Wednesday, May 15, 2013

J.J. Abrams – Movies Spotlight – May 2013

J.J. Abrams, 46, is probably best known for his many TV series and for reviving the Star Trek franchise with his very entertaining reboot. This month he is again returning to the Star Trek universe with Star Trek Into Darkness. Captain Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise must engage in a perilous mission after a dangerous terrorist – a man who attacked Star Fleet from within. This is a mission the Enterprise might not come back from. Abrams is working with the same creative team on the film as the first and the actors portraying the Enterprise crew all return. New the series are Benedict Cumberbatch (awesomely playing the villain), Alice Eve, and Peter Weller. Check out the trailer here.

Early Career:

Abrams got his start in Hollywood teaming with writer Jill Mazursky to pen a treatment for Touchstone Pictures that would become Taking Care of Business. Abrams was still a senior in college at the time. He next wrote Regarding Henry for Mike Nichols, and then Forever Young (which in retrospect, does feel like an Abrams’s film – though I never knew he wrote it until doing some research; I saw it when I was eleven). Working again with Mazursky, he wrote the laughably bad comedy Gone Fishin’ before getting to work on his first big project: Armageddon (he was one of six writers to work on the film). Abrams was also getting involved on the production side as well. He produced The Pallbearer (which was co-written and directed by frequent collaborator Matt Reeves – his feature debut) and The Suburbans before writing and producing the horror/thriller Joy Ride. In 1997, Abrams decided to switch his focus to television.

TV Projects:

For his first venture into television Abrams reteamed with his pal Matt Reeves to co-create the young adult drama Felicity for the WB. The series starred and launched the career of Keri Russell (Abrams has since been known for his knack in discovering great female leads). The show is both loved and hated by fans, and what is probably most interesting about it looking back is how different it is to everything he has done since. Abrams is one of the most recognizable creative forces in science fiction and action (not mushy young adult melodrama). It is also worth noting that the show starred Greg Grunberg as well (he was Abrams’s ‘good-luck charm’ for a number of years appearing in some way in seven of Abrams’s projects).

Abrams then created his own production company called Bad Robot – its first project was his new show Alias, an action spy drama about a CIA operative who finds out she has been secretly working for the enemy the whole time and plots revenge from the inside. Like with Keri Russell, Abrams again discovered a fantastic female lead for the show in Jennifer Garner.

Alias aired on ABC and the network had a new project they were kicking around but did not quick know how to make it work. So, Abrams and his co-creators Jeffrey Lieber and Damon Lindelof came up with some ideas for what would become Lost. Abrams directed the two-part pilot episode (his first stab at directing anything big – he did direct a two part episode of Felicity five years earlier). The result was one of the most beloved pilots in television history, perfectly launching the series. However, that was really his last involvement in the show as he passed off creative control to Lindelof and Carlton Cuse.

Sticking with science fiction, Abrams next created a mystery cop series for Fox with Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (who would go on to write the Star Trek films for Abrams) called Fringe. It is about an FBI agent who is tasked with investigating strange phenomenon that begin popping up across the country (it is a bit like The X-Files). Again, Abrams found a brilliant female lead in Anna Torv. (In my opinion) it is his best show to date.

Wanting to return to the action spy drama genre, Abrams co-created Undercovers with Josh Reims for NBC and he even directed the pilot. However, it was a complete failure both critically and commercially – the first failure of Abrams’s TV career. He has not created a series since.

After the disaster that was Undercovers, Abrams decided to take more of a backseat role and be involved in the creative process only at the beginning and then step away. Lending his name to a project would give it clout for networks, but he could primarily focus on his budding film career. His first major series as executive prouder came with the mystery drama Alcatraz for Fox – billed as the new Lost. It never really found an audience and was cancelled after one season (first being delayed to midseason start). Abrams now had two failures.

However, he also executively produced another mystery crime drama for the same TV season with creator Jonathan Nolan (the brother of Christopher Nolan who co-wrote The Dark Knight) called Person of Interest. The series has more of an action aspect to it than Alcatraz (and to some extent the lead characters feel like Batman split into two men – the rich smart Bruce Wayne type and the brute force that is Batman). The show is a hit for CBS.

Abrams’s latest TV project is Revolution for NBC, which he is executively producing for creator Eric Kripke (the man behind the brilliant Supernatural). It remains to be seen if this action adventure show will be good (it is not particularly great so far).

Film Projects:

After the abysmal Mission: Impossible II, Tom Cruise and Paramount Pictures had been pursuing a sequel that would freshen up the material and reinvigorate the franchise (MI2 is pretty much unwatchable for those who have not seen it). Meanwhile, after directing the fantastic Lost pilot Abrams was looking to make the jump to features. Cruise met with Abrams who pitched him an idea for the story (which he co-wrote with Kurtzman and Orci) and they decided to move forward. Abrams completely reworked the story and brought in a whole new cast (aside from series veterans Cruise and Ving Rhames), including past collaborators Keri Russell and Greg Grunberg (who has a very brief cameo). Additionally, Abrams hired composer Michael Giacchino and production designer Scott Chambliss who had worked with him since Alias and Felicity, respectively. With his team in place and Cruise’s support, Abrams made one of the best and most entertaining action films of the decade in Mission: Impossible III – showing off his talent for quick pacing while still managing to cultivate great characters. The film completely brought the franchise back to life.

Seeing the masterful job he did with Mission: Impossible, Paramount was eager to bring Abrams back in to revamp Star Trek, which had all but become a joke cinematically and forgotten on television (in terms of fans in general not liking the latest output from the series). Abrams took the job, again using the same group that worked on MI3. Growing up, Abrams had never been a Trek fan. Thus, he had no issue with rebooting the material completely. While hardcore fans are not overly pleased with the film, Abrams basically made a Star Trek film for the masses – one that the masses and critics love – by making it an action adventure film first (and not slow and cerebral like the past material). It was a great success.

Abrams had been handed the keys to two floundering franchises and he had turned them back into box office and critical gold. This gave him the ability to make pretty much anything he wanted next. Paramount, of course, wanted a new Mission: Impossible and a new Star Trek, but first Abrams wanted to make his passion project Super 8 – a love letter to ET: The Extra Terrestrial and Steven Spielberg (who would executively produce Super 8). Paramount funded the project and for the third time Abrams made a great film that is both very entertaining and action packed while also featuring wonderful characters.

Producing Projects:

As Abrams amassed credibility in the industry built on the success of his films and TV series, Abrams began producing films on a larger scale as well as executively producing television shows (see above). His first big project as a producer came with sci-fi action thriller Cloverfield, which was directed by his friend Matt Reeves and written by Drew Goddard (who wrote on Lost as well). The film was well received by its intended audience and was a box office hit on a modest budget.

Next Abrams produced the romance comedy Morning Glory, which seems like an odd choice of projects unless you remember Felicity. The film is average and just about broke even at the box office.

While many fans of MI3 were hoping Abrams would helm the next Mission: Impossible, he instead made Super 8. However, he stayed on as the film’s producer, hiring writers Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec (both of whom wrote on Alias) to script it. Once he was happy with the screenplay and had Cruise’s approval (as Cruise also produces the films), Abrams passed the project on to director Brad Bird to run with, who was an excellent choice to helm the film. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol opened to critical acclaim and box office success (many saying it is even better than MI3, though I am not one of them).

Future Projects:

Abrams has a number of producing projects on the horizon, including: Believe, a fantasy drama series from Alfonso Cuaron and Mark Friedman (which sounds awesome); Almost Human, a sci-fi drama series from J.H. Wyman (who was one of the main creative people on Fringe); Infinitely Polar Bear, a comedy feature from Maya Forbes; the untitled Cloverfield sequel; Mission: Impossible 5, which Drew Pearce is writing (he co-wrote Iron Man 3 with Shane Black); and Star Trek 3, which Abrams could still direct as well.

However even with all those potential projects (as the TV series still need to be picked up), nothing compares to the anticipation and excitement for his next directing gig: Star Wars Episode VII. Unlike Star Trek, Abrams is a huge Star Wars fan. He originally did not want to direct the film for this reason, but then realized that he had to be the one to do it for the very same reason. Michael Arndt is writing the script and Abrams is producing the film as well. It is due in Summer 2015.

Career Highlights:

1)      Alias (2001-2006) – creator, director, executive producer (DVD, Streaming, Trailer)
2)      Lost (2004-2010) – creator, director, executive producer (Blu-ray, Streaming, Trailer)
3)      Mission: Impossible III (2006)* – writer, director (Blu-ray, Streaming, Trailer)
4)      Fringe (2008-2013)* – creator, executive producer (Blu-ray, Streaming, Trailer)
5)      Cloverfield (2008) – producer (Blu-ray, Streaming, Trailer)
6)      Star Trek (2009)* – director, producer (Blu-ray, Streaming, Trailer)
7)      Super 8 (2011)* – writer, director, producer (Blu-ray, Streaming, Trailer)
8)      Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011) – producer (Blu-ray, Streaming, Trailer)
9)      Person of Interest (2011-current) – executive producer (Blu-ray, Streaming, Trailer)
*Editor’s picks

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