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An interview with Super 8 director J.J. Abrams


J.J. Abrams is no stranger to hero worship. As the creator of acclaimed TV series Alias and Lost, and the man responsible for successfully relaunching the Star Trek franchise (no mere feat considering its lengthy history and devoted fan base), Abrams has become a credible and lauded entertainer, garnering a legion of fans in the process.

Yet with his latest film Super 8, the Los Angeles raised producer / screenwriter/ director has himself become a gushing fanboy, tipping his hat to the classic films of legendary filmmaker Steven Spielberg while also paying tribute to the adventure of youth, and his love of creating movies.       

Set in the late 1970s, Super 8 tells the story of young Joe (Joel Courntey) and his group of misfit friends, who while filming their own sci-fi movie, discover a vast conspiracy involving a covert military operation and an unknown entity terrorising his small town.

For Abrams, the story evolved from a more autobiographical angle. “I was very much like these kids. The first impulse for me in doing the movie, was to revisit a time in my life when I was about that age, at that time, making films”, said Abrams. “It was the first thought that I had, and I called Steven (Spielberg) who I knew, and asked if he was interested in producing it with me.”

Working with Spielberg proved at first to be an intimidating process for Abrams, who freely admits to idolising the Jaws and E.T. filmmaker since he was a child. “At the very beginning it was surreal and intimidating, and probably more about getting my sea legs a little bit, and realising that I had known him enough to know that it was going to be ok to have actual conversations”, said Abrams. “But very early on it struck me that no one is going to benefit if this isn’t a collaboration. I can’t go into this, writing and directing a movie, doggedly following around a master. (So) once I got over the idea of working with someone who is a hero of mine since I was a kid, I just started focusing on the work and not the person with who I was working.”

Super 8 image
"The first impulse for me in doing the movie, was to revisit a time in my life when I was about that age, at that time, making films” - J.J. Abrams

Another new experience for Abrams was working with a cast mostly made up of children, many of whom had never worked on a film set before. “The kids were great! Joe Courtney, Riley Griffiths...they’ve never been on a set or done anything before, and they were just terrific. Riley was amazing! He was one of the first kids to come in and it was like ‘How do you not cast that kid?’ So they were all spectacular.”

An actor who has worked on set before is Elle Fanning, the younger sister of Dakota and burgeoning child actress of her own right, who won rave reviews in Soffia Coppola’s Somewhere, and has again wowed critics with her turn as wild child Alice in Super 8.

“Elle is incredible!” enthused Abrams. “One of the things that struck me was how sophisticated she was in terms of understanding the emotional motivation of characters. But then she will also understand how to modulate her own performance. For example, there is a scene where she has to be sort of rehearsing for a scene which is emotional, but then there is a scene latter in the film where she is genuinely emotional.  We talked about how they need to be very different scenes, because if she was using the same tricks in the scene where she is rehearsing and the scene where she is actually emotional, people will point and go ‘Oh, that’s a trick! That’s acting. I’ve seen her do that before’. So we talked about ways to go deeper into the scene, where she is genuinely emotional and this whole thing...she is 12 at the time. I’m having this conversation with this actress when she is 12! It was insane.”

Mere days from release, and Super 8 is still shrouded in a veil of mystery, with Abrams conscious not to go overboard with promotional materials and plot leaks, a risky manoeuvre with “more” the motto for many blockbuster movies of late.

“I was in a situation where a script that I wrote for a movie was reviewed online before it was produced, which ultimately it wasn’t, and it was an unfortunate situation and I became paranoid because of it”, said Abrams.

“So there was a loose end in the way things were handled in that situation, and I thought ‘We can actually prevent that’. And it doesn’t mean anything other than the movie won’t be ruined for people before they see it. So actually, the audience benefits. It’s not just about me being paranoid for paranoid’s sake...I actually don’t like seeing trailers where after the trailer is over I feel like, ‘Well! I don’t want to watch the movie anymore. I just saw everything.’ I would rather be interested and compelled. Go and see the movie and actually have the experience that I knew I had when I was a kid and saw movies, where not every single clip was available at every given moment, where information about the fights in the set, who was in the movie and who got injured, who’s making the cameo you are not supposed to know about...all of this stuff by the time movies are coming out I know far more than I want to.”

Super 8 image
"If the kids have got bicycles, I shouldn’t feel guilty. I should celebrate it. If this spectacular thing happens on Main Street, then that’s cool." - J.J. Abrams

What is known far and wide is the influence of classic Steven Spielberg movies in the creation and look of Super 8, with Close Encounters of the Third Kind and especially E.T. felt in every preview and poster. Yet for Abrams, Super 8 is more than just some retread of classic American cinema. This is his ode to a time when cinema was full of spirit, adventure and classy novelty, that was only worth seeing in the cinema, with family and friends for company.  

“(Super 8) was about the experience of being one of those kids and making those movies in the late 70s, which was profoundly affected by the cinema of the time,” said Abrams. “Going back to this time and writing the script and making the movie, it was never about looking at Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or E.T., or Poltergeist or Goonies or Stand By Me,  or any of these movies that I loved. It was really about looking at that period of time, and knowing especially with Steven’s involvement as producer, that I was completely free to embrace the Amblin-ness of the movie. I didn’t feel self-conscious. It was like, ‘It’s an Amblin movie! I’ve got to make an Amblin movie.’

“That means if the kids have got bicycles, I shouldn’t feel guilty. I should celebrate it. If this spectacular thing happens on Main Street, then that’s cool. That’s the genre of the movie. The great thing about Amblin is that it embraces heart, it embraces humanity, it embraces parent/child relationships, it embraces first love, it embraces best friendship, it embraces confronting the thing that scares you most and finding your own voice, becoming a leader and not a follower, and learning that you can deal with tragedy and survive it.”

“It was all these things that I loved in the potential about the movie that Amblin gave me licence, and Steven gave me licence to truly embrace and dive into, as opposed to tread lightly. I think that was really the thing that was the biggest impact. Clearly you can site dozens of influences, like you can in anyone’s movie. But the Amblin umbrella allowed every genre I love to co-exist. Whether it is successful is someone else’s place to determine.”



Super 8 will be released in Australian cinemas on the 9th of June through Paramount Pictures


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