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Monday, December 14, 2009

Q&A: J.J. Abrams


J.J. Abrams on the set of "Star Trek"

The writer-director's career goes into warp speed with 'Star Trek'

By Jay Fernandez


It's easy to forget that J.J. Abrams, who has been knocking around the business for 20 years, has only directed two films. His font of brainy TV series -- from "Felicity" and "Alias" to "Lost" and "Fringe" -- has so saturated pop culture that he's now practically a brand. A screenwriter for years, he finally stepped behind the feature camera in 2006, directing "Mission: Impossible III." This year, he captained a reboot of "Star Trek" to $383 million worldwide and the movie may also break into the best picture race. He recently spoke with The Hollywood Reporter's Jay Fernandez.

The Hollywood Reporter: Was there any part of making "Star Trek" that felt personal?

J.J. Abrams: Quite a bit. It's a story about family and friendship and loyalty and finding your place and your way and being insecure about any number of things. And that is a universal idea that doesn't need to take place in space; it can take place anywhere -- and that idea feels very personal. I found myself surprisingly connected to a character called James T. Kirk. I found myself loving a character whose name was Spock. And as someone who was never really a "Star Trek" fan and who never really connected with any of the characters, it was the last thing in the world I ever expected.

THR: The movie has been embraced by geek culture. How do you feel about the rise of that?

Abrams: If you look back, there's always been a certain level of fantasy, science fiction, horror. The only litmus test that I ever have is: Is the thing that we're working on the thing I want to go see? It's always just about trying to work on the stuff that you feel like you yourself would go out and go see. If you start trying to anticipate what an audience is going to like and not like, you're probably in trouble.

THR: How do you see your relationship with fans?

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Abrams: I am obviously indebted to them. The great thing about getting a consensus because of the Internet is it allows you to really hear what the audience is feeling. It's a wonderful tool to understand what's working and what's not working. Because I do try and work on the kinds of projects that I want to go see, I don't feel like my audience is any different from my friends or myself -- I feel like I am those people.

THR: You like to meet with random people who interest you. What's the impulse there?

Abrams: It's just people who have inspired me over time. Probably the greatest perk of the job is being able to make contact with people who were your heroes in some form or another. There's no agenda other than wanting to hear their story and try to glean from it what you can.

THR: Have you ever pulled anything concrete from those meetings that has made its way into your work?

Abrams: It really is just about trying to personalize the inspiration. When there's someone whose music you love or whose paintings you love or whose writing you love or whose acting you love -- when you meet with them, you discover that you actually know them better than you even thought. I've done this for a long time. I was a kid and I was sending letters to people like Dick Smith, the makeup artist. I have letters from various people, mostly in film, whose work I loved as a kid. Whether it's cartoonists or composers or astronauts or synthesizer builders, I have been able to contact these people and benefit from just hearing them share their experiences. You can always find some analogy in what someone else goes through -- whether it's just the pure insecurity of what they were doing and uncertainty as to what would result that you take to heart and is comforting, or the reminder that these people were up against all sorts of obstacles, political or social or cultural or monetary, and you see that these people simply didn't give up and overcame whatever their challenges were.

THR: How do you feel about the balance of your career right now, between writing, directing and producing? Do you wish you were doing more or less of one or the other?

Abrams: Not necessarily. It's hard to quantify the value of one or the other, but the balance feels good. The litmus test is: Are these things that I would be really annoyed if I saw them and I didn't have anything to do with them? I do wish that there were more hours in the day. The balance between family and work is the more important challenge that you've got to solve.

THR: Do you feel any pressure to direct movies more often?

Abrams: There are so many things that I should not be directing. A lot of times I look at something and I think, "Oh my God, that would be amazing. I would completely f*** that up." I just know that there are things I probably am not capable of, and then there are other things that I'm not sure if I am, and those are the things that excite me the most. The things that I know I could do are the things that I would probably screw up just as much. When you're too in your comfort zone, it's not necessarily the most creative thing. But I hope to direct a movie next year.

THR: And what's that going to be?

Abrams: It's just this thing I'm writing right now. It's taken longer to write the script than I was hoping.

THR: What's the most exciting recent development you've seen in the industry?

Abrams: One of the coolest things is this camera technology and how the tools for creating images and telling stories -- whether it's the camera or even postproduction consumer products like After Effects and Final Cut Pro -- are essentially democratized now. There is no barrier anymore between the person who wants to make a movie and tell a story and the person who's making the movie.

THR: Are there ever drawbacks to keeping your own projects so mysterious?

Abrams: I feel like any kind of project has a shelf-life risk to it, whether it exists as a film or it exists as an idea that's in the ether. You don't want things to be played with or speculated about or discussed, examined or investigated before they even exist. It can destroy the thing. Because I guarantee you it (can) negatively affect my actually writing the thing. I would have felt like it was ruined somehow by having been discussed. I can't tell you how many times I've had an idea and discussed it with simply one too many people. I just have no more interest left in actually creating it.