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November 22, 2011

‘Super 8′: J.J. Abrams on the big lessons of small budgets

Posted in: Movies

J.J. Abrams grew up in the entertainment industry and he’s a father himself but during the filming of “Super 8″ — which arrives this week on home video — the director discovered early on that working with young stars created a special brand of filmmaker anxiety. Our Geoff Boucher caught up with Abrams last week to chat about that and the overall experience of making the film that earned $259 million worldwide despite a lean production budget of $55 million — which may sound like a lot until you consider the fact that “Green Lantern” cost north of $200 million and took in $219 million in global box office. (Note: This interview took place before Abrams spoke to the Los Angeles Times for an article about the criminal background of Jason James Murphy, a casting consultant on “Super 8.”)

super 8 5 Super 8: J.J. Abrams on the big lessons of small budgets
J.J. Abrams directs his young cast on “Super 8″ (Paramount Pictures)

GB: I know you’re getting ready soon for a Los Angeles red-carpet event for the home-video release of “Super 8.” Watching your young actors at that and seeing them go through the experience of the film’s success must be satisfying for you. It also must remind you that at the beginning of the shoot you weren’t so sure everything with your youthful ensemble would go so well.  

JA:  It’s incredible, especially given some of the questions I remember the actors asking me at the very beginning — really fundamental questions that made it clear how new they were to the process. The whole thing is gratifying now because I realize that they have had a little mini-education — as have I — and partly because they are still so young and new to this and even after [the success] they are still really good, kind, ethical, grateful people. There are so many nightmare scenarios in movies and the thing that I was really proud of was the way they maintained their innocence and openness and kindness. Those were huge reasons they were cast in the first place; they weren’t professional sort of mini-adults.

GB: When it comes to bang-for-the-buck, this movie looked bigger on the screen than it did on paper. There were movies that cost four times as much or more released during the summer. Has this experience amplified your interest in doing smaller, more nimble movies? Also, the conventional wisdom is that you can take more risks with a smaller budget. Did you find that to be underlined by this experience?

JA: We had a movie come out this summer starring Joel Courtney and Riley Griffiths. I don’t know how many other movies have done that. And the fact is that, having done it for $55 million and not $255 million, it let us make a movie about a group of kids and in [the late 1970s, which is] not a time period that is particularly marketable and with some story lines that were about young love and parenting issues and friendship. Certainly, having [producer] Steven Spielberg’s name on it and the fact that it was a movie about an alien that may or may not be friendly as well as a couple of visual effects sequences, it wasn’t as if the studio didn’t have something to market. But there’s no way the studio would have let us make this movie if the budget was as big as a lot of the movies being made these days. To me, I’d love the ability to spend even less than we spent on this movie on something. Look, if it’s $55 million, that’s inexpensive for a summer studio film but on the other hand you could probably make 20 movies for that amount of money about other subjects that are worthy. I hope to make movies that are so small they don’t need to make anything to be profitable. At the same time, certain things, like say a “Star Trek” film, would be hard to imagine doing for a small budget. I would love to make something that happens not to involve things from other planets. I do love genre films and I certainly don’t feel like “Oh, I don’t ever want to do that again.”  I’m open to whatever comes next. I love movies with spectacle but spectacle can be a performance, it doesn’t have to be a creature.

GB: The Blu-ray release of a film these days is really the director’s way of framing the film for posterity and the audience of the future. With that in mind, tell us something you like about the home video release of “Super 8.”

JA: One of may favorite things about it is the behind-the-scenes featurettes are probably my favorite ones I’ve been associated with, especially the Larry Fong magic feature. Larry is the [director of photography] on the movie and this amazing magician and he literally does magic  nonstop during the entire shoot. He’s a friend of mine since I was 11 or 12 years old and getting to watch him be a ridiculous magician is one of my favorite things. It’s fun to see the behind-the-scenes stuff of Joel Courtney being in his first movie, too, and I love seeing the piece on the score of the film. There’s a whole piece about the train crash sequence and how we put that together. The experience of making this movie, the actors, the great crew, it was a really special experience and having that documented behind-the-scenes was very gratifying.

— Geoff Boucher

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