From adopting the Star Wars franchise to his Chinese puzzle of a new novel, JJ Abrams is still thinking outside his very own box
SCOTLAND was once described in an advertising campaign as “the best small country in the world”, a soubriquet of such irritating tweeness as to make the most couthy grandmother curl her toes with enough violence to puncture her tartan slippers. But wait. There could be an even more incredible branding exercise to come, with Scotland marketed as light years beyond the competition. For just as New Zealand became Middle Earth, so Scotland could become the setting for the new Stars Wars movie, which takes place, according to that iconic tilting scroll: “Once upon a time… in a galaxy far, far away.”
Once upon a time, well last Thursday to be precise, in an office 7,000 miles away in Los Angeles, one decorated with the original movie poster of The Howling and a human head in a Perspex box, sits the man who will decide whether Scotland’s dramatic scenery passes the screen test and gets a starring role in the most anticipated movie of the decade. In the office at Bad Robot Productions sits JJ Abrams, 47, the co-creator of Lost and Alias, the director of Mission: Impossible III, Super 8 and Star Trek Into The Darkness, and as of late last year, the successor to George Lucas as the new custodian of “The Force” and a multi-billion dollar movie franchise.
Ever since the announcement that Star Wars VII would begin shooting next year at Pinewood studios in London, a tug of war has been going on between Trina Vargo, Ireland’s film “ambassador” to Hollywood and Tommy Gormley, the Glaswegian who for the past decade has worked as Abrams’ first assistant director, over whose country would best suit the director’s vision for exterior shots of a strange alien world – one, presumably, with peaks and glens.
Abrams laughs at the notion of a Celtic civil war that may yet be settled with recourse to light-sabres. “Tommy keeps pushing locations in Scotland and Trina, who is a wonderful Irish woman, keeps pushing locations to shoot in Ireland, so I’m just going to put the two of them in a room and see who comes out, and I’ll tell you it’s not going to be Tommy. But joking aside, we are looking all over the place for locations and we haven’t made that determination yet.”
Trying to get Abrams to say anything about the new movie would require a journalistic Jedi mind trick. He manages to answer several questions on the subject without saying any words even vaguely associated with the Star Wars universe. Asked about the offer to step into Lucas’s battered sneakers, he says: “It was the definition of surreal and that has not changed since that day, but it is thrilling, it is really thrilling.”
I then try to loosen him up by asking which of the cool science fiction gadgets he loved when he saw the first film as an 11-year-old was he most looking forward to getting his hands on. That too is deftly parried: “You know there was no one particular thing but it was the opportunity to work with this group of people and the opportunity to continue telling stories in a world that meant so much to me as a kid. I went into it feeling like it was not going to happen and shouldn’t happen. I had already done enough projects that pre-existed me and my involvement and I wanted to go back and do original stories. But when I met Kathy Kennedy [chief executive of Lucasfilm], it was just this undeniable pull, the realisation that this was truly the opportunity of a lifetime. It was a very difficult thing to pass up.”
Just as Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back tried to move rocks with his mind and failed, so I attempt one last time to at least elicit a confirmation that Harrison Ford is returning for a small cameo as Han Solo. As a 22-year-old college graduate, Abrams’ first script was Regarding Henry, which starred Ford as selfish Manhattan workaholic who becomes a nicer person for having been shot in the head, as you do. Unfortunately access is once again denied: “It really is too early to talk about story elements and casting, but I will say that I’ve been very lucky to work with Harrison a couple of times and he is just a gentleman, and he is as funny and as thoughtful and as wonderful to work with as you can imagine.”
The director’s reticence is understandable given the shroud of secrecy surrounding the new movie and the constant fear of leaks, but he has no such qualms about the real purpose of our conversation: Abrams has co-authored a book.
A natural storyteller, but one whose medium has previously been the screen, both large and small, he wanted to create a complex mystery that could be read in many different ways. Published this week by Canongate, the volume comes in an intriguing black slip case on which is emblazoned an “S” in Germanic script. Once the seal is broken a hardback, resembling an old Folio edition with an embossed grey cover, is revealed – it’s apparently a library book which was last borrowed on 30 October, 2000.
The novel inside is titled The Ship Of Theseus by VM Straka, a mysterious Czech author from the 1930s who was rumoured to have been involved in all manner of dark deeds from arson to murder. The novel, which was translated by FX Caldeira, involves a character called S, who may or may not be Straka, who is kidnapped and awakes on a ship marked “S” in which the 19 crew have their lips stitched shut. The novel has dark shades of Graham Greene, Kafka and a faint whisper of HP Lovecraft, but on every single page are handwritten notes in the margins, notes written by two literature students who do not meet, but communicate through the book, by taking it out of the library, writing in the margins, then returning it for the other to read. As if this is not challenging enough, scattered every few pages is an old letter; an article from the Toronto Review For History And The Humanities, Vol 1:1, 1954; a postcard from Brazil; a three-page, handwritten letter torn from a yellow legal pad; a paper napkin from the Pronghorn Java coffee shop on which is inked a complex map; a paper compass; and a saint’s card on which is printed a quote from WM Straka: “A person is no more and no less than the story of his passion and deeds.”
It genuinely feels as if you, as the reader, have stumbled on a literary relic, the sole copy of a twisted conspiracy. He laughs when I tell him that this, as a physical book, could be the equivalent of the “rebel alliance” fighting back against the massed Empire of Kindles and iPads. “Oh that’s great.” The project has been three years in development and has been written with Doug Dorst, an American author, but began years ago with a visit to an airport.
“Fifteen years ago I was at the airport in Los Angeles and I looked over and there was a paperback novel on a bench and this was pre-9/11 before a book sitting on a bench would cause an evacuation. I went over and picked it up and it was a Robert Ludlum novel and somebody had written: ‘To whoever finds this book, please read it, take it somewhere else and leave it for someone else to find it.’ I just thought that was the most wonderful, optimistic, sweet thing. To put a small and generous act out into the world as a book.
“The idea of a book being used as a form of communication between two people, it reminded me of being in college and taking books out of the library and seeing where someone had written notes in the margin and someone had used a highlighter on a paragraph. It just made me think about that person and why would they have lit that particular paragraph? I liked the idea of a book having a life before you pick it up. A book being used as a vessel of communication between two people stuck with me for a long time. I had this idea of a relationship that develops between two people over a novel. I was not sure what the novel would be, but it would not leave me alone. Doug began talking about conspiracy theories and authors. We decided that this would be an original novel, as well as the interplay that takes place on top of it. It was then that it went from a gimmick to a debate about real literature.
“Many people who have read the book have told me how they have approached it and they all have taken different methods. People say why not make it an interactive book, but it is just analogue. You can pick this thing up and ignore the handwriting and just read the printed text, then go back and read the handwriting, or read them simultaneously. You can use the ephemera, the letters and postcards and look at them as you go along. Someone took all those things out and put it in a pile and read the book then went back to read the inserts. Everyone has a different way of approaching this thing which I think will make the experience of S different for everyone.”
As a child Jeffrey Jacob Abrams’ first love was television and movies rather than books. He said his favourite author was Rod Sterling for his The Twilight Zone TV series. He began making Super 8 films at the age of eight and, at 14, was offered the job of editing Steven Spielberg’s own childhood films. The woman who offered him the job was Kathleen Kennedy, who more than 30 years later, would invite him to take over Star Wars. Yet as a craftsman, Abrams understands the mechanics of storytelling like few others, which has allowed him to move seamlessly and successfully between different mediums.
In the course of our conversation I discover that he is, surprisingly, a devoted fan of Downton Abbey. So what is it about crinoline and period dramas that so delights him? “I am indeed a huge Downton Abbey fan. There is something about the show that is... a little bit like… crack. I’m not speaking from experience, but my guess is you try it and go: ‘Right let’s do it again’ and you don’t stop. It just feels like one of those pleasures, it’s not a guilty pleasure, its just a pleasure to watch. I love the unexpected turns that you invest in a character and you don’t know what is to come. It is done with integrity and humanity and with a big heart.”
Given the various projects in development with Bad Robot, his production company, such as a new TV series for HBO based on the old film Westworld, I wonder if there is room for a movie based on S but he is resolute in his answer. “The goal of this entire endeavour is the thing you are holding in your hand. There is no plan or desire to do anything else with it. The fun was to realise this thing as its essential self. The story was about a book being used as a catalyst for an investigation and a love story. The idea was to create something that was compelling and unique and very special in the form of a book. There is no grand plan beyond that.”
Abrams once gave a successful TED talk about storytelling which he illustrated by explaining that at home he still had an unopened box with a “?” on it, which he had purchased as a child. I ask if it is still intact?
“It is unopened and at home. I bought this magic mystery box at a magic store years ago. It cost me $15 and they said it had $50 worth of magic tricks inside and I went home and I was going to open it. The reason I didn’t was that it occurred to me that the look of the box, the idea of the box, was more powerful and compelling thing than whatever can possibly be inside it. The idea of this box with a question mark on it – it felt like a more interesting choice to always wonder what is inside than to open it and, frankly, be disappointed.”
It is that sense of wonder that has driven Abrams’ entire career and is found on every page of S. As one of the world’s most successful directors, Abrams’ time is strictly rationed. He has worlds to create, ones we’ll be gazing at with rapt wonder some time in 2015, but given the influence Star Wars had on my childhood, and that of many others, it seems only natural to offer him a sincere and heartfelt good luck with his current endeavours: “Oh thank you, I really appreciate that and I will certainly need all the luck I can get.”
• S created by JJ Abrams and written by Doug Dorst is out now published by Canongate, priced £22