"Heroes" Post-Game Report with Tim Kring, Part One

Thu, May 24th, 2007 at 12:00am PDT

TV/Film
Jonah Weiland, Executive Producer/Publisher

"Heroes" Creator Tim Kring
There were a lot of new shows added to the Fall TV schedule in 2006, most of which failed, but of those that did succeed none would go on to become the phenomenon that is "Heroes." The show has become a major tent pole for NBC, a true franchise, spawning numerous Internet tie-ins known as the "Heroes 360 Experience" which encompasses a number of different Web sites as well as the popular online comics. Add to that a staggering number of fan sites and it seemed as though the Internet had been taken over by "Heroes."

Even before the pilot aired there was a very strong buzz around the show which began at Comic-Con International last year, but no one knew just how big the show would get. When I spoke with series creator Tim Kring last September, I certainly had no idea what this show was capable of. Here we had a show featuring characters with fantastic powers familiar to comic fans, but this wasn't a show based on any established super hero universe. "Heroes" eschewed many of the trappings of the super hero genre, foregoing costumes and code names, basing itself in a reality much like our own - well, except for the fact that dudes could fly, bend time and go nuclear. Would comic fans embrace the show? How would the public at large react to these rather odd and unfamiliar characters?

Well, we all know the answer to that question - "Save the Cheerleader, Save The World" anyone?

As I opened the first season of "Heroes" talking with Kring, so now do I end it. Tuesday morning, following the season finale, "How To Stop An Exploding Man," Kring and I spent an hour on the phone conducting something of a post-game report. We discussed the journey he's taken with this show, the season finale, what effect, if any, "Heroes" had on the cancellation of his other program, "Crossing Jordan," his newly prominent role in American pop culture and much, much more. Friday we'll go in depth into the spin-off series "Heroes: Origins," what illegal downloads of the show have meant to its global reach and its chances for commercial success overseas and much, much more.

Story continues below

The original key-art for "Heroes."
So, Tim, how are you doing this morning?

Well, that's really a day-to-day question! [laughs] But, today is a good day.

I would think so. It's ironic you picked up the phone right when you did because the on hold music was Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World" and you literally picked up right as he sang, "And I think to myself, what a wonderful world…" which seems rather appropriate considering the world building you just completed with the first season of "Heroes."

Wow, how odd!

Yeah, very odd. So, as we begin our chat today I ask that you indulge me for a moment. Before "Heroes" began you were Tim Kring, respected TV writer/creator. You had a successful series going into its sixth season on the air in "Crossing Jordan." Your rsum is rather extensive and includes work on shows like "Providence" and "Chicago Hope." By any measurement, prior to "Heroes" you were in an envious position in Hollywood. Now, here we are, a year or so after you first pitched "Heroes" and had the show picked up by NBC and you're still that same respected TV creator, but now you add world builder and the man behind what has been a major contribution to pop culture. Can you talk a bit about how your life has changed through this "Heroes" journey both personally and professionally?

Well, god, that's a really interesting question. The truth is that the work is very similar whether you're on a show that few people are watching or a lot of people are watching or one that becomes a phenomenon. The actual work of doing the show is very similar. It's usually more work than you can imagine doing and because the nature of the work is that you're several months ahead of where the audience reaction is - when they are watching an episode you've moved past that by often 10-12 weeks - so the brush fires and the daily dealings of your job have very little to do with what America is reacting to at the moment. So, there's this odd sort of disconnect between where you are in your life and where they are.

The truth is, like I said, the work is so difficult that every once in a while you look up from the computer or come out of the dark cave of an editing room to find out that people are really loving the show and it just feels kind of anecdotal more than anything else. It's odd. You work really hard on a show all week long, then you go to a grocery store on a Saturday and you see a magazine with "Heroes" all over the cover of it. It's all a very odd disconnect between your daily life and what's happening outside of it.

The more serious answer is I had what I thought was huge success in having a show on the air ["Crossing Jordan"] for six seasons that was wholly created by me and was used to running a show with a few hundred employees. So, I couldn't imagine it feeling any bigger than that. The other truth of it is that it's never gotten better or more heady than the first time I sold an episode of television in 1985 when I sold an episode of "Knight Rider." That has never been topped.

That's still the biggest moment for you? Despite a show that generated five alternate covers on "Entertainment Weekly," that "Knight Rider" script is still the top moment for you?

Oh yeah. Well, it wasn't the "Knight Rider" script, but it was the idea that I could make that much money for a weeks worth of work and that I actually knew that was a career. It was the first time I realized this was what my career was going to be. It was such a validation of a lot of years of work and that has never quite been replaced by any other success.

The cast of "Heroes."
It's interesting you brought up "Knight Rider" because clearly "Heroes" isn't your only contribution to American pop culture as your work on "Knight Rider" has to be included as well, but you also worked on a cult hit show years ago called "Misfits of Science."

That's right! I was one of the few people who actually wrote an episode of "Misfits of Science." [laughs] I think there were only 12 or maybe 18 episodes.

It certainly didn't last more than a season. What do you find are the differences now between writing for a show like "Misfits of Science" back then and working on "Heroes" today? Of course, they're wildly different programs, but both of which have a larger mythology running in the back ground and play heavily in the realm of the fantastic.

Well, to be really honest I just barely remember what "Misfits of Science" was even about. [laughs] It was a very silly idea and you know, they're very different animals. That said, I don't think I could have written "Heroes" without all of the other jobs that I had before this. I think it was a culmination of a lot of my career. There are a lot of tones and themes that are being explored that I don't think I would have been able to write at an earlier place in my career. "Heroes" is a very bold kind of story telling that I think comes from being in a place where I could afford to fail. Often times that's when you do your boldest work - the fact I had a show on the air when I developed "Heroes," let's face it, I had a fair amount of cushion if this didn't work. In "Crossing Jordan" I had a day job I could go back to. It really did allow me to be pretty bold with my storytelling.

You mentioned you had a job to fall back on, but interestingly it's that day job that was ultimately lost, not the new one. "Crossing Jordan" was not renewed for a seventh season. How much did the success of "Heroes" contribute to the demise of "Crossing Jordan?"

I've asked myself that question. We did 117 episodes of "Crossing Jordan." A show that lasts six seasons, believe me, there's nothing to feel sorry about. It was a tremendous success. I think the truth is we were bounced around a lot on the schedule and we were at a network that really does need a hit. They're a network that's really struggling at this point. I liken them to a boxer in the 15th round throwing hay-makers. They need a hit and "Crossing Jordan" was never going to be that kind of break-out hit in its 7th season.

It was also, I think, more a product of the network feeling very positive about the development of their other shows this season, so when they had that many new pilots they were really in love with, you start looking for slots to put those shows in, and, well, that's what happens. So, I think it was a product of many things. One might think that the success of "Heroes" would just generally help the network and help everything. There is a kind of a high tide floating all boats and a network needs hits in order to generate hits, shows that are platforms to promo off of. When a network finds themselves in trouble, they find themselves in a catch-22 of how do you get people to watch your network when nobody is watching your network.

How involved were you with the sixth season of "Crossing Jordan?"

I started off being more involved this season, but as things went on I had trouble staying that involved. I turned the day-to-day running of the show over to three executive producers that had been with me for years. There was a lot of sort of cross-pollination at the top of these shows. Both Alan Arkush and Dennis Hammer, who are executive producers on "Heroes," both stayed very involved with "Crossing Jordan," so it helped free me up. I read outlines and watched cuts, but my role kind of turned into a kind of tie-breaker - when somebody really needed a decision on a log jam, I kind of was the one who made the decision. But, to be honest, I handed the real day-to-day stuff over and a lot of that really was just a function of logistics. I just could not be in two places at the same time.

Jill Hennessy, the star of "Crossing Jordan"
And it doesn't sound like it would be fair to say, in respect to "Crossing Jordan," that your absence really contributed to the show not being renewed. It's just a matter of timing and all those things you spoke about earlier.

Right. And to put things in perspective, I stayed on as show-runner of that show for five seasons. That, I think, and I may be wrong, but anecdotally, that is a fairly rare occurrence for someone to stay with a drama for that many years.

Especially when that same person is also the creator of the show.

Exactly. So, I don't feel any abandonment issues with that. And listen, as far as fighting for it, there was a lot of talk behind the scenes, but it became apparent that the ratings were so low that we didn't really have a leg to stand on and had a hard time mounting a real fight for the show because the ratings were so down. And the truth is I was the only profit participant in the show outside of the network and a show in its seventh season is suddenly profitable. I stood to gain quite a bit by it coming back! [laughs] So, I had everything to gain.

Right. Now, one thing that happens with successful shows, and it seems to happen even more so with successful serialized dramas like "Heroes," is the creator of the show becomes very much in demand and suddenly he or she leaves the show to create a new show, which often kills the original show. With that in mind, considering your envious position right now, is there any chance you'll leave "Heroes" in the near future?

No, not in the foreseeable future. We just have branched into a new spin-off, "Origins," that's really like a whole new kind of animal. Hopefully that will be something that takes off and will allow us to broaden the franchise a bit. So, I'm still here and plan to stay here.

Now, in terms of what you said earlier about a show loosing its way when a creator leaves it, I would love nothing more than for people to think I was the sole creative spirit behind this show, but that's really not true. There's a true collaborative spirit on "Heroes." I realized very early on the only way to mount a show that was this gargantuan and this complicated was to get into the row boat with like-minded and creative people and all try to row in the same direction. So, I've surrounded myself with so many brilliant writers and creative directors. Real visionaries. A lot of my show running style is to delegate quite a bit and I really feel like there is a kind of collective brain that starts to form when you give up the reigns a little bit. The sum of the parts is really much greater than what I could bring to it by myself. You know a show like this couldn't be done like a David E. Kelley show ["Boston Legal," "The Practice," "Alley McBeal"] where you write every episode yourself. It's logistically not that kind of show. The system we have is, really, I think it has sort of fail safes built in. So, if I fell off a cliff tomorrow, I think the show could still maintain its creative spirit. What I bring to it is hard for me to know because I'm in a million different meetings and write and edit, so those sensibilities get layered on top of it constantly. I think it's really for someone else to say what I bring to it, but I do know it's not one of those situations where it's not one guy doing everything.

Let's talk for a bit about the finale. First off, in these final three episodes some very big things happened. Numerous characters died, numerous characters stepped up to the plate. Old questions were answered and new answers were posed. Obviously you had all been working towards this conclusion, something very close to this ending, but how much of this final episode changed before you arrived there? For instance, did you ever have another ending planned for season one?

No, in fact it's pretty much the opposite of what you're asking.

How so?

The final episode was so pre-determined by the events that came before it that writing it was a very complicated thing. We were just talking about this in the writers room before you called as we were doing a post-mortem on the show following watching it on the air last night and talking about what we don't want to duplicate and what we do want to duplicate in the future. The writing of this particular episode was extremely difficult because in some ways, for me it was more like taking dictation than writing an episode of television. Everything was so slotted in. You were dragging so much story behind you that you had very little wiggle room as to what people could say and how they could say it and what their attitudes were. It was all pre-determined. We looked at the last three episodes as kind of one big movie starting with episode #21, following our departure episode where we went five years in to the future. The final three episodes really are just one big episode.

The stories in this final run were broken a couple of months ago and we slotted almost everything into it. The idea of the flash back or the dream sequence of Peter going back to the rooftop and seeing himself in the finale is maybe the one piece that was added later. It was determined that the story had become such a freight train that you needed something to help you breathe and I also felt very strongly that the message of the show had to be imparted by one of the characters, so that scene delivered that message.

Plus, it was great to have Richard Roundtree back.

Exactly!

Tim Sale's artwork graced pages of the "Heroes" pilot script.
One of the things we saw in the finale was the return of the cockroach. I've got a copy of the pilot script that includes those wonderful sketches by Tim Sale of cockroaches kind of taking over the page. It was nice to see that paid off a bit when the cockroach was crawling around on the manhole cover in the finale. Is there anything you can reveal about the significance of cockroaches in "Heroes?"

Well, because I was dealing with an evolutionary theme, I became fascinated with this factoid I read about cockroaches being possibly the pinnacle of evolution because they were so capable of adapting and existing in really troubled times. Throughout all the various ice ages and climate changes and meteors hitting the earth, the cockroach just basically kept surviving and doing so beautifully. They are so perfectly genetically engineered. So, for me, it became the embodiment of this idea of evolution. It harkened back to the original speech that Suresh gives at the top of the pilot when he was talking about this exact idea. It was very important to me to make this last episode feel like a book end to the pilot. So, if you noticed, I started with the exact same narration, we went back to the actual music queues that were used in the pilot. They were woven through at the very begining, they were woven into the scene with Richard Roundtree and were woven into the final moments with Claire and her Father, the exact theme that was used at the top of the pilot. And going back to the Eclipse as well. This was all my way of telling the audience this was all of a piece and there was a plan here. That this, as a volume, was a complete volume and to help people feel like they finished the first novel in this continues saga.

And there's also the juxtaposition between the survivability of cockroaches and the possible survival of Sylar as he may have dragged himself down that manhole.

Right. It's talked about in the very beginning of the pilot. One of the lines was that a cockroach could remain alive headless for weeks at a time, which a cockroach can do - a fact I always found amazing! [laughs] So, this idea that we just watched this guy die and clearly somehow dragged himself into a manhole is exactly the signal that perhaps this character is still alive.

Shows grow organically over time and that's certainly been the case with "Heroes." HRG went from being a guest star to a regular and critical character in the series. Mohinder de-aged and became the original character's son. Can you give us a peak behind the curtain of things that might have been if - and excuse me for borrowing a phrase from the writers room - if Tim Kring-Prime hadn't made the decisions he did?

Well, the most obvious would be the advent of this terrorist story that was woven into the original pilot. The bomb that ultimately goes off or is prevented from going off in New York was actually attached to a terrorist story and at the heart of that terrorist story was a very sympathetic character, a middle-eastern engineer. A young, very brilliant engineer who had become disillusioned and disenfranchised and finds himself involved with a terrorist cell and is basically the architect of the bomb. That character could actually generate and emit a tremendous amount of radioactivity through his hands. That character became Ted on our show once we moved away from the terrorist story. The terrorist story was actually shot and beautifully finished, but it never saw the light of day. It didn't make it past the screenings at the network. That entire storyline would have been an extremely different story. In retrospect, I am fairly relieved it went away. Now, at the time, I had to replace it with a story that I didn't know what it would be, I had to come up with entirely new stuff after having already worked it out, but in time I came to be relieved that I wouldn't be living with a terrorist story every day of my life. You take a lot of this stuff home with you every night and I'm glad not to be taking that home.

Especially in today's day and age.

In the "Tim Kring Cut" of the original pilot, Matt Parkman (Greg Grunberg) had an entirely different origin and Ted Sprague (Matthew John Armstrong) wasn't even a character in the show.
Exactly and my whole thing was I thought it would be a relevant story and a relevant story to deal with some of the complexities of the issue by having a character who you felt very ambivalent about because you understood him and felt for him. It was built into a redemption story. He would have been the one who helped stop this from happening. Again, it was part of the theme to try and depict people from different parts of the world in positive ways. That's the one thing I can definitely point to.

And that sequence will end up on the DVD collection?

Yes, it'll be in the uncut 72 minute pilot, what they're calling the "Tim Kring Cut." And it actually is the reason why Greg Grunberg's character, Matt Parkman, wasn't introduced in the pilot because his character was actually attached to that story. So, when we cut that story out we had to cut his story as well and find an entirely new way to introduce him, which I don't feel was done nearly as elegantly as I would have liked. We backed into some really complicated stuff to introduce Greg's character.

Ultimately it all worked out for the best it seems.

Ultimately, yes, and I don't know that the audience noticed, but we really struggled with … oh, Can I put you on hold for two seconds? Two seconds!

Ahh, sure!

What could have pulled Tim Kring away from the phone so suddenly? Was there a crisis in the writers room? Is Hiro lost in time forever? Or is Tim Kring bending time? Find out tomorrow in part two of this interview where Kring discusses what the possibility of a writers strike means to "Heroes," the many opportunities "Heroes: Origins" presents for the show, the tight relationship of the writing staff and how "Heroes" made Kring an even cooler dad in the eyes of his children.

Discuss this story here on CBR's TV/Film Forum.

 
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