MovieWeb sits down with director JJ Abrams to talk about the future of Mission: Impossible 3 & Lost

JJ Abrams comes out with more stage presence and energy than most anyone on any of the convention panels. We jump right into two clips, the first of which is pure character building and greatly enhances the action induced second clip.

Clip 1:

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Phillip Seymore Hoffman has been tricked by the IMF team. He wakes up on a plane, tied to a chair. He talks in a quiet and disturbing fashion of what he's going to do to Ethan Hunt's girlfriend. It's what we saw in the trailer, but longer and with more description. Hunt pulls out the intensity with a strong stare-down and decides to let his anger out by nearly pushing Hoffman's chair out of the plane. This scene was amazing as JJ Abrams knows how to get the subtle character nuances out there both in writing and directing, using actors who can pull it off extremely well.

Clip 2:

The bridge scene. The money shot of Ethan Hunt flying into a car. This takes place shortly after Clip 1 with the IMF team driving back to base with a captured Phillip Hoffman. Out of nowhere comes a barrages of missiles and gunfire from a helicopter / some kind of fighter plane. The bridge blows up, cars explode and a sense of "this movie is AWESOME" sets in. A unique little moment involved guys wearing outfits that seemed to be a cross between storm troopers and ninja uniforms, who repel out of the helicopter and spray an acidic foam all over an armored truck (one would assume it's to rescue the villian).

After the clips, Abrams talked about how the movie came to be (Tom Cruise watched all the Alias DVDs and called Abrams mid-shooting the Lost pilot episode to offer him a job) and that he's still so shocked by this opportunity that he's still waiting for Ashton Kutcher to come out and PUNK him.

Where are you at in the process right now?

We're just finishing the cut and, you know, sound mixing, getting the final visual fx in from ILM which are unbelievable. It's so much fun working with those guys. You talk about stuff and then you get the footage back and you just cannot believe how it looks. It's just unbelievable, those guys.

How much bigger than the previous 2 in terms of visual fx?

I think most of the visual fx, some will be obvious because of the scale of this and that but a lot of the stuff is invisible and a lot of the stuff we did so you don't know it's a special effect, hopefully. Which is the advantage of doing something like that as opposed to War of the Worlds or something, where you know the alien isn't real. Even if it looks photo real, you're scutinizing it almost unfairly. So the beauty of special fx in this, even though there are more than twice as many fx shots in this than in War of the Worlds. But you'll never know it by looking at it.

On TV production restrictions vs a movie production...

This whole thing has been so hysterically funny to me, it's been the most surreal- I'm just waiting for someone to say "Dude you've been Punk'd"

The idea of taking the parameters of TV, the money, the schedule and resources, it was great training.

Even though you think "hey, I have 100 days instead of, you know, 8. Or, you've got this budget instead of that budget, or you got these sets or these props. Ultimately it comes down to what's important in doing what I do, it came down to, you know, the person right there. Even though it's definitely massive, I mean, the movie is sprawling in a lot of ways, it always comes down to where the characters take each other. It's never, I don't think, big for the sake of being big. My only mandate in doing this movie was I wanted to make sure that we weren't attempting to do anything, any visual fx sequence or any stunt sequence AS a stunt sequence or a vfx sequene. It was only gonna be 'what is our story?'

Every time we knew there was a situation where there was an escape or a tense situation, or some kind of- it was like 'dude lets not even talk about it' we know that there's gotta be something here, so we always focus on the story.

Once we knew we had a solid story, we allowed ourselves to open the door to the toy store.

What was the day or the sequence that gave you the most trouble?

Everyday on this movie, there are 7, arguably 8, set pieces. Sequences, big sequences. The pre-viz, the computer pre viz'd 3 and a half, 4 of them and I sketched out the others, worked with a storyboard artist on some.

Once I realized after the first few days, that this is a marathon. And the fun of doing this movie is being able to approach it the way I would approach making movies when I was 9. Which was you look at a place, whether your backyard or down the street or the store, whatever, and you kinda figure out, 'where's a cool place to put the camera?' You just get lost in trying to be creative, like you do with anything. But by being too overly prepped, it actually gets in the way of that creativity because 'this is what i've decided what its gonna be'

Have fun, let's just do it.

So, to come to the set and figure out "where would I put the camera if I was 8?" I literally would do this thing, I'm always going low because I remember when I was little I was always, you know, shorter. So I'd always try and figure out where the cameras should go and just let the creativity happen. In fact, that shot in the trailer on the bridge when he gets slammed into the car, that shot, there was a version of that in the pre-viz. Tom and I, it was on a Friday, we're like, you know, let's do something crazy, let's change it up, so we had this idea to make him run and hit the thing. And we did it on that Monday, you know, a couple days later, and it was the ability, to you know, be open to ideas. The answer to the question is there wasn't really anything that was incredibly hard. The hardest stuff was some of the most emotional and intimate scenes where really intense stuff, and the bigger shots, were some of the most oddly effortless shots because they were either planned or it was the sort of stuff you could plan. But when you're doing stuff where it's really about who the characters are and the emotional stuff, even with the greatest actors in the world, and we have a few of them in this movie, you just hafta work and work and work and roll 40,000 feet of film to make sure you get what you want in a scene.

Can you talk about the challenge of taking a 3rd film in a franchise?

When Tom asked me to do this movie, which in and of itself is a ridiculous moment, the immediate response was so undoubtedly YES. It was so not even a question. And not just because I was desperate to direct, which it was, also I just knew immediately that the opportunity to take a franchise that didn't really have a defining episode yet, meaning the episodes were incredibly well done and for some people, the first one was one of their favorite spy movies, or the second was one of their favorite spy movies, for me it felt like it was a series that, as good as those movies were, never really realized the promise of the franchise. And to be asked to do a franchise where you could actually make the best version of that series, it was immediately like, OH MY.

Doing MI3 was a genre I was very familiar with, it was an opportunity to, I'm not saying it's gonna be easy, but it was to attempt to make a movie that was about the team the way the show was. I love, I love how it was this great team working together to do a movie that had great twist and turns that you come to expect from that genre AND it was an opportunity to take part of a franchise that was in a very different place in the world that it was in the beginning and use the baggage of shows like 24, and Alias, or the Bourne films or the bond movies made since, when the first one came out just doing Mission: Impossible 3 was cool enough in many ways, and it was a very well made film, but if you do Mission: Impossible 3 now, you have to have a reason to do it now as opposed to a poster and a start date and 'that Tom wants to do it,' which is probably reason enough. But for me, I knew I wanted to make a movie that literally, regardless of a name and regardless of Tom, is a movie that I'd wanna go see. And that was the ambition.

What was your experience with the original TV show?

No question for me that one of the most fun aspects of the TV show as a kid always, loving it, was 'this team.'

What I loved about the show was this group and it was how their relationship. But that kind of stuff to me was, I loved the dynamic of these people. And seeing the roles they would play and often the roles they would play with each other in front of other people. So you were in on the whole play of it. So there'd be episodes where there'd be 1 or 2 people in a room who wouldn't know that those 2 or 3 people would be working together to convince them. And I love that kinda stuff! And there'd be moments in the first movie, with moments like that in the very very opening. I love when you go 'ok, wait a minute, I know what they hafta do, i don't know how they're gonna do it. but i know, oh my god, the thing I didn't anticipate just goes wrong.'

I just love the idea of this group working together for a very specific goal. And I think we brought that back passionately. Another thing is, I love elements of the first 2 films, and I'm in no way knocking them, in fact, we embrace them and make reference to a couple things in this movie. One is the homage to the going down, cause I thought you gotta do it as a joke. But it's such a throw away moment in the movie you know, I'm not gonna do it just to do it. And another thing is a couple reference to some story stuff. But it's very oblique.

Safe to say there's no motorcycle jousting scene?

Sadly, no. We had a very low dove budget.

What is your philosophy on a good action scene?

The only philosophy I have, and when you're asked a question that way, the answer can sound pretentious as soon as you start talking. I don't wanna make it sound like I have any kinda philosophy on anything I do, really. But I would say that, I asked myself that question in the beginning because I thought 'I don't know what style I have as a director, if I have one.' All I know is that I wanted to figure out how I was going to approach these scenes, and there were a lot of them. And how do you do it so it's as exciting as can be, so it's not redundant, so they feel, you know, too overly staged.

I just had to be true to the character of the actors at all times. The most important thing was that I would tell the action sequences as if they were scenes of people talking, that you always knew where you were and why. Some people say 'the geography of certain action scenes are hard to follow' and I think one of the reasons that's the case is that sometimes the action supersedes character and story and it becomes about the moment, the stunt, that you've been practicing for weeks and weeks and weeks and do tests and all that stuff, and put 9 cameras down and built it. I just thought it was really important that there be a sense of spontaneity to the action and you're always following who your character is.

And I think you'll see in this little snippet we're gonna show of the bridge sequence, that as much as there's a lot of stuff going on and it's crazy, you don't lose track of Ethan Hunt and the rest of the team.

The answer to 'how do you make a successful action sequence?' is the same answer to, 'how do you do a successful scene in a bedroom?' You need to know what the motivations are of the characters and you track that from beginning to end of the scene you know the machinations and why those clever comments or retorts that that people kinda go 'oh that's smart' or 'I know what she's up to' that those things are equally as important, they just have to be louder, bigger and far more expensive.

What did you do to make him less of an action movie cypher?

You never saw him do anything outside of being a spy in the first 2, except for mountain climbing in the 2nd one. So the answer is, anything we did outside of that world was 100% more of what was done before. So, we focused on that. Everyone who pays to see Mission: Impossible 3 3 is not paying to see a relationship drama. Having said that, when you see the first die hard film and you appreciate that half an hour is spent on investing into the character before any gun was fire. You appreciate that that kind of emotional connection with that kind of character is rudimentary. And we all know that, it's storytelling 101, but you know, you think Mission: Impossible 3 3 and its like 'lets get to the stuff that people wanna see.' But the truth is, what people wanna see is a good story, and I don't know how you tell a good story without investing in the characters. So the idea was, we see him at home. He's a man, he's like 40 years old. What is that like? How do you be a real person and do the stuff he apparently does, and that to me was the approach to the movie, that was the way in for me. It was the crux of what makes life complicated, which we can all appreciate, which is how do you balance what you do professionally with what you do personally?

How do people who know your work, know this is the work of JJ Abrams?

It's a very valid question, and one I don't think I can answer cause I don't know how I can look at my own work and judge what it is. I have no idea. The answer may be that, they see similarities in approach to some things that they saw in Alias or in Lost. The answer may be that they see appreciation of character as well as action. That's my ambition. Yet, you know, I'm still so close to the movie that I can't look at it from the outside in and say that.

Premiere magazine said that you were scared doing the huge stunts cause tom would wanna do them himself..

I had seen years earlier, the MI:2 behind the scenes. I remember Watching John Woo talk about how scared he was doing some of the mountain climbing stuff, I had no idea it was a cautionary tale for me.

Suddenly find myself literally feeling the same exact stuff John Woo was alluding to in that interview. The truth in, when we were writing it, knowing that Tom was sort a daredevil, I would literally write things and say to Alex [Kurtzman] and Bob [Orci], who wrote the script with me, 'we shouldn't write this cause Tom's gonna wanna do it,' but it's too good, we hafta throw it I there. Bearably, he would and he did.

What's incredible is this:

Obviously he's in incredible shape, trains like a professional athlete and has the passion to do stunt work and does it really well. But a stunt man can train and prep over a course of weeks for a single stunt, or two, maybe in the movie. Do it, and then like, ice up all day. Or, come down from it. But Tom would do these stunts day after day after day and then, often in the same day, scenes and come in totally prepared. I don't mean to be precious about it and I don't feel the need to, like, build Tom Cruise up anymore. But I can't say enough about his unbelievable commitment. He's remarkable dedication in every way, in terms of story, understanding how a subtle reference in that scene will have these unbelievable undeniable ripple effects down the line. How setups and pay offs work and why they're important.. But also, how he'll say "ok, put me in a harness and drop me 200 feet!" And I'm like, all that stuff in one person?!

And every day for 100 days, in different countries, different cities, this guy was unstoppable and determined as if it were his first movie, and it's certainly not his, to make this movie the best movie possible. And he did an extraordinary job.

Movie PictureHow long is Lost gonna go?

Damon and I talked about in the beginning making it a limited run, sometimes the reality of doing serious television is such that, it's not really something you can predict given what the business of it is. The struggle is, how do you make it what it needs to be at all times, whether you're doing a pilot or you're doing episode 200? So it's not something that's ultimately up to us.

So you wouldn't kill it if, after like 10 years it got uninteresting?

The only way I could kill would be my association with it. So if it were successful in year 6 and I was like "this cant go to year 7,' if I said 'look, I can't do this,' they would find someone else who would.