The Magic Tricks of JJ Abrams: A Culture Show Special The Culture Show


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The Magic Tricks of JJ Abrams: A Culture Show Special

JJ Abrams talks to Mark Kermode about his lifelong love of filmmaking and takes him on a tour of Bad Robot, the top secret Los Angeles hub of his production company.


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JJ Abrams is a man in demand.

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The ultimate fanboy, Abrams is the creative force

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behind Lost, Mission Impossible III and Super 8.

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He's been heralded as the new Steven Spielberg

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and now finds himself at the helm of the next Star Wars film.

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I hope he never grows up. Let's put it that way.

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He is wonderfully juvenile.

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He still looks at the world through the eyes of a 14-year-old,

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and that's very infectious because, if you're 14,

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everything that you see is the greatest thing ever.

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'Enormously energetic and smart. Very smart.

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'And he's been at it for a long time, learning how to do the job.

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'He does it extremely well.'

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He has this great kind of grown-up professionalism and ambition.

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He is able to operate on so many levels simultaneously.

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His mind is going "ping ping ping". Really special.

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It was JJ Abrams' second turn in the directing chair

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with 2009's Star Trek which cemented his reputation

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as one of Hollywood's rising stars.

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What you had in Abrams' Star Trek movie

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was effectively a rewriting of both the past

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and the future.

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As a result, the slate was wiped clean,

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and the Enterprise was relaunched in a new direction,

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taking it out of the exclusive domain of Trekkies

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to become a box-office hit.

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It was a much-needed boost to the franchise,

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and JJ has once again climbed onboard the Starship Enterprise

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for Star Trek: Into Darkness.

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But both Abrams and the Star Trek franchise

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remain something of an enigma.

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How could a lo-fi '60s sci-fi TV show,

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which originally only ran for three series, have endured this long?

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And how is it that the man who reinvented Star Trek

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grew up preferring magic tricks

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and the films of Steven Spielberg to the adventures of Kirk and Spock?

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Space. The final frontier.

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These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise.

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Its five-year mission, to explore strange new worlds...

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..to seek out new life and new civilisations...

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..to boldly go where no man has gone before.

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No book or TV series has influenced the way people think about

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space travel and exploration quite like Star Trek.

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Like most people of my age,

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it was a regular appointment to view when I was a child.

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I remember struggling to get my homework finished in time

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to watch Star Trek.

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And when Gene Roddenberry first created the series in the 1960s,

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he envisaged it as Wagon Train To The Stars,

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a weekly Western adventure set in space.

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This new intergalactic series took up President Kennedy's challenge

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of space as the last great opportunity

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for American exploration.

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Star Trek became a fictional way to grasp the mind-bending science

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taking place behind the closed doors of NASA's 1960s space race.

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The final episode of the original series was

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broadcast in the USA in 1969, just before Neil Armstrong

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took those famous first steps for mankind.

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It felt to many of us to be just like an episode of Star Trek.

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You're in our field of view now.

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You do have to be rather careful

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to keep track of where your centre of mass is.

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Sometimes it takes about two or three paces...

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Star Trek was a vision of the future that suddenly seemed

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strangely possible and incredibly appealing.

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But the world of JJ Abrams, the mastermind behind the reinvention

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of the franchise, doesn't belong in the Star Trek universe.

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His production company Bad Robot

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is based in Santa Monica in Los Angeles.

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It's the top-secret hub of his growing film and television empire.

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I met him there to talk all things intergalactic.

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When you were young,

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you would have been the right age to be somebody who was caught up by

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Star Trek, but you weren't a great Trek fan

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when it was first out, were you?

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No. Star Trek came out the year I was born...

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-So you were born in...?

-'66.

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And I think the movie that we did in 2009 was an experience that

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let me fall in love with it.

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But the TV show, for some reason, I remember my friends

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who loved it when I was in elementary school,

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so I would watch it and I'd just be like... I was trying to get into it.

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I just couldn't find my way in.

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And part of it was that I was not Spock,

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I was not that smart or logical.

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I was not Kirk, because I was not that cocky

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or confident or good-looking.

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I was not really Chekov or Bones or Uhura or Sulu.

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Any of them. I didn't have a way in, and yet I knew it was a thing that

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people who were smarter than I was really enjoyed, so I kind of just

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felt like, all right, it's one of those things that I won't ever get.

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-But did you have a predisposition to sci-fi?

-I did.

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There are two types of science fiction I loved.

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One was spectacle, those kind of '50s monster movies, Godzilla films.

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Or I loved The Twilight Zone, which was

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typically not about spectacle at all,

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rarely about visuals or pyrotechnics, but almost always about tension

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and character and emotion and psychological twists.

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So to me, those were the things I loved.

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There's a signpost up ahead. Your next stop, The Twilight Zone.

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JJ Abrams sold his first screenplay at the tender age of 24,

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but his big break came as a script doctor

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on the 1998 blockbuster Armageddon.

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That same year saw Abrams make his mark on the small screen,

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with the teen series Felicity, which he followed up with Alias.

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The CIA spy drama gave him his first international success.

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His next project Lost would become one of the most popular

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television programmes of all time.

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Abrams created Lost with Jeffrey Lieber

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and the up-and-coming writer Damon Lindelof.

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There was a guy I'd heard about named Damon Lindelof who was

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working on another show called Nash Bridges.

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Heather Kadin knew that I had been stalking JJ. I had been

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writing on another couple of TV shows, but I said,

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"I will get coffee for him, I will wash his car, just get me in the door."

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And she's like, "OK, you're a little creepy."

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I was working on a script for a pilot.

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I got a phone call from Lloyd Braun, who at the time was head of ABC,

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and he said, "We need to do a show about people who survive a plane crash."

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And I said, "OK. Sounds all right."

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"Please go, think of something, and call me back,

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"because we have a week to green-light it."

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And she said, we've developed a little bit of a story,

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but we want to go in a different direction

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and we're trying to get JJ, we're trying to rope JJ into this thing.

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So a few hours later I called back and said, "I have a couple of

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"thoughts, but you're not going to like it, because it's weird."

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I started to pitch this idea that was more a Michael Crichton thing

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than it was Castaway, which is what I thought he wanted.

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And he said, "I love it!"

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So he said, "I need you to write..." What are you talking about?!

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He said that if we could give him

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another writer that he could supervise,

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that maybe he'd be open to it.

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So that Monday, Damon came in, and he was wearing a Star Wars shirt.

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I have this T-shirt from when I was a kid that is a Star Wars

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Fan Club Bantha Tracks T-shirt.

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I fell in love with him instantly. I thought, "I love this guy."

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He was immediately someone I felt like I knew all my life.

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I just hear this guy go, "Bantha Tracks!"

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And I looked up, and it was JJ.

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And we started talking about what this idea could be,

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and he was pitching these ideas which were spectacular,

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so I started to get excited.

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And we just had this immediate sort of excitement about what this show,

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Lost, could be.

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And two hours later,

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we walked out of the room with the beginnings of what would be Lost.

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And he said, "Do you want to come back tomorrow?"

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And I said, "Yes, I do,"

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and I've been coming back tomorrow ever since.

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'As far as I can tell,

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'Bad Robot is one of the coolest places to work in movie land.'

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See, this is like every boy's wet dream.

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The idea was not to have any magazines or newspapers here,

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but to have a space where when you came in here,

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the first thing you were encouraged to do is create,

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so we collect the waiting room art

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and then we put it up on the walls in the back,

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and then we do a book at the end of the year

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of the best waiting room art.

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And we have some typewriters. When we designed the building,

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they said that we could put a sign outside,

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and I thought, I don't say Bad Robot,

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so we put outside "National Typewriter Company".

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How often do you see a new typewriter company?

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The best thing about that was we've had three different

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people come in here with typewriters to get repaired. Which is fantastic.

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-Did you repair them?

-I didn't know about it until after they came in.

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Because the cool thing would have been...

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100%. Next time someone comes in, the directive is, we repair it for free

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-and give it back to them, no questions asked.

-Fantastic.

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-What is this machine here?

-Is called a Mold-A-Rama.

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It is a machine that was used in the States a lot.

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When I was a kid, you'd find it in zoos or amusement parks,

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and basically, you put 25 cents in and you get this little wax

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sculpture that is moulded in front of you. The thing closes.

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It extruded wax, and then it opens up and the thing falls out.

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Magic was my first love, I think.

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My grandfather took me to this magic store in New York

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called Lou Tannen's Magic.

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I remember illusions that my grandfather bought for me

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that I got to perform for my relatives.

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And that feeling of doing a magic trick for someone and having them

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react in a way that you could see they were surprised was like a drug.

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I could impress people, not because I knew how to play anything.

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I was no good at football, but I could make a card disappear.

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Or I could do a cool flourish and a cool reveal,

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and then when I realised that movies were sort of magic tricks

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on celluloid, I sort of found another way to channel that energy.

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Lost went on to become one of the biggest TV hits of the decade,

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and it demonstrated something important to JJ Abrams -

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the power of mystery in storytelling.

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-CRACKLY RECORDING:

-Il les a tue.

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It killed them.

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Il les a tue tous.

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It killed them all.

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This passion for the enigmatic is encapsulated

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in Abrams' now-famous mystery box.

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I bought it when I was a kid with my grandfather,

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and it was a magic box that basically said

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there was 50 worth of magic in it for 15.

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So it was a big kind of gamble,

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-because you didn't know what you were going to get.

-Yeah.

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I remember getting home and having this box and having this

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epiphany that if I opened the box, no matter what's inside of it,

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it's not as good as what MIGHT be inside of it.

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There is a connection between the idea of the power of mystery

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and what might be that connects not just to that box

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and the idea of magic, but to what we do at Bad Robot,

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and the idea of storytelling, the possibilities of where a story

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may go. It just started to make sense to me that there was a theme

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that connected magic, movies, storytelling, mystery,

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a sense of innate human natural curiosity

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and that ridiculous magic box that I bought with my grandfather.

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And crucially, talismanic that you haven't opened it,

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-you still have it as unopened box.

-It is indeed unopened.

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You said it's like the mystery is the point.

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Explain to me what that means.

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I think there are some stories that benefit enormously from the unknown.

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Now, I'm not saying, and this can be misconstrued,

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that a story shouldn't have a point, but there are some stories,

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obvious ones that come to mind are things like Pulp Fiction,

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where you have this case with the light in it.

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I promise you no matter what Quentin Tarantino,

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if he would ever show us what was inside that case,

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nothing would be as powerful as just that light

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-and the reaction the characters have to it.

-Yeah.

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But with Lost, we had a lot of big ideas as to where it could go.

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But on that pilot, if you had said to us, "What is the end of this series?"

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It's impossible! We couldn't possibly tell you.

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Lost cemented Abrams' reputation in the television world,

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but he was about to get a foot in Hollywood's door with Mission Impossible III,

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the most expensive film ever made by a rookie director.

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And that was Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise,

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potentially writing the remake of War Of The Worlds

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that Steven and Tom did. And we had this two-hour meeting.

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I'd never met Tom before, and it was a really fun meeting,

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and when they were leaving, my assistant gave Tom the first

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two seasons of Alias, the spy show that I had done with

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Jennifer Garner, and I went to do the pilot for lost,

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and I'm shooting the pilot, the last scene,

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the sun was going down, and from across the hill,

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my assistant says, "I've got Tom Cruise on the phone for you."

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I'm like, "We have to shoot this." And she's like...

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So I ran back over to the phone, picked up the phone and said,

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"Hello?" "JJ!"

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"Tom, how's it going?"

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He said, "I just watched the first two seasons of Alias. Unbelievable!"

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He was incredibly sweet about it.

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I was like, "Thank you, Tom Cruise. I'm in the middle of shooting this thing."

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He's like, "Yeah, let's hang out when you get back." I'm like, "Great."

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So that filled me up for a month. I got a call from Tom Cruise.

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So one day I get a phone call from my agent,

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who says, are you aware of the conversations?

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I thought that was the greatest thing. I don't know what you're talking about!

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He said, "Tom wants you to direct Mission Impossible III."

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In a franchise which had been directed

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by people like Brian De Palma and John Woo,

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you don't go to a TV guy. It made no sense.

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But it was a dream, the chance of a lifetime.

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Hollywood is fond of the tried and tested,

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with a steady supply of sequels on offer,

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but what do you do when you've wrung an idea out completely?

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Rebooting is a term borrowed from the world of computing,

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which basically means fixing something through the time-honoured

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tradition of turning it off and then turning it back on again.

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It's become a buzzword in recent years in the movie industry

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where it serves to breathe new life into a series

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which has run out of sequels

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by simply clearing the decks and starting again.

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And considering the huge success, both financial and artistic,

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of Christopher Nolan's Batman reboot, it's no surprise that

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JJ Abrams wanted to apply the formula to Star Trek.

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All stop...in three, two, one.

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We were mixing Mission Impossible III

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and Gail Berman, who at the time was head of Paramount,

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asked me if I was interested in producing Star Trek.

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And because I'd never been a fan of it, my brain was saying, "No, thanks."

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But I immediately said yes.

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It was a weird instinct that

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if Star Trek were done in a certain way...that I would love it...

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Hello, ladies.

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..that there was a way to present Star Trek that would make me laugh,

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that would pick me feel,

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that would make me sympathise with the characters,

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not by reinventing them,

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but by introducing them, or reintroducing them,

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and basically providing an unwrap to that series.

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Actually, the great triumph of that film was

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it introduced Star Trek to a whole generation of people

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who had never seen the original.

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How hard was it to keep that balance?

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We did not want in any way to throw away or disregard the Trek

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that came before. There's no sense in that.

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And if you're going to do Star Trek, don't not do Star Trek.

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If you're going to do Star Trek, embrace what it is. Love it.

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But to me, the genius of what Alex and Bob wrote

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in the first film was,

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it acknowledged and embraced the existing timeline for fans,

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and then it said, "And we're going this way."

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It doesn't say that what happened there didn't happen.

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It's not saying it didn't continue.

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It actually allows for everything the fans love.

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We're just branching off and saying, "And there's this."

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So our timeline co-exists, and in no way does it negate the stuff

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that people who do love the show love.

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Star Trek was conceived in the 1960s by Gene Roddenberry,

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an ex-Air Force pilot and Los Angeles police officer.

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In each futuristic episode, Roddenberry's Federation

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of space Cowboys explored a galaxy of alien nations.

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In truth, the show was less about intergalactic travel than it was

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about life on earth in the turbulent '60s.

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-ALIEN VOICE:

-We have analysed you

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and learned that your violent tendencies are inherent.

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We certainly realised that here was the chance to do

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the kind of drama I'd always dreamed of doing.

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Perhaps I could use this as an excuse to go to those

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far-off planets and be able to talk about love, war and nature,

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God and sex, and maybe the TV censors would let it pass

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because it all seemed so make-believe.

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-COMPUTER:

-Programme is classified and voice index log.

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He was a very, very bright man,

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and he was in touch with what Star Trek should be about.

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He understood what the vision of Star Trek should be,

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what it should say about mankind.

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If we can keep them in the dark as to our strength,

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they will never dare move against us.

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'He expressed a great respect for what humanity could accomplish.

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'I would like to think that Star Trek

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'is still a place where useful ideas can be expressed.'

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I am not sure how effective we can be in changing the world,

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but we might be able to change a mind here and there.

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The 1960s was the era of the civil rights movement,

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the Vietnam War, the nuclear arms race and the Cold War.

0:18:510:18:55

Gene Roddenberry embraced the challenge of breaking

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the social and political taboos of the day.

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His boldest move was to cast the black actress

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Nichelle Nichols as Lieutenant Uhura.

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I was the guest star at a big dinner, and somebody came up

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and said, "Miss Nichols, there's someone who wants to meet you.

0:19:130:19:17

"He says he's your biggest fan," and then I looked over his shoulder,

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and there's Dr Martin Luther King with this big smile on his face.

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And he walks up to me and he says, "I'm your greatest fan."

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He came to tell me how important it was, because I didn't realise

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I was the first African-American woman

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on a successful television series.

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He did say "What Gene Roddenberry has done

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"is change face of television for ever."

0:19:460:19:50

Hey, Pres.

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Yeah. Great guy.

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The third season episode Plato's Stepchildren

0:20:030:20:05

made history by featuring one of the first ever interracial screen kisses

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screened on American television.

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Many television stations in the South refused to air the episode.

0:20:130:20:17

He said, "I've been waiting to get you in my arms for a long time."

0:20:210:20:26

'I've often been asked if I'm surprised that Star Trek is

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'still vital, if I'd had any sense it would have that kind of a future,'

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and the fact is it needs somebody like JJ to come along

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and give it this fresh energy.

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Your obsession with fireworks,

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and I'm saying this as a friend, concerns me...

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After resuscitating the ailing Star Trek franchise,

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Abrams turned his lens onto a much more personal story.

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2011's Super 8 gave him the opportunity to collaborate

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with his hero and long-time supporter Steven Spielberg.

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The film told the story of a boy not unlike Abrams who gets

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more than he planned for when shooting a home-made zombie movie.

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Mrs Hathaway doesn't want her husband to keep investigating...

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-I know, we read it, we get it.

-God, I'm just directing.

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East Coast-born Abrams grew up in the media mecca

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of LA. Both parents were TV producers and his father Gerald

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had an office at Paramount.

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My father's camera was essentially a completely no-frills motor

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with a lens on it, and so I remember going home and saying,

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"Can I use your camera?" And then started to make movies.

0:21:350:21:38

I was eight at the time, but I remember trying to do

0:21:380:21:41

an animated movie without a tripod,

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and I was holding it and I would move the clay

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and then click it, and then later I realised there was a camera store

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and I would ride my bike to the camera store

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and they have things like cable releases for cameras.

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What a cable release would let you do is let you hit the button

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quickly and get one frame, and so years later,

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I convinced my grandfather to buy me

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a Super 8 camera that had sound and had a zoom lens.

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It was incredibly exciting,

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but it would take a week to get the film back.

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It never looked good, you couldn't do any visual effects stuff at all,

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so you have to be really, really desperately clever to get

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any sort of results at all, and they never looked the way you

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dreamed it would look for those ten days.

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All night, every night for ten days, I'd think, "It's going to look..."

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and I had this beautiful Cinemascope vision in my head,

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and I get back this little film

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and put it on my - brrrr! - little projector

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and my heart would always sink.

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Next time!

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PROJECTOR WHIRRS

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Though it was the most personal movie,

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it was also a movie that was clearly a kind of love letter,

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rather than its own completely original idea.

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Super 8 was a nod to the Amblin movies that I grew up with,

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and it was an opportunity, and they don't really ever come along,

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to really go back to being that age again

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and explore what that felt like.

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The fact that I got to do it with Steven,

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which was, on the one hand, the greatest thrill ever,

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on the other hand, scary,

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because he was someone who I have admired for so long,

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that the idea of working with him and it not working out

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was a real spectre. I was nervous that it would somehow not go right.

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So I guess what I'm saying is I feel I still have yet to make,

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as a feature, something that is truly and deeply and uniquely mine.

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This is where we not only watch cuts of the stuff we work on,

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but also mix trailers and do rough mixes in here.

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We actually shoot here too.

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We use this as a mini stage and the chairs go away, and we shot

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a bunch of scenes that actually, even in the new movie, we did in here.

0:24:030:24:08

-Oh, look.

-Hi.

-So here's our music room. Charles, Mark. Mark, Charles.

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-Good to meet you.

-Sorry to barge in.

-No, not at all.

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We use it for recording music, songs.

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You can pretty much do everything in-house.

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That was the goal, to be able to do as much as we could.

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She is one of our editors, Mary Jo Markey. Let's take a look.

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Look, Mary Jo Markey, editor. Look, Spock right there.

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The overall thing is that you are self-contained.

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-You can do everything in-house.

-You can do a lot in-house.

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It's an amazing thing, when we've had ideas of things which we wish

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were in the movie, but weren't, we thought, "Let's just do it."

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And every time we've done it in the building.

0:24:480:24:51

Bad Robot's all-inclusive approach has once again borne fruit

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with Star Trek: Into Darkness,

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Abrams' second big-money turn aboard the Starship Enterprise.

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-I told you we'd fit!

-I am not sure that qualifies.

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There's plenty to love about the new film,

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which once again combines the TV show's interest in

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contemporary issues - non-intervention, colonialism,

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terrorism - with the kind of hell-for-leather spectacle

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which only big-screen cinema can deliver.

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As heavy on action as it is on nostalgic lens flare,

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this second instalment pits Benedict Cumberbatch's intergalactic

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villain against Spock's cool logic and Kirk's hot-headed passion,

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always the true centre of the show,

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and concludes that conversations about the politics

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of aggression versus pacifism are best held whilst

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jumping off exploding buildings or running down the corridors

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of burning starships, preferably at warp factor five.

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We wanted to do an old-school thing of just dropping you into action,

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as opposed to doing another origins story.

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We thought, "Let's just jump in and meet everyone in a colourful,

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"fun, exciting, thrilling way."

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But I also knew that we needed to make this thing weighty

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and have meaning, and hopefully some relevance as well.

0:26:110:26:14

-Captain on the bridge!

-Lieutenant?

-We have an open channel.

-Mr Spock?

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The heat's drying his comms, but we still have contact.

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-Spock!

-I have activated the device, captain.

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When the countdown is complete,

0:26:270:26:28

the reaction should render the volcano inert.

0:26:280:26:30

That's going to render HIM inert.

0:26:300:26:32

-Do we have use of the transporters?

-Negative.

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Because of the way technology has gone, you can

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pretty much put anything on screen if you want to.

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Has that in any way undone the idea of the mystery box?

0:26:400:26:45

How do you keep the air of mystery in a world

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in which it is possible to show the monster?

0:26:470:26:50

I think at the moment everyone knows you can do anything,

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so the question really is, what are you going to do?

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Our eyes are immediate truth-tellers which go, "Fake!"

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You could say, "No, it looks 100% real." Yeah, intellectually, that's true.

0:27:000:27:04

But - "Fake!"

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You know somehow it's not real.

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To me, the idea that you can do anything doesn't mean that you

0:27:070:27:11

should do anything. The question is, what does the story require?

0:27:110:27:14

And I feel like nobody cares about a spaceship flying by

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unless you love the people on the spaceship.

0:27:170:27:19

-Such action violates the prime directive.

-Shut up, Spock! We're trying to save you!

0:27:190:27:23

Doctor, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.

0:27:230:27:26

-Spock, we're talking about your life!

-The rule cannot be broken...

-CRACKLING

0:27:260:27:30

One of the interesting things

0:27:300:27:31

about the Star Trek TV series is that it was non-interventionist.

0:27:310:27:34

Do you think that idea that was so relevant

0:27:340:27:37

when the TV series was made is still at the heart of it,

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the idea of the Federation as benevolent?

0:27:410:27:43

It's always a relevant message that we can

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and should respect other cultures. The irony, of course,

0:27:450:27:49

is if you do look at the episodes of the show, this idea of

0:27:490:27:52

not intervening is a great idea, but is almost never really adhered too.

0:27:520:27:57

They do do a lot of intervening for non-interventionists.

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Yes, the prime directive, as it is called, is broken, I think...

0:28:000:28:04

-Every show.

-..100% of the time. But the concept is cool.

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And I do feel like there's something inherently optimistic

0:28:080:28:12

about Star Trek, and that is something

0:28:120:28:14

that I have really come to love.

0:28:140:28:17

Whether Star Trek: Into Darkness will find its own next generation

0:28:170:28:21

of fans remains to be seen.

0:28:210:28:23

As for JJ Abrams, he's going to face the same challenges again

0:28:230:28:26

as he takes on that other sacred cow of science fiction, Star Wars -

0:28:260:28:31

the challenge is giving the die-hard fans what they know and expect

0:28:310:28:34

whilst creating a brave new world that is

0:28:340:28:37

distinctly his own, of looking to the future without completely

0:28:370:28:41

closing the door on the past.

0:28:410:28:42

Space, the final frontier.

0:28:440:28:47

These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise.

0:28:480:28:51

Their ongoing mission, to explore strange new worlds,

0:28:530:28:57

to seek out new life forms and new civilisations.

0:28:570:29:01

To boldly go where no-one has gone before.

0:29:010:29:06

# Where there's hope there is you

0:29:060:29:11

# It's time to start to live

0:29:110:29:15

# It's time to start to live again... #

0:29:160:29:21

In T minus ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four.

0:29:210:29:28

We've gone from main engine Starfleet...

0:29:280:29:30

Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

0:29:300:29:33

A topical series featuring the best arts and culture stories of the week. One of the hottest talents in Hollywood today, JJ Abrams talks to Mark Kermode about his latest turn at the helm of the Starship Enterprise, his lifelong love of filmmaking and the passion for mystery that lies at the heart of everything he does. New York born Abrams has conquered both television and film, bringing landmark TV series Lost to the small screen while collaborating with film industry royalty Tom Cruise and Steven Spielberg for box office hits Mission: Impossible III and Super 8. Self-confessed geek and ultimate fan boy, Jeffrey Jacob Abrams is about to take on the daunting task of directing the new Star Wars film. In this programme JJ takes Mark on an exclusive tour of Bad Robot, the top secret Los Angeles hub of his production company and provides a rare glimpse into where the magic happens.