Jeff Pinkner and J.H. Wyman Discuss Fringe
Fringe producers Jeff Pinkner and J.H. Wyman discuss the end of the second season
The popular Fox series Fringe is gearing up for a very special musical episode which will air tonight, April 29 at 9 PM ET on Fox. After that episode, only three more episodes remain in its second season, with the two-part season finale starting on Thursday, May 13 and concluding on Thursday, May 20. Jeff Pinkner and J.H. Wyman, both writers and producers on the series, recently held a conference call to discuss the last few episodes of this thrilling second season and here's what they had to say.
The second season - dividing it into the winter season, the spring season, to me at least, seemed to work very well. Did you guys enjoy that and are you looking to do that again in the third season?
Jeff Pinkner: Fox gives us an air schedule every year, and we knew heading into the season where we were certainly going to have a midseason break and then that we would be on the air for several in a straight run. We tried to design our storytelling around that to the extent that we could, and I think it's been really successful. We haven't got a final air season for next year, so we'll build accordingly.
Jeff Pinkner: But, if there's something more specific - if you want to follow up, it's fine - but...
Oh, I just kind of wanted - it felt to me that it worked really well. They gave you the chance to kind of have a clear cut in the middle of the season and build some drama. You felt that that worked really well for you?
J.H. Wyman: Yes, we both think that it worked great because what it enabled us to do is really sort of give a cliffhanger and tell our stories at a really higher impact because people are leaving going, "Oh, boy, I really want to come back hopefully." So, we sort of enjoyed that opportunity to really sort of have several peaks during the season rather than just the whole trajectory of an even slow-up to the end, the season finale.
Jeff Pinkner: We knew when we were going to break for the halfway point what we were going to end with - the notion that Olivia realized that Peter's on the other side - and then we knew we would come back and sort of tell that back story for the audience and let everyone catch up before we then forged ahead.
J.H. Wyman: Yes, it provided us a great opportunity.
I wanted to know what kind of steps have you guys had to take to keep plot lines and scripts and those kinds of things secret cause these shows get such rabid attention, and the fans just go crazy. Have you had to really take some steps to do that?
J.H. Wyman: Yes, part of the scripts when they get out, usually it's from production or from somebody that's not supposed to deliver them, but what we find is that everybody on the show - from our writing staff, from the office staff, from the actual physical production - they're still invested in the project. They don't want anything to get out. So, everybody is sort of really, really takes care of our scripts and ... delivered to the department heads and then gets - they allow them to get out after a certain point, but we've been really lucky that everybody is so invested, they take extra care with their own copies of the script, and they don't let it out.
Jeff Pinkner: I think what we're finding more and more, and it's sort of like we're in that world where it's incredibly flattering to know that people are trying to get your stories ahead of time. There was definitely a period a few years ago where things were spoiled far more often. Somehow somebody on the internet would get ahead of a script; it would spoil it. I've been on shows where we haven't been above writing fake pages, even filming fake scenes just for the fear of that. We have done a minimal amount of that here when we felt something was really important to us, but we've also found that more and more when people do one way or another learn secrets about the show they're keeping it to themselves. They're actually being graceful enough to not spoil things, which we're finding the pendulum has sort of swung from people getting pleasure out of revealing secrets to people getting pleasure out of keeping secrets, so that's been actually really great for us.
And then coming up with the cliffhanger - assuming there's a nice big cliffhanger coming - do you have to really think about what's coming next season, like really plot that out before you even go to this season's cliffhanger?
Jeff Pinkner: I think to a degree we do that and to a degree we get some pleasure out of - we know the long term and we like to write problems for ourselves because often figuring ways out the problem provides the most creativity.
J.H. Wyman: We always have an extra ....
So, I want to talk about the musical episode coming up on Thursday. Obviously, Fringe takes place in a very heightened world where there's monsters and great science and things like that but a musical is even a step beyond that. Can you talk about balancing the two and how you make it work in the episodes?
Jeff Pinkner: We knew we wanted to tell an episode - the last episode that aired, Peter learned that he was not from our universe; he learned pretty much the truth about his own identity and origin and confronted Walter about it and turned his back on Walter. So we knew we wanted to tell an episode that really explored; we have this phenomenal actor in John Noble and this great character and we wanted to explore how that affects Walter before we sort of plunge forward into the end of the season. We came up with a narrative device to really explore Walter's feelings. We had largely all the elements of the episode in place and Fox called and said, "Hey, how would you guys feel about if we asked you to have some musical element in the show? Anything, like just feature a song playing." They didn't ask us to do glee. And we instantly, before we got off the phone, said, "Well, this is what we're thinking for the episode and here's an idea how that could work for us." We turned their request into what felt like a positive for us and really deepened and sort of blew the episode out even further in the direction we were already taking it. It's all an opportunity. Something we find that we do a lot in the show is we hold mirrors up to reality by telling these fantastical stories, which in one way or another are metaphorical for what's going on in either our world or our characters' lives. This episode provides an opportunity to just sort of hold a mirror up to Walter's perspective of the world and the individuals Olivia, Peter, and Aster, that he interacts with, and sort of we get his fractured take on the world and certainly his condition now that Peter has left him. The music really sort of supports the storytelling, and it takes us out of it in a fun way, but the whole thing is sort of a fantastical episode anyway. And I think it was important to us that if we felt in any way we were damaging the story, we would've just said, "Thank you very much but it's not going to work for us."
As a little bit of a followup, now that you've done a musical episode, how are you going to top it next season? Are you going to have a Saturday morning cartoon animated episode or anything like that?
Jeff Pinkner: You may be closer to the truth than you realize.
J.H. Wyman: Exactly.
Jeff Pinkner: Remember that question. Deep in next season, remember what you just asked us.
So, Fringe is almost becoming notorious now for all this secret little hidden Easter eggs within it. Like I was just checking out websites today that were breaking down the signal from the other side that came last week, and I think even to see what the license plates were on the cars. Is that something that everyone takes a part in or is that part of the writing - putting all those little things in? When do they come into play?
Jeff Pinkner: Some of them are in the writing. Some of them are specifically scripted. There's probably in every episode the observer up here is somewhere, and that is we won't script that because that's one of those things that we want people to have to find but during the production process, we will figure out where is best suited for this story and then production. What's really nice about the series now is all of our departments are so invested in making a complete in-world building and making like a really rich textured program that from set dressing to props to visual effects - everyone participates in hey, what about this, what about that, here's an opportunity to do an Easter egg here. I don't know. There was an episode a couple of weeks ago that was sort of like inspired by the game Clue and in different scenes, all of the sort of signature murder weapons of the game Clue are just featured as props, background, in one scene or another. That's something that the writer of the episode and the prop master came up with together. Every episode has sort of a clue somewhere ... what the next episode will be about and that's largely driven by visual effects.
J.H. Wyman: So, in short, some of them are driven by the writers and a lot of them are driven by the rest of production all the way down to postproduction. Right before we get on the air, we've been known to change our visual effects up until the day we're airing.
Well, it's great that everyone's so involved, and it does really build the world. I had to buy a bigger TV so that I could catch the observer every time.
J.H. Wyman: Send the bill to Fox and Warner Bros. They'll split it.
Again, it's about the Easter eggs again. You guys have really done a great job with not only developing a fascinating story and a story line but the clues go beyond the show. There's all these mock websites with massive dynamics, food trust, all these hints and clues that are spread everywhere. I am very involved with the fan community and every week we get together and we go over all these things. We're really wondering if there's anything we've missed. I think it's a level of paranoia going up. It's all your fault because every time we notice something new and then we're like guys, we have to go back and watch everything all over again.
Jeff Pinkner: I would say that there's definitely things you've missed, but that's part of the fun, right?
Yeah. Well, you know what, since a lot of us are old X-Files fans, we're seeing some old paranoia that we've managed to control with therapy emerge again, so. I'm kidding. So, we have missed stuff.
J.H. Wyman: Yeah.
Jeff Pinkner: Oh, for sure.
Oh my god, this is so exciting. Any hints maybe? No? Yes?
Jeff Pinkner: Part of the fun for us is driving people back to those early episodes and seeing that, oh my god that was planted; from the pilot that stuff was already planted in there. We take this notion of world building really seriously. By the time the series ends, we want to make people re-examine everything they've watched from the beginning. One of our main characters is ..., and we want to play with sort of like - perception is one of the big thing themes of the show and on, now to be annoying about it, but on a metal level, we want people to reevaluate their perceptions of the show.
J.H. Wyman: In the season finale, there is one hidden thing in there that Jeff and I will both be really impressed if anybody picks up. So, there you go. There's one to look for in the season finale that's very telling about next season but also very hard to find.
You guys realize that none of us are going to sleep after the finale until we've watched everything all over again, right?
J.H. Wyman: Like I said, I would be very impressed if you pick it up.
Well, the other thing is, is Jean ever coming back?
J.H. Wyman: Oh yeah Jean's in next episode. She's in the next episode and like you've never seen her before.
Jeff Pinkner: Jean has vacations built into her contract.
I wanted to ask about the look of this week's episode and sort of, I guess for lack of a better term, sort of noirish kind of vibe. Were there specific things that you drew on or is it just sort of an overall kind of 40s vibe?
Jeff Pinkner: Early in the season, we were graced with being on the cover of Entertainment Weekly, and they chose to dress our characters in .... They had Olivia and Peter sort of as 40s detectives noir look. We knew we wanted to tell - just for cultural ease, we wanted to tell a sort of Princess Bride-type story where Walter was relaying a story. As soon as we saw that cover, we said, "Oh, it has to be a detective story," because one of the themes of our show is it's not quite a procedural but Olivia's a detective and in some ways Peter is the person - the show already lends itself to that sort of vibe and so we wanted to leap in wholeheartedly. We took care in the episode to not make it 100% 40s noir. There're a lot of anachronistic things in it, which is sort of the ascetic of the show anyway. But, it was really fun. The actors get to play different versions of their characters, which was really fun for them, and it just sort of presented different version of the show, which stands on its own.
J.H. Wyman: And noir's traditionally are morality tales and that's kind of what we're doing. We felt that that was a great way to get across Walter's mind frame and where his head is at right now with his son missing. There's a very good reason from the point of view that you're seeing - Walter's relating this story - there's a very good reason why it's noir. That's because of his own history and things like that, which you'll see next week, but that whole ... really meets Willy Wonka-esque kind of - just really, it gave us a lot of bandwidth to play it. But, the morality was a big part of it because, to us, I think noirs work best when they're morality tales.
And when you have the characters in this sort of even more alternate reality than what the show usually has, do you have to pay extra attention to sort of where they're going with the story and it being true to who they are or can you kind of go off the beaten path-?
Jeff Pinkner: They're all like representations from Walter' perspective. I mean, it's really cool. When we start talking about the episode, we kind of at first ... be like an overture. At this point, to get people in a really fun way to understand what the emotional points of view are of each character and what a great way to do it is through telling a story. Our Walter letting everybody know where his mind's at. That's great. So, you get to see who the characters are of course, but they're enhanced a little bit in his mind. So, they're not altogether different. I think that they all have the same - Olivia's inherently good and Peter is sort of something else in this episode, but he's something else in the real show. So, we had a chance to examine different facets of their personalities and characters but all within the realm of who they are.
J.H. Wyman: All of our episodes, or our best episodes I think, are sort of metaphors or conditions in the world, which is the best of Sci-Fi. This episode is sort of a metaphor for a metaphor. A lot of the storytelling is shorthand or themes that have arisen since the beginning of the show. And we sort of, as Jeff was saying overture - if this was the only episode you ever saw, you would understand emotionally where all the characters are enough to enjoy the last four episodes of the season.
So, end of last season, you set up the idea of ... and the ... universe and so now that there's obviously ... revelation of Peter realizing he's from there, where are kind of barreling towards as we come toward the end of the season and what are you setting up for us to kind of jump from as you prepare for season three?
Jeff Pinkner: Last year, our season finale we thought was effective because it sort of introduced concretely an idea that had been sort of talked around for the entire season, and we managed to, I think, be satisfied with the thoughts and the expectations of the audience. I think people really enjoyed that. So, it was a huge challenge for us this year to figure out well how can we turn the page in the next chapter and how can we have the same effect because I think it really was for the audience satisfying that we had last year this year. So, we believe we've done that. At the end of the season, I think that you'll be wow, now this is a whole other world and this is really interesting. Not a whole other world literally but a whole other chapter that has been sort of talked around but now concretely you will understand a lot more. So, if we're heading towards anything, it's that. It really sets up a satisfying conclusion to what people have invested in this year but also sort of opens up a whole other level of understanding that hopefully will propel us into season three and further. A lot of very exciting things that we've come up with that we're really excited to tell.
Will Peter stay kind of in his own kind of separation from Walter or will we see at least a piece of them coming back together again, even if it's to set up what you guys do next season?
Jeff Pinkner: Relationships are complex and just for the very same reasons that I think that throughout the seasons, we never really want it to be easy - that just because it's a TV show in the United States of America, that the handsome male lead and the beautiful female lead should be together. You have to earn those types of things, we believe. So, when we're playing the emotion of a betrayal like that on a level that it is, I think that it's all up to the human heart, which is complex. So, Peter's going to have a very realistic reaction to the things that he's now aware of, and I think that that's the first step in a journey back to some sort of common understanding of a relationship. I don't think it's ever going to be easy, and it should supply us with a lot of material because it's such an interesting dynamic. You just don't want to just say it's all forgiven. But you also want to have other flavors of the relationship - not just, you betrayed me. So, I think that's where we are.
Let's talk about this musical episode. There's a couple of ways you could approach this show. One is to write a song, start at the beginning, weave it in and out of the episode. Princess Bride just did that with a collaborator on Law & Order: Criminal Intent on USA Network. It was very effective on an episode a couple of weeks ago. Or you could do the Josh ... full-blown write lots of songs, either you, your shelf writer, your creator, or your musical composer and the cast sings it, or you can go in the middle. Which approach did you take and why?
J.H. Wyman: We took none of those.
Jeff Pinkner: Well, we think we know what he's saying. It's like you're talking about like Abba and Mamma Mia!, correct? Like taking songs and sort of weaving a narrative around it?
Either taking a narrative or as Josh did with his classic Buffy show, write original songs.
J.H. Wyman: Yeah, that's neither. It's more of a fractured fairy tale. It's more of an ode to sort of Willy Wonka than anything else I think, in the best sense of the way. Of course, everybody knows the original classic. We chose songs for specific reasons and they're on very different ends of the spectrum. Sometimes you can have one that's a popular song and sometimes it can be a '40s, '50s song. The object was to tell the great story and find the right music for each piece. So, yes there is music in the episode and yes, characters will sing but it's not like a-
Jeff Pinkner: We didn't let the song drive the storytelling. We let the storytelling tell ... what songs from what period. Hopefully, the songs play on several different levels. They both advance the story and they give us insight into the character. Walter, as a character from the moment we met him, has a deep connection to music, as do most. This was important for John Noble because in his research, the scientist that he found and he respected had complicated and interesting relationships to music literally.
J.H. Wyman: Right.
Jeff Pinkner: And he brought us all this literature about Einstein and his relationship to Bach, blah blah blah blah. So, we've always played with this notion of Walter and his record collection and trying to remember things, using music as pneumonics, etc. So, really the episode on one level is just Walter's jukebox.
Or like his radio days gone by.
J.H. Wyman: Yeah, some not so. There's his newer stuff.
Jeff Pinkner: Yeah, there's contemporary music in there as well because he's not locked in any time.
J.H. Wyman: Yeah, it's like what's playing in the lab at any given moment would inspire a leg of the story.
When Fringe started, it made some logistical history by being the first science fiction series produced in New York in an extremely long while, like since the early '60s with a videotape show from CBS called 'Way Out with a gentleman, very famous ... named Roald Dahl who did that program, with ... near the The Twilight Zone. Because of the taxpayer situation going klabooey, your show moved to Canada. Any thoughts about bringing the show ... and bringing the show back to New York.
Jeff Pinkner: A lot of those decisions are driven economically and by Warner Bros., and I think that we loved being in New York just for the texture and the quality of the light and the various .... Of course, we were doing the show largely set in Boston instead of New York. Canada has been phenomenal to us. The crew is amazing. Our crew in New York was amazing too, but the crew in Canada has been amazing, and I don't think there's any short-term plan to move back to New York, though we would certainly love it.
J.H. Wyman: Yeah, these things are definitely dictated by financial situations.
Fringe will air its special musical episode tonight, April 29 at 9 PM ET and the Season 2 finale will be shown in two parts starting on Thursday, May 13 and concluding on Thursday, May 20 on Fox.