There is a curiously intimidating and vaguely cryptic sign above the call buzzer on the street entrance to J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot production company in Santa Monica. This sign has only three words: “ARE YOU READY?”
There are a couple ways you can take this. To causal visitors, the sign might seem playful — “Hey, are you ready to meet some talented people and see some cool office decor?” But most people are here on pretty important business. If you’re a writer pitching a TV or movie idea to Abrams — or, in my case, a writer interviewing Abrams about his new Fox show Almost Human – the sign becomes, well … curiously intimidating. Like: Are you ready? Are you fully prepared? Because you know Bad Robot and Abrams are a very big deal now. Abrams’ time is extremely valuable — he’s working Star Wars, Star Trek, and a host of other projects. You will only have a few minutes to ask your questions. ARE YOU READY?
Promised 10 minutes; got 12. The final minute I used to ask a couple Star Wars questions which I posted in September here. Below are the rest:
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So what is your take on the future? Are you a utopia or dystopia guy?
J.J. ABRAMS: I like to think I’m more of an optimist. So the idea of this show is not my default vision of things. I’m not as optimistic as [Star Trek creator] Gene Roddenberry was. I fall somewhere in the middle. But as a romantic, I like to think things are going to get bigger rather than worse.
With Almost Human, what sort of stories are we going to see this season that our readers would be excited about?
One of the opportunities about this show is it not only has characters that make you smile and laugh, and relationships that feel as unique as they are familiar, but its uniqueness comes from something that isn’t necessarily possible right now. Like any story-out-of-time, you want characters and situations where you go, “I know what that is. I know what that feels like. I know someone like that” — even though the person might be a different species. In this show, not only are the relationships unique, but the situations the characters find themselves in are equally unique. The paradigm is familiar, but the specifics are different. If there’s a new weapon on the streets, it won’t look like a weapon you’re familiar with, but you can understand it’s a dangerous thing that shouldn’t be in the wrong hands. It might be a bullet that doesn’t shoot the way you expect. It might be a drug that does something to you that’s insane and horrific. It might be something about harvesting organs that isn’t like anything in present day. The technology is part of what’s going on, but there’s a level of relatability and understanding.
Every time we break a new J.J. Abrams show, there are always some readers who ask, “Yes, but he’s so busy, how involved can he really be?”
I’m as involved as needed. The good news about having [showrunner Joel Wyman] on the show is it’s his pitch, his idea and he’s running the show. When we hear a pitch we like and develop a show — unless it’s something I’ve created and I’m either going to direct the pilot, or oversee or write — we don’t get involved with people who need to be babysat. We are there as necessary. We read scripts, give notes, watch cuts, and just help out however we can.
Is there a specific contribution you’ve made to Almost Human you’d be willing to share?
There are things that happen in the show, all sorts of ideas that come out of conversations and things. There’s little moments and ideas here and there. When Joel was pitching the show, I got so enthusiastic. I loved The Six Million Dollar Man as a kid. The possibility of that as a kid was like candy. All of a sudden on the phone I was just spewing possible ideas of what it could be, and he was just laughing and spewing back. It wasn’t necessarily a specific moment or character, but I hopefully the cheerleader helped Joel do the show he pitched.
Do networks turn you down at this point?
Oh sure, of course. We’re always pitching ideas and being told “no thank you.” No offense taken, because I would so much rather be told the truth that they’re not interested and be able to find the right show for that network down the line. And we have been very lucky, frankly, despite being told no, on almost every occasion we resolved it by finding something that does fit. I would never want somebody to say yes to anything they did not truly believe in.
You have another futuristic robot show in the works — [a reboot of the 1973 sci-fi film] Westworld at HBO, which is a very cinematic concept. Can you give us a sense of how it will be adapted for TV?
It could not be more different from this show. Jonah Nolan and Lisa Joy, who are writing it, have a take on that particular [idea] that I think is mind-blowingly cool, and I cannot wait to be able to talk about it.
Since Marvel launched Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., is there a chance of a Star Trek TV show? Or will they continue not making a new series as long as there are movies in the pipeline?
I have been hearing for as long as I can remember that CBS, who has the rights to the series, has just been saying they’re not interested. That’s the word I’ve been told. [A CBS Studios rep replied: "We love the Star Trek franchise, its fan base and the many possibilities for its future when the time is right."]
You’ve gotten to work with several fantastic properties. Is there another existing property at the top of your wish list, like doing a James Bond?
There are a few stories I can’t wait to tell. And there are new things we’re developing in-house that are not existing properties. I feel I have inadvertently worked on a number of shows and movies that existed long before my involvement. I couldn’t feel luckier to have gotten a chance to do that. I would say I look forward most to the stories that are to come, that are not based on pre-existing [properties].
Fox premieres Almost Human (trailer) on Sunday at 8 p.m., then the show will shift into its regular time slot starting Monday at 8 p.m.