J.J. and his collaborators conquer Hollywood
“Lost” was the longshot that never should have worked.
The show came together late in the development cycle. It was expensive. It had an intricate storytelling structure. And it featured a first-time showrunner in Damon Lindelof.
J.J. Abrams, then known as the wunderkind behind “Felicity” and “Alias,” birthed “Lost” with Lindelof, but with Tom Cruise and “Mission: Impossible III” waiting, he planned to hand the show’s reins to his co-creator after just a few episodes.
The two men hadn’t even known each other until an ABC exec played matchmaker for the show, but it was clear from their first meeting that Lindelof spoke Abrams’ language, a dialect of “Star Wars,” comicbooks, Steven Spielberg’s canon, “The Twilight Zone,” “Super Mario Brothers,” Stephen King and other common influences and obsessions.
Out of such shared visions, the Abrams footprint has expanded from TV to film, with his productions proving to be a wellspring of writers, directors and producers who have become major biz players in their own right. He’s been a magnet for like-minded creatives who share his professional DNA: hard-working, prolific anti-elitists who revel in pop culture and strive to deliver highly commercial fare with flair.
“J.J. has forged the way of making a career out of saying ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if … ‘,” says “Lost” scribe Adam Horowitz.
Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, who first worked with Abrams on “Alias,” were titans of the summer B.O. as the screenwriters of “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” and the Abrams-helmed “Star Trek.”
While Abrams’ alumni now have no shortage of opportunities separately, they remain a tightly knit creative cabal that continues to work frequently with one another.
“We’re the first generation of fanboys who are now in a position to make (films and TV shows) for each other — stuff that we’d want to watch ourselves,” says Lindelof.
Kurtzman and Orci’s work this summer alone helped drive more than $1 billion in worldwide box office revenue (on top of $709 million for 2007’s “Transformers,” which the duo also wrote).
“Lost,” which Lindelof shepherds with fellow showrunner and exec producer Carlton Cuse, became a worldwide smash that helped resuscitate ABC’s fortunes as it broke every rule in the network TV playbook. “Lost’s” sixth and final season finale this coming spring is sure to generate a tsunami of pop-culture buzz.
The success this group has enjoyed, collectively and individually, also represents the full flowering of a generation of creatives who were raised on late-’70s/early-’80s blockbusters, the early days of cable TV and the dawn of the Fox network. They move freely among film, TV, comicbooks, videogames and other media because those were sources of inspiration in their formative years.
Kurtzman and Orci, who also wrote “Mission Impossible: III,” made time amid a busy feature writing and producing sked to create with Abrams the spooky Fox drama series “Fringe.”
The pair are working other projects with Lindelof (who was also a producer on the “Star Trek” reboot), including DreamWorks’ “Cowboys & Aliens” for helmer Jon Favreau. Last week, Kurtzman and Orci signed on to steer another franchise reboot, “Hawaii Five-O” for CBS. And, of course, the duo and Lindelof are plotting a “Star Trek” sequel with Abrams.
From the “Lost” ranks, Horowitz and Edward Kitsis tackled the screenplay for Disney’s “Tron: Legacy” revival. The duo, who worked on “Felicity” way back when, are also cooking up a feature project with Abrams.
“Alias” vets Andre Nemec and Josh Appelbaum have become two of primetime’s most sought-after showrunners, with mystery-drama “Happy Town” on deck for ABC later this season. In their spare time they’re writing “Mission: Impossible IV” for Abrams.
Jeff Pinkner, exec producer and showrunner on “Fringe,” also logged stints on “Alias” and “Lost.” And there are plenty of other notable scribes, helmers, thesps, et al., who have come in and out of Abrams’ orbit during the past dozen or so years.
“What’s made us all come together in a way is that we recognize each other as long-lost brothers,” Kurtzman says of his and Orci’s strong connection with Abrams and Lindelof. “We were influenced by the same things growing up. I think that on some level, we are all attempting to replicate the emotions that we felt with the movies we saw as kids. We come to story from a similar place.”
That place is one that emphasizes character and the emotional heart of the storytelling as much, if not more, than f/x and or plot twists.
“When your audience is only thinking about the sci-fi or the fantasy part of your movie, you’re in trouble,” Orci says. “You have to connect on an emotional level.”
In tackling “Transformers” (Kurtzman and Orci also penned the first installment), they stripped away the high concept (“Let’s forget we have giant robots and machines,” Kurtzman says) and wrote a character piece about a boy and his car that could have been a low-budget indie pic — before the giant robots and machines were laid in.
Kurtzman and Orci have been friends and writing partners since they were seniors at Santa Monica’s Crossroads high school. They continued to write together even when they went off to different colleges (Kurtzman to Wesleyan U., Orci to U. of Texas at Austin), and landed their first post-graduation scribe jobs together on the Rob Tapert and Sam Raimi-produced syndie hit “Hercules: The Legendary Journeys.”
After a few years on “Hercules” and its sibling “Xena: Warrior Princess,” Kurtzman and Orci were looking to move on to new skeins. They were surprised by the degree of snobbery they encountered among network types until they took a meeting at the “Felicity” production offices with Abrams, who was staffing up for the first season of “Alias” in 2001.
“When we wanted to make the jump to network, we heard a lot of ‘No,’ ” Kurtzman recalls. “J.J. was like, ‘They did a female-driven action show? Great.’ And when we walked out of the meeting, we felt like we’d just spent time with someone we’d known all our lives.”
The connective tissue that has allowed for the bonding among this group extends through to the core aud for their work.
“Cinematically, this generational movement is kind of like hip-hop,” Orci says. “Entertainment exploded when we were kids. We all became students of film and TV because we were so saturated with it. Now our (work) is kind of like hip-hop where we’re sampling things we all know and love.”
Abrams describes his biggest inspirations as B-movies that were treated like A-pictures, such as “Jaws” and “Planet of the Apes.” He and his confederates have mastered this realm, expanding the appeal of what would once be considered geeky genre fare to mainstream auds.
“Media has changed so much. What used to be an event you can now get on your Mac at home,” Kurtzman says. “You have to give the audience a reason to go to the theater. It’s why this (sci-fi/fantasy) genre is excelling right now. The scope is never as exciting or as all-encompassing as when you’re sitting in the theater eating popcorn and screaming with other people. It’s true on TV as well. Shows have to be an event.”
A linchpin of Team J.J. is Bryan Burk, a key creative steward of all the work that flows through Abrams’ Bad Robot production shingle, based at Paramount for features and Warner Bros. for television. He’s a longtime friend of Abrams who became his right-hand production partner in the early days of “Alias.”
“Bryan has an amazing gift not only for identifying talent, identifying great stories and asking smart questions, but he’s amazingly adept at looking at material you have and saying, ‘How can we do the best with what we’ve got?’ ” Abrams says. “He’s always saving the ass of everyone he works with, in large and small moments.”
Another shared trait among the group is what Abrams calls “that sick workaholic gene” and a work ethic — honed in the grind of episodic television — that thrives on collaboration. Abrams, Kurtzman, Orci, Lindelof and Burk spent many hours together hashing out the basic story for the “Star Trek” reboot — knowing what a tricky assignment they had on their hands — while Kurtzman and Orci would bring the group pages to review as they progressed on the screenplay.
The continued emphasis was to make the pic work as a buddy drama even for non-“Star Trek” aficionados.
“You try different things on,” Lindelof says. “You can’t be afraid to mess up. … And we argue with each other all that time. That’s what is good about the process.”
Says Orci: “The best idea wins. Collaboration wins. It’s not about individual achievement when we get together.”
Appelbaum and Nemec say they’ve put the lessons learned during their three seasons in the “Alias” to good use on the shows they’ve since spearheaded, the ABC dramas “October Road” and “Life on Mars” and ABC Family’s “Samurai Girl.”
“The process we learned on ‘Alias’ was very, very inspired,” Nemec says. “It’s about finding the best idea in the room and then taking the approach of, ‘How do we make this even better.’ ”
Adds Appelbaum: “It’s not just about thinking of the craziest, weirdest, most shocking thing you can do. There always has to be an emotional truth to it. The great lesson of ‘Alias’ and ‘Lost’ is that there has to be an emotional resonance to what you’re watching. The audience has to care about the characters.”
Beyond the group’s professional ties, there’s a genuine camaraderie offscreen among the group, a number of whom are married with young children and not exactly living in the fast lane, even though their success could afford them such a lifestyle. Comic-Con, of course, is a recreational highlight of their year.
“We’re all self-deprecating short Jews, with the exception of Bob Orci,” Lindelof jokes. “We are first and foremost fans ourselves. When I go to Comic-Con, I’m always more excited about going to the other panels than to the ‘Lost’ panel.”
And to a person, they recognize the good fortune of getting to make a good living by doing what they love.
“Getting to work in this world has been the greatest film school ever,” Kitsis says.
Horowitz and Kitsis, who have been writing partners since they were students at the U. of Wisconsin, landed on the final season of “Felicity” as one of their early writing gigs.
“That was our freshman year of J.J. Inc.,” Kitsis says. “On our first script, when we got to work with him on it and see the way he laid out the story and the character (elements), we said, ‘Wow, now I see what we’ve been doing wrong.’ ”
The duo joined “Lost” early on in its first season, thanks to the Abrams connection and after having worked for Cuse on the short-lived WB series “The Black Sash.”
Kitsis and Horowitz say the connections that come from working in the Bad Robot universe are invaluable.
“We’ve become great friends with a lot of people who’ve worked on other J.J. projects,” Kitsis says. “Even if you’ve never worked with them, you can call them up and say, ‘Can I get your opinion on something?’ ”
Horowitz notes that before they buckled down to write “Tron: Legacy,” they prepped by reading older scripts by Kurtzman and Orci, Lindelof and Abrams.
“We were looking for inspiration … and things we could steal,” Horowitz confesses.