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Interview : J.J Abrams

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Clint Morris talks to the “M:I:3″ director


He might be the force behind two of the biggest TV shows on television, “Alias” and “Lost”, but creator/writer J.J Abrams is clearly a fan – before he’s a filmmaker. In Australia to promote his feature directorial debut “Mission: Impossible 3”, the genial Abrams explains that he’s still a garrulous manic fan when it comes to crossing paths with celebrities. CLINT MORRIS reports.

Do you hear that music? Or is that in my freakin’ head? (Elevator-esque tunes plays from an unidentified speaker in interview suite)
Yeah! I requested that. I needed a tempo; otherwise it would be so boring for you!

I just saw you getting your photo taken…. do you like having to pull that ‘young genius’ face?
Getting my picture taken is my worst thing ever. All I can do is try and think ‘this will be over soon’. She asked me to look smart – how do you look smart?

You’ve got the glasses?
Yeah, but they don’t have in glass in them. (Laughs)

We were only allowed to watch 8 minutes from this movie. That’s a sign that this thing is huge!
Yeah, but I want you to see the whole thing. For me, I want people to see the movie, so it’s not like I’m unhappy with the movie…I love this movie, so…

So it’s not like “Scary Movie 4” or something, where they’re not keen for the advance word?
They didn’t hide that did they?

Well, the media screening is tonight
When does it come out?

Tomorrow
(Laughs) Doesn’t give anyone much time to get any kinda of word out, does it?

Not at all. So why couldn’t we see the full version of “MI:3”?
It’s ultimately because we’ve literally just finished. I swear. We just locked the thing, like, Thursday. We’ve been done for a couple of weeks – it’s just been a matter of tweaking the picture, mixing…just all that technical crap. I’m pissed they couldn’t at least show you a rough cut of the film.

So am I. Has anyone in the states seen it yet? Reviewers?
Reviewers? No. I’ve never directed a movie before; these people have, and they like to tell me ‘this is how we do it’. I’m like ‘alright, I’ll direct it, you sell it’.

Did it feel strange going into something so big, considering you’re famous as being the ‘TV Boy’?
When Tom offered me the movie, it was the most unexpected thing – on every level. The weirdest thing was, I had gotten to know Tom, we had become friends, and he had never bought it up! Never!

What?
Yeah. I knew he was getting ready to do Mission Impossible, and I thought maybe he might ask me to help with the script if they had problems with it, but he gave me the impression there were no issues at all – he was quite happy with what was happening. Later, I was having dinner with my friend, when my agent called, and asked me ‘Are you aware that Tom wants you to direct this movie?”. I thought it was a misunderstanding, or a prank…. I had just talked to him, like a week earlier or something, and he didn’t say anything about it. It’s bullshit, c’mon. Then, I had to go and see him the next night, with Paula Wagner – his producing partner – at his house, and I walk in and he just gives me that Tom Cruise smile. You know the one?

Oh yeah.
And he says, like ‘you wanna do it?’. I was like ‘Are you kidding me? This is insane. What happened to the guy that was supposed to direct the movie’?

Fair question. I recall David Fincher and Joe Carnahan were attached to it at one stage. Speaking of which, how different is your version to the scripts that they were working on?
Each script was totally different to one another. When I read the script that they wanted me to direct from, I really liked it, it was really cool…I just wasn’t the right person to direct it. That wasn’t the version that I’d be the best director of…

Is that the version that had something to do with organ harvesting in Africa or something?
That might have been the Fincher version. I think it was set In Africa. But this was another one. I’d like to see it actually, it’d be a cool movie, but I wasn’t the right guy to do it. So I said ‘Yeah, I’d like to do Mission 3, but this isn’t the version that I think I’m suited for’. I thought he’d say ‘Oh well, we’ll find someone else’. But he said, ‘Well, what do you want to do?’. I said ‘My version would be a more personal version, a more intimate movie, more funnier, it would be more heartbreaking….

How did Tom take that?
He said ‘Well, that’s the version I’ve wanted to do from the beginning’. I was like ‘What!?’. So he said, ‘Lets do your version’. I said ‘It’s going to be a year [though], I’m doing Lost, I’m doing Alias…’. He said ‘Well, let’s wait a year’. It was like everyday it got weirder.

What then?
So I got these two writers, who I had worked with on “Alias”, and the three of us came up with a story. Tom said from the beginning that he wanted it to be ‘JJ Abram’s Mission Impossible’. I was sceptical. But then he let me write the movie, he let me cast the movie – I bought in Keri Russell, who I worked with on “Felicity” – and he let me bring in my crew – my editors, my production designers, my composer…. he let me direct my movie! The one I wanted to make!

He doesn’t sound like a tosser at all!
No, he was so respectful to me. All Tom had to do was be a little bit of a jerk, a little less kind or collaborative, and it could’ve derailed. But he was so good – focused, dedicated, professional. We finished the movie ahead of schedule, and under budget, and I think that’s a testament to him. I’m really proud of the film, can’t wait for you to see it.

How did you work around your “Lost” and “Alias” commitments?
The co-creator of “Lost” knew that this was happening. Someone else took on “Alias”.

Speaking of which, how do you feel about “Alias” ending?
It was the right time, but it was also bittersweet. But, it’s so much better to be here than for the network to get to the end of the season and say ‘OK, that’s it’. We wanted to end it right, and I think we have. The ending is fantastic…it’s really, really good!

Did you ever see the introduction of Rachel Nichols’ character as someone that could possibly take over from Jennifer Garner if the series was to continue without her?
Yeah. I think the world of her, she’s terrific, but ultimately I think the show was Jennifer’s show – just as “24” is Jack Bauer – it’s hard to imagine someone stepping into those shoes and having that same feeling.

Why isn’t there a pop music soundtrack for “Alias”? There’s so much great music in it!
The only soundtrack that I’ve ever seen is on itunes, people have done a compilation themselves! I guess we don’t need soundtracks anymore – people just make them themselves. It’s actually done really well on itunes, it’s amazing how many people have downloaded it!

Any different directing a TV show to a film?
When I did television, I never thought of it as television, I thought of it as telling a story. Though the network that airs “Alias” and “Lost” only screens the shows in the 4×3 format, I’ve always shot them in wide screen, just like a film. Because of that, I’ve never thought of it as TV compared to film.

Besides Tom, you’ve cast “MI:3” with some fresh faces. That’s kind of surprising.
I didn’t really think we needed stars in this movie. We had Tom. Michelle Monaghan’s character is a good example – I didn’t want people to necessarily know the actress, and go ‘Oh, that’s so and so from so and so’.

Yes, that’s a pain.
I remember when I saw “Jerry Maguire” with my wife – then girlfriend – and I really believed the relationship between Tom and Renee Zelllweger [in that film], because we didn’t know Renee Zellweger at the time. I believed that she really was this woman somehow…. it wasn’t like ‘Oh, look, it’s Demi Moore in that part’…I wanted to make sure that, although every name was thrown around [by the studio], that we didn’t have any stars in the film.

And you’ve given “Felicity” herself, Keri Russell, a nice fat role in it too.
Not only had I been dying to work with her again since “Felicity”, she’s an amazing actress. Most of all, she was right for the character. Yes, even though there were bigger actresses out there. She is so good in the movie. No one sings her praises now more than Tom – who was open to it from the beginning, by the way. We didn’t need to have any more stars in it, because Tom’s in it – the fact that we got Philip Seymour Hoffman, of all times, the year he wins the Oscar, is insane. The luck of it is ridiculous. That just helps. But we’ve also got Billy Crudup, Laurence Fishburne, Maggie Q,. John Rhys Meyers…

And of course, Simon Pegg
Simon is maybe the happiest bi-product of doing this movie for me. He and I email each other all the time now. If I don’t get an email from Simon or Ricky Gervais – who I met through “Alias” – I get so bummed. It’s like my favourite thing.

And Greg Grunberg, who has been in every one of your shows, is in the film too, right?
Sadly, yeah (Laughs).

Does he get killed?
Sadly, no. (Laughs)

But his new show got killed – The Bounty Hunter thing – right?
Yep, it’s dead, dead, dead. I’ve had him shot numerous times, and I’ve had him murdered in the pilot of “Lost”. I’ve known Greg since kindergarten, so when I’m involved in something that ends up selling or even something that doesn’t, he’s like ‘Oh great! Who am I?!’ He insinuates himself into everything I do.

Where does your film fit in in the scheme of the series?
The first movie was so much about plot and suspense, the second movie is so much about action, and this movie, I think, takes a more realistic approach than a stylistic approach. Obviously it’s very awkward talking about what you do from the outside in, but I hope what works, is that whilst this is a movie that’s full of action – more than the first two combined, when you count the sequences – it’s not an action movie. It’s a love story, there’s a lot of comedy and heartfelt stuff. It happens to have action in it, but it’s not like, let’s go make an action movie. “Die Hard” is a good example of a movie that was a great movie that had action in it, but I don’t think of it is an action movie. The reason that film was so effective, and the reason you tune into it when it’s on, is because of the characters. “Die Hard 2”, you wouldn’t normally rent again or watch again because it was all about action – the action was fine, but it wasn’t a story, it was a series of action sequences that were designed to illicit a response as opposed to what does the story demand happen.

Where to for you now?
We just had our third child, a three-month-old little guy, so we’re just trying to survive. He’s adorable. Just taking a break right now. There’s a movie I’m going to produce next, maybe…but we’ll see.

You wrote a draft of “Superman Returns” once. Are you excited to see the new movie?
I can’t wait. I worked on the script, another version of it, for almost two years and when it actually fell apart – I was so disappointed. Then, when “Mission Impossible” came about, I was so relieved….

Everything happens for a reason huh?
Yeah. I wouldn’t change a thing. I remember Tom [Cruise] saying, before it did fall apart, that I should go in and fight to direct “Superman”. So I did. I actually went in and fought for it. That didn’t work. But, two weeks later, Tom put his money where his mouth is – and offered me a job.

That was good of him.
Yep, and this is his baby too, remember? Michael, my composer, said to me the other day ‘You know what the best thing was about making this movie’? I thought he was going to say, like, ‘working with a 120-piece orchestra’, but he said ‘seeing how Tom and Paula supported you through everything you wanted to do’. I was feeling that every day, but for him to say it, someone on the outside, it must be true. Bottom line: If you don’t like the movie, it’s my fault.

M:I:3 is in cinemas this week

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About Caffeinated Clint

Clint is the creator, editor and maintainer of Moviehole.

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