J.J. Abrams, one of Hollywood’s most successful and prolific TV creators and filmmakers (Lost, Alias, Cloverfield, Star Trek), rarely participates in profiles or interviews that go beyond promoting a specific project. But just days after he returned from a months-long shoot on Star Wars: Episode IX, which he cowrote and directed, he sat down with Fast Company writers KC Ifeanyi and Nicole LaPorte in his office at Bad Robot, in Santa Monica, California. What follows is a transcript of the wide-ranging conversation that took place.
Fast Company: How does it feel to be back after being away so many months filming Star Wars: Episode IX?
J.J. Abrams: It’s great for me—especially, and I said this at the [all-hands] meeting, just to see all these faces. Some people [at the company] were here just when I was leaving, they just got here, and then a ton of people have shown up since I’ve been away. So to come back to this home, business home, professional home, and have a fairly high percentage of the people be brand new faces, it’s a surreal thing. Of course. I’ve known about it intellectually. I was prepared for it. But you show up, and all of a sudden there are these like flesh and blood people with life experiences and points of view and like, I’ll hear things before so I’ll kind of know a little bit about everyone, and then they’re all the interns, too. And then to get to see them in person and feel like, wow, this is really . . . Katie (McGrath, Abrams’s wife and co-CEO of Bad Robot) and all the department heads and Brian (Weinstein, Bad Robot’s president and COO), they’ve done such a good job bolstering the team, and it’s great to come back. I mean, obviously, the simple answer is, I’m just happy to see my family again. It’s been so long.
FC: How did it feel when you were suddenly brought on to direct Episode IX after Colin Treverrow departed while the film was still in development?
Abrams: I wasn’t supposed to be there. I wasn’t the guy, ya’ know? I was working on some other things, and I had something else that I was assuming would be the next project, if we’d be so lucky. And then Kathy Kennedy called and said, “Would you really, seriously, consider coming aboard?” And once that started, it all happened pretty quickly. The whole thing was a crazy leap of faith. And there was an actual moment when I nearly said, “No, I’m not going to do this.” I was trepidatious to begin with, getting involved, because I love Star Wars so much and felt like it was . . . . It was almost, on a personal level, a dangerous thing to get too close to something that you care that much about. And yet, with Force Awakens, I feel like we managed to introduce these new characters—for some people, new actors—and continue a story in a way that I thought had heart and humanity and humor and surprise. Though of course I’m aware that there are critics of that movie, it felt to me like we dodged a bullet. Like we got in there, we got to do something. And I left loving Star Wars as much as I did when I got there. Like, somehow, it was on a personal, selfish level something I was really happy to have done. Not just excited about doing but happy to have done. And to ask to have that happen again, I felt a little bit like I was playing with fire. Like, why go back? We managed to make it work. What the hell am I thinking? And there was a moment when I literally said, “No,” and Katie said, “You should do this.” And my first thought was, has she met someone? And then I thought, she’s usually right about stuff. And when she said it, I think that she felt like it was an opportunity to bring to a close this story that we had begun and had continued, of course. And I could see that even though the last thing on my mind was going away and jumping back into that, especially with the time constraints that we were faced with . . . .
FC: What were the time constraints?
Abrams: Because they had announced release dates, and everything works backwards.
FC: Was the schedule unusually fast?
Abrams: To have no script and to have a release date and have it be essentially a two-year window when you’re saying (to yourself), you’ve got two years from the decision to do it to release, and you have literally nothing . . . . You don’t have the story, you don’t have the cast, you don’t have the designers, the sets. There was a crew, and there were things that will be worked on for the version that preceded ours, but this was starting over. And because this was such a mega job, I knew at the very least I needed a cowriter to work on this thing, but I didn’t know who that cowriter would be. There was nothing. So the first thing I did was reach out to a writer who I’ve admired for years, Chris Terrio. who I didn’t really know, to say, “Listen, would you want to write Star Wars with me?” And he screamed.
FC: Out of terror or excitement?
Abrams: Probably a bit of both, but I think definitely excitement. And what I realized in that moment was, I hadn’t been aware until then that I needed to work with someone who would scream at the prospect of working on Star Wars. Because I had been through the process, and I was looking at brass tacks: This is what it’s going to take, this is the reality of it. And he was looking at it sort of childlike: Oh my God, I can’t believe we get to play in this world, which I needed to be reminded of. I needed that point of view, because that’s not where I was. Of course, I was excited about what we could do, but I was acutely aware of how little time we had to do a fairly enormous job.
So to answer your question, I went into it in an all-in leap of faith, aware that Katie was very supportive of this thing and felt it was the right thing. And so her divining rod of what’s real and what’s right was a comfort, despite her not being in London (where most of the shooting took place). And it was just an immediate immersion into the what-ifs of it all, which is the fun of it, but also the pressure of it. And I’m not complaining when I say this, but it was having to make decisions based on gut. When Damon Lindelof and I created Lost, we had essentially 12 weeks to write, cast, shoot, cut, and turn in a two-hour pilot with a big cast. And that was a crazy short amount of time. The benefit of that was, we didn’t have time to overthink. There wasn’t time to get studio notes that end up sometimes taking you in lateral positions and making you adjust things—death by a thousand cuts—to a place where something doesn’t resemble what it should be, and you can’t remember why you got there or how. So the good news was I was jumping in with a writer whom I admired enormously; with Kathy and Callum Greene, a producer whom I’d never met; Michelle Rejwan, who had been my assistant, and whom Kathy had hired to work with her as a producer. But it was a completely unknown scenario. I had some gut instincts about where the story would have gone. But without getting in the weeds on episode eight, that was a story that Rian wrote and was telling based on seven before we met. So he was taking the thing in another direction. So we also had to respond to Episode VIII. So our movie was not just following what we had started, it was following what we had started and then had been advanced by someone else. So there was that, and, finally, it was resolving nine movies. While there are some threads of larger ideas and some big picture things that had been conceived decades ago and a lot of ideas that Lawrence Kasdan and I had when we were doing Episode VII, the lack of absolute inevitability, the lack of a complete structure for this thing, given the way it was being run was an enormous challenge.
However, to answer your question—truly, finally—now that I’m back, the difference is I feel like we might’ve done it. Like, I actually feel like this crazy challenge that could have been a wildly uncomfortable contortion of ideas, and a kind of shoving-in of answers and Band-Aids and bridges and things that would have felt messy. Strangely, we were sort of relentless and almost unbearably disciplined about the story and forcing ourselves to question and answer some fundamental things that at the beginning, I absolutely had no clue how we would begin to address. I feel like we’ve gotten to a place—without jinxing anything or sounding more confident than I deserve to be—I feel like we’re in a place where we might have something incredibly special. So I feel relief being home, and I feel gratitude that I got to do it. And more than anything, I’m excited about what I think we might have.
FC: Now that you’re back, do you have to focus more on running Bad Robot?
Abrams: Well, in all fairness, I’ve been pretty active in terms of, certainly on emails and calls and video conferences and even some visits. In terms of the feature department, we’ve gone through a lot of changes. We’re obviously working on a bunch of different projects in development there, but I’m up to speed on everything, and I’ve been giving my opinions about the projects we’re working on in all the departments. In games, we’ve had changes sort of everywhere. We didn’t even have some of the departments really up to speed when I left, like Loud Robot. But I feel like it’s so much easier being in the building, not just because of the serendipity of meetings and crossing paths with someone. It’s already happened a dozen times since I’ve been back, where just by being in the same place, I can ask questions or I can answer them. We can have spontaneous meetings. You have an idea, you get to run over to the person and go, “Hey, what about . . . .?” Some of my favorite things about this company is the unexpected nature of how certain things are born.
I was having a meeting in this room years ago with Jonah Nolan about something, a feature. And he had this idea for a series, and I ran over, and I grabbed the head of TV, and she came over here, and we started talking to him, and then it became a show, Person of Interest. And then that ended up starting the relationship that led us to Westworld with Jonah and his wife, Lisa (Joy). That kind of thing, having literally at arm’s length, access to someone who, because I might not have the answer to something, but I know someone here might. And to be able to be here has been, being home again reminds me of why I love this particular company, because the strange sort of bedfellows. And I think it is unusual to have the kind of departments and access and resources that we have here, things that can happen spontaneously—some are bottom-line oriented and incredibly helpful in terms of making something that most companies might not be able to: props or graphics or prototypes of things that are ways to demonstrate proof of concept. Other things that have nothing to do with what the company is here for. Like when we went to go see what Elon Musk was doing with Tesla and Space X, and then he showed us the Boring Company thing he’s doing. And then I, just as a joke, made a hat for him and sent it to him that day, and that became the logo for his company.
I get more joy out of the fact that, because we could make the hat and, within hours, he could have it, and then he’d say, “Can I have this logo?” I just love the serendipity of what can happen here. So being back is like a constant, just walking through the building is a reminder of how much fun that can be and how that can really work and how helpful it can be. That part’s never a downer. And being away just makes it harder to actually be part of that reality.
FC: How do you make sure you’re an effective leader when your attention is divided between the company and your own projects?
Abrams: It’s a great question, and I don’t know. I did this talk a few years ago in New York with Chris Rock, and someone asked that question to us. Someone asked, “How do you hire people?” And Chris said this thing that really struck me. He said, when he’s hiring someone, he tries to hire his boss. He tries to hire the person that will show him and tell him what he’s got to do. And it just struck a chord for me, which is that, when you do your job, the people you’re working with don’t need to be babysat or micromanaged—they need to be empowered. And that’s not to say you don’t need to check in and make sure you’re shifting degrees here or there. And a few degrees in the beginning can change the course enormously by the time you arrive. So it’s important to make sure that you’re constantly on the the pulse of it and understanding what’s going on. I guess what I would say is, since I’ve never considered myself a leader in anything, I consider myself a collaborator.
I like to work with people who inspire me, who know when I should be brought into the process and when I shouldn’t be. There’s a lot of time that could be wasted in meetings that don’t require me. And it also feels like dropping into the writers’ meeting that I might not necessarily have normally been in, every once in awhile, or something in development, or a network meeting, is helpful to me because I also like to see how the people who I’m trusting operate with other parties. It’s an important thing. I would say all I can do, all any of us can do, is the best we can do. And while I might have something that when you say you’re directing and producing, writing a Star Wars movie, obviously that sounds like a pretty full time job. But the truth is that we’re all responsible for what we’re responsible for. And certainly being away makes it sort of exponentially more difficult. But I think we developed a system that lets me understand what’s going on. Well beyond that, because it’s Katie, and she’s here, and while she’s not actively involved in development and television or film or anything, her presence here and the trust that she has engendered . . . . Her ear’s to the ground. She knows what’s going on here. She smells smoke a gazillion miles away, so she’ll just like call out the stuff that I wouldn’t know if I was here. That is hugely helpful. And I don’t think I could ever do that if I weren’t working with Katie, because she’s someone who I love and trust in a way that of course could not be duplicated. So I can’t even imagine if I weren’t working with her what it would be like to have someone else, even the most fantastic, brilliant, accomplished woman or man in that job. I can’t imagine what it would ever be like to have someone else do that. So that is a huge help in terms of the culture and the operations of things, much of which is not my forte anyway. I never got into this saying, like, I really want to run a company. That was never the interest I had.
FC: Bad Robot is at an interesting inflection point, where you’re growing and expanding into divisions like music and games, as well as shopping around for a new film and TV production deal. What are your thoughts on all this?
Abrams: I would argue, while we could say a lot of things and we can sort of answer that question, I could give you a song and dance. The truth is that I don’t feel like we’ve ever approached our business strategically. We’ve approached it instinctively. I couldn’t tell you what our 5-year or 10-year plan is. I can tell you things that would be cool if, in five years we had, we were doing, we were accomplishing, we were working on. But the truth is that this entire enterprise has been for me a response to the “what if?” Which is, by the way, like, when I said earlier, the great stories, the ones that I love, all seem to come from a “what if?” And so the idea of doing a company never crossed my mind, except when I was working on Alias. And I was in the editing room until 3 a.m. in early 2000s. And Steve McPherson, who at the time was running the studio at Disney, the TV studio said, “Why don’t you have a pod deal somewhere?” And I was like, “What’s that?” I didn’t know. And he said, “Well, life doesn’t have to be, like, you could actually have people working with you.” No one, including my agent at the time, ever suggested to me that having a deal might actually allow me to work with people who could help support this crazy system. Because I’d never done television. Matt Reeves and I were doing the show Felicity. And I’d had a deal with Disney, and they said, for ABC, they wanted a young, female lead show. So I came up with Alias, but I never thought about any of this. And then I started looking around, and I saw that there were filmmakers who actually had people working with them. And I remember going to one director’s company in Hollywood, and phones were ringing and people were walking around and they had papers, and there were like guitars on the wall. And I’m like, “What the fuck is this? This is like a whole thing.”
And then we had an agent who has since left being an agent, John Fogelman, who had this large idea of like, Well, if you did a deal for TV at a studio and did a deal for features, at another studio, you could actually have a building. And we went and started looking at buildings. This is years later. And the idea of having a real place . . . I thought, well maybe if we were lucky, we would rent an office space somewhere, which was plenty for me. But then we started looking at buildings, and we went to this place, and it was a former rug dry-cleaning place. And at the time it was an online film school. And it was also some weird furniture store. But the whole place was so dark and kind of weirdly hideous. And this is years ago now, when even this area wasn’t quite as interesting. Anyway, needless to say, we found another place that was way off in Culver City near the airport. And Katie’s like, “You’re saying, if you had an office that’s 10 minutes from the house or you could have an office that’s 40 minutes from the house? Go look at that rug cleaning place.”
The idea of starting a company was not a goal. But what was a goal was the idea of being able to support filmmakers who I wanted to see tell stories and realize some of the projects that I would love to see the light of day, but that I knew, left to my own devices, I’d probably never get to just as a one-person show. The idea of having a company started to get exciting to me when I felt like there was a kind of alchemy that could happen when you work with artists in different disciplines that also have interests in other things. Not to say it’s a different discipline, but when Jonah, who’d never done television, threw out this idea for a series and it was like, Well, that’s a show we’d want to see. And all of a sudden, we had that on the air, and it was a really good show that could never have happened if it had just been me. And that was like one little example of the kind of stuff I’d love to . . . . Guillermo del Toro, who was just here, gave me a script for something that he’s writing for us. We’ve been developing this thing on and off for five years, and I think we’re at a place where something could really happen with this. And it was because we had Lindsey Weber who was running, and now Jon Cohen is running our features department. If it were just me, I would never have been able to kind of keep that plate spinning.
The idea of doing music or live or publishing or games, these are all things that without an ounce of strategic thought, it’s literally stuff I love. It feels like in this life, if we can, without working ourselves to the bone and not being good partners and parents, if we can help create and empower people who want to and deserve to and should tell stories—whether it’s their original stories, whether it’s ideas that are generated here, whether it’s things that we come up with together that you find outside. I know there are a million production companies and anyone can buy the book and buy the pitch. What I love is doing some of that. But my favorite thing to do is finding storytellers who have an idea, have a sense of something, and now maybe even a song or a book or a game and finding ways to realize those things.
The final thing I’ll say about this is when Jonah brought up that thing about, his TV show idea, I knew what to do. I knew how to respond to that because I know what it’s like to create a series and get it on the air. But I can’t tell you how many times people have come in here talking about things that have nothing to do with TV and film. And we haven’t had the ability or the resources to make music happen. We haven’t had the ability to make games happen. We didn’t have the experience in publishing or Broadway. And it’s felt to me like . . . Even just the way I got involved in The Play That Goes Wrong. I didn’t strategically go to the play to get involved as a producer on Broadway. I went because it just felt like, it sounds funny. And then when I saw it and I had the reaction and I talked to the people and said, “Are you going to Broadway? Are you going to New York for this?” And they hadn’t really thought about that yet. And I was like, “Because I’d love to be a part of it.” And I’m like, Who the hell am I to talk to them, actual theater people, about being a producer? But I felt like there’s something that felt right about it. Not like it would be an annuity. It just felt like, people need to laugh. This is really funny. Let’s figure out a way to do it. And I got involved with Kevin McCollum, who knows that world better than than I ever will. So everything we’ve done, I think, has been a reaction to at least, for me, an interest and a sense that we can somehow be additive, if only we had the ability and the resources to do that. And it may or may not work, any of this, but because also we’re in a place where technology and distribution and everything is so sort of . . . The lines have been so blurred that there’s no question that there is a world in which, if we’re lucky, and if we do it right, somehow there can be these collisions.
Not all in one project, but movies are a giant magic trick where you use all sorts of different talents to make something feel true. And there’s no question that music and publishing and games and potentially live and even TV and movies, that all these things can create some kind of Venn diagram with certain projects. And if it’s just a great piece of music, awesome. This is not about exploiting music for TV, but like, well, why not? They coexist in this great way. Why can’t we find a way to take a great artist and then make sure that the people who are doing our shows, when appropriate, have that music? And they’re writing to that music, and they know it’s there, and then we can actually use it, as opposed to music as it’s traditionally been used, being put in later, with some exceptions, as a kind of like, Well, let’s get the supervisor to figure out which songs might go well with this scene. Why not work the other way and find some great music that could actually inspire? Who knows? But something will come of it. That’s what I know. And the thing may be that it was a valiant effort, and it didn’t go anywhere. It may be that we come up with something that could never have happened if we didn’t have that division—gaming, music, publishing—as part of the company.
FC: People often say you’re a jack-of-all-trades—writer, director, producer. What do you consider yourself first and foremost?
Abrams: I would say that, first and foremost, it’s wildly uncomfortable to understand people are talking about you. Secondly, I will say that, because I did start my career (as a writer), and because it’s what I’m doing now, and, and in fact, when I was finished with Force Awakens and I was here for a couple of years at the company and not off directing something or even prepping something, while we had a lot of different projects going on, I did write two pilots during that period, and it was really fun going back to that. And I see there are certain filmmakers who I know, who began writing their stuff, and as they go on, stop writing, and become—not a ton of exceptions of course, but some people I know—and keep directing. And I feel like I’m really hungry to see what they would do if they had kept writing, as well. I don’t want to ever lose that. And I love the process. So I do suppose that that’s . . . . Even last night, someone was telling me that because I have created series and I’m a writer, that there’s a different value to that as a company, not necessarily a monetary value but a different sort of approach. It’s not just another production company. That may be true. And all I know is, I take that approach, which is to say a sort of storyteller’s approach to everything that we do. Whether it’s games or now I’m beginning to, even with music, thinking about, how are we introducing this artist to the world and what is the story of that artist that we would love people to know? So I suppose it is intrinsically the thing, even though, again, talking about myself as a writer feels pretentious, and yet it is, I guess the fundamental way I do approach everything.
I mean, certainly when I’m directing, I constantly am saying to the crew, “This wants to be . . . .” which is to say like, it’s not, I know this sounds like a manipulation, but I never intended to be—I feel like what I’m trying to do is channel what the thing wants to be. And, like, when I’m writing and when it’s working, there’s this very . . . . It’s a supernatural feeling of something. Yes, you can think forever, and you can structure a story, but when there’s a phrase that works, when there’s an idea and a feeling and a sense of something, it’s the sixth sense thing of the chills that you get. And I don’t think people value chills enough. Chills are literally the only litmus test I know. When I’m talking about a scene or if I’m watching something, I can equivocate or I can argue, but when you feel the chills, which is literally an amazing thing that we have this physical reaction to concepts or to words or music—there’s something undeniable about that. And not to say that it’s always right, and I’m sure there’s such a thing as the wrong chills, but that, to me, is the thing that is my guiding principle. And you can’t make those happen. You can’t force chills. You either feel it or you don’t. So for me, that storytelling sense, that idea of knowing what something wants to be or doesn’t want to be probably comes less from I’m trying to direct the thing and more from a trying to find the narrative.
FC: Bad Robot is also getting into toys, namely a collection of figurines called The Beastlies. What inspired them?
Abrams: It was a long time ago. When I saw them (while shopping at Meltdown Comics), my first reaction was, just, I love them. I just loved what they were. And I assumed that they were some toy that had been made somewhere, and I was just curious what they were. And they said, “Oh, Leslie (Levings) makes them.” I was like, “Who?” And they said, “Oh, she’s not here today, but she works here.” I’m like, are you kidding me? So I bought a few, and I called her, and we had a meeting, and I just said, “Listen, I don’t know what to do with this. I don’t know what the thing is.” And if I’d said to her, it’s going to take the better part of a decade to even figure it out, I can’t imagine she would’ve signed up and said that sounds great. But I just knew that there was something. I still feel that way. And I’m sure with many things, it might be proven wrong, but I feel like that thing . . . . It’s the same feeling you get if you’re walking the street and there’s a busker who’s got the greatest voice you ever heard, or you see a one-woman show that slays you, or read a short story and you’re like, This was the greatest novel I ever read, and it was like 14 pages long. You just get a feeling. And this was a little, teeny window into a world. If you want to know what I envisioned when I saw them, it was more kind of the sort of Gumby, sort of psych of nothingness, because the characters were the thing. So the context of the world, in which these characters live, were less the point to me than the characters. And it’s almost like when you’re watching a movie. Yes, of course the context is important: the room, the place, locations. But you’re just looking at the people, and you’re just, like, connected. And I, when I saw the Beastlies, it was like, I didn’t care so much. I felt like there are arguments: they’re this size in our world, they have their own world, they’re these miniatures, there’s nothing. It’s like Gumby. You could come up with a million different ways to say it. I just knew that there was something, a heartbeat. And when you look in their eyes, there’s something desperate. There’s something sneaky. There’s something terrified. There’s something uncertain. There’s something insecure. Each one of these felt like an insecurity or a problem. And like with Star Wars, every good character in Star Wars is desperate. Every character is desperate. Maybe not Chewie, but everyone else is desperate. And there was something about these characters that just felt like . . . . There was a feeling associated with them that I thought was really valuable.
So we’ve had a lot of opportunities over the years where we could have . . . . And had we taken any of the routes (toward monetization) that were offered to us or we could have pursued, it wouldn’t be. And it never felt right. And again, strategically, and in terms of Leslie, I feel a still lingering, temporary guilt that we haven’t gotten there yet. But how many stories are there where the thing took time, and I feel like I’m not worried at all. I’m actually weirdly so grateful that we didn’t move on any of those opportunities earlier. The Mattel thing, it felt like the right kind of partnership, because at a certain point we need that kind of a partner, and I’d rather do it at the ground level and not as a result or reaction to an existing deal. Which is to say, of course, there’s merchandising everywhere for all sorts of things, and video games and movies are the perfect example. There are so few, and, I would argue, maybe one good example of a video game inspired by a movie. And that’s not to say that we couldn’t have made toys once we had some Beastlies movie or Beastlies show. Of course we could have.
What I love is that the toy deal—and it was like these were toys when I first saw them. That’s what they were—it was inspired not by a release date of a movie in a template-driven system where everyone knows exactly what’s going to happen because that’s what you do. It was inspired to be a toy deal because it’s a toy, and let’s figure out how to make those the greatest toys. Meanwhile, we have the rights to develop this thing in other ways. I think that we’re on, I’d like to think, the verge of finally, if not just for Leslie but for all of us, finding a home for these characters in a way that I think, I have a lot of examples of things in my head. You can say Looney Tunes, you can say Muppets, you can sort of make all these different references, but I feel like there’s a way that these characters will be able to have the kind of voices and deal with the kind of issues that are always a bit easier to deal with when you’re not being literal on every level. And because they are what they look like, I think we can get away with a lot of stuff, and some of the stuff is going to be probably not . . . Because I don’t think you want to put a hat in the hat and have it be childlike and sweet. I think you want to go for the jugular in some cases and have these characters be sort of mouthpieces for some real specific, and sometimes very uncomfortable, familial or cultural or social issues that I think could be really fun and really funny. And if you look at some of the greatest stuff that, some of the Muppets or The Simpsons or . . . .
But I’m just excited about what that can be. And I also, finally, feel like, because the business is changing as it is and because of this moment we’re in, I feel like it is something that I think will be potentially an important piece of these little silly, cute creatures, whatever the next phase of the company is. There’s a good chance that the Beastlies could be something really impactful. And I’m so grateful that we didn’t rush to market in other ways that we could have. And again, we will see, but I’m weirdly more bullish now than I was anytime previous, partly because of what we know, partly because of things we didn’t do, which I’m grateful for. And partly because I just think the Beastlies are just awesome.
FC: As someone who is inherently creative, what has been your learning curve in figuring out the business side of running Bad Robot?
Abrams: It’s strange, because it’s been sort of comfortable for me, because my father was chairman of Hearst Entertainment, and he had this company. And I grew up with my room right next to his office, and I’d hear him on the phone all the time, dealing with writers and producers and running projects. I think while I was editing my Super 8 movies or drawing, whatever I was doing—I spent a lot of time in my room—I would hear him run a company. My grandfather had an electronics company. I’d go to the office with him in Farmingdale, New York, and I’d watch him run his company. And then years later, getting to know Steven Spielberg and watching him run his company. I feel like I’ve had a few pillars of examples for me of what it looks like. And strangely, it always felt somehow, like, inevitable that there would be some thing like this in a way, even though I could never have predicted it.
And I don’t want that to sound bad. While I appreciate how lucky and rare it is to be able to do this, I don’t find myself in a panic about it. Part of it is also that I have this feeling of, if all of this went away, just having a pen and a pad, I’m good. I don’t feel like I need . . . . I love it while we’ve got it. And I’m unabashedly ambitious about what I think we can do, and I’m hungry to do more. And I don’t want to do more for the sake of more, but I do feel like there are opportunities that we just couldn’t take advantage of (before). Some things I mentioned, like with the game ideas, and by the way some of this stuff takes forever. But not everything good happens quickly. And for me, I feel like the experience of it, the learning curve has been partly about things that I would never in a million years think of, that Katie is so much better than I am at understanding. Things like what people in a company need to know to feel safe, to feel like they understand where they stand. Things like titles. I would never want to do titles. Who the hell cares? Well, people care. Guess what? You have to really figure out reviews. You’ve got to really understand bonus structures. All these things, they’re not in my comfort zone or my wheelhouse, but what’s also not in my wheelhouse is having a lot of people not happy at a company.
And Katie was like, these are things that the company needs to do. We didn’t have an HR department before Katie was like, “We should have an HR department.” I can’t tell you how many things would not ever have crossed my mind. So my learning curve is not that I had to become an expert in HR. I just knew we needed someone who was really proficient and skilled in that arena, and we needed them in this company because people need to go there to get questions answered and complain about things. And to handle matters that, of course, I’d rather not ever exist, but they do exist. So it’s been interesting. And I feel like, because my favorite thing to do is to make stuff—is to create or collaborate on something. Because even when I was a kid, whether it was a little stupid magic trick or a little movie I would make, when my parents or family members or friends would say, “How did you do that?”—that was literally the end-all. It was the greatest thing. So that’s what I love to do. I love to do something where someone says, “How did you do that?” Like, that’s my favorite. To get there and to collaborate with these talented people and to house them and feed them requires a practical and compassionate and business-minded approach that I am not naturally inclined to.
So you have to put the scaffolding in place to make sure that everyone understands where they are and what they’re doing. And we’ve been very lucky. Our rate of attrition is not very high. We’ve been wonderfully blessed with some incredible employees and Robots, as they’re called. To come back and see all these new faces, I feel like, oh my God, this thing is a living, breathing organism that exists without me around. And it wouldn’t have if I didn’t listen to things that Katie and Brian and others have brought to my attention.
FC: Is there anything you’ve learned watching the trajectory of Amblin, Spielberg’s production company?
Abrams: I feel there is no other company . . . . I was talking to Ron Howard last night about what he and Brian (Grazer) do with Imagine (Entertainment). And I was just thinking about this. There isn’t a company that I can point to and say, That’s what I want to be doing. But it’s not to say that there aren’t companies that I admire and feel like we’d be lucky enough to do anything like what they’re doing. But I think that the tricky thing, given that I’m not just a producer, but I’m a writer-director, is that there will be periods when I’m going to be off doing those things, like I just was. Even with Brian and Ron’s company, Ron can go off, and Brian’s there. But it is a bit tricky. Being away, you’re not always lucky enough to have it happen at the perfect timing, but if you’re responsible . . . . If for example, I felt like we didn’t have people doing their jobs as they needed to be doing them, I don’t think I could in good conscience go off to direct something. It’d just be an irresponsible thing. I wouldn’t sleep well at night feeling like, Oh, we don’t have our team in place. Not to say there aren’t always lessons learned and things that are improved upon and sometimes surprises that you wish didn’t happen.
But I could look at what Steven has done and say, Well, look, he was able to go off and direct movies and still have his company running. And he worked with, constantly, really strong producers and people that allowed his company to sustain. So that’s probably one lesson. I mean it feels pretty obvious, but that was something that I saw him do and felt, at least it’s possible. Would I want Bad Robot and Amblin to resemble each other perfectly? I think every company is going to be different because of the people who work there. But I do admire that company.
FC: Do you ever feel like you’re spreading yourself too thin with your multiples projects, in addition to running Bad Robot?
Abrams: For sure. Look, there are lessons learned all the time. I think it’s important to define Bad Robot as a company and me as a filmmaker. I feel like my job with Bad Robot is to bring together people who are of enormous talent and passion and hunger to do their thing, in whatever discipline. To give them whatever support they need to do it, or help. Sometimes criticisms, other times just cheerleading. And to let them do their jobs. And I’m not saying let the chips fall where they may. I’m not saying it’s a crapshoot. But I don’t feel like having people . . . having Dave (Baranoff) running games, for example. I love games, but I also know that’s not going to be the thing that I’m running and controlling. What I do know is I’ve known Dave forever, trust the guy enormously. Think he’s very, very talented in what he’s doing; has really good taste; is working very well with people. He should be doing that thing, whether here or somewhere else. I’m thrilled to have given him the opportunity, and I then get to throw out ideas that I have and dip in as much as I want or can or am needed.
And this is a very important thing: I make sure that the people in all the departments know whenever there’s something they feel will be benefited by my involvement, they reach out. I also liked being a bench player. And so when there’s something that needs me to come in and look at something, and give an idea, or maybe figure out someone to bring in to help, I like being a conduit or an inspiration for something. Or a critic or whatever they need moment to moment. When I’m working on a movie or a show, I am by nature sort of an ADD, multitasking person. I like that. Even one of these jobs, like, I can’t tell you how many times working on Episode IX, people who were visiting would look at me with this look, and I didn’t even know what it was at first. And then I got used to it. There are so many people coming up with questions, you’re just constantly bombarded with things that are happening now, things that are going to be happening down the line. I enjoy that. But when I’m working on something like that, obviously, I’m not half-assed doing that. And I feel like I can walk away for periods of time and—never not within reach and never not connected to or up to speed on what’s happening with the company. But I do love telling stories. I do love directing. And so my involvement as a writer-director, I would say, is maybe the thing that I personally feel is the most professionally sacred. That’s what I have to be focusing on, because there is no way to not be there full-time. But I also know that we managed to do Episode IX, and at the same time I worked with Bash Doran and met with her numerous times in person, countless times on the phone, as she runs the (writers’) room for Demimonde that I wrote, that I assumed I was going to direct and still might. But we got to go from crazy, blue sky conversations, honing it down to what the season wants to be; what the series should look like; what the first few episodes are. Now they’re being written.
But that was work that was being done while I was doing that. That was weekends, and it was after shooting. There are times when I feel, like, there’s a show—and I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings—but there was a series that we did that I can think of that, maybe had I not been doing anything else and only been focused on that show, maybe I could have helped get it there. And it hurts that it didn’t happen, because I really believe in the show. I will say, though, that I’m not convinced that we had the right people working on it. I think my involvement would have been finding the other people to do it right. And I take full responsibility for all of our failures, and I know that when things work and work well, it’s because of everyone involved. And those are times when I curse myself for having listened to Steve McPherson back in the day. No company is successful in everything that they do and everything they work on. And I would rather take some shots and support the people who are really on point on those things than not. But 100%. I find the balance between what I want to do and what I’m able to do, something that is a natural consideration at all times because I do have big eyes.
FC: Bad Robot’s film and TV projects have been expanding lately into new genres that go well beyond the family entertainment spectacles that the company is known for. Is this a conscious pivot?
Abrams: You know, Stand By Me, the movie, that’s based on a Stephen King short story. Or Shawshank Redemption. Stephen King. I think about him. And his wheelhouse obviously is horror, fiction and he’s the best ever at that. But he also writes about these beautiful, heartbreaking, sweet things. And some of them have been turned into movies and shows that I don’t think people necessarily know or believe were based on his work. And I really admire that. And yeah, there’s maybe a comfort zone or a wheelhouse where there’s a sort of thing that you do. I think it’s dangerous to almost become too aware of what people might expect of you, because then there’s a danger that you start to follow the wrong leader. You start to go where you think you’re intended to go, and then you’re no better than someone who’s impersonating your work, like a fan or someone who thinks, “That was successful. I should do that, whatever he or she does.” When I started writing this show for HBO, I didn’t go, Oh, there’s a sci-fi component that feels like something I would do. I found myself writing a story about this family, and there is an element of fantasy sci-fi to it. But the world of the show, the story, that’s not the thing that interests me. What interests me are the relationships and the situation and the intrigue of it.
I started to watch The Founder, the Ray Kroc movie, with my son, and we’re talking about McDonald’s and looking at how they started. We had this conversation about when a company starts to do too much, and then you start to lose the thing that made it what it was. And all of a sudden it’s like they’re selling lobster rolls. And there’s a danger in having such a sort of diffused and nonspecific point of view that your brand gets diluted or whatever. I would just say that as someone who has never once thought about Bad Robot as a brand. I accidentally used that name only because we had to, when I did Alias and had to turn in a production card at the end. And I had this idea for a children’s book called Bad Robot. So I just did this thing and drew it and animated it and had our kids say “Bad Robot” in the laptop, just as a temporary goof. But I never thought of it as a brand.
I guess I would say that the only thing that I would love each of our projects—and admittedly there have been some that haven’t done this for various reasons, and I could explain why and tell you why I hope to have learned from each of those lessons moving forward, knowing very well that there’ll be new lessons around the corner for us. But I feel like the one thing I’d like each of the projects we work on to have is an element of: Ooh! Of, not, How did you do that?, necessarily. Because I know there won’t be a visual spectacle to the Tab & Tony movie, but there might be a really unexpected and poignant heart to it. And there might be a point of view that you haven’t seen, and it might not be a science-fiction, visual-effects thing. It might be an incredibly personal and true emotional thing. I just know that when I was a kid, I saw the Charles Laughton Hunchback of Notre Dame, and half of me fucking loved Laughton in his makeup and the feeling of this kind of mysterious Quasimodo character. But 51% of me was heartbroken by the love story and just swept up by the passion of it and the tragedy of it. And so I would just say that my dream projects have those two things connected. And as inspired as I was by the Ordinary People script—I really found it was sort of this touchstone for me because I love that movie so much, and the writing was so beautiful. My favorite movie is Philadelphia Story, which is just such a funny, brilliant character piece. I think that my love of things like Star Wars and Scanners, the Cronenberg movie, Altered States, and things that struck me so much when I was a kid, those interest me the way Twilight Zone did. Which is to say they’re equal parts something you haven’t seen before and maybe even supernatural or, not of this Earth, and also something just completely emotionally true and moving. So I love any version of a story that moves you, and if the special effect is just the eyes of an actor, that’s okay. So I don’t know what our brand will look like. And if I told you something now, I’d be wrong, and it would be bullshit. The truth is, I just know that we could make something good here, and I just want to be part of that.
FC: How much consideration do you give to dreaming up your own franchises, similar to Star Wars or Star Trek, where you’ve gone in and rebooted someone else’s story?
Abrams: Because I’ve had numerous conversations over the years with ABC, which flirts with rebooting Alias and Lost, I’m sort of story origin agnostic. I don’t care where story comes from, what inspires a story. If it’s a novel, great. If it’s an old movie, I don’t care. If there’s something that feels like it’s relevant and could be powerful and exciting, I’m okay with that. I will say, having started as a writer who wrote original screenplays and then created series, to have found my way into movies at a time when reboots and sequels and preexisting IP were the studios’ wish list. There used to be a time when the norm in Hollywood was you see something that inspires you, and then you go off and do your version. Now it’s, you see something that inspires you, you remake that thing—which has worked really well for a lot of people and in some cases exceptionally well. I could not feel luckier to have been asked by Tom Cruise to direct him in Mission: Impossible III. I feel incredibly lucky that Gail Berman called and said, Would you look at Star Trek? And I thought, Well, when am I ever going to get a chance to do something like that? I will never not be grateful to Kathleen Kennedy for calling and saying, How about Star Wars? I’m nothing but lucky and have done nothing but benefited from being associated with those things. And I am thrilled that they worked well enough that they would think to bring me back.
Having said that, when I got done with Episode VII, the reason I wrote these two pilots, neither of which were based on something that preexisted, it was for that very reason. I spent a lot of time world-building preexisting worlds, and it had been a while since I’d created something like Lost or Fringe or Alias or some of the movies that I’ve written. And so I’m really excited about and really hungry that to do so. I think the business needs, and I hope I can be part of that, having storytellers creating the next wave of originals—which, by the way, it’s happening. It’s mostly happening in streaming. It’s happening. But I feel like you can’t survive eating your own limbs. And I feel like in Hollywood, there have been a lot of reboots and remakes and sequels. And I understand my guilty role in that. But I’m not saying those are verboten and shouldn’t exist. But there needs to be a balance, and I would love to be at least a part of bringing that balance back.
FC: Does that align with your desire to form a new, all-encompassing—both film and TV—production deal?
Abrams: A little bit. The thing is that because things are shifting . . . Everyone’s been saying for a long time, the business is changing. But now the business is changing. Because distribution has so shifted . . . and not shifted. It’s shifting. Right now, it’s happening in a way that if you really sat down with almost anyone at any of the major companies with a couple exceptions, I don’t think they can really, fully tell you yet what it’s gonna look like. So we’re talking about a business that doesn’t even understand exactly how it’s going to look. There are some very clear ideas, some clear models, but it’s an interesting thing to know that . . . . Back in the day, when there was the studio system—when you could sign up and be exclusive to a studio and that was it—you at least understood the rule. They might have been hideous in some cases and exploitative and fucked up and wrong and unhealthy, but at least you knew what you were getting into.
It’s a bit like the Wild West right now. And all I can say is, I have no answers other than all I care about is telling stories and making sure that there’s a partner that can get those stories to people. Because even watching the way our kids consume media now, it looks nothing like the way it did when I was a kid. And I don’t know if they care so much, in a lot of cases, where it comes from. They just want access to the thing. I hate talking about storytelling and filmmaking as a commodity, but I know on the simplest level, there are storytellers and there are consumers of those stories, and all I want to make sure is that Bad Robot is positioned, in a way. And I feel gratitude to our partners, and we’re grateful that they want to continue to work with us. But I do feel like we’ve been a bit at the kids’ table on the business side of things. That there are some approaches to dealmaking, to proving concepts, to taking certain risks, to investing in people that might not be the most traditional means. I’m not saying I don’t want a partner to give me their opinion. And we will respect whomever we end up partnering with, of course. And I very much look forward to that. But I also feel like we’ve been doing certain things long enough that I know some pieces of the machine are broken, and some things feel like unbearable things things we have to deal with. I would like to imagine there’s a world where we might not have to. We’d be lucky to continue to work with some of the people that we’ve been working with. And I know that there’s a model where that can happen. Whether we end up with new partners or existing, I just want Bad Robot to be in a position to be at the grown-up’s table, to be able to make certain decisions. Not reinventing the wheel. I would love it if we just were able to make certain decisions.
By way, the thing that I think is important is alignment on what the projects are. And a lot of times people go into these sort of things feeling like, it’s all about like having autonomy and freedom and “put” pictures. But I think that’s a dangerous scenario. Because to say, “Here’s our deal, I get to force you to spend money on whatever,” that doesn’t interest me. I want to know that we’re aligned culturally. I want to know that we’re aligned in an enthusiasm for storytelling. I am, for better or worse, an unabashed lover of populous movies. And I’m not saying I don’t love a great indie, where it’s, like, nine people I know love it and other people are divisive. That’s fine, too. But I do love movies as much as I love films. And I feel like, if we can find a place where we’re able to do both, where we’re able to tell stories we want to tell and reach as many people as possible—even if it’s a risky endeavor, where it’s not entirely clear what that looks like, but it’s an exciting prospect . . . .
FC: What’s broken in the system, at the so-called grown-up’s table?
Abrams: It’s the boring stuff. It’s making certain deals with writers. It’s casting. It’s budget approvals. When you have a studio, by default, they need to figure out their accounting, and they’re far more creative there than we are here in terms of being creative. So there’s a level of . . . . One pocket into another thing, where I feel like, I just want the money on the screen. I want to know if we’re doing something, it’s actually benefiting the show. There are agendas that sometimes aren’t just the series you’re working on or the movie you want to make. I feel like I’ve been in the business long enough to feel like I know when things are being hamstrung for the wrong reasons, or we’re not being allowed to do something that I truly believe will result in a better story, in a better movie, in a better show. In some cases, given technology and given what we’re able to do, there are things I’d like to try to do that don’t exist. Doing shorter versions of pieces of things to see if they’ll work. There are just things I feel like, because certain things have existed for as long as they have, there are a lot of assumptions about what the process should be.
So all of a sudden we’ve got Netflix and Amazon and these companies that are really shaking it up and making people look twice at traditional templates for everything. That’s only healthy and good. The irony is, I think a lot of these places will end up going back, because at a certain point, you go Well, studios have a wardrobe department because you need a fucking wardrobe department. The reason why you have stages is you’re going to shoot shit, you’ve got to have a place. So I feel like there are certain things that are inevitable, but I just know that we’ve been a cog in a larger machine for a long time, and I just think that we’re at a moment where I feel like we could almost be our own machine that coexists in a larger one.
FC: Apple is one of the newer entertainment companies that you’re working with. Do you feel more creative freedom there than at traditional entertainment companies?
Abrams: I think there is a lot of that. Certainly, compared to the old days when you went to a network and they’re like, “Okay, 22 episodes”—it’s night and day compared to that. I remember when the idea of a series in the States having the same run as a BBC show was an unheard of thing: Six episodes? Twelve episodes? What?! Now, it happens all the time. So I feel like that’s a thing that I think has been very helpful. And that, because some shows—and I’ve been a part of some shows—don’t want to go on as long as they do. For example, when Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse had the forethought to say to ABC, “We’re going to end this thing after six seasons—we just are.” I feel like certain places, even the networks frankly, are probably more flexible than they used to need.
But the other side of the coin there is, there’s an unbelievable sense of the unknown. So, while you could say six or eight (episodes), what does it even look like when it comes out? I have faith in (Apple), but, again, it’s not like there’s complete clarity on how it presents in the world, how it’s perceived. What’s the interface, exactly? And what do people feel when they use it? Who knows. So it’s the Wild West.
FC: What’s led to the overall expansion at Bad Robot, into areas like games and music?
Abrams: We had our music studio . . . . Charles Scott (Bad Robot’s music supervisor and cohead of Loud Robot) has been working here for a billion years, and he’s great, and he does music for some shows we do. And working with Dave (Baranoff) in games. But we didn’t have music . . . . and I love music. And it was like one of those things that I’ve always felt like we’ve got to figure out some way to, yes, monetize that division. But more than that, we were half-ass, not really doing . . . . Like having Charles. You have music without Charles. But it’s the same thing with me. I couldn’t have Bad Robot, just me and a typewriter. Just like with Dave. We kept asking these things of him that were impossible, because it was one man, and we’re like, we need to figure this out. So we made our deal with Tencent, and at least now there’s actual resources. So if you want to do an in-house prototype for something? You want to put a pitch together and go out and find a partner? It was this stupid, shortsighted perspective on my part to say, let’s just do games. If you’re going to do games, you’ve got to actually give the guy tools.
An enormous part of that, and I could not be more grateful for this, is the Good Robot piece. (Bad Robot’s philanthropic and social action arm.) It’s the glue of the company. I don’t know if there’s anyone who doesn’t participate on some level. And it might not be every trip or drive. But that work that Katie and her team have been doing, plus the work that Sam does to oversee it. Without them, I swear to God. The culture of the company, I think, exists because they’ve managed to get under everyone’s skin in terms of what really makes people tick. And to hear, this morning at the meeting, the people who went on the trip up north (for an LGBTQ+ tour of San Francisco) or people talking about Black History Month, I was really touched. This is not uncommon in these meetings. But to hear these people . . . Some of them were new to the company, so I show up, not having ever heard these people talk at a meeting. And they’re talking more passionately and beautifully about something that is so meaningful to everyone there, and it has nothing overtly to do with bottom line. You don’t go, “Well, clearly, promoting Black History Month, that’s going to rake it in for us.” But what it does, though, is it creates a cohesion and a sense of value that I think is priceless. It’s a different person who works at Bad Robot who feels like they’re important, they’re being heard, and they and those like them matter, no matter who you are. People don’t leave here. It’s sweet.