After setting box office records with Star Wars: The Force Awakens, director J.J. Abrams is coming back to television. The creator of Felicity, Alias, Lost and other hits is bringing a Stephen King epic to Hulu. 11.22.63 is time travel story starring James Franco as a modern man who discovers a portal to 1960, and uses three years in the past to try to stop the JFK assassination.
Abrams is also producing Cameron Crowe’s upcoming Showtime series Roadies, about the people who manage concert tours. Abrams spoke with the Television Critics Association twice in January for each show, and was open to fielding questions about Star Wars. There are some Star Wars spoilers, since we assume everyone reading is among the billions of viewers who helped that film set new box office records. 11.22.63 premieres February 15 on Hulu with new episodes of the eight part series launching Mondays.
You have a show on Hulu and on Showtime. How are you finding the experience of working on cable and streaming services?
I feel very lucky. Every partner is different and we’ve been incredibly lucky to get to work with the right partners for the right projects. I feel like we’re in that situation with Hulu on this one.
How much were you involved with 11.22.63 while you were working on Star Wars?
My involvement in this was really mostly about Stephen King reached out and asked me if I wanted to be involved. I loved the book so much and he knew that. He’d already sent me a copy of the book, a signed copy because I’d already told him how much I love the book. About a year or so later he sent me an e-mail and asked if we should do this together. I was so excited about it. Part of it was my responsibility, as prep on Star Wars was heating up, was figuring out who was the right person to do this with. We had wanted to work with Bridget (Carpenter) for a long time. We’re very lucky to get to do it on this. As it went along, it was mostly about reading scripts and giving notes. Obviously I had a day job when I was shooting the movie. It was a little bit easier in post to get to look at dailies or cuts. Bridget, luckily, doesn’t need to be babysat or handheld so she was a wonderful partner to work with.
You normally like to keep plots secret, but this is based on a book. People can read it cover to cover if they want to. How does that factor into the mystery box element of the show?
You’re referencing this thing that I talked about in this TED Talk. To be clear, I don’t ever approach any project thinking, “Well, here we go, another mystery box.” It was just an example of how, for me, great stories work where they pose questions that make you lean in, that make you want to know what comes next. A lot of times when we see movies or watch shows that spoon feed information, you find yourself often leaning away. You don’t want to know the information. So one of my favorite things about Stephen King and the remarkable work that Bridget has done on this series is that they’ve both told stories that were so incredibly compelling and grab you by the heart and grab you by the throat and just drag you through this thing. There is a power to the premise, but a power to the telling.
How do you react to a movie you made making as much money as The Force Awakens, and what does it do for your career?
I’m just incredibly relieved the movie’s out, that it was well received. I’m more excited when I hear that people went to go see the movie with their parents who took them to the original movie when they were kids, or who took their own kids who maybe had never seen a Star Wars movie and who fell in love with Rey or found Finn to be someone they want to be for Halloween. Those kind of stories frankly feel more impactful and gratifying than all the numbers, which are wonderful and I’m very grateful to everyone who went to see the film. It’s most exciting to hear that people actually went and had an experience.
Did it kill you to kill Harrison Ford?
First of all, I didn’t kill Harrison Ford, just for the record. No, but we knew we needed to do something that was bold and maybe unexpected.
Your friend Greg Grunberg said that you’d regretted not directing Episode VIII. Was he exaggerating?
Here’s the thing about Greg. You put a microphone in front of him, you never know what you’re going to get. I love my friend Greg. He’s my best friend since Kindergarten. I think that my enthusiasm for VIII is enormous. I think he also might have invented a couple of the quotes that he gave but I am very much excited for, and very jealous of anyone, especially Rian (Johnson), who gets to work so closely with this extraordinary cast and crew. Truly an amazing group. In that regard, for sure, but honestly, I’m also relieved to have gotten the chance to do a Star Wars movie.
When it comes to Roadies, what is the role of music in your life?
The amazing thing is that this object right here, everything we hold in our pockets, the phones that we all carry with us have the ability to play nearly every record ever sold, every song on every album ever sold instantly. That’s a miracle. I almost feel like the danger of that is that we take it for granted that we have access to every song instantly. Working on this show with Cameron (Crowe) has been a great reminder that music is this incredibly powerful, important thing that is not to be taken for granted.