‘What the Hell Would Spielberg Do Here?': J.J. Abrams Talks Super 8

Filmmaker J.J. Abrams tells TIME's Richard Corliss all about his teen years, working with Steven Spielberg, and making 'Super 8,' the most eagerly awaited film of the summer

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Francois Duhamel / Paramount

Producer Steven Spielberg, right, and director J.J. Abrams on the set of Super 8

BEING THERE
The film, set in 1979, was partly shot in Weirton, W. Va., which had been the location for The Deer Hunter, which won the Best Picture Oscar in 1979. You and the cast and crew seemed to feed off the generosity of the folks in this working-class town.
The people of Weirton were spectacular. I was terrified we would overstay our welcome after a few days — but they embraced us with kindness and enthusiasm the entire four weeks we were there. Like so many American industrial towns, Weirton’s been hit hard by the shrinking of its steelworks (the local mill used to employ nearly 12,000, but has only 1,100 workers today). It’s heartbreaking to see places like this, with good people looking for not just a paycheck but a purpose. They became part of the cast and crew. Because of weather, we ending up shooting a few scenes there that we hadn’t planned, including a town hall meeting. Those were local folks who showed up last minute to be part of the film and it was one of the most memorable days of my life. They actually acted — not overacted — and were some of the kindest and most patient performers I’ve ever worked with.

I was location scouting one day and an older woman and her husband pulled up in their car and asked if we were with the film. I admitted we were. She told us we’d shot in her neighborhood a few nights earlier when we blew up a house. Oh God, I thought, here we go. I’m gonna get yelled at for being so loud, so late into the night. But instead, she smiled wide, “We have a house you can blow up if you want to!” Part of this, sadly, is a result of the local economy. But it was the attitude of the local people that made our time there so memorable.

(See Steven Spielberg on the cover of TIME.)

Instead of Spielberg’s glistening images, you gave Super 8 a grainier, looser visual tone, which is appropriate to the (fictional) steel town of Lillian, Ohio. It puts me in mind of other films from 1979: Norma Rae and Breaking Away. (And Alien too, but only in your scenes in the cave.) Did you have specific films from the period as touchstones for you, the cinematographer and production designer?
The reason we chose Weirton was because of the great juxtaposition of the massive steel mill (many areas of which are no longer in use) with their Main Street and suburban neighborhoods. There was a poignancy in the visual of these kids growing up against the backdrop of an enormous, imposing factory. Also, since the main character’s mother was killed in an accident at the mill, the idea that there was a constant reminder, every day of his life, of that horrible event, was powerful as well.

THE KIDS
Since the movie is essentially about the kids, the casting was key. You took a chance handing the lead role to a boy who’d never made a movie. But I’d say Joel Courtney perfectly slipped inside Joe. That was entirely due to your direction and editing, right?
Yes, it was all because of me. Next question please.

No — Joel was really impressive. He had never acted professionally before. He lives in Moscow, Idaho. Once a month his family would drive him to an acting school in Seattle, Wash. That’s how much he loved the craft and wanted to learn — and it is how he was able to audition (a local casting director reached out to acting teachers). Of course, like with any actor, you edit out the moments that don’t work, but Joel gave the film an abundance of moments that did.

It was important that these characters were in the 12-to-14 range, not slightly older teens whose exploding glands would get in the way. Is that because you wanted to bring out the purity of the Joe-Alice friendship?
Yes, it was also why I set the film in ’79 — it was about the precipice of something. The end of a time. Encroaching young adulthood. I wanted to catch kids at the very edge of full-blown, raging puberty. The last moments of innocence. In fact, I think within a week of wrapping production, Joel’s and Riley’s (another child actor in the film) voices dropped two octaves. It was insane. I called Riley to request some ADR lines and I thought it was his dad on the phone. Disaster. But luckily it didn’t happen during shooting!

At 14, Alice has the boys’ idea of star quality. And Elle Fanning certainly has screen charisma. But because of the de-glamorizing cinematography, she also looks plausibly like a working-class Ohio kid, not a displaced showbiz gal from the Disney Channel.
I could bore you to tears about how spectacular Elle is to work with. She brought a realism and truth to the role. Something that was surprisingly hard to find among young actors. The Disney thing you mention is so damn on-the-nose: it was stunning how many actresses came in who felt like professionals first, kids second. I needed this to feel anti-Disney. It needed to be honest — the audience needed to love these real, relatable kids — otherwise you would never believe the wild events that follow. Elle was capable of great emotion, wonderful strength, ridiculous goofiness and a sweet vulnerability. Her character, it turns out, is as lost as anyone.

The relationship of Joe and Alice feels as real as the one between the lonely boy and the mysterious “older” girl in Let Me In. In the past year, you and Matt Reeves have become the poets of anguished preadolescence. Coincidence — or conspiracy?
Conspiracy. Matt and I have a three-step plan. In truth, this comment made my day. I was absolutely blown away by Matt’s work (and the actors’ too) in that film. It was funny — it reminded me of when Matt and I met, both of us working on Super-8 films with striking similar stories and themes, but told through our distinct points of view.

Finally, I’d appreciate anything you have to say about the next Star Trek, Mission: Impossible and Cloverfield chapters; and what you have planned for TV magic.
Bad Robot has two new shows for next season, Person of Interest on CBS and Alcatraz on Fox — the first created by Jonah Nolan and the other by Liz Sarnoff. Really cool shows that I’m very excited about. The writers are hard at work on the Star Trek script, which I can’t wait to get my hands on. Cloverfield sequel ideas abound — one in particular we really like — but no firm plans are in place. And Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol is looking fantastic. Brad Bird is directing his first live-action film [after the Pixar features The Incredibles and Ratatouille], which is incredibly cool to see, because there are all these moments that feel so distinctly him, even though none of us have ever seen a live-action film directed by him. Everyone knows he is a brilliant director in animation, but I think people will soon see he’s just a brilliant director.

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