In a world of his own: The man behind ‘Felicity’ and ‘Alias’ surfs a hot streak

Jun 3, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Don’t jinx him.
Mention to J.J. Abrams, creator of “Alias” and “Felicity,” that he’s 2-for-2 when it comes to developing TV series and he gets downright superstitious.
“If there’s such a thing as a no-hitter, now I’m doomed,” he said.
The funny thing is the 35-year-old showrunner never thought he would end up in television. He wanted to do feature films-and he did, as the screenwriter for “Armageddon,” “Forever Young” and “Regarding Henry.”
In fact, he said when he came up with the idea for WB drama “Felicity,” he assumed it would be a feature film. “In discussing it with Matt Reeves, who is an old friend and my partner in `Felicity,’ we decided that it was a better series than a feature and decided that we would just on a lark try to do a pilot,” he said.
That pilot turned into a series, which became a cultural phenomenon for The WB. “Felicity” ended its four-year run on the network in May.
Next up for Mr. Abrams was this season’s freshman spy thriller “Alias.” The series not only won over critics but was the second-highest-rated new drama this season in the adults 18 to 49 demo.
So what’s Mr. Abrams’ secret? “The key is to do work that you believe in and not work that you think people will like,” he said.
Plus, it helps to identify with the main character. “You need to find someone on the show who is you-or someone you wish you were-and that’s the most crucial thing,” he said.
While “Alias” is, as Mr. Abrams described it, a fantastical “comic book brought to life,” part of the series’ success is grounded in Mr. Abrams’ logical approach to storytelling.
When he turned in the finished pilot for “Alias” to ABC, he also gave the network an outline of where the next 21 episodes of the series would lead-something that’s rarely done by show creators.
“It would be too unnerving for me to write a pilot, have no sense of what I wanted the year to be and just hope that there was more to come,” Mr. Abrams said. “It’s an odd process because as an ongoing story you better have goals and better be able to anticipate the tentpoles and what the major movements of the story are going to be. Otherwise, I feel like the pilot isn’t going to be as deep or as rich as it needs to be.”
Richness doesn’t seem to be a problem for a show that takes viewers to a colorful, complex world of spies, double agents and plots and counterplots each week, not to mention three or four exotic locales complete with wild costume changes for double agent Sydney Bristow (played by Jennifer Garner).
Mr. Abrams said he did a little research on the real CIA when creating the show, but for the most part he just made up the world of “Alias.” “It was always intended to be its own universe,” he said. “There’s this real kind of mythology and detail to what these groups are and who they are. It doesn’t really apply to what exists. Although, ironically, I have heard from people in the intelligence business who comment that it’s much closer to real life than you think, which, to be frank, scares the hell out of me.”
Mr. Abrams grew up in Los Angeles (his dad was a TV movie producer), but headed to the East Coast to study liberal arts at Sarah Lawrence College in New York state.
He said he chose not to study film even though that’s what he wanted to do, but his choice of major hasn’t held him back. Today, Mr. Abrams is listed as the creator, executive producer, writer and sometime director of “Alias.” He even co-wrote the show’s theme song, which could lead an outsider to believe he might have a small problem with delegation.
Not so, said Mr. Abrams. While he said he spends most of his time in the writers’ room, he heavily depends on his nine or 10 staff writers and doesn’t single-handedly write every episode of his show.
“I’m very heavily involved in the post-production, so I don’t have time to only do the writing and don’t know if I could even if I did,” he said. “I don’t want to micromanage the show. I don’t want to overcontrol. I want to delegate. A happy byproduct of collaborating is that someone on board is learning the way the show should work, so when the time comes you can move on to that next thing, whatever that is.”
What’s next for Mr. Abrams is the second season of “Alias,” which ramps up production this month, and a gig this summer screenwriting Warner Bros.’ new version of “Superman.” (“There’s something about just being a writer on a feature that is a huge relief,” he said. “You don’t feel like the burden of the whole damn thing is on your shoulders.”) He is mulling over an idea for a third TV series as well.
In the meantime, while viewers seem more than ready to accept the fantasy world Mr. Abrams has created in “Alias,” one question needs answering: How does a spy like Sydney run and kick butt in three-inch heels?
“It’s not easy,” he said. “We actually struggle with that. We’ve had her just rip off her heels and throw them in the middle of scenes.”