Even if you don’t realize it, chances are you know the name J.J. Abrams. It’s amongst the creators of television pillars like Lost, Alias, and Felicity; at the directorial helm of blockbusters like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, 2009’s Star Trek, as well as its sequel; and on an even larger number of projects as producer, from Fringe to Westworld and even Armageddon.
That name first garnered attention here in Westchester, where Abrams wrote a feature film treatment during his senior year at Sarah Lawrence College (SLC) alongside Gone Fishin’s Jill Mazurky. After being purchased by Disney’s Touchstone Pictures, that treatment went on to become the 1990 comedy Taking Care of Business, Abrams’ first produced film. And it’s at Sarah Lawrence College where the Hollywood director will return May 19 to deliver a speech at the college’s class of 2017 commencement ceremony.
Of course, we couldn’t let someone of Abrams’ prominence come to town without hearing what they have to say about our home first. So check out our interview with the Star Wars director below for a peek into his memories forged within our borders and his word on the upcoming projects he is most excited for us to see.
Tell us a little about your time here in Westchester.
I loved being there. The experience of being so far away from home, in a place that’s so beautiful but also just a train ride away from Manhattan was a dream for a kid that grew up in Los Angeles. And I loved my time at SLC and I’m thrilled to come back and revisit.
Did you form any lasting relationships while going to school here?
Right now I’m currently standing in a building that was designed by Andy Waisler, an amazing designer and architect and someone I met my freshman year.
My many friendships from Sarah Lawrence are luckily very much in effect today, but also a relationship to work ethic and community and feeling like this was the place where, for the first time, I was able to believe that I could do the thing in life that I wanted to do since I was a kid.
It’s clear from much of your work that you have a love for exploring unseen mystery. Was entering college, or perhaps graduating, one of those experiences of challenging the unknown?
I think one of the many benefits of a robust college experience is that you make discoveries, that you make mistakes, that you experiment and explore. I think the greatest thing you can do at college is see the world as a place of incredible possibility, and that’s something that I know I felt when I was at SLC.
You did what many thought impossible: You brought the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises under one roof. What was it like heading into that sort of unknown challenge?
Taking on each of those worlds was a big challenge, but also the kind of opportunity that a kid, who dreamed of being a movie director and filmmaker, to have realize is surreal and thrilling.
Your directorial influence is very apparent even on projects where you are executive producer. Can you explain to us your role as an executive producer and how much creative influence you like to retain?
As a producer on any project you try to do whatever’s necessary of you. In some cases that’s getting out of the way, in other cases it’s helping with casting, editorial, or reshoots. It depends on what is being demanded, what fires need to be put out, what help you can be. I think the key as a producer is to be additive and to help the project and the people directing it or producing it realize their vision as best as possible.
I’ve been very lucky to work with people, like, in the case of The Last Jedi, Ryan Johnson, who is a filmmaker who doesn’t need a babysitter. He needs to be given the room and the space to do what he wants to do. We collaborated really well from the moment he came on, but this is his moment to tell his story.
You want to hire people who can do the job so you don’t have to do their job. And in the case of Ryan, Kathy Kennedy brought him on to direct and write The Last Jedi because she knew he was a fully capable filmmaker, and he’s proven to be that once again.
Of all your incredible accomplishments, what would you like to be remembered by in history if you had the choice?
[Laughs] Oh dear lord! Of course every project I’ve worked on I remember fondly. Certainly getting to know Carrie Fisher and getting to work so closely with Harrison [Ford] and Anthony Daniels, and getting to hire people like Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, and Oscar Isaac — these people who are just incredible actors who might not have otherwise been in that world — it was a complete honor.
I can look at every project I’ve gotten to work on and tell you why I feel so lucky to have been involved, but I have no idea what I would want or expect to be remembered by.
What would you like your former classmates at SLC to remember you by on a more personal level?
I will say it’s a very strange thing to consider yourself from the outside in from someone else’s point of view; you’d have to ask them. But I can tell you what I remember, which is that I was lucky enough to go to a college that had incredibly thoughtful and unique and artistic students in the student body. We were encouraged to forge our own path and that’s not something that happens all the time at a college or university. That’s one of the many things I am grateful to Sarah Lawrence for.
Do you have any upcoming projects that you’re really excited for?
We are working on a couple things that I really can’t wait for people to see. One of them is this show called Castle Rock, which is going to be on Hulu. It’s going to come out next year and it’s a show that takes place in the Stephen King universe. It’s a very special show.
And the next season of Westworld on HBO, we’re working on that. We’re currently editing a movie and starting another one, we have a bunch of other things that are in the works, but those are the two that come to mind.