Beloved sci-fi creator/director brings us a new mystery in Super 8, which seems to pay homage to '80s Spielberg classics. J.J. Abrams sat down with Buzzine to talk about his intentions for the film to be more about characters than monsters, the task of casting the perfect kids for this adventure, and his upcoming projects, such as the next Star Trek installment...
Izumi Hasegawa: This has to be a tough one to publicize, because you don't want us to say too much about it, do you?
J.J. Abrams: Honestly, I trust you. [Sometimes] you see a trailer, and the trailer's over, and you feel like, "I've just seen the movie." So part of it was just about trying to allow people to have a sense of discovery 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 magazines and online. It just feels like people are force-fed so much stuff. To try to keep a little bit of it surprising for the audience was a part of the goal.
IH: This is really an homage to the '80s Amblin films and the [Steven] Spielberg films from that period. What was the secret to capturing that ambiance, that feel?
JJA: The thing about Super 8 was that it was inspired, just initially, by the desire to go back in time and tell a story about being a kid and making those stupid movies on super 8. They were often not quite as good as you wanted them to be then ... and then working on the story as it developed over time, it was clear that it felt that it fell under the umbrella of those kinds of movies. Certainly you can point to any number of them, but they all sort of share a DNA. They're all about kind of suburban American, 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 clearly a spectacle in the sense of something that you'd never see in normal life that was happening. But the umbrella thing with the comedy that was in these films was a big part. There was just something about those movies where I would feel something, where they weren't afraid to combine that spectacle and drama with emotion. 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 design, although all of that was massively important. The thing that was really important to me, though, was that all the visual effects and action sequences, by default, take second place to what was going on with the characters. That was, at least, the goal of it.
IH: Of your own super 8 filmography, what was the favorite thing you made and then the thing you hope we never get to see?
JJA: They all fall into the latter category, but the movies that I made were often just these experiments to try to do things visually. For example, if you want to do a visual effect with super 8 film, there was no precision. There was no easy way to do it. For example, if you wanted to do, like, a split screen thing, you'd have to tape off the cap stand, put the film in. You could only film for, like, 12 seconds because the film was basically not getting caught -- the take-up reel wasn't working. You were stopping. Then you'd put it into a changing bag -- a little dark bag -- you'd push the film back up, and you'd re-film the film. You'd double-expose the film so you could put a matt in front of the lens where a line would be. I'm just looking at that on the wall, and then you'd film that side first, and then you'd put the black on the other side and from that side. So you could make one person look like they were two people. So 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. But a lot of times, they were just chase scenes, fight scenes, 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 thick 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.
IH: Is this a connection that you share with Spielberg because he made his own 8mm movies too?
JJA: Yeah. When I had this thought, which was to go back and do a movie about that period of time, the first thing I did was call him, because I knew he had movies as well at that time. Luckily, he said yes, that it was interesting.
IH: Was it daunting to work with so many children? That seems scary, and then you worked with unknowns. How long did it take you to find the kids that you worked with?
JJA: It was tough finding them, frankly, because it's not just a binary thing where you're casting one person. Even if you found that one person, it's like, well, how do they work with these other people that we need to cast? So part of it was the group. Elle [Fanning], frankly, came in toward the end. We were looking for everyone, but just because she had done some work didn't mean it was a given. In fact, I had met her when she was around on the War of the Worlds set as this little teeny baby sister of Dakota [Fanning]. So even the idea of Elle was like, "What? She's like eight inches tall. There's no way." And then when she came in and had more poise and sophistication, certainly, than any of us, I'm guessing. It was insane. I was like, "What? She can't be 12." It was impossible, and it wasn't like she had an attitude about it. She was just wise, and I was like, "This is nuts." So we had her audition with the boys, who were two years older than she was. Now, when you're 14, two years is not insignificant, and yet there was no way she was younger than they were. Part of that is just about boys. My wife and I have three kids, and you can see how girls mature faster, and you get it, but she's got a whole level of insight that I don't understand how anyone could have at her age. The truth is that we saw thousands of kids, and months and months and months, and Joel [Courteny] was great, and Riley [Griffiths] as well, because they weren't professional people who were young enough to be that age and then acted that age. They were just those kids, and they'd never been on the set of anything. So the first 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 where the changes were, and I remember Joel looked and I made it clear, like, "There are no dumb questions. Ask me anything." I just wanted them to be as comfortable as they could be, because I knew, no matter what, they knew intellectually when they got to the set, they'd just be thrown and freaked out by being there. So Joel was like, "Are these stars for decoration on the side of the script?" I was like, "Oh my God. No, no, no. These are lines that you have to go memorize." "But are these stars for decoration?" He didn't know any of it. He didn't know what a boom was. He was scared, like, "The boom?" And the dolly tracks. Nothing made sense at the beginning, and then at the end of the first week, he was like, "So, same blocking as last time?" "Yes, Joel. Same blocking." In a week, he was the most comfortable kid ever.
IH: We talked to him earlier, and you must've taught him well because he said he was explaining shots from Tron: Legacy to his friends...
JJA: He's a really great kid, and it was funny, too, because it wasn't until after wrap and we started doing this promotion that I felt I started to see the Joel in repose, like the relaxed Joel. I didn't even realize, until now, how on guard he was, because he's much more laid back now and easy going. On the set, though, and with the kids, he was always loose and great, but there was a kind of awareness that he had to be "on." It's funny, not until recently have I seen that side of his personality than certainly the kids did. I would give him a note, and he's not the kind of kid where you just completely see in his face that he gets it. He kind of goes inside and you're like, "Hello? Are you here?" So there were times when I would think, "Oh my God, he's so internal," and now I'm seeing a much more extroverted side to him, which is cool.
IH: A lot of your films have a monster element or plot. What do you like about the monster factor, and what do you like about tweaking it for a modern audience?
JJA: It depends on what it is, and there are situations where it's great for a scene or a sequence, but not the whole movie. Then there are times when it's a fun idea and that's the premise. In this case, the idea of the creature was cool for me, but just because the idea was that it would be a way to externalize and make physical this thing that this kid was going through internally -- the idea of the loss of his mother, that this creature sort of represented the thing that was the most frightening to him, which was the idea of never getting past the loss of this person to him. Obviously, physically and technically, I had to do it as one thing, but to me, I'm more interested in the idea of why there's something there -- what does it represent or what does it mean for a character? Obviously, it's fun to just do monsters. I remember seeing The Hunchback of Notre Dame when I was a kid -- the Charles Laughton version -- and I was just sobbing at this movie and realizing, "Oh, my God, they use makeup FX," and I was completely into the story and heartsick over it. Godzilla movies I used to love -- any version of that. The idea of finding a way to make you feel something while using makeup FX, visual FX, whatever, was always really exciting to me. So for some reason, that's always something that I was excited about doing, but it doesn't always apply. Nothing always applies.
IH: You have two new series coming on this fall: Alcatraz and Person of Interest. Can you talk about what attracted you to those shows, and how easy it is to balance film work and the television shows?
JJA: First of all, I was interested in those shows because, when Liz Sarnoff wrote her script, it was based on an idea that was brought to us, and there was a very good script but it just needed to get to that next level. Liz came in and wrote a draft that just blew us away, and Jonah Nolan came to us separately with an idea for a show that we loved, and we thought, "Wow. This could be something." I'm not even sure he was planning on doing it, and then it became this thing, and the notes I gave on the script were just to help these people who created these shows and realize them to the best of what they wanted them to be. I feel like I'm there to serve them and help them do their job. We also have my producing partner, Bryan Burk, and we have Kathy Lingg and Athena Wickham, who are on the TV side of Bad Robot, and they're awesome and have been doing amazing work on Fringe with Jeff [Pinker] and Joel [Wyman]. So the work they were doing with Jonah and Liz and the crews for those, I give notes on outlines and then scripts themselves, and then cuts of the dailies and then cuts of the pilots. My involvement in the shows will be as much as they need me to be involved, but I'm working with people who are awesome and do a great job. So I'm trying to help them do their thing, and they're trying to help me do mine.
IH: We're in the summer of superhero films and adaptations. This is original. Do you have more original ideas that you want to do that are sci-fi, horror type films like this?
JJA: There are always a bunch of ideas floating around, and I do the best I can to try and not do them. The ideas that don't go away over time are finally like, "Okay, it's been around so long, I have to get to this thing." Somehow it ends up coming to some version. But 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. So it's kind of this fun way of riffing on themes that mattered to me so much. So I love that, and if it works for people, it's because it feels like a sister film to those movies that existed back then. But I'd love to do any number of different things, and obviously the next thing we're working on, and hopefully we'll be able to have some information on sooner or later, is the next Star Trek.
IH: Do you think it's going to be ready by its set release date?
JJA: I care much more that it be good than that it be ready. We're obviously doing everything we can to make sure that schedules don't get screwed up, but I don't think anyone wants a movie on time that's not worth your time.
IH: Does doing it in 3D have anything to do with the delay on the film?
JJA: Nope, nothing at all.
IH: Are you considering doing it in 3D?
JJA: I'm not yet considering it, but I haven't gotten that threatening phone call from people in suits, like, "If you know what's good for you..."
IH: Is it harder to nail the storyline to this one because it's now a new Star Trek where anything goes?
JJA: I don't think that's been any kind of hindrance or additional problem, but I certainly think we want to make sure that it's done right. The guys we're working with are obviously brilliant, so I'm really excited to get back into it. Obviously, this has been something I've been working on pretty closely, so it's been hard to find the leisure time to discuss Kirk and Spock.
IH: One of the challenges you took on with this film is showing us something we've seen before in a package we've not seen before with the train wreck. It owes a lot to previous films but takes it notches higher. What were the challenges of doing that, and how much of that train wreck is practical?
JJA: Everyone has seen everything, it seems, but the train wreck, to me, the thing that was important about it was the relative experience of it, meaning that it not be just subjective through the kids' eyes, but that it connect with the kids. There's this stupid thing I do sometimes when I'm doodling, which I'm always doing. I draw a circle and then I shade it, and then draw like a little horizon line so it goes from being this circle to being a three-dimensional circle. But then the thing is, whenever I draw little figure next to it of a certain size, maybe very small, suddenly that circle is this sphere that becomes a thing of scale. It's weird how it suddenly has this meaning and importance, only because of the person, the figure that's standing there. There's a weird thing that happens when you connect a person to an event. Suddenly the event has different meaning. It's not just the event which is maybe cool and interesting itself, but suddenly it's relatable and it's a relative experience. So for the kids, like running through and all the stuff with the train, I tried not to have three shots go by before you were with the kids again, because it was very easy to go God's-eye, crazy, big, wide shots. It was important to me that the shots, even when they're like that, become shots that frame the kids and have them inside. It was more 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'd never seen before. We've seen crashes of all shapes and sizes, and the fun of it was having the kids in it. There are certain things we did that I thought were fun, and again, it was a great opportunity to just go nuts. Clearly it goes on long, and it's one of those insane things, but I wanted it to be like what they would remember the train crash being, as opposed to technically how did the train crash. So if they were telling the story of what the train crash was, that's what it'd look like, as opposed to it being exactly that way.
IH: How much of the academic discussion of Spielberg's work was in your head when you were making this film?
JJA: 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 as I started working on the story, it was clear that this felt like it could be a movie that would live under the Amblin umbrella, and then Steven himself said this should be an Amblin movie, literally an Amblin movie. I don't think an Amblin movie has ever had its 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 other-worldly. There's a little bit of a pang of guilt that you get when you have kids jump on these BMX bikes and you're like, "Can you really have kids on bikes?" It's like, well, if you're doing a movie in '79, what are they going to do? That's what they do. They're kids. It reminded me of doing Star Trek. I remember early on, I was like, "Can we really do lasers in space and flying spaceships? It seems so cliché and silly," and then it was like, "It's Star Trek. Yes, you can do that. When else are you ever going to do that?" So for me, being another director who got to work on an Amblin movie -- and there are a lot of them -- it was this freeing feeling of being able to embrace those elements and those things that felt naturally a part of it, mostly because, growing up as a kid, that felt like such a piece of that time, those films. So 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. So when they got on their bikes, I felt like it was a celebration as opposed something to get over quickly and be ashamed for borrowing heavily from E.T. or something.
IH: Do you see your signature in your work?
JJA: No. I have no idea, honestly. It's such a weird thing.
IH: Is a new Terry O'Quinn show coming this fall?
JJA: "The Terry O'Quinn Show." I was going to, but then he would get another show.
IH: Is that a spy-comedy?
JJA: I don't know. I hope it's going to be on 'cause I love Terry. I'd love to see his show.
'Super 8' is released by Paramount Pictures' on June 10, 2011.