Interview: JJ Abrams

The first among geeks talks Star Trek and Fringe.

Director-J.-J.-Abrams-on-set-of-Star-Trek-bridge-with-film-castDoes NBC seem like a welcoming place for scripted drama, now that it is going to free up the 10 o’clock hour?
They were a welcoming place when they bought the pilot [for new non-genre show Undercovers], so I’m thrilled to be there. There’s suddenly more hours available per week, which is good, but it doesn’t make it any more or less welcoming. The people at NBC have been extraordinarily nice and really supportive of this pilot. It’s the beginning of a relationship. It’s a weird thing. When you do a pilot with a new network, or even with a familiar one, with actors you haven’t worked with, it’s always a leap of faith. You’re rushing into a marriage with people that you believe will be great partners, but you just don’t know for sure. All you can do is, day-to-day, go “How is it? This feels good. That bugs me, so let’s talk about it.” It’s literally like being in a relationship. So far, we’ve had no fights. We’re still in the honeymoon period.

Are you closer to a decision about whether you’re going to direct the next Star Trek movie?
No. We don’t have a script yet or anything, but we have a release date [29 June, 2012]. There’s a release date, but we’re still working on the script. The idea is that they have faith in this team.

How gratifying was it to find out about the Writer’s Guild nomination for the first film?

I’m very happy for Alex [Kurtzman] and Bob [Orci].

Did you have any idea that the nomination might come your way?
No. I’m thrilled for them. The truth is, they’re incredibly talented, hard-workers who often get marginalised because they’re so successful. But, they’re great writers, so it’s wonderful to see them get the kind of credit they deserve. [Production designer] Scott Chambliss was nominated. The make-up team was nominated. The visual effects were nominated. It’s great to see these amazing artists who have worked so hard, who could easily get marginalised because it’s something called Star Trek. They’re so good. I hope that Michael Kaplan, who did an amazing job with the wardrobe, gets recognition too. Amazing people worked on that movie.

Is the end of Lost everything you thought it would be, from the very beginning?
Oh, no way! No. There are little threads and elements, here and there, but truthfully, when we started it, we didn’t know exactly what was in the hatch. We had ideas, but we didn’t know to what extent it would be. The notion of The Others was there, but we didn’t know exactly what that would mean. Damon hadn’t come up with the idea of flash forwards yet. To see where we are and what they’ve created is insanely gratifying and it’s something that no one could have predicted at the beginning of it. The evolution of it is really part of their glorious experiment of taking a show that we were all, at the beginning, saying, “How do you make this a series?,” and to see what Damon and Carlton have done is amazing to me.

You had the idea for the basis of it though, right?
There were a lot of ideas, but the specificity with which the thing played out was part of that leap of faith that it was going to work. That doesn’t mean that you plan everything out. You have big ideas, but when the better bigger ideas show up, you go with them.

What have you learned from Lost that you can take to other genre shows?
Lost is a special example. It’s hard to know. You could say that you shouldn’t get too intricately serialised because, at a certain point, it’s difficult. But, the truth is, I don’t know if Lost would have worked if it had been anything else, and I don’t know how you would apply that to another show.

If the minutiae and mythology hadn’t worked with the viewers, would you have tried to change Lost, or would you have just walked away?
It’s hard to imagine the alternate universe version of Lost where you think, “Oh, that’s the version that is the other way to tell the story.” It really does feel like the trajectory that was started had no obvious place to go. Over time, they created this amazing narrative that is really just a result of that leap of faith and trusting that the characters will tell us what the show is, as much as anything. Damon and Carlton really did an amazing job.

With the network announcing an end-date for the show so far in advance, did that help immeasurably, in terms of the storytelling?
That’s something that Damon and Carlton insisted upon. They said, “Tell us how fast we’re running, so that we know what the end-game is and where the finish line is.” If you don’t know whether it’s ten seasons or six seasons, you’re spinning your wheels. I’m thrilled to see billboards that say, “The Final Season.” You don’t see that very often. To know that it’s a show that’s going to end on its terms means that there will be a sense of inevitability to it, and not a sense of a series reacting to a marketplace or a viewership. It’s really cool.

Would you like to direct an episode of Fringe?
I would love to. That was before Undercovers popped up, but that doesn’t diminish my desire to do it. I never got a chance to work with Josh [Jackson], Anna [Torv] and John [Noble], and get in there, so I would still love to do that. It’s not something I’m ruling out at all.

Do you have a sense of where you want to take the show?
Oh, yeah. We had some really good sessions, early on, about where this thing could go, but no matter how much you talk about it, when you’re in episode 40-something of a series, it’s telling you what it is too. It’s evolved a lot, but any series does.

What has happened this season that you didn’t expect?
There were certain stories, especially the Walter and Peter story, and things with Olivia, that were actually going to play out longer, but that we jumped to and did sooner. And, there are other things that we’ve talked about, like her stepfather, that we’re putting off. There’s a lot of opportunity for where we’re going beyond this season, and I’m going to be optimistic about that. I feel like we have a long way to go still, but the evolution was key. The show has found a rhythm that is nice to see, and I’m really proud of everyone doing it.

Were you aware that people were having trouble warming up to the character of Olivia?
Yeah. That was always a part of it. Her character is naturally someone who is in this weird world with these characters and situations, and it’s a little bit hard for her to be warm and cuddly in that role. So it was about giving her some vulnerability and uncertainty in her own life, and where she’s from and where she’s going. That was one way in.

You put so much heart and soul into television and now you also have movies. How are you going to balance the two?
Part of it is working with people who are awesome and whose work blows your mind, whether it’s with Jeff and Joel on Fringe, or Damon and Carlton on Lost. There are some producers who find material, help get it on the air and then oversee and have a team that works with them. That’s what I do, but I also sometimes write and direct as well. It might seem like I’m abandoning the thing, but what I’m trying to do is get it on its feet. While I may not have the patience of people like Joss [Whedon], David Kelley, Damon or Chris Carter, who are there from the beginning, for however many seasons, because I am a little more ADD than that, I would never leave a show, not knowing that it’s in worthy, brilliant hands that I honestly think could do a far better job, in the long term, than I could. I never know exactly how things are going to play out, but that’s how it’s been so far.

Finally, do you have a date for delivering a script for Star Trek 2?
Not really. I’m sure there is one, but I haven’t figured out what it is. You can work backwards and figure out that you probably would need something… shit, now!

This article originally appeared in the print edition of SciFiNow, issue 39 by Steve Nash. To buy a copy of the magazine or subscribe, go to www.imagineshop.com, or call our subscriptions hotline on +44 (0) 844 844 0245.