The director was inspired by his own 1970s middle-school movie geekdom.
J.J. Abrams was bitten by the movie bug early. He was 9 when "Jaws" appeared in 1975, 11 when he saw "Close Encounters" and 16 when "E.T." landed. Now, with Steven Spielberg as producer, Abrams has written and directed a heartfelt homage to those formative experiences. Set in 1979, "Super 8" is a science-fiction action thriller that follows junior high movie geek Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) and his friends. They set out to make an amateur horror film but accidentally capture the most historic footage since the Zapruder film.
In a recent phone conversation, Abrams said that stepping onto the retro sets felt like stepping back 30 years into his own childhood: "It was a very specific and amusing time, being one of those outsider kids making those movies."
His young adulthood, "pre-girls, actually pre-anything complicated, was this weird, pure time. Yet even then there was a sense that it wouldn't last forever. So part of the beauty of making films as an adult is that it's a way of continuing that time that was so much fun."
The set designers covered the kid moviemakers' walls with many of the same movie posters that decorated Abrams' childhood bedroom, and filled the background with movie monster model kits from the Carter administration.
"One of the fun things about doing the film was I got to have these weird sense-memory flashbacks being on the set of these kids' rooms. The set dressing was so good that there would be details down to magazines or a TV Guide. I'd pick it up between shots and have a weird chill remembering reading the whole thing cover to cover when I was a kid. It was really surreal, frankly, working on this."
Newcomers in young roles
Even more important was assembling a cast of young actors who embodied the innocence of disco-era Americana. With the exception of Elle Fanning, the young actors are newcomers, gawky-looking guys who lack the Joe Cool self-assurance of many professional child actors. They make a convincing ensemble of nerds.
"We really did luck out with these kids," Abrams said. "A lot of them had never done anything before, let alone starred in a film. The beauty of that was they were kids who were really hungry to do a good job and didn't have any sense of entitlement or annoying attitude. In the audition process I can't tell you how many kids came in and you just felt like, 'Oh, God, this is a sort of professional person acting like a child, as opposed to a child." The first-time actors all became "fast friends," Abrams said, which made the filming process a pleasure.
"Super 8" is a love letter to filmmaking, and specifically to the mysterious alchemy of acting. In a remarkable performance, Elle Fanning shifts from being an unaffected kid to a riveting natural actress deep in her horror-film role and back again.
"Not only did she need to do that well," Abrams said, "but later in the film there's a scene where she gets emotional in earnest, and we talked a lot about it. She was 12 at the time. How was she able to understand the nuances of the nature of the emotion I needed from her? Why it was important, or even how to do it? And then she did do it. Every day on the set with her was a little bit of a miracle."
While his preadolescence was "massively inspired" by the movies of that era, making "Super 8" was never about regurgitating recycled scraps of old favorite films, Abrams said. The point was to tell a story of what it felt like to be that age in that time. "It was impossible to disconnect the influence of the films of that era from actually being that age," he said.
What kind of monster?
Abrams' conception of the film's extraterrestrial isn't as gentle as E.T. or the "Close Encounters" space travelers, nor as feral as Ridley Scott's alien. It's a multidimensional outsider that responds according to its treatment, a warning that human fear and hostility can boomerang disastrously.
"It needed to be incredibly scary and yet it couldn't just be a dumb beast. It needed to be sentient and dexterous and thoughtful and have sophistication. And it also needed to be ferocious," he said. "Essentially, the creature in this film needed to do everything that the actors needed to do, which is have a range."