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Gifted filmmaker JJ Abrams was recently in Australia for the premiere of Super 8, one of my favourite films so far this year. I was lucky enough to have a chat over the phone with him and here’s what he had to say…
You can download an abbreviated podcast of the interview by clicking here.
Matt: This morning I’m speaking with a writer-producer-director whose career keeps on climbing. He created television shows such as Felicity, Alias and Lost. On the bigger screen he’s directed Mission Impossible 3 and the latest Star Trek reboot. I’m excited because this is the first film that I’ve given an A-grading to in the last 4 months… so let me say good morning to JJ Abrams.
JJ Abrams: You’ve made my day. Thanks very much. It’s great to be here.
Matt: So many of the projects you’re associated with take this approach but it’s great to see a film withhold so much from the audience prior to seeing it. The posters give away nothing and the trailers are very cryptic. As the director, can you command that kind of control over the marketing and the promotion of the film?
JJ Abrams: Thanks for all that. The idea for Super 8 was to try and preserve the experience for the audience. I don’t know if you’ve ever had this but you see a trailer or watch a commercial and you literally feel like you’ve seen the whole movie and you don’t have a burning need to go see it.
Matt: I feel that all the time.
JJ Abrams: I just think it is a little overbearing and it speaks to an entitlement to information that people seem to have now with the computer age. For me, it’s not a question of being coy and trying to play it overly clever. It’s about saying “look, here are the characters and here is the situation.” Clearly we’re telling more as we get closer to the release but we don’t want people to feel the experience is spoiled before they’ve even been there.
Matt: I wish more filmmakers took that approach. I should ask though because I want to be careful not to give too much away about this film. What do we tell people that it’s about?
JJ Abrams: The story, which I’m happy to talk about, focuses on this kid in the late 70s in an American small town. He’s got a ridiculous group of friends that all make these movies on super 8 film. This particular boy, before the movie even begins, has recently lost his mother in an accident at the local steel film. He’s been left with his father with whom he doesn’t have a very strong relationship. He’s getting on with his life as best he can but he’s still devastated by the loss of his mum.
He’s with his friends making movies and while filming at a train station one night, they witness this crazy train crash. They don’t see what it is but something escapes from the train that will change everything in their town.
The story about this boy and the "creature" is really just a catalyst to tell the story of first love, the story of family, the story of going from a follower to a leader, and ultimately realising that you can go through a horrible tragedy and be stronger afterwards.
Matt: About half way through the film I was thinking that it reminded me of one of my favourite movies growing up, The Goonies. Please tell me you’re a fan...
JJ Abrams: I am a fan of The Goonies but it’s funny, I wasn’t a huge fan when I first saw it as a kid. I became a fan when I watched it with my kids. They just loved it and I had this newfound respect for it.
The thing that I loved about it was how wonderfully messy the dialogue was with the kids and how it constantly overlaps. It made that movie feel like it was real – the kids were acting like kids. If you’ve ever watched a bunch of kids hang out that age, they’re not polite and they don’t wait for the other one to finish before they talk. That was a great lesson from that film.
Matt: I want to give you as much credit as possible but I can’t help but mention these kids. They’re so relaxed and are having so much fun on the screen. How did you get them to do that and look so natural?
JJ Abrams: First of all, they’re just an incredible group. Part of it was casting kids that didn’t feel like professionals acting as children. We were lucky to find among the group Joel Courtney and Riley Griffiths, both who had never been in anything or even on the set of anything before this film. It was wonderful to work with them and allow them to bring a natural dynamic and personality to the movie.
It was just a blast to work with them and Elle Fanning is just “off the charts” brilliant. The whole experience was really wonderful with these actors.
Matt: Is there one of these kids that you moulded on yourself growing up and I can watch the film thinking that’s the young JJ Abrams?
JJ Abrams: The truth is that I'm like the kid who makes the movies but I was never as confident as he is. I was also like the main character but probably not quite as shell-shocked. I loved blowing things up too and filming them but I wasn’t as obsessed about it as Cary so I guess I’m somewhere in the middle.
Matt: I mentioned the posters before and one thing they do say in big blaring letters is Steven Spielberg’s name as he is a producer on the film. I know a producer can have varying roles on a projects but I’m curious to know how involved Spielberg was with this particular project?
JJ Abrams: You know I still haven’t met him…. just kidding. This movie would never have happened without him for many reasons and most are probably obvious. When I was a kid in that time making super 8 movies, the work of Steven Spielberg was a profound influence. The films he made, the films George Lucas made, the films John Carpenter made were huge for me and my friends.
As soon as I had this idea to do the film, I called Steven and asked if he’d be interested. He immediately said yes as he remembered what it was like to make the movies he did when he was a kid. Over the course of development of the script, casting, production, editorial, scoring, mixing… he was part of the every process and was incredibly helpful.
It is an Amblin film as was The Goonies and a number of other movies. It really allowed me to feel free to embrace the qualities of Amblin films – often involving children and stories of spectacle and other worldly events. They were stories about family and friendships that weren’t afraid to get emotional and pull at the heart strings.
Matt: Well you’ve done a fantastic job but I want to ask you one more question about what cool projects you’re working on that we’re going to see in the near future?
JJ Abrams: We’ve got Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol which comes out in December that Brad Bird is directing. We’ve got a couple of new TV shows – one called Alcatraz and the other called Person of Interest. We’ve got a number of other things we’re playing with in various stages of development that hopefully we can talk about soon. One of those is another Star Trek movie that we’d love to get up and running sooner rather than later.
Matt: When do you sleep? It sounds like you have so much on?
JJ Abrams: The hardest thing about sleeping is not my professional life but it’s having three kids – that’s what makes sleep so precious.
Matt: Well I’m sure they’re going to love this movie and JJ Abrams, thank you for speaking with us this morning.
JJ Abrams: Thank you so much for your kind words.
You can check out my review for Super 8 by clicking here.