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J.J. Abrams Talks Spielberg, Child Actors, and Monster-Making

Jun 06, 2011 | 4:18pm EDT

AbramsSuper8.jpgWith his sprawling Spielbergian throwback, Super 8, finally ready to hit theaters, writer-director J.J. Abrams took time out of his busy schedule yesterday to chat with a handful of journalists via conference call. Here are some of highlights:

On Super 8’s ultra-secretive development and production:

The idea was really just to try and maintain a certain level of discovery for the audience, so that we didn't give them the literal plot synopsis in every piece of material we released, whether it was a trailer or commercials or clips. One of the tricky things about this movie was that it's a combination of genres. There are kids that share the spotlight and in fact own it for quite a bit of the film. So there are definitely a lot of challenges to selling the movie. But one of the things that drives me crazy is seeing a trailer and feeling like I have no real need to see the whole movie now because they just showed me everything. So the goal was really just to try and to keep things more fun for the audience when they actually come and see the movie.

On the film’s viral marketing campaign and the philosophy behind it:

A lot of it’s about just asking ourselves what we would really like to see, what would be fun to do if we were just movie fans out there. It’s something that no one is being compelled to do, no one has to do, no one is being forced to do, but if you like it, great, but if you don’t, you don’t even have to know about it.

On the extent of producer Steven Spielberg's involvement:

Steven was involved in the early stages of laying out the plot. I worked with him on the story, on editing the script, casting, during production he watched dailies and came to the set a few times. He was filming his own movie but he still came by a few times, which was great. In post he spent some hours with me in the edit room and was incredibly helpful with that because it was a real challenge to sort of structure the thing. In post, we had a bunch of second-act things we needed to figure out and he was really helpful with that. He came to the recording session for the score one day and a couple days during the mixing stage. It was one of those things where I was amazed at how available he made himself to me and to this movie. One of the fun things about working with him was always knowing that I could email him or call him and ask him his advice on a scene we were going to shoot or something that we'd cut together and get a response from him. There were times in the editing room where we would be sitting there and he would say, "You know what I would do? I would …" and he would suggest whatever. And I'd laugh inside because I just can't tell you how many times I was working at any stage and think, "What the hell would Steven Spielberg do?" So to have him actually just sitting there saying, "You know what I would do?" it was kind of unbelievable.

On the writing process, the challenge of creating authentic characters, and the difficulty of reconciling the story’s different genre elements:

It definitely was a crazy challenge. I think the key to any writing is to write what you believe, and sometime it’s about listening and getting to know how other people talk, so that when you are writing you feel like you can sort of channel attitudes and voices. These kids, obviously, felt crazy familiar to me, and so writing them was much easier than it otherwise might have been. But the hard part was just combining narrative element. I never wanted this movie to feel like Scooby-Doo, where the kids were suddenly investigating and having an impact on the story that wasn't commensurate with who they actually are in the world – meaning they couldn't stop this thing, this creature, from doing it wanted to do, nor could they help this thing to do what it wanted to do. I didn't think they were strong enough to get in the way of what the military or the local police or even local residents were doing. They were kids, and so they needed to, in a weird way, remain in the periphery for much of the second act of the movie. It meant a totally staggered narrative, which is what the character's father picks up and is shouldering for the second act of the movie, which is forty-some minutes. And so that character needed to be someone who you didn't mind being with, you kind of connected to, and at the same time identified as a broken guy who was not necessarily the most sweetheart to his son, particularly after the death of his wife, the kid’s mom. So that was a challenge, but luckily we had Kyle Chandler, who is so crazy watchable that I think he’d make even a serial killer someone that you wouldn't mind hanging out with. A lot of the narrative work was trying to balance the kids being the lead storyteller and force of the narrative, and handing it off in a way to the dad for a while, as the kids were kind of just kids, and then let the kids pick it up again towards the end of the second act, which becomes more of their story again. So it was really a weird experience, a very unlikely structure for me, but something that was a fun experiment. And again, having Steven Spielberg around to work on this was a priceless benefit.

(Caution: Minor spoilers ahead!)

Abrams2.jpgOn the design of the creature:

The creature, it was a tricky thing, from the story, to make it work. It had to be something that you’re afraid of, and yet, the reason it was in the movie is that it's serving as a kind of physical manifestation of the struggle going on inside this boy who has lost his mother, and the idea of confronting this thing, the inevitability of having to confront this thing, really marks the inevitability of having to deal with that loss and figure out a way to get past it. So by having to confront and see this thing that's the scariest thing in the world, by definition, means that this creature needs to be terrifying. Having said that, all of us find on some level that once you actually confront the thing that is the most scary to you, it's never exactly as you imagined, and it's often survivable … The cliché of what doesn't kill you makes you stronger is sort of the point, meaning that this creature needed to have nuance and be something that wasn’t just a chest-pumping beast. It needed to be scary, but at the same time it needed to get to a place where it was less scary. That's not to say it was ever going to be a 180 and suddenly become E.T. and adorable and loveable and cuddly. It was never designed as such.

On working with a cast of primarily younger actors:

As a father of three, the idea of wrangling these kids felt familiar to me. Steven gave me great advice, which was: you can give them line readings if you need to. You can actually tell them how you want the line read, which I would never normally think to do, but actually it was great advice. I used that a bit. Another great piece of advice I got actually was from Ron Howard, who I just asked, "You were a kid actor, what did you have or use or do or wish you had?" And he said that one of the great things he had on The Andy Griffith Show, and also had on American Graffiti. was there were people who would run lines with them, the young actors, and they would just continue to run lines so that when they got to the set so that they were completely prepared to jump in.

In terms of my style, I think you direct everyone differently. Every actor sort of requires a different rhythm and different amount of attention. These kids were so great that my big fear was getting in their way. I wanted to make sure I kind of let their dynamic live and breathe in the movie so that when I said “action” they didn’t suddenly shift into other people, that they were able to maintain significant elements of their own personalities and let that shine through. Otherwise I think it would feel disingenuous.

On Super 8’s film-within-a-film and the kids’ involvement in writing it:

I always knew that I wanted to have the movie that they were making shown during the credits of the movie. It was one of those things that, you go through the whole movie and not really think about it, and to be able to see what all that effort was about, I thought it was a fun idea. They didn’t write and direct it, but the wrote some of it, some of the scenes. For example, I would go to them and say, “Here’s this situation, go off and write the scene.” And they would go off and do a pass on the scene and come back. Part of it was trying to get them invested in the movie itself.

Super 8 opens everywhere this Friday, June 10, 2011.

Click here to watch our exclusive interviews with stars Kyle Chandler, Elle Fanning, and the rest of the Super 8 cast.

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