It’s easy enough to think of J.J Abrams as some kind of overnight success. After all, it’s only seven years since his first film as director, “Mission Impossible III,” and “Star Trek Into Darkness,” which opens on Friday, marks only his fourth film to date. And yet, even when he made that first film, he was already a brand name — the man behind two bona-fide TV pop culture phenomena in “Alias” and “Lost,” and that’s only become more true since; his films have all taken at least $200 million worldwide, he’s birthed several other successful TV shows, and he’s taking over the Holy Grail of nerddom, “Star Wars,” with 2015’s “Episode VII.”
But all of this is the peak of nearly 25 years of work, including an awful lot of film and TV that you probably haven’t heard of, away from the big franchises and tentpole TV shows that made his name. Plus, through his Bad Robot production company, run by old pal Bryan Burk, there’s lots more on the way. And while Abrams will be tied up with “Star Wars” for some time, he’s bound to already have an eye out for what could come after. So, to mark the release of “Star Trek Into Darkness,” we’ve delved into the past, and future, of Jeffrey John Abrams, to take a look at some of his forgotten, and forthcoming, contributions to popular culture. Take a look below.
The Early Years
Abrams sold his first script when he was still in college; he teamed up with an old friend, Jill Mazursky (daughter of “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice” and “An Unmarried Woman” helmer Paul) to write a treatment about a con who finds a businessman’s filofax, and steals his identity. The swiftly-dated concept became the 1990 comedy “Taking Care of Business,” directed by Arthur Hiller and starring Jim Belushi and Charles Grodin — a pretty poor “Trading Places” rip-off essentially, but one that put Abrams firmly on the map. That said, it wasn’t his first brush with the movie industry; as a teenager, he wrote some of the music for “Nightbeast,” a Troma monster movie (and even that came after having been famously hired, alongside childhood pal and “Cloverfield“/”Let Me In“/”Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” director Matt Reeves, to assemble Steven Spielberg‘s personal archive of home movies…).
Abrams swiftly sold several scripts, and was hired to rewrite others — Mike Nichols directed “Regarding Henry,” starring Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson toplined romance “Forever Young,” and another script written with Mazursky surfaced as “Gone Fishin,” a disastrous comedy starring Joe Pesci and Danny Glover, in 1997. He also became an in-demand script doctor; most famously doing a rewrite on “Armageddon” that actually saw him picking up credit, but there were plenty of others that never really saw the light of day (Steven Spielberg revealed in a recent issue of Empire that Abrams did a pass on the Amblin film “Casper.”)
But less famous? Abrams’ acting career. Well, we wouldn’t necessarily call it a career, but the future big-name director did have a tiny part alongside Donald Sutherland, Stockard Channing, Bruce Davison and Eric Stoltz in “Six Degrees Of Separation” (sadly not sharing any screen time with Will Smith…). He also plays ‘Video Photographer 2’ in the dreadful remake of “Les Diaboliques,” titled “Diabolique,” with Sharon Stone.
The Middle Period
After a while, Abrams was a well-respected, and in demand screenwriter, but he didn’t quite become a big name until the start of the 2000s, which means a few of his efforts snuck through the cracks. His first film as producer was to shepherd childhood pal Matt Reeves‘ directorial debut “The Pallbearer,” a 1996 romantic comedy with David Schwimmer and Gwyneth Paltrow. It’s actually not bad at all, but like most of the solo projects of the “Friends” cast, it died without a trace. Then, two years later, and even more obscure, was “The Suburbans.” Premiering at Sundance not long after “Felicity” made it to the air, the film, directed by and starring Donal Lardner Ward (no, us neither), and co-starring Will Ferrell, Jennifer Love Hewitt and, in a cameo, Ben Stiller, it’s a limp satire about a one-hit-wonder 1980s band brought together for a reunion. It pretty much disappeared without a trace, making a mere $11,000 in theaters.
But by then, Abrams was a big name in TV, with “Felicity” (co-created with Reeves) proving to be a big hit (at least at first; it quickly ran out of steam ratings-wise, though still made it to four seasons). In 2001, a few months after the Abrams-penned-and-produced thriller “Joy Ride,” an underrated take on “Duel” directed by John Dahl, and starring Paul Walker and Steve Zahn (we maintain that if it had kept its original title of “Squelch,” it would have made a hundred million dollars), Abrams debuted “Alias.” The show was never quite a monster hit, but caught the popular imagination, and eventually landed him his first directorial gig, on “Mission Impossible III.” It also made him a powerful figure in TV…
The TV Flops
…Which is not to say that he hit it out of the park every time. For every “Alias” or “Lost,” or even “Fringe” (arguably the most consistently strong show with the Bad Robot name, but never a big ratings player), there was one that didn’t pay off. To briefly run down the misses:
“The Catch” (2005)
In development since before even “Lost” (and delayed when Abrams was brought on that last-minute by ABC), this was a vehicle for another of his childhood friends, “Alias” supporting cast member Greg Grunberg, who played a bounty hunter. It went through various incarnations, with a pilot finally being produced in 2005, co-starring Don Rickles, but the network passed on the show.
“What About Brian” (2006)
They did, however, pick up this hour-long comedy-drama created by Dana Stevens (“City Of Angels“), starring Barry Watson as a 32-year-old Venice Beach video game designer who’s the last single guy in his group of friends, it was a slightly awkward blend of sitcom and something closer to “Felicity.” Airing as a mid-season replacement, with only six episodes in its first season, it got off to a strong start, and was renewed for a second season swiftly. But ratings had halved by the time the first season had wrapped up, and ABC ended up truncating the second season, and cancelling the show soon after. Now, it’s probably most notable for an early role from Jon Hamm, who had a recurring role in the first season.
“Six Degrees” (2006)
Airing the season after “What About Brian,” with the prestigious “Grey’s Anatomy” lead-in, this was another genre-free drama with a strong cast — Hope Davis, Campbell Scott, Erika Christensen, Jay Hernandez). But its “Magnolia“/”Crash” set up proved to be a bit soapy in the execution, and the network yanked it off air after six episodes (two more were aired months later, the rest never saw the light of day in the U.S.).
“The Office” & “Jimmy Kimmel Live ”
Abrams served as a guest director for Jimmy Kimmel‘s talk show in 2006, and, like Joss Whedon, also helmed an episode of “The Office” — in his case, “Cocktails,” a season three episode that helped to bring Jim & Pam’s relationship to a head.
“Anatomy Of Hope” (2009)
Abrams has been a network TV guy to date, with one major exception: an HBO pilot called “Anatomy Of Hope.” An adaptation of Jerome Groopman‘s book, it followed the lives of the doctors and patients in a cancer hospital, and had a strong cast including Chris Messina, Kerry Condon, John Ortiz, Eion Bailey, Simon Callow and Matt Craven, and a script by Rafael Yglesias (“Fearless“) and Tom Schulman (“Dead Poets’ Society“). Abrams directed a pilot after wrapping “Star Trek,” but HBO decided not to pick the show up.
Created with “Felicity” writer-producer Josh Reims, “Undercovers” was a throwback , “Hart To Hart“-ish action series involving married pair of CIA agents. Notable mostly for having two black actors (the excellent Boris Kodjoe and Gugu Mbatha-Raw) in the lead roles without being aimed specifically at African-American audiences, the series was stripped of the serialized, science-fiction elements of “Alias,” which is perhaps why it didn’t prove so compelling; despite Abrams himself, hot off “Star Trek,” directing the pilot, ratings were never especially strong (though it’s a mark of how fast the TV industry has changed that the show would probably be a solid hit if it pulled the same ratings today), and was cancelled after a couple of months.
Perhaps the closest that Bad Robot has come to trying to recapture the “Lost” magic (right down to Jorge Garcia as a nerd), “Alcatraz” was a big-budget Fox series that saw the inmates of Alcatraz mysteriously reappear in present-day San Francisco. The show, which had a strong cast including Sam Neill and Parminder Nagra (who proceeded to spend the whole series in a coma), attempted to meld a wider conspiracy story with a more procedural, escapee-of-the-week tone, but the premise simply didn’t have the broader pop culture appeal of “Lost,” and after a big premiere, ratings plummeted, and it was cancelled after the first season.
A now-rare non-genre outing, “Shelter” was Abrams’ first project with the CW, and was set at a historic resort in New England, following the lives and loves of the staff. It didn’t quite fit in with the CW’s young adult remit, and failed to be picked up for a series, though a pilot was produced.
Still, given the countless other projects that Abrams has in development, we can’t imagine he’s too heartbroken. Speaking of…
The Unmade & Future Projects
One of the most famous Abrams misses was “Superman: Flyby,” his proposed script for a Superman reboot, that both McG and Brett Ratner were attached to at various times. The script was leaked to geek site Ain’t It Cool News, subsequently torn apart (a heading read “You will believe a franchise can suck!”), and ultimately shelved. Abrams’ script played fast and loose with Superman mythology (for one thing, Krypton doesn’t explode and Lex Luthor is a mysteriously powered CIA Agent) and it was ultimately decided that a more traditional approach to the character was desired. But perhaps most interestingly, it was the fact that his script got out at all that forced Abrams into his mystery-boxed cone of silence. Abrams was so scarred by the experience that he has been paranoid about information leaking ever since. It might have been a lousy script that was never made (it doesn’t read so bad to us — one can only imagine the early 00s AICN reaction if, say, the “Iron Man 3” script leaked…), but it was fundamental to Abrams as the slight-of-hand master he is today.
At one point, Abrams was attached to do an adaptation of Hasbro toy line “Micronauts.” This was back in 2009 and it seemed like the rights were a thorny, contentious issue, so it’s unclear if things have been untangled enough to ever proceed. Abrams is also buddies with Edgar Wright, who has the similar-ish “Ant-Man” in active development at Disney/Marvel. Which brings us to…
“Collider.” Or: the movie that made geek hearts flutter worldwide. This was a project that was to have teamed “Shaun of the Dead” director Edgar Wright with Abrams and fan favorite screenwriter Mark Protosevich (“Oldboy,” an unmade draft of “Thor“). A “big sci-fi” project set up at Paramount, the project was announced last summer and we haven’t heard anything since. Even at the time, Wright was booked up through to “Ant Man” in 2015, so it’s likely that things are humming along in Abrams’ underground bunker, away from the prying eyes of press or public.
A number of the Abrams projects have simply been announced and then forgotten about (or are at least on a back burner somewhere). Abrams optioned a Wired magazine article called “The Untold Story of the World’s Biggest Diamond Heist” with “Sneakers” director Phil Alden Robinson to adapt and nabbed the rights to “Boilerplate: History’s Mechanical Marvel” by Paul Guinan and Ania Bennett, a steampunk thing about a robot who alters history. There was also some talk that Abrams would shepherd the Hollywood debut of South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho (Abrams is an outspoken fan of “The Host,” which a number of his films openly reference) and a cool-sounding high school-set thriller that his frequent collaborator Jack Bender was going to direct called “7 Minutes in Heaven” about the titular kids’ game, except this time the kids emerge from making out in the closet to discover all of their friends have been murdered (cue ominous music). Last year, it was announced that Abrams and his “Cloverfield” director/childhood chum Matt Reeves would be producing a big time action movie (unnamed of course) for Paramount.
Last summer a pair of Abrams-produced projects were announced for development at Paramount. The first, “Wunderkind,” involved Nazi hunters in the seventies (yes please!), while the other, “The God Particle,” is a found footage-ish sci-fi script written by hot shit screenwriter Oren Uziel (“The Kitchen Sink” and rewrites on “Men in Black 4” and “21 Jump Street 2“). No clue on where those are now, but Abrams also has some kind of animated project in development at Paramount as well. Speaking of hot shit screenwriters, the same summer Dustin Lance Black, of “Milk” and “J. Edgar” fame, signed on to write an earthquake movie for Abrams set up at Universal. (No word on how this would have affected Brad Bird‘s long-in-development earthquake movie. Abrams and Bird are buds after all.)
Earlier this year it was announced that Ron Howard would direct a supernatural drama for Abrams called “All I’ve Got” (it’s based on an Israeli TV movie made by the same people who created what would go on to become “In Treatment“), again for Paramount. Around the same time as the Howard movie was announced, it was also made known that Abrams had purchased the rights to the Lance Armstrong book “Cycle of Lies: The Fall of Lance Armstrong” by Juliet Macur, a book that hasn’t even been written yet. Woof. Shortly after, Valve, a videogame company that your cooler, young friends can probably tell you about, announced that they had entered into negotiations with Abrams’ Bad Robot in an effort to bring either “Portal” or “Half-Life,” two critically acclaimed games by the studio, to life. Abrams also claims that he wants to direct a low budget movie, either before or after he launches into “Star Wars.”
On the more literary side of things, Abrams optioned “One Last Thing Before I Go,” the critically acclaimed Jonathan Topper novel, possibly for Mike Nichols to direct, and he recently wrestled control of Stephen King‘s jaw-dropping political time travel novel “11/22/63” away from Jonathan Demme, for potential development as a television series (likely for cable). He also still might direct “Let the Great World Spin,” based on the Booker Prize-nominated novel by Colum McCann (McCann is also adapting for Abrams).
More nebulously defined is a “mystery project” that Abrams was working on with super genius screenwriter Billy Ray (back in 2011), a project based on a New York Times article called “Mystery on Fifth Avenue” (about a mystery New York apartment, of course), a sex comedy called “Hot for Teacher” (Abrams has been trying to make an eighties-style sex comedy for a while now), and, even more intriguingly “Zanbato,” written by “Fringe” regulars Monica Breen and Alison Schapker, which involves Japanese history and “swashbuckling robots” (yes please). Abrams has also been loosely attached to Reeves’ “Invisible Woman” project, which seems to have been gestating for the past couple of decades, and an untitled low budget thriller from up-and-coming screenwriters Josh Campbell and Matt Stuecken.
We just hope all of this, and “Star Wars” leaves time for one more crucial thing: keyboard solos (go to the one minute thirty mark).
— Oliver Lyttelton, Drew Taylor