this trust, which is obviously paying enormous dividends for us because it’s allowing us to be really adventurous and not worry about constantly saying to the audience, “Don’t worry.” Hopefully, by now, they have a sense that we know what we’re doing and we have their best interest at heart.

WYMAN: It was really tough on us when the Kirk Acevedo thing happened. There were stories that he got fired. There were stories that he quit. Everybody said, “I can’t believe that he’s gone. He was one of my favorite characters. I’m never watching the show again.” We knew very well that nobody really dies on Fringe. We knew what our plan was to bring him back, in the capacity that he came back, and that was part of our storytelling, but we couldn’t really say, “Hey, everybody, take it easy. There’s a method here.” It’s those little incremental moments of trust where the audience goes, “Oh, okay, I get it, and I really enjoyed that.”  At the beginning, when we introduced the alternate Olivia, everybody hated her and was like, “Why are you doing that?,” and “Peter should only be with Olivia.” We knew that every great love story is a very winding road. By the end, when we realized that Olivia is not as bad as all that, and she’s a character as well, people really started to love her. Those tiny things make the people watching and invested in the show go, “Okay, I’m in good hands. I can trust them.” That’s the greatest reward that we could have.

What was more challenging, coming up with the way to make Peter disappear, or coming up with a way to bring him back?

PINKNER: They both had their challenges. Figuring out the way to make him disappear was pretty simple. It was like, “Oh, now he’s gone.” Coming up with the context of his return has been super fun and, hopefully, the pay-off will be really rewarding. We think it is. We’re always far more interested in answering questions and then showing the consequences ,and hopefully the consequences of his return will give us an engine for a good part of the season.

WYMAN: As the episodes roll out, you’ll understand a little bit more about the reasons why and how we did what we did. It will become clear. The future of our storytelling dictated how Peter was going to disappear, and then come back. It’ll put more in context for you, as you see more.

How much of the hard science theory of the Multiverse are you using?

PINKNER: We both had some knowledge coming into this show, and we both educated ourselves about a lot of the scientific theories that are out there because, as always, we try to ground our storytelling in reality, as much as possible. We’ve always been focusing on these two universes because it’s already enough for the audience to try to wrap their head around. Walter has mentioned that there are infinite possibilities out there, and the Observers have said that there are infinite possibilities of the future unfolding, that are based on whatever collective choices everybody makes, in a moment. But, to try to actually tell stories in several different universes would just be too mind-frying.

WYMAN: The Multiverse is an unlimited resource for us that’s sitting there, waiting. The first big battle was to get the viewers onboard with there being a whole other universe. Now, once people are a little bit more versed in String Theory 101, they can go with us a little further. It’s a little bit more of a bold adventure.

PINKNER: The truth is that there are lots of stories that we’d love to tell, we just don’t have the opportunity to. That’s why there’s a Fringe comic book that we’ve been publishing for the past couple of years. What’s exciting about this season’s comic is that Josh Jackson is penning the first couple of issues. They’re “what if” scenarios. Specifically, Josh’s story is a version of what happened at the end of last season, when Peter planted the machine in the past, in order to continue the time loop in last season’s story. Peter took Walter’s machine from the future and planted it in the deep past, and the story that Josh, who himself is a comic book aficionado and geek, wrote delves into that. That’s a version of the story that we would love to tell, if only we had time on the show.

What will Lincoln Lee (Seth Gabel) bring to the Fringe team this season?

PINKNER: That’s a really good question. What part of the tent is he going to hold up? What thematic element does he bring, that we really need, in order to tell the big picture this year? Him coming in and being displaced, and a lot of the things that his character will be going through are going to help tell our story thematically. One of the major themes that we’re really interested in getting into this year is the impact that we have on each others’ lives, and what that means if life is valued by the connections that we make. We are defined by who we know and who defines us and how we define other people. We’re in love with that theme, and having this guy come in and go into a very strange world, and have to figure out things about existence and that everything that he thought was true is no longer valid. He’s going to start to put back together the psyche that has been fractured by this knowledge that he really shouldn’t have, which will really help us in how he connects with people. That’s why he’s really important to the program.

What are some of the cases the Fringe teams are going to tackle this season, and what are some of the challenges you had in putting those together?

PINKNER: We have a slew of really crazy, hopefully thought-provoking, far-out cases that deal with time travel and out-of-control biology, and humans who, for very understandable and sometimes not so understandable reasons, are messing with the rules of nature and physics. We’ve never had an episode that didn’t present challenges. Unlike some shows where, by Season 4, you know what you’re dong, despite the fact that storytelling-wise, we have a really good handle on what we’re doing, production-wise we seem to always write a script that we give to our genius, brilliant, adventurous, outstanding production crew and the first look in their eyes is a deer caught in the headlights gaze, and then they say, “How are we doing to do this one?”

WYMAN: Somehow, every week, they just impress the heck out of us and we’re like, “Wow, that was awesome!” We get to tell some really great freaks-of-the-week stories that are integrated into our larger mythology. This year, we feel, more than any other year, that we have some really mind-blowing, stand-alone stories that enabled us to tell these great things. Over there is so messed up, and over here is a little suspicious, as you will find out. It just gives us carte blanche to really push our imaginations to the hilt and see some really cool things realized.

Fringe has a very rich and heavy mythology that can be a bit overwhelming for new viewers. What are you doing to help get new viewers up to speed, or to make the show a little more approachable for the fourth season?

PINKNER: We’re actually doing a couple of things. Our friends and colleagues at FOX have put up a Fringe past, present and future series of all you ever needed to know about Fringe, in small pieces on the web. And, because of the nature of the storytelling and Peter having disappeared, this season starts fresh. If you’ve never seen the show before, this is a great place to dive in because everything is new. If you have been watching the show, now you’re watching with the eye towards everything being new and different, and it’s making you question or re-imagine what you’ve seen in the past.

When you were doing the finale last year, the renewal hadn’t been announced yet. Did you have any plans for if it had to become a series finale, or were you just planning on going for it and then if you need to resolve stuff, do that via the comic?

WYMAN: Fox has been very, very, very up front with us about the plans for the show. They’re incredibly supportive and they always have been. Every time we got moved or there was any sort of adjustment, they were very transparent about what their business plan was, which is incredible, and it’s something that you never really get. So, we were very confident that they were pleased, creatively, with where the show was going, and they know that we have incredibly rabid fans, so we knew that we were going to be okay. We have a really strong idea of where the show is going. Nothing is forever and we’re lucky right now to be able to tell these stories, but who knows if that’s going to continue. You never know. One thing that we’re always concerned about is making sure that the fans feel like, if that should happen, that we could actually give them something that would make them feel like there’s a natural closure and an end to a chapter, but maybe not the book. My favorite novels allow me to imagine the characters afterward and what happened, and that I’ve witnessed a really great story, where the world goes on. We’re always concerned with that because we don’t want people to be invested and then be left like, “Oh, my gosh, now I don’t know whatever happened.” In our minds, we have something, should something drastic and terrible happen. But, as of right now, we’re going to continue to tell the story, at the pace and measure that we’re doing it, considering ourselves lucky as we go.

Can viewers expect continuity when Peter re-enters the universe, or will there be a reset?

WYMAN: Yes, there will be continuity, for sure. We really want to assure viewers that we don’t have any intention of just saying, “Guess what? It was all a dream. Everything you learned is not real.” That would suck. If I saw that, I’d be livid. That’s not what we’re doing. You’re definitely going to get continuity. The show has played a lot with secrets, and sometimes the audience doesn’t know the secret, but sometimes they do. We had the secret against Peter. What’s interesting for us is that there’s a paradigm shift because now the audience completely understands what’s happened in the last seasons of the program, and so does Peter.  The fact is that everybody is together with him and saying, “Oh, my gosh, I want things to go back to normal. Peter’s the stranger in a strange land.” That’s going to have its value and there’ll be some rooting interest there because everything you did know is still relevant and valuable. That’s how we’re going to integrate this aspect of the storytelling. The audience participation is paramount.