J.J. Abrams, Chris Rock Talk 'Star Wars,' Terrible First Jobs at Tribeca Film Festival

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"Star Wars" director J.J Abrams, left, and Chris Rock sat down Friday for a lively conversation about film-making at the Tribeca Film Festival. Iva Dixit

“When Chris Rock calls you and asks you to do this for him, you direct his shit.” With that as an opening sentence, JJ Abrams set the tone for the 60 minutes of lively banter that followed between the Star Wars: The Force Awakens director and his interviewer, Chris Rock, on Friday evening at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Rock chose to begin with some gentle ribbing—first by declaring this to be the biggest night of Abrams’s life due to Barbershop: The Next Cut's release in theaters that day, and then over the two J’s in Abrams’s name (they stand for Jeffrey Jacob)—but the two soon launched into an immensely entertaining back-and-forth that touched on several topics, ranging from possible sitcom collaborations between them, to the highly sentimental ending of The Force Awakens.

Here are the highlights from the hour-long conversation that followed:

  • At 8, Rock said he didn’t know that such a profession as movie directors even existed, and thought that television was real. But Abrams, the son of a TV movie producer, was already dead set on becoming one someday, at that same age, inspired in part by watching The Hunchback of Notre Dame being shot on a visit to Universal Studios.

  • When asked by Rock what job he’d held that he didn’t deserve, Abrams sheepishly confessed that while a part of him did want to say Star Wars, he instead chose to go with his time as an office lackey of Jon Feltheimer, the CEO of Lionsgate, where he confessed he’d once gotten a ticket for speeding the executive’s Porsche at 120 mph while he was supposed to be taking the car home.​

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  • Two years of being sequestered from the real world while making Star Wars have left JJ Abrams a bit rusty on what’s current on television. He is now that guy who grabs hold of friends to ask if they’ve seen this fantastic new show called Game of Thrones.
  • Abrams knows you’ve had it with him overusing lens flares, an old habit for which he’s already publicly apologized, after his wife staged an intervention and finally led him to see the overly bright folly of his cinematographic ways. His lens flare overuse on Star Trek had become such a widely known story that technicians on the sets of Star Wars who’d worked with him before would arbitrarily add lens flares to shots, even without his asking for them. Abrams confessed that the lens flare overuse stemmed from his lofty philosophical idea of a radiant energy in the world that couldn’t be contained, and he’d try to recreate that with high-powered lighting, clouding the shot so much bright light that sometimes in post-production, his team wouldn’t be able to tell what was actually happening in the footage.

  • The most riveting part of the evening was when a gutsy middle-schooler in the audience asked Abrams who Rey’s parents were. After the laughs from the audience subsided, Abrams revealed that Rey’s parents were not in Episode VII. “I can’t possibly say in this moment who they are. But I will say it is something that Rey thinks about, too,” he said. It was a clever non-answer, obviously designed to work around the ironclad nondisclosure agreements around the franchise. But this was nevertheless the news that set the Web aflame with rife speculation over this new development, at least for a few hours until Abrams clarified to Entertainment Weekly that his implication was that Rey doesn’t discover them in Episode VII.

  • Rock loved the ending of The Force Awakens, tremendously so. “In the wrong hands it could have been the corniest shit ever, but you did it so artfully,” he complimented Abrams.

  • Both Rock and Abrams talked at length about their early days. When probed by an audience member on what it takes to land an audition with him, Abrams, once again taking the safe route on his answer, emphasized the importance of doing the right kind of work, writing one’s own parts, leveraging the tools of the Web to one’s own advantage, and being seen by the right people. Rock, however was far more succinct in his reply. “Have famous parents. It helps.”

His glibness earned him the laughs and some applause, but it was Rock who dispensed a lot more useful advice to filmmakers and actors trying to get their big break in the industry. “You will take meetings with the same people your whole career. They will move to different companies, and you’ll think they’ve gone, but they’ll be there and you’ll see them again,” he groaned, in a sly dig at the extremely tight-knit way in which Hollywood studios function. He also stressed the importance of committing to every project for newcomers, no matter how small in scale, because in the capricious ways that Hollywood operates, no one ever knows where what might catch the attention of the people who might open doors to bigger, better things for you.

Sharing his own origin story, Rock recalled being cast in a dubiously titled, ill-advised caper called Comedy’s Dirtiest Dozen, starring him and a few other comedians before they made it big. It never aired, but it did put Rock on the radar of an SNL producer (not even Lorne Michaels), which then paved the way for his career to take off the way it did. “You can shine anywhere. If you approach it correctly, you can shine in the biggest piece of shit. A shitty club in Jersey changed my life.”