Everything J.J. Abrams touches has a habit of turning to gold. The 43 year-old writer, director and producer has a strike rate better than most, with a catalogue of critically and commercially well-received projects.
“I don’t usually think about how I do any of whatever the hell it is I do,” confesses the modest director. “I know that the idea of mystery and the idea of asking compelling questions, the key to any of that is having characters you believe and care about.”
Much talk surrounding Abrams centres on his self-declared and self-evident fascination with mystery, or the ‘mystery box’ as the native Los Angelino terms it. Yet despite this, what truly occupies Abrams’ approach – who lists Aristotle, Rod Serling (Twilight Zone) and Spielberg as his major influences – is his protagonists: “I tend to always approach thing in the same way for better or worse, which is who the characters are, how do I connect to them and do I believe the circumstance they are in?”
Such focus has been present in the vast majority of his work post-1998’s Armageddon though certainly the traits were there in his first feature screenplay for Mike Nicols’ Regarding Henry (1991), a film that impressed studio executives enough to pay Abrams $2 million to write the script for Forever Young (1992).
Before Abrams would return to film with his feature directorial debut Mission: Impossible III of 2006 he would create, write and showrun both Felicity (1998-2002) and Alias (2001-2006) as well as creating Lost (2004) and directing it’s historical two-part pilot (costing ABC between $10 and $14 million. For the record, that comes to 191 episodes of television.
“Whenever we did an episode of either Felicity or Alias, and it’s true of Lost and Fringe,” explains Abrams, “we try to approach them from a place of ,‘What is this hour-long movie?’. We don’t look at them in some demeaning way or down upon it as if it were not as valuable or important as a movie. We try to approach everything from this creative standpoint: What is the most compelling story whether it is one-hour amid 100 or it’s a two-hour piece alone?”
The “we” Abrams refers is the writers like writers, producers, directors and frankly any other staff who work for his production company Bad Robot. Propelled along by its passionate and magnetic founder and CEO, Bad Robot is becoming something akin to the Pixar of live action production as a place where creativity is encouraged and embraced from all quarters, another ingredient of the geek chic flavour of California cool and companies like Google and Apple.
“It’s not something looked at from the outside in where we’re trying to create a culture of any type,” says Abrams, “but the fact is I’ve started to see it a little bit as well. What’s interesting and cool is that it is the dream I’ve always had, which is to work at a place encouraging people to be as creative as they can be regardless of what’s on their resume or what their title is. For me working at a place where there are opportunities to be creative, I don’t care if I’m there to be an assistant or run a show, if it’s something I can do I want to try and do it.
Following the success of MI: 3 Paramount Pictures signed a deal with Bad Robot to retain its services and gave Abrams’ company a first-look producing arrangement. Furthermore the deal included the new Star Trek movie, and a plan in which it would make films budgeted at $25 million. In January 2008, after a brilliant viral marketing campaign, Cloverfield ($25m budget) was unleashed on moviegoers and took home a box office total of $80 million.
Telling the origins story of a science fiction franchise that’s nearly as old as space travel itself was never going to be easy, but Abrams knew from the beginning it was the only story to tell. “The key was embracing that original family on the Enterprise,” says Abrams, “the Kirk and Spock story at the centre, but also the periphery characters Bones, Scotty, Ohura and Sulu, to use the whole group as the bridge between the Star Trek that people know and the Star Trek that will hopefully exist looking forward.”
An abundance of early critical praise appears to assure success for Star Trek, a film that strikes just the right balance between freshness and reverence with the cinematic looks of a 21st Century blockbuster. And while mystery and action provide the mise en scene for J.J. Abrams’ storytelling, it is his attention to character that gives it meaning, whether in a drama about a college girl, a group of strangers trapped on an island or band of astronauts boldly going where no-one has gone before.
“I don’t know what my style is but my instinct is just trying to be true to whatever the moment and story require as opposed to having a style that I impose on whatever I do,” says Abrams finally.
“I think that gets in the way of whatever is necessary which is: what does that character or situation need? Do I believe that those characters are real? It’s in the details that it feels likes it’s real or not.”