Inside The Celebrity Nerd-Off: ‘Nothing Is Real and It Doesn’t Matter’

Photo by Neil Grabowsky / Montclair Film Festival.

By Adam Cutrone
Contributing Writer

In less than a month the highly anticipated seventh installment of the Star Wars franchise is set to be released worldwide. It has already shattered box office records with $50 million in pre-sale tickets sales. A dedicated fan base eagerly awaits a film that hopes to right the wrongs of previous efforts to reinvigorate the beloved space opera and launch the “Star Wars” franchise back into hyper drive. It’s tremendous amount of pressure to be riding on the shoulders of a single man, but hearing him speak, you’d never know it.

The Celebrity Nerd-Off, hosted by Stephen Colbert with special guest JJ Abrams, was held Saturday at NJ PAC in the heart of Newark. “The Late Show” host Stephen Colbert, alongside wife Evelyn McGee-Colbert, worked with the Montclair Film Festival and OMAZE to raise funds for the festival where they discussed the career of the famed director and producer that has since become a household name for all things mystery and spectacle.

The evening opened with a brief monologue from Colbert followed by a short montage showcasing Abrams’ illustrious resume in both television and film, including his work on TV shows “Fringe” and “Lost”, in addition to films like “Super 8”, “Cloverfield”, the “Mission Impossible” franchise, “Star Trek” and its sequel, “Star Trek: Into Darkness” and his latest effort, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”.

Colbert (left) in conversation with Abrams (right). Photo by Neil Grabowsky / Montclair Film Festival.

“JJ, this is your life,” Colbert said while opening a comically large binder of notes.

The evening was kept surprisingly casual and humble by Abrams’ unique informality and self-deprecating humor that was met in spades by Colbert’s signature brand of moderation. The duo meandered throughout much of Abrams’ career, spending much of its almost two hour run time in his formative years, never shying away from indulging in each others conversational tangents. There was a moment where Colbert revealed that he had actually auditioned for a very early Abrams production and ultimately did not get the part. “I am so sorry,” Abrams replied, hiding a smile from behind his Stormtrooper mug.

The journey to the silver screen all began for Abrams at five years old with his grandfather during an Universal Studios backlot tour. The demystification of how these seemingly magical movies were really made became a source of inspiration that would continue to drive him throughout his career.

It was that curiosity and creative ambition that got his proverbial foot in the door in Hollywood. It his practiced skills as a screenwriter that firmly secured his place there. Abrams’ tale is not of the tortured artist scraping by to make ends meet, but one of endless dedication to his craft and the will to pursue a career in film making at a time when it wasn’t as easy as opening up your Macbook Pro and clicking on iMovie.

Colbert was not shy when it came to calling out the director on film tropes and the effects throughout his portfolio — Poking fun at his iconic and often excessive, and what some may argue overuse, of lens flares in the “Star Trek” franchise, orange foam that can conveniently melt car doors in “Mission Impossible” or the seemingly impossible premise of 2008’s “Armageddon”, in which Abrams shares a writing credit.

“Nothing is real and it doesn’t matter,” Abrams affectionately fired back.

Abrams’ signature lens flare from “Star Trek: Into Darkness”.

Not being bound by the limitations of the real world, a problem that tends to plague directors like Christopher Nolan or Alfonso Cuaron, the truth for Abrams instead lies within the hearts and minds of his characters. When asked about his initial involvement with “Star Trek”, Abrams admitted that he himself was not a fan of the franchise growing up, but ultimately it was the characters themselves that drew him in. “I started to see the things that made my friends fall in love with this,” he said, “[It] made me feel like an idiot that I hadn’t loved it before.” He even offered an explanation for his use of lens flare in the films production: “[I loved] this idea that in the future that they were in was so bright that it couldn’t be contained,” he said.

Despite the film being less than a month away, Abrams shared early on that he had only just completed the final stages of his current project, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” that very morning. “At 2:30 in the morning we finished the mix of the movie,” he said. When asked by an audience member how he felt about the upcoming release, he had this to say:

“The truth is working on this movie for nearly three years, it has been like living with the greatest roommate in history for too long. It’s time for him to get his own place. It’s been great, 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. But really, “Star Wars” is bigger than all of us. So I’m thrilled beyond words [to be involved] and terrified more than I can say.”

Abrams and Colbert backstage at The Celebrity Nerd Off. Photo by Neil Grabowsky / Montclair Film Festival.

Despite his varied degree of work, a reoccurring theme became present, not only within the evening’s conversation, but throughout all of Abrams’ work. It’s the undeniable power and importance of spectacle. Film as a medium is so uniquely equipped in its ability to simultaneously express the warmth and delicate nature of complex human emotions with the grandiose fanfare that comes hand-in-hand with exploring the furthest reaches of our imaginations. Abrams’ work, like any successful director, strives to take you through a journey, that despite not sharing any tangible relationship with your own, can resonate with the viewer in a very real way. In essence to make the viewer feel something. These movies dare to entertain, to inspire and inject the idea of hope and infinite possibility into a world that so often is lacking in both.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens opens in theaters Dec. 18, 2016.