…And the Geek Shall Inherit the Earth: An Interview with J.J. Abrams

Can pop genius J.J. Abrams rescue Star Trek, the world’s nerdiest, most-mocked franchise?

Jennifer Garner gasps for air as thugs dunk her head in a toilet. Dazed survivors stagger through the wreckage of Oceanic Air Flight 815. Philip Seymour Hoffman screams at a battered Tom Cruise, “Where’s the rabbit’s foot?” A Manhattan going-away party is interrupted by…something big. Nearly every story by geek-god superproducer J.J. Abrams—including his radical new Star Trek—begins mid-action, with some intense havoc. His stories grab you by the throat and throttle you to attention.

It’s just one reason Abrams has become this generation’s George Lucas or Steven Spielberg: an unrepentant geek thriving in the thick of pop culture. So, with apologies to the master, this story about the rebooter of Star Trek and Mission: Impossible III, cowriter of Armageddon, and creator of Lost, Alias, Cloverfield, and Fringe begins the same way.

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Stardate: October 2007
“It’s a crisis point,” says Star Trek screenwriter Roberto Orci. “It’s either warp speed or shut down.”

Orci and his cowriter, Alex Kurtzman, both veterans of Alias and M:I3, have finally persuaded J.J. Abrams to direct the long-anticipated, four-years-in-the-making big-screen reboot of Star Trek. Green lights are blazing, the script is locked, shooting begins in a couple of weeks. Suddenly, Abrams says: Stop. Something’s not right.

“It’s way beyond the 11th hour,” says Kurtzman. “J.J. wants a whole new action sequence, and that means adding millions to the budget.”

One problem: The writers’ strike is just days away. If the strike begins before they can devise a massive new action sequence, the studio will have to shut down the film. Another problem: Abrams needs millions more and Paramount is already all-in, gambling more than $140 million on a franchise whose last film earned less than half that.

“If J.J. can persuade them to give us the extra money, we’re going forward,” says Kurtzman. “If he can’t, we’re not.”

Why risk the whole film? It isn’t just to cram in more action, though Abrams promises his Trek will have “a ton of action”—time travel, space battles, gunfights, bar fights, even a little non-Starfleet-approved sex. The real reason has everything to do with why Paramount is betting that Abrams can take geekdom’s nerdiest franchise, pointy ears and all, and make it a bigger mainstream phenomenon than it has ever been before. The real reason is—well, we’ll save that for later, because every J.J. Abrams story also begins with a mystery.

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Stardate: February 2009
“I was more of a Star Wars kid, actually,” J.J. Abrams admits, reclining in a leather armchair at a Hollywood studio the size of an airplane hangar. “I always thought Star Trek was a lot of talk, and it felt a little self-important. It was hard for me to get into it.”

Dressed nerd-casual in black pants and a gray V-neck sweater, Abrams looks like your friendly neighborhood Apple Store Genius or graphic designer or indie record store fanatic. And he is all these things: a Prius- driving, typeface-obsessed tech nut who recorded the theme song for Lost on the same MacBook he used to design the show’s title sequence. He owns a Segway (a gift from Tom Cruise) and a collection of vintage tin robots. He paints, he sculpts, and he also just happens to be one of the most powerful producers and directors in the world.

Just hint at the rumor of a new J.J. Abrams project and the fanboy world flips out like the insane Spock of “All Our Yesterdays” (the episode in which the rational Vulcan gets horny and hungry, then howls, “I have eaten animal flesh, and I have enjoyed it!”). The reason Abrams gets mobbed at Comic-Cons is that he launched the freakiest network TV series since Twin Peaks (Lost), the hottest viral campaign in Internet history (Cloverfield), and Jennifer Garner’s career. Today he stands at the epicenter of the pop culture universe. Geek is now the mainstream (see: The Dark Knight, Spider-Man, The Lord of the Rings), largely because of pop auteurs like Abrams who’ve created living, breathing, immersive worlds out of the myths and fantasies that used to be treated as silly, disposable, or even vaguely pathetic. He combines the big-impact alt-universe creations of Lucas, the genre-hopping mastery of Spielberg, and the cult-audience sincerity of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Joss Whedon. He is to ravenous fanboy culture what Judd Apatow is to clubby comedy—a polymath at the height of his powers.

Abrams is many things—father, amateur magician, amateur guitarist—but he was never, ever a Trekkie. “I didn’t even remember that Spock was half-human. I thought, Well that’s fucking interesting!” Abrams chuckles, smiling mischievously in his Clark Kent glasses. “There were things about these characters that sucked me in, regardless of and despite their being on Star Trek.” Still, when first approached to bring Kirk, Bones, and company kicking and screaming into summer 2009, he wasn’t sure he was the man for the gig.

Abrams has noticed that the franchise “has fallen upon harder times recently,” as he kindly phrases it. Abrams didn’t think much of the six TV series, 10 films, and endless fan conventions until Orci and Kurtzman brought him into their Trek script meetings with the hopes of seducing him. “Little by little we reeled him in, until he felt some ownership of it,” says Kurtzman, who showed Abrams 30 pages at a time. “Then we hit him with a stick and dragged him onto the boat,” adds Orci.

The writers knew the difference between the Klingons’ K‘t’inga-class starships from the original movie and their Vor’Cha-class ships from the Next Generation; Abrams just brought along his breathless, action-heavy, character-focused, genre-loving sensibilities. With Alias, which Abrams calls his “comic book come to life,” and Lost, he helped create complex mythologies and conspiracies—and made them blockbuster hits. On M:I3 he managed to make middle-aged Scientologist Tom Cruise seem somewhat human and his long-in-the-tooth Mission: Impossible franchise feel relatively cool. In short, Abrams had become a pop hero with cult appeal, the perfect man to rescue Star Trek from the hardcore geeks.

“This movie was not intended to honor the existing Star Trek fans’ expectations as much as it was intended to be entertaining and emotional and fun and relevant,” says Abrams. “If it works, a lot of people will enjoy it who never knew they wanted to see a Star Trek movie. Because, honestly, for many of us that was the case.”

Abrams doesn’t like the word reboot, but that’s exactly what this is (even if Leonard Nimoy, as a very old-looking Spock, does make an appear­ance). The new USS Enterprise is stocked with a younger and sexier crew and is set back when there were a lot more places where man had yet to boldly go. “Star Trek is something people hold dear to their hearts, so there’s no blaming them for feeling, ‘Oh, God, new actors are playing my character!’” he says. “I get it, but having not been one of them until now, I just don’t carry that burden.

“I understand there are these fundamental things you can’t change. We used the stuff we felt was completely worth reinvig­orating.” Abrams pauses, perhaps thinking of the scantily clad alien girl who stole Spock’s brain or William Shatner’s famously ridiculous fight with a rubber-costumed lizard man in “Arena,” Episode 19 (Google “Worst Fight Scene Ever”).

“We did not use the other stuff,” he says.

Evangeline Lilly of Lost, J.J. Abrams’ biggest TV hit to date.Check out ourGirls of Lostgallery.

For some people Star Trek is everything. Nothing is ever everything for Abrams, who acts like the kind of Ritalin-dosed kid you’d diagnose with an “inability to single-mindedly focus,” and who suffers from an “overactive imagination.”

“Working on the Lost pilot five years ago, he was a hurricane,” marvels series cocreator Damon Lindelof. “He was in the midst of several different movie projects, writing two other pilots, and still running Alias. His brain can be in 15 places at once. It’s like he has an X-Men version of ADD, where it’s not really a dysfunction anymore; it’s more of a superpower.”

The superpower may have been as inherited as Superman’s. According to Tom Cruise, Abrams was “born to impinge on and invade pop culture.” He grew up in the shadow of the Hollywood sign, banging around back lots as the son of producer Gerald Abrams, sneaking into TV rehearsals to watch Robin Williams warm up for Mork & Mindy. “Seeing them rehearse,”says Abrams, “gave me such insight into how you put a show together.” Abrams’ grandfather Kelvin was a consummate tinkerer who taught his grandson to take apart phones and radios and put them back together. Most important, he handed his grandkid a super-8 camera when he was 10. Abrams began filming stories filled with fake spaceships, homicidal dolls, homemade explosions, and homages to his favorite show, The Twilight Zone. “This is why I can appreciate Trek fans,” explains Abrams. “Because I would actually resent whoever was working on a new Twilight Zone remake—like, ‘Who are you?’”

“Our generation is the Star Wars generation,” says Lindelof. “We’re the first group who were fanboys when we were kids. So now that we get to make TV shows and movies ourselves, we approach it as a fan would. Whether it’s Lost or Trek, we’re asking ourselves, ‘If I was a fan, would I fucking hate that? Or would I love it?’”

By 2002, at age 36, Abrams was flying high. He’d sold his first script during his senior year at Sarah Lawrence and scored his first blockbuster in 1998 with a writing credit on Michael Bay’s Armageddon. That same year he launched the sleeper TV hit Felicity, which found such passionate support that when the studio considered canceling it after its second season, devoted fans mimicked Felicity, cut off their hair, and sent their locks to the studio in protest. Hot off that success, Abrams found himself in unfamiliar territory: taking a beating on the Internet. Almost four years before getting the chance to breathe new life into Star Trek, Abrams was attempting to reboot the ultimate superhero franchise, Superman. A very early draft of the script had leaked—and the online fanboy tree house AintItCoolNews.com attacked.

“A disaster of nearly epic proportions,” the blogger Moriarty ranted. “You’ll believe a franchise can suck!” Spurred on by the post, the site’s scatological commenters raged with the passion only spurned geeks and hardened prison inmates can muster: “A hulking ball of shit.” “Call it The Adventures of Shitman!” “Talk about raping childhoods…”

A filmmaker who doesn’t understand his audience might fume, or cower, worried that the fanboys would sink the project before it got made. But Abrams just called up the site’s Jabba-like proprietor, Harry Knowles. In a follow-up post, Knowles calmed the angry nerds. “He knows what to say to a geek like me,” wrote Knowles, before writing his own sycophantic review, assuring fans that “the TONE, the CHARACTERS, the SPIRIT, the FEELING you get from this script from the beginning to the very end is SUPERMAN.”

“I learned a lot from that,” says Abrams. “There was a moment when a fan said that because of the script—which he of course had not read—my family should be killed. But the truth is, I am beholden to the fans, and they are not my fans. They’re fans of genre and storytelling, so I feel like we’re all ultimately fans of the same things.”

In 2001 Abrams struck again with Alias, so impressing Hollywood that Tom Cruise and Abrams’ hero Spielberg asked the wunderkind to write the screenplay for War of the Worlds. Amazingly, Abrams declined, worried that he was “blowing my whole career right now, because you don’t say no to these guys.” But he was stretched—he was busy with Alias and developing what would soon be his biggest hit, Lost.

One year in Abrams left Lost to direct M:I3. It was the most expensive film ever handed to a first-time director, and ultimately earned $395 million. Abrams was growing so powerful that he could even get a green light for a mysterious monster movie to be shot in New York with very few effects. When Cloverfield’s first trailer debuted, it drove fans crazy without even a name—just shaky handheld camera footage, a dose of 9/11 dread, and those magic words: “From Producer J.J. Abrams.” Cloverfield was Felicity meets Godzilla, and Abrams’ brilliant marketing campaign helped make the film a hit, earning $168 million off a budget of just $25 million. By the time Trek came his way, he was standing astride the geekosphere. In a stark departure from his Superman drubbing, when Abrams cut a new trailer in March for Trek, AintIt CoolNews announced: “New STAR TREK Trailer = Gooey Geekasm (Now In Giganto GeekDee!!)”

“He still seems like this little kid playing make-believe with a camera,” says Chris Pine, who plays Captain Kirk. “He’s literally a magician,” adds Zachary “Spock” Quinto. “He did card tricks between shots.”

Pine recalls that one day Abrams spent all his time between sets fiddling with music on his MacBook. “A friend of his dropped by and found these separate tracks for The White Album: drums, bass, and so on,” he says. “So J.J. was fucking around on GarageBand with original Beatles recordings, remixing them himself while directing a scene and live-chatting with Trek fans on his laptop. It’s kind of infuriating how much he has going on. You look at yourself and think, What the fuck am I doing?” John Cho, who plays Sulu, adds, “He could honestly do any job on a film set: costumes, makeup, special effects.”

“There is a strange surreality to being a grownup, having a job, having a family, and making a living doing exactly the same shit I did when I was 10 or 11,” says Abrams, who lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Katie McGrath, a PR executive he met in 1994, and their three children. “Only now, instead of faking explosions, I actually get to work with a pyrotechnics team that does it for real.”

So when Abrams talks about his plans for the future, it sounds less like a production slate than a playground sandbox. He’s working on Cloverfield’s sequel (with New York destroyed, the monster goes after Newark; changes mind), but he’s also developing a theater piece, a new romance with Harrison Ford, several new TV series, new books, Web-only projects, and music. Fans are dying to see what he will do with Stephen King’s epic The Dark Tower. “I’ve said no to everybody,” King has said. “I mean, this is my life’s work.” How much does he respect Abrams? He sold the rights to all seven Dark Tower books for an ironic 19 bucks.

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Stardate: October 2007
And what about that Star Trek crisis? Abrams got his brand-new action sequence and the millions from Paramount, just before the writers’ strike. “Only somebody with J.J.’s weight could have gotten the studio to give us the money so late,” says Kurtzman. “They trust him. They know he’s a visionary. And the fact that he’s a wildly commercial and accessible director doesn’t hurt, either.”

So what’s the real reason Abrams risked the film for one sequence? “J.J. said we needed more Spock,” says Orci.

Ultimately, no matter how weird or spectacular a J.J. Abrams project becomes, the focus is on character. It’s what connects Felicity to M:I3 to Lost. “The goal is always to do B material in an A fashion,” says Abrams. “You take often-clichéd ideas and characters and treat them with respect and hold them up to the standard that you would if it was a straight drama. You take something that would typically be disposable because there wouldn’t be anyone real or alive in it—and suddenly you give it this vitality if the characters are people with whom you can relate.

“People never know what they want, though everyone says they do,” Abrams adds. “If they did, nobody would ever be surprised. The truth is, what you want is a story that is engrossing and surprising. And at the end of the day, a good story is a good story, whether you’re a fan or not.”