JJ Abrams

Star Trek Into Darkness is a highly anticipated sequel and when he was recently in Australia, I spoke with director JJ Abrams to talk about the film and his life outside of Hollywood. You can listen to / download an audio by clicking here. My review of the film can be found here.

Matt:  I had the chance to speak to this guy a couple of years ago about Super 8, which made my top 10 list in 2011, and I say hello once again to JJ Abrams.  How’s it going?

JJ:  Very very well.  How are you?

Matt:  Very well.  The details of so many of your projects are kept very quiet in the lead up to release.  The plot is kept under wraps.  The trailer gives very little away.  How do you manage that?  With so many people working on the film, how do you stop the leaks from getting out?

JJ:  A lot of threats (laughs).  The truth is that we ask everyone involved to please try and respect the moviegoer’s experience by keeping things as quiet as possible and let the first time people see the movie truly be the “first time” and not feel like a repeat viewing because you’ve read or heard or seen too many spoilers.

Matt:  So are there are limited number of scripts that are out there?  Do you keep control over that sort of stuff?

JJ:  Yeah, we try and limit the script distribution and try to keep things coded so that we’re not inadvertently having things marked on either wardrobe or props.  There’s a lot of silliness.  In fact when you get to the very end of the experience, you have to change the codes to make the credits at the end of the movie, because everything has crazy names, and you have to switch it back to what it really is.  It’s a little bit of a headache.

Matt:  Do you hold test screenings with a film like this?  Or do you avoid them to keep things under wraps?

JJ:  We didn’t do any large research test screenings but we did a number of friends and family screenings where we’d bring people in.  Not just friends but also friends of friends.  We asked them to fill out forms anonymously telling us what they really thought because there’s nothing worse than having the director of a movie look at you and say honestly what you thought.

Matt:  I know there are some directors who like to do one-off projects like what Sam Mendes did with Skyfall and he said it’s the only Bond film he wants to do.   Others like to be part of a longer-running franchise.  You’re back here again with a second Star Trek movie.  Is it something you weigh up?  The thought of doing something different as opposed to revisiting something you’ve done before?

JJ:  The key for me is to do something that interests me – something that makes me laugh or gasp or scream or cheer.  I don’t really look at it from the outside in and say “let’s mix it up and make it different” but I do try to do as much as I can to make it authentically interesting and fun.

Matt:  Critical to any good action film is a great bad guy.  I think there’s been a lack of them recently with films like Die Hard 5 and GI Joe: Retaliation.  Here you’ve brought in Benedict Cumberbatch who I think is terrific.  There’s a lot of greyness to his character.  Was that always your intention – to avoid a simple black & white villain?

JJ:  100%.  I love a villain who you start to feel sympathy for at a certain point.  It’s the weirdest and oddest and scariest kind of thing where you start to consider this person as a person and not as an adversary.  Benedict Cumberbatch is an extraordinary actor for those who don’t know him.  He’s an amazing performer.  One of my favourite things about him in this movie is that he does an extraordinary job without a crazy mask or bizarre make-up or ridiculous facial hair or a silly costume.  He’s just a man with a story and he’s incredible.

Matt:  I look at a movie like this as you can see there’s so much going on behind the scenes – the costumes, the make up, the look of other planets, the interior design of the spaceship, the choreography of the battle scenes.  How do you stay on top of it all?  Is it you making the call across all these areas or do you put your faith in the crew members to make a lot of the decisions?

JJ:  Hearing you describe it just exhausted me (laughs).  The truth is that I work with an extraordinary team.  A lot of the ideas that are the best of the movie were created and invented by the people with whom I work.  Of course as a director, I’m ultimately choosing what will be seen on screen but I’m so lucky to be working with production designers like Scott Chambliss or costume designers like Michael Kaplan or composers like Michael Giacchino.  Our casting directors, April Webster and Alyssa Weisberg, found these great actors.  This is a huge collaboration and I’m honoured to be a part of it.

Matt:  You’ve become synonymous with the use of lens flare in movies and I’ve seen a few parody images and videos on the internet.  Does that sort of thing bother you or do you kind of wear it as a badge of honour? 

JJ:  You know, I don’t know what you’re talking about (laughs).  I love the idea of lens flares and I acknowledge that I overuse them.  I know I need to cut back a little bit and I’m working on it.

Matt:  When I look at the IMDB and see all the projects you’re working on, I picture you as one of the busiest people in Hollywood.  Is it like that reality?  Do you have a work-life balance or is that something that you give up when working in the industry?

JJ:  As in having a life?  Well Katie and I have three kids and I love them more than I could ever say.  Obviously they are the priority.  Having three kids, as any parent will tell you, is infinitely more exhausting than any professional position.  As much as I know that I do work a lot, I would argue that the hardest job that Katie and I have is being parents to these wonderful kids.  I don’t work on weekends and I take the kids to school almost every day and the reason that I am able to work on as many things as I can is because I work with an amazing team.

Matt:  Do you get the time to go the movies as often as you’d like?

JJ:  No.  Katie and I so rarely get to go out that when we do, we spend most of the time talking about we can’t believe that we got out (laughs). 

Matt:  Are there plans for any future Star Trek movies going forward or are you not sure at this stage?

JJ:  There are no plans.  If there’s demand for one, we’d be thrilled to have that conversation.

Matt:  I normally finish by asking people what they have in the works but it’s well documented that you’ll be at the helm for a new Star Wars movie.  Given the ridiculously critical fan base and the tough reception that the last 3 films received, what’s made you take on the challenge of trying to appease everyone with a new instalment?

JJ:  The opportunity is enormous and the people involved are spectacular.  I hope to learn from them and I really look forward to starting the process.  It’s very early days.