J.J. Abrams knows he has a problem. No, this has nothing to do with the state of "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" -- the director actually completed the final mix of the film at 2:30 a.m. Saturday (November 21) morning -- but rather his rather unhealthy addiction to lens flares.
During his Celebrity Nerd-Off with host Stephen Colbert, an annual fundraiser for the Montclair Film Festival, at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center on Saturday night, Abrams admitted that his penchant for lens flares peaked with "Star Trek Into Darkness," a film that used the special effect a whopping 826 times.
“When we were doing 'Trek,' what I loved was this idea that the future that they were in was so bright that it couldn’t be contained," Abrams told Colbert. So, he then became so consumed with the idea of "how to make the perfect lens flare" using anamorphic lenses and halogen flashlights. "Star Trek" alone had 721 separate lens flares. He then took his obsession to his next film, "Super 8," until reaching the pinnacle in "Star Trek Into Darkness."
"There was one scene with Alice Eve that was so obliterated by lens flare, my wife Katie was like, 'Enough. I can't even see her face.'"
Needless to say, Abrams has mainly kicked his habit in "Star Wars: The Force Awakens." The director said he "allowed lens flares to take a very back seat" in the hotly anticipated seventh "Star Wars" film. Although, there are a "couple that are there because you have to have them." (For what it's worth, Colbert counted three in the 2-minute trailer.)
In fact, when Abrams' director of photography Dan Mindel would offer him an opportunity to add a lens flare in a shot on the set of "The Force Awakens," the director would reply, "These are not the flares we're looking for."
Abrams' hesitation to add his signature style mark to every shot wasn't just an attempt to kick an old habit. Instead, it was more of a desire to do justice to the story.
"Everything we’re doing in this movie is standing on the shoulders of the six movies that have come before it," Abrams said, refusing to speak ill of the prequels even when bated by fan questions. "The whole movie required an acknowledgement of what’s come before."
For the 49-year-old director, his deeply rooted affection for the galactic fairy tale began at age 11 -- and the Force was very strong in him. "I loved that the idea that we are all connected," Abrams said of the Force. "It’s a religion without a god. We are all connected by an energy force. As an 11-year-old, I remember thinking that if I really needed to, I could harness that power."
As a kid growing up in Los Angeles in the 1970s, Abrams became enthralled by the idea of filmmaking after a tour of Universal Studios. He would spend his weekends making his own movies with his Super 8 camera. "I was looking for anything that let me act out," he said. "In retrospect, I was murdering a lot of my friends." For fun, of course.
He saw "The Exorcist" when he was just 10-years-old, and while any normal kid would have been traumatized for years, Abrams, amazed at the makeup effects, wrote a letter to makeup artist Dick Smith. Weeks later, Abrams received a box containing Linda Blair's prop tongue from "The Exorcist" in the mail.
Abrams' early fascination with makeup and practical effects played a key role in "The Force Awakens." "The big thing for me was I was nervous of CG being the master that we were serving," Abrams told Colbert. "It was really important to me that we shoot on film. It was important to me that wherever we possibly could, we shoot on real, practical sets."
He cited the Mos Eisley Cantina, and all of the practical, alien creatures George Lucas created, as a perfect example of what he wanted to capture on film. This iconic scene from "A New Hope" was the first time that we saw a large assemblage of weird aliens going on with their everyday lives, including Abrams' favorite horned alien, Kardue'sai'Malloc. "The amazing thing about characters like that is that it told you there was a life outside of what you were seeing," he said of the world-building.
"The Force Awakens" will introduce a slew of new alien characters -- like Lupita Nyong'o's space pirate Maz Kanata -- but none have accumulated as much buzz and fanfare as the film's adorable new droid, BB-8. (Sorry, R2.) In creating BB-8, Abrams said he was inspired by the idea of a snowman. And instead of going the easy route and making a CGI droid, creature shop maestro Neal Scanlan and his team actually built and puppeteered the Beeps throughout the entire movie.
With all of the hype surrounding BB-8 and "The Force Awakens," its December 17 release date can't come soon enough for fans and a very exhausted Abrams.
"Working on this movie for the past three years is like living with the greatest roommate in history for too long," he said. "It’s time for him to get his own place. I can’t wait for him to get out on his own and meet other people because we know each other too well."
When asked what project he wanted to pursue next, Abrams said he was "paralyzed" by the thought. So Tolkien nerd Colbert, using his Jedi mind tricks, gave him one: "Akallabêth," the story of the destruction of the Kingdom of Númenor, otherwise know as the island where Aragorn’s ancestors are from in "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy. "It's got all your greatest hits," Colbert said, before explaining the entire plot of the fourth part of Tolkien's "Silmarillion." "It's got elves and the One Ring... it's a perfect, complete story."
We wonder how many lens flares Abrams would get away with in Middle Earth.
The Montclair Film Festival kicks off its fifth year on April 29, 2016.