They came via hyperdrive and warp speed, and even by New Jersey Transit, these devotees of Stars both Trek and Wars to mix with the high-rolling, arts-underwriting swells at a benefit performance for the Montclair Film Festival. But mostly, these disciples of sci-fi's top-shelf franchises made a pilgrimage to the Garden State to watch Stephen Colbert host a two-hour "celebrity nerd-off" with director J.J. Abrams, just three-and-a-half weeks before the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. If you listened closely on Saturday night, you could hear a million-ish voices (technically 2,800) suddenly crying out in fandom bliss.
The two-hour chat took place in the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark which, as anyone who took the walk from the nearby train station could tell you, has more than a bit of a Mos Eisely Spaceport. Walking onto the main stage — which was dressed like a typical chat show, only with Stormtrooper mugs instead of ones with The Late Show logo — the duo proceeded to swap stories, drop science about their favorite sci-fi/fantasy universes and yes, tease the hell out of The Force Awakens. Here were 10 things we learned from this genuinely geektastic event.
1. This almost was a reunion
Colbert queried Abrams about his career in mostly chronological order, starting with the director's quick transition from undergraduate at Sarah Lawrence College to becoming a working Hollywood screenwriter. Abrams, who got a bug for fiction after he "B.S.-ed his way through a non-fiction writing course, faking everything," hitched his wagon to another student, Jill (daughter of Paul) Mazursky, who had already set up some scripts. They quickly sold a screenplay called Filofax, which eventually became the James Belushi/Charles Grodin comedy Taking Care of Business (1990).
Colbert was quite familiar with the film; when he was a struggling comedian living in Chicago, he auditioned for a part. "Probably for the best," Abrams demurred when Colbert recalled that he didn't receive a callback.
2. Abrams once got a tongue in the mail
The first movie Abrams ever saw was Mary Poppins — but the first adult film (no, not that kind of adult film, though Colbert admitted that could make for good conversation, too) was The Exorcist. But the potentially scarring event merely further instilled a love of filmmaking in the 10-year-old Jeffrey Jacob, who was already tooling around with Super-8 cameras. He wrote to the movie's makeup artist Dick Smith, who sent back a curious package: a prop appendage from the movie. The delivery prompted this response from his mother: "Who is this 'Dick' sending you a tongue?"
Abrams later received an admonishment from Smith by mail after he wrote that he liked Rick Baker's transformation effects in An American Werewolf in London's over Rob Bottin's in The Howling; the makeup artist called to apologize for being so abrupt. (Let's blame it on latex inhalation.)
3. Stephen Colbert loves J.R.R. Tolkien more than you love any member of your family
There was surprisingly little "nerding off" during the event, but at one point a member of the audience (who didn't seem like a plant) asked Colbert what remaining Tolkien story would he like to see a filmmaker like Abrams adapt into a movie. Without missing a beat, Colbert offered up Akallabêth, a 30-page summary of events from the Island of Númenor found in the posthumously published Silmarillion — which, Colbert brightly and enthusiastically explained, works as a "greatest hits of Middle Earth." He proceeded to spew a host of ridiculously sounding names without taking a breath, even quoting a passage ("And Sauron came") which clearly has resonated with him lo these many decades since he first read this weighty tome, most likely alone, in the cafeteria of Middle School.
4. Abrams' favorite Star Wars character isn't who you'd think it would be
Another audience member asked Abrams who his favorite Star Wars alien was "other than a major character like Chewbacca." The director's answer was solid, even if he didn't know the guy's name. He chose the gent from Episode IV's Mos Eisley Cantina with the exaggerated, sinister smile. His striking look, Abrams said, suggests the life and drama beyond what you saw in the center of the story. (Oh, and so you don't have to look him up yourself: He's called Kardue'sai'Malloc, a Devaronian captain notoriously nicknamed "The Butcher of Montellian Serat," whose post-army career involves working as a tour manager for Figrin D'an and the Model Nodes, the "Jizz" musicians with the large bald heads that play the catchy Cantina tune. You're welcome.)
5. Stephen Colbert used to hire Alias' Sydney Bristow as a babysitter
One of Colbert's first gigs was working on Spin City, where he met another struggling young actor: "Jen" Garner. At one point, the young woman was really hard-up for gigs, so the Colberts hired her as a babysitter. She later moved to Los Angeles, and she and Stephen lost touch. Then, one day while driving, he saw an enormous eight-story billboard of Garner in a red wig and catsuit, advertising the premiere of Alias. He nearly swerved off the road.
Later he brought a magazine with Garner on the cover home to his wife. "Do you recognize her?"
"No," Mrs. Colbert responded.
"But she wasn't hot!"
"Yes, she was!" Colbert fired back.
6. The Force Awakens is not the first time J.J. and R2-D2 have worked together
Abrams spoke a bit about designing the adorable soccer ball known as BB-8 for the new picture. But he also mentioned that he's been working with Star Wars' most famous droid for some time. Many already knew that you can hit pause on Abrams' first Star Trek film to find a tiny, floating R2-D2 amid the debris of the destroyed Federation fleet, but he added that the lovable droid is also hidden in Mission: Impossible III and Super 8. Whether this means he'll decide to cross universes again in the other direction and include a Tribble in The Force Awakens remains to be seen.
7. J.J. Abrams promises there will be less "lens flare" shots in Force
There's a directorial flourish and then there's self-parody — and Abrams promises he's easing up on his signature stylistic tic of shining lights directly into anamorphic lenses to create flares. He could explain it away in the Star Trek films ("the future is so bright!") but admits he has no excuse for Super 8. He recalled how one shot in Star Trek Into Darkness was so overrun by lens flare his wife shouted that she couldn't see Alice Eve. He made an effort to tone it down for The Force Awakens, and when he spotted his lighting crew bringing large spotlights onto the set he would joke "these aren't the flares you're looking for."
8. Yes, the filmmaker knows that some folks were not happy with his Trek sequel
Abrams is aware that "we got in trouble on the second Star Trek film with some of the fans," and admitted. "There were too many nods to The Wrath of Khan. I'll cop to that." (Full disclosure: I, the author, was the gentleman who led the now notorious fan panel at the 2013 Las Vegas convention in which we, the aggrieved dweebs of the Trekkie community, declared that Into Darkness was the worst Star Trek film of all time. Very sorry, J.J.) Whether a proposed third Trek film from the Bad Robot crew will serve as a corrective or not remains to be seen, but he acknowledges that the nerds were indeed heard.
9. Never let facts get in the way of a good story or Aerosmith video
Colbert pried some good stories from Abrams about his years as a script doctor — including one on Michael Bay's Armageddon, in which he learned an early Hollywood lesson: "What would really happen doesn't really matter." He consulted an astrophysicist who politely pointed out that virtually everything in the miners-in-space epic was bunk. Abrams was forced to come back to producer Jerry Bruckheimer and let him know "nothing works." The producer's response was simple: "Leave it!"
10. The Force has always been strong with Abrams
Without getting "too metaphysical," Abrams did he best to express just how much the Force has meant to him over the years. "A religion with no God? It made sense to me at age 11." He added that he liked the notion that all people were "connected" and all it needed was for you to believe. He also concluded, to great huzzahs from the assembled crowd, that Star Wars is bigger than any of us. Though Abrams is ever the showman, his humility in the shadow of this enormous franchise seemed wholly sincere.