How do you make it in show biz? One way is, play nice, according to a pair of entertainment A-listers, JJ Abrams and Chris Rock.
Appearing for a Directors Talk session at the Tribeca Film Festival on Friday, comedian-actor-writer-director Rock was nominally on hand to interview Abrams, the multi-faceted filmmaker behind TV shows and features including Alias, Lost, Star Trek and, most recently, Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
But both had plenty to say during what unfolded as a lively, free-form conversation.
Asked by Rock what’s a deal-breaker when it comes to who he chooses to work with, Abrams replied, “People who aren’t kind.”
“When I’ve heard that people are difficult, I’ve almost always said no. Life is too short.”
A bit later, Rock offered this advice to aspiring actors and filmmakers: “You’re going to have meetings with pretty much the same people your whole career. So be a gentleman. THEY’RE not going ANYwhere. They move to different companies: ‘Oh, no, not YOU again!’”
Yes, making Star Wars was a blast, said Abrams. In contrast, producing the recent mini-budget thriller 10 Cloverfield Lane was like working in miniature.
“But nothing changes in terms of the fundamentals,” he said. Take away the epic scale and computer-graphics wizardry of Star Wars, and you’ve got the same essentials of cinema: actors engaged with one another entertainingly.
Actors who Abrams would like to work with, but hasn’t: “Meryl Streep, the obvious go-to. Robert De Niro.”
Denzel Washington? “The closest I got to working with him was when he wanted to use my office at Paramount for a while. So I guess you could say I’ve worked with Denzel.”
“I want to direct Denzel in a comedy,” Rock said.
“You could be in it, too,” proposed Abrams.
“I BETTER be in it!” Rock erupted.
Abrams said he knew he wanted to be a filmmaker after taking the Universal Studios tour when he was 8 years old: “It was an enlightening thing to see the magic of how movies were made. It blew my mind.”
A bit later, his father got into film production, which gave him regular access to hang out at studios.
“You had a big advantage,” Rock grinned. “What job did you get that you didn’t deserve?”
“I want to say Star Wars,” Abrams cracked.
Early in his career, he found success as a script doctor fixing other writers’ efforts. It’s quick, lucrative work, but he began to lose sight of the creative urge that had fired him up in the first place.
“You have to do what you care about,” his future wife told him. He agreed. “I thought, ‘Why did I forget that part?’”
The next thing he knew, he had written and sold Felicity, an instant hit about a girl starting college. It launched him as a major figure in the entertainment industry with multiple titles, including writer, director and producer.
Rock tossed Abrams a challenge: “What show should I do? ‘Cause I’m running out of money.”
“If I nailed it, will you do it with me?” asked Abrams.
“Yes,” Rock fired back as the audience cheered. “But nothing to do with a carwash.”
Abrams said he’d like to work with Rock.
“But usually when I do a story meeting,” he said, glancing out at the sold-out auditorium, “it’s with less than 1,200 people.”
“Can you direct the Fantastic Four?” Rock asked. “They keep f****** it up!”
To which, Abrams never replied.
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