A boy's life
Director J.J. Abrams drew on his childhood memories to make "Super 8."
The curiosity over director J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 began with the release of the film’s 90-second teaser trailer last year, which showed the derailment of a train transporting materials from Area 51 — and something terribly big pounding the metal from inside one of the overturned boxcars, trying to get out.
Months later, amazingly, the curiosity around the movie still burns brightly. Most people have only a vague idea of what the film is about. Unlike most big-budget summer blockbusters, which are advertised and promoted so heavily you feel you’ve already seen them by the time you get to the theater, Super 8 is poised to catch a lot of people by surprise.
“Obviously we live in an era where anything you want to find out, you can learn instantly by turning on your computer,” says Bryan Burk, a Super 8 producer and Abrams’ longtime collaborator. “What we wanted to do as best we could was to bring back that element of surprise — to maintain that palpable sense of excitement of not knowing what to expect. When we worked on Lost, [series co-creator] Damon Lindelof used to say that half of the audience likes to read a book from the beginning, and the other half likes to read the last chapter first. We’re not letting you do that.”
Here’s what we can tell you about the film: Set in 1979 in a small working-class Ohio town, Super 8 centers on six kids who are in the process of shooting a zombie movie when their camera inadvertently captures the aforementioned train crash. Soon, strange, frightening things start to happen: People disappear; dogs are found miles from home. The military swoops in with tanks and heavy artillery, and a most peculiar visitor acquaints himself — itself? — with the locals.
Kyle Chandler ( Friday Night Lights), who plays one kid’s widowed father, says that Abrams and Steven Spielberg, who also produced Super 8, were so intent on keeping the central premise a secret that when he auditioned for the role, the filmmakers wouldn’t even tell him what the movie was about.
“Obviously, when J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg want you to be in their movie, you say yes,” Chandler says. “But on my flight to work the first day of filming, I still had no idea what I was going to be doing. And after I did read the script, I still wondered, ‘What are all these bizarre things going on, and how do I fit into this?’ ”
Fifteen-year-old Zach Mills, who plays Preston, one of the boys making the zombie movie, says he wasn’t even allowed to tell anyone his character’s name.
“We didn’t get the full script until rehearsal, but I knew from the way J.J. had directed the auditions that it was going to be a lot of fun,” Mills says. “Then when I read the script, I thought ‘Wow, this is a really good movie. Oh, wait, I’m in this movie!’ ”
Abrams’ prolific output on television ( Alias, Felicity, Lost, Fringe) and film, as director ( Mission Impossible III, Star Trek) and producer ( Cloverfield), has earned him the mantle of the new Spielberg. The men share a sensibility about genre pictures that break new creative ground while focusing primarily on character.
In fact, Super 8 didn’t even have any monsters when Abrams conceived of it years ago. Like Spielberg, he grew up shooting homemade epics using Super-8 cameras, so he approached the famed director with that nugget of an idea.
“All I had at the beginning was going back to that time period and making movies with my friends,” Abrams says. “Steven was interested, and we started developing the story over time, understanding who the characters were and what they were going to go through. I knew there was no one else other than Steven who would understand that feeling of making Super 8 movies as a kid as much as I did. It didn’t occur to me at the time that I was working with someone whose movies had influenced my own so much.”
Burk says Super 8 eventually became a science-fiction thriller only after all the human elements were in place.
“When we working on [the TV college drama] Felicity, the characters’ main struggles were ‘Is he going to go out with me? Am I going to fail this test?’ It was difficult to keep that kind of drama going for four years. And one day J.J. said ‘What ifFelicity became a spy and had adventures outside the classroom?’ And what arose from that was Alias.
“The process of was very similar,” Burk says. “He was talking about the way kids behave and what their lives would have been like in 1979 and their relationships with their parents. One of them was making a movie with all his friends, and there would probably be a girl in the picture. It was only then that he thought, ‘What if there was a train transporting materials from Area 51, and it crashed in their town?’ ”
The combination of tones and story elements might make Super 8 sound like a mish-mash, but Abrams has made it all seem organic, with every plot strand (such as the strained relationship of a father and son after the death of the boy’s mom) drawn together by film’s end.
“The movie is a real amalgam of various genres,” Abrams says. “There’s no question about the science-fiction element, but for me, primarily, it’s a love story, a father-son story, a thriller, a suspense movie, a monster film, a comedy. There’s no single genre it falls into, but that’s true of some of my favorite movies.
“I wasn’t trying to take a genre and twist it into something new. But I did want to combine all these elements we are so familiar with into one movie that would feel less familiar now. When I was a kid, movies like E.T. and Close Encounters andPoltergeist combined fantastic special effects, otherworldly elements and great comedy but would also make you cry. That was an unbelievable thing to behold. That kind of ambition is something that I’m interested in.”