J.J. Abrams: Seven films that shaped ‘Super 8’

April 22, 2011 | 1:42 p.m.
j j abrams on super 8 set J.J. Abrams: Seven films that shaped Super 8

J.J. Abrams on the set of "Super 8" (Paramount Pictures)

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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20 Responses to J.J. Abrams: Seven films that shaped ‘Super 8’

  1. Jay says:

    Huge fan of J.J. Abrahms… First got interested in Abrahms when he did Alias. That was a classic! Then it was Lost with all it's twists and turns. Also loved his work in the movies via Star Trek. My wife went on a datenite and we had a super time. Now I'm glued to Fringe which he also created. J.J. Abrahm's is the next James Cameron!!! Can't wait to see Super 8!!!!

  2. Horace Austin says:

    SUPER 8 trailer looks good. The film is a priority. Now, the other trailers here bring me back to my childhood. CLOSE ENCOUNTERS has a trailer that's nearly 5 minutes long. Interesting way to promote a film. The SCANNERS trailer gives you the memorable shock scene. Reveals too much for my taste. ALIEN: oh my god, I love this trailer! 2 minutes with no narration, no dialogue and no Alien. Yet, creey as hell. The best trailer of all time.

  3. Solaariz says:

    Super 8 fans

  4. tillzen says:

    We read you and are simply gifted by the visions we all seem to share but only you artists can mold from potatoes?
    That Spielberg Sky at night. Tim Burton's anytown / anytime.
    You make the movies we made as kids on Super 8.
    My nephew shoots them now on the ALWAYS profitable Flip-Video.
    And your art improves our lives. Now STFU and make better movies; those not Abrams or Nolan.

  5. Rick says:

    Does anyone care that the Abrams family is almost entirely responsible for "run away production" in the early 2000's? This guy and his daddy Gerry Abrams take full credit for starting the "Shoot in Canada" to save money concept that did such financial damage to Hollywood.
    Check out "Location Update" magazine October 2000 issue.

  6. Rick says:

    Does anyone care that the Abrams family is almost entirely responsible for "run away production" in the early 2000's? This guy and his daddy Gerry Abrams take full credit for starting the "Shoot in Canada" to save money concept that did such financial damage to Hollywood. Check out the October 2000 issue of "Location Update" to see their own words admitting what they did.

    • Joseph L Cooke says:

      The unions drove movie making to Canada, but the reason productions should return is that footage from Canada has yet to be attractive as SoCal.

      • Rick Davis says:

        The unions had zero to do with runaway production-I.A.T.S.E. is just as strong in Canada.
        It all had to do with greed on the part of Producers. Plain and simple. You have absolutely no idea what the situation was/is if that is what you think went down.
        The rates at that time were much less, combine that with the exchange rate and tax incentives offered at the time and you'll start understanding the reason the producers went up there. Also, they were "buying out" the actors- meaning they did not have to pay them residuals. I should know, I worked up there quite a bit.
        I always hated enabling greedy producers so I chose not to work there anymore.

  7. Jen says:

    Can't wait for Super 8, and love how JJ has made it spoiler-free.

  8. Joseph L Cooke says:

    Please, JJ, shoot in full color with no blue tint effect.

  9. Kat says:

    AWESOME trailer for Super 8. JJ Abrams rocks: Alias was such fun, I really miss that show and the Star Trek movie was PERFECTION. The casting and back story/introduction of each familiar and dearly beloved character was flawless. I've seen that film 10 times (I know, get a life) but it's a tribute to Abrams' exciting storytelling. Can't wait for super 8.

  10. Gary says:

    You might want to change the video you embedded as "The Thing" preview because it is a fan made trailer containing only about one actual scene from John Carpenter's The Thing

  11. Mark says:

    JJ Abrams will never make a film as good as E.T., CE3K, The Thing, Alien or Jaws. He's nowhere near as talented as Spielberg, Scott and Carpenter.

    Comments like 'JJ Abrams is the next James Cameron' really are ridiculous.

  12. Super8 "Chase" says:

    Finally the world of Super8 magic gets the big screen treatment! And who better than Spielberg as guiding light…. Here's how a Super8 movie looked like back in the day when, as a young kid, I made this 3 minute epic called CHASE complete with exploding cars and helicopters! All shot on the family home rooftop!…

  13. Tmiller says:

    Everything he mentioned is great, except "Close Encounters." That movie is overrated.

  14. MARK GEORGEFF says:

    Abrams has the talent and passion an work ethic and most important…imagination as an audience member first and foremost, to become a great, great storyteller, as a movie maker.

    Agreed with his list of films except for SLUMBER PARTY.

    Can't wait for SUPER 8.

  15. joe35 says:

    I'm baffled by what people apparently see in this guy and his work. To suggest he's even somewhere near the same level of talent and creativity as Steven Spielberg is insulting.

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