18:03
TED2007

J.J. Abrams: The mystery box

Filmed:

J.J. Abrams traces his love for the unseen mystery –- a passion that’s evident in his films and TV shows, including Cloverfield, Lost and Alias -- back to its magical beginnings.

- Filmmaker
Writer, director and producer J.J. Abrams makes smart, addictive dramas like TV's Lost, and films like Cloverfield and the new Star Trek. Full bio

I wanna start today -- here's my thing. Hold on. There I go.
00:12
Hey. I wanna start today -- talk about the structure of a polypeptide. (Laughter)
00:18
I get a lot of people asking me, in terms of "Lost," you know,
00:24
"What the hell's that island?" You know,
00:28
it's usually followed by,
00:30
"No, seriously, what the hell is that island?"
00:32
(Laughter)
00:34
Why so many mysteries? What is it about mystery that I seem to be drawn to?
00:35
And I was thinking about this, what to talk about at TED.
00:39
When I talked to the kind rep from TED, and I said,
00:42
"Listen, you know, what should I talk about?"
00:46
He said, "Don't worry about it. Just be profound."
00:48
(Laughter) And I took enormous comfort in that.
00:50
So thank you, if you're here.
00:54
I was trying to think, what do I talk about? It's a good question.
00:56
Why do I do so much stuff that involves mystery? And I started trying to figure it out.
00:58
And I started thinking about why do I do any of what I do,
01:02
and I started thinking about my grandfather.
01:04
I loved my grandfather. Harry Kelvin was his name,
01:06
my mother's father. He died in 1986. He was an amazing guy.
01:12
And one of the reasons he was amazing:
01:15
After World War II he began an electronics company.
01:17
He started selling surplus parts, kits, to schools and stuff.
01:19
So he had this incredible curiosity. As a kid I saw him
01:24
come over to me with radios and telephones and all sorts of things.
01:27
And he'd open them up, he'd unscrew them, and reveal the inner workings --
01:30
which many of us, I'm sure, take for granted.
01:33
But it's an amazing gift to give a kid.
01:36
To open up this thing and show how it works and why it works and what it is.
01:38
He was the ultimate deconstructer, in many ways.
01:43
And my grandfather was a kind of guy who would not only take things apart,
01:47
but he got me interested in all sorts of different odd crafts,
01:52
like, you know, printing, like the letter press. I'm obsessed with printing.
01:55
I'm obsessed with silk screening and bookbinding and box making.
02:00
When I was a kid, I was always, like, taking apart boxes and stuff.
02:03
And last night in the hotel, I took apart the Kleenex box.
02:07
I was just looking at it. And I'm telling you ... (Laughter) It's a beautiful thing.
02:10
I swear to God. I mean, when you look at the box, and you sort of see how it works.
02:15
Rives is here, and I met him years ago at a book fair; he does pop-up books.
02:18
And I'm obsessed with, like, engineering of paper.
02:23
But like, the scoring of it, the printing of it, where the thing gets glued,
02:25
you know, the registration marks for the ink. I just love boxes.
02:28
My grandfather was sort of the guy who, you know,
02:31
kind of got me into all sorts of these things.
02:33
He would also supply me with tools.
02:35
He was this amazing encourager -- this patron, sort of, to make stuff.
02:37
And he got me a Super 8 camera when I was 10 years old.
02:42
And in 1976, that was sort of an anomaly,
02:46
to be a 10-year-old kid that had access to a camera.
02:49
And you know, he was so generous; I couldn't believe it.
02:52
He wasn't doing it entirely without some manipulation.
02:55
I mean, I would call him, and I'd be like,
02:58
"Listen, Grandpa, I really need this camera.
03:00
You don't understand. This is, like, you know, I want to make movies.
03:03
I'll get invited to TED one day. This is like -- " (Laughter)
03:06
And you know, and my grandmother was the greatest.
03:10
Because she'd be like, you know -- she'd get on the phone.
03:12
She'd be like, "Harry, it's better than the drugs. He should be doing -- "
03:14
She was fantastic. (Laughter)
03:18
So I found myself getting this stuff,
03:20
thanks to her assist, and suddenly, you know,
03:23
I had a synthesizer when I was 14 years old -- this kind of stuff.
03:25
And it let me make things, which, to me, was sort of the dream.
03:29
He sort of humored my obsession to other things too, like magic.
03:33
The thing is, we'd go to this magic store in New York City called Lou Tannen's Magic.
03:37
It was this great magic store. It was a crappy little building in Midtown,
03:41
but you'd be in the elevator, the elevator would open --
03:44
there'd be this little, small magic store. You'd be in the magic store.
03:46
And it was just, it was a magical place.
03:49
So I got all these sort of magic tricks. Oh, here. I'll show you.
03:51
This is the kind of thing. So it would be like, you know. Right?
03:53
Which is good, but now I can't move.
03:57
Now, I have to do this, the rest of the thing, like this.
03:59
I'm like, "Oh, wow. Look at my computer over there!" (Laughter)
04:01
Anyway, so one of the things that I bought at the magic store was this:
04:04
Tannen's Mystery Magic Box.
04:10
The premise behind the mystery magic box was the following:
04:12
15 dollars buys you 50 dollars worth of magic.
04:14
Which is a savings. (Laughter)
04:19
Now, I bought this decades ago and I'm not kidding.
04:22
If you look at this, you'll see it's never been opened.
04:24
But I've had this forever.
04:27
Now, I was looking at this, it was in my office, as it always is, on the shelf,
04:30
and I was thinking, why have I not opened this?
04:32
And why have I kept it? Because I'm not a pack rat. I don't keep everything
04:37
but for some reason I haven't opened this box.
04:41
And I felt like there was a key to this, somehow,
04:43
in talking about something at TED that I haven't discussed before,
04:45
and bored people elsewhere.
04:49
So I thought, maybe there's something with this. I started thinking about it.
04:51
And there was this giant question mark. I love the design, for what it's worth,
04:53
of this thing. And I started thinking, why haven't I opened it?
04:56
And I realized that I haven't opened it because it represents something important
04:59
-- to me. It represents my grandfather.
05:03
Am I allowed to cry at TED? Because -- no, I'm not going to cry. But -- (Laughter)
05:07
-- the thing is, that it represents infinite possibility.
05:17
It represents hope. It represents potential.
05:21
And what I love about this box,
05:23
and what I realize I sort of do in whatever it is that I do,
05:26
is I find myself drawn to infinite possibility, that sense of potential.
05:30
And I realize that mystery is the catalyst for imagination.
05:36
Now, it's not the most ground-breaking idea,
05:39
but when I started to think that maybe there are times when mystery
05:42
is more important than knowledge, I started getting interested in this.
05:44
And so I started thinking about "Lost," and the stuff that we do,
05:48
and I realized, oh my God, mystery boxes are everywhere in what I do!
05:50
In how -- in the creation of "Lost," Damon Lindelof and I,
05:54
who created the show with me, we were basically tasked with creating this series
05:57
that we had very little time to do. We had 11 and a half weeks
06:02
to write it, cast it, crew it, shoot it, cut it, post it, turn in a two-hour pilot.
06:05
So it was not a lot of time. And that sense of possibility -- what could this thing be?
06:10
There was no time to develop it.
06:14
I'm sure you're all familiar with those people
06:15
who tell you what you can't do and what you should change.
06:17
And there was no time for that, which is kind of amazing.
06:19
And so we did this show, and for those of you who, you know, who haven't seen it,
06:22
or don't know it, I can show you this one little clip from the pilot,
06:25
just to show you some stuff that we did.
06:29
Claire: Help! Please help me! Help me! Help me!
06:40
Jack: Get him out of here! Get him away from the engine! Get him out of here!
06:48
C: I'm having contractions!
06:59
J: How many months pregnant are you?
07:02
C: I'm only eight months.
07:03
J: And how far apart are they coming?
07:05
C: I don't know. I think it just happened.
07:06
Man: Hey! Hey! Hey, get away from --
07:10
JJA: Now, 10 years ago, if we wanted to do that, we'd have to kill a stuntman.
07:23
We'd actually -- (Laughter)
07:27
it would be harder. It would take -- Take 2 would be a bitch.
07:32
So the amazing thing was, we were able to do this thing.
07:36
And part of that was the amazing availability of technology,
07:40
knowing we could do anything. I mean, we could never have done that.
07:43
We might have been able to write it; we wouldn't have been able to depict it
07:46
like we did. And so part of the amazing thing for me is in the creative process,
07:48
technology is, like, mind-blowingly inspiring to me.
07:52
I realize that that blank page is a magic box, you know?
07:55
It needs to be filled with something fantastic.
07:59
I used to have the "Ordinary People" script that I'd flip through.
08:01
The romance of the script was amazing to me; it would inspire me.
08:03
I wanted to try and fill pages with the same kind of
08:06
spirit and thought and emotion that that script did.
08:09
You know, I love Apple computers. I'm obsessed.
08:13
So the Apple computer -- like those -- the PowerBook -- this computer, right,
08:16
it challenges me. It basically says,
08:19
what are you going to write worthy of me? (Laughter)
08:21
I guess I feel this -- I'm compelled.
08:24
And I often am like, you know, dude, today I'm out. I got nothing. You know? (Laughter)
08:27
So there's that. In terms of the content of it, you look at stories, you think,
08:31
well, what are stories but mystery boxes?
08:33
There's a fundamental question -- in TV, the first act is called the teaser.
08:36
It's literally the teaser. It's the big question.
08:39
So you're drawn into it. Then of course,
08:41
there's another question. And it goes on and on.
08:43
Look at "Star Wars." You got the droids; they meet the mysterious woman.
08:45
Who's that? We don't know. Mystery box! You know?
08:47
Then you meet Luke Skywalker. He gets the Droid, you see the holographic image.
08:49
You learn, oh, it's a message, you know.
08:52
She wants to, you know, find Obi Wan Kenobi. He's her only hope.
08:54
But who the hell's Obi Wan Kenobi? Mystery box!
08:57
So then you go and he meets Ben Kenobi. Ben Kenobi is Obi Wan Kenobi.
08:58
Holy shit! You know -- so it keeps us --
09:01
(Laughter) -- have you guys not seen that?
09:03
(Laughter) It's huge! Anyway --
09:06
So there's this thing with mystery boxes that I started feeling compelled.
09:08
Then there's the thing of mystery in terms of imagination --
09:14
the withholding of information. You know,
09:18
doing that intentionally is much more engaging.
09:20
Whether it's like the shark in "Jaws"
09:24
-- if Spielberg's mechanical shark, Bruce, had worked,
09:26
it would not be remotely as scary; you would have seen it too much.
09:28
In "Alien", they never really showed the alien: terrifying!
09:31
Even in a movie, like a romantic comedy, "The Graduate,"
09:34
they're having that date, remember?
09:37
And they're in the car, and it's loud, and so they put the top up.
09:39
They're in there -- you don't hear anything they're saying! You can't hear a word!
09:42
But it's the most romantic date ever. And you love it because you don't hear it.
09:45
So to me, there's that.
09:49
And then, finally, there's this idea -- stretching the sort of paradigm a little bit --
09:51
but the idea of the mystery box.
09:55
Meaning, what you think you're getting, then what you're really getting.
09:57
And it's true in so many movies and stories.
10:00
And when you look at "E.T.," for example -- "E.T." is this, you know,
10:03
unbelievable movie about what? It's about an alien who meets a kid, right?
10:05
Well, it's not. "E.T." is about divorce. "E.T." is about a heartbroken,
10:08
divorce-crippled family, and ultimately, this kid who can't find his way.
10:11
"Die Hard," right? Crazy, great, fun, action-adventure movie in a building.
10:15
It's about a guy who's on the verge of divorce.
10:19
He's showing up to L.A., tail between his legs.
10:21
There are great scenes -- maybe not the most amazing dramatic
10:23
scenes in the history of time, but pretty great scenes.
10:26
There's a half an hour of investment in character before you get to the stuff
10:29
that you're, you know, expecting.
10:32
When you look at a movie like "Jaws,"
10:34
the scene that you expect -- we have the screen?
10:35
These are the kind of, you know, scenes that you remember and expect from "Jaws."
10:38
And she's being eaten; there's a shark.
10:42
The thing about "Jaws" is, it's really about a guy
10:47
who is sort of dealing with his place in the world -- with his masculinity,
10:49
with his family, how he's going to, you know, make it work in this new town.
10:52
This is one of my favorite scenes ever,
10:56
and this is a scene that you wouldn't necessarily think of when you think of "Jaws."
10:58
But it's an amazing scene.
11:01
Father: C'mere. Give us a kiss.
11:58
Son: Why?
12:05
Father: 'Cause I need it.
12:09
JJA: C'mon. "Why? 'Cause I need it?" Best scene ever, right?
12:11
Come on! So you think of "Jaws" --
12:14
so that's the kind of stuff that, like, you know, the investment of character,
12:17
which is the stuff that really is inside the box, you know?
12:21
It's why when people do sequels, or rip off movies, you know, of a genre,
12:24
they're ripping off the wrong thing.
12:27
You're not supposed to rip off the shark or the monster.
12:29
You gotta rip off -- you know, if you rip something off -- rip off the character.
12:31
Rip off the stuff that matters. I mean, look inside yourself and figure out what is inside you.
12:35
Because ultimately, you know, the mystery box is all of us. So there's that.
12:38
Then the distribution. What's a bigger mystery box than a movie theater?
12:43
You know? You go to the theater, you're just so excited to see anything.
12:46
The moment the lights go down is often the best part, you know?
12:48
And you're full of that amazing --
12:51
that feeling of excited anticipation.
12:54
And often, the movie's, like, there and it's going, and then something happens
12:57
and you go, "Oh--" and then something else, and you're, "Mmm ..."
12:59
Now, when it's a great movie, you're along for the ride
13:01
'cause you're willing to give yourself to it.
13:03
So to me, whether it's that, whether it's a TV, an iPod, computer, cell phone --
13:05
it's funny, I'm an -- as I said, Apple fanatic -- and one day, about a year or so ago,
13:10
I was signing on online in the morning to watch Steve Jobs' keynote,
13:14
'cause I always do. And he came on, he was presenting the video iPod,
13:18
and what was on the enormous iPod behind him?
13:23
"Lost"! I had no idea! And I realized, holy shit, it'd come full circle.
13:25
Like, the inspiration I get from the technology is now using the stuff that I do,
13:30
inspired by it, to sell technology. I mean, it's nuts! (Laughter)
13:32
I was gonna show you a couple of other things I'm gonna skip through.
13:36
I just want to show you one other thing that has nothing to do with anything.
13:38
This is something online; I don't know if you've seen it before.
13:41
Six years ago they did this. This is an online thing done by guys
13:43
who had some visual effects experience. But the point was,
13:47
that they were doing things that were using these mystery boxes that they had --
13:49
everyone has now.
13:53
What I've realized is what my grandfather did for me when I was a kid,
13:54
everyone has access to now.
13:58
You don't need to have my grandfather, though you wished you had.
14:00
But I have to tell you -- this is a guy doing stuff on a Quadra 950 computer
14:02
-- the resolution's a little bit low --
14:06
using Infinity software they stopped making 15 years ago.
14:07
He's doing stuff that looks as amazing as stuff I've seen released from Hollywood.
14:10
The most incredible sort of mystery, I think, is now the question of what comes next.
14:16
Because it is now democratized. So now, the creation of media is -- it's everywhere.
14:22
The stuff that I was lucky and begging for to get when I was a kid is now ubiquitous.
14:26
And so, there's an amazing sense of opportunity out there.
14:31
And when I think of the filmmakers who exist out there now who would have
14:34
been silenced, you know -- who have been silenced in the past --
14:39
it's a very exciting thing.
14:42
I used to say in classes and lectures and stuff,
14:43
to someone who wants to write, "Go! Write! Do your thing." It's free,
14:46
you know, you don't need permission to go write. But now I can say,
14:49
"Go make your movie!" There's nothing stopping you
14:51
from going out there and getting the technology.
14:53
You can lease, rent, buy stuff off the shelf
14:55
that is either as good, or just as good, as the stuff that's being used by the, you know,
14:58
quote unquote "legit people."
15:04
No community is best served when only the elite have control.
15:06
And I feel like this is an amazing opportunity to see what else is out there.
15:10
When I did "Mission: Impossible III," we had amazing visual effects stuff.
15:13
ILM did the effects; it was incredible.
15:16
And sort of like my dream to be involved.
15:18
And there are a couple of sequences in the movie,
15:20
like these couple of moments I'll show you.
15:23
There's that.
15:31
Okay, obviously I have an obsession with big crazy explosions.
15:52
So my favorite visual effect in the movie is the one I'm about to show you.
15:55
And it's a scene in which Tom's character wakes up. He's drowsy. He's crazy
15:59
-- out of it. And the guy wakes up,
16:01
and he shoves this gun in his nose and shoots this little capsule into his brain
16:03
that he's going to use later to kill him, as bad guys do.
16:06
Bad Guy: Good morning.
16:16
JJA: OK, now. When we shot that scene, we were there doing it,
16:20
the actor who had the gun, an English actor, Eddie Marsan -- sweetheart, great guy
16:22
-- he kept taking the gun and putting it into Tom's nose, and it was hurting Tom's nose.
16:26
And I learned this very early on in my career: Don't hurt Tom's nose. (Laughter)
16:31
There are three things you don't want to do. Number two is: Don't hurt Tom's nose.
16:36
So Eddie has this gun -- and he's the greatest guy -- he's
16:39
this really sweet English guy. He's like, "Sorry, I don't want to hurt you."
16:41
I'm like -- you gotta -- we have to make this look good.
16:44
And I realized that we had to do something 'cause it wasn't working just as it was.
16:46
And I literally, like, thought back to what I would have done using
16:49
the Super 8 camera that my grandfather got me sitting in that room,
16:53
and I realized that hand didn't have to be Eddie Marsan's. It could be Tom's.
16:55
And Tom would know just how hard to push the gun. He wouldn't hurt himself.
17:00
So we took his hand and we painted it to look a little bit more like Eddie's.
17:03
We put it in Eddie's sleeve,
17:06
and so the hand that you see -- I'll show you again,
17:09
that's not Eddie's hand, that's Tom's.
17:11
So Tom is playing two roles. (Laughter)
17:12
And he didn't ask for any more money.
17:15
So here, here. Watch it again.
17:17
There he is. He's waking up. He's drowsy, been through a lot.
17:20
Tom's hand. Tom's hand. Tom's hand. (Laughter) Anyway.
17:29
So.
17:32
(Applause)
17:34
Thanks.
17:37
So you don't need the greatest technology to do things that can work in movies.
17:40
And the mystery box, in honor of my grandfather, stays closed.
17:45
Thank you. (Applause)
17:48

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About the Speaker:

J.J. Abrams - Filmmaker
Writer, director and producer J.J. Abrams makes smart, addictive dramas like TV's Lost, and films like Cloverfield and the new Star Trek.

Why you should listen

As the Emmy-winning creator of the smart, addictive TV dramas Lost, Alias and Felicity, J.J. Abrams' name looms large on the small screen. As the writer/director behind the blockbuster explode-a-thon Mission: Impossible III, Cloverfield and the new Star Trek movie, these days Abrams also rules the big screen -- bringing his eye for telling detail and emotional connection to larger-than-life stories.

Abrams' enthusiasm -- for the construction of Kleenex boxes, for the quiet moments between shark attacks in Jaws, for today's filmmaking technologies, and above all for the potent mystery of an unopened package -- is incredibly infectious.

More profile about the speaker
J.J. Abrams | Speaker | TED.com