J.J. Abrams – Super 8

In the late 1970s, J.J. Abrams and his friend, Matt Reeves, were novice Super 8 filmmakers in Los Angeles when they received a call from Steven Spielberg’s office. The director had seen a photo of the boys in an article in the Los Angeles Times about young people and their hobbies, which happened to be the filmmaker’s passion when he was a kid, so he asked if they wouldn’t mind cleaning up some of his own boyhood films. So it was, at the age of 13, that J.J. Abrams first crossed paths with Steven Spielberg.

Wind ahead a few decades, and it’s obvious that Abrams, now a hugely successful writer/producer/director with an uncanny sense for popular culture, has never stopped learning from his hero. With hit television series like Felicity, Alias, Lost and Fringe, as well as blockbuster feature films like Mission: Impossible III, Star Trek and Cloverfield (directed by Reeves), Abrams has become one of the industry’s most complete cinematic showmen, whose only real peer, some would argue, is the master himself.

With his new film, Super 8 (Bad Robot/Amblin), Abrams gets to return the favor, bringing Spielberg, who serves as a producer, into his world. A visual and kinetic moviemaker who loves technology – both new and old school – Abrams keeps the focus on his characters and their story, despite their explosive surroundings.

Matt Hurwitz caught up with Abrams while he was editing his new super-secret sci-fi thriller – the plot of which has been kept as tightly under wraps as the cargo that careens off a train in Super 8’s spectacular opening action scene – to talk about working with his mentor, and how Abrams loves to involve his audiences by keeping the camera moving.

ICG: What do you remember from your days making Super 8 movies? J.J. Abrams: It’s all I really did back then. I would go to restaurants, ask if we could shoot scenes, and then bring friends in and shoot stuff. I’d do chase scenes that went all over the place and crazy stunts. Once, my dad came in and was watching something I was editing. He got furious with me, because I had a friend hanging over a 4-story parking structure. It was a dummy that we’d rigged with fishing lines, so the legs would kick. But it looked real! And my dad was enraged that I would risk a friend’s life for a movie. I had to prove to him that I would never do that.

You had an early interaction with one of your film heroes. Matt Reeves and I were asked to repair some of the films that Steven Spielberg had made when he was a teenager. They found us through this article in the Los Angeles Times, after the Super 8 Film Festival at the Nuart Theater in West L.A. that Matt and I were in. It was essentially re-splicing these films that Steven made when he was 16 or 17 years old. Firelight and Escape to Nowhere [known to fans as Spielberg’s precursors to E.T. and Close Encounters]. It was very…strange, and that was the first time I got to have any interaction with him, though we didn’t actually meet until years later.

What’s it like to go from fanboy to colleague and peer? Well, it’s impossible to separate my life experiences from the movies that he has made. But in terms of being a fan who became his friend, it is an absolute privilege to get to work with someone who has had such a profound effect on so many people. I feel like every time we collaborate, every time we work on a scene or a cut, I’m reminded why he is who he is. I’m incredibly grateful that he would collaborate with me on this, and do so actively and with such support and conviction. Of course, because he’s done movies in this genre so many times, it was a bit surreal working together. I would reference movies that I would normally reference, and they would all happen to be his! I mean, it was almost embarrassing – I would be, like, “I swear to God, I’m not mentioning this because you directed it, but…”

How was Spielberg helpful as a producer, a role that you yourself have been in for so many years? He was helpful in specific things, like, creature design. He was helpful in casting; he was helpful in the development of the script and the story, and talking things through. We met countless times over the script. The cuts of the film, he’s given notes, he’s sat with me in the editing room. He’s been everything you hope a producer would be.

Did you tap him for ideas on the set? He came to the set a handful of times, and each time he was there, I would always say, “What would you do?”  And, on a couple of occasions, he specifically said, you know, “What about a shot like this over here?” And, of course, you’re like, “That’s fantastic!” Steven is so comfortable as a filmmaker and has so little ego. He mentions one idea, and you know there are so many more where that came from.

Super 8 features a cast of young kids, an area Spielberg knows a bit about. Yeah, he gave me insight into how important it is, after you’re done shooting, to make sure the kids know how much you appreciate them. It can be a real let down, after the shoot is over. You’re off editing, and it’s all over for them, in that regard. He also gave me a great piece of advice with regards to directing children. He said: “You can give kids line readings. It’s not like working with adults. You can really tell them what it is you want it to be.”  That was a big help because I would normally not do that.

There’s a magnificent train crash sequence, which fans have been ogling for months, via the trailer. The crash itself is probably just under two minutes, but it’s so much more than that. And it’s not so insanely long that you would feel, at a certain point, “Are you kidding me?” I think part of the fun of it is that the experience is supposed to be done as subjectively as possible, so that it’s less about the reality of how many seconds a train crash would last, and it’s more about the experience of these kids during this crash. I didn’t want to previz and storyboard the whole thing. I wanted to let it play out, having been to the set and shot for a number of days, and getting to walk around, think about what it was going to be like, particularly after they redressed it with the debris. I did very rough thumbnail storyboards, and that was helpful. But I knew that there were going to be a number of shots that were going to be completely CG, so integrating the kids into that world was my focus. It was also important that there’d be moments within the crash that are rhythmically different. If you compare the scene to one big drum solo, you can’t just play the same thing for two minutes. You need to make sure you have moments on the Rototoms, then it’s about the kick drum and the snare, and now, you’re hitting the cymbals. It was important that the crash have different flavors, in spite of being a giant, crazy piece of mayhem.

How do you ensure moving the camera is truly part of your storytelling? Obviously, the goal is to always to get the coverage that the scene requires. Sometimes the scene requires hyper-kinetic action, and other times it requires absolute stillness. But it’s always about trying to tell the story in the most emotional way possible. So there are some shots where you want to start off with a giant mass of people from 50-feet high, and by the end you want to be right up close with your two leads, moving through a crowd with them. There are other shots where you want to establish the location, and do a medium master before you come in, and by the end of the shot, have a closeup of your hero. These are things that certainly the Technocrane allows. But cutting out of a Technocrane move can feel jarring, unless you’re cutting in to something that has an equal sort of energy, which is what we tried to do. If you can compose and choreograph a shot in such a way that by the time you’re done you’ve done the work of a couple of setups, that’s a great thing.

You introduce energy by moving the camera in different ways. Like pushing the camera in through a busy foreground, right up to your subject. The fun of moving through a shot is not just to prove that you got the crane to do it or the dolly track, but that it provides a kind of 3D experience for the audience, without having to do 3D. Having something that is a point of view, and pushing through some foreground to take advantage of the parallax, activates the audience’s brain, because they really feel, “Oh, I’m moving through this space.” And you don’t need glasses for that. It allows you to move through the Z-depth of the shot, not just the X and Y.

What about moving the camera counter to the movement of the actors? When someone’s moving around a space, to move counter can whip the background in a cool way, almost like a blur. It sort of doubles the energy, because if you were static, and you’re just panning with the person, that’s one thing. But if you’re actually countering them, it makes the background increase in speed. And there’s a kind of energy that is fun.

Adding camera shakes has become a J.J. Abrams hallmark. [Laughs] I’m guilty as ever of grabbing a hold of the mag and giving it a good shudder!  A lot of times, it’s because there’s a certain type of high-frequency vibration that a shot can benefit from. And it’s funny how when we don’t have it, we will end up adding it later to give that sense of energy. As if to say that what’s happening [in the scene] is so intense it’s actually causing the operator to lose control. Of course, when using a Steadicam, or even working handheld, the operator cannot do those high-frequency vibrations because either the rig will absorb it, or they themselves will. What you end up getting are these gross motor function shakes, and not those insane, teeny, high frequency vibrations that, to me, are the difference.

You’re also a big fan of working old school – like “poor man’s process” for shots of people in cars, with electricians up on ladders waving lights. There are definitely a lot of computer graphics in this movie. But there’s nothing better than doing it in camera. So there are certain stunts and “poor man’s process,” as you say, certain shots that could have been done with adding extras, all in the camera. We used the residents of Weirton, West Virginia [where Super 8 was filmed]. There were just a bunch of things that we did that I think end up looking more real. And in a movie like this, where there’s a science fiction element, real is your friend.

Writer/producer/director – what’s it’s like to wear so many different hats? I’m just as lucky as I could possibly imagine to be part of any project, whether I’ve written it, produced or directed it. I get to work with people like [cinematographer] Larry Fong, who I’ve known since I was 13. I mean, Larry’s the greatest. And he’s so talented, and to get to work with him again and his camera team is just…[pauses]. I don’t find myself anything but consummately lucky.

How did those Super 8 movies you made as a kid impact this film? That was a funny time. It was something that felt like a job, in the best possible way, even when I was a kid. Meaning, it was like the dream job that I managed to do myself. To get to use my dad’s camera – or, later, when my grandfather bought me my own, was incredibly fortunate. I started making movies when I was 8, so to be 11 or 12 or 15, or whatever, and to be making movies for half your lifetime!  I remember being in high school, and doing these movies, and it really was a lifesaver. It let me escape into some kind of other place and gave me a sense of purpose. And that’s pretty much how I still feel, which is that I get to, at the moment, at least, work on movies and stories that I can sort of lose myself in. I just cannot imagine a better job.

Interview by Matt Hurwitz. Photo by Francois Duhamel.