'Alias' creator packs punch while reinventing spy game
J.J. Abrams had barely entered puberty when Hollywood first took notice of his storytelling skills.
Fast-forward about two decades to around 1991: Abrams is just starting out as a filmmaker, having already sold scripts for the features “Regarding Henry” and “Taking Care of Business.” One day, he finds himself talking to Steven Spielberg about a possible sequel to “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”
“It was bugging me and bugging me, and I knew I had to say something,” Abrams recalls. “I told him, ‘You know, I spliced some movies of yours when I was a teenager.’ And he said, ‘I know.’
“The fact that he remembered freaked the hell out of me,” Abrams laughs.
Spielberg’s early hunch about Abrams turned out to be a good one. Over the past 10 years or so, Abrams — whose real first name is Jeffrey — has established himself as one of Hollywood’s most versatile hyphenates: He’s a writer who’s able to direct. A filmmaker who’s two-for-two in creating successful TV shows. And, just for good measure, he also dabbles in composing music — including the way-cool techno theme for “Alias.”
“He’s the whole package in every respect,” says Lloyd Braun, chairman of the ABC Entertainment Television Group, an exec not prone to gushing. “He’s obviously a brilliant writer who has creative, fleshed-out ideas. He’s also a great producer, a great director and just great to deal with day in and day out.
“It’s very rare to have someone who’s good at virtually every element of the business, but that’s what J.J. is.”
Even before his teenage brush with Spielberg, Abrams seemed headed for Hollywood. He was making super-8 movies before he was 10. “And before I even knew how to write, I remember drawing pictures of a play I’d want to put on,” Abrams says. “I always wanted to put on shows.”
First with the coming-of-age drama “Felicity,” and now with “Alias,” Abrams gets to put on a new spectacular 22 weeks a year, with millions watching each 44-minute play.
It would seem Abrams is doing exactly what he dreamed of doing as a kid — except he’s not. “I always wanted to write and direct movies. My focus was always on film,” Abrams says. “Doing what I do in TV has been this incredible unexpected discovery.”
Indeed, unlike most successful showrunners, Abrams made his mark in features well before scoring on the small screen.
Just a few years after graduating from Sarah Lawrence College, Abrams sold his first pic: the box office disappointment “Taking Care of Business.” He followed quickly with several more successful features: “Regarding Henry,” “Forever Young” and the sci-fi blockbuster “Armageddon.”
‘Felicity’ a critical darling
It wasn’t until 1998 that Abrams first dipped his toes in the TV waters, partnering with Matt Reeves to create “Felicity.” Critics immediately fell in love with the romantic drama about a college freshman (Keri Russell) trying to find her place in the world. The series, from Touchstone TV, helped put the then-fledgling WB Network on the map.
Braun, who at the time headed up Touchstone, wasted no time signing Abrams to a four-year overall deal. The pact, worth a whopping $16 million, would ultimately lead to the creation of “Alias” and position Abrams as part of a new breed of showrunner able to balance TV and features.
“I lucked into this incredible medium,” Abrams says. “The hours are brutal, the pressure’s tremendous and the need for material is insatiable. But it’s so exciting to work with the same group of people on a long-term basis, and you’re writing something you know is going to get shot. That just doesn’t exist in features.”
Television also allows Abrams the chance to explore multiple dimensions for a wide range of characters. That’s important for a scribe equally at ease spinning stories overflowing with emotion (“Regarding Henry”) as he is penning testosterone-pumped tales of courage and heroism (“Armageddon” or his upcoming retelling of “Superman”).
“Having strong, balanced characters is important to me, whether they’re men or women,” Abrams says. “Identifying with a character and feeling there’s a struggle worth telling is important. No matter what I’m working on, I have to feel some sense of passion about it.”
Unlike many TV scribes before him, Abrams isn’t driven by any overarching themes. He has inner demons but working them out isn’t the main reason he writes; likewise, he’s not trying to save, change or otherwise reshape the world.
“I tend to work from the inside out,” he says. “I don’t really get inspired by the big idea.”
Ask Abrams what does drive his writing, however, and his answer sounds a bit like something you might hear from the mouth of a certain director who once asked Abrams to resplice some of his films.
“There’s something romantic and good and just empathetic about the characters I like to write about,” he says. “Even though they might be at odds with someone, or damaged in some way, or not understood, the characters I tend to embrace are, deep down, good people.”
The TV biz
Show that first got you hooked on dramas: “‘The Twilight Zone.’ Rod Serling is my idol. It was far and away the show that grabbed my imagination. It took me to places I’ve never been before and scared the hell out of me. I was so struck by that show. It was the most involving show for me growing up. It was my favorite, but I also loved comedies, like ‘Mary Tyler Moore’ and ‘Cheers.’ ”
Most compelling characters on today’s dramas: “You look at Tony Soprano. He’s a great character. He represents a very identifiable quality, which is someone who’s a good guy who seems to be doing bad. I also love Buffy and her classic dilemma that she wants to be normal but is one of the chosen ones.”
Best place to launch an innovative and realistic drama: “There is a real advantage to cable. Not just language and sex and violence but fewer restrictions. The reality of production, number of episodes, commercial-free aspects. In that respect, it’s very appealing. On the other hand, even though there are restrictions on broadcast, they create challenges to overcome, which can be good for the show.”