J.J. Abrams Interview
The fight for the title of busiest man in show business is always in motion, but there’s a good case to be made that it should at present go to writer/director/producer J.J. Abrams. Abrams, co-creator of the epic series LOST and creator of ALIAS and FELICITY on TV and producer/director/co-writer of the 2009 film that rebooted the cinematic STAR TREK franchise, has not exactly sat idle this year.
On the big screen, Abrams produced – with Steven Spielberg – wrote and directed SUPER 8, a film about kids making a zombie movie in 1979 while a large extraterrestrial is decimating their town. He’s also the executive producer on MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – GHOST PROTOCOL. On television, FRINGE, which Abrams created with frequent collaborators Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, is enjoying its fourth season on Fox. Abrams’ new thriller series PERSON OF INTEREST, created by Jonathan Nolan, is a hit for its network CBS, and he’s also producing ALCATRAZ, which debuts on Fox early in 2012.
Abrams arrives at a party thrown by CBS, Showtime and the CW for their actors, creative personnel and the press. All he has to do is stand in one place and people encircle him, eager to hear what he has to say. The peripatetic film and television-maker explains why he was absent during the press conferences held earlier in the day. “I had to go to Houston today to pick up my son from camp. So I’m back.”
In addition to being an actual father, how hard is it to parent three television shows simultaneously, with one on CBS and the other two on Fox? “It might be harder if they were on three separate networks,” Abrams replies. He makes a comparison. “You know, you have friends who have kids who go to three different schools, with all the different parent meetings? I can imagine, if [one of the shows] were on another network, it might be a harder thing. Because Fox is so great, and we love working with them, it kind of makes it easy doing two shows with them. CBS has been extraordinary. I couldn’t imagine it being better right now, so it’s been kind of wildly lucky-good.”
How did PERSON OF INTEREST come about? “Jonah [Jonathan Nolan’s nickname] pitched an amazing story and I just found myself like a kid at a campfire, wanting to hear more,” Abrams explains. “We were actually talking about a movie at the time. And then he pitched this idea for a TV show and I screamed and grabbed the people who are repping me on TV to hear this idea. And then he wrote a great script.”
Asked how much of his fingerprint is on the day to day production of PERSON OF INTEREST, Abrams quips, “I was wearing gloves. At the beginning, it’s a lot more about making specific notes and [setting the] tone, and then when things come in and they’re not quite working right, you jump in and try to help. The kind of crazy luck at the moment we have on that show is Jonah and Greg Plageman are literally writing episodes that are better than the pilot, and it’s that thing that you cannot believe, that it’s working so well. So all I can tell you is, when a fire needs to be put out, when there are issues about a story or a character, obviously, I’ll be more involved. But when things are working and the scripts are as entertaining, it feels more like, ‘Get out of the way, they’re doing good work.’ So my day to day – I read every script, I give notes to the scripts, watch dailies, watch the cuts, give notes on the cuts. It’s more about responding to what they’re doing. But when you have someone like Jonah Nolan, Greg Plageman, David Semel [who directed the pilot], a director like Richard Lewis, on ALCATRAZ, Liz Sarnoff and Jennifer Johnson, we’ve got Jack Bender to be a directing producer on that show, who did the greatest work ever on LOST, directed the best episodes of that show – again, we just work with very good people. If you cast things really well, either as a director or as a producer, and you crew it really well, half your job is really just finding those people who want to and can do such great work. And then the big thing is to just get out of their way as much as you can. This was a show that basically, Jonah came in and said, ‘Here’s an idea for a show,’ and then he wrote the script that was better than the pitch, and it was done, and it was just done in a way that I knew that I would want to watch it, so that is me being like, just do your thing.”
Despite loving the networks, Abrams adds that he’d “love to” do something for cable in the future as well. “I have a vague idea for something, but I don’t think it would work on a network. But you know, some of the shows that I’ve done that ended up on networks and I’ve been proven right,” he laughs, “so I’d love to try it.”
Among network shows – not just Abrams’ – PERSON OF INTEREST has a unique viewpoint, which is that all the technology used to intrude on our privacy can conceivably be used for good rather than evil. Is that how Abrams feels about it? “This is a weird thing,” he responds, “because my gut says, ‘Probably not,’ and yet I’d like to think that I’m more of an optimist, that people are generally good and not bad.
The thing that Jonah did is to pitch this great idea of kind of a super-heroic duo” –PERSON OF INTEREST’s leads are Jim Caviezel as Reese and Michael Emerson as Finch – “these two guys who work really well together to do good, but have a lot of suspicions about each other, and each [character] has kind of a great mystery. And whenever you’re walking around town, certainly driving, and just start counting cameras, it’s insane. It’s crazy. It’s like when you see people who are the centers of documentaries, you think, ‘Why are they doing that in front of the camera?’ And you realize, they forget there’s a camera. The subjects of documentaries, cameras just disappear for them, because they become so accustomed to it, and they become immune to the idea of being on camera. We’re all the subject right now of a documentary, all of us. [The cameras are] there for a reason. And it’s not just traffic cameras. It’s everywhere, including our phones. So the idea that Jonah pitched was answering that question – who’s behind those cameras? And I think that’s what happens with all of us. Because you think, ‘No one’s watching that camera.’ They’re not there not to be watched. So the question is, who’s behind those cameras? And Jonah pitched a story that answered that question in a way that was actually heartening – definitely wish fulfillment, but heartening. So I don’t know what the answer is ultimately, but I love the idea that Finch and Reese are behind those cameras and that they’re the ones who are able to hack into a cell phone [instead of] people who are going to manipulate and destroy.”
PERSON OF INTEREST star Emerson won a Supporting Actor Emmy for his previous collaboration with producer Abrams, back when Emerson was playing the chameleon-like Benjamin Linus on LOST. Terry O’Quinn also earned a Supporting Actor Emmy for his work as John Locke on the same series. Abrams has a sense of pride about both. “To see those guys – I had worked with Terry on ALIAS and loved him for years. He had a rather small role in that show, and I always felt like, ‘God [he’s good.]’ He was one of the first people we cast in LOST. To see him become John Locke, to see him embody that character, and then be rewarded for it – I could not have been happier. He’s a wonderful guy. We were actually in talks to do something with Emerson and Terry O’Quinn, another show, and then that didn’t pan out Michael Emerson was a free agent, and I know he was being approached by everyone, but we had this, I thought, amazing script [for PERSON OF INTEREST], and I called and said, ‘Listen, would you mind reading this thing?’ and he read it and called us and said, ‘I’m in.'”
The series is developing in a way that Abrams is very enthusiastic about. “When you see these episodes that are coming up, because it’s that weird thing, again, when you look at the trajectory of a show, the pilot is that first point. That next episode is kind of huge, because that next episode [on most series] is lower, even in terms of quality, but when I saw [the second episode of PERSON OF INTEREST], it was like, ‘What the …!’ It was better than the pilot. We’re seeing where it goes and it feels like it’s really got that conflict. There’s a mystery of the week thing, which is also this great thing of, who are these guys that are working so well together? And they’re not quite trusting each other completely. It’s really fun.”
Abrams also completed his very personal project SUPER 8 this year. “Doing SUPER 8 was a thrill,” he reports. “Working with those kids was a blast. They’re so wonderful. It was reinvigorating. It wasn’t like a conscious thing, it wasn’t like I thought, ‘I want to do something that’s going to be a kind of change of pace or a sorbet between courses,’ or anything, it was just kind of like, I want to do that movie,’ and Paramount was gracious enough to let me do it. So I do feel like, if TREK happens as we hope it will, it will be a fun return to that group of people, because it’s an amazing group.”
Since Abrams has brought it up, how is he feeling about the next STAR TREK film? “I’m excited.” Does he think that the STAR TREK franchise, which has gone from the small screen to the big screen, back to television and now back to feature films, may one day wind up returning to its broadcast series roots? And if it does, might Abrams be involved? “I don’t know. It’s never really come up. Depending on what that would be, and how it would be done, I’d be open to the idea of it, but right now, we’re just sort of focusing on making a movie that’s worth people’s time.”
With its cast of young budding filmmaker characters set in the late ’70s, does Abrams think that SUPER 8 might work as a television series? “I think that there are things about the kids in that world,” he says, “there are elements that I think would work. It would obviously have to be [different] – it wouldn’t be literally that movie. It would have to be something else. But there’s definitely something about those kids that occurred to me.”
On the other hand, Abrams isn’t anxious to adapt any of the TV series he’s created as feature films. “I think that people can probably come up with better ideas for movies than rehashing my old TV shows,” he laughs.
As for Abrams’ new series ALCATRAZ, which premieres on Fox in January, he explains how it developed. “There was a script that was written. We needed to do some work on it, Liz Sarnoff came in and wrote what I think was an amazing script, but the idea was just the simplest thing, really, which was, what if when Alcatraz closed, it wasn’t because of budget reasons, it was because everyone on the island disappeared, and what if they were coming back [in the present]? I just liked that Spidey sense thing of, ‘Ch-ching! I love that idea, I want to watch that show, oh my God.’ That stupid little kid [inside us all], you want to get home to turn the TV on to see that episode. I just felt that, and I thought, ‘Why has no one done this? That’s not a book already?’ It feels right and familiar, and yet new. It was a weird thing. So Liz wrote a great script and we were just lucky to set it up and cast it with these amazing actors and it was very exciting.”
Since Abrams tends to do very well with genre television shows – LOST has eternal iconic status – it was something of a surprise when his romantic spy comedy UNDERCOVERS didn’t make it through a full season. He explains why he feels it didn’t work. “I’ve got to say, I didn’t feel the problem with that show was my being over-extended. I thought the problem with that show was, I made bad choices. I wasn’t as respectful as the audience or the characters – I didn’t give people anything of substance. And the thing that’s fun about fluff is, it needs to be contextualized, it needs to be fun and fluffy within something of meaning. And it was kind of fluff on top of fluff, as opposed to something more substantial. And Josh Reims [who co-created the series with Abrams], who I would work with again, kind of took my lead on that in a big way and I just honestly wrote it into mediocrity. And I feel guilty, because I love the actors, I love the idea of the show, I love the idea of a couple that loves each other, but ultimately, if you don’t have great conflict, what do you have?”
The conversation circles back to PERSON OF INTEREST and why Abrams feels it’s doing something different. “I was interested in that idea of surveillance and the spy genre stuff, I’ve always loved that kind of thing, and on the way in, you think, ‘Oh, it’s just a TV show, it’s just kind of stretching [the surveillance concept],’ but it’s in that area where it’s not insane, and it’s not so far away from what could be done that you think, ‘This is silly or preposterous.’ It’s just far enough where you think, ‘It may or may not be happening right now.’ And that’s all you need, that feeling of, “It could be happening,” that’s the value of the show. And it’s definitely wish fulfillment. They’re almost like superheroes without capes. And as Jonah was pitching it – because it was Jonah, I know him and, obviously, I know his brother.” Nolan’s brother Christopher is the director of the Batman DARK KNIGHT film trilogy; the brothers wrote THE DARK KNIGHT and the upcoming THE DARK KNIGHT RISES together. “I was seeing Gotham City in my head as he was pitching it. He was describing this city and the villains in it and the bad guys, and it also was a tapestry of good versus evil, and so I literally was imagining the amazing cinematography of Wally Pfister in DARK KNIGHT. Of course, it’s a very different kind of show, but there’s a sort of DNA that I think is connected to the work he’s done on the Batman films.”
Finally, there’s the new bigscreen spy thriller, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – GHOST PROTOCOL, which Abrams produced (he directed and co-wrote the previous installment, 2006’s MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III). The project has some sequences actually shot in the IMAX format by director Brad Bird. Asked exactly how much IMAX is in the film, producer Abrams says, “It’s a lot. It’s insane and it’s really cool and [Bird] just did some amazing work. I cannot wait for you to see the movie.”
Interview By Abbie Bernstein