Having been a television writer and producer for over two decades, Tim Kring may have seen it all, but after creating the NBC crime drama “Crossing Jordan,” he saw an opening for a show that could tap relatively uncharted territory, that of people with superpowers in the real world. Cherry-picking writers from some of the best genre shows like “Lost,” “Alias,” and “Smallville,” Kring proceeded to create a unique universe not unlike our own, only populated by a handful of people who suddenly discover they have extraordinary powers.
Superhero Hype! had a chance to speak to Kring during a break from the hectic preparations for getting the show on the air in less than a month.
Superhero Hype!: Jeph Loeb mentioned that you never read comics before coming up with the idea for “Heroes,” so how did it come about that you became interested in superpowers?
Tim Kring: I live in the same culture as everybody else, and I’m surrounded by this as much as anybody else. I’ve seen a lot of the same movies, I guess. It’s always hard to go back and think about how you came up with something, especially when it took several months to come up with it. There were several little moments along the way. One was on “Crossing Jordan” my other show, we have this very mild-mannered woman character on the show, and we did a scene where somebody breaks into the morgue where she works, and she kicks the sh*t out of them in this kind of kung fu way. In this surprising way that she suddenly had these abilities that nobody knew about, and that was actually the first spark of the inspiration, this very ordinary person has this extraordinary ability that nobody knew about. Then I saw two movies back-to-back literally on two consecutive days that just sort of blew me away. One was my friend Charlie Kaufman’s movie “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and the other was “The Incredibles.” I was really blown away by both movies, and I started thinking about them. In a weird way, they started to kind of meld in my mind, taking the kind of Kaufmanesque hyper-real characters, very anonymous characters, people you would pass on the street and not think twice about, and I started blending them in my mind with the premise of “The Incredibles,” people trying to live ordinary lives while having these superpowers. So that was kind of where it all came from, and the other genesis was that I was looking to do a big serialized saga, and I wanted to start literally from the very beginning. Whereas most TV shows, you start and somebody’s already a lawyer or they’re a cop or they’re doctor and they work in a hospital. I wanted to do a show that started from absolute beginning of the inception of these abilities.
SHH!: Which came first? The characters or their powers?
Kring: They sort of met halfway a lot of times. I wanted it to be populated by very disparate people around the world, and I knew I wanted a couple of types. I wanted the sort of existential dreamer character and I thought that with that character, Peter, an easy and accessible obsession to have is the thought that maybe he can fly, and in some ways a metaphor for his trapped life, to actually soar out of it. I thought about a lot of these powers as metaphors for the characters. Take the character that Ali Larter plays, Nikki, who’s a single mother stretched about as thin as you can be, so I started thinking of a single mother stretched so thin that her power is she can literally be in two places at one time. Greg Grunberg plays a cop, and I started to think what would be the ultimate power if you were a cop? What would be the most advantageous power that you can have? Being able to read other people’s thoughts, if you think about it. You could know who is telling the truth, who’s not, where the money’s buried, who the culprit of the crime is? So I approached him like that.
With a character like Hiro, that character was added actually very late in the process, after I had written a couple drafts, and gave it to a few people that I know and trust. People were kind of overwhelmed with the heaviness, the tone of the piece, because every character is dealing with the discovery of these powers in a really realistic way in the same way that you or I would. If you woke up and felt your foot hover over the ground for a split second when you got out of the bed and were having these very vivid flying dreams, you would probably go to a shrink or go to a doctor or get a CAT scan. It would trouble you. It would really disrupt your life. I sort of treated all of these characters with the same realistic reaction. A character like Claire, a teenage girl who finds that she’s indestructible, for her it’s the last thing she wants is to be different. She wants to fit in. She wants to be popular. No teenage kid ever wants to feel different. So I needed one character who would sort of break that mold and actually embrace these abilities with a certain amount of enthusiasm and zeal. I thought of this trapped office worker bee drone kind of character, who had always fantasized about being different and being special, had read comic books and watched movies. So for [Hiro], this discovery is the greatest thing that ever happened, the answer to all of his wildest dreams.
SHH!: When you came up with these characters, did you think ahead about how much it’s going to cost to create their powers in terms of effects?
Kring: We kind of try to work around it as much as possible, but the idea of the pilot, I would say 80% of our special effects were about putting backgrounds in to place people into different parts of the world, and only 20% of it was actually showing the powers. If you were watching this TV show for the special effects, you’re going to be wildly disappointed, ’cause it’s not going to be a special effects show. We can’t compete with a $200 million feature, and we can’t do it on a weekly basis. So the show is much more about the characters dealing with their powers, and the powers are cleverly designed to not have to show a lot of special effects or they’re ability to do them without having to rely so much on CG and all that stuff. The special effects we used in the Claire story were very cleverly, most of them were right in camera, prosthetics, so we didn’t rely on CG.
SHH!: Have you had any problem with the censors in how graphic some of the gore is, especially in Claire’s scenes?
Kring: No, so far, we’ve had everything okay. Clearly, we want to be very responsible to the idea of her being a teenager and any attempts to harm herself need to be within the context of a story and not taken out of context, so that nobody copies that sort of behavior, so we’re very mindful of that right now.
SHH!: How long did it take to find the right actors to play each part?
Kring: The casting process was really fantastic and fascinating on this show. First of all, the script attracted so many talented people, that we did not have to settle for second best on any character, and the casting process for a show is really an organic process, as is the making of a television show. You have to let the casting process speak to you. Take for instance a character like Shoresh, who was the Indian professor who comes over. The character I scripted was a man in his late ’50s. We saw several men come in, and our casting director said that we need to take a look at this one actor. “He’s completely wrong in terms of his age, but he may be great for something else. He’s only here for a week, in from London, and you need to take a look at him.” My first reaction was “Well, why? He’s not right.” She said, “Trust me, you want to see this guy.” He walked in the room and opened his mouth and we all looked at one another, so I went off and he rewrote the entire of that character and made him the son of this man in his late ’50s who had just died, who was following in his father’s footsteps. Greg Grunberg is another example of that. I sort of had in mind a Matt Dillon kind of character for this cop, and Greg walked in and it changed the entire feeling for who this guy was. Suddenly, I saw him as an everyman, and realized that his home life was going to be way more important to a guy like Greg. You’re really going to root for him. Again, you see actors walk in the door and they alter how you look at the part and you adapt it to them and you try to make it as organic as possible.
SHH!: It’s pretty amazing that your cast has the likes of Ali Larter and Hayden Panettiere, both of whom have made names for themselves in movies. How do you get actresses like those to commit to a serialized show without really knowing where their characters are going in the weeks ahead?
Kring: The truth is that we didn’t pursue that at all. The script attracted a lot of interest and a lot of actors to it. You look at people like Hayden and Ali, I think the success of shows like “Lost” and “24,” where people have seen that these serialized sagas are drawing a large audience, it’s a way for somebody to be in a show, without carrying the show completely themselves, and I’ve often said that the large ensemble drama is the best gig in Hollywood for an actor, because the show doesn’t live or die on any one character, so no actor has to feel that they’re carrying the show on their back, and it allows you to do other things with your career, because as you know, shows like “Lost,” not every character is going to be seen every week. I’ve worked with actors who are still very involved in theatre and do features and write and direct theatre, and for an actor who has a life outside of just being on a TV show, it’s actually a wonderful gig.
SHH!: All of them signed on based solely on the script for the pilot?
Kring: Absolutely. That’s always the way it is. You’re always doing a pilot with the idea that you’re in a contest to get on the air. Every actor signs onto a pilot with the idea that 90% of them don’t make it to the air.
SHH!: And how do they feel about not knowing where things are going to go?
Kring: They’re all so excited. I gotta tell you when they get the scripts, they just go nuts. “I can’t believe I get to do this!” The storytelling is really a lot of fun and there are some very wild twists and turns. One of the things that we talked about early on when doing a big saga was Charles Dickens. Most of his novels were written in one chapter segments from the newspaper, so that’s why they have that big serialized feel to them. He never knew quite where they were going. He was just writing them one chapter at a time. We’re doing obviously a very similar thing here, so the art of the coincidence becomes a big part of the show, how people cross, how people’s lives come together, and it’s a very fun way to tell stories.
SHH!: You brought in your friend Jeph Loeb to write and co-produce, but did you intentionally try to find writers involved with other superhero-related shows?
Kring: Yeah, I was very interested in surrounding myself with enough people who have more of a genre background, because we’re leaning into that in a real way. By the same token, it’s interesting because I have to keep reminding them that they’re genre writers, because so many of them were attracted to the show because of the character stuff. That was what attracted everybody to the script of the pilot. Michael Green, who wrote on “Smallville” and Jesse Alexander, who was on “Alias” and “Lost” and Eric, the co-producer on the show, has been very involved in the comic book world. All of them are just very excited to stretch and work sort of more on a character show than on a genre show.
SHH!: Since you don’t have a comic book background yourself, how do you keep the balance in terms of what genre/comic fans expect and your own original idea?
Kring: It’s hard to say. I think the pilot sort of strikes the balance. If you really look at it, their stories are very much about the drama. The actual drama of the show has much more to do with their personal struggle and their personal journey of discovery, and their relationships. My whole idea was that I wanted to take the idea of what would happen to you or to me if this happened to us and play it really real, and I didn’t think anybody had ever really done that. And I mean in a real way. Like I said, if this really did happen to you, you wouldn’t don a spandex suit, you would struggle with it, and it would be baby steps before you figure it out. A baby can make a sound, an “aw” or a gurgle sound, but it’s years before it can really articulate, to be able to tell you what they really are thinking. I sort of wanted to approach these superpowers in the same way. If you suddenly have the ability to teleport, well it’s going to be a long time before you really figure out how to use it and what it’s supposed to be used for, and in the meantime, you have a life to lead. You have a job, and you have a family, and you have relationships, and you have a mortgage or a rent that are something to pay. To me, that was the interesting part of this. How do you struggle in your life, while discovering that you’re meant to be something special?
SHH!: How did the show evolve after the pilot was picked up and you started hiring all these other guys?
Kring: I certainly had ideas, but the actual detail of it comes from getting 10 talented writers in a room and putting cards up on the boards, and you just start talking. The way we approached it was that I told everybody that the assignment was that every single story starts with “Okay, and then what happens?” So that’s how we’ve approached every single beat of this thing. Everybody’s story in the pilot has somewhat of a cliffhanger to it, and we literally started with “What’s the logical next beat of that story?” While I had a fair amount of that worked out in my mind, once you get in a room with ten smart writers, things tend to get fleshed out and changed, reworked and rethought. The writers’ room is a very mysterious, organic kind of place. You come in with a set idea, and very quickly watch it morph and change and bend into something new. Almost always something better.
SHH!: Is the writing system you’ve developed for this show something unique, or did you use it on “Crossing Jordan” or elsewhere?
Kring: No, a writers’ room has that same dynamic on every show, but on this particular show, there is a different component to it because to the serialized nature of the show, you have to be much more diligent in your storytelling because everything’s connected, and one thread pulls part of the tapestry, one domino hits the another domino. You have to be very careful in the storytelling to not unravel things. Sometimes a very small decision to go left instead of right changes the entire nature of the story, so this particular writers’ room is much more diligent. We have been writing these scripts as a group for the most part, which is also not that common in drama, where usually a writer goes off, writes a draft and comes back in. Because we had to hit the ground running so fast and so hard, we had what I consider to be a very short amount of leadtime. We got picked up in the middle of May, and we’re on the air in the middle of September. With a show like this, we had to have multiple episodes broken by the time we were even in production, so it’s required that there’s a kind of all hands on deck quality to the way we write these scripts. It’s been very interesting because there’s many upsides but the biggest upside is that everybody feels attached emotionally to the episode, and feels committed to it. Whereas in a normal drama, you feel very attached to your episode, and you hope that everybody else around you doesn’t screw it up. On this, everybody has ownership and feels connected to it.
SHH!: In the pilot and first few episodes, all the characters are discovering their own powers, but will we see the characters come together sometime during the first season?
Kring: Well, the characters are beginning to cross fairly soon. We point to it in the pilot. A couple actually start to cross in Episode 2 and by Episode 4, many of them have crossed, but there is never going to be a sense of forming a Justice League. They will come together, they’ll be torn apart, they’ll group in small groups and then be driven apart somehow, but all with the idea that there is something larger that they’re being drawn to. The pilot prophesized this moment at the end that a large event was going to happen. The first season is very much about getting to that event and stopping that event from happening.
SHH!: From what the actors told me, getting a new script is a bit like getting new comics every Wednesday.
Kring: That’s very much how we are looking at this, because I’m surrounded by guys who on Wednesday, they live for that, going to the comic book store. There’s always a little hiatus that afternoon. That feeling is very much how you want people to approach the show.
SHH!: Thanks for taking the time to talk to us, Tim.
Kring: You guys have been very out in the forefront of the internet coverage on this.
“Heroes” will debut on NBC on Monday, September 25, but on Friday, September 1, you can download the pilot episode from the iTunes Music Store, and you can also find out the latest on the show (including cool show-related comic strips!) at 9th Wonders, the Official/Unofficial Fan Site for “Heroes.”
Source: Edward Douglas