Interview: Bad Robot's J.J. Abrams - Writer and Director of 'Super 8'
by Alex Billington
June 10, 2011
Arriving in theaters everywhere this weekend is Super 8, the latest movie from the mastermind behind the TV show "Lost", Bad Robot, the Star Trek reboot, Mission: Impossible 3 and so much more - visionary filmmaker J.J. Abrams. I'm admittedly a very big Abrams' fan, but it's for good reason, as I love his movies and his sensibilities, both as a filmmaker and as a businessman in Hollywood using classic methods and "mystery" to sell his movies. I was lucky enough to sit down for a one-on-one chat with J.J. Abrams a few weeks back after first seeing Super 8 and you can find my full interview with him, transcribed in text, below.
I've already written my glowing thoughts about Super 8 a few places (you can write your own thoughts here) but I'll reiterate that I think it's a fantastic movie with a wonderful story, phenomenal performances and some incredible action. In speaking with J.J., I had limited time, but wanted to focus on his goals and inspirations for crafting this story and how that shaped what the movie became in the end. I hope you enjoy my interview with J.J. Abrams, as I really wanted to make this as memorable and worthwhile as possible.
What was your original goal with Super 8? Was it to tell another Amblin-like story, that I don't think we see much of nowadays?
J.J. Abrams: The original goal sort of evolved. The original goal was to do a movie that was about that time in my life and my friends' lives making these Super 8 films. It evolved into telling a story that was a sort of genre, monster movie as well. But the weird thing about doing the movie was just about the Super 8 era for me, is that that time was so impacted by and influenced by the movies of Spielberg and Amblin that it was impossible to separate those two things.
So while the movie never began as an homage to the Amblin films or Spielberg films, it began as a revisiting of a time in my life that was massively influenced by the Spielberg films. So I can't separate those movies from that time in my life. And the odd thing is that in this movie, clearly… I called Steven the first time I had this idea to do a movie, the day I thought of it, I called him up…
The thing is that I realized once he said he wanted to be involved, one of the challenges of the process was going to be I couldn't possibly have a Spielberg poster in the kids' rooms. But you think about it, how could a kid be into doing movies in 1979 and not have Jaws, not have Close Encounters? That would be impossible. So it's a little bit conspicuously absent from the movie. But the truth is that they are massively important to me, that time and those films. I tried to make Charles into more of a Carpenter/Romero, disaster movie kid than the more mainstream… but there's no way that kid would not have been a Spielberg fanatic.
Do you think we've lost our way with those kind of films in the last 10 years, at least with some of the summer blockbusters we get nowadays?
Abrams: I do feel that… one of the things I loved about, certainly, Close Encounters, certainly E.T., Poltergeist, to some degree Goonies as well, is they were movies that were clearly fantastical stories. They were not straight dramas by any stretch. But they were movies that actually either made you cry or put you right on the edge of crying. And that, to me, was the thing that was so powerful about those movies, is that it embraced an emotional life. It wasn't just spectacle. It wasn't just the horror of ghosts haunting your family and snatching your kid. It wasn't just about aliens coming to this planet. It wasn't just about these thieves of a lost treasure and a flying pirate ship. These were movies that were about, often, friends, friendship, parents, children. And at some point in those films, usually towards the end, you would find yourself with tears in your eyes in a movie that had things that were preposterously genre at their core. And that, to me, is the thing that isn't as present as it used to be—the emotional core coexisting with the visual spectacle. That I love.
How much did the story evolve throughout the production? Obviously we know it was originally two ideas that came together to begin with, but how did it involve once it was cast, once you start shooting, and editing and so on?
Abrams: Well, the story evolved in a lot of ways at different times, sometimes during production, other times in post. One of the issues was at which point the main character is sort of "activated." The script had a slightly different story for Joe. It was a subtle thing, but the main character in this movie doesn't really become fully activated until fairly late in the story, which is a narrative challenge. It allows the middle of the movie to either be a cool sort of deepening of an emotional life and mystery. And, at the same time, the potential danger is that it becomes stagnant and slow. So the challenge was always how do we allow for these scenes of the kids and their childlike innocence to coexist as a counterpoint with the adult world and the kind of terror that is inevitably going to befall them. And the idea of creating that.
So a lot of the time, the changes that came about as we were shooting were the order of scenes, removing certain moments. There were a couple of scenes that we cut with the kids that I loved, but that felt a little bit superfluous, especially in the area of the movie that we desperately wanted to get the main character activated. And so there were a lot of adjustments that went along as we worked on the project. It's hard to talk about them specifically without giving away too much.
With Super 8 specifically, how do you balance the idea of a homage with your original content? I hear a lot of feedback on this being that it's just a Spielberg homage, when I disagree and think there's an original story behind it, along with the inspirations from those other films. How do you balance all of those aspects?
Abrams: I hope that when people see the movie, what they'll see is that there's a heart to the story that isn't about homage at all, it's about these characters. And what they're going through specifically is unique to them and hopefully is what makes the movie memorable. But clearly, doing a movie that takes place in 1979 with a group of kids in working class suburbia, it's very hard to do that and not have it feel like it's sharing certain DNA, just saying that alone, with movies that were sort of typical of the Amblin brand. The fact that this movie is an Amblin film, literally, and it was produced by Steven Spielberg.
So it's not as if this movie isn't unabashedly embracing its DNA and saying this is in that world. And, by the way, there were a number of Amblin films in that time that were wonderful entertainment. So the goal was never to ape any movie or to copy it, or to even pay an homage. It was to make a movie that felt in the spirit of that time. And that time, for me, was as much about those movies as real life.
Do you think it's a challenge to sell a film on mystery alone as a summer blockbuster?
Abrams: Yeah, I don't think you can. I think that mystery is a great piece of it. But one of the things that is important that people know about this movie, is it's ultimately an emotional and intimate story. I don't want people to go into it thinking it's just going to be some big, bombastic special effects show. There are big, bombastic special effects in it here and there. But the heart of the movie is the thing that, frankly, is the most compelling piece of it. The mystery is fun and part of the catalyst of the movie, but it's not everything.
How did you determine what needed and could be shot practically and what was going to be CGI, such as the scenes when all the tanks were rolling through the city and the kids are running through it. Did you actually have real tanks there?
Abrams: It was all real. But you mean, what did we have there for the creature?
Yeah, that too.
Abrams: Well, I will say that it was really important to me that whenever we could, we were just shooting what was real and then expanding upon it or extending it. So like at the crash site, there was a pretty massive area of ground that we just covered with real train debris. And we shot both day and night scenes there. We extended the shots where we needed to, but what was great was being able to shoot in-camera a number of these shots that just look like these characters were among crazy wreckage. And it allowed us to not rely on green screen or CG for the fundamental piece.
I mean, the key in sequences like that in any particular shot, is embracing the idea of the peripheral vision - that what's in the peripheral should and can be done however you want. It can be CG, it can be done with 2D work, 3D work, it can be old fashioned matte painting, it can be in-camera, it doesn't matter, because what you are really looking at is this.
And if you look at like old Albert Whitlock matte paintings, what's so cool about that—and he was the best—is, often, some of the stuff that would be on the side was literally these brushstrokes that… there was no detail. And it wasn't that it wasn't working for the shot, but he knew where your eye is. So that stuff over there, you know that that's windows on buildings. But if you actually look at it, you go, "Wait a minute…" And, of course, that was back in the time when you couldn't stop, freeze a frame, and scrutinize everything.
So my point, though, is that those shots, so many of them work just so incredibly geniusly, you want the things at center as much as possible to have the most level of realism and detail. But at a certain point you're never going to be looking with that kind of scrutiny at certain areas, and that's where doing something that happens to be done with CG is so much easier, because, not that it's not being scrutinized, but it helps sell a context. If you can shoot something for real and not have characters acting in front of a big green or blue screen, it is obviously light years better than to shoot them on a real set.
Thank you to J.J. Abrams, Paramount Pictures and Bad Robot for arranging and allowing me this incredible opportunity. Super 8 is now showing in theaters this weekend - don't miss it!