When J.J. Abrams's SUPER 8 was announced last year, it was described as "an interpretation of [Steven] Spielberg's earlier films, but done in a personal way." Eight months later, the first theatrical trailer brought the Spielberg with a called-shot audacity; with its Amblin logo, lens flares and adventuring kids, SUPER 8 looked like an exhilarating return to the golden age of summer blockbusters when The Beard reigned supreme. The only remaining question: could Abrams deliver a story as profoundly affecting as the trailer's throwback imagery?
For anyone who got bit by the movie bug early in life, the hook of SUPER 8 is irresistible: what if, while making a no-budget horror film, a group of kids stumble into a real-life horror film? Once you get past Abrams's mystery-box showmanship, this is the personal connection for the director. Long before he was creating popular TV shows or reinvigorating flagging franchises for Paramount, Abrams was just another teenage geek with a DIY filmmaking dream; it just so happens that Abrams's formative 8mm works screened at the Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles and drew the attention of the world's most popular director. But extreme good fortune aside, the impulse to project one's crazy flights of imagination on the big screen should be familiar to every reader of AICN. Combine this with a heartfelt coming of age story, and SUPER 8 is, conceptually, as accessible as anything Spielberg ever concocted.
When I interviewed Abrams a couple of weeks ago, I was eager to learn how a film about young movie geeks grew into a sci-fi/horror spectacular, and to what extent his one-time mentor, Steven Spielberg, helped shape the narrative. Though Spielberg has declared SUPER 8 Abrmas's "first real film", it's still clearly evocative of everything from JAWS to such Amblin-produced classics as GREMLINS. Was it a matter of cherry-picking the best elements of these movies, or did the narrative just naturally incorporate these familiar tropes? And how difficult was it to keep these plates spinning on set while having to manage a young cast comprised of several first-time actors?
I only got a tight fifteen minutes with Abrams, so we didn't get to delve too deeply into any of this, but he still had plenty of interesting things to say. There are no real spoilers in the below Q&A, but your threshold may differ from mine, so tread carefully (or wait until after you see the movie this weekend).
With that out of the way, here's J.J.!
Mr. Beaks: We've been so fixated on the marketing for this film. The trailer evokes 1985 or '83, and that Spielberg-Amblin feel. But it's set in 1979, which is before the films it's referencing. Why did you choose that specific time?
J.J. Abrams: '79?
Abrams: Well, the movie is about kids making Super 8 films, and the era of the '70s felt like a more appropriate time for the movie - even though it was definitely on the cusp. You definitely had some significantly bad hair in that year as well. But the feeling of the movie always felt more like a late '70s movie than an '80s film.
Beaks: Why was that?
Abrams: It might be because when I was around that age, that's what year it was. But I wanted to make it when these kids were on the verge of young adulthood, and if I'd set it in a different time - even a few years forward - it would've just skewed it more into the '80s. It was a time period that I was probably most familiar with at that particular age.
Beaks: What inspired your interest in filmmaking?
Abrams: I went to Universal Studios when I was eight years old with my grandfather, and had never really seen any behind-the-scenes moviemaking. I never knew that was a way to live or a potential job. And it suddenly seemed like the coolest thing in the world, because it was basically doing magic tricks. I was basically this kid who was always obsessed with magic, and the idea of making movies always felt like an extension of that to me. That was when I got excited about doing it, and started making super 8 films at that age. I sort of did that through high school.
Beaks: Did your involvement in a DIY horror film like NIGHTBEAST have any influence on SUPER 8?
Abrams: My involvement in NIGHTBEAST didn't have an impact on SUPER 8, but the spirit with which NIGHTBEAST was made, a film by Baltimore horror filmmaking legend Don Dohler... that movie was made in the same spirit as a lot of people - kids and adults - made films in the '70s and '80s, and even now. You're inspired by movies you love and genres you love; you try to express yourself, and make movies that feel of that same ilk. I know that Don Dohler certainly didn't have the resources or cast or crew that a lot of Hollywood films had. They made those movies because they loved them. That was certainly the spirit with which I made my films when I was a kid. Did you make movies when you were growing up?
Beaks: I did. I would use my G.I. Joe figures. I tried stop-motion, but that was too time consuming, so I just moved them around with my hands.
Abrams: Yeah, that took forever.
Beaks: Which elements of the script were there first? And how quickly did the screenplay come together?
Abrams: The inspiration for the movie was just that period of time making films as a kid. That was the first thing I was interested in playing around with. And as I tried to develop a story, it occurred to me that bringing a sort of genre element into the movie made it more fun to me, and made it something I would more likely go see in the theater. And it allowed these kids, who were making a zombie movie about some scary stuff, suddenly involved in intrigue and a situation that was genuinely scary and horrific. So the fun of amping up the drama by having a monster movie element imposed upon their innocent lives, that was a fun way in.
I was working with Steven, and I called him immediately when I thought about doing a movie called SUPER 8, and he was excited about it. But when I called him months later, after we were working on it and talking about it, I called him and said, "Listen, I think we should consider mixing these two separate ideas together: one about this thing that escapes from a train being transported from Area 51, and the other idea being these kids doing this movie." And he got excited about that idea, too, because it was a way to do a movie about characters that we loved but to suddenly have... a big, fun popcorn premise.
Beaks: And you set the film in an area of Ohio close to where Spielberg was born. Was that intentional?
Abrams: For me, it was because it felt like a perfect, classic sort of '70s Anytown, USA. It's a steel town. For the story, there needed to be an industry or factory in the town. My father grew up in Pennsylvania, and I remember as a kid seeing a lot of the steel towns and getting that sort of feeling. So in looking for places, it just felt like a good setting. We ended up shooting in West Virginia, very close to Pennsylvania and Ohio. It felt like the appropriate this-could-be-anywhere town.
Beaks: How involved was Spielberg in the shaping of the story?
Abrams: From the beginning, it was mostly about finding the best way to tell the story. He was just always full of ideas that were impressive. He seems to never stop having ideas. So the key is to figure out which ideas are the ones that are most appropriate for the moment. And he's got no ego about his ideas because he knows he's got a billion more where that came from. The fun about the many things with working with Steven is that he's got an amazing ability to go back from the macro big picture to the micro detail moment. He helped with the editing and the shaping of the script to the casting; he watched the casting tapes, he came to the set a few times, he came to the editing room and was helpful there. He's been just an amazing collaborator, and it's been a real privilege to work with him.
Beaks: This film is so well cast. The kids are incredible. How did you know these were the kids, and how easy were they to direct?
Abrams: It took a long time to find the right kids. The wonderful thing is that we ended up with the perfect group. Two of the main boys in the movie had never been on the set of anything before; they hadn't acted professionally before, so the whole thing was brand new. Part of the fun of that was to let them get comfortable and let them lead the way. It was very important to me that we have kids that didn't feel like professional actors acting like kids; they need to be real kids. The beauty of working with this group was that they didn't bring a lot of baggage. Even Elle Fanning, who'd done a number of other movies, she's so wonderful and talented. She's very much a real kid. She doesn't have that entitled young professional thing at all. It was an incredibly sweet and fun and scrappy group. And to watch them not just get comfortable on the set, but get comfortable with each other was really part of the fun of the experience.
Working with them... I was terrified because I'd never done that before. And it ended up being surprisingly... as a father of three kids, it was very familiar wrangling these kids. There are a number of shots where there are six people in one shot, so figuring out different ways to not just make the composition of the shots work, but to get some of them to focus as much as they would need to, part of that was the price you pay for not having those kind of professional kids. But on the other hand, I would've never traded it, because that sense of reality, the spontaneity and emotion, is so much more important than kids who are just little soldiers listening to everything you say. It was much more important to have kids who had the heart and messiness that real kids have. Every time the sound guys were happy with a take I knew we were in trouble because that didn't sound like real kids. You wanted to have them talk over each other and be a little messy.
Beaks: You do have some overlapping dialogue in there. That's kind of a throwback. People don't try that so much anymore.
Abrams: Oh, well, I love it. For me, it was, again, having kids myself and hearing how they talk, they very rarely give each other room to speak. It's usually just a big wall of sound. And part of the fun was letting them do that. Obviously, specifically, there were moments where it was critical that actually we hear a line here or there; we couldn't just be ridiculous and let it all be a mess. But it was wonderful to have kids who were so quickly able to get that they were being asked not to pretend to be unlike themselves. They were cast to be very much true to their nature, and it was great to see that they could do that.
Beaks: How much fun was it to write the film within the film? I really loved that.
Abrams: It was great. I let the kids sometimes go off and write scenes. I'd say to them, "Look, here's the situation. This is what's happening." Because I wanted them to get invested in it, and I wanted the movie to sound like them. There were times when I wrote lines and changed things, but I'd try to let them write the first pass at these scenes. It was often the most fun I had, when we would shoot the scenes from the movie before we would leave a certain location. It was just ridiculously fun.
Beaks: I love that you make Michigan sound like a far off place.
Abrams: (Laughing) I mean, come on! "Go to Michigan!"
Beaks: One last question: what's the status of the next STAR TREK film, and how many more do you think are possible with this cast?
Abrams: Um, I have no idea. Hopefully one more, at least.
Beaks: Is that all you've planned so far? Is that as far as you can see?
Abrams: We're not writing... which I know a lot of people have done, [filming] two sequels in a row or planning a trilogy. We've of course talked about a lot of different things, but in terms of specific planning for a film, there's only one movie on the horizon that we're talking about.
Beaks: And you will direct it?
Abrams: We're waiting to get the script into shape. I've been busy getting SUPER 8 done, and I know that Bob, Damon and Alex have been splitting their time as well. So I'm looking forward to jumping into STAR TREK as soon as the SUPER 8 stuff is done. But what the script is going to be... there are some amazing ideas, and I can't wait to actually be holding the script in my hand.
In the weeks since this interview, Abrams has yet to confirm that he will direct STAR TREK 2. Make of that what you will (my advice: don't make much of it at all, as it's probably just smart negotiating).
SUPER 8 escapes from studio captivity this Friday, June 10th.