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The Wisdom of JJ Abrams - Friday, March 2nd

"The truth is, there is no sure thing, and I would argue that when you are doing something that you do really care about, and are passionate about, the odds are overwhelmingly in your favor, it will succeed."

As part of the Day of Distribution, developed by Cinequest to further understanding and discussion of new distribution technologies, film community building and enterprising new business models, the packed audience at the San Jose Repertory Theater was treated to a sparkling 90-minute talk from one of the most exciting storytellers around today, JJ Abrams.

JJ Abrams is an accomplished writer (Regarding Henry, Forever Young, Armageddon among others), composer (most of his productions), producer (Felicity, Alias, Lost) and director (Felicity, Alias, Lost, Mission: Impossible III and the upcoming Star Trek XI)

The event kicked off with a presentation by Kathleen Powell to JJ, the beautiful Maverick Spirit Award, followed by a Palm Treo (one of the sponsors). JJ was very happy with the first, and slightly bemused by the second.

The conversation was moderated by Laura J Phelps, who wisely kept her questioning to the minimum to allow JJ to articulate his thoughts in his animated and often hilarious manner. JJ Abrams is an extremely amusing and entertaining public speaker, and kept the packed theater enthralled as he spoke about many different topics. Read on for selected highlights from his enlightening conversation.

JJ Abrams

on original ideas: "I have no idea what an audience is ever going to like. My guess is when people say ''they (the audience) will like this'' they are more often than not wrong. I feel that the ripping off of storylines typically doesn't work because the thing that is being ripped off is not the thing that sparked the original success. The idea that someone had and then the execution of that idea is often something that was truly inspiring, that wasn't about genre and wasn't about artifice or visual effects or some kind of market or demographic. It was about a character, it was about an idea, a feeling, and so a lot of times you'll see stories that are successful and then the things that follow that feeling or spirit, usually in television the next season or in film the next year, are ripping off the wrong thing."

on writing inspiration: "(The script for) Ordinary People was my teddy bear, it was my Linus blanket. We all have our talisman, that thing we look to, go to, think about, listen to, that helps us. Ordinary People to me was just a script that I would reference, I would flip through it and point to a page and would read it and feel like there was just something that gave me more inspiration. Also, Rod Serling was my idol, and reading his work is the closest thing that I could aspire to though I don't think I could ever achieve what he did. The computerized (script) printouts now have taken away all the romance of screenplays for me. I used to love screenplays, you could see they were type-written, they were Xeroxed. It was a sickness for me to point where I would turn in scripts to the studios but literally have the script Xeroxed five times before I submitted it, because it starts looking like a real script. I was convinced that executives would get a script and it looked too clean and decide to add notes to it. But if it was six generations copied they would say "Holy shit, this thing's been through it, this is a real script!"

on creating characters: "For me, writing characters is either there, in your gut, or it's not, voiced through the character. I'm never worried about finding the voices of characters, the truth is the characters to me are the absolute joy and fun of it, and when you have a story, often there is a character that is in a predicament that defines him or herself as well as the structure of the story. There's no way to disconnect them, there's no way to look at the character as separate from what the story is, only that character could be in that story and only that story could be happening to that character, and so the peripheral characters for me are fun. The main characters are defined by, and are defining, the structure of the story. At the same time, the immediate surrounding characters are essential because they are part of that story, and then usually there are about a couple of other characters that will help in the balance in case there's not enough humor in it, these people can be more silly whereas the main person can be more grounded, and that's a thing you feel. The characters that I tend to write about are people who are on the verge of discovering something that is ultimately very disturbing about themselves or the people close to them, or someone on the verge of some kind of epiphany."

on the evolution of Lost: "I got a phone call from the head of ABC, and he wanted to do a show about the survivors of a plane crash. I thought that sounded like an interesting hour, I wasn't sure what else you would really do, but I got it and could feel a Castaway kind of vibe. I had a couple of ideas and pitched him how weird it was, hoping that he would say "that's too weird", but he said "I love that! We need to green light it by next Friday." I suggested we meet with Damon Lindelof (from Crossing Jordon), and he came in on Monday. We wrote an outline with the help of some other writers from Alias, and gave (ABC) the 25 page outline on Friday. On that Saturday I got a phone call to say that it's green lit, so we have less than twelve weeks to turn it in, the final, filmed, posted, two hour pilot! We had to cast it, we had to find locations, we had to figure out the whole crew and go there and shoot it and post it and turn it in... but first we had to write it!"

on Tom Cruise and Steven Spielberg: "I meet Tom Cruise, right? Which, in of itself is just off the charts weird, because, this was a couple of years ago and he's so uber-famous that to be in a room with him, it's like the room isn't the room. It was with him and Steven Spielberg and we're having this discussion about War of the Worlds, but I couldn't (write it) because I was doing Lost. Every time I'm with (Steven) it always freaks me out because he's my idol, and as I'm sitting there talking to Steven it occurred to me that to be in a meeting with him and not have Steven be the one who was so freaky to be with was weird. I'm talking to Steven and my brain's like 'this is Steven Spielberg!' and then I look at Tom and I'm like, 'this is Tom Cruise!' Every single day (On the set of M:I III), Tom worked his ass off, he was just unbelievably focused and kind to the whole crew. He was deferential to me, he would bring up ideas, it was the greatest. If you work with Tom Cruise, you are spoiled for life."

on Star Trek: "If I talk about this movie, everyone else who is involved with it knows where I live and will use that and, er, kill me. I can say that when the script came in it was so well written, it was so emotional, it was fun, and big and I found myself unable to not direct it! I couldn't give it up. I think it's going to be great. If in my gut I felt there was nothing else to offer, I wouldn't do it. It's not a business decision, I would rather take no money and do something inspiring. I hope it ends up being both a really cool, original, emotional ride and comes from something that we're familiar with."

on the bottom line: "The truth is, there is no sure thing, and I would argue that when you are doing something that you do really care about, and are passionate about, the odds are overwhelmingly in your favor, it will succeed."

This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to JJ's conversation, but I hope to be posting some video clips of the event in the near future - stay tuned!

by Neil Baker


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CINEQUEST is a vanguard organization that fuses creativity with technological innovation to empower, improve, and transform the lives of people and communities.

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