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6 Filmmaking Tips From J.J. Abrams

J.J. Abrams directed one of the biggest movies of all time, ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens.’ Here’s some advice from the man so you too can be so successful.
By  · Published on April 6th, 2016

J.J. Abrams directed one of the biggest movies of all time, ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens.’ Here’s some advice from the man so you too can be so successful.

You can joke about lens flares and nepotism when discussing both how J.J. Abrams makes his movies and how he got started in Hollywood. But the truth is he is and has been a hard working filmmaker since his youth and has done well enough by the industry and the audience that we continue to be interested in him. Plus he did a great — maybe not perfect, but still great — job resurrecting Star Wars with The Force Awakens.

So, any advice Abrams has to impart is very valuable. Much of what he offers directly is familiar to anyone reading this column regularly. Most filmmakers say the same things these days. For instance, Abrams often suggests that you just need to make something. Or write something. Don’t say you want to be a director or writer. Be one. He did it as a kid, and there wasn’t all the technology that makes it so much easier now.

There are six other tips we’ve found from interviews and talks he’s given that are more unique to him. Get inspired by reading them below.

Have a Conversation With Your Audience

Obviously we have to address the Mystery Box. In 2007, Abrams gave a TED Talk where he brought out an old box of magic tricks he’s had for 35 years and never opened. He has no idea what is inside (unless he read this 2011 New York Times piece spoiling it), and that’s been turned into a metaphor for various things associated with creating and viewing TV and movies. There’s the movie theater as mystery box, there’s the blank page as mystery box and there’s the setting up of expectations (not false but sort of misdirected) as mystery box, among his explanations.

The biggest in terms of relaying advice involves a creating a kind of dialogue between filmmaker and audience. Through the movie or TV show, that is, not literally and directly. You start off by showing the audience something that makes them ask a question, then you respond with something that is either an answer or something that has them asking more questions, or it’s both. But there’s a back and forth going on, basically an engagement, that propels the storytelling on both sides. Interestingly enough, in the TED Talk, he uses Star Wars to describe what he means.

Abrams has also addressed this elsewhere as being more common or at least easier with television. The pilot of a show should end by setting up questions and promise of what is to come. Of course, with a TV series (say, Lost), the answers often never come, and that can frustrate the audience. It’s true of some movies, too. But, hey, Abrams never opened that box, so maybe he doesn’t relate to that frustration. He also talks below about the related idea of withholding information or obscuring the big picture of a story or creature. It’s all about giving the audience a reason to stick with this conversation they’re having with the material.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.