The Enterprise Crew

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In the magazine event of the year, the May issue of Empire takes an in-depth, 75-page look at the world of J.J. Abrams. Here in an exclusive preview we bring you the full portfolio of the creative geniuses involved in Star Trek Into Darkness.


These days, the music of Michael Giacchino and the visuals of J.J. Abrams are inseparable. But before he was a Bad Robot staple (and a Pixar Oscar-winner, for Up), Giacchino was best known for his work on the Medal Of Honour games, and was looking to break properly into movies and TV. “I got this email out of the blue from a guy named J.J. Abrams, who I’d never heard of, and it said, ‘Hey, I love your music, would you be interested in coming in to talk with me about the new thing I’m working on for ABC?’ And he briefly mentioned he wrote Regarding Henry and a few other things. I thought it was a joke from one of my friends at first!” But after a whirlwind meeting with Abrams at the Alias office, Giacchino was convinced to jump aboard. And he never looked back — the pair have since formed a close bond. So, perhaps he can finally dish the dirt on the man? “There’s no evil J.J.! The furthest you can go is, 
I look at him as a brother and, like all brothers, we fight about stuff. But in the end, family trumps everything. And that’s a huge reason why we’ve all been working together for so many years.”

The close working relationship feeds into the music, especially given Abrams’ own musical leanings. “The great thing about him is, even though he can do all this stuff and has a great knowledge of music and loves doing his own thing with it, he doesn’t impart that on me in anyway; he gives me a lot of freedom to do it the way I want to. We make sure we have time prior to me writing to talk about the film, about the story and characters, about the underlying emotions. Because without that, we’re two separate entities and you don’t ever want to approach it like that. We’re then constantly talking on email and iChat or texting, so if I have questions, I can ask. A lot of our discussions have nothing to do with music, they have to do with emotion because the better I understand that, the better I can do my job.” At the time of talking to Empire, Giacchino is about to start recording the score for Star Trek Into Darkness. And Abrams has already been announced as the director for Star Wars: Episode VII.

Could Giacchino be taking the baton from John Williams? “I’m a huge Star Wars fan, but one of the things that excites me most about it coming back is the chance to hear new John Williams music, not new Michael Giacchino music based on John Williams music. I’m excited to hear what he would do, so however it shakes out, it would be great.”


From a New York theatre to the Starship Enterprise... Scott Chambliss started out designing sets on Broadway, as an assistant to the great, Tony-, Emmy- and Oscar-winning Brit Tony Walton, before segueing into film and TV. He met J. J. Abrams on Felicity, but it wasn’t until Alias that they extensively collaborated, Chambliss making those Abrams-conceived worlds real. 
“It just blew me away to discover the way his 
mind worked.” They have grown and learned 
side by side, overcoming initial industry condescension over their TV background. 
“I saw (on Mission: Impossible III) that he 
went from somebody who all these seasoned movie pros were quite suspicious of, to somebody they became incredibly dedicated to and supportive of and excited by, because it was clear this was one sharp guy and a very creative thinker on his feet.” And he’s still growing. 
“On Star Trek Into Darkness he had pretty strong thoughts about more complete concepts of what he wanted than I was accustomed to,” says Chambliss, who is next collaborating with Brad Bird on mysterious sci-fi Tomorrowland. “J. J.’s taken me places I would never go on my own as a designer. I’ve taken him places he would never go on his own as a director... I have never known anybody like him.”


The first time I met J.J.,” recalls Alyssa Weisberg (left), “he carried on a very detailed conversation while sketching something with one hand and composing music at the same time. I just thought, ‘Wow, this guy’s a Renaissance man.’”

The multi-tasking maestro isn’t always easy to pin down, though — Weisberg and her colleague, April Webster (right), often have to get sign-off for their casting choices on the run. “There can be a line outside the door waiting to speak with him,” admits Webster. “There have been times where Alyssa and I basically shanghai him with our computers open as he’s walking between meetings and say, ‘Okay, which one of these two guys? Okay, good, that’s who we’re going with.’” Fortunately, the two have developed a good handle on what J.J. likes. Weisberg, a 20-plus-year casting veteran, has been working with Abrams since the conception of Lost, Webster since Alias. “He gravitates towards actors that he would be friends with,” says Weisberg. “He wants people that have a great sense of humour, like himself. An easygoing manner, someone fun to work with.”


“The final rewrite is in the editing room,” says Maryann Brandon (left), who has been working with Abrams since the early days of Alias. “It’s both the least glamorous part of the business and the most intensive.” Brandon and her colleague, Mary Jo Markey (right), begin editing the day after shooting begins. “We go through the script and divide it up,” explains Markey, who first collaborated with Abrams on Felicity (“I edited the first episode he directed”). “J.J. leaves it up to us who does what. We put it together how we feel is best and then, after he finishes shooting, he comes in.

A lot of directors want to see a scene put together exactly the way it’s scripted. J.J. does not have a problem with you moving the scene around, dropping a phrase or whatever if you think it’ll make it better. In fact, he expects you to take a point 
of view on a scene.” “We have a lot of input,” agrees Brandon. “Although, ultimately, we’re serving what J.J. wants to say. And, by the way, the writers will come in the editing room with us as well. So we all work together, which is the beauty of Bad Robot. It really is a team all coming together to support J.J. and his vision.”


Producer Paula Wagner knew what she was doing when she called Roger Guyett to work on Mission: Impossible III with then first-time film director J.J. Abrams. A veteran effects man and ILM mainstay, with experience working alongside George Lucas (on, notably, Revenge Of The Sith), Steven Spielberg and Tim Burton, Guyett proved the ideal choice to help guide Abrams in his leap from TV to movies. But it was Abrams who left the impression on Guyett. “I remember being stunned by the creative energy he had. He was, and is, somebody who was very interested in the craft of visual effects.”

Ask any VFX artist what they really need in a director, and they’ll tell you a cool head when crunch-time hits. “The great thing about him is, once he’s bought off on an effects idea, he’ll stick with that. Of course, he’s trying to make them better, but, underneath it all, he’s not just having a constant 180... You’re not shocked in that 11th hour with changes.” And Abrams even got involved: “When Keri Russell’s character has a bomb implanted in her head in M:I III and it explodes, the camera reverses and looks at Tom Cruise’s reaction. We did a number of different versions and J.J. really liked a version where there was blood on Tom. But the ratings guys objected, so J.J. said he’d paint it out. He did the shot himself in the wee hours. It’s a good thing for me he doesn’t have the time to do that more often!”


“A good first AD takes care of allowing the director to execute his vision, because he takes care of all the mechanics of filmmaking.” Tommy Gormley met Abrams through Paula Wagner, producing partner of Tom Cruise, who had seen him at work on Robert Towne’s Ask The Dust and said, “I think you’re a Tom person.” So, when Mission: Impossible III came round, she called him to meet with Cruise and Abrams. “We hit it off very, very quickly,” says Gormley in a rich Glaswegian accent. “And I’ve done all of J.J.’s films from that point.” It’s quite a journey for a bloke who got his break two decades ago working with Ken Loach on Raining Stones. “It’s surreal. It’s funny how my path has gone. But the lessons I learned from Ken still apply today: less is more; if you can do it ‘in-camera’ it’s better; low-key. I owe a lot to Ken Loach forever...”


Roberto Orci (left) and Alex Kurtzman (right) were working on Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and the Bruce Campbell-starring Jack Of All Trades when they heard about a new spy show that a certain J.J. Abrams was putting together. The pair had been trying to break into network TV for some time and finding doors shut, since their work on syndicated programming made them second-class citizens to network execs. But Abrams had no such bias. “Alias came up, and we were told that J.J. really liked what we’d been working on,” says Kurtzman. “He was excited by the thing that everybody else was turned off by.” The trio formed an instant rapport, discovering a similar taste in film, TV and more. “We all know the same geeky references and can quote them to each other,” says Orci.

That fan shorthand was to prove critical in a working relationship that would stretch across four seasons of Alias, Mission: Impossible III, Fringe and now two Star Treks. “As things in our lives get crazier, that shared language becomes even more necessary,” says Kurtzman, “because the clock is ticking at such a crazy rate.” But that’s not to say they always agree. “If he (Abrams) cannot accept the emotional truth of a scene,” says Kurtzman, “he locks up completely. There’s no moving forward if he doesn’t believe it. Sometimes as writers you fall back on cleverness, and cleverness is, I think he would say, the enemy of truth.”

Their Alias work became a launch pad for non-Abrams-related feature work on Michael Bay’s The Island and the first two Transformers films, and, most recently, The Amazing Spider-Man 2. But the relationship with J.J. remains close. “We’re still working very much like we did on Alias,” says Kurtzman. “He really likes to talk things out. I’m always amazed how much humour he finds in serious moments — 
I think that’s an incredibly rare gift.” “His approach is to make it seem as little like work as possible,” says Orci. “It’s only when the pressure surrounds you that maybe he gets a bit serious, but it’s the most fun environment I’ve ever seen anyone create.” The pair are now working on Hawaii Five-0 on TV, without Abrams, as well as a new Sleepy Hollow and Tom Cruise sci-fi All You Need Is Kill, but in the meantime they’re putting the finishing touches to Star Trek Into Darkness. “One of the things we all subscribe to is that it’s really not finished until they rip it out of your cold, dead hands,” laughs Kurtzman. “Right up until the point they make wet prints and throw it into theatres…”


When he was first approached about Star Trek, costume designer Michael Kaplan immediately told his agent, “I don’t think I’m the right person to do this.” Not being a Trekker, he worried about being “an imposter”. By chance, though, both he and J.J. Abrams were holidaying on the East Coast. Two hours in a café later and... “J.J. can be very persuasive. I told him all my fears, and he said, ‘That’s exactly what we’re looking for. I wanna do it fresh.’”

Their decision was fully vindicated, with an approach that engrossed the faithful and engaged newcomers. Sleek without being too slick, Kaplan’s costumes achieved what no-one thought possible: they made Star Trek cool. Not that we should have expected anything less from the man whose eclectic résumé includes Blade Runner (with Charles Knode) and Fight Club. “There are certain movies where, you know, I just delight in getting up in the morning!” Here’s hoping his work with Abrams will include a new such episode...


Dawn Gilliam had been working on Alias for just over a week when the show’s creator called her into his office. “I walked in with a backpack,” she recalls. “I was trying to take it off to, you know, shake his hand. He said, ‘I hear you’re doing great things. You wanna come to Hawaii with me?’ That was it. I didn’t even have time to get my backpack off.” Since Lost, Gilliam has worked alongside the director on all of Bad Robot’s tentpole projects: taking notes, keeping score and ensuring nothing slips through the cracks. She writes comments for the editors, tracks the shots and keeps the continuity straight as an arrow — a not inconsiderable task given Abrams’ often liberal approach to chronology. “There are some people 
who are just note-takers, but I consider myself a filmmaker — I’m totally immersed in the whole process.” She is, in most respects, the director’s ever-present right hand. “We think we’re very important,” she says with a smile. “But behind every great director, there is a great script supervisor.”


“I guess what I love most about working with my best friend — let alone someone who I’ve known so long — is that it is perpetually as surreal for him as it is for me.” Another child of the Super 8 generation, Bryan Burk met J.J. Abrams during the early ’80s, bonded over (surprise) their mutual love of movies, and their friendship eventually forged the founding of Bad Robot in 1998. Their TV and film production company has obviously achieved enviable success — Alias, Lost, Super 8 and now Star Trek Into Darkness, to name a few — but the ethos hasn’t changed. A couple of years ago, they even produced an app, Action Movie FX, that allowed users to insert special effects into their iPhone videos. “That was purely born out of an idea of, ‘Oh, wouldn’t this be cool?’” says Burk. “There was no other motivation behind it. Simply, ‘Wouldn’t it be awesome to do an app where you can create visual effects on the fly with your phone?’ And it turns out a lot of people thought it was cool, too.”

It’s an informal modus operandi that has served them well and taken the old friends, somewhat improbably, from DIY shorts to Star Wars. “It’s humbling and exciting,” says Burk, with appealing enthusiasm. “As we did with Star Trek, as with anything, you feel that responsibility — ’cause you know there are so many people out there who love it. Myself included. You have to do everything you can, and not for any moment take it for granted. Never settle.”


Although he doesn’t have an office at Bad Robot — he’s based on the Disney lot — it’s become like 
a second home for Damon Lindelof. “The rumours are true: it’s a geek wonderland,” he confirms. “J.J. has a Twilight Zone pinball machine which I became so jealous of, I bought one for myself. 
He also has some really great pieces of original artwork down there that I’m fairly covetous of.” Lindelof has been close friends with Abrams and Bryan Burk since the start of the Lost days, when the words “bad robot” were synonymous with Terminators, not high-powered production companies. “They spent quite some time constructing that building and it has a tremendous energy. Everybody gets along and fraternises incredibly well. Who wouldn’t want to work there?”

Finally, we must know: who comes out on top at 
a Lindelof/Abrams pinball contest? “I don’t think we’ve ever gone face to face,” he laughs. “It’s kind of a lose-lose proposition, because if I were to beat J.J., what does that really say about me? That I have more time to practise pinball!”


“I was just immediately enthralled by his positivity,” says Dan Mindel, of meeting J.J. Abrams to discuss Mission: Impossible III. “His momentum was enormous. It was like a huge, bright light in the room.” Mindel compares the director with the late Tony Scott (for whom he shot Enemy Of The State, Spy Game and Domino), citing a similar energy and working environment. Scott would know each of the crew’s names (“which is a huge feat on a movie of two, three hundred people”) and give them his real focus. “He got their undivided attention. And that’s what J.J. does. Everyone ends up wanting 
to do their best work.” The DP reflects fondly on Abrams’ humour — “He’s forever taking the piss out of me” — and a great experience on Star Trek Into Darkness. And although Abrams is moving on to direct Star Wars, Mindel is confident that in his role as Trek producer he’ll still ensure the quality 
of the next instalment: “He will have his eye on it. 
I have complete faith he’ll guard it very carefully.”

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