J.J. Abrams and Walt Whitman – Lessons in boldness, kindness and tenacity

Hi, guys,

Every year as the calendar winds down, I try to take stock of what I’ve been up to over the past year, what’s worked and what hasn’t, and lay out my creative plans for the coming year.

Marc Zicree and J.J. Abrams

Toward that end, I had lunch last week with my good friend Suzanne Lyons, who’s a successful movie producer (eight features in eight years, with stars including Christopher Walken, Naomi Watts, Alfred Molina, Brenda Blethyn and James Caan) and is also a very skilled Industry career coach.  We first met when I took her FAST FORWARD class about fifteen years ago.

One thing Suzanne and I talked about was the whole notion of the story you tell yourself about what’s been going on in your life and how that can limit you and hinder growth and change.  Of course, letting go of this story and such items as blame, regret, etc., can be a real bitch.

As a gift, Suzanne’s invited me to sit in on the class she’s teaching this week called LAUNCHING THE FUTURE.  I’ve taken it before and found it enormously useful.

Essentially, the class consists of breaking the previous year down week by week and seeing exactly what you were up to in terms of pitching, writing, selling, and so on – the goal being to see exactly where you were productive and effective and also where you went into breakdown and what caused it.

I’ve got to tell you, when you actually look at the facts they’ve very different from what you think happened.  Often, things are actually far better – and you also see clearly what knocked you for a loop and what you did about it.

So I’m spending today and the next few days prior to the class going over my date book, notes, emails, files, etc., to see what I’ve been up to.

It’s actually been a fairly productive year – I’ve written a new pilot script and am now doing the next draft, done several major rewrites on the book about my mother and shipped that to my agents, outlined several features that are moving toward pre-production, outlined the Bradbury LOST MARS miniseries (all eight hours of it), wrote a new draft of my romantic comedy MY DAD’S GIRL, was the subject of a documentary by my friend Ana Barredo, got a swell new website (thanks, David Simkins), outlined season one of the MAGIC TIME web series, wrote an introduction to the new COMPLETE MARTIAN CHRONICLES from Subterranean Press and a piece for the tribute book for the late great Horton Foote.  And, oh yeah, got hired to do the book with Guillermo del Toro.

Not to mention teaching the Supermentors classes with Elaine, being interviewed by the BBC, COAST TO COAST and additional documentary fillmmakers, doing the Twilight Zone blu-ray commentaries.  And so on…

But of course if you’d asked me what I’d done throughout 2009, before I started on this homework for Suzanne, I’d have said something like, “Not much.”  Which is why clarity is so important – and being present to our lives and those around us.

Which brings us to the subject of J.J. Abrams and Walt Whitman.  (Thought I was gonna forget, didn’t you?)

J.J., of course, is one of the great guys of all time, a gentleman and gentle man with enormous gifts who has the wisdom and calm soul to readily credit those around him and be kind and gracious on every occasion I’ve seen him.

This came home to me yesterday evening when I was in Barnes and Noble at the Grove and read the introduction he wrote to STAR TREK – THE ART OF THE MOVIE, written by my friend Mark Coto Vaz.

In his one-page intro, J.J. copped to the fact that he was pretty calm about undertaking directing the STAR TREK movie until he stepped onto the set of the Romulan ship to film the scene where the Captain of the Federation ship Kelvin is killed by the villainous Nero.  To his horror, J.J. looked around and saw that all his actors – from the Romulans to the Starfleet captain – were entirely bald!  How could he have possibly missed this detail in all the prep meetings?

Star Trek Baldies — Click to see the scene… hit clip 10.

A voice in his head screamed, “HOW CAN I POSSIBLY NOT HAVE THIS SCENE UTTERLY SUCK?!”  He went into total freak-out mode and realized he was about to single-handedly wreck the STAR TREK franchise.

Then he looked around at his crew, blissfully unaware of his internal meltdown, and saw these wonderful, talented individuals all going about their jobs, all there to help him make this vast machine go and carry him to success.

And his panic melted away and he felt that he was being held in a big warm hand – that he wasn’t alone at all, that everything would be okay.  Which it was.

I was so moved (though not surprised) that J.J. would take his one page in this book to applaud not his efforts but those of everyone else.

It’s an object lesson in how to succeed, and something we each need to take to heart.  We succeed by appreciating others, by being collaborative and joyful and grateful – and letting them know every single day just how grateful we are for anyone who does the least little bit for us.

Watch the extra features on the STAR TREK DVD, pay attention to how J.J. goes out of his way to make everyone feel special and needed, how he takes the spotlight off himself even while holding all the power he needs to do the job.  It’s an act of grace as skillful and lovely as Nuryev gliding across a stage.

Which brings us, in an odd roundabout way, to Walt Whitman, possibly the greatest poet of the 19th Century.  He was a bold voice, entirely original, honest, earthy, direct, as freshly unapologetically American as Mark Twain or Abraham Lincoln.

Like J.J., Whitman created his own voice, his own distinctive body of work, and while he was appreciated by some his work was not a great success in the larger world during his lifetime.

Looking back from old age, he had the perspective and insight to understand that his greater fame and glory would come from later generations valuing and comprehending his work, that in some strange way he was ahead of his time… or perhaps part of the agitating force creating the times to come.

In an essay entitled “A Backward Glance,” written in 1888, he had this to say, “As fulfilled or partially fulfilled, the best comfort of the whole business is that, unstopped and unwarped by any influence outside the soul within me, I have had my say entirely my own way, and put it unerringly on record — the value thereof to be decided by time”

And in a poem, he added, “Poets to come! orators, singers, musicians to come!  Not today is to justify me and answer what I am for, But you, a new brood, native, athletic, continental, greater than before known, Arouse! for you justify me.”

And finally, he wrote, “Remember my words, I may again return, I love you, I depart from materials, I am as one disembodied, triumphant, dead.”

A recording of him reading the poem “America” has recently come to light and I love his voice.  Even in old age, it’s passionate, filled with humor and conviction and directness.

YouTube Preview Image

The point of all this being that, having looked back at my year, having read the generous words of J.J. and Whitman, I’m returned to the message of what drives my own life, when I have the wit to remember:  Live life fully, create from your own true heart without reserve, and love and be grateful to those around you and those to come.

All the rest is just static and noise.

Let you know how the rest of the week turns out…

All good thoughts your way,


  1. Elle Reply
    Awesome and insightful. Thanks for sharing Marc.
  2. Susan Shearer Reply
    Marc, Thank you for an inspiring blog as we reach the end of this year and prepare to enter another. You have always presented yourself as gracious and kind. Your insight into the business has moved me forward in my career and my life. I am blessed to have you and Elaine as friends and mentors. Susan :0)
  3. Nate Barlow Reply
    Great post, Marc! I am also one always of the mind that I haven't done that much, but have learned over the years to step back and take stock... and I usually realized I've done quite a bit. Being appreciative is one of the simplest things in the world to do, yet frequently overlooked. Not necessarily intentionally, but in the heat of the moment. A great lesson for all.
  4. Bunnie Rivera Reply
    Marc, thank you for great inspiration, much needed and graciously offered. I am finding my way so slowly but it is gratifying to know that you and Elaine can always be counted on to keep the wheel turning.
  5. Todd Klick Reply
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Marc. Found your words on Abrams and Whitman inspiring.
  6. Heather Branch Reply
    Thank You Marc. This was uplifting.
  7. Ron Cabreros Reply
    By empowering others, we empower ourselves. Thanks Marc for reminding me, for reminding us.

Leave a Reply


captcha *