Did you have difficulties reconciling your own creative ideas with an already established cannon like Star Trek?
Abrams: The fun of doing something like this is embracing the limits. Whenever anyone says, "You can do anything you want," I find it much more difficult to respond, because there are no walls to bounce off of. The rules of Star Trek - which I was not very familiar with because I was never really a huge fan - were actually a wonderful thing because they gave us the sort of playground, and then once we were in the playground we could do whatever we wanted. Paramount knew they were going to do Star Trek, but they knew if they were going to do it, they had to do something brand new. They came to me, asking if I wanted to produce a new version of Star Trek, and as somebody who was not a fan of it to begin with, I felt like I'm probably the wrong guy to do it.
But by the time we had a script and I read it, I just thought, "Holy s***, this movie is everything I love about movies: it's passionate, it's funny, it's exciting, it's got great action, it's intimate, it's emotional, it's optimistic, it's everything." And I thought, "Well maybe if I want non-fans of Star Trek to see the movie, maybe a non-fan of Star Trek should direct it."
I've come to understand it and see what all the fuss is about. There are terrific characters at the core. I love the optimism of the world that Gene Roddenberry created, with the idea that it's a vision of our future in which we're alive, we're collaborating across racial lines, political lines, religious lines. Some would say it's na've, and I'd say that's sad. I think it's incredibly refreshing.
You have really out-there ideas for television shows; how do they develop in your head to become a really concrete concept?
Abrams: When I was approached to do a show about people who survive a plane crash, I knew it would be weird. I thought what would be interesting to me is if where they really landed wasn't just an island, and what it meant to the characters would be not what you'd expect. You just think, "What would I want to see?" and that's the key to me to developing any story.
I noticed in your movies like Mission Impossible III, you've added more of an emotional element that was missing from previous movies like that. Why do you add more of an emotional context to it when really all that's really being asked is how to make a movie that makes money?
Abrams: My guess is that if you look at the movies that have made the most money, they're the movies that also have an incredibly strong emotional component; I don't think they're mutually exclusive ideas. You could go through a list of anyone's top 10 movies on this call, and the one thing consistent is that each of our favorite movies has great characters. The thing that makes any story resonate and work and be worth anyone's time is when you relate to the characters, and all the spectacle in the world means nothing if there's not those characters at the center of it all.
How was your experience at Sarah Lawrence College as a film student; what classes helped enrich your education?
Abrams: Sarah Lawrence was probably the most unusual college experience in the greatest way. I was stuck in a non-fiction essay class that I didn't want to be in; I could not care less about non-fiction essays. So I decided, "Well, f*** it. I'm going to write fiction and pass it off as non-fiction." And it became the greatest teaching course, because when you have to write non-fiction and you strive to just write fiction, it has to sound real. It was a very interesting way to approach writing fiction.
About halfway through the semester, the professor said, "This is all made up, isn't it?" And then he allowed me to continue writing fiction in his non-fiction essay class, and by the end of the year, I had written a play which I put on the next year.
How do you apply your passion for unsolved mysteries to a franchise where so much information is already known and set in stone?
Abrams: Some stories lend themselves to more on-going deep-rooted mysteries than others. In Star Trek, there was already enough going on, especially in a two-hour movie, that I didn't want people to come out confounded. I wanted it to be a movie that everyone could all go see and not feel the, "What the hell?" of "Lost." It was critical that the mystery that I happen to love was used in more subtle ways, rather than puzzling the general audience.
You already have the sequel for this film lined up; what do you plan to bring to that movie that maybe you didn't bring to this movie?Abrams: The only thing we have lined up is a deal with the writers and the actors, and that is a contingency policy, meaning it's way too presumptuous to assume that people are going to want a sequel to this movie. Growing up, when I was eating lunch, my mom would often say, "What do you want for dinner?" And I'd be like, "Mom, I'm eating lunch." We worked long and hard to make one movie. If, in fact, people like it, then when the time comes I would be happy to eat dinner.