J.J. Abrams unveils his most personal film with 'Super 8,' in which he takes us back to his own geeky boyhood love of monsters, things blowing up and the magic of making movies.
Like many of us, Abrams grew up with films like 'Close Encounters' and there are definitely Spielbergian echoes in 'Super 8,' partly for the simple reason that Steven Spielberg himself produced. But Abrams insists he's doing more than an homage to those classic films of the '70s and '80s.
If anything, Abrams says that 'Super 8' is a "weird autobiography" about his days as a model-building, disaster-movie-loving, explosive-wielding kid. He talked to Moviefone about finding the right kids for the job, how 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' fits in, the 'Star Trek' sequel and whether 'Cloverfield 2' is happening.
Moviefone: Is this is your homage to films like 'Close Encounters' and 'E.T.'?
J.J. Abrams: It's not intended to be an homage. It is, without question enormously influenced by that time and it literally is a Steven Spielberg–produced film. But yes, it is meant to evoke a time that I experienced as a kid.
You've said that this movie is kind of a "weird autobiography" for you. Which kid are you most like or are you all of them?
I'm definitely the kid who was making the movies, Charles, but I felt like I experienced the world through the eyes of Joe, the main kid. I was also the kid who would take apart firecrackers and roll my own and blow up models and film them. In a way, I feel like I know all these kids and some are me and some are friends I had, but they're all very familiar to me.
Was setting it in 1979 part of the original inspiration?
Part of it was that I wanted the movie to be about these kids making films using Super 8 and that was sort of evocative for me. And then that meant setting it in a time when that film was being used. And it just felt like the movie was a late '70s or early '80s film.
You would have been almost 13 in the summer of '79. How nostalgic was this for you to go back and revisit that time? Did your room look just like Charles' or Joe's?
There were elements for sure. There were certain posters that I had in my room that Charles has and there were certain models that I made that Joe's making. It wasn't an exact replica or anything, but it was a sense-memory, crazy flashback experience in the kids' rooms.
Tell me about your relationship with Steven Spielberg. When did you first meet him?
I met him in '89 at a story meeting for a potential 'Roger Rabbit' sequel. It was something that I was crazy excited about. In fact, afterwards, I remember driving home and calling my friend, Matt Reeves -- and sort of losing my mind that I had just had a meeting with Spielberg -- and I got completely lost. I had no idea where I was driving.
How did it get to the point where you're making movies together?
I got to know him a little bit over the years. He introduced me to Tom Cruise, which is what led to me being asked to direct 'Mission Impossible 3.' As we were developing that movie and Tom was shooting 'War of the Worlds,' I got to know Steven a little bit more and we became friendly. When I had this idea for 'Super 8,' I called Steven and just said, "Listen, this could be cool," and he was excited about it and so we started working on it.
Did you talk about the fact that there are elements of 'Close Encounters' and some of his other films in there?
Oh sure. Obviously, he's not a stranger to films about kids in suburbia in the '70s and '80s. Nor is he a stranger to films about aliens or crazy happenings. The beauty was, from the beginning, it felt like a movie that was very much in the Amblin wheelhouse. So working with him actually was sort of liberating. It freed me to make choices I probably would have been more self-conscious about making had he not been involved.
You mean in terms of doing something really reminiscent of his films?
Yeah. Just the idea of wanting to do aliens or monsters or creatures among us in an American suburban town in the '70s. Many of his films shared elements that this movie visits. I hope that when people see 'Super 8,' they realize it's not just a Xerox or a film just aping other movies. The heart of the movie involves these kids and their parents and each other. But clearly, it's influenced not just by Steven's movies, but films by John Carpenter. I was so influenced by their movies as a kid, it felt like the appropriate thing to use them in this film.
Besides those, what other films inspired you as a kid to make your own movies?
I remember seeing the Charles Laughton 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' and just being heartbroken by the story and the makeup effects in it. I remember seeing all those Irwin Allen disaster movies and thinking, "This is the greatest movie I've ever seen!" I love early Japanese Toho monster movies. And then as a teenager, I was seeing horror films and loving the idea of scaring the hell out of people. I've been involved -- or obsessed, I should say -- with movies since I was very little.
You mentioned the 'Hunchback of Notre Dame.' I didn't think of it while watching the movie, but your creature has a lot in common with him.
There's definitely something about the misunderstood, freakish-looking thing being held up somewhere and wanting something that is universal. In the case of Quasimodo, it's love, in the case of my thing, it's something else. The idea of watching people react in a sort of paranoid, terrified fashion to the thing they don't see or don't know feels real to me.
How hard was it to find the cast, especially the kids?
It was tough. Finding kids who you believe and empathize with and love is tricky. It's hard to find kid actors who simultaneously have the chops and who have the innocence. You have to feel that they're soulful, real kids, and those kind of kids probably haven't worked before. We brought in -- no joke -- thousands of kids and when we found Joel Courtney and Riley Griffiths and the rest of them, we brought them back in a dozen times each to put them though paces. We wanted to make sure they could deliver on set, because there was no evidence they could do it, other than taking a flier and trying out things in auditions. And as a group together, they were even better.
You've got so many projects going on now. Is there going to be a 'Cloverfield' sequel?
We're definitely still talking about that, but we'd want to make sure that built on and that was better than this one. We [Abrams, Drew Goddard and Matt Reeves] are trying to figure out the best way to do it. There's a couple of ideas we all love, but we wouldn't want to do it, unless it felt like something that ... [was worth doing].
How do you keep your projects so secret?
Frankly, part of it is just not hiring publicists to put information out. The idea is kind of, if you keep your mouth shut, typically no one notices and then you just go and do your thing. A lot of it is just about trying to focus on the work and not about getting the word out prematurely. That's my big thing. I don't want people to feel like they've seen the film before they've seen the film.
Out of all your projects, is there one that's closest to your heart?
Honestly, 'Super 8' was the closest to my own geeky, personal life experience. Working on this was unlike 'Mission' or 'Alias' or 'Lost' or 'Fringe' or 'Star Trek,' which were all kind of fun experiments in what life would be if you were a spy or an adventurer or in space or a weird scientist. 'Super 8' was very much emotionally connected to my own experience, so that felt like the most personal in a way. Although what ends up happening to these kids is something I never went through myself. [Laughs.]