"Write the thing you desperately care about."
For the first installment of the Tribeca Film Festival’s Tribeca Talks: Directors Series, Chris Rock said to J.J. Abrams, "I make movies occasionally — you're the director." Rock then cajoled him into sharing his origin stories.
Abrams just helmed Star Wars: The Force Awakens and produced 10 Cloverfield Lane; Chris Rock most recently directed Top Five; and the two of them just collaborated on parody videos for the Oscars. Both men excel at off-the-cuff humor; both know passion is key.
By the end of their riff, I was ready to put down my laptop, pull out my iPhone and start shooting my masterpiece.
Here are several takeaways from Abrams' and Rock's Tribeca Talk.
"I'm over the lens flares. We all make mistakes; mine was with light."
Explore your passion
Chances are, from a fairly young age you kind of knew that filmmaking was for you. For Abrams, whose father was a TV producer, that meant going behind the scenes, glimpsing the man behind the curtain, and understanding that TV wasn’t real. At age eight, Abrams went on the Universal Studios Tour. He said, “I couldn’t believe that the Hunchback of Notre Dame was shot there on the lot, that the snow was plastic. It all blew my mind.”
Abrams emphasized the value of firsthand experience. “It’s important, if you love something, to get early influence and see it for real.” He admitted he would take almost any job—for a while. When he was young, he interned for producer John Feltheimer (now CEO of Lions Gate Entertainment). He xeroxed scripts. He was a lackey.
But don’t let the grass grow, he cautioned: before long, you have to start exploring your voice.
Do what you care about
Obvious, right? But you can get stuck here easily. Abrams found he could write, and for a time he “got lost in the allure of a lot of money for short periods of work,” mostly rewriting scripts. But after an endless cycle of aimless script doctoring, he said, “I started to feel like I didn’t know what I was doing.”
Finally, Abrams' wife Katy advised, “Write what you like.” After all his rewriting other people’s stuff, this struck a chord. "Write the thing you desperately care about," said Abrams. "If it’s true for you, if it’s authentic, then it will resonate with other people. If you think, ‘What will the audience like?’ you’re drifting away from solid ground."
So he wrote—and sold—his pilot for Felicity, which was picked up by the WB Network.
Work with people who care
Rock noted that he once fired a director because he found out he didn’t like Annie Hall. He asked Abrams what his deal-breaker was. "People who aren’t kind," Abrams responded. "Going into a project, you want to know that you’re surrounded by people who are there for each other, respecting each other. Golden rule: no one should be there for any other reason than the thrill of making a movie. A good movie. Because life’s too short."
Abrams noted, though, that he didn’t want a collaborator who was a pushover: “Not someone who will just do the thing you want.”
Rock observed that Abrams has a knack for casting. “You’re really good at picking out these girls,” he said, referencing Jennifer Garner in Alias to Daisy Ridley in Star Wars. Abrams explained that he loves his casting directors—April Webster (Star Trek, Lost, The Force Awakens) for example—for being incredibly thorough, thus making him look good.
Abrams also mentioned his costume designer, Michael Kaplan (Blade Runner, Star Trek, Star Wars), as a collaborator with a vision as strong as his own. “It’s like he has a martial art of just doing it great," Abrams said. "I would leave meetings thinking, 'I just said yes to everything, because it was all so right.'"
He continues, “You want someone who can come in with a vision, a passion that shows you the movie before it’s been made.”
Focus on the little things
On the question of massive scale (Star Wars) versus a small move like 10 Cloverfield Lane, Abrams says he has discovered a truth.
"Just because you’re doing a Star Wars movie," he said, "nothing changes in terms of the fundamentals. The establishing shots, they’re critical—but the stuff that really matters are the looks, the things that aren’t said, the things the audience can infer based on what is being alluded to."
Putting aside the crutch and distraction of CGI scenes, a movie is about the little moments, when characters acknowledge the same story the audience is experiencing.
Abrams remembered that his favorite show growing up was The Twilight Zone. “What I loved was that it always dealt with incredible ideas, social commentary, character, genre, reality bending — all in a half-hour, single camera show,” he said. Simple and to the point.
But don’t overdo the little things!
At one point, Rock challenged Abrams, asking “What’s up with the lens flares? That’s your thing. Like Spike Lee’s got that dolly shot...."
Abrams grinned. “I’m over that," he said. "I overdid it. For Star Trek, the idea was, the future was so bright that it couldn’t be contained. Then on the second Star Trek, I went nuts. We all make mistakes; mine was with light. We got a lens that had no coating, a lens that would show flare — and we’d have insane high-power flashlights off camera, aiming them right into the lens. It was the one time a director of photography would be like, ‘Don’t do that!’ We’d get dailies back and sometimes there were shots where you literally couldn’t see what was going on. One scene with Alice Eve, [it was] very emotional for her, but it looked like [the early days of] TV when it was first invented. My wife saw it and gave me that look, like, ‘You’ve come to the end. Stop!’"
Don’t blow the ending
As William Goldman famously said in his book Adventures in the Screen Trade, “Endings are a bitch.” About the ending to Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Rock proclaimed, “Oscar for Best Ending!”
But JJ Abrams said it was not easy getting there.
We knew that getting to Luke was the whole story [of The Force Awakens] — and we were desperate to do the next chunk of story, but it would never fit into this movie. Frankly, it was a tricky thing to do. Mark Hamill was a little resistant at first. Imagine, you get a script for the new Star Wars. Page 2. Page 4. ‘What the fuck is going on? I’m three pages BEFORE THE END? The last scene — what!?’ Hamill asked me, ‘Will it seem silly? Will it be a joke?’ I said, ‘I don’t think so, Mr. Hamill. I think it could be maybe a drumroll up to seeing [Luke].’ He was so kind to do it. We finally shot that scene in Ireland, with only 45 people on the crew, 642 stairs as the only way up, raining, then sunny. It was insane. And I’m looking at Hamill and I realize that he’s the same age, exactly, as Alec Guinness was when he played Obi Wan. I’m looking at him, and I play the binary sunset song (from A New Hope) on my phone as I look at him wearing these robes, and I literally start to tear up. I just know this ending could really work.
For those of us listening to him in the audience, chills ran up our collective spine. Lesson? All the hard work, the struggles, the disappointments—it’s all worth it when the ending just works.
"If you put it out in the world, people will see it, and they will contact you."
Look in your pocket
Abrams is 49 years old. He started out shooting in Super 8 (hence his “boyhood adventure” movie of the same name). He pointed out to the audience: "You have cameras in your pockets, a million times better than anything we had when we were kids. And you can make your movie now. [The feature] Tangerine was filmed entirely on iPhones. It’s not just possible, it’s increasingly common. Find the material—and if you can't find it, write it. And if you can’t do it, find the person who can. If you put it out in the world, people will see it, and they will contact you."
Use the force
With so much of the talk between Abrams and Rock circling around the concept of “do what you believe in,” an audience member, dressed in Sith robes, finally asked, “What do you believe in, JJ?”
"I don’t know if I believe in God," Abrams answered, "but I found myself thinking about things spiritually when my mother was sick. She passed away a few years ago. What I think now—and what George Lucas did so brilliantly in Star Wars—is about a spiritual connection that we all have. Divorced from all religion. Connecting us all together. Something about the notion of everything being connected is profound, beautiful, and somewhat true. There is something that connects us."
It’s all common sense: working with people you love, making things you love, using the force while you do it....
J.J. Abrams is a believer.
Dylan Kai Dempsey graduated from Tufts University in 2015. During the past two summers, he was a development intern at Bonafide Productions in LA (Little Miss Sunshine, Nebraska) and Rainmark Productions in London (Games of Thrones). Now based in NYC, he’s an aspiring filmmaker who loves to write.