The Creator Of TV’s ALIAS and LOST Arms Paramount’s
Biggest Movie Franchise
Read the print version.
By Mike Russell
Like the resurrected “Superman” franchise — for
which J.J. Abrams wrote a controversial, unproduced script
a few years ago — “Mission: Impossible III” struggled
through a long and abortive pre-production history.
David Fincher (“Seven,” “Fight
Club”), Joe Carnahan (“Narc”), and Frank
Darabont (“The Green Mile”) all spent time in
producer-star Tom Cruise’s offices, trying to figure
out how to continue the adventures of IMF superagent Ethan
So how did
Abrams — the TV strongman who created the
teen drama “Felicity,” the sci-fi spy serial “Alias” and
the castaway blockbuster “Lost” — get
to make his big-screen directorial debut on a $150-million
wrote and directed acclaimed pilots for both “Alias” and “Lost,” traces
the opportunity to the distribution of freebies. “I
met Tom with Steven Spielberg during ‘War of the Worlds,’” he
recalls. “I wasn’t available, because I was working
on a version of ‘Superman’ which never happened,
and I started doing ‘Lost’ and pilots. It was
a great meeting, but I had to tell him I couldn’t do
it, and I thought, ‘There goes my opportunity to work
with these guys.’”
several months. “I was shooting the ‘Lost’ pilot,
and I got a call from Tom. When he left my office, my assistant
gave him the DVDs of the first two seasons of ‘Alias’ as,
um, swag — and he actually watched them, which is miraculous.
And he loved them. He wanted to hang out when I got back.
“I thought ‘Mission III’ was going swimmingly
[without me]. He never brought up any issues, but I guess
things just weren’t working out. And he asked me if
I was interested in directing it. I told him I couldn’t
start for about a year — because I was working on ‘Lost’ and ‘Alias’ — and
I told him I’d want to start over with the story.
“He said, ‘OK.’”
Abrams laughs. “You know, the odds of that happening
were zero. The whole thing was impossible.”
In Focus spoke with Abrams for almost
an hour, about “Mission:
Impossible III,” “Alias,” “Lost” and
related matters. (Be sure to marvel at how carefully he dances
around “M:I III” character and plot
details.) A transcript follows.
The first “M:I III” teaser trailer
seemed to echo the very underrated “On Her Majesty’s
Secret Service” — what with the agent’s
significant other in peril, plus a bulky, well-spoken villain.
Well, not intentionally — although, as a happy by-product,
I’ll gladly be compared to anything that's underrated
or of any quality. [laughs]
The story — while in no way based on that, and in fact
being incredibly careful to avoid “Bond” comparisons — definitely
has similar themes. I think you’ll see in [“Mission:
Impossible III”] a side of Ethan Hunt that hasn’t
been in the films before. Tom gives an unbelievable performance.
I remember one director saying
that Cruise told him something like, “You want one more take? I’ll
give you a hundred more!”
Yeah, pretty much every day, something
would happen where I’d say, “Let’s go again. Are you okay
to try something different?” And his response, almost
invariably, was, “I’m here to work!”
This is a guy who could get to the set at
noon and leave at 3 every day if he wanted to. And the physical
punishment — unlike
a stuntman, he’ll do physical scenes, and then he’ll
have to keep going with emotional and dialogue scenes.
It’s hard to really appreciate the amount of work he
does unless you consider what goes into shooting a movie
of this scale over this period of time.
You said Frank Darabont is
one of your “favorite writers
and did unbelievable work on the [‘Mission: Impossible
III’] script.” So what made you decide to start
I wanted to start from scratch because
it wasn’t my
voice. It wasn’t my story. It wasn’t the kind
of approach that I would take. Not to say that it wasn’t
brilliant, or that if Joe Carnahan or Frank Darabont had
directed that installment, it wouldn’t have been unbelievable — I’m
sure it would’ve been.
Was the Darabont script the one that was rumored to involve
Africa and black-market organ rings?
A portion of the Darabont
script took place in Africa, in Ghana. It was incredibly
well-written — a classic,
densely plotted thriller. It was terrific. It just wasn’t
the version of “Mission: Impossible” I thought
I could do.
There was too much at stake to come
in and work on a story that I didn’t feel, in my heart, was sort of my territory.
It's not just the money that's at stake: I feel beholden
to the franchise that Bruce Geller created — the spirit
of the TV shows, the movies, the character that means so
much to Tom. He’s incredibly proud of his first producer
effort. I was shocked that he was open to starting over.
THE HEAVY HEAVY
HUNTING FOR HUNT
Well, let’s talk about your version. What’s
the story with Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character?
On the face of it, if you
say, “Phil Hoffman and Tom
Cruise are gonna be matched intellectually and physically,” you
think, “Tom Cruise will probably kick his ass.” [laughs]
But when you see this movie, Phil Hoffman is so imposing
and so scary and brutal. He infuses the role with wit and
honesty. There’s nothing worse than a bad guy who feels
flimsy or arch.
Even though the lines he has in the
trailer are wildly over-the-top, that exchange suits him
in that moment. I don’t think
we’ve seen Ethan Hunt go up against somebody so dangerous.
Can you tell me anything
about the character Hoffman’s
Uh … not much. [laughs] I can say that he essentially
plays a provider of, um, materials to organizations and countries
that jeopardize the stability of the world. This guy is essentially
the middleman who gets bad people bad things — and
it’s a priority for Western intelligence to find him
and take him out. He’s incredibly elusive and sophisticated.
And what begins as a fairly generic
story — “there’s
a bad guy and he needs to be taken down” — becomes
a very specific and very personal story through the movie.
The typical story is that
actors love playing juicy villains. Still, I can’t
help but wonder if Hoffman, being a serious fellow, found
a way to torture
himself while playing
this nasty son of a bitch.
We laughed all the time.
Phil’s sense of humor is
wonderful and dry and self-deprecating. I actually met him
years ago, just after college. He has incredibly strong opinions
about how he wants to play something, but he takes notes
and suggestions and incorporates them into what he does.
While he’s very serious, he is in no way one of those
Actors with a capital A. All he cares about is that what
he’s doing is good. It was an incredibly ego-free set.
We hear the movie will deal
home life. Is he married at this point? And what role does
She’s a love interest. You’ll
see how that relationship works.
To me, the fun of the story — and the crux of my approach
to this film — is where the professional side of this
super-spy meets the personal and intimate side. The conflict
exists for all of us: How do you maintain a home life and
a personal life with any real commitment, and maintain a
professional life at the level you aspire to?
Well, the only personal
aspect of Ethan Hunt’s life
that we’ve seen up to this point is him rock-climbing
at the start of “Mission: Impossible II.”
And you’ve learned in “Mission I” that
his parents died. But aside from those two moments, there’s
really not any sense of this person as a person. He’s
always a super-person.
The fun of “Mission: Impossible” was always the
teamwork. One of the beautiful things in this movie is that
we’ve got Maggie Q, Ving Rhames, Laurence Fishburne,
Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Billy Crudup, Keri Russell, Simon Pegg … this
credible supporting cast. The teamwork, for me, was always
the greatest part of the “Mission” TV series.
And in “Mission I” and “II” — with
some exceptions in “Mission I” — they’ve
really been Ethan-Hunt-as-spy movies.
That isn’t to say that “Mission III” isn’t
ultimately Ethan’s movie — it is — but
the team has a crucial role in the entire film. For me, what’s
fun in the film is watching how these people work together,
plan an operation and execute it. The supporting cast is
as much a reason to see this film as any of the stunts, or
even Tom himself.
Each director put his own
stylistic mark on the first two films, particularly when
it came to action
echoed Kubrick and Hitchcock, Woo echoed, um, Woo. I’m
wondering how you’ll be shooting the action in MI:3.
I think the critical thing for me is that we never cross
a line and get into physical impossibility.
Well, I’m not saying there wasn’t
some wire removal in the movie —
As much as I’m a fan of “The Matrix” and
many of Woo’s movies, my fear in this film….
My fear in general is that I have no idea if I have a style
at all. But my fear was that any style at all — whomever
I was borrowing from, or whomever I might get inspired by — would
overshadow the story.
So my decision was to approach it from
a standpoint of serving the story, so I never came into
something with an
choice leading the way. It was always, “What are the
characters going though?” It was a relief for us, in
a way. By constantly focusing on what needed to be dramatized,
it dictated its own style.
You’ll see that the action is incredibly hard-core,
very fast-paced — but there are equally intimate scenes
that are emotionally incredibly pitched.
And the approach to the action, for
me, is clarity. In action scenes, there’s often so much freneticism, you get
lost in terms of what the hell’s going on. What you’ll
see, during our seven substantial action sequences, is that
you know where you are.
We didn’t design any of the action sequences first — I
didn’t want the action scenes to be dragging the characters
through them. I wanted the characters to be driving all the
action. What the actors are attempting to achieve makes the
To me, in the most exciting action movies — “Die
Hard,” “The Fugitive” — each sequence,
big or small, was completely connected to what the characters
wanted, and why. I was aspiring to a movie that was fundamentally
a character piece — even though it happens to have
more action than the first two “Mission”s combined.
People always forget that
it was 20 minutes before the first bullet was fired in “Die
It’s actually, I think, more than 20 minutes. Look
at “Back to the Future”: It took over half an
hour to really set up everything before he went back in time.
Or look at “Tootsie”: They spend at least a reel
of the film, if not more, setting up who Michael is, who
his friends are, how desperate he is — so that when
he’s walking down the street as Dorothy Michaels, you’re
so engaged in that story….
Now, that isn’t to say that you don’t want to
start a movie off with a real punch. And I think we do. But
it’s critical that you invest the audience in the characters — especially
in a sequel.
When you look at the “Indiana Jones” or “Die
Hard” sequels, as successful as they are, there’s
something about those movies that doesn’t invest as
much in the characters. You can’t assume, “Because
the first one or the second one worked, you know who he is.
Let’s just get to it.” I think every minute you
don’t spend investing the character makes it that much
harder to care about what he or she is going through in any
Sure. And of course, you
had the granddaddy of all TV fight scenes at the end of
one “Alias” season. [I’m
referring to the epic Sydney-Evil Francie kitchen fight at
the end of Season 2.]
The two women?
Yeah. I know people who
swear by that action scene as one of the best they’ve
ever seen on TV.
[laughs] That’s very sweet. There’s actually
a scene in “M:I:III” that that fight scene in “Alias” was
What did doing years of doing spy television teach you about
doing a spy movie?
Doing “Alias” and “Lost” — beyond
the fact that I never would have gotten this opportunity
if it weren’t for those shows — was undoubtedly
the greatest training ever. Knowing how to work on the timetable
that television requires. Getting to understand the genre
Tom had an uncanny ability to discuss
the conventions of the genre with such ease that it felt
very much like a meeting
with any of the “Alias” writers. We both knew
the kind of second- and triple-guessing we needed to do in
order to tell some of these stories. It was important in
terms of combining a pulp genre with true emotional situations.
It was important in terms of action sequences — I’ve
spent hundreds of hours in the editing room with action sequences
I have or haven’t directed, getting a sense of what
works and what doesn’t.
So when I was on the “Mission” set, I had this
bag of tricks I knew I could pull out if I needed to. And
I had a comfort level that allowed me to show up on the set
and try and be as creative as possible — the way I
used to when I was a kid, and I would go on vacation with
my parents and walk through a hotel lobby and go, “How
could I film a chase scene here?” I’d always
look at every place I went as a location for some kind of
action sequence. Had I not done “Alias” or “Lost,” I’m
sure I would have been far more insecure about what choices
The “Mission: Impossible” TV
series was born in 1966, the same year you were, and was
out of production
before you entered the first grade. Did the TV series have
any influence on how you approached the movie?
Well, I became familiar
with the TV series when I was very young, in reruns — but I also re-acquainted myself
with it during the early “Alias” years.
For me, the most critical thing in approaching
the movie was not borrowing from the TV show — with one major
exception, which I’ll tell you about. It was more that
I wanted to bring the spirit of the show’s teamwork
to the movie. The fun of watching a group plot and execute
some kind of mission was something I didn’t feel was
as critical to the other “Mission” films as I
would have preferred. This was an opportunity to not be the
Monday-morning quarterback, but rather to make the movie
that, for better or worse, I want to see. And the teamwork
is part of that.
The exception was: There’s a cue that Lalo Schifrin
wrote [for the TV series] called “The Plot” that’s
one of the great pieces of film or TV music ever. It’s
as famous as the theme song for anyone who’s ever seen
the show. Are you familiar with it?
I’m sure if I heard it, I’d know it. [J.J. Abrams
starts humming “The Plot”] Oh, yeah yeah yeah!
I mean, literally — they’ve
never used it in the movies.
That’s a crime.
And that’s the theme that was most often used when
you were watching the team do their thing — it spoke
of that IMF spirit. As much as the main theme song gets your
mojo working, “The Plot” was the heart of the
series. And the fact that it was never used in the movies
was ludicrous to me. I get to bring that back. Michael Giacchino
is composing for the movie, adapting Schifrin’s work.
Giacchino’s a great choice — he already did
such a wonderful job weaving Schifrin [and John Barry] into “The
Incredibles.” He’s a phenomenal composer.
And his storytelling skill’s as good as his compositional
skill. He has an inherent understanding of character and
story and rhythm and pace. Throughout the years, working
on “Alias” and “Lost” with him, he’ll
constantly suggest story adjustments or cuts or things that
don’t quite ring true. He’s an incredible resource.
& JAMES BOND
When “Alias” concludes this
May, will we finally learn why we zoom through one letter
in the name of every
city Sydney Bristow visits?
[laughs] You may or may not learn why. But ultimately, it
really is just a convention of the show, as opposed to it
having any sort of big answer.
We’ve discussed, along the way,
various ways to play with that and kind of put it to rest.
But we have sort of
bigger fish to fry, in terms of concluding the end of the
season and the series.
Will Milo Rambaldi play
a significant role in the “Alias” finale,
or has that ship sailed?
There will be a Rambaldi
component to it. We would have actually gone there far
more — and in greater detail,
as we originally conceived it — if the network had
been more amenable to that. But they were always very anti-Rambaldi,
so we kind of had to pull back.
Did you ever consider a circumstance that would have necessitated
We actually have. In a flashback once, you actually saw
a piece of his hand, but you never actually saw who he was.
[brief pause] We actually have — yes.
Once “Mission: Impossible III” hits cinemas,
do you see yourself taking a more active role in guiding “Lost’s” third
I’d love to become more involved in “Lost” next
year — which, in many ways, would be almost anything,
given how time-consuming the movie’s been. I’m
incredibly grateful to Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse for
running the show this year and doing such a great job. But
I’d love to direct an episode. I miss those guys like
Everyone seems a little
stunned that your bounty-hunter pilot “The Catch” didn’t
go to series at ABC. What happened there?
I honestly think the show
just wasn’t what ABC wanted
on their schedule. To be honest, I think it was an uphill
battle from the beginning — because the people who
green-lit it to begin with were just no longer at the network.
We did three pilots last year. One of them’s gonna
get picked up. We’re doing another pilot this year
called “Six Degrees” that’s terrific.
“The Catch” starred Greg Grunberg, whom I’ve worked
with on “Felicity” and “Alias” — he
was the pilot on “Lost,” and he has a small role
in “Mission” — and he was terrific in the
show. In many ways, I wish it had happened. In other ways,
given how much I had to devote myself to the movie, it would
have been difficult to do the pilot and then run.
As someone who straddles
both worlds, what’s your
perspective on working in television versus working in film?
My perspective is that any way you can tell a story and
reach the audience is exciting and worth doing.
There’s a level of sophistication now — even
in little kids — about story. Unconsciously, they understand
the setup and anticipate the payoff of storylines. Maybe
that’s because of the vast number of entertainment
opportunities available now — they’re just besieged
So you have to really think: What is
the reason you’re
telling your story? What makes your story worth anyone’s
time — to go to the theater, to turn the channel? You
need to keep people from feeling like they’re watching
something they can anticipate or predict. There’s too
much out there that’s too well-done to assume that — because
you have a star or a title — the movie’s gonna
get the audience’s attention.
And the Internet allows for word to
spread immediately about how something may or may not be
worth your time. I
people are now gauging the consensus of what’s worth
doing and what’s not. Even if the official newspaper
and magazine reviews are good, if the online consensus is “Don’t
waste your time” or “It’s a good rental,” you’re
dead. If you’re seeing an increase in sophistication,
whether it’s in television or in film, my guess is
that’s it’s a reaction: “Oh, we have to
make really good stuff, or people won’t come.”
Our ambition with “Mission: Impossible III” was
to make a movie that’s good that just happened to star
Tom Cruise and be part of this franchise.
You’ve spoken often of your love — some might
call it a nerdly love — of the James Bond franchise.
If Sony approached you to make a Bond movie, could you refuse,
or did “Mission: Impossible III” scratch that
If they did — and I can’t imagine they would — while
it would be hard to refuse an opportunity like that, James
Bond is such an iconic series, I almost can’t imagine
being part of that. I need to be the audience for that — you
know what I’m saying? It’s almost sacrilege to
imagine working on those.
And from everything you’ve said, it sounds like you
feel very strongly about authorship — and authorship
is tough to pull off with something that established.
I think that’s true. That was the beauty of “Mission.” Unlike
so many producers and actors who have a very rigid view,
Tom literally said, “What’s your ‘Mission:
Impossible’ movie?” I hope when you see the film,
you feel that energy. And if you don’t like it, I’m
100-percent to blame.