Few entertainers have had more ambitious years than Stephen Colbert and J.J. Abrams. At the beginning of September, Colbert took the reins from David Letterman for CBS’ "The Late Show," abandoning the political comic persona that made him a household name and throwing his hat into a competitive ring already dominated by "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon." Abrams, meanwhile, is little under a month away from releasing what is arguably the most anticipated film of the decade, "Star Wars Episode VI: The Force Awakens." He previously found great success relaunching "Star Trek" in 2009, but can the space opera lighting strike twice for the writer-director-producer? We’ll soon find out.
Amidst the chaos of redefining the course of their careers, Colbert and Abrams joined forces Saturday evening, November 21, at the NJPAC in Newark, New Jersey for a one-night-only "Celebrity Nerd-Off." The event was a special fundraiser for the Montclair Film Festival, of which Colbert and his wife have a huge hand in organizing, though Abrams’ presence brought a crowd that packed the orchestra section as well as four massive balcony tiers. The director confirmed he had just locked the final cut of "The Force Awakens" earlier that day at 2:30am, making his appearance the first live event he’s attended since completing the soon-to-be blockbuster.
Such news was greeted with massive applause from the audience, but it was Colbert who expressed even greater disbelief. A huge fan of genre and fantasy, Colbert was perhaps the best person on the planet to sit down and go through Abrams’ diverse career in television and film. For almost 90 minutes, the two industry heavyweights swapped life stories and no shortage of uproarious zingers. Below are the best highlights and most shocking revelations from the special evening.
Abrams loves movies for their limitless possibilities.
The director recalled falling in love with the medium during a trip he took with his grandfather, when he was eight years old, to Universal Studios. "It was an incredibly eye-opening thing," he recalled. "This was back before it was a movie park. You’d go and see like offices and ‘I Love Lucy’ sets. You’d see how the movies would be made, and I remember leaving that place feeling like I knew what I wanted to do because they showed the process. It was the demystification of how movies were made that did it for me and inspired me to do it."
Years later, his grandfather took him to a magic shop, where he discovered a Mystery Box, a white box with a question mark on the cover that promised "$50 worth of magic for the price of $15." Abrams once gave a TED Talk on how this mystery box changed his life, but he shared the story again for the audience.
"There was something about not opening it that felt more powerful than opening it," he said. "What I realized was that the idea of potential and the idea of the ‘what if’ was as powerful as anything for me in storytelling — the idea of ‘what could that thing be?’ It became obvious it was more than just within a story itself and moments of mystery bringing me in, but it was also about the potential of a story at all and what the box looks like. When you go to see a movie, and you see a trailer to a movie, it’s supposed to push those buttons and make you wonder what that thing is. The possibility for it has to be endless. Ultimately, for me, what movies and TV shows are, they are reminders of infinite possibilities. It’s that feeling when you have when you’re a kid of what the world might be."
Abrams received the tongue from "The Exorcist" in the mail.
"Marry Poppins" is the first movie he remembers going to see, but a screening of "The Exorcist" at 10 years old proved more life-changing. "My father was insane. I was so young. What the hell was he thinking?" Abrams joked. "But it was one of the things — I realized, again, the magic of the movies and seeing what they did with this little girl, Linda Blair, and the makeup…Max Von Sydow was 32 in that movie, but they made him look like he does now!"
Abrams fell in love with practical effects because of the movie ("Dick Smith was using latex and rubber and doing all the things that CGI does now"), and he wrote letters to legendary makeup artist Dick Smith to ask him about his process. When he wrote one praising him for his work on "The Hallowing," of which Smith was not a part of, the artist sent back Abrams a box containing the prosthetic tongue from "The Exorcist."
"My mom says, ‘Who is this guy named Dick and why is he sending you tongues?’" Abrams joked. "Three days later I got a phone call from Dick Smith. He was famous for helping out filmmakers and answering questions."
Colbert auditioned for the first screenplay Abrams ever wrote.
When Abrams was a senior in college at Sarah Lawrence, he wrote a treatment of a script with his friend Jill Mazursky that ended up selling to Hollywood Pictures. Titled "Filofax," the story concerned an ex-prisoner who stumbles upon a wealthy businessman’s datebook and credit cards and uses them for a wacky adventure en route to a World Series game. Chance would have it that producers were casting the film in Colbert’s Chicago hometown and targeting all comedians and improv members to come audition. Enter Colbert, who didn’t land a part in the film that would eventually star Jim Belushi and Charles Gordin and be renamed "Taking Care of Business." The news shocked Abrams, though considering the film’s dismal box office and reviews, the director felt Colbert was the lucky one in the end.
Abrams had a brief and hilarious acting career.
In 1993, Fred Schepisi was mounting a film adaptation of playwright John Guare’s "Six Degrees of Separation." Abrams had seen the play during its initial run at Lincoln Center and fell in love with the "hilarious" character of Doug, so much so that he read and auditioned for the part in the movie, though he never thought he would end up getting the role. Abrams was wrong and he was cast, and while he isn’t a huge fan of his performance, he calls the experience important for his career as a director. "It gives you a real respect for what [the acting] process is," he said. "As a director it was very helpful to experience doing that for at least a couple days." (Watch Abrams in a hilarious scene here.)
Easter eggs connect all of Bad Robot’s projects.
Although not all of the films under Abrams’ production banner Bad Robot take place in the same universe, the director did confirm that Easter eggs are planted throughout each project that connect the Bad Robot movies in sly and very subversive ways. The director has hidden R2D2 in all of his films, meaning the "Star Wars" droid can be found in "Mission: Impossible III," "Star Trek" and "Cloverfield." The most longstanding Easter egg to keep an eye out for is a slushy drink introduced on "Alias" called Slusho!, which has ended up in projects as diverse as Matt Reeves’ "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes." "It’s a silly little nothing thing that becomes something you want to throw in," Abrams said.
"Alias" was born out of Abrams’ frustrations writing "Felicity."
"We started working on ["Felicity"] and we realized in Episode 2 it was very hard to tell a story without some kind of dramatic weight, obstacle, adversary," Abrams remembered. "In college you’re supposed to experiment, fail, fool around, try different things…and it was really hard to find dramatic act outs. Like what could we do as writers? Felicity gets an F? After three episodes, I remember thinking, ‘Well, if she was a spy it would be so much easier.’ We could never do that to the show, so when ABC asked if I’d do a show for them that had a woman at the center, ‘Alias’ came out of that. It was born out of that frustration."
Jennifer Garner was Colbert’s babysitter before breaking out on "Alias."
The night’s most hilarious revelation was about Jennifer Garner, who Colbert revealed was a babysitter to his child before she moved to Los Angeles and became a breakout sensation in Abrams’ "Alias." The two met after doing short stints on the comedy "Spin City" in New York and, according to Colbert, Garner was looking for babysitting jobs in between auditions.
"It was just for a little while because then she got an agent and moved to LA," Colbert remembered. "We thought she’d go to LA and disappear, and later I’m driving down the street going to work at ‘The Daily Show’ and there’s an eight-story poster of her in the gray catsuit with the pink wig announcing that ‘Alias’ is about to start. I nearly drove up on the sidewalk."
After spotting Garner in character on the cover of TIME Magazine, Colbert brought the issue home and asked his wife who it was. "She goes, ‘I don’t know. Is she on ‘The Daily Show’ tonight?’ I go, ‘It’s Jen Garner!’…she goes, ‘She wasn’t hot!’ And I said, ‘Yes, she was!’ She goes, ‘Well you never said anything.’ But what was I supposed to say? How unbelievably hot our babysitter was? She’s a lovely person, too!"
Abrams’ love for lens flares got him in trouble with his wife.
After Colbert brought up an Internet count that found there were 721 lens flares in "Star Trek," Abrams went into defense mode, while also admitting he may have gotten carried away. "When we were doing ‘Trek,’ what I loved was the idea that the future they were in was so bright that it couldn’t be contained," he said. "If you look at ‘Close Encounters’ or ‘Die Hard,’ it’s an amazing thing, that anamorphic lens. I’ve loved how it looks. Some movies from my childhood had those, so I when I sat down to plan ‘Star Trek’ I thought it would be fun to do that."
Abrams didn’t predict just how many lens flares would result from his love for the visual, and he admits to getting in trouble for his overuse of them. He finally came to his senses on "Star Trek Into Darkness," during a scene where Alice Eve was "so obliterated by a lens flare" that not even Abrams’ wife could make out who the character was in the frame. She demanded Abrams quit it with the flares, which Abrams promises he has for "The Force Awakens." Even though there are three flares in the trailer (as Colbert pointed out), Abrams assured the audience not to worry.
Everything about "The Force Awakens" revolves around the past.
"The whole movie required an acknowledgement of what came before," said Abrams about the new ‘Star Wars’ movie. "I wanted it to feel like something that was from that DNA, but also because it was the history of the people in the world that we’d be seeing in this movie. Ralph McQuarrie, who was the original designer for ‘Star Wars,’ did an extraordinary job. We went back to the archives and looked at every McQuarrie painting and image and they had things I’d never even seen before. Much of what he did was embracing fundamental form, he wouldn’t overcompensate things. He would use really familiar shapes — think about the Star Destroyer and it’s triangle shape, or the TIE Fighters, which are two planes and a sphere."
McQuarrie’s designs would factor into the creation of BB8, which Abrams envisioned as a spherical snowman shape keeping in the tradition of the original film’s designs. Equally important to Abrams was shooting on Kodak film and using real sets whenever possible. "I remember watching two droids walking across Tatooine," he said of the original film. "We knew for sure it was real. Most films that people refer to as science fiction, I think of it more as fairy tale, but when you look at the movie it looks like no other adventure I’d seen before. Nothing else looked like that — to have these two droids walk around this real scene setting. It was an extraordinary thing." Abrams wanted to preserve that sense of grounded reality on "The Force Awakens."
"Star Wars: The Force Awakens" is like the greatest roommate Abrams has ever had.
When someone asked if this time period in Abrams’ life was driving him crazy, he responded, "The truth is I’ve worked on this movie for nearly three years. It’s been like living with the greatest roommate in history — for too long. It’s time for him to get his own place. I can’t tell you how much I want him to get out into the world and meet other people. We know each other really well. It’s honestly the most exciting thing, that I was asked to do this and that I got the chance to and that it went as well in the process of making it as it did. ‘Star Wars’ is bigger than any of us, and to get to be involved in this in any way is truly an honor. But it needs to be out there for the people."
"Star Wars: The Force Awakens" opens nationwide December 16. The 2016 Montclair Film Festival runs April 29 – May 16.