Writer-director-producer J.J. Abrams

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The Emmy-winning hero to sci-fi followers everywhere previews his TV and film projects.

J.J. Abrams' name is as familiar as the stars of his projects. Successful in both TV and film, the award-winning producer-writer-director is the force behind several small-screen hits, including Lost, Revolution and Person of Interest. And, since making his feature directorial debut with Mission: Impossible III, he's breathed new life into the Star Trek franchise and was tapped to launch the next series of Star Wars films. The NY native became infatuated with the business at age 8 and sold his first screenplay before college graduation. Abrams' newest drama series, Almost Human, debuts this season, and he'll also exec produce HBO's reboot of the sci-fi movie Westworld.


Tavis: J.J. Abrams is the force behind such hit TV series as “Person of Interest,” the gone but never forgotten and still-debated “Lost,” the underappreciated “Fringe,” the upcoming “Almost Human,” and the returning “Revolution.”

HBO has also just tapped him to reboot the 1960 science fiction movie “Westworld.” He took over the “Star Trek movies, breathing new life into that franchise, and George Lucas chose him to launch the new series of “Star Wars” movies. I’m tired just reading all this, man. (Laughter)

J.J. Abrams joins an elite group of creators, headed by Lucas and Spielberg, whose names alone guarantee an audience. Let’s take a look at a clip from “Revolution,” which returns tomorrow night.


Tavis: I know in your modesty you won’t accept this, but my friends and I think that you are probably now the most powerful man in television. I know you’ll deflect that.

J.J. Abrams: Well, it’s obviously not true, but it’s a lucky thing to get involved at all, and I feel blessed that I get to be part of entertaining people in any capacity.

Tavis: How do you manage? I was saying this to you when you walked on the set. You asked me how I was doing, I said I’m doing great. I said I know how you’re doing, you’re doing fairly well.

I guess I expected you to be all kind of broken down when you walked in here, because it’s one thing (laughter) to have all these opportunities –

Abrams: It shows you how –

Tavis: – but there are only 24 hours in a day.

Abrams: It shows you how good your makeup people are. (Laughter)

Tavis: Sheila got a shout-out (unintelligible) yeah.

Abrams: She’s the greatest. (Unintelligible) (Laughter) I will tell you, it’s working with great people. I work with amazing people who – at this company Bad Robot, we have a little company, and we just all – we’re Sherpas for each other. We’re all pulling each other up the hill.

Tavis: Creatively, though – all jokes aside – creatively, how do you juggle that many balls at one time? It’s not like any of the balls that you’re juggling are, like, inconsequential. We’re talking about not just balls, these are franchises, in many cases, that you’re juggling.

For those watching who think that they can’t squeeze any more creativity out of themselves or that they can’t do any more, they can’t go any further, seriously, how do you manage all of that?

Abrams: Part of it is, in terms of inspiration, is working with people that actually inspire you. I think it’s almost a chemical thing. It sounds obvious and silly, but finding people that make you go ooh, I want to come up with a better idea, because I want to impress that person, I want to make that person laugh, I want to make that – you know.

It’s a thing that whenever you’re playing sports with people who are better than you are, it makes you rise to the occasion. So part of it’s that, working with people at Bad Robot, with the studios that we work with, the networks we work with, to try and collaborate with inspiration.

The other thing is in terms of television, when we do shows like “Person of Interest,” for example, you’ve got people like Jonah Nolan, who created that show, who came to us and pitched us this idea.

He had this idea that was important to him, and the guy’s such a talented writer, this guy is a genius. So it was a no-brainer to say we want to work with him because we want to see that show.

Same with “Revolution,” Eric Kripke pitched us the idea for “Revolution,” and we thought we want to watch that. It just was a kind of – you’ve got to be the audience, not look down to them, not say, “Oh, they’ll like this.”

You’ve got to go, “I’d watch that. That seems good because I want to see that thing.” That’s the only litmus test I know.

Tavis: How do you know that what interests you, speaking of “Person of Interest,” how do you know that what interests this person will interest other persons?

Abrams: It’s a very funny thing, I had lunch a few years ago with Paul Simon, Simon and Garfunkel, and I was talking about this very thing. He was saying how – I was just listening. He was amazing.

He was saying how that for a while, the stuff that interested him did interest people. They were top of the charts, they were revolutionary in a lot of ways as musicians.

He said, “Then sometimes you get to a place and not everyone reacts.” I think it’s not about when your time is and isn’t, and people have ups and downs. I think you can’t predict anything. You don’t know what anyone’s going to say.

But I think you do the best you can to go this feels like something that actually does interest me. This is an idea that actually does spark something in me. All you can do is that.

If you go at it from the beginning saying, “Oh, the audience will like this,” I think the odds of it working at all drop enormously. Not that it can’t happen; I’m sure this happens all the time.

But I think it’s a dangerous thing to enter into something when you’re like, “I don’t know, but it’s an opportunity. Let’s try it.” It just feels like it’s corrupt before it even begins.

Tavis: Let me explore, if I can, the Abrams-Simon lunch that I wish I had been a part of. That would have been (laughter) –

Abrams: Okay.

Tavis: I want to be a fly on the wall for that lunch. But let me explore that, if I can. So the difference, as I see it, listing very quickly here, the difference between Abrams and Simon is that Simon is called upon, I believe, as most artists are – whether or not they accept this is a different issue – but I think artists at their best are called upon to speak a certain truth through their music.

So Simon, if he’s being true to himself, has to live and speak and express his truth, whether or not it resonates with the audience.

Abrams: That’s right.

Tavis: Hence his point, sometimes they get it, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they like it, sometimes they don’t.

Abrams: That’s right.

Tavis: But I’ve got to live in my truth.

Abrams: Yes.

Tavis: I get that. Truth doesn’t necessarily have a place in your world. Maybe it does; you can push back. You’re entertaining people, so it’s a little bit different. One day you entertain them and they like this. Will Smith, for example – last movie, people didn’t like so much. For years now he’s been the blockbuster every summer.

Abrams: Sure.

Tavis: So you put stuff out because it’s about taste – that’s what I want to say. With you it’s about taste, with Simon it’s about truth. What happens when your taste gets out of sync? Does that make sense?

Abrams: It makes perfect sense.

Tavis: Okay.

Abrams: I think that the – with music, and of course there are different mediums, so it’s not a complete –

Tavis: It’s not one to one, yeah, I got it.

Abrams: Yeah, the metaphor is a little bit of a stretch. But I do feel like no matter what you’re doing, whether it’s music or writing a play or a poem or drawing a picture or painting something, that you’re speaking to what is it you want to express, what is it you want to see.

Now granted, I may not be doing something as pure as writing a novel or a song, but when I got a phone call from the head of ABC, who said, “I want to do a series about people who survive a plane crash,” and I called him back and said, “Well, here’s my version of it,” this is before I even met with Damon Lindelof and we even started talking about it. But my first-blush reaction, which was it’s not a regular island, there’s a hatch, there’s a whole bunch of stuff going on, that was as close to my truth within those parameters –

Tavis: Fair enough.

Abrams: – as a songwriter.

Tavis: What is it do you think that’s happening, and maybe you don’t even want to question this; I don’t know – what’s happening now that’s allowing you, though, to hit the mark every time, as it were, with being a taste-maker, trying to get your truth out vis-à-vis entertainment? It’s working, for some reason.

Abrams: Well I have to say first of all, I do feel, like I said before, incredibly lucky to get to do any of this. I feel like, that opportunity creates opportunity, and that when you do something and it starts to work, you have other opportunities to do more.

I do think that without question I end up saying yes to too many things, despite our saying no to almost everything. That there are moments where I think oh, it would be so much easier if this didn’t exist or that didn’t exist.

But the truth is it’s not just me. At Bad Robot, we have people who work in TV and film, my producing partner, Bryan Burk, so it’s a group, it’s a kind of campaign.

When there’s something that comes along like this “Westworld” thing, which by the way is something that Jonah Nolan and his wife, Lisa Joy, are going to write, and he’s going to direct.

These are people who are not just righteous, talented, worthy artists, they’re people who – they’re going to do it with or without us. So the opportunity to work with them is so delicious that it’s very hard to say, “No, Jonah, with whom we do ‘Person of Interest,’ no, we’re not going to do that with you.”

It’s like you want to work with the people who you want to work with. So we’re saying yes to people who don’t need to be babysat, they don’t need their job to be done for them.

So when you say “taste-maker,” I feel like I’m part of a larger sort of – I feel like a vessel that sort of helps take ideas like Eric Kripke’s with “Revolution,” and brings it to the audience.

But they’re certainly – I don’t create all the shows that I produce, and I would be taking credit for something that would be unfair if I said so.

Tavis: That’s fair. I was on a plane coming home yesterday from somewhere, and reading, as I always am, and reading an article about advice for professionals. One of them was learn how to say no.

I’m sure you’ve seen these lists before. You’ve got to say no more often. You can’t say yes to everything.

Abrams: No, I’ve not. (Laughter) Yeah, (unintelligible).

Tavis: (Unintelligible) As evidenced by your long litany of things you’re, the list of things you’re working on, you don’t say no, barely.

Abrams: No, no, I hear what you’re saying.

Tavis: But when something comes across your desk and you know that you cannot say no to this, you cannot say no to this, what are the elements that make it impossible for you to say no to it?

Abrams: Sometimes it could be that it’s a writer who is just someone whose work has blown you away, and you think I just would feel lucky to be part of whatever that thing is.

Sometimes it’s there’s a character. Other times it’s like with “Star Trek.” Frankly, I was not a big “Star Trek” fan when I first got involved with the films, but the idea of a “Star Trek” that did appeal to me was an exciting challenge.

With “Star Wars,” it was something I loved so much when I was a little kid that I went into a meeting knowing I was going to say no, but talking to Kathy Kennedy, the producer, the idea of it (laughter) was so surreal, to be involved with that world, that I ran downstairs to Katie, my wife, after the meeting was over, and just said, “I know I was going to just say no, but that was a really compelling meeting.” (Laughter) And Katie was like, “Oh, God.”

Tavis: Yeah.

Abrams: So it’s a thing that you feel. It’s like casting a role in a movie or a show, or frankly, more importantly by quite a bit, meeting the person that you know you should be with for the rest of your life.

You can talk about it forever, and you can sort of try and quantify what the qualities are, but the truth is when you walk into that restaurant and you see that person, it just hits you and you go, “That’s the person that -” so it’s hard to know exactly what those qualities are.

Tavis: So here now you’ve raised two franchises. Let me take one at a time. I’ve got a number of questions about “Star Trek,” but let me start with this – how is it that you acknowledge that you were not a big fan of the franchise, and yet you took it and did something with it that fans apparently loved, as evidenced by ticket sales.

Abrams: Well, part of it was I had an amazing cast, incredible writers, and though I wasn’t a huge fan of “Star Trek,” I became a fan getting to know it, working on it.

The fact is those are wonderful characters and incredible relationships, and the funny thing is that “Star Trek” always felt a little bit sort of phony and sort of self-serious and stuff.

I came to appreciate it so much more, the intelligence of the debates, the political ramifications of – what Roddenberry was doing when he created “Star Trek” was obviously such a comment on where we were as a country at the time.

The idea of people working together, the unity of people from various countries, different races, all working together, that never being an issue between them at all, it’s just us, as humans, working together, it’s sort of an undeniably beautiful thing.

Stuff that was far more impactful and important that I was just not looking at suddenly became the tenets of why this thing was so great. So I’ve become, like, an evangelist about “Star Trek,” whereas as a kid, I was always like, “Ah.” It just didn’t click with me, and now I kind of see why my friends were such fans.

Tavis: To your point about Gene Roddenberry and his creation of “Star Trek” as something that could offer commentary about the world that we live in, if you were to pick one of your projects now that obviously you’re not preaching, you’re not proselytizing, but if there is a project that you’re working on now that you think speaks something to us about our times, whatever that might be, what project is that and what are you trying to say to us through the project?

Abrams: All right, well, I’m going to do something I don’t like to do. I’m going to cheat. I’m going to answer with two things.

Tavis: That’s fair.

Abrams: One is I think the –

Tavis: I got time, go ahead.

Abrams: All right, thank you, sir. One, I think “Revolution” does speak to our reliance on technology on a certain way that is dangerous, and to anyone who has kids, who watches them pull up their cell phones and doing the Instagram and Facebook thing and kind of only knowing how to communicate with people when you’re looking at that screen, but then you see them all together and no one knows how to talk to each other and you’re like, what the hell is happening.

I think that “Revolution” sort of speaks to a kind of elusive quiet, and a moment of shutting down and turning off the machine, which I think is something that is a little bit of a wish fulfillment as much as it is a cautionary tale.

The other answer I would say, and kind of the other edge to that sword, is “Person of Interest,” which I think is a show that for a couple of years was doing stories about how we are being watched, and when Jonah Nolan pitched the idea, it sounded a little paranoid.

Tavis: Until. (Laughs)

Abrams: Until.

Tavis: Until you got your “New York Times.”

Abrams: Until – exactly. (Laughter) All you do is read the paper and you’re like – all real.

Tavis: Yeah, exactly.

Abrams: That show, which is I think a molecule away from being what it is – while it’s not a documentary, it’s a very entertaining show, and compelling and funny and dramatic. But at the core of it, I think, is a sort of little wake-up call to everyone that what we do, what we see, who we speak with, where we go, all of that stuff is being watched. I think that it’s less paranoid than true.

Tavis: Before I move on to the other series you raised a moment ago, “Star Wars,” I know that your lovely bride for years now has been involved with the Children’s Defense Fund. Marian Wright Edelman was a guest on this program just a few days ago.

I know that she’s been very much involved with that and you’ve been supportive of that.

Abrams: Sure.

Tavis: Are you comfortable – I’m extending this question now about what these shows, “Revolution” and “Person of Interest,” are saying about the times that we live. Are you comfortable staying in the space of creator and producer and having your say, or do you expect at some point later in your life that you’ll be, that you’ll step outside of that, step off that platform and get more involved in the politics and the social issues of our time beyond just being the Hollywood figure? Does that make sense?

Abrams: Yes, it does. First of all, while I think my wife, Katie, who used to work on Capitol Hill for Ted Kennedy for a few years, is infinitely more comfortable in the realm of politics.

I am always blown away by not just her knowledge, but her ability to articulate what is true so quickly. She has this great sort of true north quality of what is right.

She’s gotten us involved in a lot of things that have been very important. In fact, by the way, while we’re still sort of steeped in the middle of business, even our little company, Bad Robot, has a diversity fellowship program.

One of the things that is undeniable, and you can’t help but see it, is when you go to the Emmy Awards and you look around, you go – it is as white as possible. I’m not saying there aren’t great exceptions, wonderful, beautiful exceptions, but I’m telling you, it is – you cannot deny this.

One of the things that we are working to do is find people who have stories that are as valid as anyone else’s, if not more so, who are filmmakers who are not just coming out of university, but others as well, who are worthy of a chance to make a film.

We have this fellowship where we pick two directors a year and they make their films, and it’s at Bad Robot. The idea is to – we set them up with the heads of all the departments, the best in the business, and they get to do interviews.

It is like a crash course in movie-making, and a lot of these people, while they may not need it, what you need is relationships. What’s incredible is you realize how much comes from who you know and who you can call and who you’re comfortable with.

There is this gulf, this divide, that is I think entirely unfair, that we in our small way at Bad Robot are trying to bridge. But I have little interest in getting involved personally in that way, although we have supported, including the Children’s Defense Fund, and who’s more wonderful than Marian, who founded that organization and spoke so beautifully at the anniversary of the March on Washington.

But she is just an inspiration nonstop, and I don’t think you need to give up your day job to do the right thing.

Tavis: Yeah. Is that diversity program at this point bearing fruit, or you expect that it will in the future?

Abrams: Well, it has in that we’ve already had two years of it and we’ve gotten to see some great work by some great talents. As any fellowship evolves and you realize oh, here’s things we should do next time, we’re still working to make it as much fun and fruitful as possible.

But I think that already, in ways that you can’t even – I can’t tell you that this person is, he or she is going off directing this or that yet. But I will say that you already see, in the fact that these people all know each other now, that the best in writers and cinematographers and designers, they all know each other now with these four filmmakers.

We just hope to keep doing that and begin to build a tapestry of relationships that everyone can benefit everyone.

Tavis: I appreciate the diversity effort that you have, and I know a number of other writing programs at some other companies around town. There’ve been a number of stories about the huge number of Black films – 25 of them coming out this year – so something is happening at the moment where Black filmmakers are taking stock of their own situation and deciding that they’re going to have to do it for themselves.

Abrams: That’s right.

Tavis: Where the industry is concerned, what’s still holding back that real embrace of diversity that you’re doing your part to (unintelligible)?

Abrams: I’ve got to say, look, we can always do more, but I’ll say this – that the “Fruitvale Stations” of the world are fantastic, and we need more of those amazing movies.

But I would also say that having a director of color doesn’t mean it’s got to be a Black movie, per se.

Tavis: Absolutely, fair enough.

Abrams: I think it could just be a movie. So there’s a film we’re working on right now, we have a director who happens to be Black who’s working on that film. The movie’s not particularly Black. There will be some actors in it who are, and some who aren’t, but it’s just a movie.

To me, I feel like it does ultimately, I think, speak to – studios want to do what works, and so they go to those people, mostly men, mostly white men, who look like me.

But it’s true – mostly white guys who (laughter) get to – I hope they don’t look like me. For them, I hope they don’t look like me.

Tavis: The truth is, it’s only you these days. (Laughter)

Abrams: No, that’s not true.

Tavis: That’s the point. You’ve got all the projects.

Abrams: But I do feel like what has to happen is, and it already is happening, and when you see, “Oh, that person is a successful director,” that’s the thing that typically studios and networks go to.

Who’s the one who’s done it before? Who’s the one I can rely on? I think that it is incumbent upon people who are doing the job now just to give people a shot, because there will be success.

Tavis: Right.

Abrams: Like I said, opportunity breeds opportunity.

Tavis: The Trekkies thing you’ve abandoned them.

Abrams: That’s crazy. (Laughter) I would say this – that as someone who has become a late-in-life Trekkie, I really think there’s obviously room for both these things.

Tavis: Right.

Abrams: It’s funny, because “Star Trek” in some ways, you know, informed “Star Wars,” and we did “Star Trek,” my love of “Star Wars,” the energy of it, the sort of comedy and rhythm of it, I think affected “Star Trek.”

They’re such different worlds, though. The stories, the characters, the universes. One is sort of our future, much more towards science-based in theory, and “Star Wars” is like a fairytale, but it happens to take place in space. They’re very different beasts, so –

Tavis: Speaking of fairytale, speaking of fairytale, though, there are those, as I’m sure you already know, who are worried that it’s going to get Disneyfied.

Abrams: Yeah, I’ve got to say the beauty of there is that Disney doesn’t want that. They are well aware of this, and they are very careful to make sure that – they’re, like, sensitive to that. They don’t want that at all. That’s the last thing they want.

That company, which is Marvel and they have – it’s incredible, the scale of that company – they’re aware that isn’t anyone – and by the way, about your first question, I think there may be a lot of Trekkies who would be thrilled if I abandoned them. (Laughter)

Tavis: I don’t think so. I think not.

Abrams: I don’t know.

Tavis: How are you able – I want to circle back, since you mentioned the beginning, to where this conversation began. How are you personally balancing all of this?

It’s one thing – we’ve been talking mostly about your professional stuff. If we can get personal for just a second –

Abrams: Yeah, please.

Tavis: Personally, how are you balancing all of this? It’s wonderful to be the guy that people are calling upon, but how do you balance all this?

Abrams: Every hour that you spend doing something, even if you love it more than anything, you’re not with your family. Every project that you take on, that’s another choice.

I’ve got to tell you, if I weren’t married to Katie McGrath, who is, like I said, she’s got this compass of what is important and what’s real and what’s right – and I didn’t grow up in a house where we necessarily dealt with the stuff as it was happening.

I had to sort of deal with certain issues that I had with my father, for example, later. My mother, who passed away last year, was just the most extraordinary woman, and I got to say everything to her and she to me that we wanted to say to each other, and that was beautiful.

But I realized in doing so how much we didn’t necessarily engage deeply on a daily basis. I’m not saying that it’s only about quality time, not quantity. It’s quantity too, and when you’re seven years old, as our son is, just hanging out and throwing a baseball or going for a walk or anything, it’s not about – you can’t predict when depth is going to occur. It just kind of happens.

So I think that the key is, and I’m more grateful for this than anything, is that Katie really does help remind me when I’m just getting way too up in my own stuff, or when I’m taking things way too seriously or when I’m spending too much time.

She never says, “Don’t do this or do that,” she’s literally the one who just says, “Do what you want, but this is what I need.” Every once in a while she’ll be like, and I’ll kind of be like – like I know what that means.

It’s just I’ve gone off the rails a little bit. So I feel like how do you balance it, I don’t know if balance is the thing. Frankly, I think that you don’t even want to balance. You want it to be imbalanced on the side of what really matters.

Tavis: Right.

Abrams: But Katie does ask the question, literally, what really matters? At the end of the day, when you’re on your deathbed years ago and you’re in that moment, what is going to matter that you’re looking back on?

There are some things, I think yeah, that’s true, that probably didn’t matter that much. But I think all you can do, the best you can do is sort of moment-to-moment make the right decisions.

I know for a fact there are some that I’ve made that have not been the smart decisions, no question.

Tavis: Well, you matter to your family and you matter to your fans, and a lot of people love you for the work that you put forth.

Abrams: (Unintelligible)

Tavis: I’m always honored to have you on this program.

Abrams: Thanks.

Tavis: Speaking of which, J.J., as I’m sure you already know, has a big book that everybody’s talking about that’s going to be out in a few weeks, and he’s already promised to come back on next month to talk about the book, “S.”

Abrams: Yes.

Tavis: “S.” I love this – a book called “S.” (Laughter) So we’ll have that conversation some weeks from now, but for now, Mr. Everything, good to have you on.

Abrams: What a pleasure. (Laughter) Thanks, man, appreciate it.

Tavis: Always good to see you.

Abrams: Thank you.

Tavis: J.J. Abrams, our guest tonight. Until next time, thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

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

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

Last modified: September 25, 2013 at 7:36 pm