REPORTER’S NOTEBOOK: J.J. Abrams on the science of stories

Creator of ABC’s Lost gives talk at Media Lab to avid fans

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J.J. Abrams (left) visits the MIT Media Lab.
Joichi Ito

This past Tuesday, MIT was graced by geek royalty in the form of J.J. Abrams, the producer and writer-director most famous for his television shows, which include Lost and Alias. In the latest installment of the Media Lab’s Conversation Series, Abrams sat down with lab director Joi Ito to discuss the creative process and the unexpected similarities between their respective ventures. I arrived at the lab thirty minutes early to secure a seat, and for good reason — the third floor atrium filled up quickly with aspiring storytellers looking for bits of wisdom and excited fans looking for the answers to the ending of Lost.

But there was nobody in the room as excited as Abrams himself, fresh from a tour of the Media Lab facilities. “I cannot tell you what a thrill it is to be here,” he gushed. “A lot of what I have been involved with is telling stories about people in extremely crazy labs doing cool shit.”

In some ways, Abrams’ own production company, Bad Robot, is a crazy lab of its own, except its end products are not inspiring technologies but stories. His most recent work includes the film reboot of Star Trek, sci-fi thriller Super 8, and the post-apocalyptic television drama Revolution. Abrams, whose productions often dabble in the realm of science fiction, prefaced the conversation with a light-hearted apology: “To everyone who is a scientist, I am sorry… but I’m here now, and it’s all going to be fixed.”

Much like the research of an R&D scientist, Abrams’ productions are often shrouded in mystery. He sees modern media culture as being characterized by a sense of entitlement to immediate information. “People can get basically all the information they want about almost any movie before it’s even come out,” he explained. This access to information does more harm than good: audiences have already made a decision about the content before they even see it. Abrams sees secrecy as an important tool in improving the audience’s experience.

As a child, Abrams fostered a love of magic, and it shows in his creative philosophy today. He lives for the moments where people are left dumbstruck, wondering, “How did they do that?” Like the Media Lab, Bad Robot is driven by a spirit of wonder and serendipity — it’s not just about meetings. Abrams is constantly filming new things on the spot in what he describes as “the rapid prototyping of content.”

Not even Abrams knows what’s right when he’s trying to tell a story. According to him, the closest thing any of us knows to what we should pursue is what gives us the chills. “When I’m in the writer’s room, I don’t care who an idea comes from. If it’s the right idea, you can just feel it.” It’s not something you can always quantify, he said. Abrams admitted that he never goes into anything knowing all the answers — he only knows what makes him excited, even if he doesn’t really know why.

That’s not to say he goes in without a plan. In his mind, the intents and motivations of the characters are always clearly defined. He’s always cognizant of what needs to get done, but is also open to new possibilities.

Perhaps the most compelling metaphor Abrams had for storytelling was that of wandering through fog. There’s a general outline of a destination, but you never know whether something will work out or not. Certain characters or relationships that you thought were going to be successful may turn out to be disasters. “If you’re not open to the better ideas, you’re closed to the possibilities,” he said.

It is interesting to see how this agile storytelling philosophy plays out in the process of script writing. When asked about how he responds to fan response on the internet, Abrams said that he gauges online opinion to make adjustments, much like how a stage performance changes from night to night. His best moments as a writer, he explained, manifest when he is excited by an idea and the viewers just get it — when he throws a baseball at the audience and they catch it perfectly.

Sometimes evoking these reactions requires drastic measures, like killing off characters. “It’s why I will never name a show after a main character,” Abrams admitted. In the editing room, however, he becomes ruthless. “What you need to do is stop thinking about ‘what was the intent?’… you’ve got to start thinking about ‘what do we have?’”

Of course, the parallels between Bad Robot and the Media Lab don’t end at iterating quickly. Both organizations are interdisciplinary to the core. From movies to TV to even something like cancer research, Abrams told us, everything that involves multiple perspectives can be bettered when these perspectives are synthesized. “People are just becoming more and more comfortable speaking other languages.”

There are, however, still limits to this phenomenon. Abrams recalled how he felt after his tour of the Media Lab, “I’ve never felt dumber any moment in my life. All this stuff I wish I knew!” What he did understand, however, was the passion driving the work going on. At one point Abrams even mentioned, “I am excited about finding ways of working with MIT.”

Abrams expressed optimism about the future of entertainment. “I’ve had a dream a couple times in my life, where there’s another part of your house that you didn’t know existed.” He explained that we are seeing a movement away from TV and towards media convergence. “There is no TV versus something else. There is just one thing.”

Even though television has been Abrams’ bread and butter, he’s not discouraged by this shift. He explained some of the limitations of the medium — in particular, advertising. As a viewer, you’re not alone in your feeling annoyed by commercial breaks. This structure harms the storytelling itself, forcing storytellers to write “insanely unnatural peaks.”

He’s envious of the freedom that the Media Lab enjoys thanks to undirected research. The way Ito put it, “You can’t tell the Media Lab what to do… we don’t do work for hire. You have to treat us like an artist.”

Bad Robot doesn’t have the same luxury, but Abrams still tries to maintain a creative blue sky, preferring to tackle questions that he doesn’t know the answer to. “It’s a leap of faith,” he said. “The thing it comes down to, despite all the pyrotechnics, is the chills you get… there’s this thing you think could happen — you just get into it.”

What does Abrams mean by “the chills”? He recalled a screening he went to at UCLA, where they showed the 1923 silent film Safety Last! The movie, which involved climbing stunts on a skyscraper, had the audience screaming and cheering, because they knew it was real. That’s the sort of reaction you never see anymore, because people know when something’s fake — when something’s been blue- or green-screened.

“Everything’s been demystified,” Abrams griped. He sees it as the job of storytellers to re-mystify in an age where everyone knows everything — or, at least, have access to all the answers. (Unfortunately, we could not reach Abrams for comment as to whether or not yesterday’s blackout was, in fact, part of a viral marketing campaign for Revolution.)

But there are always those lingering questions that will never be answered. One audience member, who came to the talk hoping to demystify his experience of Lost. “What did the polar bears mean?” he asked, to much laughter from the audience. “Were the unanswered questions a storytelling tool, or oversight?”

Abrams reassured him that the loose ends were “definitely not oversight.” Having left the show early on to work on Mission Impossible 3, Abrams said to take up any questions about the show with co-writer Damon Lindelof instead, who was conveniently not present at the talk.

Nevertheless, Abrams seemed to be satisfied with how the series turned out. “[Lindelof] answered the emotion of the show.” He drew parallels to Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, where the entire story is driven by an enigmatic briefcase whose contents are never revealed. Abrams asserted that there is nothing that could possibly be in that case that would be satisfactory to the audience. To him, the ending of Lost was not about resolving the mechanics but about dealing with the emotional arcs of the characters.

When asked what he hopes people will say about his work 100 years from now, Abrams said, “The truth is, I hope they say that they were stories that had a big heart, and made me feel something.”

Despite all his success, Abrams will probably tell you that he’s still stumbling through the fog of the creative process. At the very least, Abrams’ fans don’t seem to mind, as he continues to churn out compelling and provocative stories. Each and every time, Abrams manages to produce a unique kind of fictional magic from the fog. And yes, the occasional smoke monster.