Chris Rock and J.J. Abrams.
Earlier this year, Chris Rock and J.J. Abrams collaborated on a series of movie parodies for the 2016 Academy Awards. Last Friday night they teamed up again, this time for an onstage conversation as part of the Tribeca Film Festival’s Directors Series. During the hour-long talk, the pair discussed their long careers, cracked jokes about the head-scratching plot of Batman v Superman, and drilled down on everything from the industry’s sexism issues to what they’ve learned in terms of casting actors.
Then Vulture, a signature sponsor of TFF, typed it all up for you.
Chris Rock: We’ve got questions, some written by me, some by my brother Brian — my sci-fi brother. J.J., first question: It’s a big day for you. You’re the king of the franchise. You’ve done Star Wars. You’ve done Star Trek. And today you have Barbershop 3 opening up! I’ve been waiting all day to say that joke. It’s the only thing I fucking prepared: J.J. Abrams and Barbershop in the same sentence. J.J., first of all, what is the J …
J.J. Abrams: Jeffery Jacob.
Yeah. Thanks for doing your research. [Laughs.] I’m not sure I can do this.
Yes. A stunning revelation.
The fact that you are now the most famous J.J. in the world, taking it from a black man. It should be J.J. Walker. That’s all the hell he had, was being the most famous J.J. on Earth, and you took that shit. How does that feel, J.J.? [Laughs.] When did you know you were going to be a director?
Well, first of all, I want to thank all of you guys for being here, and I want to thank Chris Rock for being here. The Tribeca Film Festival — thank you to everyone there, too — was kind enough to ask if I would do a Q&A. And I called Chris to ask him to do it, which is a little bit like having the best science teacher at a local school ask Einstein to interview him. I cannot believe he did this. I’m so grateful for you being here.
J.J. helped me on the Oscars. He did some of the movie parodies.
The movie clips.
The movie clips! They were done by the great J.J. Abrams. I asked him to do it, and I figured he’d get some minion from his office to do it, because he’s got little J.J.’s running around. They’re just running around like “Woohoo!” making shit explode, and I get there and he’s directing the stuff!
When Chris Rock calls and says, “Will you do this for me?,” you direct that shit yourself. You don’t go to the scary little J.J.’s that are running around. What is that image that you made? I see people out there like, “He has little J.J.’s running around. The fuck?” But no, when I was 8 years old, I wanted to [direct]. Of course, I didn’t know if I would ever get to, but I went to Universal Studios, and it was an actual tour at the time. It was before it was an amusement park, and it was this enlightening thing to see the magic of how movies get made. It blew my mind, and I went home and I immediately started taking some of the models I had built from all the geeky stuff that you do and borrowed my parents’ camera and started filming them on fire and doing all sorts of stuff, trying to replicate what I had seen at Universal. I knew that the idea of making movies, if I could be lucky enough to do that, would be the dream of a lifetime.
Eight. I didn’t know there were directors at 8. I thought TV was real!
Well, it’s funny, I did, too! And then my grandfather took me to Universal, and I saw The Hunchback of Notre Dame — which I had seen on TV — was shot there in the back lot at Universal. I just couldn’t believe it. The idea that there were makeup artists and there were writers who worked in those offices and the snow outside the window was plastic stuff in a big net and all this kind of stuff, it just blew my mind.
Now, your dad was a producer?
TV and movie producer.
Name a couple of things?
He did TV and movies like Ski Lift to Death, which I know that you’ve all seen. He did Murder at the Mardi Gras. Don’t stand up please. No, he did a couple wonderful ones, and he did some that were sort of more fun, but I was very lucky to get to grow up and visit the sets. It was funny — when I went to Universal, he hadn’t become a producer yet. He was still on commercial time for CBS, and it was sort of the luckiest thing in history that I fell in love with movies, and about a year or two later, my dad started working as a producer and I got to visit sets. It was an amazing thing to get to see how the grown-ups were doing it, and watching people at work.
Okay, so you got your 10,000 hours early?
I Gladwelled at around 9, yeah. It happened over time, but it was just the experience of seeing what a set is like. And I know that it’s sort of incalculable, how important that is if you love anything to get early influence and to kind of see it for real.
So you had a big advantage.
Oh, yeah. It was absolutely lucky, yeah.
Okay, so your dad’s in here, right? What job did you get that you didn’t deserve? There’s got to be one.
I mean, I want to say Star Wars.
There’s got to be one. There’s always one.
There was a summer where I got to be an intern at a production company and I was working for Jon Feltheimer, who is now this big deal at Lionsgate and at the time was a big deal at New World. I was his lackey, and I would sort of make Xeroxes of scripts and stuff.
What was the most demeaning thing he had you do? Not demeaning, like, “Get on the floor and copy that script!” I just want to know like, J.J. Abrams, “I want to be a director so bad, I did this.”
It was nothing like that. It was like a lot of stupid, obvious office-y, menial stuff like delivering things and picking things up, and one day his very fancy Porsche needed to be taken home. He had someone do it, and I followed the guy home, but the guy who was taking this Porsche went like 120 mph and the cops pulled him over and I had to sit there while the guy got a ticket in his boss’s car. Shit like that. And now Jon Feltheimer knows that. [Laughs.]
I wanted to hear something like, “Every Wednesday, his dog had his balls shaved … ”
“I had to get the clippings … ” “And then move on to his mustache!” “Damn, man. You deserve everything, if you did that!” So you start early, you go into TV first. Now, did you want to go into TV first, or that movie [work] was shit and then you went to TV?
No, I was working as a writer, and I wrote a number of movies. A few got made, and then I was sort of …
Regarding Henry, Taking Care of Business are a couple, and I was doing a lot of rewrites.
Now, Henry is enough to say, “I made it.”
What happened was I ended up doing a bunch of rewrites, like script-doctoring stuff. I was kind of getting a little bit lost in the sort of allure of a lot of money for a short period of time rewriting scripts, and a lot of these things just weren’t getting made. I was starting to feel like I didn’t quite know what I was doing.
It’s so weird. I had the same talk with Louie C.K.
What’d he say?
Nothing, because he was doing rewrites on stuff and he was like, “Dude, I can’t be your friend anymore.” “What the fuck’s wrong with you?” “Do your own shit.”
That’s exactly what my wife, Katie, said to me. She said …
“Am I going to marry Louie C.K.?”
No! But she said, “You have to do what you care about!” I thought, Why did I forget that part? And I ended up writing …
“You have to do what you care about — hookers and blow!” “Will you marry me?”
And she was right and I wrote this pilot called Felicity. Matt Reeves, who is an old friend of mine and a brilliant director, he and I went to this new network called the WB, which is now no longer there. And we gave it to them and they said they wanted to do it, and suddenly Matt Reeves and I were working on a TV show, which we had never done before. That was my sort of start into television, but it was because I wrote something that for whatever reason moved me.
What happened with you? Did you start with doing television first?
How did I start? The first time people saw me was in a movie called I’m Gonna Git You Sucka. Keenen Wayans directed, and it was one of these weird things. Is he around? I don’t want to get punched in the face. But he basically stole a joke of mine. “One rib guy” was a thing I used to do in my act, and it was in the script. I think Eddie Murphy was like, “Hey, isn’t that Chris Rock’s thing?” Next thing I know I got flown from New York to L.A. for a movie that only had $2 million in the budget or something. So I did that.
But then you got SNL?
I got SNL probably about four or five years after that, yeah. I did I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, Beverly Hills Cop, a lot of little parts, and New Jack City and SNL. Yeah. That was a long time ago. It’s Kevin Hart time now. Kevin Hart! Who does Kevin play in the next Star Wars?
He plays … [Laughs.]
Did y’all meet with Kevin? You had a meeting right?
No, I just met him for the first time!
Get out of here.
I did! Here’s what happened. At the MTV Movie Awards, The Force Awakens wins …
Don’t brag with us.
You know, we won so many. We go to the MTV Movie Awards and we’re supposed to get this award for Best Movie, so Daisy Ridley, who was in the movie, she’s wearing this little dress, and it’s freezing and it’s time for this award, so they take us back. We don’t know what the fuck we’re doing, right? So we go up these stairs and there’s all these cables and things. We’re moving through it and I feel horrible. They’re like, “Here, this way,” and they stand us there and they say, “Okay, when the smoke and the lasers and the wind start, you guys are going to go through and then the base is going to separate. You’re going to go through the dancers, and you’re going to come together at the microphone.” Daisy and I are just looking at each other like, Wait, what? The person leaves, so we’re standing there on live TV and then suddenly the smoke starts and the wind starts and the lasers start and the base rips apart and we go forward and there are 8,000 people holding lightsabers, there’s a microphone and we walk up to it. It’s literally the most insane, surreal thing of all time. And suddenly, I guess the show’s over, and Kevin Hart’s there! And the Rock! It’s like a fucking fever dream! And they end the show and then Kevin Hart is the nicest guy ever and the Rock is like putting his arm around me and I feel like a Barbie doll. And then it was over. And then I woke up! It was so weird.
Okay, we’re going to stay on TV for a while, and then we’re going to movies.
See, I’m a little organized. I’m not really organized. I literally just woke up [laughs]. So you do Felicity, and next is Lost?
And next is Alias. So that’s a big jump, genre-wise.
So what happened was we were working on Felicity, which, for me at least in television, when you don’t have a bad guy of some sort, episode two is really hard to come up with. Because first of all, the show takes place in college, so it was like, “Oooh, she got a B!” Like, what’s the problem? So we were trying to figure out what the story was and I remember we were on episode five or something, pulling our hair out, and I said in the writers room, “If Felicity were a spy, I’d know how to write this show.” And they were all like [blank silence]. And I’m like, “Okay, so she has an affair with her professor,” or whatever the thing is. I kind of banked that and then ABC called and asked if I would create a show for them with a young woman at the center, and I just thought maybe a spy show would be fun. That’s how it kind of began.
One thing I noticed about both of those shows is you’re really good at casting stars.
When you don’t have the star, I don’t care how good the writing is, I don’t care how good the producing is.
That is true. Well, as a director, you know when the right person walks in.
I make movies occasionally. You’re a director.
But you know what I’m talking about. When the right actor comes in you go, “That’s the person.” And if you’re lucky enough to have great casting directors and enough time to do it right.
Yeah, I mean I love all of my casting directors, but you make the final call.
What is it? Is it an acting thing? Is it a part thing? Sometimes the person’s great for the part, but they can’t act. You get me? They look like the person, they’re the age of the person, and they have the life experience of the person, but they can’t act. Then sometimes somebody’s not particularly right, but they can act their motherfuckin’ ass off.
That was Keri Russell! Because the part of Felicity was this like sort of wallflower, had never had a boyfriend, didn’t have any friends, and then Keri Russell walks in, who is phenomenally beautiful and is incredibly vibrant and sweet and of course I thought, This is ridiculous, but she’s here so let’s go ahead. And she was so funny and so vulnerable and also it’s TV, so it’s like, “The TV version of a wallflower is Keri Russell.” But anyway, she was so great that Matt and I just looked at each other and were like, “Oh my God.” You know, she walked in and we thought there was no way. She was always sort of like the beach beauty and stuff, and that was an example of someone who came in and despite how they looked …
They were just so good!
How about Jen Garner?
She had actually been on Felicity and my wife said, “You’ve got to write something for her. She’s got such a spark.” I wrote Alias thinking about her, but I didn’t quite know. Then I finished it and she came in and was amazing. I remember someone at the network was like, “Is she hot enough?”
I once … I’m not going to say the woman’s name, but an executive at a film company that probably weighs, I don’t know, 165, 180 pounds, was like, “Hmm. Kerry Washington’s getting a little big.” Like what are you talking about? Telling a woman, a woman …
All I will say is the executive is no longer there, so it worked out. But she came in and was amazing and got the part. Everyone’s always afraid at networks.
They only know two modes of communication: ass-kissing and panic. They’re either kissing your ass or panic!
But Jen was so great, and she was so … she did everything and it was incredible. Doing the pilot, which I directed, I remember watching her kind of find this strength in herself. It was just so cool to see and she just did a spectacular job and she’s one of my dearest friends. She’s the greatest.
She’s great. So, it’s weird because I look at those two shows as “star shows.” They’re your shows, but they’re their shows as much.
And then I look at Lost as like just your shit. No disrespect to the actors, but Lost is just …
I will say, it’s easy to look at the pilot of a show which I was deeply involved in. Damon Lindelof and I wrote that and I directed that and it was an incredible experience, a very weird experience because we had essentially 11 weeks to write it, cast it, shoot it, cut it, post it, and turn it in. We had an outline that we had written in a few days and it was a scramble. We were casting it as we were writing it. We were location-scouting as we were finishing the script. It was just nuts. And in the middle of shooting the pilot the head of ABC was fired and the new person came in while we were shooting and said, “Can you shoot an ending so we can air it as a TV movie?” And I said, “If you can tell me how to end this show, what that scene is, I will shoot it for you.” And I never heard back. We finished it and then we put it on and the show worked. But the series was written by Damon Lindelof and directed by Jack Bender, and they were the ones who ran it for six years and did things that we never in a million years could have imagined when we were creating the show.
What do you like on TV now? I mean, TV’s changed so much. They’re like little novels now.
I love Transparent. I think it is an incredible show and such a specific tone and cast, and I think Jeffery [Tambor], they’re all amazing in the show. I’ve loved Togetherness. The Duplass brothers, by the way, are involved in both of those shows in some way, and they’re amazing. I feel like the last three years of working on the Star Wars movie kind of took me out of contention for what’s going on. I would hear people talk about shows and I’d be like, “Ha-ha. Shows!” I feel like I kind of even recently returned to the land of … I’m the guy who’s like, “Have you heard of this Game of Thrones?!” so I’m just catching up. How about you? Do you watch anything in particular?
That Fargo is really good.
Everyone’s talking about Fargo!
And Mr. Robot is great. It’s good, man. I mean, what else do I watch? I watch The Walking Dead. [To the audience] I don’t care. Don’t get all snobby Tribeca on me.
No, it’s a great show.
So if I wanted to do a show …
Because I’m running out of money. It’s, you know, “Oh fuck. Cash out this credibility.” What do you see me doing?
Oh my God. If I nail it, will you do it with me?
That’s a tough one.
Nothing to do with a car wash.
Okay. Nothing to do with a car wash. What does that even mean? I don’t know. It’s an interesting thing. Here’s the question: Who is Chris Rock?
I’m probably in a single-camera show.
Here’s the thing — my skill set is multi-camera.
But what’s going to keep me interested in doing 50-whatever shows is probably something single-camera.
I hear that. It’s too good of a situation. Usually when I do story meetings it’s with less than 1,200 people, but here’s the thing: This is a really interesting question.
I’m a hard cast. It’s hard.
Well, first of all, my favorite show of all time was The Twilight Zone. What I loved about the show obviously was that it always dealt with these incredible ideas. It was social commentary, it was character, it was genre, it was reality-bending, but it was a half-hour. It was a half-hour single-camera, which is not very common in non-comedy. There are shows that exist for sure. There are shows that exist for sure. I haven’t seen [Louie’s] new show [Horace and Pete].
It’s okay. It’s a lot different, but it’s good.
You don’t like it very much?
I like the other show! You know how sometimes like French [Montana] used to put out albums so fast that you’d get mad at the new album? Like, “Motherfucker, I ain’t finished listening to this shit yet!”
Anyway, I’d love to do a half-hour drama.
Because even Rod Serling, Rod Serling, couldn’t do an hour. They tried for a season of The Twilight Zone to do a season of an hour and Rod was like, “Ehh.” And they couldn’t do it, and they went back to half an hour.
Yeah, I like a half-hour. If you’re reasonably talented, you shouldn’t mess up a half an hour.
Although you can’t really do it because then you’re ripping off Louie.
But it would be amazing for you.
So we’ve done me and television. You’ve done a ton of TV. Am I leaving anything out?
There have been some other shows. We did a show called Fringe. We produced a show called Person of Interest.
What was that show with Gugu?
Oh, Gugu Mbatha-Raw. We’re working together again on something now. It was called Undercovers.
That’s the thing. You really started picking up these girls!
She is amazing, yes.
So, yeah, that lasted for a very short period of time.
I always say, whenever you cast somebody and you see them working later you’ve probably picked the right person.
She is, definitely. She came in and she was like sunshine. Her smile was like, “Whoa,” you know? She was clearly on her way, and we were lucky to get her. But the show wasn’t as good as she was.
Okay, okay. You’re great at casting. I mean you’re really great at casting. When you’re hiring a producer, what do you look for? When you’re hiring a director? What qualities do you look for?
The most important thing, obviously, is that the director have some skills. He or she doesn’t have to have made a movie before, but you have to see that they can do it, whether it’s a short film that they have done or it’s a presentation that’s strong enough. Typically you want to see some film to know. You’re just looking for someone who comes in with a vision and a passion and sort of shows you the movie before it’s been made. You want to have someone come in and talk to you about it in a way that when the meeting is done, they know what is going on. They know what the thing is. And you want someone who can collaborate but not who’s a pushover. The worst thing is when someone says, “I want this, I want that,” and you’re like, “What about this thing?” and they’re like, “Yeah, no, that’s okay. We can do that.” It’s like, “Where’s that vision?” You don’t want someone who’s just going to do the thing you want. Everyone knows, in any line of business, the best thing you can do is to hire someone who can do the job, who you don’t have to micromanage and do the job for.
Yeah, I would say, you have to hire your boss.
Like, you try and hire people that are going to be better than you.
Yeah. So by the end of the project, if I’m still running this shit, I hired the wrong person.
That’s right. That’s exactly right. You want someone who’s going to actually do the job. And that’s true in every department. If it’s costume design you don’t want to have to have someone that you’re spelling out what the thing should be in detail. You want to go into meetings, ideally, when they’re doing something that they love and that they’re great at and they show you something that they’ve done and you think, Oh my God. I never would have thought of that, or, That’s exactly right. Like Michael Kaplan, who I’ve worked with as a costume designer on Star Wars. He did Star Trek, he did Blade Runner. He’s amazing. For Star Wars, there were so many different costumes, and I would go into these meetings and he would show stuff and I would leave. It was like he had a martial art of just doing it great. I’d leave and I’d think, I just said yes to everything because it was so good and it was so right. Those are the kind of people you try to get, who inspire you.
I once fired a director because I found out he didn’t like Annie Hall. I can’t tell you what the movie was, but it was like, “I can’t work a year with this guy. He doesn’t like Annie Hall.” What are your deal-breakers? You’re going to take notes from somebody that doesn’t like Annie Hall?
My deal-breaker is honestly — you do your homework, you find out how people are, and you see it with your own eyes — but people who aren’t kind. I know that sounds so stupid, and it’s so obvious. Star Wars was a good example because everyone cared so much and there was so much stress all around that we not fuck it up. I remember at our first department-head meeting there were 80 people — and honestly I do this with every project — we talked about how, as important as this is and everything, for me, the most important thing is that we respect each other. It’s the golden rule: Treat others how you want to be treated. I know that sounds so, so stupid, but the important thing is in the experience. Because there will be times when it’ll get all crazy and you kind of forget you’re just making a movie and it gets all nuts. You want to know that you’re surrounded by people who are looking at each other and there for each other because no one should be there for any other reason but to make the movie. It’s not about working for anyone, so when I’ve heard that there are people that are difficult, I’ve almost always said no, kind of a “life’s too short” thing. There was one time on Alias, an actress who will remain unnamed, she was so, famously so, very rude to people and literally made a couple of people on the crew cry. So a couple of weeks later after she was done, I got a call about her. Some producer wanted her maybe for this other project and I said, “You cannot hire this person. She was a disaster. She was horrible.” He was like, “Thank you very much,” and didn’t hire her. So a week went by and I got a call from the actress. She called and I said, “Meryl?” [Laughs.] No, she was like, “I heard that you said ‘don’t hire me’ to this producer.’” And I said, “You were a disaster. What are you talking about?” She’s like, “Oh, you could have told me.” It was one of the only times I hired someone where I knew that was going to happen. And it happened.
The deal-breaker for me is someone who’s not going to be a human being.
Especially on television.
A movie is three months to deal with an asshole. Three or four.
Well, this was a guest star, but yeah.
TV, it’s tricky to hire.
For a regular, it can be. It’s always tricky.
I remember we were doing Everybody Hates Chris and my favorite comedian in the world, Patrice O’Neal, came and read for my dad, and he was amazing. He was amazing. He was probably a little better than Terry Crews. But I knew Terry Crews would be there on time every day and would knock it out. Do you know what I mean?
Do you ever regret it? Or no?
Yeah, if the show was five episodes I’d regret it, but we had 88 episodes.
Did you ever have an actor come in who you ever thought was definitely not right? Like auditioned, was definitely not right, you gave a note and then was right? Meaning, did they ever make it work, or has that never happened?
I don’t know on a note, but I’ve had actors come in not being right but just be so amazing that you go, “Okay, let’s figure out how we get Leslie Jones in this movie.” Because it’s going to be a better movie if she’s in it. I’ve done that. I don’t think I’ve ever done it with a lead, but some people are just great and you know your life is going to be enhanced by having them on your team. And it helps if they’re great people, too. Now, you did these big franchisees, they have legendarily fickle fans. If you got an envelope with your wife’s ear in it, somebody wanted ransom, who would it be: Star Wars fans or Star Trek fans?
That’s a fucked-up question for so many reasons [laughs]. But I will say this: To get into both of those worlds in any capacity was intimidating because there are people who love those things so much. And I get it, being a Star Wars fan since I was 10. I understood the Star Trek phenomenon but didn’t really start to love it until I got to work in it, and then I understood it and appreciated it. But the truth is there’s this pressure of working on something where you have so many people who care about it, but the advantage — especially if you’re lucky enough to cast the movies the way that we did and work with the people on those crews — is that people do care. And so the question is not “Will anyone care? Will anyone go? Will anyone look?” It’s “How do you make it worthy of their time?” Anyway, I may not be answering that …
You’re scared of both.
Horrific question. Both of those powers of the fanbase, both of those things, it’s bigger than all of us. It’s a lot.
Okay. You know what my favorite movie of yours is?
It’s Mission Impossible. I love Star Wars, I love them all, but that particular Mission Impossible. It’s amazing. Ridiculous, North by Northwest quality.
What I’ll say is this: It was really fun to do. It was the first movie I got to direct. Tom Cruise offered me this movie after seeing the first couple of seasons of Alias, which was insane. Some people warned me beforehand, “He’s the producer. He’s the star. This could be a disaster for you. You’re going to be this puppet director.” But Tom Cruise said to me on this thing, “In this movie, you’re the director. I’m your actor and that’s it. Just know that.” I was like, “Okay!” He gave me the chance of a lifetime. I took him at his word, and every day he was the greatest. He was incredibly collaborative. He was a producer also and was so great and smart and helpful, and I’ve never seen anyone work harder. Then when I went to Star Trek, which was the next movie I did, it was weird not having Tom there because Tom was this force of nature. Every day I’d go to work, I’d know there was going to be someone who was working at least as hard as I was. And I was never the one jumping off buildings and falling off shit. So every day there was this kind of co-partner and I show up to Star Trek and I’m like, “Where’s that guy who shows up?”
He spoiled you.
He did. And by the way it’s funny because Cameron Crowe worked with him a couple of times. He said, “He’s going to spoil you. That’s the thing you have to know.” And he did.
He’s consistent. There’s no really shitty Tom Cruise movie. Everything is kind of good.
He works his ass off.
The worst one is good! That takes a lot!
Everyone has got one piece of shit somewhere. Not Tom Cruise. So there’s a weird question: Have you ever come close to working with Denzel?
Oh, I would love to.
If he’s done 40 movies, he’s had four aimless directors.
The closest I’ve come to being lucky enough to work with Denzel was I got a call that Denzel wanted to use my office at Paramount for a while [laughs]. So now I can say, “I’ve worked with Denzel.” No, he was literally in my office prepping this movie.
You are J.J. Abrams. You can work with whoever you want. Are there people that you’re trying to work with?
I would love to work with you. Sure, there are tons.
The same way you wanted to make a movie when you were 7, there’s also a part of you that’s like, “I want to make a movie with that particular person, the same way Tarantino had this thing with Travolta.” Who’s your holy grail? Actor, actress?
I guess Meryl Streep is the person. I know she’s sort of the obvious go-to, but she’s so incredible. There was a luncheon the other day for the Film Festival and Bob De Niro — he asked me to call him Bobby. I saw him, like, Robert DeNiro is right there. You can’t help but think, That would be insane. That would be incredible. There are people like that who are sort of the obvious but undeniable. What about you?
I have this weird thing — I want to direct Denzel in a comedy. He hasn’t done it. I’ve seen him. He can turn a phrase and be kind of charming but kind of funny.
He can do everything.
He can kind of do everything. He’s like the best.
He could do that. That’s awesome.
Yeah, but I’m trying to figure out what can I get him in that’s kind of funny. Not silly. I can’t put him in a Will Ferrell movie. I love Will Ferrell, but …
Well, you could be in it, too.
Yes, I’m gonna be in it!
There’s a funny that Denzel can do.
Yeah! I’d love to work with you, I really would. I’m not making that up.
I look forward to that.
I had fun on the Oscars. And you were about as intense a person as I’ve ever worked with. But like a sunshine-y intensity, like, “Hey, man! We’re really working hard on this thing.”
Well, we were!
“Got any more ideas?”
It was honestly … to have Tracy Morgan show up as The Danish Girl …
“These Danishes is unbelievable!”
It was a little bit of a “died and gone to heaven.” Come on.
He’s funny no matter what you do.
He’s very alive, which is insane. What kind of weird questions did your brother have?
What did my brother have? Let’s see. You’re a comic-book guy?
A little bit.
I mean, could you direct the Fantastic Four? I love the Fantastic Four, and they keep fucking it up! Like, God damn it. It’s the Fantastic Four.
Is that your favorite?
That’s my favorite of all of them. And Spider-Man, too, but they’ve mad far too many Spider-Mans.
Get in there with Denzel, man, and you do it.
Oh, God. The Fantastic Four. Okay. Yeah, I would love to do the Fantastic Four. I’m too old. I guess I’m not too old to direct it. They need somebody better than me. I like it so much, I don’t want to direct it. Did you see that Superman-Batman shit? What the fuck was that? I can’t say anything; they weren’t going to cast me anyway. Superman can’t fight a guy that drives a car. He gets a flat. Like he’s going to fight Superman. Needs AAA, but yeah, he can fight Superman. He’s got jumper cables and he’s going to fight Superman. I saw that one a mile away. Not gonna get me. Go see that Disney animated movie. They don’t let you down.
What other weird questions did your brother have?
Let’s see. What’s up with the lens flares? That’s your thing.
First of all …
It’s like Spike Lee’s got that dolly shot
The non-walking dolly. First of all, I mean this — I hate your brother. Secondly, here’s the thing, I’m over that. I’m not saying there will never be a flare in anything I do, but for a period of time — Star Trek and then I couldn’t give it up in this other movie that I did — but there was this idea that we had that the future was so bright that it just couldn’t be contained. And you just had stuff happening so it felt like just off-camera there was something great. There was this energy in the room, and it gave it a sort of signature. And I overdid it and then I went further, and then in the second Star Trek movie I went nuts. We’ve all made mistakes, but mine was with light. We had flashlights off-camera, these insane high-power flashlights and we would do the thing that every director of photography is like, “Don’t do that,” and aimed it right in the lens. When there was a lens that had a glare of coating on it to not flare, we wouldn’t use it, and we got lenses that had no coating. Anyway, the DP, I feel bad, kind of drank the Kool-Aid, like he was getting in on it and because it wasn’t done in post. We’d get dailies back, and sometimes we would look at scenes and shots where you literally could not see what the hell was going on. There was this one scene where Alice Eve was doing a scene ,and it was a shot and it was a very emotional scene for her. But it looked like bad reception. It looked like TV from the day TV was invented. It looked horrible. My wife looked at it and she gave me that look that was sort of like, “You’ve come to the end.” I realized it was preposterous and I had to pull back. On Star Wars I think that there were basically no flares like that at all. There were a couple of flares where physics required there to be a flare because light and glass are directed a certain way, but I didn’t ever add the flares. And, one more thing, will everyone wake up the person next to you if they’re sleeping? There are some times when the visual-effects people would add flares to shots, because I’d worked with them before and they knew that I … and I was like, “No flares,” and then they got upset and had to replace that fetish with something else, so they started doing contrails. Like in every shot in the atmosphere they had contrails on the ships. I was like, “Did you fucking move the flare people over to the contrail department? No contrail!”
Cloverfield. I like the Cloverfield movie, man.
I just saw the new one.
10 Cloverfield Lane.
Yeah, it’s really good.
Oh, thanks. That was directed by Dan Trachtenberg, who was a guy who had never done a feature. He came in and talked about this thing in a way, cut together a little reel. He was amazing.
Now Star Wars, before people get mad, I’ll ask some Star Wars questions. I watched it the other day, and man, the way you worked in the actors from the past. In the wrong hands, it could be the corniest shit ever done, and you did it so artfully, just working everybody in. It would’ve been probably easier to do an original movie. I mean, it is original, but you know what I’m saying.
Hold on. The weird thing about that movie was it had been so long since the last one. The prequels existed in between, and we wanted to reclaim the specific story that was happening in the last one. We very consciously tried to borrow familiar beats so that the rest of the movie could hang on something we knew felt like Star Wars. All the characters — the stormtrooper who turns, Finn, played by John Boyega; and Rey, the character that Daisy plays, the scavenger; and Kylo Ren, the son of Han and Leia; Poe, the pilot — all these different characters and their roles in the story needed to exist in something that preexists them. Larry Kasdan, who I wrote the script with and who wrote the second and third Star Wars movies, he was such an incredible collaborator. He really taught me a lot about trusting the characters, trusting the audience. He’s got a kind of wisdom to his approach in writing that really is inspiring. The idea was for us to tell a story about all these brand-new characters, but we also knew this movie was a bridge. Not a reminder — no one needs to be reminded about what Star Wars is — but it needed to establish itself as something familiar with a sense of where it’s going to this new land, which is what [Episodes] VIII and IX do. In doing so, figuring out a way to incorporate the characters we knew and loved and introducing all these new characters, it was a lot of plates to spin, but it was the job, and we did the best we could.
It was incredible. I always say when I’m writing a script especially, don’t start writing until you know the ending.
So when you’re doing this, you always figure out the ending?
I gotta know where I’m going. Yes, it’s the hardest part.
But you know writers who don’t do that?
Me, too. It makes me crazy.
But I don’t know really great ones who don’t do it.
Stephen King doesn’t do it.
God damn it.
I asked him about specific stories, where I’m like, “You must have known the end of Quitters, Inc. when you wrote that short story. And he’s like, “Nope. I knew there would be a great ending.” I knew there would be a great ending. How do you have that kind of confidence? That’s amazing. It’s a “Rod Serling at his prime” ending.
The ending of Star Wars, did you have it before you started? Because it’s the best ending. If they had an Oscar for best ending …
They probably should. What happened was, we knew that obviously getting to Luke was the whole story. I was desperate to do the next chunk, and we knew it would never fit in this one movie, but we knew that we had that ending. Now, it was frankly a tricky thing to do, and at first, honestly, Mark Hamill was a little bit resistant because it was like, imagine reading Star Wars, imagine being Mark Hamill [laughs] and you get the script for the new Star Wars, and you’re like, “Oh looks good! Page two. The fuck is going on?” [Laughs.] “I’m three pages before the end, the last, what?!” He was so kind and at first a little bit like, “Will it seem silly? Will it be a joke that he’s standing there at the end?” And I said to him, “I don’t think it will, Mr. Hamill!” No, I said, “I don’t think so. This whole movie, since it’s all about him, it could be this sort of great fun drum roll up to seeing this guy.” Because here’s what’s amazing: When we shot that scene in Ireland, it was what it looked like. We’re up there and there could only be 45 people on the crew because you couldn’t bring many people up there, and there was only one way up, which was 642 stairs to the top, and so we’re up there shooting this scene, and it’s Ireland, so it’s raining, then it’s sunny, then it’s raining, then it’s sunny, so it’s insane. And we’re up there in between the shots and we’re getting this thing, and I’m looking at him and I realize he’s the same age, exactly, that Alec Guinness was when he played Obi. There he is, and I’m looking at him as the sort of mist is clearing, and I have my phone and I put on the binary sunset cue that John Williams wrote, you know [hums the song], and I’m listening to this music and I’m looking at Mark Hamill wearing these robes and I literally start to tear up. And I’m like, “I just know this ending could really work.” And of course when you’re working with John Williams for real, it’s just cheating because no matter what you do, John Williams comes in and he just makes it Star Wars.
This transcript has been lightly edited and condensed.