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Behind the Scenes Article

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January 28, 2007
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Behind the Scenes With Heroes Creator Tim Kring and "Hiro," Masi Oka
David Kushner from Wired magazine Email 04.23.07 | 2:00 AM

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Tim Kring doesn't know Magneto from Wolverine. You'd never know it from watching Heroes, his hit show about everyday people with extraordinary powers.

Tim Kring has never been much into comic books. As a kid growing up in Santa Maria, California, he was more into running track and playing acoustic guitar. "The idea of the dialog bubbles always bothered me," he says. (That's a major tip-off - a true comics fan knows those things are called speech balloons.)

As an adult, Kring found success as a writer and creator of mainstream TV dramas - Chicago Hope and Providence in the 1990s, Crossing Jordan in 2001. His only brush with geekdom was when, at the age of 24, he sold his first script to the so-lame-it's-cool show Knight Rider.

Now, lo and behold, he's television's lord of the geeks. Kring is the creator of Heroes, the Monday night NBC drama that's one of the few breakout hits of the 2006-07 season. It regularly scores 15 million viewers and ranks in the Nielsen top 20. So how does a guy who doesn't know Magneto from Wolverine find himself running a smash show about ordinary people who suddenly and inexplicably develop amazing superpowers?

In today's increasingly splintered TV landscape, a successful series has to cater to multiple audiences, and Heroes is both a mass-market success and a cult hit. But other TV creators who bridged the mass/niche divide - Lost's JJ Abrams, Ron Moore of Battlestar Galactica, Joss Whedon of Buffy the Vampire Slayer - were intimately familiar with the sci-fi and horror genres they were reinventing. Kring? Not so much. He freely admits that his show was partly an attempt to recreate the success of Lost, which explains why Heroes follows a similar formula: a dozen central characters, a touch of the supernatural, and an overarching mystery with clues dribbled out gradually.

To compensate for his ignorance of the superfriends genre, Kring hired a team of comics-savvy writers who dubbed themselves the League of Heroic Scribblers. Kring acts as a mainstream counterbalance. The result is a show that straddles two worlds, bringing geek sensibility to the masses and mainstream TV polish to the caped-crusader crowd. It's Topic A whether you're standing around the watercooler or hanging out at a Star Trek convention. And even though Heroes may have been the product of reverse engineering, the experiment has been such a success that it may well end up surpassing other cult touchstones.

There's a framed Heroes comic book on the wall of Kring's office in the NBC building in Los Angeles. T-shirts and caps and other tie-in merchandise pack his shelves. Reports of the show's top-rated premieres in countries from Australia to Singapore form a stack on his desk. Tacked on the bulletin board is an illustration of a brawny caped crusader with Kring's mug Photoshopped in.

Lanky, with graying hair and wearing faded jeans, Kring still can't get over his success. He just returned from France, where fans accosted him to pitch new superheroes, like "a character who could make amazing wine because he could affect the weather over his tiny little plot of land."

It all started when NBC execs came to him in 2005. They were desperate to match the success of serial dramas Lost and 24, and they liked his track record, especially the police procedural Crossing Jordan, which is still popular in its sixth season. Kring looked to the zeitgeist for a concept. "I was noticing how agitated most people are about the world in general, the big issues that are really hard to fix," he says. He also saw drama in "a mild-mannered person who reveals something extraordinary you never saw coming." Those themes became the crux of Heroes.

Next, Kring surrounded himself with geeks. "I needed to know whether I was reinventing the wheel in a bogus way or a unique way," he says. So he got on his bat phone and called up the hottest comic book guys in town, like Jeph Loeb, who had been writing for Marvel and DC and scripting episodes of Smallville, a prime-time soap about a hunky teenage Superman. Loeb says that he was there "to make sure Kring wasn't crashing into the guardrails."

Kring's approach was counterintuitive to someone from a comics background, says Greg Beeman, another Smallville vet who came to Heroes as an executive producer. "I'd think, 'We need an ice guy! We need a fire guy! We need a guy who shoots rays out of his eyes!'" Beeman says. "Tim thought in terms of distinct characters." He started with a character's personal struggles and predicaments and assigned special abilities to suit. A harried single mom gets superstrength. A clock-watching Dilbert type learns to control time. A prison escapee is suddenly able to walk through walls. And when Kring's protagonists develop their powers, they don't strap on spandex and capes - they grapple with these strange developments like believable human beings. "That's the real secret of comics in the first place," Loeb says. "Peter Parker's dilemma is infinitely more interesting than Spider-Man's."

Kring and his team put together a story line about a group of nine budding heroes banding together to save the world from the "apocalyptic event" - a nuke that could obliterate New York City. When the show premiered in September, Variety wrote that it was "destined to leave a small but outspoken fan contingent grumbling next summer at Comic-Con about its cancellation." But something surprising happened. It attracted a huge, loyal audience, and it was renewed for a second season after just four months.
Masi Oka, who based Hiro's wide-eyed innocence on an anime character, wants Heroes to include more geeky references: "Sometimes I try to sneak one in there."
Photograph by Carlos Serrao

Masi Oka, who plays salaryman Hiro Nakamura on Heroes, is scarfing down baked chicken in the back of a strip club in Van Nuys, California, on a break from filming the April 30 episode. "Tim's a great barometer for people who are not into comics," Oka says. "If Tim understands it, the whole world will. The writers might geek out and come up with some time- traveling, mind-bending fifth-dimensional thing. Tim says, 'Whoa, what does that mean?'"

On the show, Oka's character is an office worker who lacks fashion sense, loves comics and videogames, and quotes Star Trek. But in a cheeky conceit, the chubby nebbish Hiro is the central hero of Heroes. And it's his geekiness that gives him an edge. Because Hiro is so well versed in the myth and lore of superheroes, he's the one with the clearest sense of what to do with his powers.

Oka himself is a geek made good. Before he pursued acting, he was a CG artist at Industrial Light & Magic, crafting f/x for films like War of the Worlds and Revenge of the Sith. (He still does occasional work for the company - no one else knows how to use the programs he coded.) His endearing performance on Heroes earned him a Golden Globe nomination for supporting actor. And for today's shoot, he's ditched his standard nerdy wardrobe for the much cooler "Future Hiro" outfit - a black tunic, soul patch, and badass samurai sword.

The episode is set five years in the future - Kring feels they've finally earned enough trust to show their audience the time- traveling, mind-bending fifth-dimensional thing. The situation is grim. The heroes were unable to prevent the apocalyptic event in New York, and it wiped out millions. Now they're being hunted and killed like terrorists. Hiro is in a Vegas strip club to deliver a vitally important message to Ali Larter's single-mom character, Niki, who in this alternate reality is reduced to making her living as a lap dancer.

Meanwhile, the League of Heroic Scribblers takes pains to keep geeks entertained. Marvel Comics luminary Stan Lee has a cameo. George Takei, Captain Sulu from the original Star Trek, plays Hiro's dad. And while the idea of a Larter striptease is appealing, the real fanboy money shot will be the episode's extended allusion to the "Days of Future Past" story line from X-Men issues 141 and 142.

Oka loves the geeky references. "Sometimes I try to sneak one in there," he says. He based Hiro's wide-eyed innocence on a character from the Dragonball anime, and he's hoping the show will include more nods to Japanese manga.

Back in his office, Kring admits that most of these allusions sail over his head. "In the writers' room, they use code I don't understand," he says. But he endorses Oka's idea of adding more manga references. Kring's not after fan service for geeks, though; he's thinking about how to broaden Heroes' appeal to the Asian market.

A modern TV creator like Kring can't think about just the next episode. He has to think about a world audience and plan several seasons out. "A big complaint for Lost was that you had to wade through too many shows before something happened," Kring says. He is committed to wrapping up story lines each season instead of sinking too deeply into a meandering mythology. "The apocalyptic event in Heroes will be resolved in season one, and we'll move on to something else in season two."

A modern TV creator also has to think outside of the boobtube. "When I pitched Heroes, I knew an important element to getting on air was how it can incorporate the Internet," he says. "I'm sort of a student of television, and it doesn't take a genius to figure out that things are changing quickly. Production costs are going up. We're losing eyeballs. We have to reach people in other ways."

Which is why Heroes has recently introduced a female character who can physically interface with the Web. She's already a featured character in the tie-in webcomic, and she guides fans through an alternate-reality game, giving them codes so they can hunt for clues on MySpace pages and blogs purportedly written by the characters. (Kring and his team of superfriends have also set up, a site with illustrations, interviews, and message boards where fans can gather to dissect the previous week's episode.) "My job has changed from being in the writing and editing room," Kring says, with some surprise, "to managing a brand." Not bad for a guy who used to write dialog for a talking car.

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