J.J. Abrams: The mystery man

Meet the filmmaker who’s about to bring Han, Chewie, Leia and the gang back to life for billions of insanely excited fans.

Adam Smith December 15, 2015

It’s fair to say that more than a few visitors to the Santa Monica offices of J.J. Abrams’ production company, Bad Robot, have become hopelessly lost on the way. And the inconspicuous sign which sits, in small type, above a single button that gently glows green, doesn’t give much away either. To confuse visitors even further, the building bears the name ‘National Typewriter Company’, an organisation that does not exist.

Unlike the other production outfits that dot these chi-chi boulevards, Bad Robot doesn’t advertise its presence so much as playfully disguise it. A meeting with J.J. Abrams, then, is framed from the very start, not as a business transaction, but more like the beginning of an adventure; a portal into a meticulously framed mystery.

It’s an odd way to carry on in an industry not known for understatement. But then for the man inside, currently the hottest director in Hollywood, working on the hottest project in town, mystery has always been what it’s all about.

JJ Abrams Bad Robot.jpg Abrams puts his feet up in the office of his production company, Bad Robot.

When he was in his early teens one of Jeffrey Jacob Abrams’ favourite places was Lou Tannen’s Magic Store in Manhattan. On one visit he spied one of Tannen’s most popular items, the ‘Mystery Box’. Fifty dollars’ worth of hocus pocus for a mere 15 bucks.

Abrams bought one of the brown cardboard boxes, about the size of a shoebox, held together with parcel tape and bearing a large question mark. When he got it home he stared at it and had an epiphany: it was the single realisation that would inform his working life. The riddle of the box, its real secret, was that the lure of what might be inside, was way more exhilarating than anything that it could possibly actually contain.

“It’s like when you’re watching a magic trick,” he said later. “There’s this feeling where you don’t really know where it’s going to go. There’s something about it that’s so primal, wonderfully infuriating.”

And so J.J. didn’t open the box. He placed it on a shelf in his room and looked at it. And here’s the kicker. He still does. It sits, battered, the parcel tape peeling, but still unopened, on a shelf in Santa Monica, nearly 40 years after he took it home. That decades-old parcel doesn’t contain the secret of what makes Abrams tick: it is the secret of what makes Abrams tick.

Tannen Magic.jpg Tannen Magic, Manhattan, where Abrams bought his most treasured possession.

He’d been something of an oddball from the start. While he was at elementary school, one concerned educator reported worrying playground behaviour to his parents which, she thought, might need further investigation. As the other kids climbed and swung on the jungle jim, young J.J. declined to join in the fun. Instead he was observed watching the kids play, covering first his left and then his right eye with his hand, grinning as if he had just discovered some astounding secret. Perhaps he was autistic, his teacher had worried, or maybe some kind of ‘voyeuristic oddball’.

“I’d found that by covering my eye the foreground moved the parallax,” he explained years later. “That is, the foreground moved faster than the background.” The third-grader then was, to all intents and purposes, framing shots.

As well as tinkering with electronics and conjuring, Abrams had fallen for that other repository of shared illusion, the movies, from an early age. Born into the heyday of Hollywood’s Second Golden Age, he was formed, as was his entire generation, by the works of Spielberg, Lucas and Coppola, the trio who had single-handedly revived Hollywood after the long, lingering death of the old studios.

Star Wars was an immediate, and inevitable favourite, but he was more immediately struck with Jaws; the way Spielberg teased the audience with glimpses of the shark’s handiwork, ratcheting up the tension while using a kind of conjurer’s misdirection to deliver a story, not about a killer shark, but about a family in crisis.

Jaws 40th anniversary Abrams was a huge fan of Jaws.

After much pestering, Abrams’ grandfather bought him an 8mm camera which he and his childhood pal Matt Reeves used to great effect; casting his sister in improvised but highly intricate home movies. A few years later, after the family had moved to California, he and Matt entered a young filmmakers’ competition and an impressed Steven Spielberg himself contacted the youngster, asking if he’d be willing to transfer some 8mm footage he himself had shot when he was the boys’ age.

By his college years Abrams was already writing, and more astonishingly, selling screenplays. Taking Care Of Business, a screwball-ish comedy with Paul Mazursky was the first sale. Then came Regarding Henry, a shameless piece of Oscar-bait for Harrison Ford.

Seemingly effortlessly bypassing the years of struggle, rejection and failure that are meant to accompany Hollywood ambitions, he was an established player by his mid 20s, penning screenplays and TV series throughout the 1990s. “He has this Spielberg thing,” Jay Fernandez, a journalist for The Hollywood Reporter, wrote. “He pulsates with a love of TV and movies. Incredible ideas just seem to fall out of his pockets.”

But his big breakthrough originated not with him, but with that much maligned species, a TV executive. In 2004 ABC chief Lloyd Braun had come up with the notion of a show that bundled elements of Gilligan’s Island, Lord Of The Flies and reality hit Survivor while he was vacationing in Hawaii.

After a number of false starts with other creative teams, Abrams and co-creator Damon Lindelof pitched Lost and, true to form, Abrams located the key to the series’ subsequent success in a huge central conundrum, an animating question mark.

Lost TV series.jpg Lost was a breakout hit for Abrams.

“There has to be something wrong with the island,” he said in an early script meeting. That mysterious wrongness would pervade the show, unifying fans in frenzied speculation over six seasons, establishing itself an outrider of the new age of television, and Abrams as one of its key figures.

His first outing as a movie director was on Mission: Impossible III. He would subsequently similarly successfully relaunch the Star Trek franchise in 2009. But the brace of movies that perfectly encapsulate the Abrams sensibility, a blend of homage and innovation, of mystery, action and sentiment are Cloverfield and Super 8.

And now there is Star Wars: The Force Awakens…

The Disney Company announced that it was buying Lucasfilm (or, more accurately the rights to the Star Wars franchise) for $4 billion in October 2012. Shortly after, Abrams got a call from Kathleen Kennedy, the veteran producer who had taken charge of the project and had a simple request: “Please do Star Wars.”

And Abrams said no. He’d been a fan of course. He’d first seen it at the perfect age of 11. “I just remember going into the theatre and coming out with a larger imagination,” he remembers of an experience that was forging an entire generation’s celluloid heritage.

Mark Hamill Carrie Fisher Star Wars.jpg Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher in the original 1977 Star Wars film.

But he turned down the gig because he had his hands full with the next Trek movie and there was the matter of a long postponed family vacation. Then, gradually, something started beckoning him: questions, ideas, mysteries.

“I fully expected to gratefully pass,” he said in the midst of post-production earlier this year. “But then this idea... what happened in these past 30-something years? Where is Han Solo? What happened to Leia? Is Luke alive? I was suddenly thrown completely by this visceral hunger to be a part of this world.” The mystery had got him. Again.

“I’ve known J.J. since he was 15 years old,” said Kennedy of her choice of director. “He was always at the top of my list. Both George Lucas and Steven Spielberg have a little corniness on their sense of humour and the ability to find that balance between gravitas, real emotion and playfulness. J.J. is one of the few directors that has that kind of sensibility.”

Star-Wars-director-JJ-Abrahams-Abu-Dhabi.jpg Abrams on the Stars Wars set in Abu Dhabi.

For Abrams the gravity exerted by George Lucas’s sci-fi behemoth had finally proven irresistible. But it was only once he had said yes, that the awful responsibility of injecting new life into the Star Wars universe began to dawn on him.

“It was so near and dear to me that the idea of being involved felt dangerous,” he admitted before shooting began in locations such as Abu Dhabi, Ireland and at Pinewood Studios in England where Lucas had shot the original trilogy. “I want this movie to touch people. I want to make them believe again in the power of the world that George created. The power of the light side versus the dark side, the power of The Force.”

Yet one thing he definitely didn’t want anyone to know much about what he had in mind for Leia, Luke, Han and the gang before they step into cinemas on December 17. And thus one of the most secretive shoots in living memory began.

Script pages were distributed to actors, often singly and printed in red ink on purple paper to render them unscannable. Anyone even tangentially involved signed Non Disclosure Agreements that may as well have been written in blood. When a toy executive tweeted that he had visited the set at Pinewood Studios in the UK, his account was deleted minutes later.

Kylo Ren Storm Troopers Star Wars.jpg Details of the film's plot have been kept firmly under wraps.

Trailers have been dissected to wring them dry of clues as to what the movie might contain. Which is just the way Abrams wants it. “Why does it feel like the world has been ripped open?” he lamented of the digital age recently. “We’re smack in the middle age of immediacy. Earning the endgame seems so yesterday.”

Abrams is, has always been, doing his best to re-inject that thrill of the unknown, the promise and expectation he had had when he was a kid in Tannen’s Magic Store, back into our demystified lives. It brings him, and us, back to that old brown box, sitting on a shelf in Santa Monica.

“It represents possibility, it represents hope, it represents potential,” he once said of the box. But it’s as good as any as a summation of his approach to storytelling. And soon the biggest, the most enticing, the most mysterious mystery box J.J. Abrams has ever constructed is going to be ripped open.

Are you ready?