The writer and director of the third installment of the secret agent series speaks
Action, suspense, secret agents, and a deserted island is how you could describe the things J.J. Abrams has brought to the world of TV. He's the creator of two of the most successful shows on television, Lost and Alias.
But now, J.J. is taking on Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible III. It's his first time writing and directing for the big screen; we had the opportunity to speak with him about the latest in the Ethan Hunt series.
He was very candid about answering questions about changing the style of the movie, without tweaking the key elements of what we've enjoyed in the first two films.
Here's what he had to say:
Did any elements from the movie come from something you couldn't do on Alias?
J.J. Abrams: There were so many things that we wanted to do on Alias that we could never in a million years afford. One of the things that we did in this movie was this Vatican break-in sequence which a sequence like that requires so many pieces. It's a very intricately, visually intricately told sequence and in television, you just never have the time to do the kind of pieces that you need to really sort of tell it properly. Clearly, sequences like on the bridge, the helicopter chase, the whole factory sequence, the Shanghai jump, the race - each one of them in a weird way was a dream version of the kind of thing we might conceive of doing on Alias but never have the time or budget to properly execute.
Will you be going back to Lost now?
J.J. Abrams: I look forward to going back to Lost although ultimately I hope to do both. It was an amazing experience doing this movie. If they'll have me back to direct another movie, I'd love to do one.
What's it like having everyone wonder about a first-time director, and did you ever doubt yourself?
J.J. Abrams: Well, I'm getting the same question too which is what was it like to be a first-time feature director. The opportunity to do this movie was so remarkable; I can't think of anyone else who would let someone who'd never directed a feature before take the reigns of something that is this large in scale, this expensive and yet Tom did. He believed in me and never wavered from that in the entire experience. I do think that there were moments where I was in shock that I was given this opportunity but the truth is I've wanted to do this all my life and the pressure and the experience of doing television seemed to continually confirm that doing a movie was something that was certainly possible. I didn't necessarily think the first movie I would get a chance to direct would be something as large as this one, but the crew was so incredible. Tom and his producing partner Paula Wagner were so supportive from the beginning, that I always felt and I believe the whole crew always felt incredibly supported and safe which always allows for more creativity. So the whole experience was great and I honestly never doubted that I could do it. I actually felt incredibly comfortable doing it. It was a fun challenge.
What were you looking for in the other team members?
J.J. Abrams: What I wanted to make sure is that we were casting actors and writing parts that were as strong as they could be because when you've got Tom Cruise, it's that blinding star power. You can't put him on screen with someone who can't play at that level or they'll get drowned out and the movie won't have a spark. So you bring in actors like Laurence Fishburne and Billy Crudup and Jonathan Rhys Meyers and certainly Philip Seymour Hoffman, and you find people like Michelle Monaghan or Maggie Q. I got to bring Keri Russell back who I'd worked with on Felicity. It was incredibly important to me for not just the team, but for all the supporting actors, that they be not just wonderful actors but have a certain level of that charisma. And it was great to see Tom with all these actors because he I'm sure could feel that same energy coming from them and I think it only made him better and it certainly makes the film better, populating it with people who are that compelling to watch.
What were you looking for as far as how the IMF team would complement his activities?
J.J. Abrams: Well, you know, I wanted to make sure that very quickly everyone felt incredibly distinct. What I love about Jonathan Rhys Meyers is he sort of felt to me in many ways the Irish version of where Tom was in the first Mission movie which is a little bit more of a cocky guy who is at an age where he hasn't been doing this for very long. I wanted to have with Maggie Q - I really wanted to have an incredibly strong female, powerful voice and character in someone who was as lethal as she is brave as she is vulnerable; Maggie brought all that. She also looks incredibly good in that red dress that she wears to of all places The Vatican. And I knew we had Ving (Rhames) coming back who I had loved in so much of the work he had done in other films but I felt like he still hadn't been as relatable as I wanted him to be in the first two films and I just think he so brought incredible personality to the role of Luther. So it was just important that Tom's character be surrounded by distinct and unique and compelling other characters.
Did you want to go into more detail on showing the audience the tricks, the masks, calibrating the wire?
J.J. Abrams: Yes, thank you for mentioning that little calibrating thing on the wire. That kind of stuff to me, it was so easy not to do that stuff but I thought part of the fun of Mission: Impossible, The Series for me was always not just the what and the why, but the how. And I just loved watching this team using the kind of equipment and using it with such a precision that I wished I had that kind of equipment and I wish I knew how the hell to do that stuff. It's easy to skip that stuff and go right to the end game and get to the point, but I feel like part of seeing - part of getting to know and love the team is seeing them do their job and appreciating why they have been chosen to be out in the field. Anyway, doing that kind of stuff with the masks or doing the little moments with the calibration thing here and there or when Tom puts the cross on the wall, transmitting that, or when we see Ving open up the drill case. All these little details were to me the things that it felt when I watch the show, it respected the audience and their ability to track the sort of machinations of that kind of operation and I just feel like if you lose that stuff, you're not getting - you're not sort of getting to really see the details that matter. So it was really important to me that we do that stuff.
Did you love throwing Ethan out of windows, the jump?
J.J. Abrams: Well, to me, the fun of the movie is in the same movie having the crazy, larger than life moments and also the incredibly relatable intimate character moments. So part of that stuff, the jumping off the building, the repelling down which obviously was a nod to the first films, that stuff was for me just part of seeing the- - showing the extreme measures that Ethan has to go to to either pull off a certain mission or rescue the woman he loves. It's classic old school physical thrills but those don't really thrill us anymore unless we have characters that we relate to. So the goal was to try and do both.
What was your purpose for adding the romance element?
J.J. Abrams: Well, I'm sure the way you approach something when you're working on something, it's sort of you have the way you do it. I didn't think going into this that I wanted to copy the first movie or the second movie. What I thought was my dream version of Mission: Impossible still hadn't gotten made which was a version that allowed us to see who these characters were as people, not just as spies. And I loved the idea of exploring what does it look like when Ethan Hunt goes home? Not just what does his home look like, but who's there? If there's a woman in his life, does she know what he does? My guess is no and if not, how does he live with himself betraying this woman? And he must know these two worlds are going to collide. It's going to happen. So that became one of the themes of the movie. It was not a question of messing with success. I actually felt that the first two films for me would have been even better had they spent some time investing in the characters and the people. In a movie like Jaws, when Roy Scheider is sitting at the table and his kid is mimicking him and his wife, Lorraine Gary is watching, you could have lost that scene from that movie I suppose and told the same story, but it wouldn't have allowed you to invest in the people as much as you do. And that's my favorite thing that the great blockbuster type movies have done which is yeah, they have the thrills and the action, but the critical thing is investment in character.
Is the film helped or hampered by Tom's publicity?
J.J. Abrams: In terms of Tom's publicity, I'm sure you can find evidence that any publicity is good publicity and also find evidence equally valid that having him go on Oprah is not a good thing for him. You could probably find anything to support a point of view, but my feeling is that what I control, what I can do is try and make a movie that's entertaining and hopefully one that you leave the theater feeling better and more empowered than you did when you got there. So I'm hoping that, and I believe that the audiences who will see this film are smart enough to differentiate the two, the actor and the character. And I think that finally that the opening sequence of the movie is very purposefully shocking and terrifying. I want them to see this character as vulnerable and as frightened as he's ever been. And it wasn't because of any publicity stuff, it was because just simply having Tom Cruise in a movie, he's such an icon that I want from the very beginning of the movie not to have him playing a cool guy, but rather having him play an absolutely vulnerable, relatable man who we relate to. And I've got to tell you, knowing Tom as well as I do, I see every day who this guy is as a real person. And he is funny and he is self-deprecating and he's smart and he's easygoing and he's kind, not just to me but to everyone who worked on the crew, he's a good person. So I wanted to see a little bit less of an icon and a little bit more of us, of the everyman in this character and I think the audiences will see that.
What would you say was the most challenging thing in making the film?
J.J. Abrams: The most challenging thing was probably the logistics of filming in the United States, in Los Angeles and in Virginia, shooting in Italy in two cities, in China in two cities, in Berlin and having all the visual effects shots there. There are many, many visual effects shots in this movie and special effects and stunts. It was really just logistically preparing this and a lot of that credit goes to the producers of the movie who helped schedule and set up the production of the film. But you know, we were incredibly responsible I think making this movie. We finished ahead of schedule and under budget. For me, it was totally the result of having a crew that was just hard working and dedicated and great at what they do. My TV training had gotten me used to limited time and budget but the hardest thing truly was always just in every scene when people are talking, making sure you believe that those people hate each other or that those two guys are great friends or that couple's in love. It was always the stuff that was the most relatable stuff, the most mundane that ultimately I think people will just know rings true or not. So the stunt work was always a cool and exciting challenge but the hardest stuff was always the most unexpected kind of small character work.
Which famous movie spy would win in a fight?
J.J. Abrams: I always think that what will probably happen is, they'd start to fight against each other, the cool thing would be if suddenly they all realize that there's another enemy and they all have to work together to take them down. That's sort of the kind of story I like.
Is there a chance for a Lost movie?
J.J. Abrams: I think we make it every week. I honestly don't know what else we would do. There have been discussions of all different types of things Lost but it feels to me like the ambition at least has been, the production of that series is to try to make a little movie every week.
Has it been hard to tie up the final threads on Alias?
J.J. Abrams: Not really, I've got to say on Alias, which is the only show that really needs to tie up everything, this is something we have been anticipating for a while. I think it's the right time to end the series. It's definitely bittersweet for a lot of obvious reasons. It's an incredible cast and crew so we'll miss them but I hope to work with all of them again soon. But in terms of the end of the year, it's actually a really good finale. I think it's incredibly satisfying, it connects all these pieces that have been in the Alias universe from the beginning and I'm really proud of the work that Jeff Pinkner, Drew Goddard and the other amazing writers in the show have done, not just this year but building up to the finale which I think is going to be a really, really powerful and exciting ending.
What's going to be the cliffhanger for Lost?
J.J. Abrams: I can tell you that Damon Lindelof has done just that. The ending of this year in Lost blows the ending of last season out of the water; it's an incredible finale.
There hasn't been a single theme this year like 'the hatch;' which thing dangles on the finale this year?
J.J. Abrams: You'll see what happens but I can tell you that a lot of it has been there and been building from the beginning of this season. It's not out of the blue, but what happens at the very end of this year, for me, it's the greatest finale I have ever heard.
Is there a chance you'll be making an Alias movie?
J.J. Abrams: I think at the moment, right now Alias is sort of going to rest in just the right way so I think that it's the right way for it to go out.
Mission: Impossible III hits theaters May 5th; it's rated PG-13.