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Super 8 Q & A: Spielberg and Abrams Talk to EW About Growing Up, Obsessions, Their Inner Child

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood June 9, 2011 at 5:11AM

Writer-director J.J. Abrams was smart to pull Steven Spielberg in as a producer on PG-13 sci-fi adventure Super 8, set in 1979, which is the ultimate homage to the great Spielberg movies of the 70s and 80s, referencing Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and of course, E.T. Paramount understood that they were selling, in effect, a non-Spielberg Spielberg film. And the movie feels as comfortable as an old shirt: the second you enter this world, you know exactly what the rules are. As Abrams understood the DNA of the Star Trek universe, so he understands the kids at the core of Super 8, their relationship to their parents, their love of making movies, and each other. (Check out this six-minute MSN clip from the beginning of Super 8, and our collection of Super 8 early reviews.)
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Thompson on Hollywood

Writer-director J.J. Abrams was smart to pull Steven Spielberg in as a producer on PG-13 sci-fi adventure Super 8, set in 1979, which is the ultimate homage to the great Spielberg movies of the 70s and 80s, referencing Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and of course, E.T. Paramount understood that they were selling, in effect, a non-Spielberg Spielberg film. And the movie feels as comfortable as an old shirt: the second you enter this world, you know exactly what the rules are. As Abrams understood the DNA of the Star Trek universe, so he understands the kids at the core of Super 8, their relationship to their parents, their love of making movies, and each other. (Check out this six-minute MSN clip from the beginning of Super 8, and our collection of Super 8 early reviews.)

Abrams and Spielberg sat down for a cover story interview with EW, who kindly sent us part of the transcript:


EW: What first compelled you to pick up a movie camera and tell a story?
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Steven Spielberg: When movies are your life, it takes you by the throat and it does not let go. I was very influenced by my dad’s war stories and war movies like Sands of Iwo Jima. I made this 45-minute 8mm war movie, and I think it was the best amateur movie I ever made. I was raised in Arizona, and there was desert everywhere, so I set it in North Africa. I went to the Army surplus store and got WWII American helmets. For the German costumes, we dyed white T-shirts black and glued cutout eagles holding swastikas onto them. I would go with 20 friends and shoot for three or four weekends in a row.

J.J. Abrams: The Super 8 experience that sticks out the most to me was the movie I was making in high school when I met Matt Reeves [Abrams’ Felicity co-creator and Cloverfield director]. It was a geek-in love- with-a-girl-in-school story, except it was a comedy–meets–science fiction– meets–love story. What I liked about it was it did my favorite thing, or attempted to, which is to combine genres.

EW: J.J., you told me it was “uncool” to be a moviemaking nerd during your ’70s youth. Steven, was that your experience too?

Spielberg: I was so uncool that there was nothing I could have done to be any uncooler. Making movies just made me king of the geeks.

EW: J.J., when you were a teenager, you and Matt Reeves helped restore Steven’s 8mm movies, correct?

Abrams: Yes. Matt and I were in a Super 8 camera film festival, and the L.A. Times did an article about the festival, and there was a picture of us. At the time, every director in Hollywood had a beard. But at 15, Matt and I did not. So the caption on the photo was “Beardless Wonders.” We received a call from Steven’s assistant, who said Steven’s 8mm movies were in disrepair and asked us if we would fix them. If this were a movie, I’d say, “You know the part I don’t believe? That the greatest director in history would trust these kids with no beards to touch these movies of incredible significance.”

Spielberg: Because when I saw the picture I said, “Those are the two most trustworthy faces I’ve seen in months!”

Abrams: I remember this one film where it said, “Written and directed by Steve Spielberg.” Not “Steven.” Steve Spielberg! I wanted to take one of those “Steve Spielberg” frames and keep it for myself, but Matt talked me out of it.

Spielberg: People only called me Steven after my first screen credit. I prefer Steve, but those days are long gone.

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EW: J.J. got his directorial start making two franchise movies, Mission: Impossible III and Star Trek. If you were starting out today, with a shot at directing a franchise, which one would it be?

Spielberg: When I first started making movies, the only franchise I cared about and wanted to be part of was James Bond. When I started out as a TV director, my pie-in-the-sky dream was to make a little movie that would get some notoriety, and then [the late Bond series producer] Cubby Broccoli would call me and ask me to direct the next James Bond picture. But I could never get Cubby Broccoli to hire me—and now, sadly, they can’t afford me.

EW: Steven, being on the set of Super 8 and its evocation of the late ’70s—what was that experience like for you?

Spielberg: When I came onto the set and I saw these kids improvising and being raucous, it just completely threw me back to how much fun I had making E.T. It was the first movie I ever made where I wanted to have a family after I said goodbye to my actors. I never had any idea I was going to be a dad or any ambition for that; I was just a complete cinephile. E.T. transformed me as a person completely, and changed what I was hoping to have in my future.

EW: Do you consider Super 8 an overt homage to Steven’s early oeuvre, as well as other films that influenced you like Halloween, Alien, and Stand by Me?

Abrams: There are moments that share the DNA of movies that Steven has made. Had we not been collaborating, I probably wouldn’t have done it. But the movie began as nothing other than an opportunity to visit that time in my life and Steven’s life that was so important. It’s impossible to do a movie that takes place in the late ’70s about a group of kids with a science-fiction element and not have it cross over into territory covered extensively. Working with you, in a weird way, allowed this movie to be the truest version of what it would be.

Spielberg: You could have made this movie just as great without my involvement. All films owe an allegiance to films that had a powerful impact on us. We’re colored by everything. Especially in this digital age, our brains are cluttered with so much noise that a century of information overload has given us. You’ve got to duck and cover if you want to stay true to an original idea. The thing that impressed me more than anything is this troupe of kids, who have such an original voice and are so unique in their passions for making movies. It makes us feel safe when we can compare it to other things that are more anchored in tradition and in the firmament of film history. But that, for me, is even superseded by these kids. I root for these kids from the beginning, right to the very end.

More of EW's interview with Abrams and Spielberg is here; the new issue of EW hits newsstands June 10.

[Fan poster of Super 8 is not by Drew Struzan.]

This article is related to: Directors, Genres, Studios, Summer Movies, Steven Spielberg, J.J. Abrams, Sci-fi, Paramount/Vantage/Insurge/CBS


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.