JJ Abrams interview

Super 8 director talks to Time Out about secrecy and Spielberg

Interview
Interview
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There’s a group of kids hanging around a small town, shooting movies with a rinky-dink camera in the late 1970s. Suddenly, a freight train crashes, and something on board – an alien? a scientific experiment gone awry? – escapes into the night. That’s all that can be gleaned from the trailer for Super 8, the latest action movie from director JJ Abrams (Star Trek), produced by Steven Spielberg; other than those details, little else is known about this super-secretive summer blockbuster. Time Out spoke to Abrams on the phone and tried to pry loose a few tidbits.

So, without ruining any major surprises here, what can you tell us about Super 8?
[Warily] What do you want to know?

Can you confirm this is a sci-fi action movie… comparable to Steven Spielberg’s movies of the late ’70s and early ’80s?
Yeah, there are definitely sci-fi elements in it, for sure. I don’t think you can make a movie about a group of kids that involves something fantastic without evoking any number of movies that Steven either wrote, directed or produced. There’s a lot of DNA that’s being shared here between his work and this. Essentially, I had an idea about making a monster movie, and then I started to meld that with this other story I’d been working on about growing up at that time. That’s the real origin behind the film: It was really me just wanting to make something about slightly odd, geeky kids making the kind of crude Super-8 movies that a lot of prepubescent aspiring filmmakers were doing in their backyards… myself included! [Laughs]

You were one of those kids too?
I was! In fact, it was at a Super-8 film festival that I met [Cloverfield director] Matt Reeves and [Lost executive producer] Bryan Burk; we’d all had the exact same experience of making these movies as kids. The ambitions are beyond the means at that point. When most kids were out playing sports in their yards, I was making these stupid little films with a home movie camera.

Those cameras gave a lot of folks their first taste of filmmaking.
Definitely! It’s less about using a camera for the first time than it is about learning how to problem-solve as a director with limited resources: ‘How can I make this seem like a real spaceship crashing? How can I get this monster to move if I can’t get the stop-motion feature to work correctly? I’ve found that on every movie I’ve worked on – and this one in particular – I’m basically going back to the low-rent, low-tech problem-solving skills that I learned while spending my summer vacation cranking these amateur movies out.

Given that we’re living in an age when every bit of information about a film is on the internet nanoseconds after the fact, how have you managed to keep the lid on projects like this?
For me, a lot of the fun of trailers used to be that often, you never knew something was being made until you saw these coming-attractions previews. Now, it’s: ‘Oh, yeah, I remember that from the behind-the-scenes pictures online, or I knew that moment was coming from the set report they showed on TV.’ You’re exposed to so much more information now leading up to things. The way to keep things quiet is: Don’t publicise your movie while you’re making it. Don’t tweet about every single thing you’re doing during production right after you’ve done it. Keep the script to yourself, and show it only to whoever needs
to see it. It’s really that simple.

Do you feel more pressure on projects that nobody knows about? Or is there less pressure on this versus something like Star Trek?
With a film like that or the Mission: Impossible movie, it’s a little more intense, but the fundamental pressure is the same whether it’s a name brand or something unknown. Which is: Wow, I really hope I didn’t mess this up! [Laughs] But it becomes harder to get people into the cinema when, for most moviegoers, that title has no resonance – ‘Super 8? Is it some sort of a superhero movie?’ Really, it’s a complete cipher even if you’re aware that it’s referring to a film stock. We have great actors but no-one that’s a household name, and we’re not doing anything based on a pre-existing character or novel. There’s nothing here that you can rely on to generate interest simply by association.

Well, there’s your name as director, for starters. You have a track record now.
Yeah, but that’s different. I wouldn’t say that my name is a real draw. Steven’s name is by far the closest we have to that, and I’m praying that people find a reason to go see the film, whether it’s because Steven Spielberg is attached to it or something else. With the other two films I directed, I was lucky in that I had Tom Cruise and the Star Trek name to at least get folks in the door. This is a little tougher. I’m sure there are a number of people who hear Super 8 and think it’s a movie about a motel. [Laughs]

One last question, the number 47 shows up a lot in your work.
We’re curious… Ah, yes! I believe we managed to get it in here… Hold on. [Sound of script pages being shuffled] Yes, I can confirm it’s in here. I’d forgotten where we’d put it for a second, but I can tell you that it will be evident before the final credits roll.

Wow, you confirmed something!
But you won’t tell anybody, right? [Laughs]
Super 8 is released in cinemas this month.

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