Legacy lessons: Why JJ Abrams is TV series Lost’s biggest find
Fifteen years after the TV show, Lost, its creator JJ Abrams is now a Hollywood powerhouseUpdated: Oct 05, 2019 17:30 IST
- Joy Ride : Even before Super 8 and Cloverfield, JJ Abrams was aping his idol, Steven Spielberg. As writer and producer of 2001’s road-thriller Joy Ride, Abrams paid homage to Spielberg’s first feature film, 1971’s Duel.
- Morning Glory: A rare foray outside the world of genre thrillers, Abrams produced this largely forgotten dramedy, about the relationship between a driven TV producer, played by Rachel McAdams, and a curmudgeonly anchor, played by Harrison Ford.
- Overlord: Long rumoured to be the latest instalment in Abrams’ Cloverfield series, Overlord was instead a gripping zombie thriller set during World War 2.
In 1982, the 16-year-old Jeffrey Jacob Abrams was handpicked by Steven Spielberg’s assistant to help restore the filmmaker’s childhood short films. A little more than 30 years later, in 2013, Spielberg’s former assistant had become one of the most powerful women in Hollywood. As president of Lucasfilm, Kathleen Kennedy was tasked with reviving the venerable Star Wars franchise for a new generation. And once again, she picked up the phone and called JJ Abrams.
Kennedy had paid Abrams $300 for the restoration job in 1982; in September 2019, the filmmaker signed a deal reportedly valued at $500 million to make movies and television shows for WarnerMedia.
If modern geek culture has taken on religious overtones, with hundreds of thousands of fans making annual pilgrimages to conventions to worship their idols, then Abrams is their Pope. And 2019 is perhaps the biggest year of his career. In December, he will release the trilogy-capper Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. And days after the Warner deal was announced, he also celebrated the 15th anniversary of the TV show that put him on the map, Lost.
The era-defining series was a sort of last stand for network television, along with Breaking Bad and Mad Men. The landscape has changed significantly since then, with streaming services staging a mighty coup in the five years after Lost ended in 2010, and with their volumes-driven model greatly diluting the cultural impact of television. Lost’s blend of science-fiction and fantasy not only pushed the boundaries of long-form storytelling, but also brought genre fiction — considered for decades to be niche entertainment — to the mainstream.
Having closely modelled his career on his mentor Spielberg, Abrams has become a ubiquitous presence in Hollywood, spearheading shows and fiddling around with franchise films, and developing future plans that include theme parks, merchandise, music (and maybe world domination).
He did this by establishing himself as a company man; someone who could be relied upon to handle big budgets, and work closely with studios to achieve a shared vision. When Colin Trevorrow announced that he would step down as director of Star Wars: Episode IX after failing to arrive at a creative consensus with Kennedy and Lucasfilm, Abrams was their go-to guy, their fail-safe — ever-reliable and efficient.
His experience in television certainly contributed to his understanding of how the movie business works. Television, like big-budget franchise filmmaking, isn’t a director’s medium. We’re seeing this with star producers, like TV showrunners, taking overall creative control of massive movies and interconnected storylines. Kevin Feige is doing wonders for Marvel; James Wan is scaring up billions with his Conjuring universe. Indeed, a popular theory as to why the DC Extended Universe ‘failed’ was that it didn’t have a ‘showrunner’ figure at the top. It’s no wonder then, that as part of Abrams’ deal with Warners, he is rumoured to be leading the studio’s slate of superhero films.
It was this very expertise that was spotted by Tom Cruise, who was prompted, after binging Abrams’ spy series Alias, to hire him to direct the third Mission Impossible film. And with the Star Wars series lying dormant for several years, Abrams in 2009 exercised his innate adoration for George Lucas’ universe by retooling the heady sci-fi series Star Trek into a slick, action-driven spectacle. In the film’s audio commentary, he essentially admitted that since he’d probably never get the chance to make a Star Wars movie, he decided to bring that tone and spirit to Star Trek instead.
But now he’s made two. Each. And world domination doesn’t seem like a stretch anymore.
First Published: Oct 05, 2019 17:30 IST