Sam Neill, Jorge Garcia and Sarah Jones go to prison for ‘Alcatraz’ premiere

The premiere for Fox’s highly anticipated mid-season drama “Alcatraz” was held in an unusual, but perfectly suitable, place — Alcatraz itself.

The stars of the J.J. Abrams-produced drama — including Sam Neill, Jorge Garcia, Sarah Jones and Robert Forster — returned to The Rock to walk the red carpet (in the prison’s dank shower room), wine and dine (in the same mess hall used by legendary crooks like Al Capone and “Machine Gun” Kelly), and watch the pilot episode in Cell Block D, with all the creepy empty cells overlooking the SRO crowd.

With a number of scenes in the pilot being filmed on Alcatraz Island (the rest of the show is filmed in Vancouver, including a set that replicates the island prison), the venue was ideal for the screening, and the historically rich corridors and isolated location added to the show’s ominous tone. As Executive Producer Jack Bender put it, “It’s certainly a very unique way to send off a very unique show.” After being ferried over, guests were issued facsimile “Institution rules and regulations” handouts and were glared at by the faux warden, while the setting allowed Garcia to mug for photographers from behind bars. Prison-themed tunes played during dinner and party goers were given the chance to sit for vintage-looking mugshots.

Forster recalled the prison’s dark presence when it was still in operation (a former military barracks, it housed jailbirds from the early 1930s until ’63). Alcatraz was seen as the worst place to be sent. “If we ever didn’t want to go to prison, it was especially [important to] not go to prison here,” he noted.

As for the show itself: In 1963, all the violent inmates suddenly vanish from the infamous island prison in the SF bay. They start showing up in present-day San Fran, and are hunted down one-by-one by young SFPD detective Rebecca Madsen (Jones), the world’s preeminent Alcatraz expert, Diego Soto (Garcia) and a hard-nosed fed named Emerson Hauser, played by Sam Neill, who has a special connection to Alcatraz in his past. They also need to figure out just how this time-traveling phenomenon occurred — and who’s behind it. The show bounces back and forth between life in ’60s Alcatraz and the present day.

In typical Abrams fashion, “Alcatraz” freely mixes genres and styles and, at least according to the new pilot, ends up resembling what more than one guest was overheard calling “‘CSI’-meets-‘X-Files.'” The show wants to have its cake and eat it too; while “Alcatraz” will consist of stand-alone procedural episodes, the storylines will also serve a greater mythology (although one not nearly as complex as those other Abrams shows, “Lost” and “Fringe”) that involves Rebecca’s family, including her helpful Uncle Ray (Forster), who was a prison guard when the inmates disappeared. Parminder Nagra (“ER”) further expands the cast, as a federal techie allied with Hauser.

While each episode will feature a different time-traveling escapee, several cast members hinted that incarceration or even death don’t necessarily mean the end. Jeffrey Pierce, who plays the pilot’s sympathetic villain, divulged “I reappear, but to what extent I’m not allowed to say.” The second episode’s heavy, Joe Egender, likewise played it safe when he noted that he’ll “possibly” return. He touched on a frequent subject of the evening by adding, “Given that this is from the creators of ‘Lost,’ they keep us in the dark as much as they keep you in the dark.”

Co-lead Garcia elaborated on the inherent fun of not knowing exactly where his character is going. “I love getting to fill in the blanks myself and then getting contradictory information later” he said. “I enjoy when there’s contradiction in people, and that makes the characters real.” He’s been through it before, of course, as part of “Lost,” but that fact doesn’t make him privy to what the writers are planning. When asked how far ahead he knows the direction of the plot, he deadpanned, “We just started episode nine today, so…eight episodes.”

Forster echoed the sentiment by adding, “There are only little bits and pieces that I’m certain of. My own speculations? I won’t even make them.”

The show will flirt with historical fact, but stay true to its fantasy origins by making up its own rogues gallery. “We’re playing it very real in terms of life at Alcatraz and what the inmates went through here,” explained Bender. “But, as of now, we aren’t planning any real life Al Capones or Machine Gun Kellys. We’re coming up with our own fictitious, horrible, crazy-ass killers. But occasionally we will have some of those other guys wander through. You never know…”

The pilot’s escapee (Pierce) has a sympathetic backstory, but the actor doesn’t think that will be par for the course. “The villains that we’re gonna see are some of the darkest of the dark,” Pierce revealed. “And there are some brutal moments in the first handful of episodes.” Jason Butler Harner, who plays the ambitious assistant warden in the flashbacks, stressed the idea of Alcatraz being home to the most dangerous criminals of the era. “Horrible crimes are horrible crimes,” he offered, “but when you see what some of the criminals (in Alcatraz) did, it’s terrifying.”

Though it hasn’t even debuted yet, fans are already expecting the unexpected of the show. Depending on a number of factors, “Alcatraz” could spin off into many directions. Like Garcia, Neill finds that on-set unpredictability to be part of the fun. “I think they’re [the writers] are thinking years ahead, but at the same time, they’re thinking about tomorrow.”

Following a showrunner shakeup, the pilot and several subsequent episodes went through extensive re-shoots after initial screenings, mostly adding backstory to Jones’ cop character. Neill spoke optimistically of the tweaking, judiciously adding, “there’s always the odd rough bit that needs sand-papering down.” While most of the re-shoots involved the present day scenes, with little changes being made to the prison flashbacks, Neill stated, “Very little of my stuff was re-shot.” Jones’ character, on the other hand, was the main focus of the re-shoot. She welcomed the new material, saying, “the more I get to explore Rebecca outside of her work, the better I feel and the more confident I feel in playing her.”

Fans may be wary after some of the meandering turns that “Lost” took, often bringing up too many unanswered questions, but they procedural-mythology hybrid that “Alcatraz” is attempting may quell concerns.
“The mythology is certainly what’s appealing to me as an actor,” Jones revealed. “However, they do a great job with the stories you see every week. They’re just as intriguing as the entire story, if you will, of the season.” She assured that the creative minds behind “Alcatraz” have a definite vision and endpoint in mind, explaining that they wrote a story bible to assure Fox that they knew where it was all headed. “Fox wouldn’t have picked it up if they didn’t,” laughed Jones.
The two-hour series premiere of “Alcatraz” airs on Monday, January 16 at 8 pm ET/PT on Fox. It will then move to its regular 9 pm timeslot.