The notoriously tight-lipped showrunner of Fox’s Fringe (Fridays, 9/8C), J.H. (Joel) Wyman, took a bit of time from producing the show’s fifth and final season to talk about the challenges of finishing the cult favorite in a satisfying manner – and toss out a few micro-hints about where the story might be going.
He even suggested that there might be a special departure episode, in the tradition of previous seasons’ nineteenth episode weirdness – but wouldn’t say which episode would be the new nineteen, or even how it would be different.
J.H. Wyman: Before we start, Josh, I want to thank everybody for coming and obviously, even hearing you say ‘fifth season,’ it never ceases to amaze me or blow my mind that we’ve made it here. I’ve said it so many times, but it just cannot be overstated. Thank you, all, so much for your ongoing support of this little show and everybody involved in it wanted me especially to thank you because we all know that we would not be here without you guys. So, thank you so much again.
Hello. Thanks for taking time to talk to us today.
Wyman: Thank you. How are you doing?
So, when you were working on Letters of Transit last season, did you already know that 2036 was going to be the focus of this season, or was that originally just a stand-alone story?
Wyman: Well, we knew that traditionally in the 19th episode spot of each season, we always sort of went off the beaten path and we were kind of throwing around a whole bunch of very interesting ideas on what to do last season. When we didn’t really know the entire fate of what the program was going to be concretely, we thought, well, it would be terrible if we sort of ended without some form of an ending that I could either pick up by comic book or other sort of media that would finish the story for the dedicated fans.
That got us thinking; well, what if we sort of use the 19 spot as sort of like a backdoor pilot? We’ve always been interested in going back and forth in time and we thought it would be such an interesting idea to maybe tell the story in the future, but one way or the other, we were kind of like, ‘Hmm, let’s see how that goes.’ So, we used that slot 19 to be sort of like a test, sort of backdoor pilot to see, ‘Well, let’s see how that goes.’ I think when the result of it came in, it was pretty clear and to be honest, me personally I fell in love with the possibilities of telling the story in the future and married that quickly.
You talked a lot about Peter and Olivia being a fractured fairytale in Season 5. So, what can you say about their journey this year?
Wyman: Well, I said a lot, that no love story worth telling is easy, like is an easy love story and it’s the sort of hills and the valleys that make a relationship in my opinion really dynamic and worth watching. The harder the tale, the more worthy the payoff.
So, this is what I can say about this year. Everything that came before, the four years before, I’m really trying to give the characters a specific odyssey this year that are singular odysseys, meaning like for each character, but also sort of relationship dynamic odysseys, that things are just sort of growing and shifting and shaping. Peter and Olivia are going to be part of that. Their relationship will shift and grow and evolve, but I think that it’s safe to say that we’ll be there for every step of the way. Everything will be sort of logical.
One of the things that we get to do this year that I sort of found was great for telling authentic, real emotional stories is that the 13 episodes, as I said before, I’m treating them as a saga, the 13 episodes, sort of feature films. So, you’ll get to track their emotional growth pattern and their relationship very carefully. So, more in store is to really get in underneath the hood and investigate those relationships.
J.H., before I ask you my question, I just want to say thank you for giving us this amazing series that we’ve all enjoyed for these four-plus seasons.
Wyman: Thank you.
Let me ask you though, what do you take away from this whole experience? Obviously, there’s been some ups and downs, but what do you take away from years working on this show?
Wyman: It’s been the highlight of my career because when I first got on the program, I think in the first season, the show was sort of starting to kind of find what it was. I was always a science fiction—I was a fan, but I didn’t really know a lot about it and J.J. had said, well, the concept of the program is that it’s about a family. That’s what it’s about. I’m sort of leaning always more towards being an existentialist and so, I was saying how am I going to start to tell stories that are meaningful, not just sort of kind of crazy things from out of this world circumstances, but just like something that really people can relate to and something that I care about writing about the human condition. He said, well, it’s like … did all those—he used to write these stories that are very relevant no matter—if you watch some of this stuff today, you’re like, ‘Wow. That’s amazing.’
So, once I sort of figured that out and went, ‘Oh, yeah, I can see that the further science fiction gets, the more about humanity it actually is about.’ Once I sort of picked out that it sort of changed me, my impression of science fiction and how I would attack my work on the program. So, I think I definitely became a better writer, a deeper thinking in regards to demanding more from my 43 minutes of television and it’s just working with these incredible actors and the support.
I mean never in my career have I got the support for what I’m doing any more than I have on Fringe. So, I mean I got to tell you, as an artist, it makes you feel, ‘Wow, people are feeling things that I’m feeling in the world and we’re all sort of concerned about the same things because you guys are telling me that.’ That’s very satisfying.
So, on so many levels, it’s really been the highlight. I’ve definitely emerged from it a much better thinker and a much better writer and a much better storyteller in general.
So, a question that we wanted to know is obviously you have a limitation of budget. It’s not a film. You guys have always kind of written stories for the fences and with this season and being in the future and having a whole new reality to show, is there any way that you’ve learned how to constrain your ideas just in terms of being able to tell the story within what you have to tell it? Has there become a way that you guys have figured out doing the show for several years on how to do that the best way and is there anything that you’ve had to kind of sacrifice because you just couldn’t do it on a television budget?
Wyman: Well, we’re really fortunate because technology is so advanced. Like right now, I can do things—my special effects vendors can do things that feature films couldn’t do just a few years ago. I mean it’s unbelievable. So, costs have come down for all these great effects that people have come to sort of expect from Fringe. My effects supervisor, Jay Worth, is outrageously talented. When I go to his office and say, ‘I want to see this and this and this. Is this possible?’ He’s like, ‘Yes’ and I’m like, ‘Great. Let’s do this.’
You just have to learn to get really good at choosing your moments and making sure that your story isn’t sort of overwhelmed by the effects, but actually vice versa, that your emotional … and your emotional storyline sort of is what’s driving a train, but it’s these little sort of forces throughout the program that make you realize, ‘Wow, I’m in a different time and space.’ So, you just have to get really good at moving money around. So, … skills definitely need to be, I guess, developed in a show like this because you realize that everything is a moving budget and you’ve got to borrow from Peter to pay Paul sometimes to make it happen.
When you have a team like ours and a production team like ours, it really makes it look easy and makes me look really good, but everybody does their job so well.
I just wanted to say I watch the premiere and it was fantastic.
Wyman: Thank you.
You touched on this I think a little bit in different ways already, but the thing that I think was most interesting about the episode and potentially where you guys are going for the season is if on the surface Fringe is about people investigating weird science mysteries, you really completely blew up that premise while still keeping that emotional core of family. So, I was curious; could you talk about a bit and whether there was any reticence of changing the show so dramatically for the season?
Wyman: Well, it’s funny because, well, the answer is yes. I think it’s all part of the grand design in that when I was sitting down thinking, okay, how am I going to tell this story, over the last season my biggest concern, of course, was telling an authentic, honest story that I could stand behind and that I would feel that I was giving the fans a love letter that I think they deserve. There’s so many things to pull from because we had four seasons of things.
But, what became very clear is when you sort of sit down and ask yourself that question as a showrunner that the only place you sort of wind up is what would move me and what would I want as a closure. I love television. I’m a huge fan of films and television obviously and if I invested four years of my life in these characters that I’ve grown to love and be interested and dedicated so much effort into paying attention … what would I want?
Once I started asking myself those real questions, it became really clear. That answer for me was I want the truth. I want to feel The Fringe made sense. I want to feel that my characters evolved in a place that they deserved, sometimes maybe unexpected, but I would like feel satiated that logically they have come to a conclusion that makes me feel satisfied. Most importantly, I wanted to sit down. After I finished watching the season finale of my favorite show, I would want to feel like, ‘Wow, that was an experience. I just cannot believe that that … is over. ‘
I can imagine where my characters are going in the future, that whole … I’m very interested in. I feel that that’s what we need as a society is a feeling like, wow, it’s really messy out there. But you know what? The truth is that there’s a lot of things to be celebrated and we have to focus on hope. So, I just wanted people to kind of feel like, ‘Wow, that was satisfying.’
So, of course, right from there, I went into the key to that for me is the emotional relationships and sort of always has been. There’s times, you said it very well, that Fringe, sometimes we did great things and sometimes we took missteps and, hey, that’s the nature of the beast. With the missteps, I have personally learned that usually they revolve around things that aren’t involving real character, but plot rather.
So, now that I know the people of the characters as much as I do then it became clear that I would say, okay, I want to tell these real odyssey stories about these people and really watch them and give them a little bit more sense this year of continuity and the ability for the viewer to sort of go through things at ground level with the characters, not like in the past. I think sometimes we’ve made the mistake of watching the characters from above and sort of, I guess, disconnecting from them to a certain degree, but I really wanted to get the viewer for this final season down on the floor with them and go through the things that they’re going through because you said it also very well, that it is; it’s a family show. It’s about disparate people that are trying very hard to hold together a family in a very difficult time to hold together families. I think people really relate to that.
So, it wasn’t really a risk at all. I just sort of went with what my heart said and what my gut said and here we are, but that’s how it sort of went. I mean I have to say the actors and the way that they’re receiving the material and the way that they’re performing, I mean I really am enthusiastic. I cannot wait for you guys to see some of the performances that are being pulled off this year. I mean to me, it’s mind blowing. So, I’m exciting to show you guys that and they’re doing it because they too feel like it’s the end and they want to bring their best and examining their characters that they’ve sort of created for four years allowed them the opportunity to do that.
I love, love, love Fringe and I really enjoyed the premiere. Now, you’ve obviously talked about like how you decided on stuff this season and everything, but as a whole, did you know—like five years ago, did you expect to be here? What changed from your original plan the most?
Wyman: Well, it’s been such a long road, twists and turns and there’s so many times when you’re coming into work and all of sudden like the parking attendant says, ‘Hey, I thought of something. What about this?’ You’re like, ‘Oh, my gosh. That’s the greatest idea ever, man, for sure.’
So, ideas come from all over and sometimes like something you thought wouldn’t really be as big as it did, blows up into something else. There are certain episodes that all of a sudden like just really touched people. Like White Tulip came from a dream. It was a dream of mine, this image and I thought, well, why did that episode touch people? You sort of start to go and you start to figure things out.
We like to be clever and say, ‘Well, we knew a lot of stuff,’ because we did. But, the truth is we didn’t know a lot of stuff either. We did not know at the beginning on the bus that the amber was amber from the alternate universe. It was re-contextualized, but it’s like it just sort of fits like a little bit of a puzzle and you go, ‘Wow, that’s really interesting.’
So, you sort of find the things that work and the things that don’t work and you kind of go from there, but it’s like a living, breathing organism that you listen to. Sometimes we don’t hear so well, but if you listen to it, it sort of indicates where you should go naturally. So, that idea has changed where we’re going to end up to a lot and even up until the last episode. My thinking on the episode was fluctuating and vacillating between several different ideas.
First of all, Jay, just really looking forward to seeing what you have in store for the rest of the season. I’m really looking forward to seeing the conclusion and on that note, I was wondering kind of what you saw as the major challenges you faced in sort of bringing this thing all to a conclusion that the fans would both appreciate and accept as a suitable ending to the series.
Wyman: Yes, good question, Steve, because like I said today, I adore the fans and I feel like they—or I guess I should say everybody who supports the program. In my opinion, it’s like everybody sort of owns a little brick in the building because it was sort of like a miracle and everybody sort of supported it. When I started looking at it, as I said before, it’s like I realized that I think the only thing that did save the show were the reactions of the media and the fans that sort of could identify the heart in the program and the aspirational ideas in the program and they responded to that. I have to believe that they’re not here to see how a flux capacitor works. They’re here to see what the human heart is about and watch these people that they love go through things and go through them with them.
So, once I sort of committed to saying, ‘Look, it’s all about that. It’s all about the people. Yes, the narrative is incredibly important and yes, there are many things to … at,’ but really, it’s the characters people love. I just had to sort of go with saying, well, they love the same things I do. Like the fans, I think they love the same things I do, which is these incredible people. If I can tell the story honestly and with a degree of depth and make people think and go through things with them this last final season, that would be a great reward because they’ve invested so much time. So, I kind of just went, ‘All right, I got to go with my heart and my gut and tell the story this way.’
I wanted to tell you I really enjoyed the Observers viral ad campaign. It was seriously creepy and really startling since the Observers used to seem so benign and even kind of cuddly. What was the thinking behind turning them into the evil bad guys, or was that something that was planned all along?
Wyman: Yes, this has been in the hatch for a while, but I mean the story that I’m constantly telling is that the heart is an organ of fire and that you can’t stop it from feeling or connecting. That’s what our job is as human beings and how wonderful to sort of have this Observer, September, to come and understand that we are, although very messed up, very special, special people and beautiful.
So, while he was sort of pushed out on a mission as one of 12 scientists to come and sort of evaluate and to sort of watch us for reasons they didn’t really fully understand either, he fell in love with us. So, that’s why he seems very cuddly. When you get episodes like August; I mean when I was writing August, I really did toy with the title and now in retrospect, maybe I should have call it this, but my first working title for it was A Cautionary Tale for an Observer.
The answers to your questions lie in that, but he fell in love with us and he was cuddly because he understood that we were flawed, but special. The agenda, it was what it was. When the rest of them come, it has nothing to do with warm, cuddly feelings.
Well, our question to you is it has been said that this final season is going to be more serialized. So, we’re wondering what freedoms has that given you as a storyteller in constructing this final piece of the Fringe puzzle.
Wyman: Well, I mean do you realize it’s probably not the best term for it? I mean I’m probably guilty of saying it myself, but it’s not really that. It’s sort of like more—there’s more of a continuity of emotion and story, but it’s not like you’re going to get Walter finishes a sentence and it’s dan-dan-dan and then you come back and the next week he’s sort of talking about the same thing. I mean there’s still sort of capsulated episode, but they’re all about one thing. So, those 13 stories are about one story.
What I’ve and the staff have really enjoyed is that continuity of emotions, like to be able to sit down and say, ‘Okay, I have to devise an odyssey.’ What is Walter’s odyssey, what is Olivia’s odyssey, what is Peter’s and so on, to really sort of plot whereas in the past, just by the nature of being episodic, television and the responsibilities we have to our partners at FOX is that, hey, shows should stand on their own. The one week you’ll have like Olivia very concerned about something that Peter did to her and then the next week, she’s upset because she has a blemish on her hand; she doesn’t know what it is. There’s a sort of randomness to what people are going through on a week-to-week basis. That goes along with … of episodic television usually and not cable, but on network.
So, in this season what it’s allowed us to do is to not really be so concerned with that, but more concerned with, okay, how are these people going through what they’re going through. These are real issues and how are they going to deal with them and what’s going to happen. So, it’s actually been a lot of fun, very freeing.
So, I was wondering what will we see from Nina and Broyles in 2036 this season.
Wyman: Well, I don’t want to spoil anything and traditionally, I’m very tight lipped; at least, I’m always accused of that, but I feel that this one is really tough because there’s only 13. There’s only 13 episodes and I really don’t want to give anything away. I want people to really sort of enjoy the surprises that are coming and the turn of events that are waiting for you.
So, I would say that definitely, you are going to see people that—it’s no mistake, it’s not secret in 19 we saw that they’re around. They’re going to continue in a capacity that you may or not expect and hopefully we have given them work that will sort of fill out their characters and be satisfying to the fans of those two particular characters as well. I mean that’s all I can really say. They’re around.
So, with only 13 episodes, are you planning on squeezing in one of those crazy no … 19th episode style?
Wyman: The truth is I’ve got something that’s sort of really special planned, but I don’t want to talk about it. I think it will be memorable, but it’s not traditionally that, but it’s the same sport. Let’s just say that, but it’s definitely a breadth of a difference, a step in a different direction. Is that fair?
I’m trying to figure out how to ask this without being a spoiler, more generalized, but obviously in this, Walter had something happen. I was just curious if you could say like is this something that is going to affect his personality since it’s sort of like what’s happened before. Can you talk at all about that?
Wyman: Can you just be more specific?
Yes, I was trying not to spoil it, but now that he’s missing a part. Let’s just say that.
Wyman: Oh, yes. Well, in 19 you mean; what happened in 19?
Yes. Is that going to affect—because I know before whenever he removed or added memory his kind of personality changed…
Wyman: Yes, I think in different ways, ways that you haven’t seen because like John Noble, he’s such a fantastic actor. One of the consistent challenges is to give him things that he’s never played before because he’ll do the work. He just is outrageous. So, it just wouldn’t sit with him. I mean I’d get a pretty swift phone call if it was stuff he played before and rightly so, as I said, but no.
We carefully designed a journey for him this year that is entirely unique and will affect him in probably ways that I’m sure that aren’t things we’ve seen before. Look, when you’re dealing with the brain, when you’re dealing with taking tissue out, putting things in, I mean this is Fringe; anything can happen. It’s definitely I think of a concern to him that has never been before. That’s spoiling it enough, but secret enough at the same time.
Photos by Liane Hentscher and Gage Skidmore/Courtesy Fox Television and Gage Skidmore