Who is J. J. Abrams?
For a whole week it seemed as if everyone who walked into my suite at the Mondrian hotel and saw the script for Mel Gibson's Christmas release Forever Young lying on the coffee table just had to tell me a story about the guy who wrote it, J.J. (Jeffrey) Abrams.
I'd barely even heard of Abrams, but these people not only knew of him, they were ready to launch into rants about what a mediocre talent he is, the prime evidence being that he wrote Regarding Henry (the story of an asshole lawyer who had to take a bullet in the brain before he could chill out enough to pet a puppy), about how he wasn't a loyal friend to his first partner, Jill Mazursky (the daughter of auteur Paul Mazursky), with whom he wrote Taking Care of Business, and about how demented it was that he was that he was being paid so much for such losing scripts.
And after saying dreadful things like this, each of these people claimed to be a friend of J.J.'s. It got to the point where I wanted to hang a banner from the hotel window over Sunset that said: Who is J.J. Abrams, and why is everyone in L.A. talking about him?
Naturally, it occurred to me that J.J.'s "friends" were just unmeasurably pissed off that it was he and not they themselves who was making obscene amounts of money for scripts at such a young age. (Abrams is 26. And what's an obscene amount of money? What someone else gets and you don't.) Then again, maybe J.J. was a jerk.
Either way, I was going to do some talking with J.J. Abrams now that I'd heard so many others talk about him.
Even if I'd known what to expect, I would have been surprised by the events of the next few days. For ultimately, this is a story about sickness--about tonsillitis (J.J.'s) and the flu (mine). It's just as well. To my way of thinking, you can tell more about people by the way they deal with sickness than by the way they deal with success. You'll see.
THURSDAY MORNING: J.J. calls to cancel our lunch interview. He says he's got tonsillitis. I don't believe him. While I have him on the line, I bring up Jill Mazursky and tell him that people around town tend to express the opinion that Jill should have become rich and famous long before he did.
"I owe everything I have to Jill," he says without a pause or a trace of sarcasm. "She, like, totally made my career." And then he launches into what turns out to be a marathon monologue: "In my senior year at Sarah Lawrence, I came home for Christmas vacation and I was wandering around the mall, wondering what I was going to do when I graduated. I got so depressed that I decided to go home. I mean, my dad's a television producer, and I knew I could get a job as an assistant or a reader with one of his friends, but it wasn't exactly what I wanted to do. On my way down the escalator, in the mall that day, I saw Jill on her way up. We had met before, and she said hello, and we said we'd call each other, and a couple of weeks after the holidays, we did. I went to her house and she told me about this idea she had for a script, about a guy--someone who's just working his way up in the corporate world--who loses his Filofax. And I thought that the guy who found it should be this really tough guy who had just escaped from jail, like a tough Hispanic guy. Then we wrote a treatment for Taking Care of Business, and Jeffrey Katzenberg bought it! I mean, just like that. I was back at school and I had to take the train down to the city and go up to Disney's offices.
And I was, like, so excited because I had always wondered what went on in those big office buildings and now I was there, signing this contract. Of course, they changed the whole thing. They made the guy who loses his book [Charles Grodin] into a very successful guy, and the guy who steals it into Jim Belushi. It was still a great experience, and it gave me time and money to write more scripts. I've written a bunch of scripts on my own, and a few more with Jill. We're working on something together right now. I'm pretty sure that one of the screen-plays we did together will get made. And I don't feel that I'm more successful than Jill; I've just had more movies produced. She's being pursued by producers all the time. It's just that I've sold some high-profile scripts for more money."
Whew. Now I know how he got the tonsillitis.
We spend another hour-and-a-half chatting about loyalty and betrayal (this is at the height of the Woody and Mia battle, so everyone's actually pretending to think about such things), why everyone is so jealous of his career (who wouldn't be?), friendship ("I've had the same friends since I was in kindergarten. If you want, I can give you their names and numbers and you can call them yourself." Hey J.J., no thanks), and love and sex (he's looking for the former and get ting offered his share of the latter). I hang up completely exhausted.
Half an hour later, the phone rings. "As long as you're my new best friend," J.J. says, "I might as well take you out for lunch. Can you meet me at the Stage Deli in 45 minutes?" How will I recognize him? "Mickey Mouse shorts," he says.
He isn't kidding. Clunky shoes, a base ball cap, a faded T-shirt and those shorts. He looks about 12 years old. And the tonsillitis is for real, even if it isn't slowing him down. He's rasping and can barely be heard--I have to sit very close to hear him. He keeps breathing on my straw. I don't want his germs anywhere near me, but can't figure a polite way of saying so.
I am eating lunch with a perpetual-motion machine. J.J.'s tapping his feet in that way some guys have, and drumming on the table to some inner beat. When a nerdy little boy walks by clutching his T2 doll, J.J. looks me dead in the eye and says, "That's me as a kid."
I tell J.J. what's been going on in my hotel room. He doesn't recognize the names of any of the people who claim to be his friends and most of what they said seems to run off his back. Except for one remark, the one made by the most skeptical person I know. J.J. Abrams, claims this person, is the luckiest Jew in Hollywood besides Steve Guttenberg. "Please," implores the sick boy sitting across from me, his eyes glued shut against the pain of what he's just heard. "Please tell me that I have an ounce more talent than he does."
Before I can say anything, a man in a serious suit comes over to the table and drops his card into J.J.'s matzo-ball soup. We both look up, startled. "I just wanted to introduce myself, Mr. Abrams," he says, and then they both laugh. It turns out to be J.J.'s accountant. When the CPA leaves, I try to get us steered in another direction, but J.J. wants to get back to this Steve Guttenberg stuff. "God, I can't believe you know people who say such appalling things, Martha," he says. "Who would say that? Please assure me that it's not true." I tell him that he's head and shoulders above Guttenberg in my mind. "Okay," he says, somewhat mollified, "even if you're lying, I can live with that. I am lucky, I'm the first to admit that. I was lucky to have met Jill. I know there are people more talented than me out there. I know that I've gotten a lot luckier than I deserve. What should I do? Tell them that they've got the wrong guy, that they should buy someone else's scripts? I try to do the best I can."
J.J.'s voice is truly straining at this point, but he goes on, "When I made all the money for Forever Young, I put most of it away..."
"What?" This strikes me as incredible. "You mean you didn't go out and buy a big house and a Porsche?"
At this, J.J. turns a purplish red. As Mark Twain once said, "Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to."
"Oh come on, J.J. You didn't! That is such a cliché!"
"But I had to buy a house," he says feebly, "and I needed a car, and I thought, well, I want a convertible..."
"So why not a Porsche, huh?"
"Okay," he says, realizing how all this sounds. "But I'm not an asshole about [the Porsche]. I let anyone drive it. I don't give a shit what happens to it..."
I change the subject and ask J.J. how he felt about Regarding Henry. "I was, like, so excited when Harrison Ford signed to do it," he says. "And then to get Mike Nichols to direct it... I was in total heaven. I mean, I had been a fan of his for years, my parents had his records with Elaine May, and oh, God, it was so fucking great. I was on the set all the time, and even though I disagreed with some of the things they did, I was too inexperienced and nervous to voice my opinion."
Now that I'd like to see.
On our way out of the restaurant, all these players are nod ding and smiling in our direction. J.J.'s only response is a small movement in his shoulders. He's feeling worse now, and I think I'm coming down with something myself. We decide to do some shopping. Two young kids hurtle past us on their skateboards. They're almost out of view when one turns back and yells, "Hey J.J., how you doin'?" When we walk into the record store, the guy behind the counter sees us and says, "Hey J.J., I've got the tape of my band here. Take it home and listen to it when you get a chance." Who the fuck is J.J. Abrams, and how come everyone in L.A. knows him?
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