As a boy growing up in Los Angeles, J.J. Abrams liked to practise magic tricks. He enjoyed sleight of hand and card tricks but his favourite illusion was the “zombie floating ball”, where he would conjure a white ball to rise through the air to the audience’s delight and surprise.
These days, the 42-year old Mr Abrams dabbles in a different kind of magic: the kind that keeps television and movie audiences on the edge of their seats.
As a co-creator of Lost, the unfolding saga about a group of plane crash survivors on a mysterious island, the bespectacled writer and director is responsible for one of the biggest television successes of the past decade. He is also one of the most wanted directors in Hollywood – whose ability to strike a chord with cinema audiences will be tested in two weeks when his “reboot” of Star Trek, one of the entertainment industry’s most venerable franchises, is released around the world by Paramount Pictures.
So far, the omens look good. The story touches on the rebellious early life of Captain James T. Kirk and explores how he and the young Mr Spock forged their formidable partnership. The new interpretation has received rave reviews and is on course to become a big box office hit.
Star Trek is only the second film to be directed by Mr Abrams, who prefers J.J. to Jeffrey Jacob. He was assiduously courted by Tom Cruise to make his first film, Mission: Impossible 3. It is a measure of his standing in Hollywood that expectations for his new film are so high. “He’s beyond a genius,” says Lloyd Braun, the former chairman of ABC Entertainment, who commissioned Lost. “He really is his generation’s Steven Spielberg, except he’s a writer too.”
Like Mr Spielberg, who directed shows such as Columbo before making his first film, Mr Abrams followed the well-trodden route from television director to Hollywood.
What makes Mr Abrams unique, friends say, is his ability to turn his hand to every part of the production process. He writes, he directs and he produces, whether in TV or film.
With Lost he co-wrote the script and outline for the pilot episode, designed the show’s emblematic logo and composed the music. His Bad Robot company, meanwhile, has become a production force, creating Fringe, a new hit science fiction programme for the Fox network.
“I’ve never seen anyone in this industry who has the business acumen combined with ability to manage people, on top of every skill necessary to succeed in the content business,” says a former colleague. “It’s so rare that those things mesh.”
He also has an instinctive feel for a story, say Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, who created Fringe with Mr Abrams and also wrote the Star Trek screenplay.
“People feel so connected to the characters that he creates,” says Mr Kurtzman. “It’s simple personal details …his characters have these relatable quirks and act believably in the face of craziness. He never approaches things saying: ‘Let’s see how I can make a buck today.’ It’s all about coming up with something that nobody has seen before.”
Star Trek is being released by Paramount, whose chairman, Brad Grey, has made Mr Abrams a key part of his plans. When he was appointed three years ago to revive the then-ailing studio, one of the first things he did was sign Mr Abrams to a long-term production deal. Mr Abrams has since become “part of the fabric” of the studio, he says. “I had been producing TV shows [before coming to Paramount] and had come to know his work,” says Mr Grey. “When I joined the studio he was someone I wanted to have with us to help us rebuild.”
Earlier efforts in television, such as Alias, an action-packed series about international espionage starring Jennifer Garner, bought Mr Abrams’ work to a wide audience. However, the powerbrokers who run the entertainment industry have been aware of his talents since the early 1990s, when he wrote and sold a script for a Harrison Ford film called Regarding Henry.
“I loved that film,” says Mr Braun, who would later lure Mr Abrams to ABC. “I remember reading that it had been written by a 21-year-old and I couldn’t believe that someone that young had written something so wise.”
He may have been young but Mr Abrams had the entertainment industry in his blood. His mother won a Peabody award for a film she produced about school integration during the civil rights era while his father made television movies and worked, for a time, at Paramount.
He remembers visiting the Paramount studio in Hollywood as a child to visit his father and developing a fascination with the technical side of television production after watching the filming of comedies such as Happy Days.
But he caught the filmmaking bug aged eight on a visit to Universal Studios. It was before the studio opened its theme park, and visitors were allowed to visit working sound stages. “I saw the special effects stage, the cameras, the lights, everything behind the scenes …I realised that it was what I wanted to do,” he told the Financial Times.
He is married to Katie McGrath, a public relations executive who used to work for Edward Kennedy in Washington, and credits her with honing his interest in politics. The couple have three children and were active supporters of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, hosting events at their Pacific Palisades home in California.
They also share an interest in international affairs and last summer hosted a salon to discuss China. It was attended by foreign policy specialists, as well as Hollywood movers and shakers.
In an industry where outsized egos and hair-trigger tempers are the norm, Mr Abrams is refreshingly normal and has a boyish enthusiasm for his projects. “He’s rarely at rest and is always coming up with ideas,” says Bryan Burk, a colleague at Bad Robot who has known Mr Abrams for almost 25 years.
Mr Abrams says he never sets out to make a film or television programme with an audience in mind. With Star Trek, he risked the ire of hard-core Trekkies by replacing the elderly cast of previous films with hip, younger actors. And he freely admits that the Star Wars films had a bigger influence on him than the Star Trek television series or earlier films featuring Spock et al.
This willingness to trust his own instincts has served him well. “Damon Lindelof [who co-created Lost] and I would go out to meet J.J. on the Lost set [in Hawaii] and we never thought it would get on the air,” says Mr Burk. “But we knew we were doing something that we loved.”
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