Fall TV Preview: J.H. Wyman Talks Fringe, Cuddly Observers and John Noble

Peter, Astrid and Etta discover a wall of amber in the Fringe Season 5 Premiere | Fox

Fringe premieres its much-anticipated season five tomorrow night, Fri., Sept. 28 at 9 pm on Fox. If you watched last season, you know the Twitterverse went nuts over the show, especially the ominous events that occurred during season four.

To recap, the year is now 2036, and the Observers rule. The Fringe team — preserved in amber for 20 years – is now a rebel resistance team fighting for freedom. Peter (Joshua Jackson), reunited with his now adult daughter, Etta (Georgina Haig), sets out to learn what happened to his wife and Etta’s mom, Olivia (Anna Torv), as they start their mission to save the world from the Observers in the season five premiere, “Transilience Thought Unifier Model-11.”

If you’re a little behind, here’s a quick recap to get you caught up to season five:

I sat in on a conference call with writer/producer J.H. Wyman yesterday, along with a slew of other writers. I love that Fox and the Fringe team are so welcoming to their fanbase — sites like More Than One of Everything and Fringe Television. Having such a huge group of supporters must be completely energizing for the cast and crew, and Wyman said as much:

“It never ceases to amaze me or blow my mind that we’ve made it here,” said Wyman. “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. 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.”

No, thank YOU, J.H. and all the cast and crew for making such an awesome show. I’ve been following it since the beginning, and it’s so amazing to have a show on the air with the quality of Fringe (take that, all you reality shows), but also have the opportunity to see the characters grow and evolve.

Georgina Haig and John Noble in “Transilience Thought Unifer Model-11” | Fox

Here are a few highlights from the conference call with J.H. Wyman:

Kyle Nolan, NoReruns.net: 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?

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 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: What if we use the 19 spot as a backdoor pilot? We’ve always been interested in going back and forth in time, and we thought it would be 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.” I think when the result of it came in, it was pretty clear, and I fell in love with the possibilities of telling the story in the future.

Marisa Rothman, Give Me My Remote: You talked a lot about Peter and Olivia being a fractured fairy tale in season five. What can you say about their journey this year?

I always said that no love story worth telling is easy. 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 for each character, but also relationship dynamic odysseys, that things are 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 it’s safe to say that we’ll be there every step of the way. Everything will be logical.

One of the things we get to do this year that I found was great for telling authentic, emotional stories, is that the 13 episodes … I’m treating them as a saga, like feature films. So, you’ll get to track their emotional growth pattern and their relationship very carefully. Really get underneath the hood and investigate those relationships.

Joshua Maloni, Niagara Frontier Publication: 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?

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 starting to kind of find what it was. I was always a science fiction fan, but I didn’t really know a lot about it, and J.J. [Abrams] had said the concept of the show is that it’s about a family. That’s what it’s about. I’m always leaning 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 crazy things from out of this world circumstances, but something people can relate to and that I care about writing about the human condition.

Once I figured that out and went, “Oh, yeah, I can see that the further science fiction gets, the more it’s actually about humanity.” Once I figured that out, it changed me, my impression of science fiction and how I would attack my work on the program. So, I definitely became a better writer, a deeper thinker in regards to demanding more from my 43 minutes of television, and it’s just working with these incredible actors and the support.

Never in my career have I got the support for what I’m doing any more than I have on Fringe. As an artist, it makes you feel, “Wow, people are feeling things that I’m feeling, and we’re all concerned about the same things because you guys are telling me that.” That’s very satisfying. I’ve definitely emerged from it a much better thinker and writer and storyteller, in general.

Tara Bennett, SFX Magazine: Obviously, you have a limited budget. It’s not a film … is there anything you’ve had to sacrifice because you just couldn’t do it on a television budget?

We’re really fortunate because technology is so advanced. Like right now, 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 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 overwhelmed by the effects, but actually vice versa, that your emotional storyline is what’s driving the train. But it’s these little forces throughout the program that make you realize, “Wow, I’m in a different time and space.”

And you have to get really good at moving money around. So, skills definitely need to be 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 production team like ours, it makes it look easy and makes me look really good, but everybody does their job so well.

Alex Zalben, MTV Geek: The thing I think was most interesting about the [season 5 premiere] and potentially where you guys are going for the season is, on the surface, Fringe is about people investigating weird science mysteries, and you completely blew up that premise while still keeping that emotional core of family. Could you talk about that and whether there was any reticence of changing the show so dramatically for the season?

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 felt was giving the fans the love letter 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 sit down and ask yourself that question as a show runner, the only place you 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, and if I invested four years of my life in these characters that I’ve grown to love … 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 that Fringe made sense. I want to feel that my characters evolved in a place that they deserved, sometimes maybe unexpected, but I would like to feel satiated that logically, they have come to a conclusion that makes me feel satisfied. Most importantly, 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 is over.”

I feel like that’s what we need as a society; a feeling of, wow, it’s really messy out there. But you know what? 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, the key to that is the emotional relationships. There’s times that we did great things and sometimes we took missteps and, hey, that’s the nature of the beast. With the missteps, I’ve learned that they usually revolve around things that aren’t involving characters, but rather plot.

Now that I know the characters as much as I do, it’s become 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 of continuity this year. The ability for the viewer to 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 disconnecting from them to a certain degree, but for this final season, I really wanted to get the viewer down on the floor with them and go through the things they’re going through, because it’s a family show. It’s about disparate people who are trying very hard to hold together a family in a very difficult time. I think people really relate to that.

So, I just went with what my heart said and what my gut said and here we are. I have to say the actors and the way they’re receiving the material and performing, I really am enthusiastic. I cannot wait for you guys to see some of the performances that are being pulled off this year. It’s mind blowing. And they’re doing it because they, too, feel like it’s the end and they want to bring their best.

Jamie Ruby, SciFi Vision: Five years ago, did you expect to be here? What changed from your original plan the most?

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 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 something you thought wouldn’t be big blows up into something else. There are certain episodes that all of a sudden 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 start to figure things out.

We like to be clever and say, “Well, we knew a lot of stuff,” 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 just fit like a little puzzle and you go, “Wow, that’s really interesting.”

So, you find the things that work and the things that don’t work and 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 indicates where you should go naturally. The idea has changed where we’re going to end up a lot, even up until the last episode. My thinking on the episode was fluctuating and vacillating between several different ideas.

Steve Sunu, Spinoff Online: What were the major challenges you faced in bringing this thing to a conclusion that the fans would both appreciate and accept as a suitable ending to the series? 

Like I said before, I adore the fans and I feel like they — and everybody who supports the program — owns a little brick in the building. I think the only thing that saved the show were the reactions of the media and the fans that identified the heart and aspirational ideas in the program and responded to it. I have to believe 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 they love go through things — and go through things with them.

So, once I committed to saying, “Look, it’s all about that. It’s all about the people, and the narrative is incredibly important,” but really, it’s the characters that people love. I think the fans 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 final season, that would be a great reward because they’ve invested so much time. So, I just went, “All right, I got to go with my heart and my gut and tell the story this way.”

T.J. Burnside Clapp, Screenspy.com: 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?

Yes, this has been in the hatch for a while, but the story 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 have this Observer “September” to come and understand that we are, although very messed up, very special people and beautiful.

So, while he was pushed out on a mission as one of 12 scientists to come and evaluate and watch us for reasons they didn’t fully understand, he fell in love with us. So, that’s why he seems very cuddly. When you get episodes like “August,” I really toyed with the title and now in retrospect, maybe I should have called it this, but my first working title for that episode 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.

Natasha Hoover, Fringe Bloggers and Seriable: It’s 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? 

Well, do you realize it’s probably not the best term for it? I’m probably guilty of saying it myself, but it’s not really that. It’s sort of more like a continuity of emotion and story, but it’s not like you’re going to have Walter finish a sentence and dan-dan-dan, you come back and the next week he’s talking about the same thing. I mean there’s still capsulated episodes, but they’re all about one thing. So, those 13 stories are about one story.

We’ve really enjoyed that continuity of emotions, 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 plot. 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. One week you’ll have Olivia very concerned about something that Peter did to her and the next week, she’s upset because she has a blemish on her hand and doesn’t know what it is. There’s a sort of randomness to what people are going through on a week-to-week basis.

But this season, we’re 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.

Meredith Jacob, Gather.com: What will we see from Nina and Broyles in 2036 this season?

I don’t want to spoil anything and traditionally, I’m very tight-lipped; at least, I’m always accused of that. But this one is really tough because there’s only 13 episodes, and I don’t want to give anything away. I want people to enjoy the surprises that are coming and the turn of events that are waiting for you.

It’s no secret that 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 fill out their characters and be satisfying to the fans of those two particular characters, as well. That’s all I can really say. They’re around.

Kyle Nolan, NoReruns.net: With only 13 episodes, are you planning on squeezing in one of those crazy 19th-style episodes?

I’ve got something really special planned, but I don’t want to talk about it. I think it will be memorable, and let’s just say it’s definitely a step in a different direction.

Jamie Ruby, SciFi Vision: Obviously, Walter had something happen. Can you say if this is something that’s going to affect his personality, since it’s sort of like what happened before. Can you talk at all about that?

Yes, I think in different ways, ways that you haven’t seen because John Noble is 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…

We carefully designed a journey for him this year that is entirely unique and will affect him in probably ways that I’m sure 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 of a concern to him that has never been before. That’s spoiling it enough, but secret enough at the same time.

Watch the Fringe season five trailer, and tell us in the comments below, what are you hoping for with the final season?


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