J.J. Abrams created a green screen and put characters “dancing on a margarine can inside a little refrigerator,” Alias producer Sarah Caplan said during a panel discussion at the ATX Television Festival. This was the story of the birth of the Alias pilot–a piece of television that would go on to bust through existing small screen norms and launch the career of Abrams – currently lauded as one of TV and film’s most imaginative minds.
A group of the show’s writers reconvened at ATX for a panel entitled Alias Writers Room Reunion, discussing how they handled the outlandish and unrestrained imagination of Abrams, while keeping together an incredibly complex story.
Caplan was first inspired to join forces with Abrams on the Alias pilot after seeing him, “doing things with little model cars,” she said. “I thought, ‘Oh that’s interesting.’ I was supposed to do something on a different show, but then I said, ‘I’d like to do that.’”
The show, which would run for five seasons and 105 episodes, centered around the life and adventures of Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner), a double agent for the CIA. Bristow spoke multiple languages, performed acrobatics and several martial arts, and could hide in plain sight outsmarting anyone.
Actually making the pilot would prove to be an extreme experience. “He had a very clear idea of what he wanted,” Caplan said. “I had the good fortune to have done a little bit of a special effects on a show before called The Others, so I had a bit of a concept on what needed to be done.” She also benefited from the presence of “Tommy Fisher, who was the special effects guy on Titanic,” she said. The atmosphere was one of major multi-tasking. “J.J. would be giving the notes to the editor, writing the music and doing the graphics on the other computer, while a couple of us would be painting out the cables that held Jennifer up as she climbed the wall.”
Ken Olin said of working on the show, “We just really were trying to get through it, it was so complicated. This was the first time I think probably in television that a writer and creator had come in like J.J. and said, ‘I’m going to write whatever story I want. I’m not going to be restrained by your preconceived notions of what can or cannot be accomplished on a television budget.’” Olin added, “I thought it was the best television pilot I’d ever seen. It had this incredible sense of humor, this incredible cast…He’s writing heart surgery, explosions….an indoor pool with karate sessions. I’d never even seen a film like this.”
Despite the demands of making the show, everyone was 100 percent on board with making Abrams’ vision a reality. “J.J. would say, ‘This is why I got into television.’ J.J.’s this sweet guy, how can you deny little J.J. what he wants?” Olin laughed. “He’s a visionary that way. Now people are doing it, but [back] then people were not doing this. That level of imagination, it was just unbridled, but you know, it was fun, it was really, really fun.” Olin wasn’t the only one who couldn’t refuse Abrams. “It’s very hard to say no to JJ, it just is,” he said. “One of the execs would say, ‘Don’t let J.J. come in here because I can’t say no to him.’”
As for keeping the show’s throughline consistent through all those twists and turns and action sequences, Josh Applebaum said, “We first and foremost looked at the show as a family drama.” But the subplots were sometimes incredibly convoluted, such as with the Rambaldi family of spies. “Often we would talk about, ‘What’s the spy story?’” Applebaum said. “We would put that up on the board, and that almost came easiest, but the hard part was, ‘How are we moving her forward with the story?’”
Garner, Olin said, “did everything. She had a great great stunt double but she wanted to do everything, she wanted to do the stunts, she loved the languages, anything you could throw at her…she was doing stunts, these amazing action scenes, and emotional scenes–her character was very vulnerable–and she was learning Mandarin Chinese,” he said. “I mean we broke her eventually.”
One example of Abrams’ dedication to his vision was the lengths he went to to find the correct shade of red for Sydney’s hair at the beginning. “We had three red hair wigs and none of them were good enough,” Caplan said. “He said, ‘It’s not the right red.’ We were out scouting at UCLA and this girl walked by with really badly-dyed red hair…I went to the girl and said, ‘Would you mind? It’s kind of a weird request, but can I have a little snippet from the bottom of your hair? She looks at me and she goes, ‘No.’” Caplan laughed. Finally the girl agreed Caplan could pay her for a little piece of her hair. “I don’t have any money with me,” Caplan said, “so I rustle up $39 from various members of the crew and I’m allowed to take a tiny little sample.”
Knowing it was time to wind up the show came almost organically. “It felt like it was time to let Sydney get her life back,” Andre Nemec said. Olin added, “Jennifer was a huge star, and Jennifer was now in her 30s and she really wanted a family…after five years her contract was up and it was clear that she wanted time to have her children.”
Would a reboot ever be considered? “We were talking about this before,” Applebaum said. “It would be amazing to do it but the right idea would have to come.”