‘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

Surely the most eagerly awaited film of the summer, J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 whisks the viewer back to a night in 1979, when some Ohio kids shooting a zombie movie witness a terrible train crash. What escaped from the train, and what the kids do to find it, are just two of the secrets that fans of Abrams’s Lost, Alias, Cloverfield and the Star Trek reboot have tried valiantly to unearth. All will be revealed Friday, June 10; but as we’ve told you in the magazine, one secret that needn’t be kept is that Super 8 is a terrific movie, bending and transcending the science-fiction genre into a fable about the power of innocence.

In an extensive interview with TIME last week, the writer-director discussed his teen days making his own super-8 movies, his early brush with Steven Spielberg and his then-assistant (later producer) Kathleen Kennedy, and the influence of Spielberg’s early Amblin films on Super 8. If you’re wondering what Abrams has cooking over at Bad Robot, his own production, that’s here too.

This idea doesn’t go back to your own Super-8 filmmaking youth, does it?
The idea doesn’t. I had the notion of doing a film called Super 8 about a group of kids making films, and called Steven immediately — this was a few years ago. But the film was obviously inspired by my childhood experiences doing these movies.

In the early ’80s, when you were about 15, you and Matt Reeves had won attention at a Super-8 festival. Would you briefly describe your early work, and have you released it on DVD?
I have not put my Super-8 films on DVD, because seriously, why do that to The People? Most of my first movies were excuses to test things out: primitive visual effects accomplished by backwinding the film and exposing it twice, or testing out makeups on my family and friends, or doing fight scenes or chases. Later I started telling stories with a narrative, though viewers of those films might question that statement.(See the Lost finale in the top 10 most anticipated TV endings.)

At this time, you and Reeves were asked to restore the three films Steven Spielberg had made when he was about the same age.
Yes, we received a call from Steven’s office after an article about the festival appeared in the LA Times. His assistant — Kathleen Kennedy at the time! — asked us if we would be interested in repairing the films Steven had made when he was our age. Of course we were convinced this was a prank phone call, and to this day it makes no sense to me why Steven would put the original prints of Firelight and Escape to Nowhere in the hands of two 15-year-old strangers. I mean, have you ever seen 15-year-olds? Don’t give them things if you want them back. Especially repaired. But Matt and I did it. In 1982 it was especially rare, if not impossible, to have access to the early works of a director, let alone Steven Spielberg’s. But while his films were, of course, far better than ours, it was an inspiration to see how he began.

And now, 30 years later as a Super 8 producer, Spielberg is your helper, inspirer, first critic … what exactly did he do on the movie?
It was such a privilege to work with Steven. We had countless story meetings before I started writing — finally ending with him telling me, “JJ. Go write.” He was encouraging and critical in the most constructive ways. And because Super 8 is a Spielberg-produced movie — literally an Amblin film — it gave me license to embrace story elements that were in the DNA of the piece. Things I may have otherwise been too self-conscious to include, not wanting this film to ever feel like it was aping earlier works. But it was like when I directed Star Trek; I remember thinking, “Can we actually do lasers in space? Can we get away with spaceships flying around like this?” But then I remembered: “Idiot: it’s Star Trek. YES YOU CAN DO SPACESHIPS.” This film was always an Amblin film in spirit — partially because that period in my life was so profoundly impacted by American cinema of the era.

Steven helped at every stage, including editorial. He spent hours with me in the editing room — he would offer suggestions but never mandate a thing. He’d say, “What I would do is…” and give a suggestion. It would always make me laugh inside, because I can’t tell you how many times I would work on something and wonder, “What the hell would Spielberg do here?”

Super 8 is, among other things, a smart medley of motifs and moods from the films of Spielberg’s early prime. You make all the references from Duel and Jaws and E.T. and The Goonies feel organic; but, as you wrote, were you also pleased to have fit them so naturally into your script — as well as fitting in your own twists of kidnapped people and the mysterious box(car)
Super 8 was never intended as an homage to any films in particular. Before we were shooting I told our cinematographer, Larry Fong — who I met at 12 making Super-8 films — that I didn’t want the film to look like it was made in 1979, but I wanted it to look the way we remember films looking from 1979. That is to say, it needed to be its own thing, with visual and rhythmic motifs that allude to a different era of moviemaking, but made using tools and techniques of today. I sort of wanted to build a bridge between then and now. The story worked the same way: it needed to stand on its own, but with nods to its origins and conventions of the genre. But I never had a checklist of shout-outs that I wanted to make.

The film is a master class in the hoarding of plot information: allowing droplets of the central mystery to seep through the scare sequences. You really do believe in the fine art of withholding, don’t you?

I believe in anything that will engage the audience and make the story more effective. I’ll never forget seeing a deleted shot from Alien, where Veronica Cartwright’s character is about to be attacked. The shot Ridley Scott chose not to keep in the film was a wide frame of the actress and the alien, which was completely contained within the frame and therefore the least scary thing imaginable. It’s a remarkable lesson when you watch the final scene, given how terrifying it is. But withholding anything in a story is no good if you aren’t building to something substantial; it becomes foreplay without the main event and no one wants that.

In a TV serial like Lost, you can spread out the plot and insert red herrings for years and years. But a stand-alone project like Super 8 demands a stricter discipline: keep building the mystery while administering jolts every few minutes. Did it take you long to work out the film’s story-telling architecture?
It was much harder than I thought it would be. Somehow, in script, but even more so on screen, if events occurred outside the main characters’ experience it still felt as if they should be reacting to those events. It took forever to structure this thing — mostly act two — both in script stage and post-production. I think this was mostly because it was the nexus of the film — the greatest fun and challenge: balancing a coming-of-age love story character piece with, essentially, a monster movie.

See “Lost vs. Inception: Solving the Puzzle of Ending a Puzzle-Story.”

See Star Trek II in the top 10 movie sequels better than the originals.

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.

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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