1-On-1: Talking with "Heroes" Creator Tim Kring

Thu, September 21st, 2006 at 12:00am PDT

TV/Film
Jonah Weiland, Executive Producer/Publisher

Tim Kring, the creator of the Monday debuting "Heroes" on NBC, is no stranger to television. He's worked on a diverse array of series, from "Providence" to "Chicago Hope," finding success in each of his creative ventures. Five years ago he launched "Crossing Jordan" on NBC and despite all the challenges television programming presents, the show has been a real success and is beginning it's sixth season this year. While he certainly has his hands full with "Crossing Jordan," it's clear that Kring isn't one to sit still for very long.

His latest series "Heroes" presents a world filled with a handful of people who exhibit extraordinary power. Many who've seen the show's pilot have compared it to "Lost," based on the similarities of a large, ensemble cast and a greater mythology that runs throughout the show. But as you probably gathered from the CBR review of the show run yesterday, while the powers these individuals exhibit will play a factor, the primary focus of the show is on character and how these people deal with these new found powers.

And while the show isn't based on a pre-existing universe or comic, the show's production staff is filled with comic fans and two very prominent comic creators – Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale, who both add legitimacy to the concept amongst comic fans.

A couple of weeks back I spoke with Kring at length about the series, it's development, the mythology of the show and much more. Kring's an affable and friendly guy, which made the 35 minute conversation feel like five minutes by the time we were done.

Let's start by talking about the genesis of the show. When did this idea first hit you?

I guess it was about a year ago, maybe a little longer now – it was late summer of last year.

That seems like a pretty quick turn around for a television show to go from concept to approval for a pilot.

Well, pilots are usually written in the fall. They're written in October, November. Usually, you turn them in at the end of November and by January you're selected. That month is usually gone with Christmas. So, by the time January rolls around, the decisions are made as to which pilot's are going to go forward. That's kind of a normal turn around, I guess.

What was that spark that lit that fire under you?

You know, it's always hard to sort of go back and think about what it is. It was a bunch of things all at once, I think. I had a development deal at the network and I had to come up with something. I seemed to only have this one idea and, as much as I tried to deny it, it kept sort of showing up.

The original sparks of it were I wanted to do a large ensemble saga/serialized drama that couldn't be done even three years ago, or that was difficult to try and do. But now, with shows like "24" and "Lost" or even "Desperate Housewives," serialized shows are sort of back in favor. They've been out of favor for a decade, and now they're back. Indeed there were a lot of things that made that possible: the advent of new revenue streams like DVD sales have made this kind of format a reality again.

The inspiration was that I wanted to do a large show and I started thinking about what would connect with an audience, and I started thinking about the idea that the world is a very complicated, confusing place for most people right now. With things like global warming, diminishing resources, terrorism, people are really feeling that something is amiss. That something has to give. So I started thinking about a show that sort of dealt with that in a way by populating the planet with various people that may be coming along to actually do something about these larger issues. I saw two movies back to back that were very inspirational to me. Really, in the course of two days. I saw "The Incredibles" and the Charlie Kaufman film "The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." Those two movies started to meld in my mind a little bit. Taking these Kaufman-esque characters that were very sort of hyper-real and very anonymous characters. The kind of people you would see walking down the street and not think twice about and giving them a secret – something they were harboring. Special abilities they were trying to struggle with. I also wanted to start a show at the very beginning. I was sort of intrigued by that. Whereas with most television shows you pick up with a cop and he's already a cop. You pick up with a doctor and he's working in the ER and that's where your start your series. I wanted to start it from the very inception. From that very beginning discovery that these abilities were starting to appear in people's lives. That's kinda it.

I was told that you're really not a comic book guy yourself. Is that true?

Yeah. I never had much of a background in comics.

So, where does this interest in super powered beings come from, then? Is it primarily because of the challenges it presents to you and the viewers from a character standpoint?

Yeah. I am obviously very influenced by all the stuff that I see and am surrounded by. Movies and books and popular culture that deals with these issues. It's not like I'm not aware of it, I just had never been much of a comic book reader. Partly because I have a particular kind of disorder, or reading problem, that always made it difficult for me to follow the dialogue in a comic book. I never knew where my eye was supposed to go. Left or right, up or down. I got frustrated a lot as a kid and never returned to it. I think it's as much that as anything else. I'm not a great reader anyway, so the format of a comic book made it even more difficult for me. It wasn't out of not having an interest in it, I don't think, I just didn't gravitate towards it for that reason.

When I started thinking about how I wanted to approach it, I wanted to approach it purely from a character standpoint of how would it affect people to discover these things about themselves and still have to live the lives that they are living. In other words, if you woke up one day and had an inkling that your foot had hovered over the floor for a split second before you touched the ground and you were having these very vivid flying dreams and suddenly became convinced that you could fly, how would that jive with the rest of your life if you had a job and a family and bills to pay and rent to pay, and yet what do you do with this, especially when it begins to take over your life to a point where you realize that it's about your destiny and about a greater purpose. So, to me, that character study of how it affects you is the most interesting part.

Why do you feel the public is tapping into this zeitgeist of people with powers beyond those of mortal men?

Again, I think it does have to do with the complexity of the world that we live in and that it seems to control what are really overwhelming problems in society that we're all facing. I really do feel that that sort of wish-fulfillment – the idea that if you were more capable or more powerful and more able – is something that is kind of universal. It's also about destiny and about purpose, and I think that those two things are very powerful archetypes for people as well. Everybody wants to believe that they're meant for something more important than what their ordinary lives provide.

You talk about these problems – these challenges the world is presenting to people these days – fueling this interest in characters with extra-normal abilities. Now, I realize things won't change too dramatically any time soon where we see these major problems go away, but what happens when those major problems – whether it be the war or global warming or all these different things – begin to get dealt with in a constructive way and people start to feel things are getting better? Does that necessarily mean that people will start losing interest in this genre?

I think the course of human history says that more problems will arise. I mean if you look at a graph, it doesn't seem to be getting better, it just seems to be getting worse. I guess we could all just hope and pray that the superhero genre would go away, because if that were true it would mean that the world was becoming a safer and less complex place. I don't see that happening, so I don't see this genre losing any steam.

There's a lot of talk these days about how, say, "thirty-five is the new twenty-five" – where there are people still involved in interests well past what was generally considered "appropriate" in the past. A less flattering way of putting it, I guess, would be to say we have a generation in a state of arrested development. Do you think that's fueling this interest as well?

Yeah, to the extent that I think the demographic is just getting broader and broader. I know people my age who are still connected to the same material and ideas in terms of comic books that they were when they were ten years old. I think you're absolutely right. Where I think society used to push people to get over that at a certain age, they're no longer pushing. That extended adolescence is providing for a much larger demographic than their used to be for this kind of stuff.

At first glance, it appears that this show was designed to appeal to a young male demographic. Upon viewing the pilot, I get the feeling this show will have much wider audience appeal. Was this show designed with a specific audience segment in mind?

Not in a really calculated way, but I have to admit, I've been around long enough in the television business to sort of be a survivor. To survive in network television, in primetime, you can't have the narrow demographic of just the young male viewers. You will be immediately, if you're lucky, an eight-share show and you'll be cancelled. It is called broadcasting, not narrowcasting. You are trying reach a broad audience. Fortunately my particular interest is in character and so I think if you're watching the show purely for its genre elements, you're going to be disappointed in this show because first of all, we can't compete with a $200 million dollar feature that has huge special effects. So, we're not going to have a tremendous amount of special effects in this show. If they're done, they'll be done creatively and sparingly like they were in the pilot.

I think the pilot is actually a fairly good template for the tone of what the show is. I would say the vast majority of our budget went to placing the characters into certain parts of the world. Putting you in Japan or putting you in India. Placing backgrounds on film. As far as the special effects, most of them were done in-camera. We did do some wire work. That's very expensive and will probably be done sparingly in the show.

As far as going for a broad audience, yes this show is trying to appeal to a broad audience. The serialized elements allow that – some of the relationship stuff will allow that. But I am very aware of the genre audience that is interested in this material, and a lot of what we're doing is tipping our hat to various things. If you'll notice, the visuals of the show are very inspired by sort of graphic novel angles. There are certain very wide shots and the 16:9 format we shoot in allows us to have a frame that sort of pays homage to a lot of comic book angles and graphic design. We tried to sort of tip our hat to that. We have certain characters that are very interested in the comic book world who will keep that alive as well.

You've certainly accomplished that comic book feel with Masi Oka's character, who plays the part of Hiro Nakamura. All of his scenes are in Japanese and are subtitled, but the way you subtitled his scenes is really quite genius. Instead of running the text along the bottom of the screen, you have the subtitling in the shot, giving it an almost word balloon feel.

It was never designed that way on the page. We got in the editing room and I'm looking at these subtitles, and I just said "Well, let's take that one and move it over his head in that dead space there" and sure enough we all literally started giggling when we discovered this. The subtitle becomes a really fun way for the audience to also sort of experience the story using different senses.

When I saw it I thought to myself, this has to be one of those remarkably lucky moments when brilliance just sneaks up on you.

I would like to say it was all designed, but it was discovered in the editing room

The title "Heroes" would imply for some that we're going to see villains. From what I can gather from the first episode, there is a much larger mythology behind all of this stuff. I want to get to that mythology in a second, but before I get to that, does the show have any plans to follow characters who make wrong or selfish choices?

Yes, absolutely. We're positing an idea at the beginning of the series, and we obviously reserve the right to change this as we go along, but we're positing the idea that there is a kind of evolutionary quality or reason for this to happen. So it sort of stands to reason that if you are given a unique ability and you are predisposed to do evil, that ability will help you do evil. In other words, it's sort of all about free will. What you do with these powers is up to the individual person. For some who will start off as not very nice people, these abilities may bend them towards doing good. And very much the apposite can happen. Somebody who starts off as a fairly decent person – depending on their circumstance, you know if you find yourself poor or destitute or in desperation and you discover that you can walk through walls, well you may just walk by a bank and walk in and rob it. It is part of what makes this fun, seeing which way the characters will bend. I can certainly say the villains will come from among the characters that we'll be introducing. We'll see some of those arcs.

Let's talk about the larger mythology of the show. How much of it is already planned out? Do you guys have a giant story bible like we've heard about on other genre programs?

We're pretty well set for the first season – we know where it's going. As far as the mythology, there is sort of a larger idea on the table. But I also have learned not to get too crazy about that stuff because you can end up writing yourself into corners. As soon as you lock yourself into an idea that can't be changed, you start writing towards that. Twenty-two hours of television a year is a very, very large monster that needs to be fed and you can eat your way through story very quickly if you know exactly where things are going. But no, the mythology of the show, we are hoping, does not take over. We're trying to learn lessons from other shows and not have the mythology become the main interest that people have in a show like this. We want to make sure that the interest remains the characters and what they are going through and what they are dealing with. Service the larger mythology in a kind of secondary way.

What are some of those shows that you think made a mistake delving too far into the mythology?

"The X-Files" is a show that struggled with it and the people that I know who wrote on "The X-Files" talked about how decisions were made based on committing to mythology that they probably shouldn't have. Even I've done it on my own show – on "Crossing Jordan" we had a larger mythology for the show. By knowing where it went, we ate through too much story too quickly. Again, these are specific to every show, but you can see shows struggling with them. Shows that get very wrapped up in the mythology. Shows like "Lost" that really become about that. The audience can also sort of sense the sits and starts and the stalls and all that. I'm sure we will make all those same mistakes, but you try to examine what's working and what's not working on those other shows.

I know you can't answer the question "what gives these people their powers," but have you already figured out where these powers come from? Has that much been defined?

Again, while we will be positing other theories, I think it's probably a wise choice to just buy what the series tells you fairly early on, that there is an evolutionary reason. That is not the central question posited by the show.

You have a large ensemble cast here which obviously provides many challenges for the writers. Which of the character story arcs have you found to be the most challenging thus far, and which have been the easiest?

They've all been challenging in their own way. What's been challenging is the connecting of the characters. One of the challenges is, production-wise, is you need to get these characters together and have their paths cross because it's obviously cheaper to shoot two people in one location than two people in two locations. The challenge has been to get characters together who were at very disparate places when they began. In order to do that, a lot of story beats have to happen and they have to happen very quickly.

One of the challenges we're having now is how quickly to unfold the story. That's being driven by certain production reasons. It's just cheaper to get them together. But the story sometimes fights that. Sometimes the story wants them to stay farther apart for a while. That's been a real challenge, but part of the fun of the show is watching how these characters' lives will intersect. The pilot presents an office worker in Tokyo and a teenage girl in west Texas, and the fun of watching the show is seeing how those two disparate characters will cross paths. We set out to do a very modern style of television show where the audience participates in the show. They guess and set their TiVo and they predict and they talk to their friends about it. So the participation of trying to guess how characters' lives come together is part of the fun of watching it.

You talk about bringing these characters together and finding those creative ways of bringing those characters together. I know hardcore comic book fans – many of which call CBR home – they love that kind of stuff and I'm sure there are those who are hoping for that ultimate team-up of characters. Is a massive team-up of this cast of super powered beings part of the plan?

All of them will not be getting together all at once. There will be little pockets of them getting together. As of now there is no plan to sort of form a "Justice League." That's not really what this show is about. Clearly, the pilot presents a sense that somebody is hunting these people or looking for these people and that will force all of them towards one another, definitely, and place them in jeopardy. So they team-up in sort of smaller ways. They'll team up and they'll break apart and they'll splinter and they'll come back together, but there is no plan to form a group of each other. There's just simply too many of them and there will be more and more introduced along the way. Since we're positing the idea that this is happening in a global way, there are more. And that's part of the fun of watching. I was most interested in the origin story, to me that's the most fascinating part of it, and so the show will sort of tap into that by inventing a new character.

You know, that's interesting – the origin story is one of the most basic, essential and popular stories told in comics. When Marvel announced they'd reveal Wolverine's origins, comics fans flipped (in a good way, of course)!

It was definitely the most fascinating part because you like to see people at their most rarest. You like to see them confronted with these big issues in their life. Again, one of the fun things about the show is the large ensemble cast lets us rotate people in and out and create new characters and villains as well.

You went to Comic-Con International for the first time this year, didn't you? Talk about that a bit. As an experience, how was that for you?

It was mind-blowing. People had sort of warned me that it was going to be a real crazy experience. I had no idea it was going to be that wild. We had 3000 people turn up for a 2000 seat screening. We turned away about 600 of them. It was a sort of over the top reaction, the sort of reaction you could only wish for.

When I walked out onto the stage and I looked out onto this sea of people and the first thing I saw, my eye went right to a guy with a horn coming out the middle of his head. The second thing I saw was, sitting in the front row, I kid you not, a four hundred pound Harry Potter. With a wand. And I was like, these are my people. It was a really amazing experience.

Then I walked on the floor of the convention and Jeph Loeb and I walked around. Walking around with Jeph Loeb is like going to a Beatles memorabilia convention with John Lennon or something. It's just crazy.

It's a bizarre place. When my non-comics reading friends ask me about it I tell them to imagine a small city forms inside of this very large building and all the world's most interesting characters show up in one-place and they're celebrating Halloween and New Years at the same time. That's Comic-Con."

Speaking of comics, are there any plans for a comic book series to run concurrent or otherwise?

Yeah, we are doing 22 online comics that run concurrent with the show. Everybody who's anybody is involved with it. Michael Turner. Koi Turnbull. I know Jim Lee's involved. I know Tim Sale's involved. They'll be written internally by us, people like Aron Coleite ("The Covenant"), Jeph Loeb and Bryan Fuller ("Dead Like Me," "Wonderfalls"). They're going to be spectacular.

I'm looking at the first one right now. They will be both ancillary material and sort of additive material to the show, not necessarily a retelling, but a kind of different direction into the stories. In other words, if you read them, you will sort of have greater knowledge and deeper knowledge into what you're seeing.

Often times we'll be telling a story from another side, through another character, or will give the missing beats of a story that weren't told in the show – a character gets to a certain place and in the show you jumped him passed four or five different story beats, but you can see how he got there in the comic.

Those artists you mentioned, these are all artists who are friends with Jeph Loeb. Is he the primary driving force behind these online comics?

Yes, absolutely. The truth of the matter is that Tim Sale was actually brought onto the show before Jeph, although I got to Tim through Jeph, because Jeph and I have been friends for many, many eyars. When I called Jeph to talk about this early on, we had several conversations while I was writing the pilot, and I wanted to do some artwork in the script as a sales device. Just hire somebody out of my own pocket to do a few pieces for the script. And I asked Jeph to see if he could recommend somebody. He got me in touch with Tim and that's how that started. So, you know whether it was Tim's involvement or Jeph's involvement, and the fact that the show got a lot of buzz at Comic-Con, we were sort of on everybody's radar when we approached people. But certainly Jeph's knowledge of the business and the people in it – we couldn't ask for more.

Are there any plans to publish these comics in the real world?

I hope so. I'm hoping there's not legal issues with that. I'm looking at color Xeroxes of these things and I don't see why they wouldn't.

Thanks a lot, Tim. Pleasure speaking with you today.

And now you can discuss this story on CBR's TV/Film Forum.

 
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