J.J. Abrams’s ascent to helming one of the top-grossing films in history is a well-documented (not to mention highly notable) one, indeed, having created hit TV shows like Felicity, Alias, and Lost and then producing, writing, and/or directing blockbusters including Cloverfield, Star Trek, and Mission: Impossible–Rogue Nation.
But it’s how Abrams attained one of the most enviable resumes in the business that deserves a closer look. The director of Star Wars: The Force Awakens sat down with Chris Rock during Tribeca Film Festival’s director series and both gave their insight on how to put yourself on Hollywood’s ever-crowded map.
ABRAMS: I was doing a lot of rewrites [earlier in my career], and I was getting a little bit lost in the allure of a lot of money for a short period of time. I started to feel like I didn’t quite know what I was doing. Then what my now wife Kate said to me was, ‘You have to do what you care about.’ Why did I forget that part?
ABRAMS: The most important thing, obviously, is that the director have some skills. He or she doesn’t have to have made a movie before, but you have to see that they can do it whether it’s a short film they’ve done, even a presentation that’s strong enough. You’re looking for someone who comes in with a vision and a passion and shows you the movie before it’s been made. You want to have someone come in and talk to you about it in a way that when the meeting is done you feel like they know what’s going on. You want someone who can collaborate but [is] not a pushover.
ABRAMS: A deal breaker is people who aren’t kind. I know this sounds so stupid and so obvious. Star Wars is the example because there was so much stress all around that we not fuck it up. In the first department meeting, we had this conversation that for me the most important thing is that we respect each other–the golden rule: treat others the way you want to be treated. And I know that sounds so stupid, but there’ll be times when it’ll get all crazy and you want to know that you’re surrounded by people who are there for each other. When I heard that there are people who are difficult, I’ve almost always said no [to hiring them].
ABRAMS: It’s getting seen. We all now in our pockets have cameras that are a million times better than anything [Rock and I] had when we were kids, and you can make your movie now. There’s a movie call Tangerine that was filmed entirely on an iPhone. It can be a few minutes, but if you do it, whether it’s a script you write or a performance you give, and you put it out to the world people will see it.
ABRAMS: Make sure to write the thing you desperately care about. Because if it’s true to you and if it resonates for you, it’s probably the best litmus test that it will for other people as well. And if you think of what will the audience like, you’re drifting from solid ground.
ABRAMS: You do what you have to do to do what you want to do, usually. Sometimes you want to be an actor and you get a job on a show you don’t particularly love but it’s a job on a show and you take it because you have to. It’s a tricky thing.
ROCK: I would also say, especially early on in a career, you’re not going to get the jobs you want. You can shine anywhere. As an actor, it could be the shittiest part in the world, but if you approach it correctly you can shine. You can shine in the biggest piece of shit if you come correct. I was in a thing called Comedy’s Dirtiest Dozen–it never aired. Some mobster guy got a bunch of comedians together, it was me and [Andrew] Dice [Clay] before he got big and Tim Allen before he got big and bunch of comedians you never heard of. Some producer from SNL saw it, a guy named Jim Pitt. Something in a shitty club in Jersey changed my whole life. The main thing is getting in–that’s it.