A conversation with JJ Abrams

“Who is this guy named Dick and why is he sending you tongues?”

Newark, New Jersey- On November 21st, 2015 the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) in Newark, New Jersey played host to America’s favorites nerds Stephen Colbert and J.J. Abrams for a Celebrity Nerd-Off hours after the final mix for “Star Wars:The Force Awakens” was finished at 2:30am the morning of. The event was held as the annual fundraiser for the Montclair Film Festival, “a non-profit organization, exists to nurture and showcase the talents of filmmakers from around the world”. The night was full of anecdotes and jests between America’s favorite nerds, but it also helped raise awareness and funds for the Montclair Film Festival so they could run their events this year.

Volunteers from the MFF were out in full force promoting future events and selling merchandise to help benefit the festival. Kareem Wilder, one of the volunteers, explained that all proceeds from the sold out event go towards the MFF to help fund the events that will be held in April and May of this year. The 3,352 seat auditorium bustled with excitement over the coming show which used the Star Wars theme as it’s lead in. Among the eclectic audience members was Lisa Robinson, who had flown from England to attend the fundraiser. “obviously being a big Stephen fan”, Lisa explained pointing to her custom Colbert Skirt, a white calf length skirt covered with pictures of Colbert’s face on it, “I follow everything he does and I basically got tickets straightaway.” Lisa has been to many events hosted by the MFF and Colbert during the last five years it’s been running. She’e dedicated to her favorite late night talk show host and the MFF. Teddi Jo Traphagen, a 20 year old from Howell, NJ was also in attendance. She got her ticket last minute as a friend’s brother dropped out of going and was thrilled to have witnessed the events of the night.

Colbert, host of the Late Show on CBS and husband to the Montclair Film Festival’s Vice-Chairman of the Board, Evelyn Colbert, is no stranger to hosting fundraisers for the MFF. He has hosted discussions to benefit the Montclair Film Festival for four of the five years the festival has existed. Past participants include Jon Stewart, Steve Carell and Richard Gere. At the start of the program, Colbert came out to ask for continued support from the crowd of the Montclair Film Festival and showed a clip show of Abram’s work. The conversation took place on a stage dressed like everyone’s geeky friend’s living room, complete with Stormtrooper mugs and a model of BB8, the newest droid in the Star Wars Universe. The two began their conversation with Abram’s origins in filmmaking using a Super 8 film camera to create home movies with his friends or as he put it, a kid who wasn’t picked for the sports team, joking that he was never good enough to be picked for sports teams because he “physically couldn’t”. Most of the haphazardly shot films were zombie movies and involved killing off his friends. Abrams recounted a tale (during the time before Google) of reading through filmmaking magazines to figure out how to make fake blood since it would seem odd to go to his local library and look up how to make blood. Colbert added to this “nerd-out” that he was also rarely picked to participate in sports but him and his friends would spend hours on end playing Dungeons and Dragons. So much so that the troupe had memorized the cards and were able to figure out where each other’s characters had landed on the board. Both joked that they really just spent their childhoods killing off their friends. While none of Abrams’ early movies showed any semblance of the films Abrams creates today, he explained that messing with the camera and waiting up to a week to see the results of his efforts helped him to understand the process of filmmaking at an early age.

Making films also got Abrams interested in other films being made and how they were done. As a child, Abrams and his father saw the second release of “The Exorcist” in theaters and that sparked an interest in practical effects. Abrams wrote a letter to the effects artist on “The Exorcist”, Dick Smith, asking him about his favorite effects and in reply he received a package with a note from Smith and the tongue from the film causing his mother to ask in concern “Who is this Dick guy and why is he sending you tongues?” The two maintained their relationship up until Smith’s death in 2014. From Abrams’ story of writing to a childhood idol came the lesson to young and aspiring filmmakers in the audience to reach out to people they admire in the film world because you never know what kind of respond you’ll get.

The conversation switched gears from Abrams’ early days to his work starting with his script writing and script doctoring where it was revealed to both the audience and Abrams that the night was almost a reunion for Colbert and Abrams. One of the first film Abrams had written was bought by Disney under the name “Filofax” and as a young comic, Colbert auditioned for a part in the film. “Filofax”, produced and released as “Taking Care of Business” was made without the acting talents of Colbert but the two shared a laugh about Colbert’s snub from being casted and how Abrams had no idea.

Colbert had another personal connection to Abrams and his early work through Jennifer Garner and her character Sydney Bristow. Both Garner and Colbert had bit parts on the TV show “Spin City” in the 90’s and when their parts were over, Garner, 23 at the time, was looking for babysitting jobs until her next acting gig. Colbert offered her a job babysitting his child which she did until eventually leaving to act in LA, which Colbert and his wife Evelyn assumed that would be the last they would see of her. In 2001, on his way to The Daily Show offices, Colbert “almost got into a car accident” as he saw a giant billboard of Garner advertising the premiere of Abrams’ show “Alias”. After showing Evelyn a magazine cover also featuring Garner, the Colbert’s got into an argument over whether or not their babysitter had been hot because Evelyn didn’t believe it was the same girl.

Abrams’ also shared a story about having to teach Garner how to “strut”, because being the wholesome sweetheart she is, she didn’t know how to strut for a scene in Alias. “I turned on the music, and she found this confidence.” Abrams’ reminisced about the day on set. To the disappointment of Colbert and the rest of the audience, Abrams’ himself didn’t demonstrate the strut, but helped Garner find it.

Along with all the anecdotes everyone was happy to hear, the pair discussed a matter of grave importance to the audience, Star Wars: The Force Awakens. As Abrams’ said in the beginning of the show, he had just flown the Red Eye from LA after finishing the final mix the night before for the new soon to be blockbuster. Abrams’ said he was offered the chance to make the new Star Wars after the two Star Trek’s he directed were as popular as they were. Both Colbert and Abrams’ described their first viewings of Star Wars as kids and how that film both changed the course of their lives. Abrams’ had seen an advanced screening as a kid and said it was “so hard to wait to weeks to explain to my friends why the world had changed.” The latest trailer to the film was shown in the theater to thunderous applause and light saber noises. Abrams’ then went on to talk about the technical aspects of the film explaining that even though they had to use CGI to create some of the effects and backgrounds, they made sure that the CGI had something to match with in the world of the film. Abrams’ talked about seeing Star Wars: A New Hope for the first time as a kid and seeing the droids R2D2 and C3PO walking across the desert and knowing that they were really in the desert moving, claiming that even with all the special effects, you knew that those droids really existed and could interact with the rest of the cast and set. That was the standard that Abrams’ tried to achieve with this new film he explained as he reached behind him to grab the model of BB8, a snowman-esque droid of Abrams’ own creation for the new film. Abrams’ explained that there was an actual droid, slightly bigger than the model on stage with the two nerds, and that all the CGI had to match what the droid looked like on film so that the CGI would be grounded and not look super out of place or recognizable. Abrams’ also jested that thanks to the pleading from his wife among others, he would not be as much lens flare as we are now accustomed to in his films. After Star Trek: Into Darkness came in with a whopping 826 counts of lens flare, Abrams’ decided he had to take it down a notch in his latest film.

The floor was opened up to questions from the audience such as “What is your favorite non featured alien from Star Wars?” (An unnamed alien in the Cantina) and “What Tolkien work do you suggest Abrams’ create if given the opportunity?” (the Akallabêth because it’s “like a greatest hits” according to Colbert).

The Montclair Film Festival will take place from April 29th through May 16th.


Montclair State | New Jersey

Elaina Crow

Elaina is a graduating TVDM major at Montclair State University. She has worked in TV, film, and print and is looking forward to a great semester here with Wired Jersey.