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J.J. Abrams is all class. The geek-hero director put the business of the day aside before a roundtable interview earlier this week, taking time to shake hands and introduce himself to each of the gathered journalists. The reason, of course, is Friday’s release of Super 8, Abrams’ highly anticipated collaboration with legendary filmmaker — the architect of the blockbuster film, really — Steven Spielberg.
Much has been said about the new movie’s connection with the earlier works of Spielberg, and of a particular type of film released under the Amblin Entertainment banner, but Abrams is quick to put this particular egg before the chicken. “The thing about Super 8 is, it was inspired, initially, by a desire to go back in time and tell a story about being a kid and making those stupid movies on super 8 [cameras],” he said.
As the idea formed in Abrams’ mind, it became clear to him that there was an Amblin sort of sensibility to the unfolding plot. “When Steven himself said this should be an Amblin movie … the idea of it being one of those movies was freeing,” he explained. “That’s what this movie is.”
“It is small-town America in that era with these people, with a family, with this thing that was happening, this otherworldly thing. All that stuff.”
Family is the beating heart of this story, whether you’re talking about Jack Lamb (Kyle Chandler) and his son Joe (Joel Courtney) dealing with the sudden loss of their wife and mother, or the tightly knit gang of pre-teens intent on shooting their movie. The father/son thread occasionally sputters, but the kids bring a vibrant energy to the movie, a fact that stems in part from their relative inexperience.
“We saw thousands of kids, months and months and months,” Abrams said. “Joel was great, and Riley as well, because they weren’t professional people who were young enough to be that age and acted at that age.”
Abrams told his youthful charges that anything was on the table, no question was too dumb. He understood how green they were on a fundamental level, but it wasn’t until an early exchange with Courtney that it was driven home exactly what the experience level was.
“Joel, the week before we were shooting, there was a script, and when you make revisions you have little asterisks on the side of the script to show you where the changes were,” Abrams explained. “And Joel was like, ‘Are these stars for decoration? On the side of the script?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, my god. No, no no, these are lines you have to go memorize.'”
“He didn’t know any of it, he didn’t know what a boom was, and the dolly tracks, nothing made sense at the beginning. Then at the end of the week he was like, ‘So same blocking as the last time?’ ‘Yes Joel, same blocking.’ In a week he was the most comfortable kid ever.”
Not all of the younger cast members were so green. Elle Fanning, who plays Alice Dainard, not only comes from a family of heavy hitters, she also has experience on films like Somewhere and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. She was the youngest child star on the set of Super 8, and yet she immediately comes off as the most mature.
“Elle came in toward the end,” Abrams said. “I had met her on the War of the Worlds set as this little, teeny baby sister of Dakota. So even the idea of Elle, I was like, ‘What?! She’s like eight inches tall, there’s no way she can [do the role].'”
“Then when she came in and she had more poise and sophistication than certainly any of us [in this room], I’m guessing. It was insane. It wasn’t like she had an attitude about it, she was just wise,” he continued. “She’s got a whole level of insight that I don’t understand how anyone could have at her age.”
The idea for Super 8 sprang initially from Abrams’ own experiences as a child with a movie camera. “The movies that I made were often just these sort of experiments to try to do things visually. There was no precision, there was no easy way to do it. There were all sorts of stupid things I would do just to see what would work.”
“Later on, years later, I would start to tell stories with a little bit more of a narrative, beginning, middle and end,” he added. “I’d use those kinds of techniques [picked up early on] over the years that I’d just been playing with to some kind of story effect. A lot of times they were just chase scenes, fight scenes, really base kind of monster-movie ideas. I would make up friends and family to be creatures.”
The Super 8 story then speaks to that sense of discovery he remembers, and also to the idea that personal perception colors every experience. The latter point was actually guiding principle for the presentation of the train-crash scene, which is undoubtedly one of the film’s blockbuster effects moments.
“The thing that was important about [the train wreck] was the relative experience of it, meaning that it be not just subjective, through the kids’ eyes, but that it connect with the kids,” Abrams explained. “There’s a weird thing that happens when you connect a person to an event, the event has different meaning. It’s not just the event, which is maybe cool and interesting in and of itself, but suddenly it’s relatable and it’s a relative experience. So the kids, running through and all that stuff with the train, I tried not to have three shots go by before you were with the kids again.”
“We’ve seen crashes of all shapes and sizes,” he added. “I wanted it to be what they would remember the train crash being. If they were to tell the story about what the train crash was, [what you see on screen is] what it would look like.”
Ultimately, though, it all comes back to this highly personal story and the guiding sensibilities that make Super 8 an Amblin Entertainment film. Abrams admits to a little bit of initial guilt as he started bringing the story together. A highly creative filmmaker, he didn’t at first feel comfortable working in motifs that obviously reference someone else’s work.
“It felt like there was a little pang of guilt you get [as a filmmaker] when you have kids jump on these BMX bikes,” he said. “Can you really have kids on bikes? If you’re doing a movie in ’79, what’re you going to do? That’s what they DO!”
“It reminded me of doing Star Trek. There was a time early on where I was like, ‘Can we really do lasers in space and spaceships flying? It seems so cliche and silly.’ But it’s STAR TREK. Yes, you can do that. When else are you ever going to do that?”
“There was no master list of movies that needed to be borrowed from, but it just felt like these were the characters, that was the world, and so when they got on their bikes I felt like it was a celebration as opposed to something to get over with quickly and be ashamed of.”
As far as Abrams’ continuing work on Star Trek goes, he seemed pretty confident that the sequel to the 2009 hit is what’s coming next. Paramount has set a 2012 release date, but to him, that’s not set in stone. More important is making a movie that fans will appreciate.
“I certainly think we want to make sure that it’s done right. We’re excited to get back into,” he said. Practical elements, such as 3D, aren’t being considered yet, but Abrams admits that such decisions aren’t entirely in his hands. “I’ve not yet gotten that threatening phone call from people in suits,” he said with a laugh.
For now though, Super 8 is the focus, as it should be. Seeing it is a magical experience, capable of transporting viewers of a certain age back to a simpler time when trailers couldn’t be called up with a few clicks, and titles like E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial adorned movie marquees.
“The funny thing about Super 8 is, while it’s an original story and an original idea, it owes so much to the films it was inspired by of that time,” Abrams said. “It’s kind of this fun riffing on themes that matter to me so much. If it works for people it’s because it feels like a sister film to those movies that existed back then.”