Steven Spielberg: ‘Super 8’ is the first true J.J. Abrams film

June 02, 2011 | 9:29 a.m.
super 8 Steven Spielberg: Super 8 is the first true J.J. Abrams film

J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg on the set of "Super 8" (Francois Duhamel /Paramount Pictures)

There are plenty of stories with Hollywood endings — this is one with a Hollywood beginning. A new J.J. Abrams film called “Super 8” reaches theaters on June 10 with a coming-of-age story about young, amateur filmmakers who film a spidery space alien on the loose in Ohio during summer 1979. For people who know the 44-year-old Abrams, that plot seems only slightly more fantastic than the real-life, three-decade story that led to the film.

“The craziest thing is that it’s true, it actually did happen,” says Damon Lindelof, who collaborated with Abrams on the landmark ABC series “Lost” and the hit 2009 film “Star Trek.” “The more you know about the story, the crazier it is to see this movie coming out now.”

“Super 8” was written and directed by Abrams, but it was produced by his childhood hero, Steven Spielberg, and at times feels like a $50-million valentine to that older filmmaker’s movies about aliens, family and family alienation. Their cross-generation collaboration on the film began, technically, two years ago when Spielberg took a call from Abrams, heard the proposed title and agreed on the spot. But, as Lindelof alluded to, the project also has a spiritual history that traces to 1982 when an article was published in this newspaper under the headline “Beardless Wonders of Film Making.”

The story was pegged to a festival at the Nuart Theatre called “The Best Teen Super 8mm Films of ’81” and, as the name suggests, it put the spotlight on acne-aged auteurs who made backyard movies but dreamed of studio soundstages. The most ink was given to Abrams, then just 15, who said: “I see stuff by Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter, and I want to do it too. I’ve always wanted to be a director. I did a clay animation thing on my parents’ home movie camera when I was 7, and I’ve been making films ever since.”

j j abrams on super 8 set Steven Spielberg: Super 8 is the first true J.J. Abrams film

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

The newspaper reached the office of Spielberg and his assistant, Kathleen Kennedy, who soon was reaching for the phone. Kennedy, who would later be one of Hollywood’s elite producers, had an unlikely job offer for Abrams and his pal Matt Reeves, another teen filmmaker quoted in the article. Would the pair be willing to do the frame-by-frame repair work needed to save the frayed and fragile 8mm movies that Spielberg had made in his youth?

This was less than a year after the release of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” so it’s a bit shocking that Spielberg’s team, with all of its resources, would entrust the one-of-a-kind artifacts to some wide-eyed kids. But that’s just what happened, and the fragile reels soon arrived at the Santa Monica home of Reeves (who, by the way, would go on to direct the cinéma vérité of monster movies, “Cloverfield,” and last year’s well-regarded “Let Me In.”).

super 8 1 Steven Spielberg: Super 8 is the first true J.J. Abrams film

Left to right: Ryan Lee plays Cary, Joel Courtney plays Joe Lamb, Elle Fanning plays Alice Dainard, and Riley Griffiths plays Charles Kasnick in"Super 8." (Paramount Pictures)

“On one hand it was unnerving because the movies we were repairing were documenting the earliest work of one of the greatest filmmakers of all time,” Abrams recalled. “On the other hand it was weird to see that his movies were as rough as mine in a way and as rough as my friend’s in a way. It was heartening and also somehow scary. ‘How could he have made movies where the cuts look like that?’” One reel was “Escape to Nowhere” from 1961, which presented a World War II firefight with kids in khaki scrambling through the desert scrub of Arizona, where Spielberg spent a chunk of his childhood. The second was “Firelight” from 1964, a science-fiction story about a small town beset by mysterious alien kidnappings — not unlike the new film called “Super 8.”

Abrams grew up in a show-business home — his parents, Gerald and Carol Abrams, are producers, he with more than 50 television-movies credits, she with a Peabody Award on the shelf — and the industry always nearby for the boy, with writer-director Nicholas Meyer attending his bar mitzvah and special-effects pioneer Douglas Trumbull (“2001: A Space Odyssey”) sending a warm note of encouragement when he was 11. It would be wrong to say the Spielberg reels showed Abrams the industry door. They did, however, widen his view.

steven spielberg Steven Spielberg: Super 8 is the first true J.J. Abrams film

Steven Spielberg (Evan Agostini/Getty Images)

“It gave me this bizarre sense of connection to a man whose work I loved,” Abrams said, sitting and chatting at Bad Robot, the Santa Monica offices that are like some sleek museum of the pop culture past with vintage toys, movie props, board games and other florid relics. “Watching what he did at literally the same age, it galvanized this connection that was neither truly justified nor earned but I felt it toward him as a person.”

The connection is visible to others, too. In 2006, when Abrams inked a $55-million production deal with Paramount Pictures and Warner Bros. Television, Paramount chairman Brad Grey described him as a triple threat as writer, producer and director. “We think J.J.,” Grey said at the time, “is the next Steven Spielberg.”

This is the summer of Spielberg in some ways, but isn’t it always? As a producer, the 64-year-old has his name on Michael Bay’sTransformers: Dark of the Moon” and Jon Favreau’sCowboys & Aliens” as well as “Falling Skies,” the TNT series that launches June 19. Of all of these projects, only “Super” bears the name of Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment, a nod to the depth of his involvement.

super 8 3 Steven Spielberg: Super 8 is the first true J.J. Abrams film

Kyle Chandler as Deputy Jackson Lamb in "Super 8" (Paramount Pictures)

Spielberg says he has watched the career of Abrams with interest — the television success with “Felicity,” “Alias” and “Lost” and the feature-film directorial debut with “Mission: Impossible 3” in 2006. He’s also been a mentor; Abrams said that when he was weighing the offer to direct “Star Trek,” he turned to two people, his wife, Katie McGrath, and Spielberg. “And,” Abrams said, “they both said to do it.” Abrams is now weighing the decision whether to direct the “Trek” sequel, but even if he does, Spielberg said the much smaller film arriving on June 10 will be the true signature moment for Abrams.

“Even though J.J. is seasoned from television and certainly from two humongous productions, to me, and I say this selfishly, this is J.J.’s first real film,” Spielberg said. “A film that came out of his heart, that he wrote and directed and it isn’t part of a franchise that was once someone else’s television series and brainchild. This is pure J.J.”

Perhaps, but it’s not clear this movie as a commercial enterprise could ever match “Trek” ($386 million in worldwide box office) or “Mission” ($398 million) with its lack of stars and somewhat elusive premise. The movie isn’t tracking especially well in surveys of potential moviegoers, no surprise considering the fact that is a rare bit of mystery in this popcorn season of sequels, prequels and remakes. Then there’s the movie’s visual and spiritual romance with movies such as Spielberg’s “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” and “Close Encounters of Third Kind” and Amblin’s “The Goonies.”

super 8 2 Steven Spielberg: Super 8 is the first true J.J. Abrams film

Left to right: Zach Mills, Elle Fanning, Riley Griffiths, Ryan Lee, Joel Courtney and Gabriel Basso in "Super 8." (Francois Duhamel/Paramount Pictures)

Richard Corliss in Time posted a piece today calling the film a “scary, artful new thriller…the year’s most thrilling, feeling mainstream movie” and points to “the medley of tropes from the films of Spielberg’s early prime” with scenes that evoke not just the director’s sci-fi films but also “Jaws,” “The Sugarland Express” and even “Duel,” the 1971 made-for-TV movie. Corliss sees nuances in the tribute but not every one else does; after seeing the scenes of feathered-hair boys on bikes, mysterious lights in the sky and government flashlights in the night, on-line reviewer Devin Faraci wrote that the film never works completely except as “cheap nostalgia porn.” It’s a line that will make Paramount Pictures executives shudder, but Spielberg is unfazed by that sort of talk. He also said that reflections and refractions are the nature of filmmaking after a century of the art form and he finds that compelling, not concerning.

“I was interested in how J.J. was going to use all the movies that have influenced him since his adolescent years into his first real, original screenplay. We’re all responsive to all our influences. My movies are all very beholden to Walt Disney, Alfred Hitchcock and David Lean. All of us have to go back to the generation that we grew up with, and we’re influenced by all that, and it comes out in the wash. I just happen to be in the generation of filmmakers — including Rob Reiner, who made ‘Stand by Me,’ that played a very important role in how ‘Super 8′ turned out, certainly as much as ‘E.T.’ and ‘The Goonies’ and the movies from my Amblin years.”

super 8 4 Steven Spielberg: Super 8 is the first true J.J. Abrams film

Left to right: Kyle Chandler, Joel Courtney, Elle Fanning and Ron Eldard in "Super 8" (Paramount Pictures)

The film started as separate projects. When Abrams called Spielberg two years ago with a movie called “Super 8,” there was no sci-fi element; the movie was going to be a pure coming-of-age tale. Abrams said some frustration followed because “it lacked a higher purpose” in its plot and felt a bit aimless. The movie needed “the dead body” that drove the story in “Stand by Me” or an equivalent, Abrams said. Abrams visited Spielberg almost weekly on the Los Angeles set of his upcoming film, “Tintin,” and the pair debated the best way to “find a big audience,” as Spielberg said, with a small-town film. They decided to mash up the story with a genre film. For a moment they flirted with a heist movie motif, but then Abrams thought about another one of his back-burner projects, an alien-on-the-loose story that was wanting for memorable characters.

“One of things that J.J. wanted to do with this is he didn’t just want make a movie about a group of kids who in the process of making a little 8-millimeter drama discover a tremendous event — the biggest event in the world — J.J. from the very outset was talking about a very interpersonal story about families,” Spielberg said. “One family has suffered a tragedy, the other has suffered a breakdown. That’s the context of the movie.”

Spielberg was especially seized by the idea that a snippet of “Zapruder-type footage” would unlock a mystery in the movie, and Abrams found special satisfaction in making the film a carefully appointed time capsule. The casting process was grueling — Abrams knew that a movie without stars and a half-dozen youngsters at its center could fly off the rails with a misstep. Spielberg says he “feels a duty to help people I truly believe in,” whether it’s granting Sam Mendes and Mimi Leder their first film directing jobs, giving Favreau a master course in John Ford westerns or working with Abrams – it’s his way of paying forward the break he got from Universal Television’s Sid Scheinberg in 1969.

super 8 5 Steven Spielberg: Super 8 is the first true J.J. Abrams film

The finished film is, in a way, three stories projected on one screen — the history of Spielberg, the childhood of Abrams and of the characters from the script. The huge train crash in the film, for instance, takes on different shadings when you find out that the first movie Spielberg remembers watching in a theater was Cecil B. DeMille’sThe Greatest Show on Earth,” which featured a spectacular collision of trains. It was later that the youngster carefully set up his Lionel train set so he could film his own wreck. In a moment of epiphany, the boy realized that with three cuts (train going left to right; train going right to left; trains crashing) he was telling a story with moving pictures.

For Abrams, “Super 8” is his most personal film, but he acknowledges that many of his defining personal moments came while sitting in the dark watching the visions of his producer. And that inspiring season in 1982 when two reels arrived in his home like artifacts from another world that he desperately wanted to visit.

“It was more than seeing someone’s movie and saying, ‘You know, I bet I’d get along with him.’ It was more than seeing a painting and thinking, ‘I bet I know what matters to that artist.’ This was an oddly personal thing never intended for viewing at least not in the context I was seeing it in. I always kept that in my heart and head.”

— Geoff Boucher


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29 Responses to Steven Spielberg: ‘Super 8’ is the first true J.J. Abrams film

  1. marmy says:

    This will be worth the ticket and especially the popcorn if Spielberg is this heavily involved. Yes indeed!

    • I agree! It's a film I've had on my radar for quite some time now. That is, I had written in the opening into my Google Calendar, so I was sure not to miss it. I've liked the movies that Abrams has done to this point, so there's no reason why I wouldn't like this one. In fact, because it's sci-fi-esque, there's more reason for me to like it! :-)

      With Love and Gratitude,


    • Richard says:

      part 1. Here is some interesting backstory to the backstory. I grew up in Scottsdale with Steve Spielberg and we even played Little League together (along with Alice Cooper, former VP Dan Quayle and baseball HOFer, Jim Palmer, but that's another story). There was only one Little League in Scottsdale at the time so kids from all of the area played at one location. Steve wasn't very good (and Danny Quayle was a cry baby and Jim Palmer was a mommy's boy … and Vince (Alice) could run like the wind.)

    • Richard says:

      part 2. I got my first 8MM camera from a contest with the Coca-Cola Hi-Fi Club and starting making little movies in 1958. I was making a cowboy movie and then an alien movie with some of the local kids. Dad had a nice camera and splicer so I used his splicer to edit. I showed my movies on dad's projector to the local kids and they were big hits.

      When I heard that Steve was making an Army movie, we all went to see it … I think he even sold tickets. It was a goofy as ours but it was fun to see some of our friends in his movie.

      Seeing Super 8 was a great flashback to that time. Being set in 1979 rather that 1958 didn't change a thing because we went through the same things only with a different backdrop in time.

      Steve was is in a different part of Scottsdale when he did his Army movie.

  2. olundp says:

    Great piece.

  3. Sophie says:

    Ohio in 1979? The whiteness is blinding. Also after reading about JJ Abrams' background, it's a little disappointing. He was an insider from the start.

  4. bcc says:

    I appreciate all the backstory here on a creator whom I have always admired but whose work has sometimes seemed quite oblique to me; thus this does feel like a breakthrough moment. Nice ender too, about how Abrams was frustrated, wanting to tell more of a story that what happened to some kids and deciding that family dynamics was the way to go. Yes.

  5. Shumway says:

    Abrams films would be slightly more tolerable, if he didn't overuse the shaky hand held camera technique. As it stands, his stuff is unwatchable.

  6. Edward says:

    I've had this film on my radar for months now and look forward to it. It seems to be the right blend of nostalgia (ditched school early to see Raiders of the Lost Ark opening day) and Abrams high octane.!/EdwardLazellari

  7. noah says:

    The brown haired kid thats the son of the sheriff used to be my friend. So its really exciting to see this movie come out.

  8. Myles Miner says:

    This may or may not do Star Trek numbers but it's futile to compare them anyway. Hollywood bean counters ruin films because they're only worried about what's safe and predicable. JJ is giving us something not based on a franchise and for the most part original and everyone's comparing it to Star Trek numbers. Just enjoy the film. Super 8 will resonate with those of us in our early to mid 40's when this type of film was made. Many of us filmmakers credit Spielberg as the origins of why we make films. His films, especially his early ones as JJ noted, were so powerful to create such inspiration, something lost today. I plan on seeing only two films in the theater this summer, Super 8 and The Tree of Life. Sorry bean counters. As for Devin Faraci, take a look at his IMDB and marvel in the many films he has MADE and been part of. He rarely gives good reviews anyhow. GIVE ME THE NASTALGIA PORN!

    • just saying... says:

      Nice write up Myles!

      And, P.S.: don't count out this movie resonating with those of us in our 20s, too…even us girls, hee hee ^_^

      The viral, ARG and promo pieces to this film have been nothing short of A. MA. ZING. The backstory and insight they provide into the movie are perfect counterparts to the foresight and forward thinking that went into putting them together.

      Rocket Poppeteer (fictional past) slushies @ 7-Eleven (present)?

      A contest to win a real chance to go into space (both the past wonderment that initially surrounded space travel and the futuristic feel that's always inherent in anything space-related)?

      A contest to win an iPad (present/future technology) for creating a short film that will somehow tie into the Super 8 camera (past)?

      And, if the name Josh Minker doesn't mean anything to you, get on it before the release! Talk about bridging the past and present, and even sort of setting up a potential story arc set in the present/future.

      Seriously, I don't know if it's just b/c of the technological advances, or if Abrams is just that deep, but Spielberg's promos around his tentpole/event films were never this immersive (don't get me wrong…still love me some Spielberg!).

      June 10th can't come fast enough!!!

  9. mICHAEL wILSON says:

    I already seen SUPER 8 in a private screening and it sucks don't waste your money..Abrams movie sucks!

  10. Heather says:


  11. Molly says:

    They filmed SUPER 8 in my hometown so i am really excited, and hope its good, they were all over town which was neat, can't wait to see all the local extras!!!!!

    • Bill says:

      I am from that area when I was growing up and into my adult years. Now live in Vegas. You have to be proud that it was film in Weirion. IIn the summers of 64-69 I worked at Weirton Steel when they hired college student and family member to work the summers. What a boost for the communities of Weirton and Steubenville.


  12. Chuckster says:

    See it for what it's worth, don't expect it to be a block buster movie. It's about a kid making an amateur movie, just like what Steven Spielberg or JJ Abrams were making at that age and then something unusual happens, it's just about almost every teenager's fantasy to have something like the fictional story of this movie happen to them.

    The problem is most people think a movie has to be a block buster epic to be successful. They think if it doesn't have huge box office numbers it's a flop. This is not true, several of the movies that we now think of as great classics did poorly at the box office.

  13. DTucker says:

    It reminds me of when ET was coming to theaters for the first time. You were just as frightened as Elliot. Also just as excited

  14. BAR says:

    "Spidery space alien." Thanks for spoiling the creature in the first paragraph! Unbelievable. I'll bet Mildred Patricia Baena wouldn't have done that in a movie review. No wonder I can't read the LA Times anymore.

  15. Bill says:

    I can not wait to see this movie on Sunday . It was filmed in Weirton WVa and that bridge the boy is riding his bike,bI use to travel that bridge everyday to work in the summers in the late 60's . I am also proud to say that my son who still lives in Weirton hosted some of the production crew when they were filming the Weirton scenes in the fall of 2010. WOW I am proud even if some people slam the movie. You still have to be proud that they are still filming movies in the Weirton Steubenville and Wheeling area. From Deer Hunter to now Super 8 . These towns need the booster since most the steel mills are almost gone now.

  16. halfmountain says:

    I just saw the movie, & I really liked it, & it is not my normal type of movie. I really liked the nostalgia, & the deep connection between the characters.

  17. chelsea carr says:

    i can't wait for the film on the DVD ok i like the film it is really good super 8 is really good and i like the kids in it ok xx

  18. Roscoe Whitsett says:

    For an in-depth look into J.J. Abrams' circle of Super 8 auteurs in the early '80s, check out this article on The Longwell Files blog.–….

  19. jerroldphotography says:

    I saw this film on DVD and I thought the family element was a good way to tie the chracters together. I also was on the edge of my seat to see what the alien looked like.

  20. antoine bingelrade says:



  21. sammy says:

    i know people communicate but i just want to talk about the movie. i love this movie so much i saw it three times in theaters and got it on dvd on opening day and next day watched it over and over. the reason i love it so much is because its a s.s. production. this movie inspired me to become a director when i get older and my dream is to meet jj and s.s.

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  23. max says:

    hey does ny one know what cameras the kids used (both of the cameras)

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