Tonight's premiere of J.J. Abrams' latest TV project, "Revolution," proves the writer-director-producer remains one of Hollywood's most coveted creative figures. But years before he helmed hits on television (including "Lost," "Alias" and "Felicity") and in cinema (the "Star Trek" reboot and "Super 8"), Abrams was a student at Sarah Lawrence College, a place that yielded too many stories for one phone interview with Newsday Westchester.
"That's sort of a long conversation to have, over a beverage," said Abrams, 46, with a laugh. "But I loved saving up for that weekly sushi night at Japan Inn [in Bronxville]."
The New York City native almost didn't wind up matriculating in Westchester County. After Jeffrey Jacob Abrams spent the first five years of his life in the city, his parents -- Hollywood producers Gerald Abrams and Carol Ann Abrams -- moved the family to Los Angeles. J.J. said he wanted to go into showbiz from a very young age, but when he was applying to colleges, his dad steered him away from film schools.
"My father immediately advised me to go and learn what to make movies about, not just how to make movies," Abrams said. "And I heard about Sarah Lawrence ... it was a smaller, liberal arts college that encouraged independence and creativity, a half-hour from Manhattan. It sounded like a dream. I went and visited the campus, and ended up going [to college] 3,000 miles from home. I feel very lucky I got the opportunity to do that."
That's not to say Abrams waited until he had his diploma before writing material in hopes that Hollywood executives would greenlight it. As a college senior, he collaborated with fellow SLC student Jill Mazursky to write a film treatment called "Filofax." After he graduated in 1988, he moved back to L.A. to work on that movie, which would star Jim Belushi and be known domestically as Walt Disney Pictures' "Taking Care of Business." He followed that up with the script for a Harrison Ford flick, "Regarding Henry."
But not all of his college writing was destined for wide theatrical release.
"There were so many things that I wrote [in college] -- I'm, like, sweating just thinking about them," he said. "A lot of them were either abnormally pretentious attempts at modernizing things like 'Anna Karenina,' or doing things like writing a kind of wannabe 'Less Than Zero' novel about kids who are always trying to find the great party, that's always kind of one party away. But each time I wrote something, I learned something, and it's actually made writing the next thing a little more comfortable. That's never easy or romantically satisfying, as you'd hope writing would be, but [I'm] always learning something."
In addition to writing, directing and producing -- as he did simultaneously for the 2011 blockbuster "Super 8" -- Abrams is an accomplished musician, contributing to the theme songs for many of the TV shows he's helmed, including "Felicity," "Alias," "Lost," "Fringe," "Undercovers" and "Alcatraz." And while he didn't necessarily see himself selling out concert venues as an undergrad, he did enjoy unwinding with 88 keys while he was a student.
"After meals in the cafeteria, I remember going to this dance studio; it was almost always empty," he recalled. "I remember I would go in, and I would just play the piano for a little while before class ... I do love music [as a] hobby. I just did the theme song for the 'Revolution' series, and it's just a blast to do music. If I could, I would certainly do it all the time, but I'm certainly not good enough."
He'll just have to settle for success in almost every other facet of show business -- like that little sleeper hit called "Lost," for which Abrams won an Emmy Award for directing. The series, about plane crash survivors on a mysterious island, also spawned millions of obsessed fans, who often approached Abrams with conflicting emotions.
"The thing that happened enough times that it became fascinating to me was, when people would ask me specific questions about what was happening on 'Lost,' and before I could really even say anything, they would stop me and say, 'No, no, wait, I don't really want to know,'" said Abrams, who admitted that "Lost" executive producers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse often knew more than he did about the most obscure plot points. "It's an interesting thing about human nature, the desire to get answers, but [there's also] the awareness that once you have the answers, that thing is demystified."
That kind of emotional response from "Lost" fans is one that still resonates with Abrams today.
"The truth is, I was always touched whenever anyone would ask me questions about 'Lost,' because when Damon and I created the show, we had a lot of big ideas, but we never could have predicted that it would go exactly how it went, and the quality of that show really depends on what Damon was able to do," Abrams said.
Quality control will be key when it comes to the second installment of a rebooted sci-fi institution. Abrams directed and produced the 2009 "Star Trek" film that hauled in more than $250 million at the domestic box office. Its sequel is slated for wide release in May, but Abrams is staying tight-lipped about, well, everything.
"It's a little too early to talk specifics," he said, "but I would say that I would hope that fans and non-fans of 'Star Trek' are in for a big, emotional ride."
"Star Trek" earned raves from most critics, but not everything Abrams has created has earned that kind of acclaim. After cowriting the screenplay for the 1998 blockbuster "Armageddon," Abrams was nominated for one of that year's Razzie Awards, whose committee aims to "honor" the worst in cinema. After joking that "I really can't stop thinking about the Razzie ever," Abrams said Newsday Westchester was first to break the news to him about the dubious nomination, nearly 15 years after the fact.
"I swear to God, I didn't know that, but I'm thrilled by this information," he said. "I loved working on 'Armageddon,' because it was insane. It was the craziest idea ever, and I remember working with a NASA scientist ... and getting from him notes that were absolutely critical of the insane possibility of the physics of the script. When I went back to ['Armageddon' producer] Jerry Bruckheimer and said, 'Listen, there's no atmosphere or gravity on an asteroid,' and I went through this list of things, and Jerry was like, 'Yeah, we're keeping all that,' I just thought, 'You know what? This is just going to be a great roller coaster ride. It's not going to be a course in astrophysics.' The movie, I think, was an incredibly fun ride, and I will say, despite what people say critically of ['Armageddon' producer-director] Michael Bay, there's no one who has a better eye than him. You cannot argue that he doesn't shoot beautifully. I'm a fan of what he did with 'Armageddon.'"
His last NBC series, 2010's "Undercovers," about a pair of spies who are husband and wife, had a better critical reception, but was yanked from the prime-time lineup after 11 episodes. As the executive producer of "Revolution," Abrams is hoping for a longer run on the network; he just might get it with the help of "Revolution's" executive producer, Eric Kripke, whose CW hit, "Supernatural," kicks off its eighth season on Oct. 3.
"I've been wanting to work with Eric Kripke for a long time," he said. "I love the idea of a show that asks great 'what-ifs,' and that's something that he certainly does."
Premiering Monday, "Revolution" is set in a futuristic world where there's been no electric power for 15 years. Abrams recently told Newsday Westchester that while fans shouldn't necessarily expect the Smoke Monster from "Lost" to make a cameo, the setting of supposed powerlessness allows for intriguing sci-fi possibilities.
"Not only do we get to visit the highlights of what transpired in flashback, but also that things have time to evolve," says Abrams, 46. "And we've had very interesting discussions about what might have happened, and why, if the power went out. This show is certainly in no way, 'Lost,' and has a very different conceit ... I think it has potential."
While keeping an eye on "Revolution," Abrams will also supervise cinematic progress on the "Star Trek" sequel, "Earthquake" and "Mystery on Fifth Avenue" in the coming months. He says he's used to being involved in multiple projects at the same time.
"[Just because I'm a] producer who has multiple things in development, it doesn't mean that everything will come to fruition," he said. "When you're tending a garden, not everything grows quite the way you expect."
"Revolution" premieres at 10 p.m. Monday on NBC.