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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

JJ Abrams: 'I called Spielberg and he said yes'

Lost creator JJ Abrams's new film Super 8 was produced by Steven Spielberg. He explains what it was like to work with the man who inspired him to make movies – and why he's proud to be a geek

  • JJ Abrams
    JJ Abrams ? 'Now it's a point of pride to be a geek.' Photograph: Jeff Minton/Corbis Outline

    Much has been made over the connection between JJ Abrams, director of Super 8, and his hero – and Super 8 producer – Steven Spielberg. Both view the world like wide-eyed, overgrown boys, and in their most beloved work (Abrams's Lost, Alias and Star Trek; Spielberg's ET and Close Encounters of the Third Kind) blend the wonder of the supernatural with the tender harvest of the human heart. Coincidentally, both also kicked off their film careers at the age of 12 by making 8mm home movies. Spielberg was after a Boy Scout photography merit badge, while Abrams's focus was his lifelong obsession with special effects.

    1. Super 8
    2. Production year: 2011
    3. Country: USA
    4. Cert (UK): 12A
    5. Runtime: 112 mins
    6. Directors: JJ Abrams
    7. Cast: Amanda Michalka, Elle Fanning, Gabriel Basso, Joel Courtney, Kyle Chandler, Noah Emmerich, Riley Griffiths, Ron Eldard, Ryan Lee, Zach Mills
    8. More on this film

    "What I loved about special effects was the magic of it," Abrams tells me. We're sitting in the soft-focus, mumsy luxury of a beachside hotel suite in Santa Monica, French doors thrown open to the late afternoon Pacific breeze. The 45-year-old director-writer-musician (he has composed the themes for many of his TV shows, including Lost, Felicity and Fringe) is dressed casually in jeans and wearing black intellectual-nerd glasses, his wavy black hair a skybound thicket, as if perpetually charged by the intensity of its owner's convictions.

    "When I was a little kid – and even still – I loved magic tricks. When I saw how movies got made – at least had a glimpse when I went on the Universal Studios tour with my grandfather, I remember feeling like this was another means by which I could do magic. It wasn't the guy with the top hat and the rabbits, it was a way of creating illusions that something was real that wasn't. It could be a time and a place, it could be a weather system, it could be an aeroplane flying through the air, it could be a creature that wasn't really there, a fight scene, blood splattering, window breaking, fire – it could be anything. All these things were little magic tricks, and the idea that they could all add up to create the illusion that something was real, so that people would have an emotional reaction to the relationship, a circumstance, an event – that was very exciting to me.

    "It was almost like creating my own assignments: 'I want to see if I can make that thing look real; like that spaceship's really flying, like that person has a twin and they're in the same frame.' And then I would go about doing it. Frankly, I use some of those ideas far more now than I ever did when I was a kid."

    I can see Abrams getting lost in the question – in every question during our conversation – furrowing his brow and looking down into a middle space as he formulates his response, his answers picking up steam after an initial hesitant launch, until his words spill out in a salvo of emphatic zeal. He's a fast talker.

    "What I love, and what Steven Spielberg has in his work, is a sense of unlimited possibility, the sense that life could bring you anything, that around every corner could be something amazing . . . extraordinary. And that's not to say glorious and good. It could be terrifying, it could be confusing, it could be disturbing, or it could be wonderful and funny and transportive."

    Terrifying, funny and transportive are apt descriptors for Super 8, Abrams's first film as both director and writer. Using his adolescent auteur experiences as the jumping-off point, the story follows a group of children in the summer of 1979 as they set about making an 8mm zombie film. Our hero is Joe, a 13-year-old struggling with his mother's sudden death in a factory accident, while he assists his friends' film by designing monster makeup and exploding model trains.

    Make-believe careens into chilling reality one night during the youngsters' shoot at an old train depot, when they witness a horrifyingly violent crash, followed by what seems to be the escape of a malevolent presence from one of the mutilated carriages. In the aftermath, eerie phenomena occur, the military descend, people start to disappear and Joe fights to save the ones he loves.

    "When I called Steven, it was an instinct to work with someone who was a hero of mine since I was a kid, and I had no idea what the movie was," admits Abrams. "All I had was the title, and knew this could be a movie about a group of kids making movies, and he was the one person I knew who had done this the way I had, who could help a movie like that get made. So I called him, and he said yes."

    But curiously, Super 8 is not the first time Abrams has worked for his hero. When he was a teenager, he was profiled in a newspaper article about his participation in a young film-makers' festival in Los Angeles. In a coincidence straight out of a movie, Spielberg read the article and hired Abrams and a friend to repair some 8mm reels that he had knocking around from his own teenage movie-making days.

    Super 8 Left-right: Ryan Lee as Cary, Joel Courtney as Joe Lamb, Elle Fanning as Alice Dainard and Riley Griffiths as Charles Kasnick in Super 8. Photograph: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

    Abrams's mother Carol has described her horror at finding the spaghetti pile of Spielberg's unspooled films blanketing the floor of her son's bedroom. "What have you done?!?" she's reported to have screamed. "He's going to sue us! We're going to lose our house! We're going to lose our cars!" Fortunately for both the Spielberg archives and Abrams's future in Hollywood, young JJ finished the job and split the $300 fee with his partner, though he had yet to actually meet the famous director.

    Even the casual cineaste will be able to connect the dots between Super 8 and Spielberg classics ET, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jurassic Park, even The Goonies. I wondered if Abrams had struggled to avoid quoting Spielberg on the master's turf of emotional, child-oriented sci-fi, or if it was a deliberate homage.

    "The initial conceit was not 'do a Spielbergian movie,'" Abrams says. "I didn't think: 'Oh, let's start ripping off other Spielberg films.' It was just: 'This is a story that could be cool.'

    "I'd called a guy who had a production company called Amblin, who made a bunch of movies that I loved [when I was] growing up and still love now, and when you're working with someone who inspires you in a certain way, that's part of the fun of it.

    "Super 8 is about kids in 1979 who are the age that I was at that time, and I was massively influenced by Steven's films. What made perfect sense was not: 'OK, let's ape his movies and start copying things,' but let's make a movie that feels like it belongs on a shelf with other Amblin movies.

    "It was a spirit, not a scene, that I was trying to emulate. It felt like: 'This is what the movie wants to be.' I would actually say that because I was doing it with Steven, I felt entirely liberated to embrace that kind of stuff. I never would have made this movie this way, I'm certain, had he not been a producer."

    What about the decision to set Super 8 in 1979, before the onset of the internet and instant YouTube stars?

    "The idea of doing a story about a bunch of kids now making a movie on an iPhone has no interest for me whatsoever," Abrams declares. "Part of this was about an era where, if you were that age, making movies, you were an oddball. Not every kid had a camera the way they do now, on their phone. It meant effort, because you had to consider: 'Well, I only have so much film, so what am I gonna film?' You couldn't just record over it. You had to make a choice.

    "I'm obsessed with things that are distinctly analogue. We have a letterpress in our office. There's an absolute wonderful imperfection that you get when you do a letterpress, and that is the beauty of it. The time that is put in setting the type and running the press, inking the rollers, all that stuff – that kind of thing is clearly an extreme example. But it's the beauty of the actual investment of time, and the amount of time that goes by lets you consider things that somehow, in a kind of weird osmosis or spiritual way, is somehow implicit in the final product. And that seems to not exist much any more."

    Was there pressure to come up with a terrifying monster for Super 8, given Abrams's early focus on special effects?

    "It was a challenge," he acknowledges. "I needed the creature to be intimidating, scary, but also be emotive and not just be empathetic, but sympathetic. Which means eyes. Which means a mouth. Well, how many eyes? How many mouths? The idea of the movie being that you have to face the thing that is the most frightening to you, the most devastating to you, to get past it. Ultimately, it wasn't that we see the creature, but it was what happens with the creature."

    The talk shifts to Lost, and Abrams's continued fascination with magic – in this case, the magic that occurs when an audience's engagement with a show turns it into something bigger than originally conceived.

    "[Lost] was very much about faith versus science, and the notion of who has had a profound impact on your life and how these characters form a kind of tapestry," Abrams muses. "When you do a show that has that kind of ongoing conversation, the audience not only invests in the show in ways that you could never anticipate, but also makes connections to things that you may not have even considered. When you work on something that combines both the spectacular and the relatable, the hyperreal and the real, it suddenly can become supernatural. The hypothetical and the theoretical can become literal. And that is part of the genius of science-fiction or fantasy writing, which is that it suddenly lets you go, 'Ooh – what if?' which the straight drama almost never lets you do."

    Do woebegone Losties give Abrams an earful about the finale?

    "Oh my God, yes," he groans. "For years, I had people praising Lost to death, and now they say: 'I'm so pissed at you for the end of Lost.' I think a lot of people who were upset with the ending, were just upset that it ended. And I've not yet heard the pitch of what the ending should have been. I've just heard: 'That sucked.'"

    In addition to the premiere of Super 8, Abrams has a full platter of projects: the Mission: Impossible film he's producing; the upcoming TV shows, Alcatraz and Person of Interest, which he is consulting on; Fringe, the ongoing supernatural thriller series; as well as a comedy series he is developing – a new direction for him. And then there's the next Star Trek film, which he's keen to direct ("The idea of someone else saying 'action' to those actors in those characters on that set makes me jealous," he says), though nothing is decided.

    As man who continues to frolic on his boyhood playing fields of magic and movies, Abrams represents the outsider who lives in his head. Does he feel responsible for perpetrating the new supremacy of the geek?

    "No." Abrams shifts impatiently in his armchair. "First of all, the definition of geek has changed. When I started, a geek was an undeniable loser: long-necked, trips over his own feet, a complete outcast. And now geek means someone who likes science-fiction. When I was a kid, it was a huge insult to be a geek. Now it's a point of pride in a weird way. I feel very lucky to be working in a business and to be part of stories that are embraced by people who fit the current definition of geek. And also maybe the occasional athlete."

    • Super 8 is released on 5 August