'Lost' Creator, 'Star Trek' Director J. J. Abrams J.J. Abrams created the beloved and obsessed-over Lost, which had its season finale Wednesday night, and directed the new Star Trek movie. Neal Conan talks with Abrams.
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'Lost' Creator, 'Star Trek' Director J. J. Abrams

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'Lost' Creator, 'Star Trek' Director J. J. Abrams

'Lost' Creator, 'Star Trek' Director J. J. Abrams

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It's a daunting mission to go boldly where many have gone before, to take this…

(Soundbite of TV show, "Star Trek")

Mr. WILLIAM SHATNER (Actor): (as Captain Kirk) Scotty, I need warp speed in three minutes or we're all dead.

CONAN: To this…

(Soundbite of movie, "Star Trek")

Unidentified Woman #1 (Actor): (as character) Hi, I'd like (unintelligible) three Budweiser Classics, two Cardassian Sunrises, and…

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (as character) (Unintelligible) looks good.

Unidentified Woman #1: (as character) (Unintelligible), thank you.

CONAN: The man who accepted this mission is director J.J. Abrams. He has a record of putting the chic in geek in a number of sci-fi flavored character-driven pieces you might have heard of - "Lost." And now he's taken the Federation back to hipness and to number one at the box office. He joins us in a moment. We will stipulate to Mr. Abrams that you really did like the picture and admire his work greatly.

If you had a real question about "Star Wars" or his TV programs, give us a call 800-989-8255, email us talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our Web site; that's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. J.J. Abrams joins us now from his office in Los Angeles. Welcome and congratulations.

Mr. J.J. ABRAMS (Director): Thank you very much. How you doing?

CONAN: Very well, thanks. I wonder, a week ago today, before "Star Trek" pulled in more than $75 million over the weekend box office, were you nervous?

Mr. ABRAMS: Oh yeah. I mean, I've been sort of, you know, you're nervous the whole time working on a movie, but especially something that has a pre-existing fan base like "Star Trek."

CONAN: Because people are going to hold you to what their idea of all this should be?

Mr. ABRAMS: Exactly. And the fact is that I was not a "Star Trek" fan when I began working on the movie. I've of course become one, but at the beginning I didn't really have that sense of it being a sacred text or anything. But I just knew there was a large contingent that did.

CONAN: I thought the director of the new film had to pass one of those tests like we saw in "Diner" for the, you know, the Baltimore Colts.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ABRAMS: You know, I think that that was what I thought would happen as well. But I was involved as a producer and I knew that one of the goals that I had was to try and help be involved in a film that would appeal to non-"Trek" fans, a film just for moviegoers. And when I finally read the script that was written, I loved it and I realized perhaps if I want non-"Trek" fans to go to the movie, a non-"Trek" fan should direct it.

CONAN: And those guys, though, the screenwriters you're talking about, they were "Star Trek" fans.

Mr. ABRAMS: Exactly. I mean Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci wrote an amazing script. And they are very savvy, wonderful writers who were aware of two things. One, we had to please the fans of "Star Trek." They're a very vocal group. And secondly, we had to make the movie more - our priority was to make the movie for a mainstream audience, not just a "Trek" fan.

CONAN: I want to play a little clip from the movie. At the heart of the story is guy, James Tiberius Kirk, with serious daddy issues.

(Soundbite of movie, "Star Trek")

Mr. BRUCE GREENWOOD (Actor): (as Captain Pike) Enlist in Starfleet.

Mr. CHRIS PINE (Actor): (as James T. Kirk) Enlist? You guy must be way down on your recruiting quota for the month.

Mr. GREENWOOD: (as Pike) If you're half the man your father was, Jim, Starfleet could use you. You can be an officer in four years. You can have your own ship in eight. You understand what the Federation is, don't you? It's important. It's a peace-keeping and humanitarian armada.

Mr. PINE: (as Kirk) Are we done?

Mr. GREENWOOD: (as Pike) I'm done.

CONAN: At its heart it seems - and I know you've spoken about this, I've read interviews you've done - you seem to have portrayed this as a picture about a family.

Mr. ABRAMS: I think it was important that the approach to "Star Trek" not be the same as it had been, meaning there was this assumption that you knew and understood and cared about the characters. But for me personally there was never the way in. I didn't know James Kirk before he was a captain or Mr. Spock before he was a first officer. I sort of didn't - I felt like I missed the episode where I was allowed in. And this movie was very much meant to humanize and sort of in a way bring back to Earth the characters and their humanity and then send them off on an amazing adventure.

CONAN: "Wagon Train To The Stars," is the way Gene Roddenberry first described it.

Mr. ABRAMS: That's right, that's right.

CONAN: And regrettably I'm old enough to remember "Wagon Train." Ward Bond was the captain of that particular - that particular five-year episode, five-year mission. Anyway, as you look at this story, effectively all of your projects, if you look at the people on the island in "Lost," and the group of researchers in "Fringe," this all seems to be about this idea of an ad hoc family.

Mr. ABRAMS: Well, I do think that, you know, whether it's a television show and a long running, you know, one at that or a two-hour film, you're always looking for the - you know, every film, every story, TV show needs - the main character needs to weigh in. And I think that it's often an allegory or metaphor for something that is very relatable to our own lives.

And obviously, family, whether it's literal, family relations, or friends, or co-workers, or what have you, everyone is looking for that paradigm, that dynamic. And that's why you have, you know, archetypical characters.

And Gene Roddenberry did a brilliant job at creating this world where you have these different figures that are relatable to our own lives. Of course, friends of mine who are huge "Star Trek" fans saw that years and years ago, and it just took me a long time to catch up.

CONAN: We're talking with J.J. Abrams, the director of the runaway box office hit "Star Trek." 800-989-8255. E-mail us, talk@npr.org.

Joe(ph) is with us calling from Providence, Rhode Island.

JOE (Caller): Hi, there. A really quick geeky question for you: Was there an intentional correlation between the way that Scotty was discovered in the new movie and the way we've heard about Desmond in the hatch. I'll take my question off-air.

CONAN: And that's a "Lost" reference.

JOE: Correct.

CONAN: Okay.

Mr. ABRAMS: It is. Yeah. There's no, you know, purposeful connection there. Clearly, there are, you know, aesthetic similarities. And given the fact that both "Star Trek" and "Lost" were produced by Damon Lindelof, who runs the show "Lost," and he and I created that series together, I'm sure that there are things that interest us, there are, you know, stories and - conventions of storytelling that will probably make for similarities, but it was never an intentional one though.

CONAN: Here's a Twitter from - a tweet from Twitter user Magdeline Bloom(ph) who writes: Absolutely love the new "Star Trek" movie. I've been a Trekkie since the original series. But what was with that cliff in Iowa?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ABRAMS: You know, it's funny, if you look - it's a quarry. So instead of it being a little cliff, it's - it was a hole.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ABRAMS: That sort of explains the ridiculous situation there.

CONAN: I thought part of the Grand Canyon, it just migrated a little bit.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ABRAMS: Exactly. Well, in the future, there's a big need for whatever the rock that they were digging there.

CONAN: Let's get Brian(ph) on our line. Brian, calling from Roanoke, Virginia.

BRIAN (Caller): Hi, Mr. Abrams. I am a huge fan. I first got into "Fringe" last fall after the third episode, and I absolutely love the movie "Star Trek."

Mr. ABRAMS: Thank you.

BRIAN: Something that I have noticed in your works is that you seem to really love puzzles, just clues and little - stuff like Rubik's Cubes that you like to throw in for your audience. I especially admire the glyphs that are on during the "Fringe" commercial breaks. What inspired your love of puzzles?

Mr. ABRAMS: Well, thank you for your comments and enthusiasm. The truth is that, you know, while I enjoy puzzles, what I enjoy more is sort of, you know, the idea of compelling ideas and stories that require the audience to fill in the blanks. It's not puzzles per se, but it's the idea that a story presents a question that you may not even be aware that you're interested in, but there's something about, you know, a story that asks the question.

It can be a simple as - in "Star Trek," for example, when we meet young Kirk, we know he's going to be captain, but he's hardly a captain at the beginning. So it could be as simple as that, how is he going to earn that captain's chair, what's that adventure going to be? It can be more specific, which is how they're going to kill the shark in "Jaws." It could be- whatever it is. You know, an overt mystery, a whodunit.

I just love stories that force the audience to lean forward and to kind of look into the screen to try and figure it out. So, that, to me, my approach. Puzzles are sort of a more literal way of, you know, equating that to, you know, every day life. But in stories, that's my favorite thing.

CONAN: Brian?

BRIAN: And I think it's brilliant how in "Fringe," you have clues as to what the next episode is about in every episode that you never notice on the first airing. And the whole thing with the observer just floored me.

Mr. ABRAMS: Right on. Well, thank you so much for that.

CONAN: And, Brian, thanks very much for the call.

BRIAN: Okay. You're welcome.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Here's an e-mail from Michael in Morrisville, North Carolina. I wonder, what was the most difficult aspect of the re-imagining character and/or the "Star Trek" world and what part of the re-launch did you find the most creatively satisfying?

Mr. ABRAMS: Well, thank you for the question. I think that it was so much fun to do this movie. The cast was incredible, they were a great group of young actors, and they were just wonderful and incredibly hardworking and terrific to work with.

CONAN: And for this film, cheap.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ABRAMS: Well, people say, oh, they're never going to be this nice again.

CONAN: They'll never be that cheap again.

Mr. ABRAMS: That's right. Well, I've got to say, the cheap thing, you might be right. But in terms of the kindness, their work ethic, they're wonderful people. So I'm rest assured they're going to be, you know, they're going to continue to be sweethearts.

But in terms of the most challenging, I think that the idea was to take something that is as clearly overtly sci-fi and fantasy as "Star Trek" and make it feel real. That's not to say that we're supposed to believe it's actually happening, but I wanted to try and make it feel tangible and believable.

And so, every aspect of what was created now, almost 50 years ago, needed to be filtered through that context, what makes it relevant, what makes it real, what makes it vital for now. And so, whether it was the acting, the casting, the writing, the prop design, the production design, the visual effects, any of that, it was really all about trying to legitimize it.

And one other thing is balance the crazy, huge epic sort of spectacle that the script required and also the intimacy and the emotion of the characters. Because if you don't care about the people, if you don't love those characters, none of the visual effects are going to matter.

CONAN: We're talking with J.J. Abrams, co-creator of "Lost," "Fringe," and other TV shows, producer and director also of "Star Trek."

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can get Peter(ph) on. Peter is calling from Syracuse.

PETER (Caller): Yes. Well, Mr. Abrams, I have a quick question for you. I was a big fan of the movie "Cloverfield" and I couldn't help but be slapped in the face by the - or sort of just really astounded by the echoes to 9/11. And so, hearing that line on the air that peace-keeping armada, I'm curious, this being, you know, a futuristic story that whether you have a preoccupation with the political or with the current affairs in your films.

Mr. ABRAMS: Well, I think that it's - first of all, I'm glad you like "Cloverfield."

PETER: Yeah.

Mr. ABRAMS: The thing that is interesting to me about any kind of science fiction, fantasy or horror, is that usually those genres are potent because they are, in some ways, a reflection, allegory of what's actually happening.

My favorite show of all time was "The Twilight Zone." And one of the things that Rod Serling did so brilliantly is take issues that matter to him -politics, race, you know, important social issues - and he got into such trouble with the networks and the sponsors that he finally decided to turn, you know, his attention to science fiction, which would allow him to tell the stories he cared about safely.

While we didn't overtly try and make, you know, "Star Trek" into some kind of, you know, political treatise, we wanted to make sure that we were telling a story that are relevant and valid. And so, yes, this clearly, you know, issues - I think there are clearly issues you could draw parallels to.

But the most important thing about "Star Trek" for me is it's an optimistic story. It's a world that is, you know, it's our future. And it shows collaboration across political, racial, cultural lines, even interspecies. But the collaboration is what will save us. And that to me is a wonderful message and very refreshing after many, many years of dark, post-apocalyptic, cynical futures on film.

CONAN: Peter, thanks.

PETER: Yeah, thank you. And just really quickly, I was a huge "Star Wars" fan up to this point and I was very disappointed by those three movies. But "Star Trek" has sort of brought me back to being excited about a space movie again. So thank you.

Mr. ABRAMS: Right on. That's nice of you. Thank you so much.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail from Sarah(ph) in Columbus. I'm 24 years old. And one aspect to the old "Star Trek" I always thought really dated it horribly was the gender roles. Hundreds of years in the future, the only woman with authority on board is, of course, in a miniskirt. How did Mr. Abrams and the movie team address gender and race roles?

Mr. ABRAMS: Well, I think that, you know, first of all, the character Uhura, played by Zoe Saldana, who I think is just a brilliant actress, is critical to the story, you know, is a very strong character, is obviously widely opinionated. And she's got a role like every other person on the show. And in the film, without that person they would not have survived and they wouldn't be there together as a family at the end.

In terms of what we inherited from the original series were these characters. Our film is a complete sort of new take. At the same time, especially with Leonard Nimoy continuing the role of Spock, it's a continuum.

So we couldn't really shift everything and change the dynamic. In fact, that was one of our - like I said earlier, one of our responsibilities was to be sort of true to what came before. But as someone who, whether it's, you know, the lead character in "Alias," the lead female character in "Fringe," the character of Kate on "Lost," you know, I have been - or "Felicity," - I've been lucky to be involved in shows that have had very strong characters who happened to be female, as well as male. And that's very important to me.

And I certainly don't think that, you know, that women will or should be at all insulted by the depiction of this woman, Uhura, in the movie. I think she's an incredibly strong character.

CONAN: And let's get one last question in. This is Caroline(ph). Caroline with us from Woodstock in Virginia.

CAROLINE (Caller): Hi. I was curious if there was any talk about a sequel to this movie because some of the aspects of it are not accurate like Spock's mother dies. I mean, she's not dead in "Star Trek." So I wondered if there was any talk of now another one.

CONAN: I think, Caroline, you're the first one to mention it.

Mr. ABRAMS: I think the form of this movie for me was on the one hand, it's an origin story. But on the other hand, it separates from the existing timeline to create essentially its own timeline.

So in the timeline of this film, Spock's mother, in fact, does die, which is a huge spoiler for those who have not seen the film. But the movie itself acknowledges, in a way, the timeline of the TV series. So for those fans who love the TV series, we are not denying it, we're not, you know, revising it. We are admitting that that coexists.

So in this timeline, we have our own instances, our own story, our own, you know, results, which allow us to make a prequel that doesn't have that problem that most prequels have, which is, oh, I know how it turns out because I've seen the other ones.

But I will say that we have not had one discussion yet about what a sequel would be. There's a deal with the writers, there's a deal with the actors, but we have yet to have one meeting. We wanted to sort of see if people would like the first one before we started working on another one.

CONAN: Caroline, thanks very much. And, J.J. Abrams, thank you so much for your time and good luck with that new picture, whatever it is.

Mr. ABRAMS: Thank you so much. Very kind of you.

CONAN: J.J. Abrams, director of "Star Trek," already at a theater near you.

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