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J.J. Abrams: 'It's More Important You Learn What to Make Movies About Than How to Make Movies'

05.16.13 @ 10:10PM Tags : , ,

JJ Abrams on FilmmakingJ.J. Abrams made a name for himself in television, but he’s become been one of the biggest film directors in Hollywood thanks to giant movies like Mission: Impossible III and the Star Trek reboot. Recently he sat down with BAFTA Guru to talk about his career, what his father told him before going to college, and his advice for aspiring filmmakers. Click through to check it out.

Thanks to FilmmakerIQ for the link:

I think the advice from his Dad is really helpful for all filmmakers, even for those who are not the lead creatives in a project. It’s hard to make movies if you don’t know what you want to say. While sites like ours can help you fill in the gaps, learning what drives you emotionally and what you’re passionate about is something that can’t be taught. As he goes on to say:

Your voice is as important as anyone else’s. You may not always be right — you shouldn’t be cocky about it…I felt like I needed to learn that the ideas that I had were as good as anyone else’s ideas.

I don’t believe this is an anti-collaborative mindset, simply that if you have a strong instinct about something, there is a good chance an audience will feel the same way. This is another one of those skills that can’t really be taught — you have to know how to trust yourself and filter out the good ideas from the bad.

His thoughts on the democratization of filmmaking are really what this whole site is about. The tools are now there to go make your film. But it’s not going to appear out of thin air, and talking about it won’t accomplish anything. You just have to go out and do it.

Link: BAFTA Guru — YouTube

[via FilmmakerIQ]


We’re all here for the same reason: to better ourselves as writers, directors, cinematographers, producers, photographers... whatever our creative pursuit. Criticism is valuable as long as it is constructive, but personal attacks are grounds for deletion; you don't have to agree with us to learn something. We’re all here to help each other, so thank you for adding to the conversation!

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  • NoWhiteInMyCup on 05.16.13 @ 10:30PM

    This is ironically very true.

    Even hitchcock himself said if it was up to him film students would not even touch a camera physically for the first few years.

    Truth be told most less than 10 percent of hollywood directors touch a camera, that is what a DP is used for, also dialoge , script, and most importantly connections matter more than how to shoot a film.

    BASICALLY to sum it all up there are plenty of good looking movies that have great camera movement that are pure “garbage” in terms of “story”.

    • Disagree. I think some of my favorite films have directors who are obsessed with cinematography – The Cohen Brothers, Scorsese to name a few. but then of course you have Woody Allen who leaves the DP a lot of control and he has made some of my favorite films.

      I think there is no formula except directors who do everything they can to make a good film and tell a story that is unique and affects the viewer.

      • Good stuff, Ed D.

      • Mark Weston on 05.17.13 @ 12:25AM

        Add blade runner and many david fiuncher movies.

      • Also Stanley Kubrick was a real cinema technophile.

        I think there’s a good point to be made about paying attention to what you’re making and develop that in addition to the technical side…but one should be striving to better themselves in all ways. A good painter understands their paint.

        • Learning the tools of the trade is the best way to advance your story. Cinematography’s exceedingly important because of this, and yeah, there are many movies that look “great” with shitty stories, but with that being said, what merits good photography? I think it comes down to whether or not the particular style of photography fits the story’s needs. If a story calls for iphone resolution then that’s what’s visually beautiful in terms of that subjective story.

          • There sure is no ‘formula’ to it and there is a lot of truth in every opinion reflected here, personally I’d also lean towards a style where the director is deeply involved in the DP’s work but then again I recently watched ‘Haywire’ and think some scenes could have looked way better if Soderbergh had given the job to a more specialized individual… but then again who am I to say that!

      • Mostly what it comes down to is pursuing what you consider to be your strengths while acknowledging what you aren’t good at and passing it onto people that are better than you. David Fincher is obsessive about the camera, but doesn’t write his own scripts. While, as you mentioned, Woody Allen is more of a writer than a cameraman.

      • Well said Ed. There is no formular for good film making, Steven Soderbergh is the DP on a lot of his stuff using the pseudonym ‘Peter Andrews’, Terrance Malick is very close to the camera too, It’s all a personal preference.

      • Nice post.

    • Do you have a source for that Hitchcock quote? I’d love to read what he said about it as I’m currently on an academic film course with an aim to going into production when I leave.

    • In big Hollywood productions, even the DP doesn’t touch the cameras. They only tell their operators what pictures they want.

  • kubrick was a photographer and completely in control of his camera. spielberg operated. scorcese operated. ridlley scott operated. enough said.

    • Yes but without great characters and storytelling there’s no Kubrick, Scorsese, Spielberg… They are great because know how to use all the elements of storytelling (script, actors, design, camera, editing, sound…). Camera is just a tool you have to know what can do for telling your story. A lot of directors operate but that doesn’t mean they’re great storytellers like Kubrick, Scorsese… Watching a lot of movies is important to learning the storytelling grammar but main thing is having something to say, and something means develop a way to tell the story you want to tell.

      • michael bay operates and choose all camera angles in his shots, at least he says so. ;)

        • Not really, most of his movies, for being action flicks with complex sequences, are made in previs before, a lot of talented artists help crafting camera angles. Knowing people who work on creating some of his crazy action sequences I know he hinges on a hand full of guys to build few his shots. Then you go to the set and replicate.

          • He actually draws his own storyboards…his movies may be pretty low brow, but he is really good at that type of storytelling. Compare his work with Rob Cohen or McG.

          • mikko löppönen on 05.27.13 @ 4:42AM

            Sure, for VFX heavy shots but Michael has a distinct eye for lighting. He is a commercial director and really knows how to light cars and that’s something those previz guys have no idea about.

    • NoWhiteInMyCup on 05.17.13 @ 2:48PM

      Of course speilberg and others have touched and utilized a camera, im pretty sure all of them played with a super 16 or toy camera at some time and from time to time even get a little hands on during a shoot, I think you are missing my point.

      Yes those directors mention use the camera a little but i the amount of time/ percentage that spielberg, spike lee, scott handle a camera on a shoot is probably less than 10% and the reason for that most of the time is because the UNION alot of times will not allow directors to touch or engage with physical camera play.

      Not all but most good directors key job is “direction” their job is to do just that oversee and manage the entire “direction” of a film from start to finish in all aspects of a film, and i think that is the overall point that abrams is trying to make, most people are so consumed the next great technology that they neglect other aspects of film.

      • The point a lot of people here are making is that you shouldn’t pull back on the tech, rather you should strive to be good at everything. Even if you can’t, you should never have an attitude that a certain element of a film is unimportant. And that’s precisely because as a director, you are overseeing everything.

      • The unions in Hollywood often don’t allow the DP to touch the cameras – because that would make him an operator, too. And if he’s not also hired as an operator, he can’t operate the camera!

        When you ask German DPs who went to Hollywood, they were always not too happy about not being able to operate the camera themselves, like they did back in Germany (where by the way there is no word for “DOP”, it is just called “cameraman” or “chief cameraman”, which reflects the different view on their tasks on the set)

  • Which begs the obvious question: What are JJ Abrams’ movies about?

    • Right, I also have a hard time figuring that out, specially because I never managed to sit through one (and I have sat through a lot of crap most people wouldn’t…)

    • Making money. He’s a studio hack and a Grade A snake oil salesman. He, and the rest of Team Abrams, are everything that’s wrong with modern Hollywood cinema, and we need to stop talking about him, so he goes away.

  • As we become fans of certain great movies and directors, it’s easy to be influenced by them. Sometimes its important to step back and consciously search for a concept that is different. “Zig when others zag”, as some award winning advertising creatives like to say…Hopefully such a search will help to create the filmmaker’s unique point of view. When I saw JJ Abrams speak at an Apple Store a few years ago I was impressed with how great a public speaker he was. Confident, funny, humble and projecting a strong point of view. Because bigtime film making involves a huge cast of people, the ability to project a strong point of view to a large team must be a helpful talent to possess. At least a superb studio hack can provide a good living for his family, and entertain millions of people.

    • Learn the “rules” and figure out ways to break those rules…

      • ^^^^^^ WOW Great quote

        Also to that point, Speilberg hide in studio closets to blend in and mingle/ rub shoulders with top hollywood BIG WIGS to get his point and film across i.e “E.T “.

        Never said abrams was amazingly great, nevber said that, not a fan or crazy about any of star trek movies or even super 8. However i also thought the last “DARK KNIGHT ” movie was terrible also script and all, even though the prior film was one of the best of all time. I honestly think he is more “fitted” for t.v more than any thing.

        • Maybe you are right. On the other hand, films made for HBO and other TV channels are often much hipper than the typical Hollywood blockbuster franchises that seem to need to meet lowest common denominator audience requirements and similar challenges that TV sometimes can bypass.

    • In my opinion, a director must be a great speaker and also a great leader.
      If you want to become a director in the first place, you’ll have to convince so many people of your projects, trick them into working without pay etc. – you’ll have to be a snake oil salesman of some kind to pull it off from the beginning.

  • I am trying to appreciate Mr. Abrams’ comment near the end of this interview footage that, if you’ve completed a screenplay, “you’re already in the top 10%” just because the screenplay was finished. I still find little solace in knowing that “I’ve actually finished a short film or two”. I want to be able to move to the next level, I guess, to not just finish screenplays or films but to also keep doing them better and better. And pretty consistently now, I read or hear the same advice — get to it, write the next screenplay, make the next film, learn the next part of film production (color correction, for me). And this web site and its posts certainly help keep me motivated, so thanks for the link to the interview and everything else posted here, including the preceding comments :^)

  • Did anyone notice the interview lighting? It’s pretty good! :)