Tribeca 2016: J.J. Abrams and Chris Rock on ‘Star Wars,’ Lens Flares, Comic Book Movies, and How to Write an Ending


In theory, last night’s Tribeca Talks Directors’ Series conversation between J.J. Abrams and Chris Rock was, in fact, a talk between two directors; in addition to his stand-up and acting work, Rock wrote (or co-wrote) and directed his features Down to Earth, Head of State, I Think I Love My Wife, and Top Five . But when Abrams off-handedly referenced that filmography while discussing casting – “As a director, you know that when the right person walks in…” – Rock stopped him.

“I make movies occasionally,” Rock clarified. “You’re a director. I’m not gonna sit here like, ‘Yeah, J.J., you and me! Yep, Star Wars, Pootie Tang…'”

Over the course of the frequently uproarious 75-minute event, one of several directorial shop-talks at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, the duo discussed deal-breakers with possible collaborators (“I once fired a director because I found out he didn’t like Annie Hall,” Rock confessed. “Can you imagine working with somebody, taking notes from somebody who doesn’t like Annie Hall?”) and everyday sexism (Abrams recalled an ABC executive asking if Jennifer Garner was “hot enough” for Alias; Rock recalled a female exec noting that Kerry Washington, co-star of Rock’s I Think I Love My Wife, was “getting a little big”). They took questions from the audience, including – from a charming kid, about eight or nine years old – the inevitable “Who are Rey’s parents?” (“This is all I’ll say: it is something that Rey thinks about too”). They spitballed ideas for a Rock TV show, “cause I’m running out of money, let’s cash out this credibility”; they settled on a half-hour single-camera seriocomic drama, but got stuck on the premise (as Abrams noted, “Usually when I do story meetings, it’s for less than 1200 people”).

And Rock asked questions, “some written by me, some written by my bother Brian. He’s my sci-fi brother – you know, I just watch old Sanford & Sons all the time.” And Brian suggested a key question for even a casual viewer of the Abrams oeuvre: “What’s up with the lens flares? That’s your thing. It’s like Spike Lee’s got that dolly shot…”

“First of all, I mean this, I hate your brother,” Abrams joked. ”Secondly, I’m over that. I’m not saying there will never be a flare in anything I do, but for a period of time, on Star Trek and then I couldn’t give it up on this other movie I did, there was this idea we had, that the future was so bright that it just couldn’t be contained. So you had stuff happening that so it felt like just off camera there was something great! And there was this energy in the room and it gave it a sort of signature. And I overdid it, and I went further, and on the second Star Trek movie, I went nuts. We’ve all made mistakes! Mine was with light.”

It was all done practically, he explained, with “insane high-powered flashlights,” using lenses without the usual glare-reduction coatings. He ignoring warnings from his cinematographers, until “we’d get dailies back, and sometimes we would look at shots where you literally could not see what the hell was going on.”

So he let it go, though not without some difficulty. “On Star Wars, there a couple of shots where physics required there to be a flare, because light and glass interact in a certain way,” he explained, “but there were sometimes when the visual effects people would add flares to shots, because I’d worked with them before and they figured I must’ve forgot them.”

They also took the opportunity to talk up some recent – not very good – would-be franchise starters. “You’re a comic book guy, could you direct The Fantastic Four?” Rock asked. “Can someone? I love The Fantastic Four, they keep fuckin’ it up!” It is, in fact, Rock’s favorite comic book (Spider-Man too, but they’ve made far too many Spider-Mans”) – so much so that he wouldn’t direct it himself. “They need somebody better than me.”

But Rock had equally unkind words for another critically reviled comic book adaptation. “Did anybody see this Superman Batman shit? What the fuck was that?” Abrams remained silent, which Rock noted: “You can’t say anything. They weren’t gonna cast me anyway, so…” Rock takes issue not only with the execution, but the conception: “Superman can’t fight a guy that drives a car! Gets a flat, like he’s gonna fight Superman. Needs AAA, but yeah, fights Superman. He’s got jumper cables, but he’s gonna fight Superman.”

Though most of the time was spent on Abrams’ road to success, he turned the tables and asked about Rock’s big break, which came in Keenan Ivory Wayans’ cult classic I’m Gonna Git You Sucka – and prompted a fascinating story about the origins of his famous scene. “He basically stole a joke of mine,” Rock recalled. “The ‘one rib’ guy was like, a thing I used to do in my act, and it was in the script. And I think Eddie Murphy was like, ‘Eh, isn’t that Chris Rock’s thing?’ And the next thing I knew, I got flown from New York to L.A., for a movie that only had two million dollars in the budget or something.” But Rock mostly dismissed such strolls down memory lane. “Hey man, that’s a long time ago. It’s Kevin Hart time now! Who does Kevin play in the next Star Wars?”

The pair specifically talked about the conclusion of Abrams’ The Force Awakens, with Rock proclaiming, “It had the best ending,” and crowning it the winner “if they had an Oscar for Best Ending, and they probably should.”

“What we had was, we knew that obviously getting to Luke was the whole story,” Abrams explained of the script he wrote with Lawrence Kasdan. “It was frankly a tricky thing to do, and in all honesty, Mark Hamill was a little bit resistant. Like, imagine being Mark Hamill, and you get the script to the new Star Wars, and it’s like, ‘Ah, the crawl’s good… (flips page) Page 2… (flips pages) The fuck is going on here… (flips pages) I’m three pages before the end… (flips page) The last WHAT?’

Abrams also discussed the ending of Lost – not the controversial one we got, but another one that could’ve come much sooner. “It was a very weird experience,” he said, of directing the six-season ABC series’ pilot episode, “because we had essentially eleven weeks to write it, cast it, shoot it, cut it, post it, and turn it in. And we had an outline that we’d written in a few days, and it was a scramble – we were casting it was we were writing it, and we were location scouting as we were finishing the script, it was just nuts. And in the middle of shooting the pilot, the head of ABC was fired. And the new person came in while we were shooting and said, ‘Could you shoot an ending so we can air it as a TV movie?’ And I said, ‘If you can tell me how to end this show, what that scene is, I will shoot it for you!’ And I never heard back about it.”

Endings were, in fact, a common theme, with the two writers sharing notes on exactly when and how you should know how your work ends. “I always say when I’m writing a script, don’t start writing until you know the ending,” Rock said.

“So when you do this,” Abrams replied, “you always figure out -”

“I gotta figure out, I gotta know where I’m going – ”

“I agree with you,” Abrams announced. “But do you know writers who don’t do that?”

“Yes…” Rock began.

“Me too,” Abrams added. “Makes me crazy.”

“But I don’t know really great ones that don’t do that.”

“Stephen King doesn’t do it.”

“God damnit.

The Tribeca Film Festival runs through April 24.