Masters of SciFi – J.J. Abrams on Reviving Frankenstein in Fringe and Adhering to Canon With Star Trek
The mastermind behind Lost, Alias, and the upcoming Star Trek reboot talks to AMCtv.com about his new out-there show Fringe, premiering tomorrow, and the tricky science behind determining fanboy desire.
Q: What inspired you to create Fringe?
A: The show was born out of our love of all things bizarre and kooky in media we loved growing up. The X-Files was definitely one of the sources of inspiration, as were things like The Twilight Zone and Nightstalker. We actually did an episode of Alias once guest starring David Cronenberg as a mad scientist. It was something I felt could be a TV show — the idea of a Frankenstinian mad doctor, the classic cliché character, but done in a way that Cronenberg has treated a lot of his out-there protagonists, where he makes them broken people and emotional characters.
Q: X-Files creator Chris Carter likes to say his show takes place in the realm of extreme possibility. Would you say the same about Fringe?
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A: Yes, especially given that Fringe is not about overtly paranormal stuff. The X-Files was from the beginning a show about aliens and the possibility of being abducted. Fringe is going to be a much more science and technology-based extreme reality. The key to The X-Files was that there was always a kind of gray hypothetical, if not far-fetched, rationale for what was happening. So to that end I would say that Fringe shares a similarity.
Q: You say you wrote Fringe as a fan of TV shows. So what role will fans play in shaping the show as it goes along?
A: We’re obviously making the show for those people, and the great thing about the Internet is to be able to very quickly get a consensus about what people are feeling. That’s not to say if the reaction to something that you believe in isn’t exactly what you want, you abandon the idea. But if the opinion resonates with you, it’s something you should listen to.
Q: How does that feedback translate to films like Mission: Impossible III and Star Trek?
A: Obviously you don’t have the ability to go back and adjust things based on online reactions. If you’re smart, you’re going to screen what you’re working on to smart, constructive, and honest people who will give you more than some sycophantic response. With Star Trek, the audience point of view is very important to me. And you just have to think, “Well I hope I don’t suck.” A lot of times people say that they want certain things and they really don’t — they say they want all the answers up front, but then they don’t. Ultimately you can’t write a story or come up with an outline or direct a scene only thinking, “I think this is what they’re going to want.” Then there’s no point of view.
Q: You’ve utilized viral marketing in the past, yet we’ve seen very little so far for Star Trek. Can we expect more?
A: The viral marketing I approach from the point of view of “What would be fun for me to go through?” I think there can be some great stuff with Trek that way; I just don’t want to waste anyone’s time. I don’t want to do anything where you feel like, ugh, that wasn’t worth it. It could be great, but it’s all still in development.
Q: How do you react to William Shatner’s ire at not having a role in the movie?
A: It was very tricky. We actually had written a scene with him in it that was a flashback kind of thing, but the truth is, it didn’t quite feel right. The bigger thing was that he was very vocal that he didn’t want to do a cameo. We tried desperately to put him in the movie, but he was making it very clear that he wanted the movie to focus on him significantly, which, frankly, he deserves. The truth is, the story that we were telling required a certain adherence to the Trek canon and consistency of storytelling. It’s funny — a lot of the people who were proclaiming that he must be in this movie were the same people saying it must adhere to canon. Well, his character died on screen. Maybe a smarter group of filmmakers could have figured out how to resolve that.
Q: AMCtv.com recently dubbed you the overlord of science fiction. How does it feel?
A: [Laughs] Oh dear God. Well, A) Of course I would never refer to myself remotely in that way. B) My sincere apologies to those who know I don’t deserve such a title, and C) I guess I would say I am honored to be considered the overlord of anything — as long as it lasts.