J.J. Abrams Talks 'Star Wars': Role of The Force, BB-8 and Lens Flares

Stephen Colbert and JJ Abrams - H 2015
Getty Images for Montclair Film

The director joined Stephen Colbert for a conversation dubbed a "Celebrity Nerd-Off," which also served as the annual fundraiser for the Montclair Film Festival.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is almost done. On Saturday night, director J.J. Abrams told an enthusiastic audience gathered for a conversation between him and Stephen Colbert that he completed the mix of the film at 2:30 a.m. Pacific Time that morning and then flew to New Jersey to take part in a benefit for the Montclair Film Festival that organizers dubbed a "Celebrity Nerd-Off."

During the fifth annual fundraiser, Colbert, who's been a longtime supporter of the festival, talked to Abrams about the latter's long career behind the camera, starting with making Super 8 movies as a kid and continuing through his work as a writer for films like Regarding Henry and Armageddon; his TV work on Felicity, Alias, Lost and Fringe; and his more recent movies like Paramount's Star Trek franchise revival and the eagerly awaited Star Wars sequel, which is set to hit theaters on Dec. 18.

Colbert also touched on Abrams' work in front of the camera, acting in Six Degrees of Separation, and surprised the filmmaker with a clip. And the Late Show host revealed some of the ways their careers have intersected, including Colbert auditioning for Abrams' first movie (he didn't get it) and him knowing Jennifer Garner as his kids' babysitter before Abrams cast her in Felicity and then Alias.

Colbert and Abrams talked for nearly two hours at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark in front of an audience of 2,800 people, which Abrams quipped was "about 2,700 more people than I thought would be here tonight." Sitting on a set that featured Stormtrooper mugs ("You can really taste the dark side," Colbert joked) and a BB-8 replica that they brought out when Abrams discussed the origins of the droid, Colbert consulted a binder full of notes, saying, "Well, J.J., this is your life," as he began the chat.

Below check out seven highlights of Colbert and Abrams' chat.

Working on Star Wars: The Force Awakens has "been like living with the greatest roommate in history for too long."

Abrams was sleep-deprived but full of energy on Saturday night as he took a quick break from working on his highly-anticipated Star Wars sequel. And as for his state of mind less than a month before the film is released, the director said, in response to an audience question, he is "at turns thrilled beyond words and terrified more than I can say."

He also indicated that as much fun as he's had working on the film, he's ready for the movie to be released.

"Working on this movie for the past nearly three years — it's been like living with the greatest roommate in history for too long." Abrams added, "It’s time for him to get his own place. It's been the greatest, and I can't tell you how much I want him to get out into the world and meet other people because we know each other really well."

Abrams' intimate familiarity with his movie  and perhaps his nerves — were also reflected when Colbert showed the latest Force Awakens trailer. While the Late Show host watched it with rapt attention and the audience cheered loudly when he asked them what they thought, Abrams didn't watch the preview and instead could be seen fidgeting as he looked out into the audience.

The Force will play a key role in the latest Star Wars film.

Colbert asked Abrams what the force meant to him, and the director said he "loved" it and felt that what it represents should be a big part of his Star Wars sequel.

“It's a non-denominational, powerful idea that was really important to us in this film to bring back and allow it to be a little bit of magic … and have that hope be something that's at the center of the story," Abrams said.

Abrams knows he has a lens flare problem, and there won't be many in The Force Awakens.

Abrams is frequently criticized for his excessive use of lens flares in his movies, something Colbert brought up by claiming that "someone on the Internet" counted that there are 721 instances of lens flare in Star Trek. While the Late Show host said he couldn't have enough lens flares, he asked Abrams why they're so important to him.

"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 said, explaining that he loved how many movies from his childhood had out-of-focus oval lights in the background and the lens flares on those "have a great streaky quality." And when he made Star Trek, Abrams said he told their director of photography, "it would be so much fun if we had that kind of look."

"I didn't think we'd have quite that number of them," he said. "I just fell in love with how it looked, and I started to get in trouble with it with people because they were like, "Enough already."

Even his wife told him to cut back on the lens flares after one prevented her from seeing what was going on in a scene in Star Trek Into Darkness.

“There was one scene where Alice Eve was so obliterated by a lens flare that I was showing the scene to my wife, Katie, and she was like, 'OK You know what? Enough. I can't see what this scene is about. Who is standing there?… I can't see her.'"

And Abrams promised that he's restrained himself from using many lens flares in The Force Awakens.

"As you'll see in the Star Wars movie, I've allowed lens flares to take a very back seat," he said. "There are a couple [moments] where you have to have them."

But for the most part, when the visual effects people ask him if he wants a lens flare in a particular scene, Abrams said he tells them, "This is not the movie; these are not the flares you're looking for."

Speaking of Star Trek, Abrams also got a laugh when he said that part of the reason he wanted to make the film despite not being a Star Trek fan was because he thought, "It's a space adventure. When am I ever going to get a chance to do that again?"

BB-8's origins included Abrams drawing the snowman-shaped droid.

Abrams talked about how he and creature designer Neal Scanlan developed BB-8, trying to create something that looked like original Star Wars designer Ralph McQuarrie had conceived.

Holding the BB-8 replica from the set, Abrams said, "He's a little bigger than this. We knew that this droid, this character was going to be an important character in the movie … Ralph McQuarrie, who's the original designer for Star Wars, did an extraordinary job. We just went back in the archives at Lucasfilm and just looked at every Ralph McQuarrie image and painting. They have things that I had never seen. It was an amazing thing to see what he did and how inventive he was … When I was thinking about what the droid would look like, I had this idea that was almost a snowman kind of shape, and I drew a picture of BB-8, with little antenna and stuff and I gave it to Neal Scanlan, who's our creature guy, and I didn't know what we would see and what we would get."

But it ended up looking like something that McQuarrie designed.

Colbert auditioned for Abrams' first film.

The Late Show host revealed to Abrams and the NJPAC audience that he auditioned for a part he didn't get in Abrams' first film, which was called Filofax when he and an old friend sold their treatment to Disney, and was made with the title Taking Care of Business.

"They came to Chicago to do some of the casting. That's where I was," Colbert explained. "Jim Belushi ended up being cast in it, so I guess they wanted some Chicago people in it. I think probably everybody got Hoovered up in Chicago improv or comedy to go audition for this thing and when the movie finally came out … I went, 'Oh that sounds like Filofax.'"

Abrams apologized but indicated everything worked out for the best: "I'm so sorry. I would say that it was a good thing for you."

Colbert "nearly drove onto the sidewalk" when he saw an "eight-story poster" for Alias featuring his daughter's "hot" former babysitter.

Regular Daily Show viewers know that Jennifer Garner was once Colbert's kids' babysitter as the actress herself revealed that during a 2014 appearance on the show. Colbert confirmed the story on Saturday night and revealed the (awkward) conversation he and his wife had when they saw her transformed into Sydney Bristow for Abrams' ABC spy series Alias.

Garner babysat for Colbert's eldest daughter Madeline, who wasn't in attendance at Saturday night's event, after they met as guest stars on Spin City. But when Garner moved to L.A., Colbert and his wife thought that was the last they'd see of her.

"Poor thing she's going to L.A. and just going to disappear," he said he thought at the time. "Couple years later, I'm driving down the street going to work on The Daily Show and there's like an eight-story poster of her in the gray catsuit with the red wig announcing that Alias is about to start. I nearly drove up on the sidewalk." He subsequently bought a copy of Time magazine also featuring Garner as Sydney on the cover and brought it home to show his wife.

"Who's that?," he asked her, covering up the name.

His wife replied, "I don't know. Was she on The Daily Show tonight?"

Colbert: "It's Jen Garner."

His wife: "Noooo … She wasn't hot."

Colbert: "Yes, she was."

His wife: "Well you never said anything."

Colbert: "What am I supposed to say? Have you noticed how unbelievably hot our babysitter is?!"

Abrams imagined himself yelling at a producer he had a bad experience with during his Six Degrees of Separation scene.

While Abrams has spent much of his career behind the camera, he did do some acting, including playing a role in the movie Six Degrees of Separation. But the filmmaker claims he just stumbled into it in a way that he admits doesn't make sense.

"I was dating someone who auditioned for a part in this movie, this young woman, who then didn't get the part," Abrams explained. "They said to her, 'Oh you're dating J.J. Would he want to audition for this role?' … There's nothing about what happened that makes sense … I ended up getting this part that I shouldn't have gotten."

After Colbert played a clip of Abrams in the movie, in which his character is screaming at his father over the phone, he asked Abrams how he channeled that anger.

"The truth is I had worked with a producer who's one of two people I had a bad experience with," Abrams said. "This guy was a particular character. And when I went in to audition I imagined I was yelling at this person. I'd also seen Evan Handler's performance of it in the play, which was far better and inspiring, so [it was] sort of combination of borrowing from him and yelling at this guy I was happy not to work with anymore."