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Robert J Sawyer talks 'FlashForward'

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It's almost time for the big moment on FlashForward. The show is fast approaching the point which the future visions relate to, in the process answering many questions that are still left hanging: Will Mark meet his maker? Will Olivia be in bed with a topless Lloyd? And will Assistant Director Wedeck really be... umm... using the toilet? Eager to find out more about the show's future, we called up Robert J Sawyer - author of the original novel and writer of the next episode - in the hope of getting a flashforward of our own.

You were originally due to write episode 17 but it's now episode 19. Why the change?
"It's not that the episode changed, it's that as we started getting closer to the end of the season, the order in which events needed to happen was shuffled, so it made more sense for what happened in my episode to happen in 19. Also Alex Kingston who plays Fiona Banks, our Scotland Yard agent who was introduced in the pilot, figures in my episode. Because she's a guest star, not a regular player, we had to work around her availability."

Has you writing an episode been on the cards for a while?
"Oh, it was part of the deal. When I sold the book to ABC here was the deal: one, it's based on my novel; two, I get consulted on every episode; three, I get to write one of the episodes. It was negotiated from the outset. That said David Goyer [head writer] was very supportive of having me write an episode from the beginning."

Is your episode particularly significant in terms of story, then?
"I think so. The episode is called 'Course Correction'. We've had eighteen hours of FlashForward with a variety of different approaches to what the question of fate and free will means. We even had a character recently say 'It's not fate versus free will, it's fate and free will.' As we home in on the story date of April 29, the date everybody saw in their flashforwards, I took the position that we really had to have a course correction. It's time to make a statement about whether fate or free will really controls our destiny and make it clearer which side of the debate we were going to come down on in our concluding episodes. Also, this episode starts by flashing back to the day of the blackout at NALAT, our fictitious particle accelerator facility in California that was responsible for causing the blackout. In the sense of bringing the particle physicist characters, who were the main characters of my novel, front and centre of the action for this episode it was obvious to David Goyer that that was where my talents would be most appropriately applied."

It's great that you've introduced more flashbacks recently...
"I totally agree with you. We had a staff writer who was very bright, very intelligent and wrote some of our best episodes but who was Mister Anti-flashback! He would argue vociferously in the writers room 'No flashbacks - it's confusing enough with flashforwards!' He argued his point well but what Lost taught us is that an audience can very easily follow flashforwards, flashbackwards and flashsideways without getting hopelessly confused. But it was loggerheads amongst the writers over whether we would go back much to the events the day the global blackouts occurred or the events leading up to that date. Ultimately the sentiment that prevailed was that it's a series about the non-linear nature of time and that gives us licence to go back and forth as the dramatic possibilities require. We've been doing more of that of late. We had a lovely moment a couple of weeks ago where we were able to bring back Agent Al Gough, who was the guy who had jumped off the FBI building and shown the future was malleable. To be able to bring him back in the flashback, even briefly - it was heartrending to see him alive again and that's part of the beauty of being able to play with the nature of time."

What happens in your episode in terms of character?
"We're at the point in the storyline where we're trying to wrap up as many things as possible - it's episode 19 and we're only doing 22 this season. We're days before April 29 in storyline now and there's a checklist of storylines that had to be wrapped up before we got to the last day of the show. One of the things is the blue hand club and those people who didn't have visions. It looks like somebody has taken it into their own mind to eliminate these people who might live beyond their expiration date. The storyline deals significantly with this character who is setting out to make his own version of the course correction and make sure that the timeline that was foreseen is the timeline that happens, by and large."

Oh dear. Is that bad news for Demetri?
"Let's just say that John Cho's woes as Agent Noh - how many rhymes can I get into this sentence? - have not yet come to an end. Just because he lived past March 15 doesn't mean everybody thinks he should have lived past March 15."

You mentioned Alex Kingston is coming back. How much of a part does she have in this episode?
"She's a major guest star, it's not a cameo."

I assume you'd like to have her on the show full-time?
"She's absolutely wonderful. I'm a Canadian, you're a Brit and FlashForward the novel was set at CERN which is a massive multinational physics facility. One of the things that ABC did when they made the series was reduce the international focus. Yes, we've been to Somalia, to Afghanistan and to Japan but we have not really seen the international character of the blackouts. In the pilot Alex was our New Scotland Yard character and every time we bring in an international perspective on this we do way better. It was what made FlashForward special at the outset - it was the first time anyone had tried to deal with an instantaneous global event. World War II wasn't an instantaneous event, it took the United States years to enter the fray, 9/11 affected New York but the ripples took weeks, months and years to spread worldwide. We had something that affected all six billion people on the planet simultaneously and we told the story that for a large part of our first season was focused very much on a couple of buildings in Los Angeles. We lost a lot of that international focus so every time we can bring in a character from outside the United States I'm happy and to bring somebody of Alex's standing and give her a meaty part to play - it delights me no end!"

What's always amused me though is that most of the principal cast are British!
"It is amusing and we only have one of them who uses his British accent, Jack Davenport. Joe [Fiennes] seems to manage his accent best when he's growling whereas Sonya Walger - people are stunned if they ever hear Sonya's lovely British accent because she's absolutely flawless. It was never set out to be done this way, with all these people using fake voices on our show, it's just a coincidence with who happened to do the best auditions."

The first season is winding down yet you're still introducing a lot of new mysteries, like the blackboard and the suggestion of what might happen in 2016. How much is going to be resolved this season?
"Within two weeks ABC will announce whether or not we are picked up for another season. We've closed principal photography and all the actors have been scattered hither and yon to do whatever they're going to do over the summer, so we filmed a variety of versions of things to do with the final episode. If we are not coming back - we fervently hope we are - then we're prepared in the editing room to provide an awful lot of closure in the final episode. We don't want to go out as one of those shows that left everybody hanging. If we are coming back it behooves us to have been planting seeds that will give us things to play with in the subsequent seasons. Those seeds are starting to sprout. You already see them in the episodes that have been airing to date and you'll see more of them in the episode I'm writing. The exact cut of what the final episode is going to look like will depend an awful lot on whether we're going to be back or not but we're prepared for both eventualities. Of course the best possible answer is that we come back - we've got a lot more story to tell."

What are the chances of a second season at this point?
"It's very interesting. Our numbers for the American marketplace are right on the cusp. If our ratings were a little bit better, another half million viewers - not a lot of people out of the 300 million people in the United States - I think we would be a clear renew for another season. If we were half a million less we would be a clear cancellation. But internationally we were the fastest-selling show in [ABC owner] Disney's history. Over a hundred markets sold as soon as we went on. We're very successful in a lot of international markets and that makes the show more profitable than its American numbers would make it seem at first blush. Also, because ABC Studios - a wholly owned division of Disney - makes the show for ABC network - another wholly owned division of Disney - there are certain economies there that wouldn't be there if ABC the network was buying the show from another studio, so even though we're a very expensive show our economic bottom line is better than it might appear at first glance. All of that is a preamble to saying I think it's a coin toss. I think we've got a 50/50 shot of coming back next season."

Do you find out on the day of the Upfronts or just before?
"They might let us know a few days before but they're under no obligation to let me or anybody else know in advance. I will know the minute anyone on the inside knows, but look at it from ABC's point of view. We're on tenterhooks and it's cruel in some ways to not let us know, but they're trying to sell the advertising time for the remaining episodes of the series. If they come out and say 'We're not renewing it for another year' that's tantamount to saying that in some way the show was not a success. That sends a message to the audience to not tune in and sends a message to the advertisers that maybe they shouldn't be charging as much for the final hours of the series, so while ABC is still selling ad time in the show they've got no incentive whatsoever to come out and say anything that gives a negative patina to the remaining weeks. We've resigned ourselves to them waiting till the last possible minute. Also we'll have an episode air on Thursday 13, the ratings come in on Friday 14 and they announce on Monday 17. It's a $100 million decision to bring us back for another season or not, so why would you not wait until you had the last possible bit of data to make that decision? They'll get the ratings at 9am PT the next day and their analysts and programming people will spend all day Friday banging their heads, looking at the numbers and deciding whether they look good, then they'll announce it the next business day, which is Monday. I don't think realistically we can expect a decision any earlier."

Has there been any pressure to write a sequel to your FlashForward novel?
"You mean another book? Yes, absolutely. My Hollywood agent has been thinking it's a great idea for there to be a FlashForward sequel and we reserved the rights for me to write another novel when we sold the rights to this one. We've been talking about ways in which that might materialise. Basically it makes a lot of sense if we're picked up for another season and less sense if we're not. Certainly there are lots of interesting ideas for what I could do with another FlashForward book that we've been batting around. Also I've been giving my input and ideas for what we might do for the second and subsequent seasons of the TV show."

You're in the middle of a trilogy of novels at the moment...
"I'm finishing it today! This is my goal for the rest of the day - tomorrow is the deadline and I'm doing my final tweaks and edits today. I could have turned it in a month ago, had I had to do so, but I had the luxury of it not being due yet so you spend as long as you can polishing, getting people to read it and give you feedback and seeing if the pieces work. The second book, Watch, is out now. The reviews have been great for both books and the first, Wake, is up for the Hugo awards - the top international science-fiction prize. Most people who have read the manuscript for Wonder think it's a worthy conclusion to the whole enterprise."

Without giving too much away, could you tell us about how the trilogy develops in Wonder?
"Well, the first book was basically the character of Caitlin discovering that this great global consciousness existed, the second was this consciousness coming out to the whole wide world, then the third book is the attempt to find whether humanity can survive with liberty, dignity and individuality intact in the face of a superhuman intelligence."

Is there any interest in turning that trilogy into a TV series?
"Yes, but we haven't yet done a deal. One gets a bit picky after having the success of something like FlashForward! We've been waiting for an appropriately grand scale approach for this trilogy. I do have two theatrical motion pictures in the works based on two of my other properties and two television miniseries in the works. Certainly the success of FlashForward has moved both of those projects forward quite a bit. We haven't yet done a deal on Wake, Watch and Wonder but there has been interest."

FlashForward continues Thursday at 8pm on ABC in the US and Monday at 9pm on Five in the UK.

Additional reporting by Philippa Warr

Will you be upset if FlashForward doesn't get a second season? Would you be interested in a follow-up novel? Add your comments to this entry below!

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