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Alcatraz – JJ Abrams on his new series and new Star Trek

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Alcatraz - Jorge Garcia, Sarah Jones and Sam Neill
Doc (Jorge Garcia), Rebecca (Sarah Jones) and government agent Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill) with Alcatraz in the background © 2011 Fox Broadcasting

JJ Abrams is one of the busiest men in Hollywood. He produced Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, executive produces the successful TV series Fringe and the new action/drama Alcatraz, and he is about to start directing the sequel to his 2009 megahit Star Trek.

Alcatraz follows the plight of Det Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones), Dr Diego ‘Doc’ Soto (Jorge Garcia), an expert on the prison, and government agent Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill), who are investigating the mystifying reappearance of 302 of Alcatraz’s most notorious prisoners and guards, 50 years after they vanished.

After the press conference for Alcatraz, I caught up with JJ to ask him about his new series, the future of Fringe and returning to Star Trek.

Can you talk about the ratio of the questions and answers you’re providing for the audience with Alcatraz, having done shows that have had that problem before like Lost?

Alcatraz, 1.01 - Sarah Jones and Jorge Garcia
Rebecca (Sarah Jones) asks Doc (Jorge Garcia) for help © 2011 Fox Broadcasting

Yeah, it’s a good thing to learn lessons from. You can’t expect audiences to sit there asking fundamental questions for years. It’s wrong on the one hand, however I also think that people can miss the point a little bit. Sometimes situations exist to create stories.

I don’t know if you’ve read the new Stephen King book, but there’s a great time travel aspect to that and you can ask the question a million times how this wormhole appeared and what that wormhole is caused by, but you’re missing the point if that’s the thing that you’re looking at.

I think that it’s important not to have people ask me about questions that we never answer, it would be cruel and unusual.

So you won’t be offering answers?

We’re going to make sure that the people aren’t necessarily banging their heads against a wall, but if we answered everything at the end of Season One, that’s never a good thing for any show, so I would be lying if I said, ‘Yes, by the end of the first season you’ll know everything,’ of course not.

What was the most fascinating thing you learned about Alcatraz?

Alcatraz, 1.01 - Sarah Jones and Jorge Garcia
Rebecca (Sarah Jones) and Doc (Jorge Garcia) head to Alcatraz © 2011 Fox Broadcasting

There are so many unbelievable details, even little things like the pool table that is up in the officer’s room, it happens to be exactly the same size as the cells of the prisoners. To learn that kids lived there with their families and would go to school in San Francisco and then go back on the ferry.

There was a whole community, it wasn’t just a prison.

How hard was it to get permission to shoot on the island?

Surprisingly easy. The hardest thing was getting permission to pay for it!

What was it like shooting at Alcatraz?

You feel like you’re in this haunted house. The fact that it was a notorious prison, the look of it and the feel of it, you walk through it and it doesn’t feel like any other prison that I’ve either visited or served time in!

Two of the most famous inmates who are always mentioned on the tour are Al Capone and Robert Stroud, the Birdman, but they were both transferred before the ’60s. Anything’s possible in a JJ Abrams series, so have you thought of any way to time travel further back and weave either of them into the series?

It’s definitely a bummer that they weren’t there to be time-traveled. That really is unequivocal for us. But having said that, because we are doing flashbacks, who’s to say that we can’t flashback a little bit further and that would be fun to do.

So what’s the plot of the new Star Trek movie?

Star Trek (2009) - Chris Pine and director JJ Abrams
Chris Pine and director JJ Abrams on set on the 2009 Star Trek film ©2009 by Paramount Picture

(he laughs) Good question. That was great!

What do you make of all the internet chatter about the reports that you were casting Benecio Del Toro as the villain in Star Trek?

What do I make of it? I was happy everyone was interested.

With him not doing it, did you have to do away with the character that you cast him for?

There haven’t been any changes due to the casting.

You cast Josh Holloway in Mission Impossible and Jorge Garcia in this, what is the importance of keeping that Lost family in the fold?

When you are lucky enough to work with people who are great, and for some reason they want to work with you, it’s insane not to try and cultivate that relationship and make it last as long as possible.

I’ve been very lucky to get to work with some really amazing people in front of the camera, behind the camera, and I just try my best to continue that.

With Star Trek 2 starting up, how are you going to balance doing it and Alcatraz?

Star Trek - Zachary Quinto and Chris Pine
Spook (Zachary Quinto) and Captain James T Kirk (Chris Pine) ©2009 Paramount Pictures

We start shooting Star Trek on Thursday, so I’ve got to go! (he laughs) The truth is this is a show which I didn’t create. What I’ve been trying to do is help, whether it’s reading the scripts and giving notes, giving suggestions on cuts, doing the theme music, that sort of stuff, helping to get it up and running.

Whether I was doing Star Trek or not, this is a show that was always going to be run by Jennifer (Johnson) and Dan (Pyne), this was not something that I’m suddenly stepping away from and not running. They’ve been carrying the ball and not me.

Are you shooting Star Trek 2 in 3D or are you going to be converting it?

We’re shooting on film and the reason for that is I wanted to shoot anamorphic and you can’t shoot 3D anamorphic.

Have you thought about your use of lens flares and how the 3D might change that in converting it later?

I had some people make fun of me about that. Yeah, we’ve done some tests, and not only lens flare tests, we’ve done 3D tests. We actually converted a bunch of the original movie, which looked really good, so that was the thing that makes me feel like maybe that would be okay. But I didn’t want to shoot the movie digitally.

So it will be in 3D?

It will be converted for those who want to see it in 3D. But I wanted to match the look of the first one and shoot it anamorphically.

Were you hoping the sequel would be in 3D?

I did not fight for the 3D, it was something the studio wanted to do and I didn’t want to do it.

When I saw the first movie converted in sections, I thought it actually looked really cool, so I was okay with their doing it as long as I could shoot the movie the way I wanted to, in anamorphic form, and then convert it so those who want to see it in 3D, which looked pretty cool, they can do it.

For those who want to see it in 2D, they can do that too.

What’s your sense about the future of Fringe?

Fringe, 4.08 - John Noble
Episode 4.08 "Back To Where You've Never Been" - Walternate (John Noble) studies the shapeshifter disks © 2011 Fox Broadcasting

I don’t know. For some reason I’m hopeful, because there’s some stuff coming up that is so great.

They’re doing such amazing work and maybe it’s dumb optimism hoping when good work is done it gets rewarded. I think that some of the work that they’re doing is so good that I’m just crossing my fingers [it will continue], and if not on Fox then somewhere else.

If they do cancel it, will Fox give you a heads-up so that you can do a finale?

I would think that if the show is going to end they’ve been so wonderful and incredibly supportive and fully aware of the audience that they have, and in some cases don’t have, that I’m sure they’d be courteous enough to do that.