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J.J. Abrams jumps into the ‘Mission’ action

‘Lost’ creator got to live his dream by directing Tom Cruise action thriller
/ Source: The Associated Press

“Alias” began with Jennifer Garner’s head in a toilet; “Lost” opened on a crash-strewn beach; and “Mission: Impossible III” starts with Philip Seymour Hoffman demanding from a captive Tom Cruise the location of “the rabbit’s foot.”

J.J. Abrams, the creative force behind all three, clearly has a fondness for starting in the middle of things.

“In this movie especially, I felt that audiences know the mechanics of the genre so well, to start the movie in a place where you think it’s going to go, it dispels any preconceived notions,” says Abrams. “It engages you as a puzzle.”

That, of course, isn’t surprising, coming from the man who has captivated (and frustrated) millions by creating the backstory-loaded mystery “Lost.”

But that’s why Abrams was brought in to helm the newest “Mission: Impossible” — to infuse a stalled franchise with some new life.

With a budget of more than $150 million, “Mission: Impossible III” has been reported as the most expensive directorial debut in Hollywood history.

The son of TV producer Gerald W. Abrams, J.J. (short for Jeffrey Jacob) was raised on studio backlots and has known since he was 8 that this was his dream.

“I loved magic when I was a little kid and I remember going on the Universal Studios tour with my grandfather and realizing it was just a magic trick. It was all just an elaborate magic trick,” he says. “I became incredibly comfortable and familiar with that world, so it never felt like anything but second nature to be on a set. Even as a little kid, all I ever wanted to do was be one of those guys on any level.”

Making explosions with firecrackers and experimenting with rudimentary effects like making his sister disappear, Abrams constantly played with his Super 8 camera as a boy.

Later, while attending Sarah Lawrence College, he sold his first script: the 1990 comedy, “Taking Care of Business.” Soon he sold another screenplay, the Harrison Ford drama “Regarding Henry,” and later (with others) wrote the 1998 blockbuster “Armageddon.”

Cruise put his faith in AbramsAbrams then created TV shows, for which he’s best known: first “Felicity,” then “Alias,” and most recently “Lost.” But it was “Alias” that caught Cruise’s attention. After watching the first season of the spy series on DVD, Cruise believed Abrams was the man who could save “M:I3,” which had been stuck in development for years.

Directors David Fincher (“Fight Club”) and Joe Carnahan (“Narc”) were both attached at one point. Then, a script was written by Frank Darabont (“The Shawshank Redemption”).

Cruise and Steven Spielberg had earlier spoken to Abrams about writing “War of the Worlds,” but Abrams was busy with the pilot of “Lost.” When he approached him to direct “M:I3,” Abrams said Darabont’s dark, political script wasn’t for him.

“It just, for whatever reason, felt less like a ‘Mission: Impossible’ movie than another sort of heavily mission-based film,” says Abrams, who wanted to bring “M:I” back to the TV series’ teamwork ethos. “I just knew it wasn’t a version I was best to deliver.”

To Abrams’ surprise, Cruise put his faith in him to write his own version.

Writing in Time magazine for its issue on the “world’s most influential people,” Cruise said of Abrams: “He was born to impinge on and invade pop culture.”

Though Abrams now had enough industry sway to direct any number of projects, “M:I3,” he says, was perfect for him.

“Had I started on a film that was a tenth of the budget, it would have been to work up to a movie like this,” he says. “This was literally like someone saying — and it was Tom who gave me this opportunity — ‘Do you want to make the kind of movie you always wanted to make?”’

Abrams and his writing partners from “Alias” (Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci) built their own story, which has some parallels to “Alias.”

A young Tarantino?“M:I3” is also much more of an ensemble than the film’s Cruise-centered publicity has suggested. The cast includes Hoffman, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Laurence Fishburne, Billy Crudup, Keri Russell (who starred on “Felicity”) and Ving Rhames.

Rhames, the lone holdover besides Cruise from the earlier films, thinks the ensemble feel harkens back to the original TV show, and was impressed by what Abrams brought to “M:I.”

“He reminds me almost of a young Quentin Tarantino,” says Rhames, who co-starred in Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction.” “They both have a youthful energy for film.”

Abrams, who next will write and produce the 11th “Star Trek” feature film, has a wife and three kids and is approaching his 40th birthday, but he appears younger. Energetic and fast-talking, he could easily be carded at a bar.

“It does feel like, right now, there is no difference for me than when I was a little kid,” he says. “It’s almost exactly the same — to the point where, when I was making this movie, I was struck by how similar it felt to being 12 or 14 and making movies.”

“Instead of 8 millimeter, it’s 35 millimeter. Instead of a little 1/60th-scale car, it’s a car,” he says, smiling gleefully. “But the reality of what the process is, it’s that magic trick again.”