Home Action Super 8 – Director JJ Abrams on working with Steven Spielberg

Super 8 – Director JJ Abrams on working with Steven Spielberg

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Super 8 - Joel Courtney and Riley Griffiths with director JJ Abrams
Joel Courtney (as Joe Lamb) and Riley Griffiths (as Charles) discuss a scene with director/writer/producer JJ Abrams on the set © 2011 Paramount Pictures.

Steven Spielberg and JJ Abrams have joined forces to produce their new movie, Super 8. The film takes place in the summer of 1979, when a group of young teenage friends, while making a super 8 movie about zombies, witness a catastrophic train crash which they suspect was not an accident.

Abrams describes the movie as ‘a kind of science fiction-turned-monster movie, imposed upon a coming-of-age love story.’

At the press day for the film, JJ Abrams spoke more of his new creation.

How did this project come about?

Super 8 - Poster
One sheet poster © 2011 Paramount Pictures

Super 8 came out of two separate ideas. One was the idea of doing a film about kids making Super 8 movies in the late 70s. The other was a monster movie idea that I had, so I tried to combine the two and found that they serviced each other in a cool way.

What were some of the challenges you had making this movie?

One of the challenges of Super 8 is that the cast of the movie has some adults and some kids. And I wanted the kids in the movie to feel like genuine kids and not entitled actory kids, which is often what we get. The search for them was endless, and took months and months and months, and it was pushing production because we couldn’t find [the right kids].

Can you talk about some of the kids you did cast?

It was important that the main kid not be a bossy movie-maker, but rather he’d be the kid who follows that bossy movie-maker. So the main kid is Joe and we found Joel Courtney, who we brought back in a dozen times to audition him.

Super 8 - JJ Abrams
Director/writer/producer JJ Abrams on the set © 2011 Paramount Pictures

The character of Joe needs to do a lot. He’s got to be funny, he’s got to be terrified, he’s got to be heartbroken, he’s got to be lovesick, he’s got to be furious, he’s got to be devastated, the range was just so huge.

We kept bringing him in to test him, because I needed to know that this kid who had never been on a set of anything wouldn’t fall apart when we were suddenly throwing a scene at him. And at every step he was just wonderful.

The kid who plays Charles, who makes the movies, was played by Riley Griffiths, who’s got the biggest heart of any kid I’ve ever met. He is such a sweetheart, and really funny and has a kind of loveable, bull-in-a-china-shop way about him. He was great.

One of the first kids that we cast was Ryan Lee who plays Cary, who is the power maniac of the group. He’s hysterical and he had these amazing teeth and he had braces on, but the braces were these modern braces. We actually had to have them removed to give him a retainer, to have braces that looked like the braces he would have had back in ’79.

Can you talk about casting Elle Fanning, the only girl in the group?

Super 8 - JJ Abrams
Director/writer/producer JJ Abrams on the set © 2011 Paramount Pictures

We were incredibly fortunate to cast Elle Fanning as Alice.

She brings a sophistication and presence and poise and goofiness and maturity and absolute talent that I haven’t seen before.

It’s amazing because she wasn’t even 13-years-old, she was 12 when we shot this, and the boys were all 14 or 15-years-old, and she clearly is a light year beyond their level of sophistication, and she’s two years younger than they are.

All the monster stuff and the mystery is great fun, but the key to the movie, the only thing I really cared about more than anything, was this love story between the characters that Joel and Elle play.

Can you talk a little about the movie the kids are making?

In the movie the kids are making a zombie film, and at the very end of the movie, during the credits, you get to see the movie they were making. So when we were filming, before we would leave a location, I would make sure we filmed the scene from the movie that they were working on.

Was it fun to do a period film?

Super 8 - Kyle Chandler with director JJ Abrams
Kyle Chandler (as Jackson Lamb) discusses a scene with director/writer/producer JJ Abrams on the set © 2011 Paramount Pictures

The crazy thing about recreating 1979 was just how eerie it was to be in the world surrounded by people who looked like friends I had, wearing the same clothes. From behind I would see kids and go, ‘Oh my God, that looks just like the girl who was in my class.’

There were constant sense memories which is very different than doing something like Star Trek, where it’s all extrapolating a future time, and it’s all imagination. This was really a revisiting, which was the intent of the movie, but to actually be there day after day, in that period was uncanny.

What was it like working with Steven Spielberg on this?

It was just the absolute greatest. When I had this idea about doing the film, the first thing I did was call Steven and say, ‘Listen, I’ve got this idea for a movie,’ and he immediately was interested in collaborating.

At first I thought maybe we could produce it together and someone else would write it, but as we developed it, I thought maybe we should combine this with a genre element, so it was a little bit scarier. At that point I realized I wanted to try writing it myself, but his involvement from the beginning was just extraordinary.

He was wonderfully active in the whole process, from the story and script through the casting and editing. I could not be more privileged to have worked with him, it was really incredible.