Who is J. J. Abrams?
You don’t need me to tell you who J.J. Abrams is. After rebooting both the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises, Abrams is one of the most sought after directors in Hollywood. Before that, he was a successful TV producer and earlier still he wrote some pretty crappy movies. This profile comes from the “crappy movie” portion of his career. When Martha Frankel interviewed Abrams for the December 1992 issue of Movieline magazine, no one outside of Los Angeles had heard of the 26-year-old writer.
For a whole week it seemed as if everyone who walked into my suite at the Mondrian hotel and saw the script for Mel Gibson’s Christmas release Forever Young lying on the coffee table just had to tell me a story about the guy who wrote it, J.J. (Jeffrey) Abrams.
I’d barely even heard of Abrams, but these people not only knew of him, they were ready to launch into rants about what a mediocre talent he is, the prime evidence being that he wrote Regarding Henry (the story of an asshole lawyer who had to take a bullet in the brain before he could chill out enough to pet a puppy), about how he wasn’t a loyal friend to his first partner, Jill Mazursky (the daughter of auteur Paul Mazursky), with whom he wrote Taking Care of Business, and about how demented it was that he was that he was being paid so much for such losing scripts.
And after saying dreadful things like this, each of these people claimed to be a friend of J.J.’s. It got to the point where I wanted to hang a banner from the hotel window over Sunset that said: Who is J.J. Abrams, and why is everyone in L.A. talking about him?
Naturally, it occurred to me that J.J.’s “friends” were just unmeasurably pissed off that it was he and not they themselves who was making obscene amounts of money for scripts at such a young age. (Abrams is 26. And what’s an obscene amount of money? What someone else gets and you don’t.) Then again, maybe J.J. was a jerk.
Either way, I was going to do some talking with J.J. Abrams now that I’d heard so many others talk about him.
Even if I’d known what to expect, I would have been surprised by the events of the next few days. For ultimately, this is a story about sickness–about tonsillitis (J.J.’s) and the flu (mine). It’s just as well. To my way of thinking, you can tell more about people by the way they deal with sickness than by the way they deal with success. You’ll see.
THURSDAY MORNING: J.J. calls to cancel our lunch interview. He says he’s got tonsillitis. I don’t believe him. While I have him on the line, I bring up Jill Mazursky and tell him that people around town tend to express the opinion that Jill should have become rich and famous long before he did.
“I owe everything I have to Jill,” he says without a pause or a trace of sarcasm. “She, like, totally made my career.” And then he launches into what turns out to be a marathon monologue: “In my senior year at Sarah Lawrence, I came home for Christmas vacation and I was wandering around the mall, wondering what I was going to do when I graduated. I got so depressed that I decided to go home. I mean, my dad’s a television producer, and I knew I could get a job as an assistant or a reader with one of his friends, but it wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do. On my way down the escalator, in the mall that day, I saw Jill on her way up. We had met before, and she said hello, and we said we’d call each other, and a couple of weeks after the holidays, we did. I went to her house and she told me about this idea she had for a script, about a guy–someone who’s just working his way up in the corporate world–who loses his Filofax. And I thought that the guy who found it should be this really tough guy who had just escaped from jail, like a tough Hispanic guy. Then we wrote a treatment for Taking Care of Business, and Jeffrey Katzenberg bought it! I mean, just like that. I was back at school and I had to take the train down to the city and go up to Disney’s offices.
And I was, like, so excited because I had always wondered what went on in those big office buildings and now I was there, signing this contract. Of course, they changed the whole thing. They made the guy who loses his book [Charles Grodin] into a very successful guy, and the guy who steals it into Jim Belushi. It was still a great experience, and it gave me time and money to write more scripts. I’ve written a bunch of scripts on my own, and a few more with Jill. We’re working on something together right now. I’m pretty sure that one of the screenplays we did together will get made. And I don’t feel that I’m more successful than Jill; I’ve just had more movies produced. She’s being pursued by producers all the time. It’s just that I’ve sold some high-profile scripts for more money.”
Whew. Now I know how he got the tonsillitis.
We spend another hour-and-a-half chatting about loyalty and betrayal (this is at the height of the Woody and Mia battle, so everyone’s actually pretending to think about such things), why everyone is so jealous of his career (who wouldn’t be?), friendship (“I’ve had the same friends since I was in kindergarten. If you want, I can give you their names and numbers and you can call them yourself.” Hey J.J., no thanks), and love and sex (he’s looking for the former and getting offered his share of the latter). I hang up completely exhausted.
Half an hour later, the phone rings. “As long as you’re my new best friend,” J.J. says, “I might as well take you out for lunch. Can you meet me at the Stage Deli in 45 minutes?” How will I recognize him? “Mickey Mouse shorts,” he says.
He isn’t kidding. Clunky shoes, a base ball cap, a faded T-shirt and those shorts. He looks about 12 years old. And the tonsillitis is for real, even if it isn’t slowing him down. He’s rasping and can barely be heard–I have to sit very close to hear him. He keeps breathing on my straw. I don’t want his germs anywhere near me, but can’t figure a polite way of saying so.
I am eating lunch with a perpetual-motion machine. J.J.’s tapping his feet in that way some guys have, and drumming on the table to some inner beat. When a nerdy little boy walks by clutching his T2 doll, J.J. looks me dead in the eye and says, “That’s me as a kid.”
I tell J.J. what’s been going on in my hotel room. He doesn’t recognize the names of any of the people who claim to be his friends and most of what they said seems to run off his back. Except for one remark, the one made by the most skeptical person I know. J.J. Abrams, claims this person, is the luckiest Jew in Hollywood besides Steve Guttenberg. “Please,” implores the sick boy sitting across from me, his eyes glued shut against the pain of what he’s just heard. “Please tell me that I have an ounce more talent than he does.”
Before I can say anything, a man in a serious suit comes over to the table and drops his card into J.J.’s matzo-ball soup. We both look up, startled. “I just wanted to introduce myself, Mr. Abrams,” he says, and then they both laugh. It turns out to be J.J.’s accountant. When the CPA leaves, I try to get us steered in another direction, but J.J. wants to get back to this Steve Guttenberg stuff. “God, I can’t believe you know people who say such appalling things, Martha,” he says. “Who would say that? Please assure me that it’s not true.” I tell him that he’s head and shoulders above Guttenberg in my mind. “Okay,” he says, somewhat mollified, “even if you’re lying, I can live with that. I am lucky, I’m the first to admit that. I was lucky to have met Jill. I know there are people more talented than me out there. I know that I’ve gotten a lot luckier than I deserve. What should I do? Tell them that they’ve got the wrong guy, that they should buy someone else’s scripts? I try to do the best I can.”
J.J.’s voice is truly straining at this point, but he goes on, “When I made all the money for Forever Young, I put most of it away…”
“What?” This strikes me as incredible. “You mean you didn’t go out and buy a big house and a Porsche?”
At this, J.J. turns a purplish red. As Mark Twain once said, “Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to.”
“Oh come on, J.J. You didn’t! That is such a cliché!”
“But I had to buy a house,” he says feebly, “and I needed a car, and I thought, well, I want a convertible…”
“So why not a Porsche, huh?”
“Okay,” he says, realizing how all this sounds. “But I’m not an asshole about [the Porsche]. I let anyone drive it. I don’t give a shit what happens to it…”
I change the subject and ask J.J. how he felt about Regarding Henry. “I was, like, so excited when Harrison Ford signed to do it,” he says. “And then to get Mike Nichols to direct it… I was in total heaven. I mean, I had been a fan of his for years, my parents had his records with Elaine May, and oh, God, it was so fucking great. I was on the set all the time, and even though I disagreed with some of the things they did, I was too inexperienced and nervous to voice my opinion.”
Now that I’d like to see.
On our way out of the restaurant, all these players are nodding and smiling in our direction. J.J.’s only response is a small movement in his shoulders. He’s feeling worse now, and I think I’m coming down with something myself. We decide to do some shopping. Two young kids hurtle past us on their skateboards. They’re almost out of view when one turns back and yells, “Hey J.J., how you doin’?” When we walk into the record store, the guy behind the counter sees us and says, “Hey J.J., I’ve got the tape of my band here. Take it home and listen to it when you get a chance.” Who the fuck is J.J. Abrams, and how come everyone in L.A. knows him?
FRIDAY: J.J. calls to say he’s still sick. By this point, I’m not feeling too well either. He says he’d like to bring over chicken soup, but doesn’t think he can drive, so instead we spend an hour talking about poetry (“I never could write it myself,” he says, “but have the deepest admiration and respect for those who do”), recent fiction (he hasn’t read Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, but he read an interview with her and has a serious crush), families (“My mother is the coolest, most amazing person I know. And my father’s great, too. I remember that when I was leaving for college, my father took me aside, and said, ‘J.J., I want you to remember to trust your own instincts.’ And that freaked me out. I said, ‘You mean, after all this, you’re telling me that all you have is what you’re born with?”‘), his new film (“When Mel Gibson was cast as Daniel in Forever Young, and Warner Bros, was the studio, I got, like, so excited, because I realized that they were going to be on it and that was the biggest thrill for a guy like me”) and hard work in general (he wrote a novel in high school, a dozen scripts before he got out of Sarah Lawrence, he plays and records music in the studio he set up in his house, he’s doing the graphics for the poster for the movie-within-a-movie in James L. Brooks’s new film, and is in the midst of helping at least a dozen friends with their various projects).
Can I go to sleep now?
SUNDAY AFTERNOON: I’m in the throes of the flu, but I promised my friends Alex and Shea (both 10 years old) that we could spend the day at the hotel pool. My girlfriends and I are sitting under the umbrellas reading The Times when Alex emerges from the pool with a weird look on his face. The look says, I am going to throw up. I’m applying cold compresses to Alex’s neck when J.J. shows up, carrying issue #51 of the Rock ‘n Roll Comics: Bob Dylan Part II (the one in which Bob has that serious motorcycle accident and lays up in Woodstock).
“You okay?” J.J. asks Alex.
“No,” says Alex, who has taken on a greenish tinge. “I feel really sick.”
“Then I guess you’re gonna have to stick your finger down your throat,” says one of the highest paid screenwriters in Hollywood.
“No way,” says Alex.
“Yeah, I understand. I was on this camping trip when I was about 10, and I felt like you do. And the guy who was leading the trip told me the same thing, and I said no way, too. But then he showed me how and I felt much better.”
Alex thinks this over for a minute and then extends his hand to J.J. They walk off together and remain in the bathroom for a long time. When we send Shea in to get an update, he comes out and shrugs. “Every thing’s cool,” he says. “Alex is throwing up and J.J.’s talking to him.” I can only pray that Alex doesn’t grow up to be bulimic.
I notice J.J.’s wallet sitting on the table. Should I? Shouldn’t I? Should I? No, that would be loathsome. I look in the money part first. Three singles, a five, and a 10,000 yen note. Then I notice the driver’s license: over the place where the picture goes is a cropped photo of J.J. at maybe a year-and-a-half.
Later that day, when he’s feeling better, Alex asks if he can go see J.J.’s new movie. When I take a moment to ponder this, Alex asks me why I’m thinking it over, and I tell him I’m trying to remember if there’s nudity, drugs or sex that might offend his delicate mind. Alex breaks up laughing.
“What?” I ask.
“No way can that guy write an R-rated movie,” he says.
After a week of innuendos and outright lies, someone has finally hit on the truth about J.J. Abrams.
MONDAY: I’m dying. J.J.’s feeling only slightly better. But we are committed to finishing this interview today. I drive up to his house in Brentwood. I don’t know what I expected, but this is definitely not it. This is a grown-up’s house. There’s a gorgeous view, comfortable and elegant furniture, and little oddities all over the place–a grouping of antique bowling pins, a video cover for a flick called Regarding Hiney that shows a man staring at a woman’s butt with the caption “It was all in his mind,” antique tin toys and a James Worthy basketball poster. “You like Worthy?” I ask.
“Well, that’s not why I have it,” he says with a smile. “See those people sitting on the court? That’s me and my sister.” This guy is way beyond lucky.
I walk into J. J.’s bedroom (bed made, lots of pillows and shams, an enormous telescope by the window) and go directly into the closet. Neat, a nice collection of suits, everything hung up. J. J. may be a kid at heart, but he’s going to make someone a terrific wife when he grows up. Back in the living room, J.J.’s laid out fake movie posters he devised for the new Jim Brooks movie. One of the fake film titles J.J.’s come up with is Judge Mental and the poster for it shows a gavel dripping with blood. Lucky and funny. No wonder everyone wants his head.
We drive down to Sony to see J.J.’s office at Jim Brooks’s Gracie Films, where he has a deal and works down the hall from Callie Khouri and Cameron Crowe. By the way, he doesn’t offer to let me drive the Porsche. Before J.J. opens the door to his office, he starts to say something, but then changes his mind. When the door swings open, I practically fall on the floor laughing. The place is huge. J.J.’s laughing too.
“Okay,” I say quietly, afraid my voice might echo. “Tell me something I don’t know about Forever Young.”
“When I finished the script,” says J.J., “my agent and I decided to package it. And then we sent it to Mel Gibson and he said yes.” See how easy it is to work in Hollywood?
“And what about the director of the picture?” I ask. “I mean, Steve Miner? This is a Mel Gibson movie!” The point I’m trying to make here is that on the Harrison Ford movie Regarding Henry, Mike Nichols directed. And even though I’m not sure Mike Nichols is really Mike Nichols anymore, I know Steve Miner for sure isn’t.
“Well, they were looking at all these A-list directors, who, for one reason or another, couldn’t do it,” answers J.J. “I was in France with my father and I called the producers and said, ‘Hey, you guys might think this is nuts, but how about Stever Miner?’ I’d been aware of his work for a long time–he directed Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken and Soul Man and the first season of ‘The Wonder Years,’ which I loved. And they looked at some of his stuff, and called back and said, ‘Okay, call him.’ I was so thrilled, because he’s a terrific talent.”
“And what about Mel?” I ask.
“Well, I know this is gonna sound crazy, but Mel is just so fucking good-looking that you can’t believe it. He has a really funny personality, and you find that you can forget that he’s this mega-movie star when you’re with him. But the truth is, I spent a lot of time just staring into his eyes.”
Either that revelation or my case of the flu leaves me in momentary silence.
“Wanna get some lunch?” J.J. asks. Half an hour later, my tape recorder sits on the table between us in the commissary, still in its case. I’m too exhausted to even turn it on. When the waiter approaches, J.J. looks up and says, “Two bowls of matzo-ball soup, please.” I could kiss him.
Martha Frankel interviewed Spike Lee for our November issue.