January 25, 2013, the day that J.J. Abrams was announced as the director of the new Star Wars movie, he got an email from Tom Cruise. The email was, as Cruise’s tend to be, short and to the point. “Man,” the email said simply. “You’re gonna crush it.”
Tom Cruise, of course, is a man who knows a lot about movies, which is why he fought for Abrams to be his director on Mission: Impossible III, back in 2005. These days, Abrams seems an obvious fit for the material. And, most days, Cruise is a man who gets what he wants. But back then the star was in need of a hit, and the man he wanted to engineer it was a TV guy who may have created Lost and Alias, but who had never directed an actual movie in his life. And here was Cruise asking Paramount Pictures to pony-up a US$150 million (Dhs551 million) punt on a gut feeling?
“There were some interesting conversations with the studio, mainly because I’d actually offered it to J.J. [Cruise is the franchise’s producer] before I’d even discussed it with them,” Cruise laughs when he looks back on the argument. “It’s fair to say that they didn’t want J.J. to do it, not at all. But now,” he smiles, “I think it’s a decision everyone can be very proud of.”
The journey for Jeffrey Jacob Abrams, the schoolboy nerd who’d avoid the jocks playing dodgeball and instead run around the playground with a red cape round his neck and his fingers curled up in front of his eye like a viewfinder, to Abrams, the most powerful director in the galaxy, has been long and storied. It has also been irrevocably shaped by some key influences in his life, both personal and professional.
The first of those was Abrams’ grandfather, Harry Kelvin, who Abrams’ father, Gerry (his mother Carol Ann sadly passed away in 2012), credits as the man who encouraged the young Jeffrey Jacob to dream, to believe, to wonder. And who was also the man who gave him his first Super 8 camera, the one Abrams would later pay affectionate tribute to with his third picture, Super 8, in 2011.
The second was Abrams’ producer on that movie, one Steven Spielberg. He had closely monitored Abrams’ talent from a young age and their orbits realigned when the latter was in his career period as a script-doctor. (Abrams wrote original screenplays like Regarding Henry and Forever Young before moving into script-doctoring on the likes of Armageddon.) In 2003, Spielberg and Cruise wanted Abrams to write War of the Worlds for them, but with him knee-deep in the intricacies of Lost, Abrams, in a rare moment for the quintessential multi-hyphenate, had to pass.
The third was Kathleen Kennedy, the woman who made Abrams’ career with her first phone call to him and then sent it stratospheric with her second, three decades later.
Walk into J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot offices in Santa Monica and it’s clear that his love for movies runs deep, packed as it is with paraphernalia from both his productions – the Hatch from Lost hangs proudly on a wall – and those of his many heroes – R2-D2 sits next to a bust of Spock’s head, which sits next to The Red Knight, under a poster for Earthquake, and so on, to the point that his younger sister, Tracy Rosen, describes it as “basically a glorified version of his bedroom growing up”.
Abrams paces the space as collaborator, not dictator, and the company is staffed at senior levels by many of the people he grew up making short movies with as a kid. Ask any of them and they’ll tell you he is a whirlwind of ideas, a creative force but also a pragmatic one, able to discard ideas that aren’t working with as much speed as he’ll conjure up the next one. They will also, to a man, tell you he is fiercely loyal.
“I learned a lot of how to behave in this industry from the people who first got me into it,” says Abrams. “Frankly, I couldn’t have been set a better example.”
And this is where that first phone call from Kathleen Kennedy comes in. It was 1981 and Kennedy, who is now the President of Lucasfilm and has a string of enormous movies as producer to her name, was assistant to Steven Spielberg. One day she had received a phone call from a man who had found a box full of 8mm movies in his basement. The box had a name scrawled on it: “Stevie Spielberg”. And in it was a whole host of the teenage director’s homemade dramas and comedies and even home movies.
Spielberg tasked Kennedy with finding someone to clean up the prints, transfer them to video for posterity, and Kennedy remembered two 14 year-old kids she’d read about in the local paper whose amateur movies were getting some notice. “I said to Steven,” says Kennedy, ‘You know, maybe it’d be kind of fun to hire these two kids to come in and do it.’ Steven said, ‘Oh, that’s a great idea.’ And I did. And those two kids were J.J. Abrams and Matt Reeves [who most recently directed Dawn of the Planet of the Apes].”
Abrams smiles at the memory. “It’s a great story and it’s all true,” he says. “Even if it does sound like something out of a movie.”
Kennedy’s second phone call was so significant that both of them will always remember the date: December 14, 2012, the day that Kennedy, now one of the most powerful people in movies, called up Abrams to ask him if he would do her the ultimate honour. If he would pay tribute to the movies he grew up adoring, who was just ten when George Lucas’ epic space opera made him fall in love with movies in the first place, by directing the first Star Wars movie in more than 30 years.
“I remember the call vividly,” says Kennedy. “I said to him, ‘Please do Star Wars.’”
Abrams nods his head. “And I said, ‘No.’”
A lot of people are going to have a lot of opinions about J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, but whatever they are, they should know this: this is not an endeavour the director has undertaken lightly, nor has it not left its scars. Yes, in many ways he has had it lucky – following the original Star Wars trilogy, perfect and beloved as it forever will be, would have been an impossible task. But following the prequel trilogy – with which George Lucas laid waste to so much of the love he created first time out – means pretty much inarguably that the only way for Abrams is up.
Factor in some lovely touches so far, such as the character BB-8, who both graces our cover and has become a bestselling radio-controlled toy to kids big and small the world over already, and a backstage crew of Star Wars legends like Lawrence Kasdan (on scriptwriting duties) and John Williams (on score) and hopes are justifiably high. As for that cast, buddying-up the original trifecta of Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford with the new one of John Boyega (see over), Daisy Ridley and Oscar Isaac promises as much in the way of mystery – is Ridley the daughter of Han and Leia, or Luke, or neither? – as talent.
The last time we saw Abrams was backstage at an awards show a year ago, where he had just presented an award to Simon Pegg, who was mock-annoyed with him, “because I emailed him to ask him if he was going to be here and he lied to me and said he was in Paris”. Abrams then was tired but happily so, having eventually relented to the requests from Kennedy as well as something deep inside that wondered – no matter how initially loyal he had felt to Star Trek – whether he would never, ever not regret turning down an opportunity that his boyhood self could never, ever have even dreamed of. “Yes, the pressure is huge,” he said, “but so it should be. You can’t take on something of this magnitude with your eyes closed.”
Abrams locked the final cut (135 minutes, nerfherders) of Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens at 2am on Thursday November 26, just 22 days before it opens in the US and just 20 days before it plays at Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi, on Thursday December 16.
“Having Star Wars – The Force Awakens screen in Abu Dhabi prior to its general release is a real validation for how successful the filming was whilst the production was here,” says twofour54’s CEO Noura Al Kaabi. “To date, all of the trailers and TV spots for the film have included scenes from Abu Dhabi [which doubles primarily for the new planet Jakku], which have generated unprecedented excitement around the globe. We are very proud of our achievements and excited for audiences around the world to experience Abu Dhabi on the big screen.”
The Abu Dhabi Film Commission teamed up with a crew of 650 people to record in two locations last May and Abrams has talked much about the beauty of shooting on location, despite having the occasional Stormtrooper pass out in the heat.
What will the movie itself hold? The man who made it certainly isn’t saying, other than to offer Wired, “We wanted to tell a story that had its own self-contained beginning, middle, and end but at the same time, like A New Hope, implied a history that preceded it and also hinted at a future to follow. We’ve been able to use what came before in a very organic way, because we didn’t have to reboot anything. We didn’t have to come up with a backstory that would make sense; it’s all there.”
Can it beat Avatar, to become the biggest movie of all time? Will Darth Vader return? Why has Luke Skywalker not been in any of the trailers or on any of the posters so far?
(Or, has he in fact been in all of them and on all of them all along?) Will Harrison Ford finally get what he asked Lucas for on Return of the Jedi, and have Han Solo killed off? The Force Awakens has many questions surrounding it, but Abrams – a man now as synonymous with his quest for secrecy as he is his love for lens flair – is determined to let the movie, and not him, supply the answers. “The most powerful thing a movie can ever do is surprise you,” he says. “Surprise is what keeps life exciting. It’s the essence of everything.”