Axel-In-Charge: Extending "Secret Wars," Excitement for a "Totally Awesome Hulk"
When federal agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv), scientist Walter Bishop (John Noble) and his sorta-kinda son Peter (Joshua Jackson) go head-to-head with the forces of the alternate universe at the end of the current season of Fringe, Akiva Goldsman will be right by their side.
Goldsman is an Academy Award-winning screenwriter, producer and director with a diverse range of credits, including A Beautiful Mind, Batman & Robin and the forthcoming adaptation of The Dark Tower alongside Ron Howard. He’s also part of the creative inner circle on Fringe, having written and directed the second-season premiere, “A New Day in the Old Town,” among others. Now Goldsman is coming full circle as the director of the upcoming second-season finale, provocatively titled “Over There.”
In March, Spinoff Online traveled to the Fringe set in Vancouver and spoke with Goldsman alongside other members of the press. After the jump, find out what Goldsman had to say about the upcoming episode, the evolution of the season and where the series can go in a third year.
Spinoff Online: This finale — apparently, it’s really big! Would it have been possible without the third-season pickup already, or is it something you could only do because you know you’re having a third season?
Akiva Goldsman: Actually, I think — the scope of [the finale] required the third-season pickup, which is sort of vaguely bold because we constructed it certainly before we had a third-season pickup. But as we laid down the board and really saw what it would take to make it, we sort of had to promise that we would use some of the things we were constructing — which was sort of our idea for this object into the next season. Which is a great concept, but if there had been no third season, I think we would have had to have an eleventh-hour redraft. So, yes, we sort of built it that way, but it was kind of on a wing and a prayer and everything sort of timed out very nicely.
The first season ended with that iconic image of William Bell in the World Trade Center. Is there a sense that, “This is the season two finale, we have to top or meet that sort of iconic image?”
I think that, in terms of iconography, I think one is loathe to ever attempt to top that particular image. I remember the day J.J. Abrams sort of had that idea and we all went, “Ooh, that’s going to work.” Having said that, what we’re trying to do [in the season two finale] is top the hunger with which you are propelled into the next season. We’re certainly bending into our ability to get you to go, “They just did what?” But the iconography, I don’t think it’ll ever be as bold or as interesting as that.
You had a big hand in the premiere of the season, obviously. You co-wrote [“A New Day In The Old Town”] and you directed it. Here we are at the finale. How do you see the arc of the season, where you were with Olivia getting ejected from a car to now kind of tying things back together again? What do you think of the arc and the evolution of the season?
I feel really great about the arc and the narrative over the course of the year. I can’t speak for before my involvement in season one, except in a very peripheral way because J.J. and I are friends and we would sort of shoot the shit. But fundamentally, I did watch for the back half of season one as I think Fringe began to find its own legs. It was a show that was fundamentally very standalone with hints of mythology and it started to move towards a more mythology-oriented object.
I think that’s actually, interestingly enough, a de facto tribute to a previous J.J. show. I think what happened is, Lost changed the expectations of what is viable as a sort of network serialized object. For years, we’ve been in a world where you can do stuff but you can’t change it that much. It’s that which we loved but made us lean into and finally get frustrated at times with The X-Files, because the Cigarette Smoking Man would be there and you’d go, “Okay, now ask him, Mulder!” So you find yourself … there was an attempt to both entice the viewer into a more mythological component of the narrative, and at the same time, we can’t tell you too much because that would change the face of the object. I think Lost, which has serial protagonists and real fundamental changes, sort of paved the way for this idea that things can change and an audience can be part of that change and still find it very exciting. I think around the middle of season one, this idea of, “We can ask questions and answer them — really answer them — and then ask new ones and answer those, and that will be compelling,” [the show] sort of started to find its own footing.
So, by the time we got to really the end of the first season — you can sort of see that there’s an interesting assortment of people building stories. You saw Bryan Burk’s name pop up with a story credit. We were all just sitting around going, “What do we really want to launch into for season two?” By the time we started getting into story camp, which we sort of have before season two with J.J., Bryan, Bob [Orci] and Alex [Kurtzman] and obviously Jeff [Pinkner] and Joel [Wyman], what happened was you start to sit around and go, “Let’s map it out.” So we really did map out the arc of the season in a way that we remained fundamentally faithful to. It changed in a bunch of ways, but we knew where Olivia was going to start and we kind of knew where she was going to end. We knew where Peter was going to start and we knew where he was going to end. They got there at different paces than what we originally planned, but it’s a little bit like, “Huh, it almost kind of worked!”
Boy, that was a much longer [answer] than I expected. [Laughs]
One of the things that John Noble told us when we interviewed him was that he gets the sense that when the show comes back for a third season, it’s going to have to be much more rooted in mythology and that he almost can’t see how it goes back to monster of the week. What are your feelings on that?
Well, I have a bias. I happen to love mythology episodes. They’re the ones that interest me and they’re the ones that I end up working on, and that’s not a coincidence. For me, whenever our protagonists are the Fringe event, I’m having a good day, you know? Which is not to say that monster-of-the-week episodes aren’t fantastic. I was like this on X-Files. Sure, they’re great, but I loved watching the mythology episodes. So my bias is mythology episodes.
Having said that, I do think the more you tell mythology stories and the more invested your audience becomes, I think it does become trickier to do the standalones. I think there will continue to be standalones, but I’ve noticed, as I’m sure you have, that the proportionality is changing. I would hope, he says just pitching as a voice in the mix, that we will lean into more mythology, because I find [those episodes] more fun.
I’m curious if you could tease what sorts of answers we might be getting in the finale. Peter may be very special for some reason — is there any chance we might get an answer to why he’s so special?
[Laughs] I know it’s fun, but the truth is, it’s so much more fun to watch, you know? Here’s what I can tell you we did. We really tried to stay true to this notion that we really, really do answer some questions before asking new ones. So hopefully, if you’re a fan of the show, a bunch of the stuff that has tickled you or has teased you or has befuddled or beguiled you, we react to and respond to. We don’t pretend it didn’t happen. …
The [season finale] is called [“Over There”] and that promise is the same as the promise of Peter’s episode being called “Peter.” We’re not being that coy — “Hey, guess what happens this time!” — we do it. In fairness, we don’t stop over for a scene. It’s not [episode 1.19] or whatever that was where we went for three [scenes]. We’re delivering as advertised … he said hopefully, until I totally fuck it up and it becomes a 42-minute disaster. [Laughs]
We just saw “Peter,” which was phenomenal. Is that going to be a storytelling device from here on out for the rest of season two, the flashback?
No, I don’t think so. I wouldn’t be surprised if we did another flashback episode … but we really had fun talking about who tells when how. You just end up with “Oh my god, it’s all blah, blah for hours.” Then we go, “Well, let’s do it. Can we really do it? Can we go period? How far back? How much framing does there need to be?” I think it’s really useful, and I think there are a couple of places where it will be useful, but fundamentally, no. I don’t think we’re a show that will do a lot of jumping back in time, despite the single hoard of calls for the “Walter’s Grandfather Nazi-hunting” series. [Laughs] But yeah, I think probably not, we probably won’t be doing [flashbacks] that much. But it was fun to do!
Season two is all leading up to going over to the other side in this parallel universe. In directing these final two episodes, I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the challenges of directing another whole universe with different versions of all of these characters that we already know?
The challenges of directing another universe are probably far greater on a feature budget. On a television budget, the challenges are different insofar as you’re attempting to convey a set of illusions with more limited resources.
The iconography of New York, for example, is a wonderful way of doing both worlds. In an ideal world, you’d go to New York. Here, what you do, and it’s a trick that we’ve all done on various special-effects movies, is you have to pick your shots and build your moments so that you’re selling an alternate universe in quick hits. I think that we have done that. Relative to what is typical on television, we’re doing quite a lot of it in this last story because we don’t want it to be coy — but I can’t put them walking across the Brooklyn Bridge. You’d love to just sell it with scope and scale, which is always easiest, but here what we do is we choose our visual effects shots and our components and try to deliver them with maximum impact.
I think that we always wanted the universes to be similar and we always wanted to be clever about the differences so that it’s slightly askew. “The Road Not Taken,” which is from that Robert Frost poem, is just an idea that we want to keep building — things are the same, but different. Obviously, I think we’ve tried to play that throughout. So that helps you render a world, because that’s a world that’s different only insofar as you can make it cleverly different. It’s not upside-down flying cars.
And the acting part is hilarious. It’s crazy! Anna [Torv] is unbelievable. And I’m not doing all of them — there are still some [face-to-face encounters] that we’re saving. Walter does not meet Walter. There, I’ve said it! But what we are doing is we’re crafting versions of characters so when you see them, hopefully you’ll be thrilled by them. We’re kind of amazed. This is always this thing that happens with people on television — you start to identify them with their character and you forget that they’re acting. It’s their job. You give them something else to act and they attack it with great and wondrous fervor. We’re having a really good time. It’s rare that you get to play someone new when you’re a series lead, so we’re having fun.
Can you talk a bit about Peter’s journey? He’s a main character on the show, but I feel that Walter and Olivia have been more of the focus. Peter is this enigma. We obviously know he’s from the alternate [reality]. I’m just curious if he takes center stage in the …
I think we really do think of it as … the bully pulpit rotates. What we try to do is sort of move through and around with different protagonists. I think what it does is give you a breadth of storytelling. Think about the front half of season two — it really is a lot of Olivia. She’s sort of still flying through that car windshield. The back half is really a lot of Peter. It’s a lot of, “Who am I? How did I get here? Where do I end up?” There is a lot Walter and Olivia if you think about the beginning of season one, so it all sort of skates in and out.
We certainly do a lot to give promise of things to come for Peter, as we do for Olivia, in this last episode. They are poised to be propelled into season three.
The season finale of Fringe, titled “Over There,” airs in two parts on May 13 and May 20. Tonight’s all-new episode, titled “Northwest Passage,” airs at 9 PM / 8 PM central on FOX.