SXSW: J.J. Abrams and Andrew Jarecki talk telling relatable stories, advances in film tech, diversity in entertainment

Charles Liu

On Monday, filmmakers and friends J.J. Abrams (“Star Wars: The Force Awakens”) and Andrew Jarecki (“The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst”) spoke to South by Southwest attendees about telling human stories, how technology has affected filmmaking and diversity in entertainment.

Abrams addressed the first two topics in his discussion about “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” He explained that he prefers a hybrid approach to visual effects, combining real props and computer-generated imagery to make his movies more engaging to viewers. This could be seen in the latest “Star Wars” picture, where puppets were used for the film’s spectacular creatures to give them a more authentic feel, and computers were often used to remove their puppeteers or rigs to hide the machinery behind the magic.

However, Abrams added that realistic special effects aren’t the key to making stories great: they have to be grounded in the human perspective.

“One of the things in moviemaking is, because we can do all the things we want, we are now immune to spectacle,” he said. “The challenge is to be aware of that and use [special effects tools] as sparingly as possible. We need to ask what do we need, rather than what can I do?”

Abrams’ answer to “What do we need?” is “character.”  He said he strives to preserve the humanity in his characters, even in robots like BB-8, to invest audiences in their journey. This was done by cutting certain special effects sequences that felt off-point in terms story development and retaining smaller, more intimate moments.

While Abrams had to tell a tale about fictional characters, Jarecki had to tell the story of a real accused murderer, Robert Durst, in his HBO documentary series, “The Jinx.” While Jarecki didn’t have to tackle the problem of how to use special effects, he noted he did have issues regarding the relatability of his subject, whose inhuman nature threatened to turn away potential viewers.

“[Durst has] conducted his murders in such a clinical way that he seems robotic to us,” said Jarecki. “What we tried to do was he give him the time to tell his story in a richer way. We really wanted to give him a chance to tell his side of the story. Someone can be a murderer and also be a person with hopes and dreams.”

When asked by moderator Peter Kafka about what he thought of Durst, Jarecki answered, “I do like him. I see all the terrible things that he’s done and I can’t ignore any of that. But at the same time, I see the person and I see what he could’ve been, and I feel empathy for him.”

Jarecki’s discussion about film technology was related to the average consumer, and giving them tools to make their own movies.

“There’s this big section of people who can make great stuff but don’t have the technology to do it,” he said.

His answer to that problem: a smartphone app called “KnowMe.”

KnowMe is a simplified film editing studio designed for the average consumer. One can film multiple clips or use previously taken photos or videos, then splice them together with narration and clips with ease to create short films.

Abrams commented on phones and the app as well, saying, “Literally everyone in their pockets has a movie studio and a distribution system. There’s no excuse to not make something you want to make and not tell a story you want to tell.”

KnowMe is currently available for iPhone and Android.

During the Q&A portion of the talk, a question about diversity in films was directed toward Abrams, who replied that his production studio, Bad Robot, has started working to hire actors from different backgrounds.

“We asked that the list of people being considered represent the makeup of the country,” Abrams said. “We had to do something to acknowledge the fact that it is good for the bottom line. It is a good thing for the business to have voices that are inclusive. We want to have stories that are unique, to have points of view that aren’t expected.”