When JJ Abrams was handed the task of revitalising the Star Trek franchise in 2006, the portents were not good. His first directing job, Mission: Impossible III, had not been finished, he had a string of script commissions behind him of variable quality – including Michael Bay's infamous asteroid-masher Armageddon. He had small-screen chops for sure, earned via successful series Alias and Lost, but many a TV guy has stumbled when attempting to deliver proper cinema. Now, seven years later, Abrams is king of the Hollywood heap: sitting on billions of dollars in box office, a second Star Trek film poised for release, and a deal up his sleeve to produce and direct the next set of Star Wars films. This is serious; how on earth did it happen?
Abrams, 46, ensconced in palatial splendour in the penthouse suite of a fancy central London hotel, turns out to be a likably fresh-faced individual, and professes himself only slightly baffled as to how well things have gone. "You know," he says, "there was no strategy about my career; no idea to create a resume of work that said anything in particular. All I went on, really, was my gut feeling about projects. Would it be a challenge, would it be fun, would it be an entertainment that I could believe I could do justice to?"
An offer to produce, not direct, the Star Trek reboot, he says, came during the madness of MI3's postproduction – "my reaction was, that's a cool challenge" – and when the opportunity came along to direct it as well, he grabbed it. "A space adventure? With crazy spectacle? When the hell was I going to get that chance again!" A not dissimilar rationale appeared to be at work when the Star Wars offer came in earlier this year: "I was so busy working on Into Darkness it was easy to say it was not possible. But the reality of it began to sink in, and when I met with Kathy Kennedy [the Lucasfilm president and Star Wars executive producer], my gut said this is not something to reject. I can't say it was a rational thing: it will turn out to be an incredibly smart or an incredibly foolish decision."
In fact, the more Abrams talks, the more you realise his entire career – in its movie-making aspects at least – has been an extraordinary exercise in wish-fulfilment, dating back to his childhood. Growing up in Los Angeles in the 1970s he really did make Super 8 movies with his friends, like a junior Steven Spielberg; 30 years later, he got to make Super 8, a film about a kid making Super 8 movies with his friends, produced by Steven Spielberg. (The Spielberg connection is even stranger; when the youthful Abrams was profiled in the LA Times in 1982 after a festival showing of his work, Spielberg's office called and asked him to edit down the director's own childhood Super 8 films. Who made the call? Spielberg's then assistant, Kathy Kennedy.) The first Star Wars movie knocked his socks off when he saw it in 1977. He was 11. "I just got sucked in; it was inspiring and mind-blowing; it spoke to me in a way that was undeniable" – and now he's in charge of its future direction ("in a million years, I never thought I would get the chance to work on a Star Wars movie"). When Tom Cruise gave him his first shot at directing, on MI3, he says he was "blindsided": "Not only was I being given the chance to direct a movie, it was a movie that included so many of the things I loved: espionage and action and comedy and scope and scale." One of the swarm of projects he's got in development is a new Planet of the Apes movie, to be directed by his chum Matt Reeves – "When I was a kid, Planet of the Apes was an obsession, it was all I would ever draw at lunch in school."
Though Abrams grew up around the periphery of the entertainment industry – and sold his first treatment, for the Jim Belushi comedy Taking Care of Business, while still in college – he says he learned to inject a personal element to his work while spending a decade as a screenwriting hack in the 90s. "I was part of that machine of screenwriters that goes from project to project, but over the years had found myself doing things that weren't so meaningful." He credits his wife, PR executive Katie McGrath, for "reminding me to work on things I actually care about; sounds obvious, but sometimes you need someone to pull you round". TV gave Abrams his outlet: well before Lost, the 1998 college-based series Felicity was, the way he tells it, "the beginning of working on things that made me feel something again." The 2011 feature Super 8, though, surely remains his Truffaut moment; movingly, Abrams mentions his mother was diagnosed with cancer during the film's production – "it was a very weird thing to be working on something about a boy dealing with the loss of his mother while that was going on for real".
In fact, the one out-of-step item in this cavalcade of whimsy and wish-fulfilment is Star Trek itself. Abrams, rather infamously, came out as a non-Trekkie before the 2009 film was released, and earned himself plenty of nasty looks and outright suspicion from the notoriously committed Star Trek fan base. (Sample any chatroom or comment thread and you'll see what I mean.) You sense that, on some level, he's been frantically back-pedalling ever since, though the stream of critical hosannas and $386m worldwide box office for what was the 11th Star Trek feature film deflected a large chunk of the scorn.
The otherwise incredibly affable Abrams comes close to a touch of asperity when mulling over the experience. "Here's the thing: it definitely put some fans off, and annoyed them. I think they think it's me saying, 'I'm better than you.' But I'm not saying that at all. I am saying that I do not think I was as smart and sophisticated as my friends who loved the show. So I didn't get it, it doesn't mean I'm judging anyone. I have come to love it working on it, but it would be disingenuous of me to say I was a Trek fan. I would rather be honest, and hopefully those fans who see what we've done will say: 'I'm glad the movies have been made and, if anyone cares at all, he's come to love the thing I loved for so long. Better late than never.'
"There are fans though who, whatever I do, it won't work for them, because it's not exactly what they know and love. I get it – I wish that they would love the movie, but we can't make it for everyone. So for anyone who didn't like the first one – well, they don't have to see this one." Golly; so riled is Abrams that he has committed a Hollywood solecism – you never tell anyone not to come. But the Hollywood operator quickly kicks back in. "But of course I hope they like it; thousands of people have worked on the movie, a lot of people hours are invested in entertaining you, and they have done an extraordinary job."
It's to Abrams' credit, however, that he managed to thoroughly spring-clean Star Trek – "we definitely tried to give Trek a little more skip in its step" – and even gave a series not renowned for its stylistic flair an ultra-contemporary polish. Extended chase sequences, epic space battles, and into-the-camera lighting all played a part in shining it up. Star Wars itself is a not too hidden influence; perhaps a consolation for the Trekkies' oft-expressed outrage at Abrams' "change of sides".
Abrams, though, doesn't seem the kind to dwell on strife. Though he's often played the nerd card in the past, he's not one from the, shall we say, Kevin Smith end of things, the intellectualised, adult version; his is all about re-excavating his childhood passions. In that regard he really is much more a Spielbergian figure than, say, a Nolan-esque one – raiding his own playground obsessions rather than constructing epic superhero-inspired mythologies.
It can't hurt, either, that he's kept the faith with a group of friends who, in some cases, go back to his Super 8 days: Cloverfield director Reeves, cinematographer Larry Fong, production partner Bryan Burk. Another key figure, writer/producer Damon Lindelof, got involved when he met Abrams in 2004, pitching for a job on Alias. This cadre has become an increasingly influential one – a new "Lost" generation, if you will – all having used the springboard of the TV series to move in to bigger and better movie-industry gigs. In retrospect, it is becoming apparent that Lost – with its multilayered narratives and high-end surrealism – is actually a bit of an aberration in the Abrams oeuvre. He is a film-maker headed unswervingly for primetime, and one who has – so far – been able to reshape the mainstream in his own image. "There are moments," says Abrams, "of utter disbelief that I get to do any of this." If nothing else, he is a natural.
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk