South by Southwest Convergence

SXSW 2016: filmmakers J.J. Abrams, Andrew Jarecki discuss tech tools for storytelling

Yes, they talked about "Star Wars"

Posted March 14th, 2016

Story highlights
  • Filmmakers discuss the video app "KnowMe" and their experiences with "Star War" and "The Jinx"
  • The highly anticipated panel was packed in the Austin Convention Center
  • Abrams was also in town to appear as a screening of a documentary about "Star Wars: The Force Awakens."

Filmmakers J.J. Abrams and Andrew Jarecki, both of whom have hit recent creative peaks (Abrams with "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," Jarecki with HBO miniseries "The Jinx") received a warm and lively reception in a Monday South by Southwest convergence panel called "The Eyes of Robots and Murderers."

Rodolfo Gonzalez / AMERICAN-STATESMANFilmmakers J.J. Abrams and Andrew Jarecki walk up for a South by Southwest convergence panel on storytelling and technology. 

The topic was technology and storytelling challenges and both filmmakers, who have had a long friendship and work together through Abrams's company Bad Robot, said they're bullish about apps and the enabling ways that tech can improve the tools they use to make films, but stressed that storytelling is still a time-consuming, intense and often analog pursuit.

"Taking the time to try to get the story right -- that's never something that technology can speed up," Abrams said.

The panel, moderated by Re/Code tech reporter Peter Kafka, was also an opportunity for festgoers to see what might have been the first public trailer for "Westworld," a new HBO series based on a Michael Crichton book that Bad Robot is producing. In January, production shut down on the series  amid script delays, which Abrams attributed to the length of time it takes to get story right, despite improvements in filmmaking technology. The trailer was a gorgeous piece of teasing, featuring actors Anthony Hopkins, Evan Rachel Wood, Jeffrey Wright and Ed Harris, a mix of western and robot technology that looks to be moody, bloody and beautifully shot.

Abrams, afforded a hero's welcome at the panel and at an earlier screening of a documentary, "Secrets of 'The Force Awakens,' " described how he added shots to the "Star Wars" film at Bad Robot in post-production in order to add more emotion to the story. He said that while many filmmakers decry people watching their big-scale visual efforts on small screens, he's actually had good experiences watching TV shows and movies on mobile devices.

"The best movies capture in a way that's far more profound than a 3-D effect," Abrams said. "You are inside that movie, inside that story."

For his part, Jarecki told some harrowing story about the making of "The Jinx," about Robert Durst, thrice accused of murder and eventually arrested at the same time that the sixth and last episode of the series was airing on HBO. Jarecki showed a clip of Durst describing dressing as a woman in order to disguise himself and said that at some points during the show's airing he was concerned for his safety and had to hire security for his family.

"I was concerned about it... I heard from the FBI he was in New York and he was  very angry at me... So it was awkward," Jarecki said.

The filmmakers collaborated on a new app, "KnowMe" which allows user to quickly create first-person videos that include embedded video clips, photos and music. Jarecki demonstrated the app on stage, shooting a new video of himself with the SXSW audience behind him and mixing it with clips and music on his phone. Demonstrating any piece of tech live on stage can be a disaster, but "KnowMe" worked perfectly and impressively. 

Abrams also talked about a recent decision after the Oscars to make his company more diverse. "It's an important thing," Abrams said. "It's good to have voices that are inclusive. We want to see stories that are unique, that have points of view that are not expected." 

Abrams did touch on his "Star Wars" experience, which was what those who attended the packed session in Ballroom D of the Austin Convention Center, were likely most expecting.  He said it was tricky not giving in to the meta conversation around the film and playing to that. 

"I think it's a disaster to be prescriptive and try to strategize" based on that, he said. "It has to be an extension of the moviemaking situation which is as much about inspiration and a feeling as possible... I can't think of one experience where people  have said, 'This is what the fans want' and that's worked" as an approach to filmmaking, 

He also lamented that he no longer has the excuse of "Star Wars" to avoid taking on too many other things.

"You can say 'I'm busy directing "Star Wars." ' Now it's over...  (Expletive.)"

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