It wouldn't be a summer blockbuster year without a super-secretive J.J. Abrams project and thanks to the director, and in part, producer Steven Spielberg, summer 2011 delivers just that with his latest back-to-basics inspired sci-fi thriller, "Super 8."
Starring newcomers Joel Courtney, Ryan Lee, Gabriel Basso and Riley Griffiths, plus Elle Fanning, Kyle Chandler, Ron Eldard and Noah Emmerich to name a few of the known supporting players, "Super 8" centers on a group of friends in the summer of 1979 (Fanning and the aforementioned boys) who witness a mysterious train crash and then begin noticing strange happenings going around in their small town, and start an investigation into the creepy phenomenon.
While we could likely sit in a room for hours asking J.J. Abrams about his upcoming projects, the process with which he writes and that mystery box he’s been carrying around since he was a kid, we recently had to settle for sharing 20 minutes with an ensemble of other reporters (elbows were thrown).
But the helmer behind this Friday’s “Super 8” (read our review here), fortunately talks very fast, and through our collective questioning, we were able to glean some interesting insights about his latest film and its influences, plus fit in a brief masterclass on in-camera effects using 8mm film and his thoughts on "Star Trek 2" and its impending 2012 release date (whether he directs it still seems to be up in the air). Here's a few things we learned from good ol' secretive J.J.
While some have accused the film of nostalgia/Spielberg homage-porn, Abrams insists, “the film was never intended to be an homage to anything...”
“It was just meant to be a movie about these characters because that’s the first thing that occurred to me," Abrams said. "But as I started working on the story, it was clear that this was the kind of movie that could live under the umbrella of an Amblin movie and then Steven [Spielberg] said himself, 'this should be an Amblin movie.' " So take that, naysayers.
The late '70s period setting was liberating.
"The idea of it being [an Amblin film] was freeing because suddenly I thought, that’s what this movie is, it is small town America in that era with these people with other worldly things happening, all that stuff -- there’s a little bit of a pang of guilt you get when have these kids jump on BMX bikes, can you really have kids on bikes? Well if you’re doing a movie in '79 what are they going to do? That’s what they do, they’re kids!" He went on to compare the experience to 'Star Trek,' where, what were arguably science fiction cliches, were in that case, very much a function of the storytelling in that world, “Can we really do, like lasers in space and space ships flying, it seems so cliché and silly, and I was like 'It’s Star Trek, yes you can do that when else can you ever do that?," he asked rhetorically? "It was kind of this freeing feeling of being able to embrace those elements and those things that felt like they were naturally part of it. Because growing up as a kid [Amblin films] felt like such a piece of that time, so there was no master list of movies that needed to be borrowed from but it just felt that these are the characters, that was the world, so when they got on their bikes, I thought it was a celebration as opposed to something to get over with quickly and be ashamed of or borrowing heavily from 'E.T.' or something.”
“'Super 8' was initially inspired by the simple desire to go back in time and re-tell Abrams' story of youth through a new fictionalized lens.
Abrams took us through the process of creating an in-camera split screen effect on film, one of the many things he played with as an early filmmaker, “I would do tests like that to see if it would work... and I’d use those kinds of techniques over the years," he explained. "I’d been playing for some kind of story effect, but a lot of the time they were just chase scenes, fight scenes, you know really base kind of monster movie ideas. I’d make up friends and family to be creatures, my mom once, I made her into a creature, and had her – cause she smoked cigarettes for like a year and this was luckily during that period of time – and I had her take a cigarette, and I’m like ‘Action!’ and she had the smoke come up and it was the worst, like dumbest thing ever, but to me it was huge – ‘victory!’”
Abrams says the creature in "Super 8" is intended to work as a metaphor for something deeper.
“In this case ['Super 8'] the idea of the creature was cool for me, but just because the idea of it would be a way to externalize and make physical this thing that this kid was going through internally -- the idea of loss of his mother that this creature sort of represented the thing that was sort of the most frightening to him which is the idea of never getting past it and the loss of this person to him. And obviously physically and technically had to do with this one thing but to me I’m interested in the idea of why there’s something there, what does it represent and what does it mean for a character?”
The late 1970s setting of "Super 8" is more than just a throwaway gesture and had import to the story.
Abrams looked to further capture the spirit of Amblin by staying true to the heartfelt nature of the films, “So the ambiance was less about the era and wardrobe and set design and production design – and all that stuff was massively important – but the thing that was really important to me though was that all the visual effects stuff and action sequences, by default, take second place to what was going on with the characters. That to me was something that was really important, that the ambition was at least that you feel something.”
Abrams wanted the train crash to be heightened, as if told from the perspective of the kids' mind -- something that they would never forget and yet something relatable from a human perspective.
"I wanted it to be like what they would remember the train crash being... if they were to tell the story of what the train crash was, that’s what it would look like," he said. Abrams then spoke of drawing epic doodles that would take on a new life to themselves when he added a small human figure next to them and how that related to the crash in "Super 8." "There’s a weird thing that happens when you connect a person to an event," he said. "Suddenly that event has different meaning, it’s not just the event, which is maybe cool and interesting in itself, but suddenly it’s relatable and it’s a relative experience. So for the kids and running through and that stuff with the train, I tried not to have three shots go by before you were with the kids again, cause it was very easy to kind of go God’s eye-crazy-big wide, but it was important to me that the shots, even when they were like that, become shots that framed the kids -- it was important to me to do shots that connected the people to the event as much as possible than it was just doing shots that you’ve never seen before."
Abrams knows how to weed out the various and myriad ideas and concepts that are swirling around in his head: ignore them until you can no longer ignore them.
“They’re always a bunch of ideas floating around and I do the best I can to try and not do them,” he said. But the helmer admitted, there are some “ideas that don’t go away, and finally, it’s been around for long I have to get this thing and somehow it ends up coming to some version of fruition.”
Keeping the integrity of the discovery intact -- something increasingly difficult to do in this day and age -- is why Abrams keeps his projects under such secretive tight wraps.
“I just feel like when you go see a trailer and it's over. [Often] you feel like 'I’ve just seen the movie,'" he said. "So part of it was just about trying to allow people to have a sense of discovery in the way -- at least in ‘79 I went to the movies, I didn’t feel like I saw every single detail of the film. Between clips and trailers and commercials and stuff that’s you know, magazines and online, it just feels like people are force fed so much stuff, to try to keep it a little bit surprising to the audience still was at least part of the goal.”
You can see "Super 8" in theaters starting June 10th.