Written By Summer 2011 : Page 22
Written by Todd AAron Jensen A Kid in A CAndy FACTory From Mork & Mindy to Super 8 with J.J. Abrams. T here’s a magical typewriter locked inside a secret room in the back of a Brooklyn pawn shop, ac-cessible only with a hidden key, and it transcribes critical missives from another universe without even being touched. Though the film and television oeu-vre of J.J. Abrams is frequently glazed with super-natural themes and otherworldly grace notes, and his personal journey from childhood film geek to one of the world’s preeminent storytellers seems written in the stars, the 45-year-old wunderkind insists the enchanted Selectric 251 exists only in the fictional realm of Fringe, a television cult hit about destiny, free will, and warring parallel universes that he cre-ated for Fox Television. “You can fancy yourself a storyteller, but every time I try to tell one, I don’t feel like a storyteller at all. Any tricks I may have up my sleeve, they never seem to ap-ply to the problems in front of me,” confesses the pe-rennially youthful, energetic, and optimistic Abrams from his Bad Robot productions office in Santa Moni-Written By SUMMER 2011 ca. “At any given moment in our lives, there are a thou-sand critical lessons we must take with us, but a mil-lion other ones we have to carry. As a storyteller, I feel like I’m always dropping lessons I can’t live without to hold on to ones I can’t live without.” Dropping things is hurricane season for Abrams, who fancies himself “a juggler who just can’t help himself.” A maestro of TV entertainments like Felic-ity, Alias, Lost, and Fringe, as well as feature films like Mission: Impossible 3, Star Trek, and the forthcoming Super 8 that create a powerful alloy of the mythic past and urgent Zeitgeist, the collective unconscious, and his own recurring leitmotifs, Abrams is, arguably, the storyteller for our time. Superficially, he might tell amazing genre stories about surviving a plane crash on a jungle island, or solving paranormal crimes in a world unhinged, or rappelling from one top-secret mission to the next, but they are also elemental quest stories, the Holy Grail being, Who am I really and what can I achieve? 22 • WGA W
A Kid In A Candy Factory
Todd Aaron Jensen
From Mork & Mindy to Super 8 with J.J. Abrams.
There’s a magical typewriter locked inside a secret room in the back of a Brooklyn pawn shop, accessible only with a hidden key, and it transcribes critical missives from another universe without even being touched. Though the film and television oeuvre of J.J. Abrams is frequently glazed with supernatural themes and otherworldly grace notes, and his personal journey from childhood film geek to one of the world’s preeminent storytellers seems written in the stars, the 45-year-old wunderkind insists the enchanted Selectric 251 exists only in the fictional realm of Fringe, a television cult hit about destiny, free will, and warring parallel universes that he created for Fox Television.
“You can fancy yourself a storyteller, but every time I try to tell one, I don’t feel like a storyteller at all. Any tricks I may have up my sleeve, they never seem to apply to the problems in front of me,” confesses the perennially youthful, energetic, and optimistic Abrams from his Bad Robot productions office in Santa Monica. “At any given moment in our lives, there are a thousand critical lessons we must take with us, but a million other ones we have to carry. As a storyteller, I feel like I’m always dropping lessons I can’t live without to hold on to ones I can’t live without.”
Dropping things is hurricane season for Abrams, who fancies himself “a juggler who just can’t help himself.” A maestro of TV entertainments like Felicity, Alias, Lost, and Fringe, as well as feature films like Mission: Impossible 3, Star Trek, and the forthcoming Super 8 that create a powerful alloy of the mythic past and urgent Zeitgeist, the collective unconscious, and his own recurring leitmotifs, Abrams is, arguably, the storyteller for our time. Superficially, he might tell amazing genre stories about surviving a plane crash on a jungle island, or solving paranormal crimes in a world unhinged, or rappelling from one top-secret mission to the next, but they are also elemental quest stories, the Holy Grail being, Who am I really and what can I achieve?
“What I really enjoy are stories that touch upon revelations of what really happened, who you are, who the person you love is. Seeing something and believing it to be one thing, then finding out it’s actually something else—the revelation about your being,” says Abrams. “Telling a story like that in tandem with something that has some spectacle to it, that’s my favorite kind of story. It doesn’t have to be in any particular genre, but [it must have] revelation and spectacle and heart.”
Boys Will Be Filmmakers
Abrams’ own life story weaves a narrative of those strands, revealing a beloved misfit child granted safe haven within the realm of celluloid dreams who began making short films before most kids visit an orthodontist, then achieved boy wonder status in Hollywood with a round of accomplished but yeomanlike gigs in his early 20s. At last, he found his way a decade ago, merging his soul-deep proclivities for mystery and magic and relationships with a commercial instinct unrivaled since, say, Steven Spielberg. Claiming Abrams is “the next Spielberg,” as many have, might hold a little more powerfully if the two hadn’t just made a film together, the achingly intimate, largely autobiographical, yet wildly epic Super 8.
“Is J.J. a child of wonder? I would say yes, he is,” says his father, Gerald Abrams, an award-winning television producer perhaps best known for 2000’s acclaimed miniseries Nuremberg. “He’s always loved fantasy and illusion, not elves and trolls necessarily, but the idea that things in this world are mysterious. There’s more in heaven and earth, that kind of thing. Those mysteries make J.J. happy and energetic, while they make some of us crazy and sad. J.J.’s always lived in the world. I don’t mean there’s not a practical side to J.J., for sure there is, but for creating ideas, he’s always been a little boy with an enormous sense of wonder looking at every possibility for the biggest mysteries.”
“Not to get too philosophical, but most of life is about asking the best questions, and that’s what great writing is too,” says Alex Kurtzman, a regular Abrams collaborator since Alias. “Human beings are students of storytelling, whether they’re aware of it or not. If you’re detecting a reverence for storytelling in J.J., you’re absolutely right. These things matter to all of us, but they really matter to him.”
“It’s true that we make these movies and TV shows for ourselves, trying to create something that we would love to see, but the other side of that coin is the revelation—the unveiling of something that you are so excited to share. No one embraces that with more childlike enthusiasm and energy and excitement than J.J. Abrams,” says Michael Giacchino, the Oscar-winning film composer who got his “big break” when Abrams plucked him from videogame scoring to work on Alias, where the music man became in short order a key member of the Abrams repertory players. “That is J.J. in a nutshell: He’s an old-fashioned showman. I imagine he would have made a great traveling salesman, coming into town and telling folks about the amazing things he has hidden in the back of his stagecoach. But instead of a stagecoach, he’s got his imagination and this new-fangled typewriter, and he’s doing work that really means something to people.”
Raised in the City of Angels, and often on the Paramount backlot where his father worked, spying Robin Williams and Henry Winkler coming and going to the sets of Mork & Mindy and Happy Days respectively, Abrams was as a child an outsider. “I wasn’t an athlete. I wasn’t the popular kid. I wasn’t involved in any number of ‘normal things’ kids do,” he recalls. “At school, I’d stand off to the side with my left hand up to my eye, kind of like a camera really, and I’d watch the kids playing, imagining it was all a movie or a TV show. Of course, my teacher thought I was some sort of psychopath. To me, it was just one of those things.”
When his father put a Super 8 movie camera in his hands, it might as well have been a sword called Excalibur. By age 8, Abrams had found a power and purpose, working with unbridled passion and affection to replicate scenes he’d witnessed in classic monster movies. Moviemaking became, he says, “a life raft for me, a way to get through a week of school so I could do these little things on the weekend.” Though his report cards were “average at best,” he says, he became a voracious student of cinema, watching every movie he could, hunting old screenplays as if they were hidden treasure, dog-earing manuals and guidebooks about how to make movies or simply achieve potent visual illusions and accomplish gruesome makeup effects.
“He did everything, except act. That was my job,” says Greg Grunberg, who has appeared in almost all of Abrams’ projects, including adolescent fare like The Attic and High Voltage. “We’d leave school, stop by the grocery store for some gum and comics, and spend the weekend making these movies. It was the time of our lives. It’s funny to look back at those old movies because not much has changed. Except the audience has gotten bigger.”
Daddy Abrams says that before his son had a movie camera, J. J. busied himself with creative pranks designed to frighten neighbors and gardeners, putting spooky recordings inside of stuffed teddy bears so that it seemed the toy was delivering demonic messages. Once Abrams discovered the world of Super 8, though, the mission shifted.
“The reason for making some of these movies, I think, was to kill his sister, Tracy,” says Gerald Abrams. “She was always getting murdered, killed, gravely wounded, just demolished and torn apart. She was often the star, and the price was being killed in creative and clever ways.”
Abrams’ bedroom became a laboratory, a workshop, the lair of a mad scientist possessed and obsessed. “Making movies gave me purpose. It gave me expression,” says Abrams. “These movies were essentially little magic tricks, to make things look real when they weren’t. My initial instinct was very childish: This is an incredible medium to trick people. I wasn’t digging deep. I wasn’t really telling stories. I was just tricking people, and it was so much fun.”
Adolescents Will Be Filmmakers
A revival house screening of Charles Laughton’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame awakened in Abrams a more mature sensibility. “I was just devastated by that movie,” he says. “And then I learned it wasn’t really shot in Notre Dame and that guy didn’t really have those problems—he was just wearing makeup appliances. I realized, My God, you can combine these illusions with incredibly heartrending emotion. That got me obsessed.”
The notion of family—those to whom we’re blood-related and the ones we choose—is key to the Abrams oeuvre, and in these teenaged hours, the burgeoning artist collected a powerful coterie of collaborators, with whom he still works regularly. Through a public access television show that spotlighted student films, Abrams met Matt Reeves, and the duo co-created Felicity and Cloverfield. As teenagers, the two were fast friends. “I remember going over to J.J.’s house and that first meeting was very, very similar to anytime I see J.J., even today. I walked in, not to his office because of course he was 13 at the time, but his bedroom, and he just had these myriad projects laid out all across his floor—clay and paintings and models and notes and monster masks and magic tricks and just stuff. Cool, cool stuff. That’s still what it’s like visiting J.J.”
When Spielberg read about the filmmaking endeavors of Abrams and Reeves, the legendary moviemaker asked them to restore his own student films, a fateful encounter that would yield decades later one of the more hotly anticipated cinematic pairings in recent memory. Abrams leaped at the opportunity to put polish to the master’s early work, studying each frame like a forensic scientist out to uncover the missing link, while his parents merely fretted that “something would go horribly wrong with those old movies and J.J. would ruin them and we’d be forever remembered as being sued by Steven Spielberg,” laughs Gerald Abrams. For J.J., the experience “was just completely confounding and exhilarating. It was like reading the childhood journals of a personal hero.”
Even as he honed a visual sense with his weekend workouts, Abrams began paying increasing attention to the written word, making weekly stops at Hollywood Book & Poster, picking up every brad-bound screenplay he could. He studied again: Eric Red’s The Hitcher (“a 93-page jam, preposterously good”), Bill Lancaster’s Bad News Bears, Steve Gordon’s Arthur, Tom Shulman’s Dead Poets Society (“just floored me, and the whole thing was just entirely made up”), and his personal favorite, Alvin Sargent’s Ordinary People (“so impactful, every page just teems with this simple perfection”).
While pals like Reeves and Bryan Burk, now Abrams’ right-hand man at his production company Bad Robot, stayed in Los Angeles for college, Abrams ventured East, attending Sarah Lawrence University where he penned nearly a dozen screenplays and a novel, “just trying to get good, or better at least,” doing Robert McKee storytelling seminars and breaking the spine on How to Write a Movie in 21 Days (which, incidentally, he would soon top, knocking out a finished— and soon sold—screenplay in five days).
On his return to California, Abrams teamed with mutual friend Jill Mazursky, daughter of filmmaker Paul Mazursky, to pen a handful of screenplays, including the Charles Grodin–Jim Belushi laugher Taking Care of Business. She remembers, “We’d write sometimes at Ed Dubevics, between hamburgers and milkshakes, and sometimes at my shithole apartment where the electricity would go out once in a while and we’d lose pages on the computer,” laughs Mazursky, a writer, producer, and mother of two. “When we were collaborating, I’d read the pages J.J. had just written and they were better than anything I’d ever read in my life. It was at that point the phrase bouncing off the page came to life for me. J. J.’s words were bouncing off the page, and they still do.”
During the Joe Eszterhas–fueled era of spec screenplay jackpots, Abrams hit big with the one-two whammy of Regarding Henry and Forever Young, which earned him paychecks large enough to purchase small islands and attracted talent like Mike Nichols, Mel Gibson, and Harrison Ford. Twenty years after Henry, which received only a lukewarm critical and box office reception, its director Nichols fairly shimmers with love for Abrams.
“Not only is J.J. fast and malleable, 100 percent energetic, able to give you anything you need, but he’s also completely sweet, happy, and good. He has none of the darkness we associate with almost all of the best writers. It’s sort of annoying,” Nichols deadpans. “He’s a kid in a candy store. Just loves what he’s doing. Can’t wait to do more. Has nothing but good experiences. I can think of only one other writer like J.J., who has the same equanimity and generosity and love for story and people, and that’s Tom Stoppard.”
Early boss James L. Brooks, who signed Abrams to a development deal at Gracie Films in the early ’90s, echoes the sentiment: “Is there anything J.J. Abrams cannot do? Yeah, maybe suffer a decent depression. He’s just a good human being. Unrelentingly good. A Boy Scout almost, and don’t tell him I said so.”
Despite the massive boy wonder success, Abrams felt compelled to work harder. “J.J. refuses to tie his shoelaces together,” says Burk, who has worked with Abrams professionally since Alias. “I mean, J.J.’s not invincible, but he also does not sink into despair and self-doubt, like so many of us who try to create things for a living. He’s just always thinking about how to make things cooler. If he’s juggling two balls, he’ll add a third, and then maybe an eighth, and then maybe he’s got something.”
When told of the collective admiration his colleagues hold for him, Abrams dryly says, “I just thought I’d wait until after this interview to become an asshole. First thing on the to-do list when we’re done: become a raging asshole.”
Men Will Become Artists
By age 25, Abrams was enjoying the career to which most aspire: He was working regularly and paid well for what he loved to do. But the work-for-hire and endless development deals were wearing on him, and he was feeling “unbelievably lucky, but also kind of empty.” Then the wunderkind met his match and fell in love, and the author’s voice changed.
“Katie [McGrath] reminded me of that obvious, fundamental truth that I’d completely forgotten about: Write what you really care about,” he says. “So I looked back at some of the things I’d written, which may or may not have been good, but they were about owning up to who you are so maybe you can be more than that. This is probably the thing that a lot of my [movies and TV shows] are, Alias and Lost and things, though I kind of hate to reduce them to that.”
With childhood buddy Reeves, Abrams hatched Felicity, a young woman’s coming-of-age story in college, written firmly in the mold of the Ed Zwick–Marshall Herskovitz material they both loved. They hit the ground running as network television bigwigs. “That show was the beginning of remembering to work on things that were not just about paying the rent, but about characters and stories and things that felt relevant and resonant to me,” says Abrams, “things that were a part of who I am and things I care about. Felicity helped me find my heart and to embrace the opportunity to tell stories on a much larger Canvas. It allowed me the confidence to go further.”
Reeves believes Abrams’ affinity for improvisation, honed in a few classes with the comedy troupe Groundlings, serves his creative process well. “The whole thing with improv is somebody does something and you have to remain positive to it: yes, and then,” says Reeves. “That’s very much J. J., and it’s one of the only ways to survive in the world of television, which just devours new material. That sensibility also allows him to look at things and go, Okay, this is a story, but what’s the best way to tell the best story. It’s code-cracking and it’s incredibly challenging, but look, the proof is in the work.”
Bob Orci, Kurtzman’s writing partner, who joined Team Abrams on Alias, laughs about working alongside Abrams. “If you don’t want to know how something works, don’t bring it around J.J., because he’ll take it apart and put it back together and tell you how it works and how it could work better, and it doesn’t matter if it’s a magic trick or a machine or a story. He’s a master at how things work, but more important, how and when to show you the details of how things work. It’s a magic thing. It’s a storytelling thing. It’s sleight of hand— what you show and what you hold. It’s a J. J. Abrams thing.”
Reeves insists that Abrams has been able to survive the rigors of marathon writing and production schedules, while also packing school lunches, tucking his children into bed, and refereeing AYSO soccer matches for his oldest daughter, by keeping things fun in a process of constant discovery. “Most of us are just trying not to die, but J.J. flourishes because it’s always fun for him,” says Reeves. “I remember one time, we were up against a wall on Felicity and needed a script immediately and he announced, ‘Okay, I’ll go write this script, no problem, but I’m going to do it on a Dictaphone.’ Over the course of the next two days, he was in his office, lying on the couch, talking out the script—because he wanted to try it that way. That’s J. J. It can be kind of like hanging out with [Fringe’s] Walter Bishop sometimes.”
This summer, Abrams—who has provided creatively and commercially Powerful reboots to both the Mission: Impossible and Star Trek franchises—releases his most personal project ever. Super 8 is set in 1979 and tells the story of a band of childhood pals who wile away their summer making short films, when their hobby gets hit with the dangerous fallout of an alien encounter. “Without question, this movie is quite autobiographical, certainly more than my time on the Enterprise,” Abrams says. “It’s that sort of weird, geeky, outsider euphoria that I felt making movies as a kid, and kind of still do, though there was never any Area 51 materials that crossed my path as a kid—unfortunately.”
“Intimate. Totally, totally, totally intimate,” is how producer Burk describes Super 8. “J.J.’s production company, Bad Robot, is what happens when the kids in Super 8 grow up. Literally, it is. And the movie, it’s a summer-break movie when the kids are all in that place where they can do anything, in that sweet spot before girls become too important and everyone has to go out and get a job, and you have the ability to go into the world and do things, do anything, and that’s the world J.J. lives in still. But most of us only get in for a couple of seasons when we’re kids.”
For Abrams, the pleasures of revisiting his childhood reveries was surpassed only by finally collaborating with Spielberg. “If, when I was a kid, anyone had told me you’d be working with Steven Spielberg and you’ll be talking about how to make an act work better with him and you’ll be discussing Jaws over lunch, I’d never have stopped laughing. I would never have believed it.”
As Abrams puts the finishing touches on Super 8, meanwhile prepping a fourth season of Fringe and developing myriad projects for screens large and small, he is co-writing his untitled, top-secret first novel with Doug Dorst for 2012 publication by Little, Brown. And dreaming of a million other ways to combine his passions and curiosity for audiences around the world, somehow keeping his wife and three children always at the fore. If people want to call him the new Steven Spielberg, that’s fine with him—though composer Giacchino thinks those pundits might be slightly off the mark.
“In many ways, our first film school is going to the movies and watching the films of Steven Spielberg. That’s true for J.J. and me and a lot of the people we work with,” says Giacchino. “In the end, however hard we try to aspire to the career that our heroes had, the best we can hope for is to become the best version of ourselves. J.J. doesn’t need to be the next Spielberg, though many people have called him that, because he is the current J.J. Abrams. And that’s more than enough, don’t you think?”
Todd Aaron Jensen is an award-winning journalist in Los Angeles. He is the author of On Gratitude: Sheryl Crow, Jeff Bridges, Alicia Keys, Daryl Hall, Ray Bradbury, Anna Kendrick, B. B. King, Elmore Leonard, Deepak Chopra, and 42 More Celebrities Share What They’re Most Thankful For.
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