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J.J. Abrams on the set of ‘Super 8’ (Photo: Francois Duhamel/Paramount Pictures)
By Oliver Lyttelton
J.J. Abrams’ mystery box opens today to satisfy our curiosity about 10 Cloverfield Lane, the “spiritual successor” to 2008 sleeper hit Cloverfield that the producer sprang on us with a surprise trailer in January. Abrams has had the Midas touch with revivals of franchises like Mission: Impossible, Star Trek, and Star Wars, while his production company, Bad Robot, has been very busy since its TV breakthroughs with Alias (2001-2006) and Lost (2004-2010). But not everything Abrams has touched turned to gold. Absurdly young when he got his start in Hollywood—he sold his first script while still at college–it took more than ten years before he really began to find his groove. Here are a dozen movies you might not know J.J. Abrams had a hand in, or even remember at all.
Abrams earned his first screen credit on this micro-budget horror movie when he was just 16. After reading about cult filmmaker Don Dohler, he wrote the director a letter—and ended up being asked to compose the film’s score. Abrams still dabbles in music, collaborating with Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda on tunes for the Maz’s Castle scenes in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
Watch J.J. Abrams and Don Dohler talk about their ‘Nightbeast’ collaboration:
Taking Care Of Business (1990)
Abrams’ Hollywood career began in earnest when he co-wrote a script with friend Jill Mazursky (daughter of Paul Mazursky, director of such films as Down and Out in Beverly Hills) for a Trading Places-style comedy about a car thief (Jim Belushi) who steals the identity of an ad exec (Charles Grodin) after finding his Filofax. Abrams hadn’t yet graduated from Sarah Lawrence College when Disney bought it. The film ultimately sank at the box office after lousy reviews.
Regarding Henry (1991)
Nearly 25 years before Abrams brought him back as Han Solo, Harrison Ford starred as the title character in the Force Awakens director’s first solo script, an unlikable lawyer who reconnects with his family after surviving a gunshot wound. It’s crude and sentimental more often than not, but director Mike Nichols got some fine performances from Annette Bening and the rest of his cast.
Related: ‘10 Cloverfield Lane’ review
Forever Young (1992)
Abrams’ third produced screenplay in three years was originally sold in 1990, when he was just 24, for a then-record $2 million. The treacly sci-fi-tinged love story stars Mel Gibson as an Air Force test pilot who volunteers for a yearlong cryogenic freezing experiment in 1939; he wakes up in 1992, a man out of time befriended by a boy (Elijah Wood) and his mother (Jamie Lee Curtis).
Six Degrees Of Separation (1993)
Abrams hilariously stepped in front of the camera in a small role alongside Donald Sutherland, Stockard Channing, and Will Smith in Fred Schepisi’s film adaptation of John Guare’s play. His single scene as the amusingly aggressive son of Richard Masur’s character stands as his most substantial on-screen face time (but look for him as “Video Photographer 2” in Sharon Stone thriller Diabolique).
Watch J.J. Abrams’ scene in ‘Six Degrees of Separation’:
The Pallbearer (1996)
Just as he was turning 30, Abrams turned solo producer for the first time on a film best known for its talent’s impressive future credits. A Graduate-esque comedy about a young man (David Schwimmer) asked to attend a funeral for a high school classmate he doesn’t remember, it was directed by Abrams’ childhood friend Matt Reeves (he’d later helm Cloverfield), written by Friday Night Lights showrunner Jason Katims, and shot by Robert Elswit, who would win a Best Cinematography Oscar for 2007’s There Will Be Blood.
Gone Fishin’ (1997)
Perhaps a sort of nadir of Abrams’ early works, he reunited with Jill Mazursky to write this utterly baffling slapstick comedy, which teamed Lethal Weapon franchise costars Danny Glover and Joe Pesci as a pair of dim-witted friends on a fishing trip. It remains a mystery what the film’s target audience was, and, to no one’s surprise, Abrams rarely mentions it these days.
Like many hot screenwriters, Abrams did rewrites without credit on studio scripts like Casper and Jennifer Aniston rom-com Picture Perfect. But Abrams was one of an almost unprecedented five writers who received on-screen recognition for 1998’s Michael Bay asteroid blockbuster—though at least nine writers worked on the movie.
The Suburbans (1999)
Abrams’ second film as producer landed just as TV show Felicity was beginning to raise his industry profile, but this modest comedy starring Jennifer Love Hewitt about a reunion of a 1980s one-hit-wonder band got rotten reviews and died at the box office. It’s probably best remembered for giving an early movie role to Will Ferrell.
Joy Ride (2001)
This superior suspense film (co-written with Clay Tarver, and originally with the much better title Squelch) nods to Steven Spielberg’s Duel and may be the best of Abrams’ pre-fame screenwriting jobs. With a mix of solid character work and excellent set pieces handled by director John Dahl, its tale of three college kids (Paul Walker, Leelee Sobieski, and Steve Zahn) stalked by a murderous truck driver is the first successful movie example of what would become the Abrams formula.
Watch the ‘Joy Ride’ trailer:
Yes, Abrams has a tie to the beloved DreamWorks Animation fairy tale comedy, albeit only in its infancy. In the early 1990s, Abrams teamed with a group of his college friends, including future Goosebumps director Rob Letterman, to found a performance capture computer animation company called Propellerhead Media. Jeffrey Katzenberg hired them to work on the earliest iteration of Shrek, but didn’t like the one-minute test they produced and started over.
Morning Glory (2010)
Once Alias, Lost, Fringe, and Star Trek made Abrams’ name, the appearance of the Bad Robot logo had a certain cachet—at least if the project was in Comic-Con territory. This charming and well-executed comedy set behind the scenes of an a.m. TV show featured excellent performances from Rachel McAdams and Harrison Ford, but Abrams’ name wasn’t much help with a target audience not likely to go to San Diego in costume, and the film flopped.
Watch: J.J. Abrams talks ‘10 Cloverfield Lane’: