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J.J. Abrams: The Idea Factory

Why might Abrams be the only possible savior of live action Star Wars features?

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J.J. Abrams

J.J. Abrams.

Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

When exactly did J.J. Abrams become sci-fi's golden boy?

Anyone inclined to doubt his paramount status need only to look at how in demand Abrams is. His roster of projects is a torrent of writing, directing, and producing commitments. His to-do list maxes out his iPhone's memory. It's like that scene from The Dead Zone where Johnny dreams the whole town descends on him, and he drowns in a sea of bodies as they yearn to touch him and know their fate.

The score so far: not only is Abrams the newly-minted director of Star Wars: Episode VII and the co-creator of two newly approved sci-fi pilots (one each for Fox and NBC), the trailer for his second Star Trek movie is already wowing fans now looking excitedly ahead to its May 17 release. His team-up with Eric Kripke, Revolution, is doing better than expected after a slow start at NBC, while his milestone collaboration with J.H. Wyman, Fringe, just wrapped climactically on Fox.

It wasn't that long ago that Abrams was known for that show that stirred a national crisis by cutting Keri Russell's hair off. But now we're at the point where Disney's new head of Lucasfilm, Kathleen Kennedy, must've said to her team, "We need the biggest sci-fi/action director we can get for Episode VII," and then, realizing there was only one possible call she could make after saying that, pulled out her phone and rang up J.J. Abrams.

The Episode VII Story

The idea of an Episode VII (as, presumably, part of a third trilogy) has long been a punch-line for Star Wars fans. "George Lucas is so intent on milking Star Wars," snide fanboys have been saying at least since word of Phantom Menace started filtering out, if not since the first round of updated (i.e., screwed-around-with replacement versions you had to buy) videos started appearing on shelves, "he'll probably try to make Episode VII."

The problem with an Episode VII is that, unlike the period covering Anakin Skywalker's life, from his youth to his death on the second Death Star, which Lucas more or less reserved for his own stories, everything after that was left open to the imagination of Expanded Universe novelists, with Lucasfilm's job mainly to ensure consistency and continuity among the various projects (with varying success). As a result the EU is a myriad-headed hydra with different clusters of plot points known to fans of various writers and the broad strokes known to few.

Until recently the prospect of an Episode VII would seem to have started from the solid and extremely final end of Return of the Jedi and drift off into uncertain directions dictated only by Lucas's whim to erect another tepidly awaited edifice.

The Disney Vision

But now, all that's changed.

One consequence of the Disney deal is that the Lucasfilm properties are moving forward, rather than constantly returning to the same well. The latest revision to the previous trilogies, for example, converting them to 3D, has been shelved after the extremely mild reception for the 3D rerelease of Episode I. The press release on the subject could double as a Disney-Lucasfilm mission statement: "Given the recent development that we are moving forward with a new Star Wars trilogy, we will now focus 100% of our efforts on Star Wars: Episode VII."

And we can see that with Kennedy's pursuit and embrace of Abrams, who bracingly rebuilt Star Trek from the ground up after revolutionizing everything from young romance (Felicity) to spy dramas (Alias) to long-arc cross-genre conspiracy thrillers (Lost) to creepy paranormal sci-fi (Fringe). Everything old and mannered, in TV and film, Abrams seems to be able to add zest and life -- that kind of brio was the only means by which the moribund prospects for life-action Star Wars features might be revived.

Praise and Promise

Kennedy honed in on Abrams as what the franchise required. "It's very exciting to have J.J. aboard leading the charge as we set off to make a new Star Wars movie," said Kennedy. "J.J. is the perfect director to helm this. Beyond having such great instincts as a filmmaker, he has an intuitive understanding of this franchise. He understands the essence of the Star Wars experience, and will bring that talent to create an unforgettable motion picture."

Lucas himself, who generally preferred his own direction to others on the previous trilogies, gave Abrams his stamp of approval. "I've consistently been impressed with J.J. as a filmmaker and storyteller. He's an ideal choice to direct the new Star Wars film and the legacy couldn't be in better hands."

And everyone else you ask seems not only to agree that Abrams is the man for the job, but to have good reasons why. "He puts everything he has into his work," said Dennis Muren, the digital effects whiz who's worked on both Star Wars films and Abrams's Super 8. "He totally immerses himself. He's got such a visual eye, which is so important to the Star Wars films. It seems that a lot of the same things that were in George when he made the first Star Wars films are also in J.J. I think he's going to fit into the other movies perfectly, with the energy that J.J. has. We're kick-starting Star Wars again with dynamite. It will knock people out, including the people who get to work on it. I think it's a great choice."

"J.J represents the next generation of filmmakers from those that were making Star Wars when I started," said legendary sound man Ben Burtt. "When he was a teen, he was a fan of Star Wars, and a great deal of his love for movies came out of his reaction of that first Star Wars film. You feel that he's already invested so many years in it, and he's going to propel it forward in a new way. In other words, you're having a fan who has grown up and developed tremendous directorial skills finding himself at the steering wheel to take the franchise into the next stage. I feel like I'm there watching history turn over from one era to another."

Abrams's Secrets

Abrams, a student of sci-fi in the ancient sense of having pursued its study with zeal, was suitably humble. "To be a part of the next chapter of the Star Wars saga, to collaborate with Kathy Kennedy and this remarkable group of people, is an absolute honor," he said. "I may be even more grateful to George Lucas now than I was as a kid."

He's previously talked about the reasons behind the striking effectiveness of Star Wars, in a talk on storytelling and the so-called mystery box. "The intentional withholding of information is much more engaging," he said.

And this is part of the key to Abrams's ability to become so preeminent. He's a fertile creative force, driving (as was so elemental to the origin of The Escapist in Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay) to the heart of the Why in each project he works on.

Partnerships and Insights

Whether he's producing, writing, or directing, each Abrams project is a collaboration. Instead of a Peter Jackson making three films of a trilogy at once, long days packed solid with the devotion of his attentions proportionately where needed and his mandates and manner holding sway wherever he cannot be, Abrams adapts the same process to a far-flung menagerie of projects, interacting with team after team whenever he can turn from the job that have the bulk of his attention at the moment.

But most of all, Abrams is in demand because his stories work -- usually because the Why works, and because of an increasing emphasis on action over navel-gazing, especially in his sci-fi projects (as his two newest pilot proposals illustrate). There are hints of this early on. Felicity, for all it was a college-years soap, worked because even back then Abrams was trying to get at the Why of his title character (and realized early on that its most inherent attribute was to be constantly in flux). More potently, as his craft has progressed, Star Trek (2009) works, whatever else might be criticized about it, because it's fundamentally about the Why of "genius repeat offender" James Kirk's transformation into the sharp-eyed but rule-breaking young captain we met, already in situ, 45 years ago.

And that means that Abrams is, as the Disney suits and legendary craftsmen of science-fiction seem to agree, the right man -- possibly the only man -- to create new explorations of the Star Wars galaxy.

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