No one plays their cards closer to the vest than J.J. Abrams, and that’s why “Super 8,” which arrives in theaters June 10, is still a bit of a mystery to most moviegoers even in this age of relentless ramp-up hype and show-everything movie trailers. The director of “Star Trek” and co-creator of “Lost” has only talked a bit about the film, but we know it’s a small-town coming-of-age story told against the backdrop of an alien-on-the-loose adventure and involves the spectacular wreck of a secret government train in 1979.
The filmmaker winces watching the marketing saturation of contemporary summer movies that may accomplish the job of filling theaters but also saps the magic revelation of movies — he misses the days when audiences bought a ticket and sat down in the dark both literally and figuratively: “To me, all people need to know is that it’s an adventure about a small town and it’s funny, it’s sweet, it’s scary and there’s a mystery: What is this thing that has escaped? What are the ramifications of its presence? And what is the effect on people?”
The title of the film is a reference to the Eastman Kodak film format that became a sensation with amateur movie-makers in the late 1960s and represented a rite of passage for several generations of aspiring directors, among them Abrams himself. The young characters in the film are making their own Super 8 movie when that mystery train runs off the rails, but the love of film and filmmaking in Abrams’ movie goes well beyond that. “Super 8” is laced with images that recall the movies of the late 1970s and early 1980s that were important to the director, who celebrates his 45th birthday this summer.
“It’s difficult to separate memories of being a kid in 1979 from the movies of the era,” Abrams said. “That was the year ‘Alien’ came out, it was a couple of years after ‘Close Encounters’ and ‘Jaws,’ and then were movies a couple of years later, like ‘Stand By Me,’ that were so impactful. There’s jumble of movies that I love, some of them the mainstream movies but also the gruesome horror movies that I loved so.”
Which of those films inform “Super 8”? Abrams was far more enthused about answering that question than revealing further details about his new movie.
“Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977) : “On the face of it, on paper, the story shouldn’t work. There’s a guy with a family who kind of goes nuts and leaves his family and basically leaves the planet by getting into a ship and taking off. How can you sympathize with that guy? You shouldn’t but you do. I love the multiple narratives that you follow, too. Another reason you think that in theory it shouldn’t work is that for much of the last act the characters are just watching things happen. You think, ‘That’s not the way it should work’ but yet you watch it and there’s this incredible, undeniable, massively powerful story. The brilliance wasn’t just the way it was directed but the story approach itself; it was so unconventional and massive in scale and jumping from character to character, country to country and point of view to point of view. And it all works.”
“Jaws” (1975): “It’s a movie that is just fantastic and again the story of the family and the characters is not just about the chase scenes or the moments of peril. And the lessons are there as well. The famous Bruce the shark story [about the balky motorized artificial shark] — if the thing had functioned more you would have seen the shark more — and it would have ultimately, probably, been less effective. The imagination of the audience is always infinitely more compelling than what you see on the screen.”
“The Thing” (1982): “I love that movie. Like ‘Alien,’ there’s a group of people isolated with this thing in their midst. One of the notable things is Rob Bottin’s unbelievable make-up effects that did things visually that just blew my mind and was so integrated with the intense drama of that paranoia of isolation and fear. There was a great score by Ennio Morricone. What I loved about that movie is it was so deliberate in pacing and so increasingly tense and disturbing and it uses morose, dark comedy in just the right way. Wonderful cast too. All the Carpenter movies really, ‘The Fog’ and ‘Escape from New York.’ I love Snake Plissskin.”
“Alien” (1979): “One of the brilliant things about ‘Alien,’ and it was a fairly new idea, was the weathered space-ships and this group of truckers, essentially, in space on these aged ships. The production design was this rough-around-the-edges look that was kind of a wonderful aspect to it. The movie was treated as a straight drama. It just happened to be in space with a terrifying monster on board. The production design and certainly the visual effects execution was completely engrossing. It felt unmistakably real. Clearly the H.R. Geiger design of the alien and the space jockey and all that stuff was incredibly creepy. And with the alien, the great lesson is, ‘The less you see the scarier it is.’ When you look at the deleted scenes from ‘Alien’ and there are shots — like that one where Veronica Cartwright is in the hallway and the alien stands up — that are patently unscary. You realize, ‘Oh, they had it but they didn’t use it because the creature is contained in the frame and just not scary.’ We’re learning that lesson on this movie. You get into a place where you’re able to see the alien a lot more because of the flexibility that certain visual effects give you. That’s not to say that’s the way to do it though.”
“Slumber Party Massacre” (1982): “This is a bit off the topic but my favorite soundtrack release was the soundtrack for ‘Slumber Party Massacre.’ The director was Amy Jones, who wrote ‘Indecent Proposal,’ but her brother, Ralph Jones, did the entire score — the entire score — on this Casio keyboard that was the length of your forearm and on crystal glasses. He would play the top of the glasses and this keyboard. That was it. It was the craziest soundtrack ever. It was like music you listen to when you get a massage mixed with, like, a cat walking on an organ.”
“Scanners” (1981): “The David Cronenberg movie ‘Scanners’ was a massive influence on me. I became obsessed with it. It’s a very disturbing film. At my building, when you come in there’s a big framed poster for Ephemerol, the drug from the movie. Dick Smith did the make-up and I was a fan of his already because of ‘The Godfather’ and ‘The Exorcist’ and we actually mention him in ‘Super 8’ just because he has been such a huge influence on me.”
“E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial“: “The influence of that movie on most people from my generation is enormous, really, and it’s hard to separate my life from that movie and imagine what it would be like without it, it’s so fundamentally important. It’s such a sweet story, it’s beautiful. I love it. With ‘Super 8’ it’s very hard to make a movie about kids in 1979 and an alien presence and not have it feel like it’s territory that’s been covered before by my producer [Steven Spielberg]. It’s a film, really, about divorce, not about an alien. It works but you still wonder: Will the audience feel like any scenes that don’t include someone getting snatched or some frightening beast, will they feel bored? Will they feel not compelled to watch because it feels like fodder between the interesting stuff? The irony for me is those are the scenes I care the most about. I like to believe that the audience anticipates that you’re not watching these scenes for no reason and there’s a sense of inevitably and the paths will cross. The scenes of characters who are not running for their lives makes you care about them when they do run for their lives.”
— Geoff Boucher
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