J. J. Abrams – A force awakened
J. J. Abrams has always been a fan of epic storytelling. “As a boy, I was an avid reader; my parents were quite shocked
by it,” he has said. Despite this literary fascination, it was moving pictures that would define his future career path. Both
his parents, father Gerald and mother Carol Ann, worked in television production. And so like Steven Spielberg and
George Lucas a generation earlier, little Jeffrey Jacob grew up surrounded by the world of the moving image. Which
helps explain how the basic tenets of catchy storytelling made their way into Abrams’ blood, later to be put to use on
both the small and large screens. “It‘s more important that you go off and learn what to make movies about than how to make movies,” today’s Hollywood superstar told BAFTA Guru in 2013, citing an adage learned from his father.
Trek to the top
Abrams first found work in the film industry at the tender age of 15, writing the music for Don Dohler‘s 1982 film Nightbeast. While still at university, he teamed up with Jill Mazursky to write a treatment, which was bought by Touchstone Pictures. The pair was then assigned to write the script, which became the 1990 comedy film Taking Care
of Business. It was a largely forgettable effort, but for Abrams, it proved to be a crucial stepping stone. Abrams’ creative touch has played a role in numerous well-known films such as Gone Fishin’ (1997), again teaming up on scriptwriting duties with Jill Mazursky; Armageddon (1998), in which he co-wrote the script; and in assisting with pre-production on the blockbuster animated film Shrek (2001). In 1998, Abrams linked up with Matt Reeves to co-create his first television
show, Felicity which aired on The WB Television Network from 1998-2002. In 2007 Time magazine ranked the college
drama among its top 100 greatest TV shows of all time. But this series served as a mere springboard for later success.
A naughty robot
The main part of Abrams’ career began in 2001, when he teamed up with Bryan Burk to found production company
Bad Robot. “I love the idea of anthropomorphising machines. I love the idea of taking technology and giving it
a personality,” Abrams told the New York Times in 2006. And it was via this company that Abrams would go on to co-produce a number of hit TV shows and films. The first product off the Bad Robot production line was TV series Alias
(2001–06), which is well-known to Czech viewers. The series revolves around a female CIA double-agent played by actress Jennifer Garner. Along with co-executive producers and writers Roberto Orci and Alexem Kurtzman, Abrams created an attractive mix of action, spy thriller and sci-fi, which became a major phenomenon at the start of the new millennium. The series ran for five seasons and picked up a host of awards, including four Emmys. But at this time major filmmaking success still eluded Abrams. In 2001, Bad Robot made the Abrams’ co-penned horror Joy Ride. After this largely forgotten film came a big screen lull which continued for six years.
September 22, 2004 represents a key date not just in Abrams’ career but in the entire history of television entertainment. For this was the date on which the pilot episode of the TV series Lost first aired on US television. The series would go on to become a major smash hit. The success of Lost can be attributed to three revolutionary principles. The first was the series’ approach to storytelling – Lost was not your average TV drama built around a small group of staple characters. Rather, the show – which followed a group of 70 plane crash survivors
stranded on a tropical island, mixed in elements of sci-fi and the supernatural. The end result enabled a rich array of different characters to rise and fall, as well as a liberal usage of narrative devices including flashbacks, to weave a complex, ethereal story.
The second revolutionary principle was Lost’s approach to marketing. Shocking twists and turns would fuel lively online
debate, which was itself mined for maximum effect to glue viewers to their sets for the next instalment. The end result was a cultural phenomenon akin to sitcom Friends or The X-Files. But in this case, the proverbial balloon was deliberately inflated The third trick plugged into modernTV viewing habits. Many viewers across the world – using both legal platforms (DVD box sets or Apple’s iTunes) and pirate platforms – would watch entire series at a time, giving rise to the concept of “binge-viewing” done outside of the traditional weekly time-slot presentation offered by TV channels. Abrams and his team fuelled this phenomenon via a non-traditional construction of episodes, which would end just before the climax of a tense plotline. And so viewers would have no choice but to immediately fire up the next episode
of the series. Lost perfectly reflects Abrams’ ethos, as expressed during a 2008 TED talk, that “maybe there are times when mystery is more important than knowledge”.
Big budget test In 2006, following on from the success of Lost, Abrams was given the assignment of his dreams – to write and direct his first feature film, the second sequel in the Mission: Impossible series starring Tom Cruise (who also served as co-producer). M:I-3 was released just before Abrams’ 40th birthday. The film was both a critical and commercial success, with Abrams lauded for breathing new life into the film series, which kicked-off back in 1996. Many continue to consider
M:I-3 the best of the hitherto five-part saga.
At this point Abrams’ entered a phase in which he seemed to have a golden touch. But his next major co-creating TV series effort, the sci-fi series Fringe, failed to meet sky-high expectations. Even so, Fringe still ran for five seasons
(2008-13) and is considered to be a worthy and interesting effort. Next up came attempts to revive Bad Robot’s feature filmmaking capabilities. In 2008, the horror film, Cloverfield, produced by Abrams, served this purpose relatively well.
Then came a major challenge – Paramount Pictures hired Abrams to revive and reboot the long-running Star Trek motion picture series (dormant since 2002). If not handled well, millions of Trek fans would certainly be ready to howl. But the USD 150m dollar effort was largely viewed as a shot in the arm for the series. A sequel, also directed by Abrams, followed in 2013. A second sequel, Star Trek Beyond, produced by Abrams, is set for release this July.
The new Spielberg
Asides from Star Trek, in 2011 Abrams also directed the well received sci-fi film Super 8 – his only stand-alone auteur movie. The project harks back to a friendship with Steven Spielberg, a man Abrams has admired since childhood. As a teenager, Abrams was asked to help restore two amateur films Spielberg had made in his youth called Firelight and Escape to Nowhere. Spielberg would serve as producer on 2011’s Super 8, which tells the story of a group of teenagers making their own film in the 1970s using the Super 8 film format – a precursor to today’s home video. Abrams also consulted with Spielberg about whether to take the responsibility for reviving the Star Trek film franchise – with the veteran filmmaker firmly in favour.
The Force Awakens
“There‘s nothing wrong with doing sequels, they‘re just easier to sell,” Abrams once told US broadcaster PBS. And that adage was certainly confirmed at the end of last year with the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Abrams himself has described George Lucas’s saga, which was first unleashed on audiences in 1977, as the most influential film series of his generation. “It’s the personification of good and evil and the way it opened up the world to space adventure, the way Westerns had to our parents’ generations, left an indelible imprint,” he told an audience at Disney’s D23 expo in 2015. And it was Disney that backed the seventh film in the series, having purchased Lucasfilm in 2012 for USD 4bn, thus gaining the right to make new Star Wars movies. The selection of Abrams as the key creative force (director, co-producer and co-writer) turns out to have been justified. The route to such success had already been demonstrated by
his ability to breathe new life into Star Trek, whilst largely avoiding alienating die-hard Trekkers. And that trick was repeated again with the decidedly more intricate fabric of Star Wars. In essence, Abrams presented a “Best of” rehash of the first two films in the saga (Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back), placed a female lead in the centre of the action, and utilised the beloved characters from the original series, as portrayed by the likes of Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford. The end result, with box office takings exceeding USD 2bn, amounts to the third most successful
film of all time. However, Abrams has declined an offer to direct the inevitable sequel.