Producer-director J.J. Abrams

The Emmy winner offers a peek inside his latest creation, the provocative interactive novel, S.

J.J. Abrams is one of the busiest people in Tinseltown. Not only is he the force behind several small-screen hits, including the phenom that was Lost, he has three series on three different networks—Revolution (FOX), Person of Interest (CBS) and Almost Human (NBC), which premieres in November. He's exec-producing a reboot of the 1960s sci-fi movie, Westworld, for HBO and, for the big screen, been given the reins to breathe new life into the Star Trek and Star Wars film franchises. If that isn't enough, the New York native conceived a mysterious interactive novel, S., penned by award-winning novelist Doug Dorst, that's been kept under deep cover until recently. Busy indeed!

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: J.J. Abrams has conquered television with a string of cult favorites, including “Lost” and “Fringe” and such current series as “Revolution,” “Person of Interest,” and the upcoming “Almost Human” that we’ll talk about tonight.

He’s also the man tasked with rebooting the “Star Trek” movies, and he’s just taken over the “Star Wars” franchise from creator George Lucas.

Somewhere along the line, I don’t know where or how, he found a way to conceive an interactive novel written with Doug Dorst. It’s titled “S.”

It’s being described as a literary puzzle playing out between two readers sending messages to each other in the margins of the text. Let’s take a look now at a provocative video J.J. has produced to draw attention to “S.”

[Clip]

Tavis: Wow. (Laughs) You are the best at intrigue.

J.J. Abrams: Oh, (laughs) thanks, man.

Tavis: The absolute best.

Abrams: Thank you very much.

Tavis: So only J.J. Abrams could, like, do a trailer for a book.

Abrams: Well, I’m sure it’s been done.

Tavis: Yeah, but not like that.

Abrams: Well, we wanted to do something that would make people wonder what the thing was. Like is it a movie, is it a show, and not really know. (Laughs) Certainly a book is as valid a means of storytelling as anything, so.

Tavis: I don’t know how, and so I didn’t attempt to describe what this is, because I don’t want to give too much away and I don’t want to shortchange you. So I’m glad that you’re here so (laughter) you can do the honors of describing what “S.” is.

Abrams: Sure. Well, what happened was 15 years ago I was at LAX, at the airport in L.A., and I saw a book sitting on a bench, and it was a Robert Ludlum novel.

No one was with it, no one was around, sitting with it, so I went up and I picked up the book and I opened it up, and it said, “Someone bought me, read the book, and brought me to LAX. Please take this book somewhere and leave it for someone else.” It was signed, “Janet.”

I just thought that was just a sort of optimistic idea, that someone would leave a book and write a note to whomever would find it, and it made me think of when I was in college and I would take out books in the library and I would see where someone else had sort of underlined text.

I always think like, why’d they underline that? What were they working on and why was that important to them? Often, you’d see, like, little, in margins, little notes that people would leave behind.

So what occurred to me was what would happen if someone found a book and there was a bunch of writing in it, and the person read some of the book and read some of the notes and, almost as a joke, wrote some notes in response, and then left the book back for the person.

What if that person who originally wrote the notes found the book, saw those notes, and actually left a thing? What if a relationship began between two people through a book? What if a book became a means to communicate?

It was this weird idea that just stuck with me for a long time. I told Lindsay Weber, who works with us at Bad Robot on the future side, and Lindsay found this incredible author named Doug Dorst, who is a brilliant guy. He’s like won “Jeopardy” three times and he’s just one of those people that kind of knows everything and you can’t stand it. (Laughter) I can’t.

He came in and we pitched this idea, and he, I saw this thing go off in his head, this, like, “Ding.” It was this weird thing, because we were talking about it would be the author of the book, you have to write the book, so that’s one voice.

Then it would be these two people – there’s a young woman who’s an undergrad student, and a young man who’s a grad student, who are writing back and forth, and it’s a love story between these two, which is what happens as you read the book.

But not only that, he came up with this idea where there would be this intrigue, this present-day intrigue where there was actual life-and-death stakes now, and where there’s an author, an editor of the book who actually has another voice too.

There are four voices. One person shouldn’t be able to do all this stuff and write all these voices, have them be so distinct. Doug did it, and he is an absolute genius. So Doug is the actual author of the book, but we worked on it together for a year and a half or so. He and Lindsay just did an extraordinary job on this.

Tavis: I’m going to open this up because I want to show the audience – first of all, the packaging on this is gorgeous.

Abrams: They did an amazing job.

Tavis: But as best I can, I’m going to get Jonathan to zoom in there in just a second and give you some sense of how the packaging on thing works. Before I do that, though, I’m just curious, and I don’t know that you know the answer to this, but if anybody does, you should. How – what allows your mind to work the way that it does?

If I had picked up this book at the airport, I would have been like, “Somebody left a book, duh.” (Laughter) I might have read it on the plane and just left it on the plane.

But the fact that you pick a book up at the airport and your mind immediately starts thinking what if, what if? I get the sense that part of what is at the epicenter of your creativity all around is that you are unafraid to ask, and you revel to asking the what-ifs.

Abrams: Well, the what-ifs – it’s funny you even say that. I never even thought about that, but what-ifs have been my favorite stories. You just think yeah, these things exist and those things exist, but what if they existed together?

We often talk about the sort of Reece’s Peanut Butter Cup thing, where it’s like oh, I love the chocolate, I love the peanut butter, but oh my God.

The fun thing about this was it was the idea of taking a found object and kind of celebrating it in this day of digital, and it, of course, will also be released digitally.

Tavis: Sure. (Laughter)

Abrams: But to celebrate the analogue, to celebrate the object. So the sort of what-if, as much as I might have envisioned as a cool thing, Doug just went above and beyond.

I’ve got to tell you, the publisher, Little, Brown, and Melcher Media, who did all the graphics and stuff – if you open it up, you can show your audience.

Tavis: I’m getting ready to, yeah. So first of all, it’s in this wonderful casing, and -

Abrams: It’s called “S.” You have the – yeah, there you go.

Tavis: It’s called “S.” (Laughter) That does not stand for “Smiley,” by the way. I wish it did, because I would love some of the royalties on this thing. (Laughter) It’s called “S.,” and then you kind of turn it around. Then it slides out of this wonderful casing.

Abrams: The little slipcase.

Tavis: The little slipcase. Here’s the – there’s your – you want to -

Abrams: So the book you get is called “Ship of Theseus,” and when you open it up, what you see is that there are not only – it looks like a library book, and it’s – but you see these notes that have been written inside of the book, and you realize it’s between these two people, this dialogue, sort of like a play -

Tavis: All these notes in the margins.

Abrams: – yeah, on top of a book. But then what you also realize is they’re referencing these things in the book that you actually start to find in the book, so that as they’re talking about – pieces of like, things from like a college newspaper -

Tavis: It just – this comes out, yes. You’ve got these little pieces.

Abrams: There are notes and there are postcards.

Tavis: I don’t want to – what’s the page for this?

Abrams: That’s all right, you can put it anywhere.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah.

Abrams: What ends up happening is you realize that there are these documents that exist that help explain sort of the backstory; there are letters that are written back and forth.

What you realize is this is the document of the love story between Jennifer and Eric, the two students.

Tavis: Right. Little compass here.

Abrams: That’s actually a code wheel.

Tavis: A code wheel.

Abrams: It’s part of a code in the book. It’s crazy.

Tavis: But it’s amazing. As you go through this thing, you just – all these clues, and -

Abrams: Well, there’s a big mystery that you’re exploring and understanding, and what you realize is that these two people who are, as they’re falling in love, they’re basically investigating this V. M. Straka, who’s the author of this book, “Ship of Theseus.”

Tavis: It must cost an arm and a leg to have this thing recreated.

Abrams: I cannot tell you, I was blown away -

Tavis: It’s very meticulous.

Abrams: It is gorgeous. The book, which is 30 bucks, so it’s not cheap, but it’s also, given everything that they did -

Tavis: It’s cheaper than what I thought it would be, yeah, yeah.

Abrams: – it is – I couldn’t believe the price point. So they did an amazing job, and I’ve got to tell you, Doug just wrote I think an extraordinary story.

Tavis: Are you a book reader? You mentioned the digital world we live in. I’m an old-school guy. I still read books.

Abrams: Yeah, there’s nothing better than – to me, we still read the newspaper every morning too. The truth is that given all the reading I have to do at work, it’s like working at an ice cream store, which I used to do. You love ice cream like crazy, but when you work at an ice cream store, you realize that the last thing you ever want is ice cream. (Laughter)

Tavis: That’s why I would never work at an ice cream store. (Laughter) I don’t want to ever have that experience.

Abrams: I’m telling you.

Tavis: Especially a Haagen Dazs ice cream store.

Abrams: Yeah, it’s the worst, it’s the worst. You feel like your favorite thing is suddenly business. But of course I do love to read, and this felt like – again, it reminded me of being in college, when I was forced to read and I had to read all these great books, that feeling of a book being alive and having been in someone else’s hands.

Tavis: I know you didn’t come up with this idea for that purpose, but this is – this might help save the book industry. The book industry, I know full well – I own a publishing house – it’s a tough business these days.

I don’t think books are ever going anywhere, but the business is really challenged now, like newspapers, because everybody’s making the transition to Web, to Internet-based, to ebooks. I totally get that.

But this is the kind of thing, this is laid out in such a creative and innovative way, that it makes you, even if you can get it online, it makes you want to go get the text.

Abrams: I’ve got to tell you, part of it was we wanted to create an object that you wanted to – like a keepsake, because it was so beautifully put together. So part of it was to celebrate the physical qualities of it, but I’ve also got to say there’s something about it.

It’s so beautifully done that when you look through it and you read it, you actually feel like you’re holding this document that was alive and it was vital and it was real. It doesn’t feel like you’re just reading a book.

It feels like this thing you’ve found that you’re starting to understand. Because their notes aren’t always chronological, you realize that some notes were written much later.

It’s a puzzle that you’re putting together as you’re reading it. You can also, by the way, just read the book – forget the text written around it and just read the book first. I’m very curious to sort of hear how people do this, like how many people will just read it all the way through, then go back and read the notes; how many people will read it consecutively, as they’re – it’s a very interesting, different experience.

Tavis: I suspect that your fans won’t have a problem with this, because you entertain people, but you also make them think and put things together in a number of the series that you’ve produced. Do people want to work that hard when they read?

Abrams: I’ve got to tell you, the fun of this is – and the answer will be clear when it is on sale and people buy it or not – but the thing to me that this is, the book itself, just the book, is wildly compelling and a legitimate novel.

We knew going into this if the novel didn’t work, then all the notes – it’s a big gimmick otherwise. By the way, I have nothing wrong with gimmicks. I love gimmicks when they serve something greater than the gimmick.

To me, that’s what this book does, and hopefully people will not feel like it’s work at all, but fun, sort of tracking and following. Again, the love story at the core of it is for me – every time I got to a place with the notes where I felt like it’s a little oblique, a little – you’d realize oh, she’s sharing this thing about her history, or the grad student, the guy, Eric, is sharing something about himself.

You start to realize that these are people you’re starting to care about. It’s such an odd way to do it, and I just think it feels like a very new experience.

Tavis: So this is “S.” the book, but I can’t imagine, knowing J.J. Abrams as I know him, (laughter) that this is the end-all, be-all. There has to be -

Abrams: There are some other things -

Tavis: There’s got to be some vertical integration, as we say.

Abrams: There’s a little bit of that, but I have to say that the mothership of this whole thing is what you’re holding, and it’s not like we’re trying to get people to get involved in some bigger, other – it’s just the entertainment, the story, is right there, and the idea that you’re basically holding this artifact that is sort of evidence of this relationship going from the beginning to blossoming into this love story is what you’re holding.

Tavis: Is this the first book you’ve done?

Abrams: Yes, it’s the first one that I’ve been involved with.

Tavis: What did you think of the process?

Abrams: In fairness, Doug -

Tavis: I know Doug did the -

Abrams: Doug did all the heavy lifting, so it was awesome. (Laughter)

Tavis: Did J.J. Abrams get close enough to the writing process to decide that maybe one day you’ll want to write?

Abrams: What I would say is it is without question the people at Little, Brown and Mulholland Books, the publishing house, have been so wonderful that it feels like the idea of writing a book one day would be, is incredibly appealing to me.

Though I don’t know what it would be, it’s something that – my guess is the first book I do, if I get to do one, would be a kid’s book, because I could sort of do some of the graphics and stuff a well.

But it was a blast doing this, and I couldn’t be more grateful for not just the process and Doug and everything, but the final product, which I think is gorgeous.

Tavis: Oh, the final product is amazing. So how fun was it then doing the trailer we saw?

Abrams: Oh, it was amazing. The fun with that was we could sort of do anything, and even though we didn’t know if we were going to finally release it, when we saw it we thought yeah, this is cool enough. It felt like it was a compelling enough piece to put it out there.

I think it was in 48 hours there were two-million-plus views. It happened very quickly. So I’m just hoping that people are curious and check it out, because I think they’ll be really happy with the book.

Tavis: I don’t want to color this question too much deliberately and unapologetically. We talked the last time you were on this program a lot about your creativity, and this clearly falls into the realm of creativity. But I wonder from your own perspective if you might also speak to the value you obviously have not just for creativity, but for innovation.

This is not just creative, this is innovation, and you’ve done that, again, in some of your other TV and movie work. But tell me about, just talk to me about innovation as you see it.

Abrams: Well, I think that it’s a tricky thing because we live in a moment in films, for example, where you can do anything – where you can just see anything, show anything.

I think that that’s cool and great. But there’s a certain inauthentic quality sometimes that comes with that, where you feel like the ability to sort of do anything ultimately leads to sometimes an empty spectacle.

I think innovation can sometimes take – can be perceived as something that is visually dynamic or gimmicky, for lack of a better term. I think that with this book, and certainly with the work that we try to do in TV and movies, we try to tell stories that aren’t as much innovative in terms of new technologies and new techniques, but making people feel something.

Like the innovation of how do you do something differently. The fun of this was actually reading it myself; I actually had that feeling I was hoping people would have, which is ooh, I’m not seeing this anywhere else.

I guess that to me is what innovation really is. It’s like what doesn’t exist, but all I’m getting at is sometimes that doesn’t mean going forward and breaking new ground that way. Sometimes it’s going backwards and saying what is the thing that is a little bit simpler? What’s the thing that makes you feel?

I think this last summer, and certainly we were guilty as anyone, there was this sense at the theaters, in movies, of just being bombarded with noise and stuff and violence and cities getting destroyed everywhere you look.

I think that there’s a little bit of a sense of is that really innovation? It’s just sort of more stuff. So I just think sometimes it’s good to kind of go let’s go back. Working on the “Star Wars” movies we’re just trying to think what’s the thing that makes you feel deeper?

Not necessarily what’s the thing that is the most – visually I’m not worried.

I know we’ll get to that stuff. What are the things that make you feel like oh, this doesn’t exist right now out there? I’m not feeling this anywhere else. We tried to do that with this.

Tavis: Since you raised it, I was on a plane again somewhere the other day reading an article about – my phrase, not theirs, I don’t think – the cannibalization of Hollywood. That over this past summer Hollywood put so much stuff out that it worked against itself. Does that ring true to you?

Abrams: I think that if you just look at the supply and demand of it all, it’s almost impossible to deny that there was just so much supply that at a certain point the demand is going to be threatened, or at least go down.

Not only that, but studios – I was talking to Kathy Kennedy, and she was saying how she remembers celebrating the one-year anniversary that “Raiders of the Lost Ark” was in theaters. Going to theaters and having cakes there because it had been in the theater for a year.

Everything’s changed so much, but we are now in a place where it’s almost like a sporting event. You go there and you check it out and then it’s over. I think that the industry needs to figure out ways to put movies, spread them out throughout the year, and not just think oh, it’s the summer, kids are out of school, and let’s just have a huge week, because that’s kind of all you get.

Tavis: Since we’re on the subject right quick, is there one thing above all else about the business of Hollywood that concerns you, given the trajectory you think that it’s on? About the business of Hollywood?

Abrams: Yeah, and it’s something that I’m involved in and we are – Bad Robot is developing a number of movies that don’t fall into this category. Sometimes you think well, you do what you’ve got to do to do what you want to do.

I feel like I’m not complaining at all. I feel incredibly lucky to get to work in some of the stories and existing film series – I hate the term “franchise,” but it’s sort of used all the time now – that exist.

But I do think that when you see the studios making movies because they’ve run the numbers, that’s the way the system works. The marketing department tells the studios what they think they can make, and they’re pretty accurate.

That really dictates what films get greenlit and what don’t, and I think that that means that a lot of hugely vital, important, entertaining, funny, heartbreaking, important stories are not going to be told because the marketing department is honestly saying it wasn’t a comic book before; it wasn’t an existing film series or a TV show.

So I think that to me, that’s the biggest threat to the industry, and again, it’s something that I’m part of, so I can’t say that I’m not part of that system. Yet I think that there are filmmakers out there who are doing wildly entertaining movies that happen to be based on preexisting things. I hope I fall into that category.

Tavis: You can perhaps, as you always do, enlighten me on this, and maybe I won’t use the word “franchise” anymore either, if I can be convinced that it’s not the right word to use. So why do you not like “franchise?”

Abrams: Well, I think that – growing up, I only heard franchise when it was talking about McDonald’s. It was just sort of -

Tavis: Right. Oh, I see, yeah.

Abrams: It just feels like it becomes a product, and it’s no longer about character or stories or things that move you. It’s about a machine. There’s no question that I’m working with companies and studios for whom shareholders and the bottom line are hugely important.

I was going to say “paramount,” but (unintelligible) just paramount. But the truth is that it really is show business, I understand and I respect it. That’s why we make our movies on schedule and on budget and everything.

However, I think it’s critical that movies that aren’t just based on preexisting movies or shows or comic books are getting made. It happens. It just doesn’t happen as often as it should.

Tavis: See, because J.J. Abrams told me, I will never use the word franchise again. It’s now “film series.” (Laughter) That’s the new phrase around here – film series. I like that.

You mentioned the word “product” a moment ago. Whether you like it or not, like it or loathe it, you are a product these days; you are a brand, put another way. What do you want the J.J. Abrams brand to stand for?

Abrams: That’s a great question. I would hope that whatever we do, and I feel like again, though it may be my name that gets put out there sometimes, it is the company, Bad Robot, that we all work together.

I hope that what we’re all doing is telling stories that have strong values, that have a big heart. It’s one of the reasons I loved as a kid Steven Spielberg’s films, is that even though they were often scary and they were sometimes mysterious and seemed dangerous, and even films like “Schindler’s List” that were historical documents.

His movies were made with a deep sense of humanity, and I think that to me is maybe the most important thing. I would hope that people feel like, when they go to see a movie that we do or watch a show that we do, that there is a sense of humanity, a sense of humor, and a sense ultimately of optimism.

Because I feel like that is something that I have always loved about movies – leaving a theater feeling better and bigger and stronger, and not feeling somehow diminished.

Tavis: Speaking of humanity, great segue. The one thing I have not asked you about is “Almost Human.” So tell me about the series.

Abrams: This is a show that’s on Fox. It was created by Joel Wyman, who ran the show “Fringe” with us for a number of years. It is a really cool, fun cop show, and it’s sort of like a genre that’s very, very familiar.

One of the big differences with this one is that this one character, played by Karl Urban, has a partner played by Michael Ealy, who is not human. He is synthetic. It’s a futuristic cop show.

They each – it’s a little bit yin-yang, because they each have elements of them physically that are not human, and the story is sort of how these two work together in a world where there are cases unlike anything you’ve seen before.

Tavis: Yeah. I like Michael Ealy a lot. I’m glad he’s got a shot at this.

Abrams: That man is really talented.

Tavis: He’s a great actor.

Abrams: We’re very lucky to have him.

Tavis: Yeah. All right, so the book is out now, and it’s called – bam – “S.” J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst. You will want to get it. Again, J.J.’s right – you can read it straight through or you can read it as I am and have fun with all the paraphernalia that you find inside that help you with these clues and to try to figure this out. So this is my new project at the moment.

Abrams: Fantastic.

Tavis: Well, thank you for bringing this to me.

Abrams: It is my pleasure and my honor.

Tavis: I appreciate it. I am always – you were kind to come on our show just a month or so ago, and you were kind to come back when the book was out.

Abrams: I love being here.

Tavis: I thank you for your time. You’re always so fun to talk to.

Abrams: Oh, you’re the greatest. Thank you.

Tavis: Thank you. Proud of you, man.

Abrams: Appreciate.

Tavis: Appreciate you. That’s our conversation tonight with J.J. Abrams. Thanks for watching. Good night from L.A., and as always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

[Walmart sponsor ad.]

“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: November 25, 2013 at 12:00 pm