After developing the story of Taking Care of Business, writing the screenplays for Regarding Henry, Forever Young, Gone Fishin' (with Jill Mazursky), and Joy Ride (with Clay Tarver), and contributing to the screenplay for Armageddon, J.J. Abrams found unexpected success on television. Abrams co-created the WB college soap Felicity (with Keri Russell) and created the ABC spy thriller Alias (with Jennifer Garner). Most recently, Abrams co-created Lost—and won an Emmy for directing the show's pilot—before landing the plum job of directing and co-writing Mission: Impossible III (a mission that thwarted directors David Fincher and Joe Carnahan). Abrams spoke to me on the occasion of the 2006 WonderCon, at San Francisco's Moscone Convention Center.
Groucho: Can you talk about your experience with the original TV series, and were there storytelling elements that you felt like you really wanted to bring back from that show? And, also, was there anything you cherry-picked from the previous films that you thought: "That's cool. I want to keep that element"?
J.J. Abrams: There's no question for me that one of the most fun aspects of the TV show, as a kid always loving it, was this team. And even though in many ways that show was sort of the C.S.I. of its time in that it was a very emotion-free, you know, incredibly story-heavy show that wasn't about the inner lives of these people, what I loved about the show is that it was this group, and it was how their relationships—even though the relationships were things that you can kind of—you had to sort of intuit or extrapolate based on incredibly, you know, subtle human behavior. "Oh look, they have a relation—oh, he likes her. Oh, he's mad at—" You know, you have to figure this shit out—it's never text. But that kind of stuff to me was always like—I love the dynamic of these people who happen to be—and seeing the roles they would play and often the roles they would play with each other in front of other people. So you were in on the whole play of it. So there were episodes where, like, there would be one or two people in a room who wouldn't know that those two or three people were all working together to convince them of some—and I love that kind of stuff! And, look, there were moments of it in—like in the first movie, you had moments like that. In the very, very opening. Or in the embassy scene. There were moments where you kind of had it. But it never to me—I love when you go, "Okay wait a minute. I know what they have to do. I don't know how they're going to do it. But I know that—" And then, "Let's see. Oh my god, the thing they never anticipated goes wrong." Or they didn't—I just loved that feeling of this group working together for a very specific goal. So there was that. And I think that, you know, we brought that back passionately because that was a really fun thing. And the other thing is I loved elements of the first two films. I certainly, you know, am in no way knocking them. In fact we embrace them and make reference to a couple things in this movie. One is an homage to the going down just 'cause I thought, like, you got to do it almost as a joke. But it's such a throwaway moment in the movie, you know, with everything else - but I wanted to do it just because it was there. And then the other thing is we make a couple references to some story stuff, but it's very oblique and truly only we will appreciate it. You know what I'm saying? Like, seriously—
G: Is it true [Tom Cruise] made a mock trailer of the stunts? Did you ever see that? A video, kind-of pre-vis of his own for—?
JJA: He made a trailer very early on when they were going to do the Joe Carnahan incarnation, and it was—there weren't stunts in it, but it was sort of, like, images and stuff, just to express the feeling for what he felt the trailer should be like. It was—you know, it was a different story, a different movie—
G: What is Ethan Hunt's home life really like?
JJA: Uhhh, well, here's the thing. You know, the first two movies I thought were a lot of fun, but the thing for me—when Tom asked if I wanted to do this, beyond, you know, saying "yes" before he finished asking me—you know, "Do you want to dir—?" "Yes." I thought the opportunity to do a version of Mission: Impossible was actually—it would actually realize the promise that I think the TV series delivered upon. Not to say the first two weren't great, but they were different. The show is so great, because it was about this team...And the first movie and certainly the second movie—it was basically just about Ethan Hunt. So to me the way in was "How do you actually exist as a human being and do the stuff that this guy supposedly does?" You know, "how are you a man and a spy?" Because all we know from the first two movies is his mom and dad are dead and he likes to, y'know, rock-climb. Like, you don't know anything else. So I thought, "Oh my God, I get to do the third in the series where you don't know dick about this guy. You could make up anything you want—you could just say, you know, "Uhhh, he has nutty hobbies." You could say anything. So, in asking "At forty years old, who is this man?", y'know, he's going to be a different guy than he was in the first film. And there have been amazing spy movies and shows made since then. I mean, the Bourne films, y'know, 24, you look at the James Bond films that have been made since then: it's a different arena. So when you say Mission: Impossible III, yeah, you've got the huge star, and you've got the franchise, but that's obviously not a reason to make a movie, so the question is "How do you make a movie that's good regardless of those things?" And our ambition—and it's up to you to decide if we succeeded—but the ambition was: tell a compelling story, and that to me was about "Who is he as a man? What is his home life like?" So the endless answer to your question is: it's very familiar. And it's very relatable. He happens to—when he goes to work—y'know, go to that bridge. But this is what makes the story interesting to me.