Wth the release of his mysterious sci-fi adventure “Super 8" imminent, director J.J. Abrams breaks his silence to talk about the influence of Spielberg-style films, his own Super 8 escapades and turning his mom into a smoke-spewing monster.
In a summer jammed-packed with sequels and superhero adaptations, “Super 8’s” been positioned as a fresh, original film with a top-secret plotline (it’s the 1979, there are movie-shooting kids, a train derails and something scary stalks a small town) but boasts a juicy hook: if you loved the Steven Spielberg-directed and -produced Amblin films of the 70s and 80s, buy a ticket for a nostalgic trip back. With those films filling up his formative years of film-going, in some ways Abrams never left.
“The funny thing about 'Super 8' is that while it's an original story and an original idea, it owes so much to the films that it was inspired by of that time,” he tells PopcornBiz. “So it's kind of this fun way of riffing on themes that mattered to me so much. I love that, and if it works for people it's because it feels like kind of a sister film to those movies that existed back then.”
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Keeping the storyline under wraps was more than just a shrewd buzz-builder, Abrams says – it was part of evoking that surprise and wonderment he used to have. “I just feel like you have to see a trailer and the trailer's over and you feel, like, 'I've just seen the movie,' “ he explains. “So part of it was just about trying to allow people to have a sense of discovery in the way that, at least in '79, I went to the movies and I didn't feel like I'd seen every single detail of the film between clips and trailers and commercials and stuff and magazines and online. It just feels like people are force-fed so much stuff. To try and keep a little bit of it surprising for the audience was a part of the goal.”
“'Super 8' was inspired, initially, by the desire to go back in time and tell a story about being a kid and making those stupid movies,” says Abrams, who like Spielberg (who produced the film) before him cut his early auteur teeth shooting on a Super 8 camera as a kid. “The film was never intended to be an homage to anything. It was just meant to be a movie about these characters, because that was the first thing that occurred to me, but then as I started working on the story it was clear that this felt like it could be a movie that would sort of live under the Amblin umbrella, and when Steven himself said 'This should be an Amblin movie,' literally an Amblin movie – I don't think an Amblin movie has ever had it's title at the beginning of the film – the idea of it being one of those movies was freeing, because suddenly I thought, 'Oh, that's what this movie is.' It is small town America in that era, with these people, with the families, with this thing that was happening that was otherworldly.”
“It felt that it fell under the umbrella of those kinds of movies,” he said of the story that seemed to fit well alongside films like “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “E.T.,” “Gremlins,” “The Goonies” and “Poltergeist.” “Certainly you can point to any number of them, but they all sort of share a DNA. They're all about kind of suburban America, sort of ordinary people going through something that was hyper-real, and whether it was other worldly or supernatural, whatever it was, that there were fundamental and relatable relationships, broken families in some form, often friendships that were really critical and important, often kids at the center of the film. There were often parent/child stories that were being told. First-love stories, sometimes. There are all these different elements that I loved, and then clearly a spectacle in the sense of something that you'd never see in normal life that was happening.”
“There was just something about those movies where I would feel something where they weren't afraid to combine that sort of spectacle and drama with emotion,” he continues. “That, to me, was something that was really important, the ambition was at least that you feel something. So the ambiance of it was less about the era and the wardrobe and the set design and the production – although all of that stuff was massively important. The thing that was really important to me, though, was that all the visual FX stuff and action sequences and things by default take second place to what was going on with the characters. That was the goal of it.”
Despite his increasing prominence as a Hollywood mythmaker, Abrams says he’d be happy if most of the Super 8 films he made as a youth remain locked in the vault. “The movies that I made were often just these sort of experiments to try to do things visually,” he explains, saying most of his footage revolved around simple camera trickery to punch up chase scenes, fight scenes and boilerplate monster effects. “There was no precision. There was no easy way to do it. There were all sorts of stupid things that I would do, just tests like that to see if it would work. Years later I would start to tell stories with a little more of a narrative, with a beginning, middle and end, and I'd use those kinds of techniques that over years I'd just been playing with for some kind of story effect.”
“I'd make up friends and family to be creatures,” he chuckles. “Once, I made my mom into a creature – she smoked cigarettes for a year and this was luckily during that period of time – and I had her take a cigarette and I'd say, 'And action!' and she'd have the smoke come up. And it was the worst, the dumbest thing ever, but to me it was huge – like, ‘Victory!’”