J.J. Abrams: Wildly exciting to direct new ‘Star Wars’
LOS ANGELES—J.J. Abrams is doing what no man has done before— jump from directing “Star Trek Into Darkness” to “Star Wars: Episode VII.” Asked for his mindset going from one big project to an even grander film, one that has been raising a lot of expectations since it was announced, J.J. said in a recent interview, “Every project that I’ve been lucky to be involved in felt like an opportunity that was more exciting than it was intimidating. A lot of people said, ‘Oh my God, the pressure of doing ‘Star Trek’ or ‘Mission Impossible.’ The truth is that I happen to have walked into three very different stories, all of which are larger than all of us and pre-existed. I would say that it is an incredibly surreal honor and opportunity to be involved in the new ‘Star Wars.’ I already feel that there are things that I’d love to share with you but it’s premature.”
Adding that the “Star Wars” film to be released in 2015 is “a wildly exciting thing to be involved in,” J.J. talked about George Lucas, the creator of the space saga franchise that has millions of rabid fans. “I’ve known George socially for a number of years,” said TV’s golden boy who has metamorphosed into a feature film director. “I remember completely the first time I met him which was in a social situation. It wasn’t a business thing at all. He’s been incredibly gracious and kind.”
The 46-year-old who also directed “Star Trek” in 2009 added about Lucas, “We’ve had our debates about film versus digital or about the approach to visual effects. I remember when I was doing the first ‘Star Trek’ movie, I said to George, ‘Can I ask your advice? If you were doing ‘Star Trek,’ what would you do and what should I do?’ I was trying to see what he would say. He said, ‘I don’t know, put light sabers in it.’ He wasn’t being very helpful. But he was being very funny and incredibly solicitous. So I’ve been very grateful to him. Not just because of the movies he made when I was a kid. But because he’s been willing to share his experience and his wisdom and be a friend.”
Not surprisingly, Lucas’ original blockbuster made a big impact on J.J. (initials stand for Jeffrey Jacob) whose dad, Gerald, was a TV producer. “Clearly, ‘Star Wars’ when I saw it at 11 years old was monumental,” he said. “So was the ‘Mission Impossible’ TV series which was part of the inspiration for creating ‘Alias’ (the TV series that he created and starred Jennifer Garner) and part of the reason why I got to direct a ‘Mission Impossible’ movie. I remember watching ‘The Twilight Zone’ and the original ‘Batman’ series with Adam West—all these things.
“I remember listening to E.G. Marshall on the ‘CBS Radio Mystery Theater.’ So it’s been a very weird experience of being inspired by certain television shows and movies, radio and books. Then being incredibly fortunate to be able to actually create or be involved in projects that have harnessed some of that inspiration and ambition or at least we try to work at the level of those predecessors.”
On whether he experienced hostile reaction when it was announced that he was helming the reboot of “Star Trek,” J.J. answered, “I won’t say I haven’t received nasty letters. When we first started doing the first ‘Star Trek’ movie, we had a fear that ‘Star Trek’ fans wouldn’t embrace it. We were recasting iconic characters. It was sacrilege. Yet, the majority of ‘Star Trek’ fans embraced this new iteration. There are always those who are doubters.”
The bespectacled Sarah Lawrence College alumnus said, “What I am hoping is that when we’re done,” the “Stars Wars” fans will be happy. “There’s an amazing group of people who I’m working with, including Larry (Lawrence) Kasdan and Simon Kinberg (creative consultants), Kathy (Kathleen) Kennedy (producer) and Michael Arndt (writer). I’m aware of what the opportunity is and I’m incredibly hopeful for what it’s going to be. So we’ll see.”
While he has successfully rebooted the “Star Trek” and “Mission Impossible” franchises and is now poised to bring the latest installment of the “Star Wars” franchise to a new generation, J.J. rejects the “Rebooter” tag.
“The last thing that I, or probably anyone, want to be known as is the Rebooter,” he stressed. “One of the reasons why I said no immediately (at first) to even the idea of being involved with ‘Star Wars’ was that I felt like, dear God, I’d already worked on ‘Mission Impossible’ and ‘Star Trek.’ I can’t possibly even consider it. But when I met with Kathy Kennedy, it went from a theoretical thing to a very tangible thing. I realized what creative opportunity was there. It was too delicious and too full of potential.”
He explained, “The truth is, maybe to a huge fault, I am not a snob when it comes to where the inspiration comes from. I know it’s probably a more sophisticated thing to make a movie based on a novel than on an old TV show. It’s probably a cooler thing to have an original screenplay than do a movie based on an existing film series. But if there’s something that gets you, where you feel like, ‘Oh, that’s special…’ I don’t care where it comes from. Even the film that I did last, ‘Super 8,’ was based on an experience I had growing up, seeing Steven Spielberg-produced films and the idea of doing an Amblin film with him was too much fun. It was a little bit like going back in time.
“So it’s not about reboots. It’s about telling any kind of story that you have to love as a storyteller, you have to love the characters and you have to feel the passion at the core of the story. I think we’ve all seen remakes and reboots that felt like the result of a marketing department dictating what they could sell and finding people to make that thing for them to sell. They work sometimes. Oftentimes, they don’t and they feel a little hollow.”
“Star Trek Into Darkness” and its cast led by Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto are earning generally good reviews. Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers hailed Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Khan, as “a villain for the ages—he’s really terrific.” On why he cast Benedict, considered one of the “it” actors these days, J.J. joked, “He paid me extraordinarily well.” Then he said, “We were only looking for the great actor. When we cast him in this movie, it was about a year and a half ago. He wasn’t the hottest actor yet. He was a guy who was on a TV show (‘Sherlock’). But we didn’t cast him at a point where he was this white-hot actor. He was just a guy who was the best actor.”
“Yes, Benedict has darkness,” continued the father of three children with his wife since 1996, Katie McGrath. “He has a light, brilliance, wit, sophistication, an imposing presence. He’s threatening; he’s physical. He’s also sympathetic. He does these things and makes it all look so damn easy. And the other actors … it was so funny. Every time we were doing a scene with Benedict, they were standing a little bit taller. He has a presence that is ridiculous and that voice, oh my God. There wasn’t a day working with Benedict that I didn’t think, this is insane. He elevated that moment. He made that thing that I thought was going to be really hard, authentic.
“He’s not like his character in any way, physically or emotionally, but he transformed himself physically. He was suddenly this wildly intimidating big guy. And he’s not. When you talk to him, he’s sort of slight. But in the movie, I spent a year editing him (Benedict’s footage). So it was like I got to see him every day. I got so used to him as that character. So when I saw him again recently, I thought, God, he’s so small, compared to how he is in the movie—he’s so epic. He is an utter chameleon who I think can do anything. He’s one of the best actors I’ve ever seen, let alone worked with. He was able to bring all of these incredible nuances and attitude to a role that in lesser hands would not have worked remotely that well.”
(Email the columnist at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at http://twitter.com/nepalesruben.)
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