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Director J.J. Abrams, Running With the Shows

"Everyone who's known Tom for years will tell you that he's always been unbelievably passionate about whatever he's doing," says "Mission: Impossible III" director J.J. Abrams, left. "He's got enough energy for an army." (By Stephen Vaughan)

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Los Angeles, where Abrams has lived since he was 5, is a crab barrel of writers who would really love to direct. How did Abrams claw his way to the top?

His work is hard to categorize. If there is a unifying thread, it's his conviction that without richly drawn characters, nobody is going to care, no matter what hurdles you put in their way. Then Abrams dreams up compelling hurdles. An amateur magician, he's a maestro of misdirection, the art of getting the audience to look at your left hand while you get ready to bamboozle with your right.

Another Abrams rule: Never skimp on the intrigue, and pile on the cliffhangers. All the pages in this playbook are reflected in "Lost." It started as a one-line idea -- plane crashes on desert island, stuff happens -- that was pitched to Abrams by ABC. He and his partner on the show, Damon Lindelof, figured that the audience had to bond with the survivors, which meant lots of back story explaining how these people wound up in this mess. They also insisted on a monster, the identity of which would be a mystery, and they wove in a few dozen eerie-feeling plot strands, leaving them with material to embroider in years to come.

"When we started outlining it, we knew that there couldn't be one answer to this show. . . . Kind of like" -- and here his voice deepens grandiosely -- " 'and they're dead and that's why blah, blah, blah.' There needed to be a bunch of things happening at once. It's like hiking in the fog. The closer you get to the top, the more you realize: That's not the peak at all."

All of Abrams's work is unabashedly commercial. But ask him to name a film he's enjoyed in the past year and he'll rhapsodize over an art-house hit, "The Squid and the Whale," which is about as far from "Mission: Impossible III" as Minsk is from Manhattan. He'd like to make low-key, interior films some day. But that, as he might put it in a story meeting, is the second act.

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Abrams has been married for 10 years to Katie McGrath, a public-relations executive he met at a New York dinner party in 1994. Abrams had brought a date, but at the end of the evening, he did what he does best -- he made up a story. In this case, it was that he needed to head downtown, the opposite direction of his date, the same direction as McGrath. Abrams quickly had a reason to fly to New York as often as possible.

"He was from a different planet," McGrath says. "I'd come home from work and he'd be in his pajamas, having apparently written all day."

McGrath became one of Abrams's favorite script editors, especially adept at spotting false notes in female-female relationships. She also became his favorite audience for the magic tricks, show-and-tell arts projects and geek-toy demonstrations that consume Abrams's every spare moment. Or she was until the couple's three children, ranging in age from 8 years to 3 months, arrived.

Lately, Abrams and his eldest have been making board games and birthday cards with some enormous laser device. There are Play-Doh busts of geek icons, like Batman and King Kong, all over the house. There's also a home studio where Abrams composes songs with guitars and synthesizers, including the theme music to "Lost" and "Alias." And to ensure more home time, he installed an editing bay in the house. One night McGrath found him editing a scene while holding their baby on one arm, a phone jammed between a shoulder and ear.

"He sort of thrives on that level of -- I don't want to say chaos, but that level of intensity," she says. "I'm sure there's some deep, dark psychological root, but all that craziness, all the compulsion is somehow manifested in a healthy way."

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