J.J. Abrams

The Super 8 director talks secrecy, Spielberg and the joys of amateur filmmaking.

Photo Credit: Francois Duhamel

There's a group of kids tooling 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? the polar bear from Lost?—escapes into the night. That's all that can be gleaned from the trailer for Super 8, the latest action movie from director J.J. Abrams (Star Trek); other than those details, however, little else is known about this super-secretive summer blockbuster, and its creator has gone to great pains to keep things on a need-to-know basis. TONY spoke to Abrams on the phone and tried to pry loose a few tidbits.

Time Out New York: So, without ruining any major surprises here, what can you tell us about Super 8?
J.J. Abrams: [Warily] What kind of things do you want to know?

Can you confirm this is a sci-fi action movie...one that might be compared 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. You know, trying to get your friends to take things seriously, when it's really like, "Jump out from behind that tree!" [Laughs] 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. That was a huge part of the fun of making this movie, going back to that period of my life through these kids. I think Steven felt the same way.

Your movie's trailer suggests a return to the sense of wonderment that Spielberg conjured in his films all the time. Do you feel like that particular quality has been missing from the blockbusters of the past five or ten years?
I think some films have captured that quality. One of the best parts about watching Inception is not so much that you're seeing these worlds being created, but the reactions that Ellen Page's character has to them. She's genuinely amazed! I do think that you can still tell stories about extraordinary things happening to ordinary people, and that some films have taken you on that ride really well. Movies can still make disbelief seem beautiful and thrilling, I'd argue.

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? Do you miss the days when mystery was a key part of going to the movies?
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—and then you had all these speculations and hopes about what the actual movie would be like when you finally would get to see it. 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; you've essentially seen the movie before you've seen it. The way to keep things quiet is: Don't publicize 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 and straightforward. This way, people are hopefully leaning in when something is said about your film, because they're still curious about it—instead of leaning back, because they're already inundated with way too much information about it. You don't have to talk your film to death before it's even out.

Do you feel more pressure on a project like this, in which nobody knows anything but you still have to sell it to the public? 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: God, I really hope I didn't screw this up! [Laughs] But it becomes that much harder to get people into the theater 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 preexisting character or novel. There's nothing here that you can rely on to generate interest simply by association.

Well, there's your name, 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. I'm 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 actually confirmed something!
But you won't tell anybody, right? [Laughs]

Super 8 opens June 10.