JJ Abrams and Steven Spielberg are popular with film geeks for many reasons. For the latter, it’s obvious why. Abrams has recently come into his own as a filmmaker, and while he hasn’t reached the heights of The Bearded One, he is slowly but surely building a very strong body of work.
Above all that, the two men are beloved simply because they’re geeks at heart themselves. From the time they were kids, they have loved movies with every fibre of their being. I can totally relate to that, because I do, too. Abrams’ latest film “Super 8″ pays tribute to that passion, as well as the joy of creating a story, and then immortalising it on camera. Of course, it’s also a monster movie, which taps into that same geek love as well.
Empireonline’s editor Ian Freer yesterday scooped an exclusive interview with Spielberg and Abrams, who are producer and director, respectively. The duo spoke fondly of their childhood memories of making movies on the now-extinct 8-millimetre film format, and the inspirations that led them to become filmmakers. It’s a great discussion, and worth a read (thanks to a transcript brought to you by Electroshadow)…
Ian Freer: Can you tell us the origins of the project? How’d you get started?
JJ Abrams: Well, when I was a kid, I made Super 8 movies and Steven made regular 8 movies, and I had an idea one day for a movie called “Super 8″ and before the idea was even remotely formed, before I even thought of anything, I was on the phone calling Steven. I said, “Have you ever wanted to do a movie called ‘Super 8′? [To Spielberg] And luckily you said “yes”. And that was sort of the beginnings of it.
IF: And what happened after that? Did you have other ideas for a story that you could combine? Is that right?
JJA: Yeah, we discussed what sort of genre it could be. Because it was really just about a group of characters that we started to, sort of fall in love with, the idea there was this group of kids. But frankly, there wasn’t really enough in my mind to bring people to the theatre… yet. It was sort of missing some kind of… higher purpose. And I had another idea separately, sort of a monster movie notion, and I called Steven and I said, “What if we combined these two ideas?” [To Spielberg] And luckily you responded to that too.
IF: So what did you respond to in the combination? What did you like?
Steven Spielberg: Well the idea that we discussed was, a sort of, Hitchcockian/Zapruder-type 8-millimetre film, with something just in the corner, 4 of 5 of the 8-millimetre frames was going to unlock this entire mystery of y’know, bringing this other genre over. And so the idea that there was something on the 8-millimetre film that they discover that helps them to understand what was going on. I responded to that. We talked about that for a long time. But basically, I thought that we could really make, JJ could make really a wonderful, very personal film just about these kids, based on what I did and what JJ said he did on Super 8 when we were both growing up. But we wanted a lot of people to go and see this movie. So when JJ came up with the idea of another genre… At one point, we thought this could be a heist movie, we kicked around many different kinds of genres but when he came up with the science-fiction idea, it just felt… right, to me.
IF: And what was in the depictions of childhood filmmaking in the movie? What ran through with you? What kind of production value did you bring to the film when you were kids?
SS: Well, these kids were lucky they had a train station! And they had a train wreck. [Laughs] A lot more production value than I ever had!
JJA: The funniest thing was, when we were working on the post [-production], we had Ben Burtt to do some of the sound design. And he brought with him, one day, a copy of a Super 8 film that he made when he was a teenager. There was a train wreck, it was a World War II film, and he actually went to a train wreck to film it, and it was so much like what happened in this movie. It was uncanny. And I was watching, jealous, wishing that I had a train wreck to go to when I was a kid!
SS: My first movie WAS a train wreck movie. The first 8-millimetre film I ever did with my line of trains, which I crashed into each other. And that was the first time I ever came up with the idea of, ‘Oh if a train is going left to right, and if the other train went right to left, if the trains meet in the middle in your 3rd cut, you create a little story. That was the first time I ever figured it out. I felt a little bit like the ape in [Stanley Kubrick's] “2001: A Space Odyssey” who had the bone and kept leveraging it out of his hand and it happened to break another bone. He hit it harder and harder til he started beating the bones to death, y’know. [Abrams laughs] It felt like that, y’know, proto-human…
JJA: The discovery!
SS: Yeah. And the first movie I ever watched was “The Greatest Show On Earth” which had that spectacular train wreck in it. So there was a lot of our combined childhoods in this movie but 90% of it is JJ, and his experiences, making his films, with his friends.
JJA: What’s funny is that people say, “Oh, this is meant to be an homage to Steven” and that was never the intent in the beginning. It was meant to revisit a time in my life where it was so impactful and powerful. But that time was so impacted by the films that I loved, and those films were in many cases, y’know, movies that Steven had done. So it wasn’t that I was trying to make an homage to those films, but that time in my life was… but there were other films as well, y’know… there were horror movies that I loved, and there were adventure films that I loved and monster movies that I loved, but when I think about that time in my life, it’s impossible to separate the impact of Cinema at that time from being that kid, making those movies. It’s sort of the thing that inspired me to make them. So, it actually connected to that type of film… I used to sneak into R-rated movies, like horror movies all the time. I’d stand around the corner of a movie theatre so the person working in the booth wouldn’t see me. And any grown-up that walked by, I’d say, “Excuse me, would you mind buying me a ticket for ‘Mother’s Day’?” Whatever, y’know, some horror movie that I know that my parents wouldn’t want me to see and would never buy me a ticket for. And it was unbelievable how often they would say yes. And in retrospect, I was like “What?! Who would do that?!” If the kid asked me… Well, maybe I would… But I would sneak in and I would watch these movies that were usually grotesque, horror films. But I also remember going to see the re-release of “The Exorcist”, and looking back I was like, what was my dad thinking? I remember being in line with him, in Westwood Village at the National Theatre, going to see “The Exorcist”. And apart from being terrified out of my mind, there was something about scary movies that was just incredibly compelling to me. I just love scary movies.
IF: That’s very poor parenting, isn’t it?
JJA: [Laughs] That’s what led to me making this film. Thanks to my father, who made bad choices.
IF: What do you think being in the 70s gives you? There’s so many camcorders, phones around today, it’d be easier to set it now, wouldn’t it?
SS: It would be easier now, but the thing of it is, there’s a lot more craft involved in the 70s. You had to really, y’know, cut things out, staple things together, and you had to build things, you had to dye things in your mom’s washing machine and screw up her washer and dryer cycle, wreck the other clothes in there. You had to go to army surplus stores and get, y’know, cheap helmet liners for army helmets. It was about craft. It’s very easy to take your phone out of your pocket and flip it open and make a little film, between all your friends and then just post it on Youtube. By the way, that’s great, there’s more access, you can tell more, it’s a great outlet for creativity. But for you to really wanna be a moviemaker, or wanna emulate movies you were seeing in the 70s and 60s, you had to be a good producer, you had to con your parents out of a camera, you had to go off and earn money by doing odd jobs, paper route, that sort of thing, to get the processing and the film paid for. So, there was so much effort in getting just the material out, to make an 8-millimetre movie in those days. There’s a great deal of ambition and passion when you see the kids going to those lengths, to tell their stories.
JJA: Also, in fairness, the movie began as a late 70s, early 80s film about kids making movies. The first idea for me was, “Super 8″ was the title of the movie and it was about this group of kids, and there actually were 8 kids in my head and if you count the kid Donny who works at the camera store and Charles’ sister there are 8. And the idea was about this group of kids—
SS: Nobody gets that. Oh hey, the “Magnificent Seven” there were 7 guys if you count ‘em, and “Super 8″ there’s 8 people! Nobody’s counting. [Abrams laughs]
JJA: But, but, the idea was always there. So for me, you could tell the story now, but there was a kind of specificity to the oddity of the kids in 1979, making films. It was not a normal thing, for kids to be doing that. Therefore, they were these sort of, slight outcasts, oddball kids—
SS: As we were.
JJA: —Y’know, and I don’t know why we came into that idea… [Spielberg laughs]
IF: Coming into monsters… How hard is it creating an original monster?
SS: To make an original monster? Very hard. Very, very difficult. There’s a lot of hybrids of other monsters. We’re all influenced by Ray Harryhausen, and Willis O’Brien… we’re all influenced by George Lucas in ‘Star Wars’ in a sense. And Rick Baker, and Rob Bottin, and Stan Winston. And there’s Carlo Rambaldi. I mean, these are not only our forefathers, they’re the godfathers of the whole business of monster-making… Forrest J. Ackerman’s magazine, which I got every issue, I collected every issue of “Famous Monsters Of Filmland”, and studied them, and memorised them. So everything is going to be a variation on themes already established. But I really feel if I can just editorialise for a bit that I think that the… presence in “Super 8″ that JJ’s team and JJ created, is very original. I feel. Very original.
IF: JJ, what are your thoughts about it?
JJA: Well, I think Steven’s right. Doing something that feels in any way original is incredibly hard and luckily, working with Steven who has incredible knowledge not just about what’s happened in the past, in terms of every creature, but what’s coming up too. So it was a great way to sort of avoid potential conflicts of design. But we were working with Neville Page who is an amazing designer, who met with us. I’d worked with him before on “Star Trek” and “Cloverfield” and he’s just terrific. And I think we came up with something that is very special, and scary, and unique. And I’m really proud of the work that we’ve done with him.
IF: You’ve talked about “Alien” being an influence and not seeing the creature. How does that play into it, because obviously these days the audience demands that you show it in its full glory, don’t they? I guess we do see it in the end.
JJA: Well, it’s a funny thing that… not just in “Super 8″ but in general. The Monster. It’s almost like secrets people don’t to know the answers to. So for example like, people would say, when I was working on “Lost”, people would say, “What’s the island—don’t tell me.” Like, they would literally tell me not to tell them, the second they ask the question. And I think, monsters, you want to see the monster, but at the same time there’s something wonderful about it being withheld. And hidden, and sort of, just off-camera… You mentioned “Alien” and there’s a shot in one of the deleted scenes from “Alien” where Veronica Cartwright’s character is being attacked and killed by the alien. It’s one of the scariest scenes in the film. But there’s a shot they didn’t use, that is this wide-angle shot from way back in this corridor. And you see Veronica Cartwright standing up and in full frame you see the alien standing up, and it’s maybe the least scary thing you’ve ever seen in your entire life. And there’s a reason they didn’t use it. Because the creature’s contained in the frame, it’s small, you see the scale, you understand it. You all of a sudden have an understanding, even though it’s a scary thing that’s attacking this character, cinematically, it wasn’t frightening. And when you watch the [original] scene, it’s terrifying. And it’s all on account of how little you see. And that shot became objective. and the whole scene is subjective. So to me, I try to tell the story in “Super 8″ subjectively, and try to avoid a God’s Eye sort of, third party points of view.
IF: That kind of plays into the train crash doesn’t it? Which goes on for a long time, doesn’t it?
SS: It’s a long train. Took a long time for the last car to stop.
JJA: It was even longer, originally. And my wife was like, “JJ, seriously, at some point the train has to stop crashing.” [Laughs] It got a little crazy, so I cut a couple of shots out of that.
SS: When the cars broke up, rhinos, giraffes are fleeing across the country, that was a little too much. [Abrams giggles]
“Super 8″ premieres 9th June.