J.J. Abrams Pulls Back the Curtain on ‘Super 8′

·Managing Editor
J.J. Abrams
J.J. Abrams

For movie fans who grew up in the '70s and '80s -- myself included -- seeing the logo for Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment at the end of the credits was always the perfect capper to a cinematic experience. The simple animation of the bicycle flying past the moon (with E.T. in the front basket, naturally) at the end of a Spielberg production like "Back to the Future" or "The Goonies" was indelibly planted in the minds of countless little future geeks -- again, myself included.

J.J. Abrams was another budding cinema fan who idolized Spielberg since childhood, so when he became one of Hollywood's hottest directors, he decided to make a film that would stand as a tribute to the films he grew up with. But instead of just copying Spielberg, he worked with the man himself. The result was "Super 8," which Spielberg produced and Abrams wrote and directed. And, of course, it features that classic Amblin logo.

With "Super 8" now available on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital download, I spoke to Abrams about the best advice he got from Spielberg, lifting the veil of secrecy he likes to work under, and what having the Amblin brand on his movie meant to him.

Matt McDaniel: I watched "Super 8" again on Blu-ray, and it really holds up to repeat viewings. Is that a particular focus of yours?

J.J. Abrams: You hope that whatever you're working on is something that will sustain, but clearly there is no — I am not sure that there's any sort of trick to that other than you try and do things that you think, "Oh, this is something that is being referenced that people won't get on first viewing, but if they watch it again, it will have more meaning."

So little tiny, subtle, stupid things that don't necessarily need to be there, but you realize later actually had some importance can be enjoyed in a different way the second time you see it. But I think what you're describing is mostly about characters, -- meaning actors who bring it to life that you relate to and hopefully that's something that "Super 8" has.

MM: It's well-known that you keep a premium on secrecy before the movie comes out and tried to let as little out as possible. Is it a relief then after the movie comes out, that you can talk about it and open up?

JA: It is! It's funny. The only reason why I try to keep quiet about things is just so that people can actually enjoy the experience of seeing a movie and not feeling like they've already heard so much about it that they don't need to see it. But it's a weird feeling because sometimes when a movie comes out, it's been something that the people working on it know intimately but it's been the kind of secret. And suddenly you're sharing it with everyone, and it's sort of this weird tidal wave of awareness and questions about this thing that just the editors and producers and crew and actors knew about. So it always strikes me as a little bit of a sudden step into sunlight from a sort of dark cave.

MM: So once the movie came out, were there specific reactions from fans that you saw that surprised to you, that you weren't expecting it to be interpreted or taken in a certain way?

JA: Well, there were certainly moments in the movie that I hope people would see and I didn't know if they would respond to that they did that I was thrilled about.

For example a little thing, there is a scene where they are on the train platform, rehearsing before the train crash, and Zach [Mills] -- the kid who plays Preston -- goes and he is acting as an extra in the movie and is like pretending to talk on the phone. And it was really funny how he did it, but it was so in the background. It's always one of those things that just made me laugh. but I thought, "Well, no one is ever going to be looking at that or noticing it," and at every screening people responded surprisingly vocally to that little moment.

So there were things like that. There were teeny detail things and I thought, "Well, I hope people get it." Then there were larger things like hoping people would understand that the creature in the movie was really kind of a representation of the loss of his mother and what that meant for the kid. And I was pleased to hear anecdotally that people did pick that up, and that it resonated for them. So of course, not for everyone, and yet I was just happy that people seem to pick up on the theme to the movie.

MM: When it comes to little details, I noticed this time around that in the dinner scene at the beginning, my family had that exact same casserole dish. So were there specific period signifiers that you wanted to use, and other ones that you didn't?

JA: Oh! Yeah, sure, how old are you?

MM: I am 35.

JA: Yeah, see when I was growing up, there were certain things that my family had, my grandparents had in their house, and they are invisible to you growing up because they are just sort of what they are. And then as you get older and time passes and you start to realize that the kind of, I guess, the kitsch value of some of that stuff. It was important to me that the world -- the kid's rooms, the living rooms -- feel accurate. And because I grew up in this era it was very easy to look at set design and have a very strong opinion very quickly, simply because I knew what I'd seen at my home, my friend's houses. So there were details, things in the kid's rooms certainly that I knew I wanted in.

And then what was great was as I was describing the kind of stuff, we had this amazing production designer and set dressers so that what they ended up bringing to the sets were things that frankly often I had forgotten about completely. And I can sort of pick and choose what stayed and what would go away. And it was really kind of a weird revisiting of the time in my life that inspired the movie but you can't remember every detail. And then when you start to see these toys, these games, these puzzles, these books, these posters that you knew you had or your friends had, it was kind of uncanny.

MM: There was a lot of talk about the Spielberg influences on the story and the look, but I found one of the strongest ones is just these great real performances from these young actors. Did he offer you any sort of thoughts on how to get the best out of sort of untrained kids like that?

J.J. Abrams
J.J. Abrams

JA: We did offer quite a bit of advice that was helpful. One of the best piece of advice I think was that when you've got young actors that as a director I should feel more comfortable giving line readings when necessary, because it's an easier and faster way to communicate with the kids what you are looking for. And it's not like you are dealing -- especially with the kids who have not done it before -- that you are not dealing with adults who have decades of experience and would somehow take it as an affront to give them a reading like that.

So that was kind of one helpful piece of advice that certainly did save some significant time in terms of being able to explain what a certain moment should be in a scene. But as I say, the great thing about Steven is he is so wildly supportive and helpful with as a producer in every aspect of production that I wouldn't even know where to begin in terms of the stuff that he offered that I learned from him over the course of the movie. So his support is something that I am forever indebted to him.

MM: I just saw "The Adventures of Tintin," and like "Super 8," at the beginning, there is that Amblin logo and there is almost like this Pavlovian response when you see that.

JA: Yup. [Laughs]

MM: What did it mean to you to have that at the beginning of your movie?

JA: Well, I think that "Super 8" was the first time the Amblin logo existed at the head of a film and -- first of all it was a ridiculous honor to be able to have made a movie that the intent of which was to be an Amblin film, to have it then literally be an Amblin film was incredibly surreal. Growing up with Amblin as one of the main suppliers of and companies responsible for entertainment that my friends and I looked forward to and enjoyed. It was kind of amazing to be part of that legacy.

And then of course, because the movie is a Spielberg production, because whether it's "E.T." or "Close Encounters" or "Poltergeist" or "Jaws," or any other movie that clearly was at least partially an influence for this movie. It felt like it was a way of taking what was the theoretical intent of the movie, which is, "God, it'd be great to make a movie that felt like one of those movies I used to love -- an Amblin movie."

And it literally blessed it as one of that library of movies. Obviously, in the range of those movies whether it's "Gremlins" or "*batteries not included" or what have you, there are so many movies that Amblin was associated with, and to be able to make a movie that if you would have a shelf in your library of all the Amblin movies, I can say it's an honor to be among those films.

Watch the Blu-ray trailer for "Super 8":