Television
4:55 pm
Sun November 17, 2013

J.J. Abrams On His Dynasty: Too Much Power For One Man

Originally published on Sun November 17, 2013 6:10 pm

J.J. Abrams already had the Mission: Impossible and Star Trek franchises under his belt when he was offered Star Wars. He says taking on the beloved work of science fiction in addition to the others was a big decision: "It's too much power for one man!"

"I was insanely flattered, but felt like it was too much," he tells NPR's Arun Rath. "I was already involved in a couple series that pre-existed me and I wanted to get back to doing original stories. [But] it was such a once-in-a-lifetime chance to do something completely thrilling and wildly challenging."

Abrams has has managed to work get those original stories into the world. The man behind hit TV shows like Alias and Lost, is also the executive producer of the new Fox show Almost Human.

Almost Human is a futuristic drama set in the year 2048. In this not-so-distant future, all police officers are partnered with an android. Michael Ealy plays the android, who is from a model that had previously been decommissioned for being too human-like. Karl Urban plays a human cop, with a cyborg element. After he being injured in a blast, he is equipped with a sophisticated, mechanical leg.

"The title 'Almost Human' applies to both of the main characters," Abrams explains. "These are two characters that are sort of broken. They're sort of both, in various ways, on the scrap heap and they both kind of save each other."

Abrams, also added "author" to his resume this year. His book, S., co-authored with Doug Dorst, was released in October.


Interview Highlights

On what drew him to the new show Almost Human

"As a kid, I used to love The Six Million Dollar Man and I loved the idea of ... technology and humanity overlapping. What I loved about this idea that Joel Wyman pitched was that ... this synthetic partner was in many ways the partner you would want in a cop car with you. He is the guy who was not only brave and incredibly fit and had all of the information you wanted instantly, but is also someone who is actually compassionate and insightful and thoughtful and someone who would really be, in many ways, more human than the human partner he had."

On the genesis of his book, S., which features dialogue in the margins of the pages

"The idea came from a very simple place, which is that I was at Los Angeles airport about 15 years ago or so, and I saw a paperback book ... on a bench, and I opened it up and someone had written inside, 'To whomever finds this book, please read the book, take it somewhere else and leave it for someone else to find it.'

"I still have this book. I've never read it, frankly. And I've never left it for anyone else, but I've kept this thing. It began a thought process for me, which was, what if someone found a book that had extensive notes in it and responded to some of those notes and left the book back? ... And what if a conversation began strictly in the margins of a novel?

"A wonderful author named Doug Dorst heard this pitch and his eyes lit up and I thought, 'Oh my God, he's crazy too.' And we literally thought that no one would really get it or be interested in it."

On other projects he'd like to pursue

"The idea of doing something in theater is very interesting to me. I've always wanted to do a children's book. ... Who knows if I'll ever find time."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Once again, you're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

Mismatched partners are a staple of cop dramas and comedies alike. In the new Fox TV show "Almost Human," mismatched partners are required by law. The year is 2048, and every police officer is required to work with an android partner. Karl Urban - you might remember him as Dr. McCoy in the new "Star Trek" movies - plays a human cop with a bionic leg who has issues with the new protocol.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ALMOST HUMAN")

KARL URBAN: (as John Kennex) I'm not driving with one of those things. A human partner was good enough for my father. It's good enough for me.

RATH: He does end up with a robo-partner anyway. Michael Ealy plays the android who had been shut down for having some issues of his own.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ALMOST HUMAN")

MICHAEL EALY: (as Dorian) I was decommissioned four years ago, as you know. All of us were. Why am I in this car with you?

URBAN: (as John Kennex) I'm required to ride with a synthetic.

EALY: (as Dorian) I'm not a huge fan of that term.

RATH: J.J. Abrams, the man behind hit TV shows like "Felicity," Alias" and "Lost," is the executive producer of "Almost Human." He says the name of his new series is more ambiguous than you might think.

J.J. ABRAMS: The title "Almost Human" applies to both of the main characters. And these are two characters that are sort of broken. They're kind of both in various ways on the scrap heap, and they both kind of save each other.

RATH: You know, in science fiction, there have been a lot of soulless characters that I think help us explore our humanity, whether it's a Vulcan or an android. This android has a bit more soul to him than your typical android.

ABRAMS: I think you're right. As a kid, I used to love "The Six Million Dollar Man," and I love the idea of sort of technology and humanity overlapping. What I loved about this idea that Joel Wyman pitched was that this partner, this synthetic partner, was, in many ways, the partner you would want in a cop car with you, that he is the guy who was not only brave and incredibly fit and had all the information you wanted instantly but is also someone who is actually compassionate and insightful and thoughtful and someone who would really be, in many ways, more human than the human partner he had.

RATH: Hmm. Do you have your own idea of at what point we cease to become human when we integrate too much with technology?

ABRAMS: There is this assumption that we all have that we are in control of who we are and that these machines sort of work for us and do our jobs, you know, that we tell them to do. But I remember a time - and this is many years ago already - I came home one day, and my fax machine had a light blinking. And it said press start, so I pressed start. And then it said replace paper, so I replaced the paper. And I realized that for about 10 minutes, I was doing every single thing that this computer, this machine was asking me to do.

And I think that there are moments when we become slaves to the machine. And the question of technology, it's the interface, the handshake that we make with these machines that we are carrying in our pockets every day and interacting with all the time, I think, is sometimes more nuanced and a little bit more insidiously unbalanced than we think.

RATH: I find myself saying please and thank you to Siri sometimes.

ABRAMS: You know, it's funny, I do that too. And I know I'm being absolutely insane as I do it. But I do the same exact thing.

RATH: I want to talk about your new book. I think I need to describe it as an object. It's called "S," and you get this book called "The Ship of Theseus." It's a fake book written by a fake author, but it's also filled with all this marginalia written by people who have owned the book. So it's like a book with multiple levels and multiple stories.

ABRAMS: Yeah. It is as odd as you describe it. The idea came from a very simple place, which is that I was at Los Angeles Airport about 15 years ago or so, and I saw a paperback book that I picked up. It was sitting on a bench. And I opened it up, and someone had written inside: To whomever finds this book, please read the book, take it somewhere else and leave it for someone else to find it. I still have this book. I've never read it, frankly, and I've never left it for anyone else.

It began a kind of thought process for me, which was, what if someone found a book that had extensive notes written in it and responded to some of those notes and then left the book back? And what if that person who left the book originally found the book? And what if a conversation began strictly through the margins of a novel?

A wonderful author named Doug Dorst heard this pitch, and his eyes lit up. And I thought: Oh, my God. He's crazy too. And we literally thought that no one would really get it or be interested. And we found out yesterday it's on The New York Times bestseller list, and we can't believe it.

RATH: I would think it would be incredibly hard to make these things because the book is filled with - you pick it up and things fall out of it, like a napkin with a mysterious map scrawled on it. And it's an actual napkin, you know.

(LAUGHTER)

ABRAMS: I just - all I wanted was for the book to look like a real library book from the late '40s, early '50s. And I wanted it to look like people had actually written in the margins in pen.

RATH: It's kind of an interesting shift, you know, from working with such high levels of technology in the film and television media to this thing that's very kind of old-fashioned and, you know, again, it's - this physical object that you have to experience in a very traditional way.

ABRAMS: Well, the idea for this was that these two people meet through a book. It's almost like a play on top of a novel. And therefore, the form that would best represent that idea was a book. Just as some ideas are a better song than a movie or a better play, you know, than a painting, it's like, you know, every idea sort of demands its own form. And it just felt like that's what this was. This is not meant to be a movie, but we're going to release it first as a book. This is really the format it was meant to be, I think.

RATH: Do you think there's anything else like this you might produce?

ABRAMS: You know, the idea of doing something in theater is very interesting to me. I've always wanted to do a children's book. You know, there are things like that. Who knows if, you know, I'll ever find time.

RATH: Are you able to talk at all about the new "Star Wars" film?

ABRAMS: I mean, it's too early to say anything specific, but I will say that we're hard at work on it and it's - it could not be more of a thrill to be involved.

RATH: You know, I have to say, for a lot of science fiction geeks like myself - before anybody complains - that when you took over the "Star Wars" franchise, our heads almost exploded. It's almost like that was too much power for one man.

(LAUGHTER)

RATH: How do you feel about that?

ABRAMS: I agree. It's too much power for one man. The truth is that the "Star Wars" series is something that had such meaning for me as a kid. When they approached me about it, I was insanely flattered but felt like it was too much. Having done, frankly, you know, "Mission Impossible" and "Star Trek," I was already involved in a couple series that pre-existed me, and I wanted to get back to doing original stories.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABRAMS: It was such a once-in-a-lifetime chance to do something truly thrilling and wildly challenging. And it just felt like...

RATH: Right. How do you turn that down?

ABRAMS: Yeah.

RATH: J. J. Abrams is the executive producer of the new show "Almost Human." It premieres tonight on Fox and will regularly be on Monday nights. He's also the co-author of the new book "S." Thank you so much.

ABRAMS: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.