Future Follows Fiction
J.J. Abrams on How Sci-Fi Fuels Innovation
Award-winning filmmaker and screenwriter J.J. Abrams is known for drawing inspiration from cutting-edge tech, showcased in his imaginative takes on science fiction, drama and fantasy in “Star Trek,” “Lost,” “Alias” and more. Ask him what truly intrigues him — and drives his storytelling — and it will sound familiar to any budding tech entrepreneur: the “ooh” factor.
“I rarely think of things in terms of what genre it is, as opposed to what is the kind of ‘ooh’ factor. The, Oh my god, I want to see that! Or, Wow, what if I were there?” Abrams says. “There’s a kind of vicarious wish fulfillment or cautionary tale aspect to science fiction… It’s a wonderful way to talk about who we are and where we are without being literal about it.”
Of course, it’s about humanity, too. Abrams discusses how “Westworld” explored “this question about what it is to be human… Yes, there are real things about creating robots and AI, but what you’re really telling is this entire story that plays out all of these very canonical human tendencies.”
These are all similar concepts faced by tech startups today, where innovation means, as Greylock partner Reid Hoffman says, “creating products that have or might fundamentally transform everyday life.”
In the latest episode of Greymatter’s Iconversations series, Hoffman talks with Abrams about how science fiction and real-world technology take inspiration from one another, how to recognize a good idea when you see one, and the gravity of being behind any innovation that affects society on a large scale.
They also discuss how Abrams approaches every new project like a startup in and of itself, and what tech entrepreneurs can learn from his business model at Bad Robot Productions. (To learn more about the history of Bad Robot, listen to Hoffman and Abrams’ conversation on the episode “Make Room for Magic” on the Masters of Scale podcast.)
Tune in to the full Greymatter episode below. You can also watch the video from the event here. (Want to hear from more industry icons? Don’t miss the other episodes in our Iconversations series.)
Hi, everyone. Welcome to Greylock’s Iconversations. I’m Reid Hoffman. Today, I’m thrilled to have my friend J.J. Abrams with us.
J.J. is the co-founder and co-director of Bad Robot Productions, which has been the force behind some of the most successful and well-known films and TV shows of our time. Bad Robot has brought us modern sci-fi hits like “Super Eight,” “Star Wars,” “Star Trek” and the Cloverfield franchises and TV shows like “Alias,” “Felicity,” “Lost,” and “Westworld.”
While relatively few tech entrepreneurs may work on products that end up being household names like J.J.’s creations, there [is] a lot of overlap between how he and people in his world operate, and how those of us in the tech ecosystem do.
One of the parallels that I find most fascinating is how we are all seeking to change reality in some form and the way we bring our ideas to fruition. For J.J. and others in media, that means creating compelling characters and stories who exist in alternate worlds. For the tech world, that means creating products that have or might fundamentally transform everyday life.
In that regard, science fiction and real-world technology continually take inspiration from one another. Similarly, anyone whose work impacts society [at] great levels carries a great responsibility. We’ll spend most of today’s discussion exploring those themes.
J.J. will share how he and Bad Robot develop ideas in their stories, and we’ll discuss how science fiction and games have inspired products — and sometimes even companies — in the nonfiction real world, and vice versa.
We’ll also hear about J.J.’s own path to becoming an entrepreneur and company builder, and how he approaches each project like a startup in and of itself.
[For] our audience, as we go through this event, please feel free to ask questions in the chat function. I’ll try to get to as many of your questions as possible. Bear in mind, just like any of us working in stealth mode, there’s a limit on how many insider details J.J. can share about future projects.
With that, let’s get started. J.J., thanks so much as always for being here.
Reid, it’s great to see you and thank you for that incredibly generous intro.
As I told you [all], because J.J. and I have been friends for a long time, it was like, this is going to embarrass [him] a little bit, but it’s worth saying.
Like all good nerds you know, both you and I’ve always loved science fiction and games. And also like good nerds, they’ve informed a lot of my thinking about real-world technology and business strategy. And the same is true for many tech entrepreneurs.
So I know that you think about this a lot, because I think part of how we first met is you started kind of scratching at and trying to figure out what’s actually going on. What should be the real basis for some of the better kinds of stories in this. And it was one of the things that you take very seriously.
So what’s some of the inspiration that you’ve taken from tech, and some of that process that you do for generating these amazing stories?
Well, thank you again. I think that the answer is maybe super obvious, but I’ll say it: It is very much a two-way street. I remember when we were shooting one of our “Star Trek” films, we were shooting at Livermore Labs and we were at the National Ignition Facility. [Researchers there] were coming over to us and saying, “Oh my god, I got into this because of Star Trek. And now you’re shooting Star Trek here.” And we’re like, “Well, we’re shooting Star Trek here because this looks like what we thought Star Trek should look like!”
And I think that there are a lot of examples of [things] we just take for granted. Looking back at things again it’s super obvious, but 2001, when you see the technology that exists there, when you look at it, it could be anything from the Dick Tracy comic strips and his communication watch to, obviously, the Star Trek communicator.
I think that what I, or people like myself, have been inspired to consider — or to do or think — was perhaps even inevitable. And therefore [in our work we are] going to make it [appear] real.
The list is long, and obviously reaching out to you, you’ve always been incredibly generous in connecting me with other people who could help just have a discussion and give me a sense of what [other technologies] I might be looking at or considering or thinking about. Because, for all of us I think, the list of things that we might not know is far longer than what we do.
One of the things that I love about the way you approach science fiction is, a lot of times people think sci-fi is about the technology. For you, it’s about the humanity, and the story with the science and the technology there. It’s actually one of the reasons I think you’re so multidisciplinary, and how you think about it as well.
What are the ways in which this interface with the signs of technology is having you think about how it affects our humanity? Whether it’s AI or synthetic biology or the network, how is that weaving into your storytelling?
Well, it’s funny because there are some times where, for example, when we’re working on Star Wars, I personally don’t consider Star Wars to be science fiction, as much as I feel it is just a great adventure and kind of a serial drama fantasy. It’s funny, certain times science can be the greatest gift.
Some of my favorite stories are ones that take a scientific notion and then ask, What if?, and push it one step further. And there’s usually that one area where it’s kind of obfuscating; kind of like that membrane that gets permeated, that then you cross over into the impossible — but you do it all through what is possible.
For example, Crichton did it with “Jurassic Park” and the notion of, in genetics, what if we took what we know and said, Would it be possible if in amber… etc.
So I love the idea of science pushing and creating opportunities, but I feel like my favorite movies that I’ve ever seen and stories I’ve read are ones where there’s something that we know to be true. That is real. And somehow, at some point, almost invisibly we’ve crossed over into this is either not possible or not likely at all, but we are now in the thing that makes it the story that we all know and love.
And again, there are so many examples of what those stories are.
Yeah, no, exactly. And for example, diving into “Westworld,” which was this question about what it is to be human and what are the kinds of identity, free will, determination, ethics. Yes, there are real things about creating robots and AI, but what you’re really telling is this entire story that plays out all of these very canonical human tendencies.
Well, it’s funny, because Michael Crichton made “Westworld” [in 1973] when I was a kid and [I] saw it. And I had a meeting with Crichton, now 25 years ago, about this. It was a mostly fantastical notion, and it was all sort of taking what he knew to be true and asking, What if? Like we’re saying.
But for me, the thing that struck me was that feeling of… I felt for Yul Brynner’s character, as much as it terrified the hell out of me. I weirdly felt for that character and those [other] characters. And there was the dynamic between James and Richard Benjamin in that film, this element of it that was, at the core, about an ethical question.
I have to give 100 percent of the credit for “Westworld” to Jonah Nolan and Lisa Joy, who took this on. I did pitch the idea to HBO and sell the premise, which for me was about oppression. And it was about everything you just mentioned. It was really about being aligned with people who come to realize their life is not what they think it is. And they realize that they are, in fact, imprisoned.
Then of course, the question becomes, Well, who isn’t on some level? But Jonah and Lisa took this idea that HBO bought and they made it literal and brought it to life in a way that I think is really remarkable.
So I love the idea of coming to a story from the human point of view, the character that you are, that you love. Not to say that the character can’t also be something of technology and of science.
One funny interjection that I think it may be fun to share: I remember having this conversation with you when you were startled at how fast Reddit had figured out the [“Westworld”] plot twist. [Because] it was like, you guys, look, we haven’t really foreshadowed it that much.
It was funny — when Jonah and Lisa were pitching out what they were doing in that first season, there was this time differential and the idea that we were intercutting scenes. What you come to realize later is that you had been watching something completely asynchronous and out of time.
It was one of those things that when they were pitching it, when they got to [that part], I was like, holy crap that is just so good.
And it was within a few episodes that people online had, in that sort of amazing hivemind, unstoppable way, come to conclude who the Man in Black was, and what we were watching. And I was like, Oh my god. I just think it’s part of the fun. What you hope to do is something that everyone will hypothesize [about] where it might be going and what it might mean. It was exciting to see people getting what Jonah and Lisa were doing.
You grew up around the entertainment industry, [and had a] love of film and TV on a massive scale. That set the foundation for [your] career path.
But [for you], was science fiction a way to approach humanity? Or a way to approach the possible? Was that [question] the thing that made science fiction a lot of what you’re doing [today]? Or [were you inspired by] works of science fiction? What was it?
I rarely think of things in terms of what genre it is, as opposed to what is the kind of “ooh” factor. The, Oh my god, I want to see that! Or, Wow, what if I were there?
There's a kind of vicarious wish fulfillment or cautionary tale aspect to science fiction... It's a wonderful way to talk about who we are and where we are without being literal about it.
When we did “Cloverfield” — which is a big, crazy monster movie that Matt Reeves directed that was a post–9/11 way of dealing with trauma in the city that wasn’t the literal thing — we had a lot of conversations about that. And I feel like science fiction just lends itself to [it].
And obviously, [original Star Trek creator] Gene Roddenberry was wonderful at commenting on who we are and societal ills and questions he had. Just the way Rod Serling was in “The Twilight Zone.”
Sterling had famously written stories that were not genre stories. They were these literal stories about race, or politics, or the Cold War, or any number of things that just incited rage with the sponsors and the networks. And [he] got in trouble all the time.
And finally, “The Twilight Zone” was [his] way of saying, I’m going to tell every story I want to, but they’re going to be aliens or it’s going to be science fiction. And everything was a metaphor. I think the science-fiction genre in general lends itself so well to that.
I completely agree, and it’s part of the humanity of it.
You have a broad palette. One of the questions we’re getting from the audience is: How do you look at the differences between movies and film and [ the more] interactive [mediums], like games? Do you think that
have some interesting strengths and weaknesses relative to film and TV?
For sure. It’s a great question. We just recently started Bad Robot Games, officially getting it off the ground with Anna Sweet at the head of it. And this is something we were talking about quite a bit. In fact, the idea of the company is, the mission statement is to continually redefine how stories are played and the idea that a story is critical.
Yet, when you’re playing a game, it’s hard to argue that gameplay is the most important thing. Then of course, there’s the question of: Are you telling a story or are you being told a story? How much does one want to play a game to be told a story? And how much does one [want] agency to be telling the story?
There’s no one answer for every game. There are all sorts of different ways that a gamer can play. And so we’re always in healthy debate about what it is to tell a story when it is interactive. Because a story, by definition I think, is something that has an inevitability and a moral, and you’re telling the story for a sort of purpose.
How do you know what it is you are setting up if you don’t know how you are paying it off? In a game — unless it is a hierarchy, where you are sort of hiding the fact that there is inevitably — you’re always sending people to these particular places, which is a familiar approach to it. It’s very hard to give particular meaning to a moment if you don’t understand how it’s going to come back later.
I love games. And I think that some games lend themselves really well to expanding worlds that have a narrative. So you can feel like you’re part of something, even though it’s not literal.
I think one of the errors we’ve seen is that, whether it’s a sort of cash-grab way or an opportunistic way, movies have been made to try and recreate what you experienced playing the game. Which immediately turns off the people who play, because they’re like, Don’t tell me what my game is.
But the truth is, unless it’s in the real context of the movie, some of those sequences end up being a bit rote.
To me, the fun of it is saying, well, what if you took the spirit of that movie and said, What could a great game be on its own? But it happens to live in that universe. And then you can start to seed ideas back and forth, and they can be additive cross-directionally. That, to me, is something that’s very exciting.
Do you think you’re going to try to have games that have that same kind of emotional “this is the moral of the story” — this is the lens, this is the catalyst of the perspective?
Well, I think it’s happened. I mean, when you play the “Last of Us,” it’s a deeply moving, emotional, and thrilling experience. There are games out there that do that.
Of course, like anything, it is hard to do. Those are few and far between at that sort of level of narrative. And I think it’s a pretty nascent means of telling those kinds of stories.
I think that as it becomes clear what kind of narratives work best interactively, and as the technology continues to evolve (like we’re all seeing with things like Unreal Engine Five), you see not just what is possible in real-time rendering, but that the tools that being used to create real-time games are the tools that are being used to create the movies and shows that we see.
It’s becoming one conversation.
If you look at technology and creation, whether it's graphics or music or nonlinear editing, there's a kind of fluidity between programs and techniques that has obviated the need to even say “Renaissance person.”
A Renaissance person used to be someone who did all these things. We’re now born into doing all these things. Kids now don’t know the difference between listening to music and the ability to make it, because they all know they can.
The thing that they got comes with a thing that lets them. For me, I feel like where we’re going with games will increasingly lead to those kinds of emotional stories.
That makes total sense. So let’s shift a little to process, and start with a funny thing that I witnessed — which is, I invited you up to this CEO dinner.
What are you talking about?
Well, remember the CEO dinner we had in San Mateo?
Yeah, of course.
Where the Apollo Fusion [guys were there] and I kind of made sure that you were sitting next to some of the interesting people creating new things. And it was funny because you were asking a whole bunch of questions. You were like, Hmm, this story kind of writes itself.
How often do you encounter this bizarre truth-is-stranger-than-fiction story [inspiration]? And can you share a few of those moments?
Well, I’ll say that I think we all, not just people who are storytellers, [have those moments]. And I think, on some level, everyone loves the idea of Doc Brown or Seth Brundle or whoever being real. You want those people to really exist, and you kind of find out that they do.
When we were doing “Fringe,” the weirder the story we came up with, the weirdest thing that we might come up with in any given week or month, we would almost invariably hear something [real] a week later that was weirder. That was actually happening.
And it’s not to say that extreme sort of “X-Files” stuff is common, but you do find that people are in their garages dreaming up and coming up with any number of incredible things. Including, obviously, in the category of genetics, which I think is going to end up being this wild west of very hard-to-comprehend advancements and accessibility.
The thing that’s so crazy about that is how you’re not going to need a giant infrastructure or corporate support to create your own insect or species. So I just feel like there’s a lot of weirdness around the corner.
In fact, that is something we’re working on right now. Not specifically about genetics, but just kind of embracing the feeling of between genetics and robotics and AI, and all this that’s happening. That feeling that we are on the precipice of the kind of inventions that I think will be very hard for people to swallow or comprehend.
For someone who does what I do, that is an opportunity. Because it feels like there is that sense of things are getting weird. They’re going to get weirder, and what doors does that open and what [in a story] can we put a family through?
And how do you inform what the humanity of it is? I mean, I had a conversation with a leading geneticist where I was like, “How are we going to make these decisions about how to approach genetics as design, versus just kind of an editorial filter?” And he said, “Oh yeah, I could see us deciding, like, you add some jellyfish to your genetics and I’m going to add some kind of Bald Eagle to mine.”
I will often draw a circle and shade it as a sphere and shadow it and everything, and then I’ll just draw some little figure on it, or next to it, or climbing up it. It’s just weird:
When you put in an anthropomorphized figure or a human figure into any kind of situation, suddenly it becomes interesting.
Not just three-dimensional, but it becomes relatively connected to you.
I feel like everything you’re describing, if you put a person next to anything you just said, it’s interesting. What is it when someone is adjacent to, in the center of, involved in, or in the periphery of something spectacular or something potentially frightening or something that mysterious that we don’t know?
And that is the place that I think — to go back to Crichton, because he did it so well — that feeling of taking people you come to connect with and then saying, Oh, and this happened. And this is what’s going on and they’ve done that.Then the answer to that question I think becomes apparent, which is, What does it say about us? And of course it depends on what the story is, but it starts to become clear.
One of the many areas of overlap [between] the work you do and the work that Silicon Valley folks do is talent. Because, obviously, a lot of your job these days is not actually architecting the story or what else, but is assembling the teams and helping catalyze them and make sure they’re motivated the right way.
What are some of the things that you learned? What are your thoughts and inspirations and rules around talent that our tech group might be super curious about?
Well, there are no rules that one can really follow to do anything. I think that every day, whenever we’re shooting something and a day’s coming up and I’m like, Oh, I think this is going to be great, it invariably it kicks my ass that day.
And when I go into a day and I’m like, Goddammit this is going to be a bear, I don’t know — weirdly, it kind of works. I don’t know how to predict it. But I will say, in terms of talent, primarily I think we all want to be taken on a ride. We want to find people who have something — it can be any concentration area that inspires — that makes us feel something.
I’ve talked about this with you before, but the thing that I kind of rely on for that is the sixth sense that we all have, which is “the chills.” When someone shows you something, talks about something, describes something, or you listen to something they’ve done. When you feel that thing you can’t have a conversation about, it’s the universe saying, Yeah, yeah, that. So there’s that thing.
I think a critical thing I have found, and obviously at Bad Robot, we have a bunch of approaches to this, but it’s become really valuable. And that is to make sure that the people we’re working with, the talent we’re bringing in, don’t always look like us. That there are people who come from different experiences, different backgrounds.
And that has been a priceless thing for us: to work with people who don’t just shake their head or nod or say, Yeah, let’s do that thing, but say, Yeah, but what if…? Or, What about…? In my experience, those are things that are really invaluable, because I think increasingly people are finding themselves looking for — and especially now, by the way, in this ecosystem of 10 million new shows an hour — stories that don’t feel like the same-old same-old.
Finding people who are inspiring, finding people who are not the usual suspects, is key. I do tend to work with a lot of the same people again and again. But I also feel like it has become a huge part of what we do at Bad Robot to expand our horizons and learn from not just the younger generation of storytellers and filmmakers and artists, but also to rethink the things that we just assume are “the way” — because obviously we all have a lot to learn still.
You generate naturally strong female protagonists in an industry that tends to be the two guy buddies doing the adventure. And yet your hero is frequently a woman. Is that just a natural part of the storytelling, that diversity of perspective from you? How has that come to be such a notable part of the work that you do?
I’ve always found myself drawn to female protagonists and stories. Whenever I would watch Batman as a kid, I was always so happy when Batgirl would swing by. And I’m like, oh, Batgirl’s in this one! I was always really happy that Batgirl was around.
I remember when I wrote “Felicity,” a lot of people were saying, “Why have a young woman at the center of the thing?” And then when I did “Alias,” people were like, “Wow, so why have her be a spy?” And I remember thinking at the time, No one would be asking me that question if they were male protagonists.
And of course, increasingly it’s less and less unusual. But I feel like [it’s just ingrained in my background] — whether it’s that my mother was a very strong and inspiring figure in my life, or I went to Sarah Lawrence College, which was majority female.
There’s something about a woman at the center that I, for whatever reason, as a writer, find myself rooting for her. Even when I don’t know who she is. For example, when I was talking to Kathy Kennedy about working on the Star Wars movie before there was any sense of what would happen, I remember saying, “I can imagine that there’s this young woman who lives in this world where all the stuff that we know of Star Wars is literally the history of her life. It’s what’s come before her.”
Asking, Who is that person and who is she? And I remember that was the way in. But it wasn’t an outside-in thing. It wasn’t like, “Let’s consider how we should put a female in there.” I’m just naturally drawn to it. That kind of character, for better or worse.
That makes a lot of sense. And it’s actually one of the things I think many folks, including me, have always appreciated about your stories.
So back to the talent thing. One of the things that we struggle with in Silicon Valley is, How do you maintain that nimbleness of creativity? Because part of envisioning the future is envisioning, like, possibility. And envisioning it could be different.
What’s one of the things you guys do at Bad Robot culturally with each other — physical plants, exercises, management techniques? Because creativity, it’s everything for you. It’s blood. It’s air. Right?
It’s a great question. I mean, I think you have to sort of delineate management and corporate company structure and the creative experience, and there’s 100 percent a critical Venn diagram.
For me personally, working with people, we have a TV department, a film department, music department, games department. We have a workshop. We have the “Good Robot” side of things. On all fronts, there’s the sort of required work to keep the company up and running. And [my wife] Katie oversees a lot more of that than I do, which I’m grateful for because I know 100 percent that’s not in any way my strong suit.
But I think on the creative side of things — and Brian Weinstein, who’s our president, has been really helpful at finding people to help do this as well — having a company where the divisions are open to, and in some ways reliant upon, each other for opinions, for feedback. But at the same time, [are] very much their own pillars of the company, and that they work with who we bring in and hire showrunners or filmmakers that don’t need to be babysat, but who are collaborative and open to the conversations.
That’s where the real sort of creative stuff happens. It’s a bit like controlled chaos, which is to say, you want to have boxes where, you know, here’s that project and there’s that project. And inside that box, it may be insane. It may be a mess. It may be crazy. And the process will be very different than that box, because they’re two different human beings or teams working on those things.
As long as I know that the people who are running those divisions in that hierarchical way are overseeing and checking in on what’s happening with those people, I feel like I know where I am in it. I get very unsettled when a week goes by or two weeks go by and I’m like, I haven’t heard about a thing.
It’s like an alarm goes off in my head. I was like, Wait a minute. What’s going on with that? And so part of it is just about, again, not micromanaging. Just sort of understanding, because I do need a sense of where things are, even if they’re stalled, because then we can start to solve for that. Why is it in that state?
But in terms of the company, I think it’s about trust. It’s about working with people and creating an environment where they can show up and bring their best selves to work. Treating people like people. And of course, it’s dangerous when you get too familial, because then it’s like there are a lot of feelings. And especially the millennial workers, they’ve got a lot to say, and they’re approaching work in a very different way than those who’ve come before.
But we try to do our best, and we’re making mistakes all the time. So embrace the fact that you don’t know. Like, we’re doing this new show for HBO during this crazy pandemic time. We’ve actually had the ability to write every episode of the first season, which I’ve never had before. I’ve never gone into shooting something where we had every episode written. And it’s a gift that I’d love to find a way to continue (without the pandemic part).
But I will say that I also look back at things from “Felicity” and “Alias” and “Lost” and “Fringe,” where there were actors who came in, who are going to be on the show for an episode or two episodes, and they were extraordinary. There was an alchemy between them and the regular cast. And all of a sudden, you’re like, oh no, he’s not going anywhere. This guy’s got to stay.
In terms of being nimble, you have to have a plan. But I think you also have to have faith in the operation.
And it is a leap of faith to say, “I cannot determine, I cannot mandate everything. I have to be open to what is going to surprise us and what’s going to make it better.”
Some of the best decisions that I’ve either been a part of or been associated with are those [where I’ve] listened to and been aware of the better idea. And I think that, that’s the thing. I mean, the most obvious example in my business is not too long ago, Netflix used to send out DVDs and Blu-rays in a little red envelope. It’s like, if your eyes aren’t open and you’re not thinking about What else can we be doing here?, then you’re going to miss the trick.
Yeah. Or miss the entire industry. One of the things that you have done maybe better than anyone else I know in history…
There’s nothing you can say at all.
Nope, we’re done. Mic drop. [Laughs.] …is the relaunches of treasured stories, treasured franchises. Star Wars in the new episodes. Star Trek. This is something that you bring humanity to, but also this kind of creativity.
What’s the experience been? The process of imagining a new launch that adds to this amazing history?
Well, I feel like those kinds of situations are so common now in the business — for things to be revisited, relaunched, rebooted — to a point where I’m now getting calls that certain things we created, [they’re asking], “Can we reboot?”
I would say my approach — which is 100% vulnerable to being the worst thing possible for at least half the audience — is to say, when there is a beloved thing, there is automatically [a nostalgia], which I get. And as someone who is a fan of these things, I completely understand. But there is an immediate defensive posture or uncertain posture about, What is this person going to do with this thing that I love?
I feel like, as someone who’s involved in a number of these things — and I would include “Westworld” and Mission Impossible as well, when Tom invited me to work on that — I think you have to approach it from the point of view of embracing the spirit of what was done.
Yes, the letter of it, Of course, there’s canon. You have to respect that, but you have to ask yourself, What is it you would like to see? And there are often, perhaps even always, various voices that are requiring certain things, because these things precede you and you have to honor that.
But I think the way to do it is to approach it from, as much as possible, a place of embracing the thing that you loved about it. And not assuming it’s going to be interesting to anyone just because it comes from that thing. Like, how is it interesting to you, despite it being a title that you might know?
I think a lot of times, a lot of movies have been made where the actor that they got for the role sort of was the crutch. And maybe enough work wasn’t done here or there on what the story was. I just think you can’t rely on a fan base. In fact, the fan base — and I have this personal experience — they are not a quiet bunch, nor should they be.
You have to go into that kind of stuff with as much passion and love for what you’re doing as possible, and know that whatever you do, you will not please everyone. And you desperately want to, but you just won’t. I think it’s all about going into it with anything but a corporate idea to exploit this thing that is easier to sell than something else.
Well, it’s “keep the spirit,” but then add a new mystery to it, or something you can connect to.
It has to be additive. It has to be something that sparks you, but it’s a great platform if there’s something that you love. I mean, when you look at “The Dark Knight,” the idea that Chris Nolan had for Batman — frankly, the way Tim Burton did years earlier. When you have someone who has a kind of sense of something, and it’s one of those things, it’s like, Hell yes!
Those are examples of incredibly entertaining movies. But in the wrong hands, obviously, things don’t go that way. And sometimes I think my hands have been right and other times my hands have been wrong.
Yep. One other question we’re getting from the audience: I know it’s been many years since you actually had to pitch for business, since having proven the work you basically just have to pick up the phone these days.
Oh no, by the way, I’m pitching all the time. Go ahead. Sorry.
Is Hollywood known for how to do strong pitches? What are some of the lessons from pitches you might imagine would be useful for tech entrepreneurs who are coming and pitching people like me? Or venture capitalists saying, “Here’s how to imagine this company as part of the future”?
What are some of your heuristics or thoughts about good pitches?
I don’t know if this will apply or be remotely helpful, but I’ll try to answer. That’s a fascinating question.
For me, the best pitches are, at least for story, the kind of pitches that pretty quickly in the conversation give me the feeling that I can tell what the audience or the player or the user would have with this idea, this invention, this notion. Rather than [those that] talk about the level of detail that is incredibly inside-out thinking, or the sort of details that I’m not on board with yet.
So don’t tell me what the details are inside the ship. I got to get on the ship in order for any of the details to matter. So to me, the more I can get a sense of something in the most efficient way possible, so that I’m actually asking the question or that I go, Ooh, I get it. Or that there’s a feeling. And by the way, it might be about a detail.
For example, if someone’s pitching a story, it might be something very early on in the story that just clicks, where you feel like, Oh, that’s kind of a great moment. And then, once you’ve hooked me and I’ve gotten that feeling, you can be pretty broad stroke about where the story goes. What the shape of it is.
It’s funny. On one of the shows that we’re doing now, we’re doing this thing where before we even write an outline, we’re having this four-page document written that is kind of a “what for” for an episode of the show.
If you were to describe to your friend what that episode was and why it was so good, what’s the feeling? What is the thing you would say? Don’t give me every detail. Pitch me the thing that you would tell your friend: This is why you have to watch the episode. With some spoilers maybe, but the idea is to create an intention document.
So I would say, in a pitch, pitch the intention version — not the outline. And then let the person like you, who’s going to sort of decide what goes next, ask the questions. Because as soon as they’re asking questions, that’s a good sign.
The goal for me is to be as efficient as possible, grab the person with the feeling of the thing, and then tell them just enough. So they’re getting what they need to know first. Then all the questions that you would follow up with become the conversation.
By the way, that’s, I guess, the headline for this:
Make the pitch a conversation as quickly as you can. Because if it's just a pitch and one person is talking, one person who's listening, it's not very interesting.
Get what you can out there, so it can become a conversation.
Yep. The advice I also give to entrepreneurs is to say, look, how does one investor talk to another about your company? Your deal? The intention that you’re talking about.
They have to be engaged enough that they have to be curious. They have to be in conversation, asking questions. If you haven’t gotten them there, the likelihood that they’re going to engage or be good partners is much more remote.
Agreed. And also, we’re people. And anything that we are doing that is in a collaborative nature or partnership is going to be, not just, Oh, I liked them. It’s like, Oh, I get their energy. I get their intention. I get their innovation.
I just think that the sooner you get to the conversation, the sooner you get a sense of how you might work together, because it’s how we talk together.
Yes, exactly. So in this kind of pitching frame, one of the things I’m going to now shift to is, as an investor, I’m always looking toward technologies that will be common in the future.
And there’s a set of different technologies that I’ve thought about or invested in that I want to ask, what do you think about those technologies? What is your reflex?
Hopefully you’re good.
This is not where our friendship ends, right?
No, no. Not at all. Let’s start with, I’ve been doing a lot in the future of transportation. So, self-driving vehicles like Aurora, or flying cars like Joby. What does that make you think of in the future?
I mean, look, we all want to live in a world where flying cars are a real thing, whether it’s Jetsons or any other version. I mean, I literally remember this moment being on the playground in elementary school, And I was talking to this kid, Reid, who was telling me that there are going to be self-driving cars.
We were having this debate and I was in fifth grade I think, this argument about self-driving cars. My argument was that it wasn’t possible for all these various reasons that he, who was clearly, even at the time, you could tell the kid was just super brilliant, kind of had a vision for how [it would happen.]
Now it’s almost like saying to the 5-year-old or 8, whatever, fifth-grade version of us: One day, you’re going to be able to listen to any song you want to, anywhere you are.
I don’t know what kind of gymnastics my brain would have to go through to begin to understand how that would ever be a possibility. But I’m only bringing it up to say that it’s like a childhood dream. So I would say yes, 100 percent you want to see self-driving cars and flying cars.
I think that they’re going to require the transition from, there’s no way in hell I would trust my family’s life with this thing, to putting in the destination and then turning around, having a conversation for an hour and then arriving at your friend’s house. It’s going to be a fascinating transition.
And yet when you see how incredibly quickly we adapt and adopt technology into our lives, my guess is it’s probably a lot faster than you think, as long as it’s actually safe.
I think the trust part is exactly right. Because not only the trust of, Oh gosh, is it safe? To, Oh gosh, is not having it safe? Like Oh, can I get to the hospital fast enough? We’re going to get to [that point]. It’s like all of these things as part of that.
That’s certainly been Elon’s argument, that it is a far safer thing to have this work well than to have people have their hands on the wheel and controlling it themselves.
Yes, exactly. So then the next one is a lot of work that’s happening in artificial intelligence. Open AI, GPT-3, natural language prediction models. Generating stories, generating conversation. Have you been playing at all with this, and has it been giving you any ideas for lenses into the future?
We have not been working with any story-generating AI personally, but I think this is something that is undeniably here and only going to get refined and become more and more legit. Whether it’s music or visual art or story.
I mean, I think on one level, sure. Wherever an incredible story comes from, bless it. That’s great. You know the point of stories, obviously, is to move us. The thing one could argue Hollywood has already been doing for years is an automatic, almost like Mad Libs-version of various movies. And certainly, I’m sure I’m as to blame as anyone for anything that feels like it’s a cynical approach to storytelling.
I would argue that it feels pretty depressing, not as like, Oh, somebody would take my job or someone else’s, it’s not about that. Which of course, there’s that too. But the idea that stories are not being made to move computers, to have the soul of a computer… Stories are written and told and created to move humanity.
Hopefully, while there will be all sorts of technology and certainly like in music, there’s clearly so much technology that exists now that allows for someone who’s never picked up a guitar to sound like they play the guitar on a record or an orchestra or any instrument. Hopefully whatever tools come in and exist will be used to challenge the storytellers that hopefully will remain human, and to create the works that do move us the most.
This will be our last question, because unfortunately, as I always discover, I could talk to you for hours, but we only have an hour.
Yeah. I love talking to you.
Storytelling often leads us to what we as entrepreneurs should be working on, as well as what we should be working away from.
What’s something you would like to shine a light on and could do through your storytelling? Is there any particular kind of way to make sure we stay true to who we can be as humanity, and stay away from malfunction? Are there any parting words of guidance?
If you take away anything from this conversation, it’s that I have nothing to say that you don’t know already. But my instinct is that certainly, on a daily basis, it does not take much to find examples of people treating other people in an inhumane way. And we seem to be in a moment where people feel like they have license to, and are somehow made stronger by, being cruel to other people.
And I don’t know what it is exactly. There are a lot of things that we could all sort of point to and bring up that we all know. But I feel like, yes, you can find stories of people being kind, and yet those are never as loud as the stories of people being cruel.
And I feel like we seem to have lost a level of acceptance and compassion and nuance that I think is critical for us to be friends, even if one of us is a Republican and the other one is a Democrat, or to be friends depending on if one of us doesn’t look like the other. And I get that we are in a crazy time, and I get that fear can give rise to all sorts of behavior that is perhaps stuff that one might be ashamed of later. But shame itself seems to have gone away.
I guess I would just say a story that reminds us that we are more alike than not; that being compassionate and being good and kind to each other isn’t a weakness, it’s a strength.
There are some inevitabilities that cannot be fought, in terms of who we are and what’s going on. So the reality is we have to learn how to coexist, because we’re not going to exist in another way. And so, I guess, if I would say anything, it would be like, is there a story that can be a drop in the bucket and help remind us of the golden rule? Just to treat others the way we want to be treated?
Yup. I literally cannot think of a more perfect bow on this conversation. Not only discover your own humanity, but discover others and connect to it with kindness and compassion. I cannot agree more.
Bless you, sir.
So J.J., as always, a pleasure and an honor to chat with you. I look forward to our next conversations.
I do as well. Thank you for having me, I really, really appreciate it, Reid.