1. From a Land Called Brentwood
Abrams is not a small-town hick who stormed the big city, but rather a prince of Hollywood: His father, Gerald Abrams, was a veteran producer of TV movies of the week. As a teenage movie buff, Abrams landed a dream job working for Steven Spielberg, restoring some of the director’s own teenage films. During the summer labors, he never met the great man — but the proximity to his idol put stars in Abrams’ eyes that never went away.
Abrams graduated high school and went on to get a liberal arts degree from Sarah Lawrence, determined to make his own way in the family business.
2. Breaking In
Hitting the pavement after college, Abrams — then writing under the name Jeffrey — teamed up with Jill Mazursky, daughter of director Paul, and began churning out screenplays. In an era of high-concept comedies, the pair sold the most high-concept script imaginable: Filofax, which was released as the Jim Belushi vehicle Taking Care of Business (1990). Abrams and Mazursky also sold the script that became 1997’s Gone Fishin’, starring Joe Pesci and Danny Glover.
3. The Breakthrough
Going solo as a writer, Abrams put himself on the map with the romantic comedy Regarding Henry (1991). Although a box office disappointment, Abrams was now playing in the big leagues of major releases. He became the master of the Robert McKee–era pre-packaged “story structure,” and went on to write another of the great era’s by-the-numbers romances, Forever Young (1992), starring Mel Gibson.
4. Mr. Fix-It
Proving himself the master of script formula, Abrams became Hollywood’s go-to guy to save troubled projects. During this era, he logged countless stints bringing projects up to code and mastering the nuts and bolts of making a movie function. His uncredited work for uberproducer Jerry Bruckheimer earned him a shot at fixing up the titan’s next project, Armageddon. Of the more than a dozen writers said to have passed through the project before it hit the screen, five were ultimately credited, and it was J.J.’s name at the top of what went on to become the second-highest grossing film of 1998.
Though he was having great success on other people’s projects, Abrams was having less luck on his own. Among other projects, a big Superman reimagining was ultimately scrapped. Lucrative as his career now was, Abrams was searching for something more than well-paid journeyman glory.
5. Acting Interlude
Much forgotten in Abrams’ bio is his brief moment in front of the cameras. He appeared as Doug in the 1993 film Six Degrees of Separation, playing Richard Masur’s son, who, in a showdown with his elders, utters the line, “You think I’m an addict? A drug pusher?”
6. Going Small to Go Big
In 1998, long before HBO made it fashionable for film writers to write for TV, careers moved in only one direction: TV writers did everything they could to break into film. But Abrams recognized that TV was a medium where the writer could be king. He defied expectations of the time by creating Felicity, a soapy series about a young woman going off to college, starring Keri Russell. The project, an emotional light drama, is said to be much closer to where Abrams’ heart lies than the sci-fi projects that followed.
Abrams — who, with his Hollywood lineage, was always a shark in contract negotiations — won a huge contract to create the show, which would go on to become the biggest hit the fledgling WB network had experienced. Felicity also marked the beginnings of Abrams’ team: Matt Reeves, who would later direct Cloverfield, joined the writers room.
7. TV Powerhouse
After establishing himself as a successful TV producer with Felicity, Abrams was ready for something more than a low-key women’s drama on America’s fifth-rated network. Soon after Felicity took off, Abrams was attempting to line up his next show. His first green light came in 2001 with Alias, a spy thriller starring Jennifer Garner as a chameleon-like undercover operative.
The show was an instant sensation, turning Garner into a bona fide superstar. With two hits on the air, Abrams’ reputation was sealed. Having worked in a variety of genres, he was a man who could be plugged into anything and do anything.
Abrams first worked with much of the team who would become his brain trust in the years ahead while in the writers room at Alias, including Alex Kurtzman and Robert Orci — who would write Abrams’ biggest hits and go on to pen the Transformers films on their own — and Bryan Burk, who would become Abrams’ producer and right hand.
What Alias started, Lost finished: The six-season series established Abrams and his Bad Robot Productions as the television powerhouse. It started as the show that no one wanted, other than ABC President Lloyd Braun, who had made it his pet project and had struggled to bring it to the air. Abrams agreed to a shotgun wedding with writer Damon Lindelof, who had been working on the script. He brought in his brain trust, including Burk and Alias scribe Jesse Alexander, and together they reconceived the series as a redemption drama about troubled people, set in a world touched by supernatural elements.
The pilot shoot in Hawaii was one of the most expensive pieces of television ever created. Filmed in 35 millimeter, it was bold and cinematic, and practically a calling card for a big screen directing career.
The show, of course, was an instant success when it debuted in September 2004, beloved by critics and the public alike. As a piece of mind-bending nerdbait, it established Abrams as not just a workaday hack, but as an auteur who could take projects to places never before seen in entertainment.
9. Big-Screen Director
Now a legitimate powerhouse, there was still one mountain left to climb: big-screen director. Abrams had retreated from film into TV to find respect, but he was coming back on top of it all.
Going into its third installment, the Mission: Impossible series was looking a bit creaky by the mid-2000s. Cruise’s star had waned since the previous episode in 2000 (see: couch jumping), and what had originally been established as a biggest of big-budget tentpole series was now looking to scale back a bit. For the first two, Paramount Pictures had brought on giant directors at the top of their games (Brian DePalma and John Woo), but now, after the departure of Joe Carnahan from the project and the studio looking to cut its costs and exposure on what was no longer a sure thing, Cruise sought an up-and-coming young gun to try to inject some fresh life into the series. Thus, Abrams was able to make his directorial debut in a gigantic star vehicle — the sort of project that, if handled properly, instantly propels one into the top ranks of film directing. In the wake of Alias, Abrams had been offered other projects but held out for the one that would enable that big step. He found it with MI3.
Abrams turned to his brain trust, hiring Kurtzman and Orci to write the script and propelling them into major league screenwriting ranks while he was at it.
The resulting MI3, released in 2006, performed a bit lower at the box office than MI2, but that was hardly a surprise given Cruise’s changing fortunes. More importantly, it did respectably and staved off what many feared might be an implosion in the public appetite for Cruise as a first-tier screen star. The film was received decently by critics. Abrams, who had turned in a solid performer on time and on budget, earned Paramount’s respect and gratitude. His transition to the big screen was official.
It was the first time Abrams had put himself in the right position at the right time: stepping into a place with a troubled history where performing merely competently would make him seem a genius. It wouldn’t be the last.
10. Into the Valley of the Nerds
Abrams was established as a Hollywood powerhouse, but he still lacked a particular tribe: Apart from Lost, Abrams’ work was largely mainstream action and dramatic films. With 2008’s Cloverfield — which he produced and Felicity vet Matt Reeves directed — he took a hard turn nerdaways. More than the film itself, however, it was the movie’s viral campaign that became a fanboy cause célèbre and created the legend of J.J. Abrams, marketing genius.
11. Where No Director Has Gone Before
After 2002’s underwhelming Nemesis, the long-running Star Trek film series finally ran out of steam and lay fallow for almost a decade; it also disappeared from multiplexes and from the television networks.
It is said to have been Abrams acolyte Robert Orci, a lifelong Trekkie, who put the bug in Abrams’ ear about reviving the series. The director, then ensconced at Paramount, where he was the golden boy afterMI3 persuaded the studio to let him bring the Enterprise out of mothballs and try something different.
Again, coming on the heels of Nemesis, Abrams was treading on poisoned ground where the expectations could not be lower. With the rebooted Trek, he met the low expectations and then some. The new alternate universe taken on in the series brought it roaring back and re-established Trek as a modern franchise capable of drawing young viewers. After successfully pleasing entertainment’s most contentious fanbase, Abrams was certified an undeniable nerd icon.
12. Established Auteur
While Abrams had colonized vast swaths of the public space, perhaps no entertainer had had so large a footprint while leaving so few fingerprints. What was a J.J. Abrams project? What was his vision? Other than basic competence, what made him unique?
In 2011, he set out to answer that with his most personal work to date, Super 8. The Abrams vision, it turned out, was a tribute to his hero Steven Spielberg (who produced the film): a world of flawed, but good-hearted people, rambling around and too busy to stop and take stock until something out of the ordinary happens to jolt them to their senses. It was early Spielberg with a glossy modern television sheen.
The film was largely a success with critics, and it helped propel him out of the hack’s netherworld. As a man who was now giving Ted talks, the remaking of J.J. Abrams into the visionary behind the curtain was complete.
13. The Abrams Empire
With his shows running across the network spectrum (Fringe, Person of Interest, and Revolution, to name a few) and new installments of Mission Impossible, Cloverfield, and Star Trek due, it would seem there were no mountains left to be climbed. Other filmmakers, rumor has it, demurred from stepping into the Star Wars mantle based on the oversized legend that could swallow even the strongest of directors.
J.J. Abrams would not be J.J. Abrams if he held any such fears. And, it should be noted, once again he treads on poisoned grounds: After the Lucas debacle, if Abrams can make any green shoot appear, he’ll be a genius. It would be hard to do worse than the horrors of the Phantom Menace trilogy. But will Abrams settle for mere competence, or, taking on his biggest challenge yet, will he swing for the fences? We’ll find out in 2015.