J.J. Abrams has a very good understanding of what made the very first Star Wars film, A New Hope, work. Right from the start, that film had mystery after mystery, and took you on a ride. It answered some questions while raising more.
Watch this video from a Ted conference a few years ago, called The Mystery Box. It’ll give you a very good idea of what drives the stories that Abrams tells, and what’s behind the choices he makes. In it, you’ll also see a scene that he considers to be one of the greatest scenes of all time, from the movie Jaws. And it’s not a scene that people normally think of when they think about that movie.
He also talks about things that we may not have known were the driving stories behind some of the great films that most of us have seen. Here are some quotes directly from a transcript of the Mystery Box talk.
In terms of the content of it, you look at stories, you think, well, what are stories but mystery boxes? There’s a fundamental question — in TV, the first act is called the teaser. It’s literally the teaser. It’s the big question. So you’re drawn into it. Then of course, there’s another question. And it goes on and on. Look at “Star Wars.” You got the droids; they meet the mysterious woman. Who’s that? We don’t know. Mystery box! You know? Then you meet Luke Skywalker. He gets the Droid, you see the holographic image. You learn, oh, it’s a message, you know. She wants to, you know, find Obi Wan Kenobi. He’s her only hope. But who the hell’s Obi Wan Kenobi? Mystery box! So then you go and he meets Ben Kenobi. Ben Kenobi is Obi Wan Kenobi. Holy ****! You know — so it keeps us — (Laughter) — have you guys not seen that? (Laughter) It’s huge! Anyway —
And then, finally, there’s this idea — stretching the sort of paradigm a little bit — but the idea of the mystery box. Meaning, what you think you’re getting, then what you’re really getting. And it’s true in so many movies and stories.
And when you look at “E.T.,” for example — “E.T.” is this, you know, unbelievable movie about what? It’s about an alien who meets a kid, right? Well, it’s not. “E.T.” is about divorce. “E.T.” is about a heartbroken, divorce-crippled family, and ultimately, this kid who can’t find his way.
“Die Hard,” right? Crazy, great, fun, action-adventure movie in a building. It’s about a guy who’s on the verge of divorce. He’s showing up to L.A., tail between his legs. There are great scenes — maybe not the most amazing dramatic scenes in the history of time, but pretty great scenes. There’s a half an hour of investment in character before you get to the stuff that you’re, you know, expecting.
[…] The thing about “Jaws” is, it’s really about a guy who is sort of dealing with his place in the world — with his masculinity, with his family, how he’s going to, you know, make it work in this new town.
*shows a quiet scene from the movie Jaws*
C’mon. “Why? ‘Cause I need it?” Best scene ever, right? Come on! So you think of “Jaws” — so that’s the kind of stuff that, like, you know, the investment of character, which is the stuff that really is inside the box, you know? It’s why when people do sequels, or rip off movies, you know, of a genre, they’re ripping off the wrong thing. You’re not supposed to rip off the shark or the monster. You gotta rip off — you know, if you rip something off — rip off the character. Rip off the stuff that matters. I mean, look inside yourself and figure out what is inside you. Because ultimately, you know, the mystery box is all of us. So there’s that.
All of this is brought to light when you look at Abrams’ body of work in the film industry so far. Super 8 is about an alien that is loose in a small town, but more than that, it’s about a man dealing with the loss of his wife, and a boy dealing with the loss of his mother, and the relationship between father and son. There are many more themes than that, that I explored when I wrote about it before: Super 8: A Film about Letting Go, Forgiveness, Childhood and Film Making.
Star Trek takes us on a journey of discovery, as a young James Kirk comes to terms with his father’s legacy, while he struggles to become the man that he is supposed to be.
Abrams also has way of getting great performances out of his actors, and casting the right people for each role. This gives me high hopes for the film, as we should be seeing these same benefits on the big screen in 2015 and beyond.
Personally, I think his body of work speaks for itself, and that Ted talk pretty much seals the deal for what makes him the ideal director, in my mind. What are your thoughts?