- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 6, 2006

NEW YORK

“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,” Mr. Abrams says. “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 back-story-loaded mystery “Lost.”

That’s why Mr. Abrams was brought in to helm the newest “Mission: Impossible” — to infuse a stalled franchise with new life. With a budget of more than $150 million, “Mission: Impossible III” has been reported to be 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 back lots 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,” Mr. Abrams says. “I became incredibly comfortable and familiar with that world, so it never felt like anything but second nature to be on a set. ”

Making explosions with firecrackers and experimenting with rudimentary effects such as making his sister disappear, he 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” (1991), and later (with others) he wrote the 1998 blockbuster “Armageddon.”

Mr. Abrams then created TV shows, for which he’s best known: first “Felicity,” then “Alias” and most recently “Lost.”

It was “Alias” that caught Mr. Cruise’s attention. After watching the first season of the spy series on DVD, the actor says, he thought Mr. Abrams was the man who could save “Mission: Impossible III,” which had been stuck in development for years.

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

Mr. Cruise and Steven Spielberg had spoken earlier to Mr. Abrams about writing “War of the Worlds,” but Mr. Abrams had been busy with the pilot of “Lost.” When he was approached to direct “Mission: Impossible III,” Mr. Abrams said Mr. 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 Mr. Abrams, who wanted to bring “Mission: Impossible” back to the TV series’ teamwork ethos. “I just knew it wasn’t a version I was best to deliver.”

To his surprise, Mr. Cruise had faith in him to write his own version.

Although Mr. Abrams had enough industry sway to direct any number of projects, he says “Mission: Impossible III” 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?’”

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

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

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

Mr. Abrams, who next will write and produce the 11th “Star Trek” feature film, has a wife and three children and is approaching his 40th birthday. But he appears younger.

“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.

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

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