Playboy Interview: J.J.Abrams
by David Hochman
PLAYBOY: What happened between saying no and saying yes?
ABRAMS: It was a wild time. I was near the light at the end of the tunnel with my work on Star Trek. I felt I needed a bit of a breather, actually. But then Kathleen Kennedy [the new Lucasfilm head who oversees Star Wars] called again. I’ve known her for years. We had a great conversation, and the idea of working with her on this suddenly went from being theoretical and easy to deny to being a real, tangible, thrilling possibility. In the end it was my wife, Katie, who said if it was something that really interested me, I had to consider it.
PLAYBOY: There’s much to discuss, such as the rumors of old cast members returning.
PLAYBOY: Will this be a distinct new trilogy?
PLAYBOY: Can you do away with Jar Jar Binks?
ABRAMS: You won’t like this answer, but it’s so early it would be insane to discuss details or get into plot points about what this unfilmed movie will be. And I’m not going to give my opinion on the original movies or characters.
PLAYBOY: But as a lifelong Star Wars fan, surely you have broad ideas about what needs to happen going forward. Three quarters of planet Earth came down on George Lucas for practically ruining Star Wars in Episode I. The Star Wars universe revolted.
ABRAMS: Here’s the thing. I try to approach a project from what it’s asking. What does it need to be? What is it demanding? With Star Wars, one has to take into account what has preceded it, what worked, what didn’t. There are cautionary tales for anything you take on that has a legacy—things you look at and think, I want to avoid this or that, or I want to do more of something. But even that feels like an outside-in approach, and it’s not how I work. For me, the key is when you have a script; it’s telling you what it wants to be.
PLAYBOY: Star Wars needs to look different from Star Trek, certainly.
ABRAMS: As with anything, because these are very different worlds, they shouldn’t feel the same aesthetically. They can’t. You’re right. But again, I don’t apply aesthetics first and fit a movie into that aesthetic. If I had come into Star Trek with those eyes, I would probably have been paralyzed. The advantage here is that we still have George Lucas with us to go to and ask questions and get his feedback on things, which I certainly will do. With Star Trek it was harder because I wasn’t a Star Trek fan; I didn’t have the same emotional feeling, and I didn’t have Gene Roddenberry to go to. But I came to understand the world of Star Trek, and I appreciated what fans felt and believed about this universe and this franchise.
PLAYBOY: As recently as last fall you said that directing a new Star Wars comes with a burden of “almost fatal sacrilege.” Do you feel that?
ABRAMS: I meant if I viewed this from a fan’s point of view—and no one’s a bigger Star Wars fan than I am—or from a legacy standpoint, it would scare the hell out of me. But instead of trying to climb this mountain in one giant leap, I’m just enjoying the opportunity and looking to the people I’m working with. I’ve known Kathy for years. I’ve worked with the screenwriter, Michael Arndt, for a long time. I’ve known George for a number of years and he’s now a friend. Even if this wasn’t Star Wars, I’d be enormously fortunate to work with them.
PLAYBOY: How much of your personal vision can you put on this?
ABRAMS: For me to talk to you about what the big themes or ideas are before they exist is disingenuous, but naturally I have a big say in how this gets put together. When I get involved with something, I own it and carry the responsibility of the job.
PLAYBOY: Star Wars, Star Trek, Mission: Impossible—you’re the king of the reboot. Don’t you want to make something original again?
ABRAMS: I have to say, as someone who almost to a point of embarrassment has associated himself with a number of projects that preexisted, I’m not looking to do another reboot. There’s one project, which I can’t talk about yet, that we are going to do in the TV space that is an exception. But the truth is, one of the reasons I at first easily said no to the notion of Star Wars was the thought that I had to do something original again. I mean, it’s what I’ve done on TV with Felicity, Alias, Lost, Fringe and everything else. It’s the thing I was looking forward to doing next. The best-laid plans, you can say—but when something like Star Wars comes along, you either roll with it or not.
PLAYBOY: What’s the spirit of an original project you’d want to do?
ABRAMS: I’m open. My favorite movie is The Philadelphia Story. I love Hitchcock movies. I’m a huge fan of Spielberg, and I love David Cronenberg. I’m all over the place in terms of stuff I like. There’s an amazing book called Let the Great World Spin that we’ve been developing with Colum McCann, the writer, and I’d love to do that. Not because of anything other than I feel the characters are beautiful and alive and have incredible heart and soul. But I’m open to anything.
PLAYBOY: How do you juggle your various responsibilities? In addition to the movies, you’re executive producer on Revolution and Person of Interest on TV. Earlier this year you wrapped Fringe after five seasons. You have a wife and three kids. You write music, you design things, you’ve given a TED talk. Presumably you eat and sleep too.
ABRAMS: I like to work hard, and I surround myself with people who are better at what they do than I am at what I do. And as much as we say yes to many things, we say no to almost everything. We’re very selective. We know how to get things done. For Star Trek it was Damon Lindelof, Bryan Burk, Alex Kurtzman, Bob Orci and me. With Jonathan Nolan on Person of Interest, he was someone we were dying to work with. He came in with a great idea, but he had never done TV before. He and [co–executive producer] Greg Plageman have been running that show beautifully. Eric Kripke is running Revolution. We had a team of talented producers on Fringe. So it’s not like I’m in the room and running operations on these shows.
PLAYBOY: So in the final days of Fringe you weren’t bounding into the writers’ room, yelling, “We have to explain who those creepy people chasing Peter were in the first season!”
ABRAMS: By the time we got to the fifth season my involvement was zero. It’s like with Lost. Damon and Carlton Cuse were running that show spectacularly and deserved to end the series as they saw fit. If I saw something really objectionable, I might jump in, but they knew what they were doing.
PLAYBOY: Were you satisfied with how Fringe ended? There were certain questions that never got answered, such as, if the Observers were wiped out, why was Peter still in our universe?
ABRAMS: Right. [Fringe co–executive producer] Joel Wyman and I had long discussions about points like that. But I don’t know of any movie, including Back to the Future, despite the clarity of that film, that deals with time travel or, in this case, an alternate universe and time travel, that doesn’t have issues with such paradoxes. And given the enormity of the issues Fringe was dealing with, it was an amazing finale. After everything that transpired in that last season, for Peter to swoop up Etta at the end and have that moment with her and see that couple with their kid, there was a kind of profundity and emotional satisfaction. Walter’s sacrifice allowed for his son’s and Olivia’s ultimate happiness to come true. That was a far more meaningful ending than explaining how the Observers work into that time frame. What exactly happened with amber, and does it make sense? These are questions you could ask, but I would hope the audience is smart enough to figure things out for themselves and allow for unexplainable situations.
PLAYBOY: Your biggest TV hit, Lost, got some groans at the end for leaving things open-ended. People are still arguing over it. What was the “sideways” world? Were the passengers of Oceanic Flight 815 actually dead the whole time? Looking back, do you think Lost fans deserved a less ambiguous ending?
ABRAMS: No. I loved the ending. I thought it definitely provided an emotional conclusion to that show. There may have been specific technical things people felt they wanted to understand, like what the island was exactly or why it was. But it’s like the briefcase in Pulp Fiction. If you show me what’s in there, I promise you it will disappoint me.
PLAYBOY: It’s like the mysterious pendant in Revolution that’s the key to explaining what disabled electricity on the planet.
ABRAMS: Yes. If you’re looking for the thing that ultimately explains what the answer is, or, let’s say, what God is, no matter what physical manifestation you see or hear, you’ll never be satisfied. Could our shows answer every question people have? Maybe, but I’m guessing the answers won’t be as satisfying as trying to figure out the answers.
PLAYBOY: Do you actually believe there are alternate universes?
ABRAMS: I’m definitely fascinated by the possibility. Whether it’s alternate universes or time travel, the idea that reality isn’t exactly what we assume it is is the sort of primordial ooze of any great out-there story, certainly in sci-fi and arguably in non-sci-fi as well. The idea that just around the corner something unbelievable might exist, that behind that door might be something you could never imagine. I’ve always been obsessed with the feeling that there’s another level of understanding in the world, whether it’s something as fantastical and fanciful as The Wizard of Oz, as dark and freaky as The Ring or as wild and thrilling as The Matrix. The idea that this world we know isn’t just this world we know but that a package might arrive at your door or a phone call might come in, and suddenly you’re in a portal to a different realm.
PLAYBOY: Paranoia also figures into your work. Do you really think the government or corporations are watching us in ways we should be concerned about?
ABRAMS: Oh yeah, for sure. I’m not saying in this instant they are. But I defy anyone who lives in any size metropolis to travel 20 minutes and not see a bunch of surveillance cameras. Those cameras aren’t there to ignore you; they’re there to see you, and all that information is going into banks of digital recorders and oftentimes facial-recognition software. We’re all being tracked. When you have a fairly average life and you’re not doing anything particularly interesting or illegal or wrong, why should that bother you? Well, it means we’re all being recorded, our activities are being watched, and our privacy is being compromised. I think that’s something to be aware of, at the very least. It’s the premise behind Person of Interest, which is a show about being observed. On the positive side, the heroes of that show are good guys, since it’s also a show about wish fulfillment.
PLAYBOY: You’re certainly cautious about sharing information. It’s not just Star Wars you don’t want to talk about. You famously withhold almost all spoiler information on your projects. What prompted that?
ABRAMS: That’s a paranoia I’ve developed since the
script I wrote years ago was reviewed online. I always had a sense of how I enjoyed entertainment, which was to sit down in front of a TV or inside a darkened movie theater and be surprised by everything that happened on the screen. It used to be that to get a spoiler you had to really seek it out. Now you have to work to avoid it. If something happens on Downton Abbey or Homeland, you practically can’t speak to another human being or you’ll hear what happened. The truth is, people don’t like spoilers. When we were doing Lost, fans would ask me what was going to happen. Before I could even open my mouth, often they would say, “Don’t tell me.” Would I have wanted to hear from Rod Serling what was going to happen on each episode of The Twilight Zone? No way! The buy-in with entertainment like that—or with any great thrill—is that you’re going on an adventure and you don’t know where you’re heading. That’s the stuff of show-business magic.