For Issue #71/72 of F*** Magazine
J(EDI) J(EDI) ABRAMS
F*** tracks the career of the man chosen to reawaken the Force
By Jedd Jong
Getting the gig to direct the first Star Wars film in ten years is at once an incredible honour and a daunting, Herculean task. After all, we’re talking about one of the most beloved, iconic film franchises in history, and one with a massive, passionate fanbase. Said fans have been burned before – once bitten, twice shy and all that. The man taking the Starfighter controls behind the scenes of Episode VII just so happens to be a huge self-confessed Star Warsfan himself. This is the voyage that the writer/director/producer embarked on which led him to that fabled galaxy far, far away.
Jeffrey Jacob “J.J.” Abrams was born in 1966 to TV producers Gerald W. Abrams and Carol Ann Abrams. This would make him 11 when the original Star Wars film was released. “11 is a great age to have your mind blown,” Abrams said at the Star Wars Celebration convention in Anaheim earlier this year. “I will never forget that feeling of seeing ‘Long time ago, in a galaxy, far, far away’ fade out. It was the first time a movie made me believe in another world that way.” He recalled that the title ‘Star Wars’ struck him as an odd one when he first came across it in the classic sci-fi culture magazine Starlog. He saw the movie on opening day, and left the theatre “never being the same again”.
At age 13, Abrams’ grandfather gave him a Super 8 camera which he used to create his own homemade movies. “I would take anyone who was available — my sister, my mother, any friends — and I would kill them in crazy ways,” he told NPR’s Fresh Air program. As a teenager, Abrams entered a short film of his into a festival showcasing Super 8mm movies made by kids. Other contestants included Matt Reeves, who would go on to direct Cloverfield and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, as well as Larry Fong, who would become the cinematographer for 300and Watchmen. Steven Spielberg read an article titled The Beardless Wonders of Film Making in the Los Angeles Times and hired Abrams and Reeves to restore and edit his own childhood 8 mm films. A couple of years later, a 16-year-old Abrams composed the music for Don Dohler’s low-budget sci-fi horror movie Nightbeast. This was the beginning of a very promising career.
Abrams had planned to enrol in a film school, but attended Sarah Lawrence college instead. The advice given to him by his father was that “it’s more important you learn what to make movies about, than how to make movies.” In his senior year, Abrams co-wrote a feature film treatment with Jill Mazursky that became the 1990 movie Taking Care of Business, starring Charles Grodin and Jim Belushi. Abrams and Mazursky also wrote the comedy Gone Fishin’, starring Danny Glover and Joe Pesci. In between those two films, Abrams wrote the amnesia drama Regarding Henry, starring none other than Han Solo himself, Harrison Ford, and the sci-fi romance Forever Young, starring Mel Gibson. Abrams was one of four credited writers on Michael Bay’s sci-fi action film Armageddon.
In 1998, Abrams and Reeves created the TV series Felicity, starring Keri Russell and set at a fictional New York university. “I miss writing for a show that doesn’t have any sort of odd, almost sci-fi bend to it,” he told The Hollywood Reporter in 2012, noting the difficulty inherent in devising stories for a show without a villain or high-stakes intrigue. Abrams co-founded the production company Bad Robot with Bryan Burk, and created the spy action show Alias in 2001. Now, here was a show that was wall-to-wall high-stakes intrigue. On Sydney Bristow, portrayed by Jennifer Garner, Abrams said “She was a character with a secret, and that is always a fun place to start. But she wasn’t a superhero; she was terrified at almost every step. But still, she would do the right thing. I think we would all like to believe we would behave like that when the going gets rough.”
In 2002, Abrams wrote the screenplay for Superman: Flyby, a project that eventually failed to materialise. Abrams’ script contained many deviations from established Superman lore, including a Kryptonian civil war between Jor-El and his evil brother Katar-Zor, Krypton remaining intact and Lex Luthor as a UFO-obsessed CIA operative who is revealed to be have been a Kryptonian sleeper agent all along. The leaking of this script played a large part in Abrams’ desire to keep as tight a lid as possible on later projects. “To have a script that is nowhere near the latest draft, let alone the final draft, being reviewed online, it frankly made me a little bit paranoid,” Abrams told NPR. “There are certain things that are, I think, important to keep quiet.” He further explained that “it’s not a Machiavellian sort of thing”, but that the secrecy stems from a desire for “people to have a good time and to have a little bit of a surprising time.”
2004 saw the premiere of Lost, which Abrams co-created with Jeffrey Lieber and Damon Lindelof for ABC. The network thought that Alias was too serialised in its storytelling, and Lindelof and Abrams promised the network that the show would be self-contained, with no ‘ultimate mystery’ to be solved. This might well be one of the great ruses in TV development history, as Lost was all about ‘ultimate mystery’, the show and its complex mythology soon becoming a pop culture phenomenon. Busy with other projects, Abrams left the show in the hands of Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, though it is a common misconception that he was involved throughout Lost’s six season run.
To return to the topic of secrecy, Abrams explained the appeal he finds in this practice in a TED Talk in 2007. During the presentation, he brought out a “magic mystery box” that he bought 35 years ago from a magic shop and which he refused to open. “It represents infinite possibility. It represents hope. It represents potential,” he declared. “What I love about this box — and what I realized I sort of do, in whatever it is that I do — is I find myself drawn to infinite possibility and that sense of potential. And I realise that mystery is the catalyst for imagination…What are stories besides mystery boxes?”
Abrams’ first feature film directing job was 2006’s Mission: Impossible III, starring Tom Cruise. In an interview with IGN, Abrams said he was able to create elaborate set-pieces, the likes of which he would love to have done on Alias but “we could never in a million years afford.” Mission: Impossible III proved that Abrams could handle explosive spectacle with sequences like an ambush on a bridge, a helicopter chase, the IMF team breaking into the Vatican and a heart-stopping leap off a Shanghai skyscraper. Abrams also set out to “see who these characters were as people not just as spies,” showing Ethan Hunt’s home life and his relationship with his wife. Abrams would take a stab at the spy genre again with the 2010 show Undercovers, which was cancelled after a season.
In 2008, Cloverfield, which was produced by Abrams and directed by Reeves, was released. The found-footage monster movie was promoted using a viral marketing campaign that captured the curiosity of many moviegoers. Abrams said the seeds of the project were sown when he was in Japan to promote Mission: Impossible III and was visiting toy stores there with his son. “We saw all these Godzilla toys, and I thought, we need our own American monster, and not like King Kong,” Abrams said at Comic-Con in 2007. “I love King Kong. King Kong is adorable. And Godzilla is a charming monster. We love Godzilla. But I wanted something that was just insane and intense.”
Later in 2008, the sci-fi procedural television series Fringe premiered. Abrams co-created Fringe with Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, citing The X-Files and The Twilight Zone as inspirations. Abram’s favourite TV series is The Twilight Zone, and there is a large collection of memorabilia from the show on display at his Bad Robot offices. The show’s overarching mythology involves the presence of a parallel universe, similar in some respects to the “mirror universe” of Star Trek.
Speaking of which, Abrams directed the 2009 Star Trek reboot in what is likely his most high-profile feature film directing gig prior to The Force Awakens. Co-writer Kurtzman said “I always think of it as, Star Trek is beautiful classical music and Star Wars is rock ‘n’ roll, and it felt like Star Trekneeded a little more rock ‘n’ roll to connect to a modern audience.” Abrams certainly brought the rock ‘n’ roll with a kinetic, exciting and action-packed take on Star Trek, which alienated some stalwarts of the original series but which opened what had become a slightly stodgy franchise to audiences at large.
Abrams has been upfront about being far more of a Star Wars fan than a Star Trek one. “I was never really a fan of Star Trek to begin with but the idea of working on something that is not necessarily your favourite thing can actually help, because it forces you to engage with it in a way an outsider can appreciate,” Abrams told The Sunday Times. “My love of Star Wars, the energy of it and sort of the comedy and rhythm of it I think affected Star Trek,” he said in a separate interview with PBS. Naturally, there were many ardent Trekkers who weren’t on board with this new take on the material and they felt further maligned with the sequel Star Trek Into Darkness, but both films received an overall positive critical reception. While Justin Lin is taking over the director’s seat for Star Trek Beyond, Abrams is remaining as a producer.
Beyond his early screenplays, Abrams has dabbled in comedy, directing an episode of The Office and starring in the musical sketch Cool Guys Don’t Look At Explosions alongside Will Ferrell and Andy Samberg. Abrams also got to perform a rockin’ keyboard solo in the video which spoofed the “unflinching walk” cliché seen in many an action movie.
Abrams was contemplating two ideas for an original movie: a coming-of-age movie about a group of kids making their own movie, drawing on his childhood love of film, and a thriller about the Air Force transporting an alien creature to a secret facility, with said creature naturally escaping. He combined both these ideas into Super 8, which was an unabashed love letter to his childhood idol Spielberg. Things came full circle in a way, from Abrams editing Spielberg’s Super 8 home movies to having Spielberg produce a film about the Super 8 movement in the late 70s-early 80s. Abrams told The Guardian that he loved how Spielberg’s films carried “a sense of unlimited possibility,” but that way lay around the corner “could be terrifying, it could be confusing, it could be disturbing, or it could be wonderful and funny and transportive.”
Interestingly enough, it was super-producer Kathleen Kennedy, now the head of Lucasfilm, who suggested to Spielberg that he should hire the then-teenaged Abrams and Reeves to restore and edit his home movies. “We followed J.J.’s career, so when he committed to Star Wars, it was this kind of fantastic coincidence of fate, I guess—preordained destiny or something,” she said. Abrams was handpicked by Star Wars creator George Lucas over directors including David Fincher, Brad Bird and Guillermo del Toro.
In 2008, Lucas told Total Film that he’s “left pretty explicit instructions for there not to be any more features. There will definitely be no Episodes VII–IX.” In 2012, after the acquisition of Lucasfilm by Disney, Lucas said “I always said I wasn’t going to do any more, and that’s true, because I’m not going to do any more. But that doesn’t mean I’m unwilling to turn it over to Kathy [Kennedy] to do more.”
As a mega-fan taking the reins of a storied, long-lived franchise, there is the danger of being self-indulgent. Abrams addressed this in a Vanity Fair interview, saying he resisted the temptation to make The Force Awakens “meta-Star Wars” as that would be “an ironic approach, which feels anti–Star Wars,” saying he was focused instead on “inheriting and embracing the elements of Star Wars that are the tenets of what is so powerful.”
Like all Star Wars fans, Abrams was enamoured of the iconic John Williams score. In the era before home video was readily available, the biggest piece of the movie Abrams could take home was the soundtrack, which he would often buy before the movie was even released. “I would lie on the floor in my room with my headphones on listening to the soundtracks which would essentially tell me the story of the movie that I didn’t know,” he said. For Abrams, the most surreal moment in the making of the film was getting to meet the legendary composer. “I can’t describe the feeling. All I will say is, just to state the facts of it: I am about to show John Williams 30 minutes of a Star Wars movie that he has not seen that I directed.”
While Abrams won’t be sticking around to direct Episodes VIII and IX, which are being helmed by Rian Johnson and Colin Trevorrow respectively, there is no doubt that The Force Awakens will shape the franchise in a monumental way. “I do feel like there’s a little bit more of a burden on [co-writer] Larry [Kasdan] and me to come up with a story that could at least be the beginning of what transpires over three films,” Abrams told Wired. The framework has already been planned, the foundation for the new trilogy been laid, and, according to Abrams, Episode VIII has already been written.
As Yoda said in Empire Strikes Back, “always in motion is the future.” Abrams has set a course for the future of the Star Wars franchise and there’s no stopping the jump to hyperspace now.