J.J. Abrams has established himself as an imaginative and innovative director, writer and producer, in both film and television. No matter what you think of his work, he takes risks and makes an effort to keep his projects surprising, so that audiences can have that sense of discovery that’s so often missing these days. He successfully re-booted the Star Trek franchise for an all new audience, while also bringing totally original stories to the big and small screen. Now, he brings Super 8 to theaters, restoring the Amblin legacy in the tale of a group of friends in a small town in 1979, who set out to make a zombie movie, but end up witnessing a catastrophic train crash that changes all of their lives forever.
During a recent roundtable interview, J.J. Abrams talked about promoting a film while trying to maintain some secrecy for audiences, being so inspired by the Amblin era of filmmaking, the type of Super 8 films he enjoyed making as a kid, what it was like to work with so many young acting newcomers, and what appeals to him about monster movies. He also talked about why he was attracted to the upcoming fall TV shows Alcatraz and Person of Interest, which he is producing, and what the current delay in the script for Star Trek 2 might mean for the film’s release. Check out what he had to say after the jump:
J.J. ABRAMS: Honestly, I trust you. I just feel like you see a trailer, and then it’s over and you feel like you’ve just seen the movie. Part of it was just about trying to allow people to have a sense of discovery, like when I went to the movies in ‘79 and I didn’t feel like I’d seen every single detail of the film. Between clips, trailers, commercials, magazines and online, it just feels like people are force-fed so much stuff. Trying to keep it a little bit surprising for the audience still was part of the goal.
What was the secret to capturing the feel of the ‘80s Amblin films and the Steven Spielberg films from that period?
ABRAMS: The thing about Super 8 was that it was inspired, initially, by the desire to go back in time and tell a story about being a kid, making those stupid movies on Super 8, that were often not quite as good as you would want them to be. Going back to that experience was the first thing. And then, working on the story, as it developed over time, it was clear that it felt like it fell under the umbrella of those kinds of movies. Certainly, you can point to any number of them, but they all share DNA. They were all about suburban American ordinary people, going through something that was hyper-real, whether it was otherworld or supernatural, or whatever it was. There were fundamental and relatable relationships, broken families in some form, often friendships that were really critical and important, often kids were at the center of the films, there were often parent-child stories that were being told, there were first love stories sometimes, and there were all these different elements that I loved. There was always a spectacle, in the sense of something you’d never see in normal life that was happening. And then, there was a big heart. There was something about those movies where I would feel something. They weren’t afraid to combine that kind of spectacle and drama with emotion, and that was something that was really important to me. The ambition was, at least, that you feel something. So, the ambience of it was less about the era, the wardrobe and the set and production design, which was all massively important, but what was really important to me was that all the visual effects stuff and action sequences, by default, take second place to what was going on with the characters. That was, at least, the goal of it.
ABRAMS: Well, they all fall under the latter category. But, the movies that I made were often just these experiments to try to do things visually. If you wanted to do a visual effect with Super 8 film, there was no precision and no easy way to do it. For example, if you wanted to do a split screen thing, you’d have to tape off the cap stand, put the film in, and only film for 12 seconds because the film was not getting caught since the take up reel wasn’t working. Then, you’d put it in a little dark bag, push the film back up, and re-film the film and double expose the film. You’d film one side first and then the other, and make one person look like they were two people. There were all sorts of stupid things that I would do like that, just to see if it would work. Years later, I would start to tell stories with a little bit more of a narrative, and a beginning, middle and end, and I’d use those techniques that, over the years, I had just been playing with, for some kind of story effect. A lot of times, they were just really base monster movie ideas. I would make up friends and family to be creatures. I made my mom into a creature once. She smoked cigarettes for a year, and this was luckily during that period of time. I had her take a cigarette and I would say, “Action!,” and she had the smoke come up. It was the dumbest thing ever, but to me, it was huge. It was a victory.
Was that part of the connection you had with Steven Spielberg, who also began by making 8mm movies?
ABRAMS: When I had this thought to go back and do a movie about that period of time, the first thing I did was call him because I knew that he had made movies as well, at that time. Luckily, he said yes.
ABRAMS: It was tough, frankly, finding them because it’s not just a binary thing, where you’re casting one person. Even if you found that one person, it’s also about how they work with the other people we needed to cast, so part of it was the group. And Elle came in towards the end. We were looking for everyone. Just because she had done some work didn’t mean that it was a given. I had met her when she was around on the War of the Worlds set, as this little tiny baby sister of Dakota, so even the idea of Elle was like, “What?! She’s like 1. She’s 8 inches tall. There’s no way!” And then, when she came in and had more poise and sophistication than any of us, it was insane. I was like, “What?! She can’t be 12. It’s impossible.” And, it wasn’t like she had an attitude about it. She was just wise. I was like, “This is nuts!” So, we had her audition with the boys, who were two years old than she was. 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, 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, for months and months and months. Joel [Courtney] was great, and Riley [Griffiths] as well. They were professional people who were young enough to be that age, and then acted that age. They were just those kids. They had never been on the set of anything. The week before we were shooting, there was a revision of the script, and when you make revisions, you have little asterisks on the side of the script to show you where the changes are. I made it clear that there were no dumb questions, and they could ask anything. I just wanted them to be as comfortable as they could be because I knew that, 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 on the side of the script for decoration?,” and I was like, “Oh, my god! These are lines you have to go memorize.” He didn’t know what a boom was. He was scared of the boom. Nothing made sense, at the beginning. But then, at the end of the first week, he was like, “So, same blocking as last time?” In a week, he was the most comfortable kid, ever. He’s a really great kid. Frankly, it wasn’t until after we wrapped and started doing the promotion stuff that I felt like I started to see the relaxed Joel. I didn’t even realize until now how on-guard he was. He’s much more laid-back and easygoing now. On the set, he was always loose and great with the kids, but there was an awareness that he had. It was not until recently that I’ve seen that side of his personality, as much as the kids did. Now, I’m seeing a much more extroverted side to him, which is cool.
A lot of your projects have had a monster element or plot to them, and you said you experimented with monster movies when you were a kid. What do you like about the monster factor, and tweaking it for a modern audience?
ABRAMS: It depends on what it is. There are situations where it’s great for a scene or sequence, but not the whole movie. And then, there are times when it’s a fun idea and that’s the premise. In this case, the idea of a 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. This creature 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. To me, I’m more interested in the idea of why there’s something there. What does it represent? What does it mean for a character? Obviously, it’s fun to just to monsters. I remember seeing the Charles Laughton version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame when I was a kid, and just sobbing at the movie. I realized, “Oh, my god, they used make-up effects and I was completely into the story and heartsick over it.” I used to love Godzilla movies. Any version of that stuff. The idea of finding a way to make you feel something, while using make-up effects and visual effects, was always really exciting to me. For some reason, that was something that I was always excited about doing, but it doesn’t always apply.
What attracted you to Person of Interest and Alcatraz, and how difficult is it to balance films with keeping your eye on all of the television shows?
ABRAMS: Liz Sarnoff wrote her script for Alcatraz and it was based on an idea that was brought to us. There was a very good script, but it just needed to get to that next level, and 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, but then it became this thing. The notes I gave on the scripts were just to help these people who created these shows 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 run the TV side of Bad Robot. They’re awesome, and have been doing amazing work on Fringe with Jeff Pinkner and Joel Wyman. They worked with Jonah and Liz, and the crews for those shows. I would give notes on outlines, and then the 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. I try to help them do their thing, and they’re trying to help me do mine.
ABRAMS: There are always a bunch of ideas floating around and I do the best that I can to try to not do them. The ideas don’t go away and, over time, are finally like, “Okay, it’s been around so long, I have to get this thing out,” and it somehow ends up coming to some version of fruition. 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. It’s this fun way of riffing on themes that mattered to me so much. If it works for people, it’s because it feels like a sister film to those movies that existed back then. But, I would love to do any number of different things. Obviously, the next thing we’re working on, and hopefully we’ll be able to have some information on it, sooner rather than later, is the next Star Trek.
Do you think it will be ready by its set release date?
ABRAMS: I care much more than it be good than 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.
Does pressure to do it in 3D have anything to do with the delay?
ABRAMS: Nothing at all.
ABRAMS: I’m not yet considering it, but I haven’t gotten that threatening phone call from people in suits saying, “If you know what’s good for you . . .”
Is it harder to nail down the story direction because this is really now a new Star Trek and anything goes?
ABRAMS: I don’t think that’s been any kind of hindrance, or additional problem. But, I certainly think that 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. Super 8 has been something that I’ve been working on pretty closely, so it’s been hard to find the leisure time to discuss Kirk and Spock.
What was the challenge of making the train wreck work, and how much of it was practical and how much of it was CGI?
ABRAMS: Everyone has seen everything, it seems. The thing that was important about the train wreck was the relative experience of it, meaning that it be not just subjective, through the kids’ eyes, but that it connect with the kids. There’s a stupid thing that I do sometimes, when I’m doodling, which I’m always doing, when I draw a circle and then shade it and draw a little horizon line, so it goes from just being a circle to being a three-dimensional circle. And then, whenever a draw a little figure next to it, of a certain size, suddenly that circle become this thing of scale. It’s weird how there’s suddenly meaning and an importance to it, only because of the person 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, in and of itself, but suddenly it’s relatable and it’s a relative experience. For the kids, with all the stuff with the train, I tried to not have three shots go by before you were with the kids again. It was very easy to go God’s eye, crazy, big, wide with the shots, but it was important to me that the shots, even when they were like that, would become shots that frame the kids and have them inside of it. 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’ve never seen before. We’ve seen crashes of all shapes and sizes. The fun of it was having the kids in it. And, there are certain things that we did that I thought were fun. It was a great opportunity to just go nuts. Clearly, it goes on long and it’s one of those insane thing, but I wanted it to be like what they would remember the train crash being, as opposed to technically how the train would crash. If they were to tell the story of what the train crash was, that’s what it would look like, as opposed to being exactly that way.
ABRAMS: The film was never intended to be an homage to anything. It was just meant to be a movie about these characters. 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.” 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 American, in that era, with these people, with these families, and with this otherworldly thing that is happening. There’s a little pang of guilt you get when you have kids jump on these 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 did. They’re kids. It reminded me of doing Star Trek. Early on, I was like, “Can we really do lasers in space and spaceships flying? It seems so cliche and silly.” But, it’s Star Trek. Yes, we can do that. When else are we going to ever do that? So, getting to be 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 like they were naturally a part of it, mostly because, growing up as a kid, that felt like such a piece of that time and those films. There was no master list of movies that needed to be borrowed from, but it just felt like these were the characters and that was the world. So, when they got on their bikes, I felt like it was a celebration, as opposed to something to get over with quickly and be ashamed of, for borrowing heavily from E.T. or something.
Was it just awesome to actually get to make an Amblin movie?
ABRAMS: That was very cool, I have to say. It really was.
Do you see something that is your signature, in your work?
ABRAMS: I have no idea, honestly. That’s so hard. I don’t think I have a signature.