Alias writers address potential reboot — plus other highlights from their ATX panel
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Will Alias be the next show to get the reboot treatment?
The Alias writers room reunited at the ATX Festival on Saturday, where they addressed the increasingly popular question head-on. After all, the series ended with Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) and Michael Vaughn’s (Michael Vartan) daughter Isabelle exhibiting similar abilities to the ones that first marked Sydney as a candidate for the CIA in her youth — a seemingly perfect setup for a revival.
“It would be amazing to do it; we’ve even talked with J.J. [Abrams],” co-executive producer Josh Appelbaum said during the panel, which was moderated by EW’s Sara Vilkomerson. “The right idea would have to come. We wouldn’t want to do it unless it was absolutely perfect.”
Appelbaum was joined by fellow writers and executive producers Ken Olin, Sarah Caplan, André Nemec, and Monica Owusu-Breen to dish on the famous red wig, memorable guest stars, and Sloane’s grim fate. Here are the highlights:
The real heart of Alias
The writers all concur that Garner was an amazing leading lady. “Everything was done with enthusiasm, generosity, and warmth,” Olin says, explaining that Garner insisted on doing her own stunts in the early seasons. “She was like a professional athlete. She was phenomenal… She had a great stunt double, but she wanted to do everything. She loved doing the stunts. Everything you could throw at her.”
The birth of the red wig
After struggling to find the right shade of red — they had three options, none of which worked — Caplan and Abrams had been scouting at UCLA and ran into a woman with what Caplan called “badly dyed hair” that was blonde on top, but red underneath. “I go to the girl, ‘Would you mind, can I take a little snippet of the bottom of your hair?'” Caplan says. “‘We’re looking for this certain color. The director thinks yours is the perfect color.’ She looks at me and she goes, ‘No.’ I said, ‘Really? Why not?’ ‘Well, I’ve grown this hair and that hair has been with me for 14 years.’ ‘I only want a few hairs. Well, we’ll pay you for the little bit of hair.’ By now she’s sitting down with her friends. She’s very smart. Finally, she agrees that we can buy a little bit of the hair. I don’t have any money on me, J.J. doesn’t have any money on him, so I wrestle $39 off various members of the crew.”
The Rambaldi effect
The driving force behind the show was the mystery behind Milo Giacomo Rambaldi, a 15th-century philosopher whose artifacts eventually granted eternal life — if not also convoluted storytelling. “I feel like someone did have a chart of Rambaldi,” Owusu-Breen says. “We had a basic sense of it, but Rambaldi was this onion to be unpeeled.” New ideas for the story unfolded along the way, explains Nemec, like the reveal that Michael Vaughn was not Vartan’s character’s real name. The key was making sure the story was plausible. “Has this lie been appropriately told through all the episodes?” Nemec says. “That was a chore when we were in the room.” For Caplan, the biggest challenges were the actual Rambled devices. “We had such a problem with the spinning tomatoes, we called it,” Caplan says. “‘What is it, J.J.? Help us figure out how to make it!’ It was quite complicated. We did that effect many times. It was never quite right. I didn’t realize it was going to be the thing that followed me for several years. I could not explain it to you in the slightest.”
Though that mystery drove most of the story, Appelbaum says they “first and foremost looked at the show as a family drama.” “The real hard question was, How are we moving her forward as a character, how are we playing with this complicated family dynamic?” Thankfully, that proved easy, as the on-screen chemistry was palpable among the cast. “They were so close in real life,” Appelbaum says of Garner and her on-screen father Victor Garber. “They were in love with each other off-camera and we knew that would translate on.” Olin, meanwhile, noted how incredible Bradley Cooper was. “One of the things with Bradley was realizing his sense of humor was fantastic,” Olin says. “Some of that was written to a little more.”
Writing in a post-9/11 world
The show was actually filming an episode on Sept. 11, 2001, giving the writers pause on how to move forward. “It was a cosmic shift in the way all of us lived,” Olin says. “I was shooting an episode with Sydney wearing a hood holding a bomb in her hand. The show was done always with a sense of humor. If we lost that sense of humor, we were losing the fundamental tone of the show. It took some time. Is this show even appropriate now? We got through it. It was strange then, but everything was strange.”
The famous Super Bowl episode
In truth, the memorable scene of a lingerie-clad Sydney Bristow was not the original plan for the post-football hour. “We shot another show that was going to be that show,” says Caplan, who explains the episode originally slated in that slot was the one starring Ethan Hawke. “When we were making it, we were like, ‘J.J., this is a really dark show.’ ‘No, this is going to be fine.’ He takes it home to show his wife, ‘That’s a very dark show.'” Hence, the hour was changed, giving everyone on the crew and post-production less than a week to turn it around. But the infamous Francie moment at the end of the hour was moved from the Ethan Hawke episode into the post-Super Bowl hour.
A new slate
The aftermath of the game-changing Super Bowl episode essentially gave the writers license to go in new directions. “When we did come onto the show, that Super Bowl episode and the way that it blew up the show, it inspired the writers room in a sense that we always knew at any moment we could turn the show on its head,” Appelbaum says. “There were another two or three times we followed that path.” Owusu-Breen adds: “The willingness to start over, to radically shift the show, J.J. was fearless that way. How do we make the show with an entirely different world and an entirely different situation?”
Francie doesn’t like coffee ice cream
The line (and reveal that Francie had been replaced by a doppelgänger) was one of the bigger twists in the show’s history. “That’s a killer moment. That’s a crazy good moment because it’s subtle and specific and a good roommate would know that,” says Owusu-Breen, who wasn’t on the show yet when it happened. And though the series went through many game-changing twists like that, the writers insist the cast never got angry or fought them; it was more about taking it out so they could understand what was happening. That was never more prevalent than when Garner read the script with the Michael Vaughn name reveal. “I don’t think we did tell anybody [in advance],” Appelbaum says. “I remember the door of the writers room bursting open and Jen standing there like, ‘Are you guys kidding me? Are you serious?’ That was half the fun.” However, Owusu-Breen notes: “The DNA of the show was being an alias, being a different person, lying about who you are, so I feel like it’s fair game.”
Amazing guest stars
Alias was able to attract a stellar guest star cast — including Quentin Tarantino, Angela Bassett, and Faye Dunaway — thanks, in part, to J.J. Abrams. “It was who J.J. wanted to meet,” jokes Appelbaum, who says Abrams got obsessed with the British version of The Office and that’s why they wrote a part for Ricky Gervais. “Usually on TV shows, you’d say, ‘So it’s like an Angela Bassett type or a Quentin Tarantino type,’ but then it was actually them.” One star they weren’t able to get back for the final season was Lena Olin, who didn’t return in a full capacity as Sydney’s mother Irina Derevko. “She didn’t want to commit,” Caplan says. “It was very difficult to get her on the show, but once she was there, she was happy as a clam. She was really lovely to work with. It was so hard to get her each time to come. She was coming from upstate New York.”
There was an idea for a season finale cliffhanger where Sydney, Jack, and Vaughn were mountain climbing, and Sydney would’ve had to choose between saving Jack or Vaughn’s life, but the idea leaked and they had to change it. As for a possible spinoff, the idea never seemed right. “At the time, it felt like if it wasn’t Jen, it wasn’t Alias,” Appelbaum says.
Alias‘ leading lady being pregnant provided a new challenge for the writers, but in surprising ways. “Will Sydney Bristow go on missions if she was pregnant; would she take those risks?” Owusu-Breen posits. Olin recalls that challenge really speaking to a series-long mantra. “One of the things that was so special about the show was that as we approached it at the beginning, [it was never]: Would you send a woman to do this job?” he says. “That’s why it was so empowering. Absolutely Sydney was going to go do it, and that’s the world they lived in. The first time we had to deal with that was, ‘Okay, she’s pregnant,’ and that changed it. This chick is badass, but wait a minute, she has to consider it.”
The final season
With Garner’s pregnancy in mind, the writers went into season 5 knowing it would be the final season. “Jennifer was a huge star,” Olin says. “She was now in her 30s and she really wanted a family. Jennifer, after five years, her contract was up and it was clear she needed this time to have her children and it seemed right. We had burned through so much story. It had a natural course.” But finding the perfect ending proved difficult. The goal was to give Sydney her life back. “How do we resolve this story of a woman whose life had been ripped away from her and was out of control, to be able to give her that control back?” Nemec says. “If she could move on, then we felt the audience could move on.” As for closing out the Rambaldi story, there were weeks and weeks of debate, but once the idea for Sloane’s grim fate came up, they knew it was right. “Everybody got so excited,” Appelbaum says. “He gets eternal life, but he’s buried alive. Check, please.”