SXSW: J.J. Abrams Outlines the "Nightmare" and Opportunity of Phones and Filmmaking

JJ Abrams SXSW - H 2016
Mike Windle/Getty Images for SXSW

The 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' director was joined by 'The Jinx' director Andrew Jarecki for a panel about techology and storytelling on Monday.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens director J.J. Abrams and The Jinx filmmaker Andrew Jarecki spoke on the advances of digital storytelling tools and how they can enhance — or sometimes hinder — the filmmaking experience.

Monday afternoon's South by Southwest panel, called "The Eyes of Robots and Murderers," was moderated by Peter Kafka, senior editor with Re/Code.

Abrams and Jarecki have been friends for decades. “We met 25 years ago in the Grand Canyon because we had a mutual friend who said, 'I know you both and I know you’re going to like each other,'” said Jarecki.

They even had a specific job in common: “We both performed magic at kids’ birthday parties,” admitted Abrams.

The conversation focused on how technology has affected their filmmaking. For Abrams, he said he shot about 10 minutes of The Force Awakens in post at his Bad Robot Productions studio when he felt they needed to add in a bit of “the humanity.”

“You do a Star Wars movie, you’re never going to get away from an incredible amount being done in CG,” he said, but added that he used to do a lot of practical effects when he could. “We would use CG more often than not to remove a puppeteer, a rig, legs of performers sticking out of the bottom of creatures. The idea was, in the case of Star Wars, to both create a sense of analog when it wasn’t and most importantly make sure the humanity of the characters wasn’t getting lost."

“The challenge with what we all do, using whatever technology we use, is to hide it,” said Abrams.

The director showed a new trailer from HBO’s Westworld, asking the audience not to film the clip.

“It’s one of the more exciting projects I’ve ever had the luck to be involved with,” said Abrams, whose show has robots in it that he said viewers will grow to care for.

Finding humanity in his Jinx documentary subject, Robert Durst, was also a challenge for Jarecki. “There’s something about Bob Durst that is robotic,” he said. “What we tried to do was give him the time to tell his story in a richer way, so we weren’t just putting him up as a caricature.”

“He’s a huge stoner,” added Jarecki of Durst. “This is a guy who is always, always stoned. As a result, there’s nothing going on in the eyes.”

Jarecki told the audience that there was a point during filming that he did get security for himself and his family when he heard that Durst was angry with him.

The panel conversation also turned to the iPhone and how they felt as filmmakers that people would be watching their films on very small phone screens.

“I use my phone to watch stuff, but I know when we make it it’s the nightmare of every storyteller that people are going to use it to watch what you made,” said Abrams.

"The truth is that anyone that has been to a movie theater in a small town in this country has had an experience that in many cases is less than ideal,” he continued. “So I understand that there are actual advantages to be able to lie in bed and watch it on the phone, but of course anyone who is making movies would say, ‘Please don’t watch my movie on your phone.’” 

However, Abrams did add that phones brought about one major advantage for filmmakers, especially those who are just starting out: "The beautiful thing is that everyone right now in this room has a movie studio and distribution in their pockets.”

Indeed, Jarecki even introduced a new app to the audience, called KnowMe, which allows the user to create films and edit them within their phone. He showed off a demo to the crowd of hundreds in attendance at the panel.