What Is Super 8?
Back in 2009, JJ Abrams had a problem. Off the back of the blockbuster success of Star Trek , he had an idea for his next picture. But not a whole idea...
"It was something about about a train transferring contents from Area 51, but I didn't have any characters," JJ tells TF.
As problems go, it's hardly a catastrophe. Especially when it isn't your only idea...
As a kid Abrams, like his heroes Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Robert Zemekis, made films on a Super 8 camera.
A cheap, mass-produced home video solution pre-loaded with 50ft spools of 8mm film, Super 8 cameras were a fixture of the American household between 1965 and the early '80s, when VHS rose to prominence.
JJ called fellow director and friend Steven Spielberg to discuss this other idea.
"We started talking about the kind of films we love to see and the kind of films we'd love to make together someday," says Spielberg.
"We landed immediately on our mutual history of making 8mm films. We both thought it would be cool to make a movie about young people having an adventure making movies."
So now Abrams had an idea with characters, but no story to drive it.
Bingo! The train.
"I had a premise without characters and these great characters that needed a premise. So I thought if they came together it could be a compelling movie."
JJ picked up the phone...
Close Encounters Of The Bearded Kind
JJ Abrams first met Steven Spielberg when he was 15. He and close friend (and Cloverfield director) Matt Reeves had entered movies in a Super 8 film festival and were featured in a Los Angeles Times article.
Impressed, Spielberg had then assistant Kathleen Kennedy call the pair and ask if they were interested in repairing his old 8mm films.
So at just 15, JJ took a job cutting together Steven Spielberg's old 8mm home movies.
Many years later, it was JJ calling his mentor to talk about Super 8.
"When JJ came back to me and suggested taking the idea of kids making Super 8 movies and blending that with a larger sci-fi event, where something appears in their film and sets off a crisis," recalls Spielberg, "to me, that was really intriguing.
"I felt it was going to be both a movie about '70s movie-making culture and it was also going to be about what all that led to."
With The Beard on board, it was time for JJ to start working on the script...
"Working on the script was trial and error, typical development of a story," JJ tells us, brushing over months of hard work in his rapid-fire, self-deprecating style.
"Steven was very helpful on that." he adds. "The time he spent working on this movie blew my mind because he's got so much going on, how could he possibly find time?
"Yet he would sit for hours going over the script. It was surreal for me, and really a privilege."
During the writing process, Abrams was careful to weave the spirit of hand-made moviemaking through the script. He not only wanted the finished film to bring back memories, but also to parallel the way he and Spielberg used to make films.
This 'spirit of storytelling' (as he puts it) is central to his process. The story comes first.
"It's about creating an illusion that feels real, trying to scare people, trying to make them laugh, to make them feel something," JJ continues. "All that is the same for us now as it was then."
He was also careful to keep the story a close secret, noting the difficulty of doing so in an age of instant information where it's a full-time job keeping the audience in the dark until the movie begins.
"I think if you can create something original and not spoil it for the audience beforehand, the experience is so much stronger," says JJ.
"Ultimately, once we had a draft we realised that this film would only work if we had the right cast."
And with that, the casting process began...
The Kids Stay In The Picture
"We started seeing kids, and months and months and months went by," Abrams recalls. "Finally we found these amazing young actors, who were just really terrific."
Elle Fanning, the fast-rising young actress who impressed in Somewhere, and the most experienced of the younger actors, was cast as star Alice.
"I remember meeting with JJ for the first time, I was so nervous," Fanning tells TF. "He didn't spill any secrets about the movie, he just said 'I'm doing a movie with a girl in it', and that's about it."
"Later on I auditioned with all the boys, so he could see us all together. Then he called each one of us personally to tell us we got the part, which was really cool of him."
"It was really fun 'cos this was my first movie. I didn't know what to expect," says Joel Courtney, who had no professional acting experience when he was cast in the lead role of Joe Lamb, a Deputy Sheriff's son reeling from the death of his mother.
"I was down in LA with Joel and JJ told us we got the part" says Ryan Lee, who plays Cary, the mischievous pyromaniac with a penchant for cherry-bombs and firecrackers. "JJ came up to me and said, 'Ryan I need to talk to you...' all serious, and he was talking in this sad voice so I was bracing myself for bad news, and then he said, 'Ryan, do you want to be in Super 8?'
"I was like, 'Heck, yeah!'"
Also cast was Riley Griffiths as Charles, the thinly veiled Spielberg/Lucas Jr, who has roped his friends into helping him make a Super 8 zombie film, Gabriel Basso as slow-witted actor Martin and Zach Mills as sound-man Preston.
With the young parts in place, JJ started looking for their folks...
Meet The Parents
"When JJ Abrams calls, I'm there straight away!"
We're talking to Kyle Chandler, who plays coach Eric Taylor on TVs Friday Night Lights, and who fanboys will recognise as actor Bruce Baxter from Peter Jackson's King Kong .
Chandler plays Deputy Sheriff Jack Lamb in Super 8 , father of Joe and recently widowed after an accident at the steel mill kills his wife.
The relationship between father and son forms one of the central plotlines of the film.
"I didn't see the script before we went up to start shooting, it was a secret." Chandler says. "But when you've got a situation like this, where it's JJ Abrams and Steven Spielberg, it's so easy to easy to say, 'General, here we go, whatever you want, you got'."
Joe and Jack aren't the only parent/child dynamic in the film. Ron Eldard ( Black Hawk Down , Mystery Alaska ) was cast as Louis Dainerd, Alice's troubled, alcoholic father.
Veteran actor Noah Emmerich (he's been in everything but is perhaps most recognisable as Jim Carrey's best friend in The Truman Show ) was drafted in to play a US Air Force officer charged with covering up the train wreck that throws the small town into chaos.
True Blood fans may also recognise Jessica 'Nan Flanagan' Tuck as Charles' mother.
With the cast in place, Top Secret JJ Abrams Project rolled into production...
Back In Time
Super 8 takes place in 1979 in a small Ohio town. From the get go, every effort was made to transport the audience back to the '70s.
Cinematographer Larry Fong ( Watchmen/300 ), a longtime friend of Abrams going back to his 8mm films, and production designer Martin Whist ( Cloverfield ) were charged with creating the feel of a film made at the end of the '70s.
For his young stars, Abrams was instrumental in helping transport them back in time.
"None of us knew what a Super 8 camera was," says Elle Fanning. "So he came in and showed us the camera, and said, 'This is how I used to make films.'
"When you see the movie and you see all the kids' bedrooms, there's so much detail, with the posters and everything. That's how JJ's room was. The face that he grew up in that time helped make it all authentic.
"JJ is like a big kid as well. He's really cool, but he's always thinking. You can see in his eyes that he's always thinking about the details."
"Whatever film you're doing", says JJ, "Whether it's Star Trek or Super 8 , you're serving the master of the story.
"Every part of a film needs to be realised as it requires, not as I require it."
And for a story with this much adventure and magic, the film required a set to match...
"It wasn't really like going to work, it was like going to hang out with your friends on the coolest playground ever," says Joel Courtney, talking about the West Virginia location where Super 8 was filmed.
"All the sets were incredible. I was on wires one day, running through explosions the next. It was so much fun."
And it wasn't just the young people on set who enjoyed themselves... "JJ is like the 7th kid!" laughs Ryan Lee.
"He's so funny!" adds Riley Griffiths, who followed the director around set for weeks, picking up his mannerisms to use in his role as director Charles.
"He's got such an amazing sense of humour. He's very serious about his work, but he does it in such a fun way that the whole time it felt like we were just hanging out.
"We got to do all of our own stunts - run through explosions and everything, which is every teenagers dream."
The adults were also inspired by their fearless leader.
"JJ is a very inspirational guy to watch, not just in terms of how he works with actors, but in how much he shares," says Kyle Chandler. "It's a collaborative. He wants you to succeed.
"It's a real testament to watching JJ work with the kids, because they weren't more as actors than kids. I think that's where those performances come from."
As Abrams had learned from his mentor on 8mm, so he took the chance to steer some proteges of his own using the same medium, leaving the content of the titular Super 8 movie within a movie to his young stars...
The Movie Within
The central conceit for the film sees the gang (Joe, Charles, Cary, Martin, Preston and Alice) making a Super 8 zombie movie.
Abrams decided early on not to write a formal script for the 8mm film, but to let it emerge organically from the imaginations of his cast.
The gang film several scenes for their movie during the first half of Super 8 , starting with the train crash, and then using the wreckage and military presence as backdrop to scenes to add 'production value' - micro-auteur Charles' obsession.
"I just watched how JJ directed, and transferred it all into Charles," says Riley Griffiths. "He told me all about Super 8 cameras and how they work, and that he had one as a kid. It was pretty cool."
The director is full of praise for the actor. "Riley had never been on a set before, so it was a big challenge for him, but he came in and was amazing."
Producer Bryan Burk was also impressed: "They had an amazing knack for filmmaking. What I'm excited about with Super 8 is that young people might see it and be inspired to go and make their own movies."
With the 8mm film in capable hands, JJ turned his attentions to crafting a character driven, human film into the kind of thrilling adventure he'd grown up watching.
To do that, he turned to an old idea, one that has served him well through the likes of Lost and Cloverfield ...
The Mystery Box
'The mystery box' has long been Abrams' way of explaining the idea that people are most compelled by an unseen mystery.
"A movie should have the unpredictability of an unopened box, out of which absolutely anything could emerge," he explains.
For Lost, the mystery box was the island itself. For Super 8 , it comes in the form of a secret cargo being transported via train by the US Air Force.
When the train crashes in catastophic fashion, the Unseen Thing is unleashed. But keeping the mystery in the box has been a full time job for the filmmakers.
Everyone involved agreed that it should be kept hush-hush until the last possible moment, so that audiences have the chance to be startled.
In an age where trailers give away the best parts of most films, it was this mystery that Kyle Chandler found most attractive about his role.
"After a while I stopped asking questions. If my character didn't know something, then I didn't want to know either," he says.
"There are so many elements to it - the pace of the script, the mystery... But at the core of it is pure character development, and that's what makes it feel magical."
As true as that may be, any time a production involves this level of secrecy, from Cloverfield to Nolan's Batman series, it only makes fans more rabid for information.
And since the early teaser trailer premiered, only one question has been on film fans' lips...
What's In The Box?
Last December, images were leaked purporting to be creature designs from Super 8 .
The pics were apparently intercepted from Super 8 vfx provider ILM, and had the internet abuzz with chatter, as blogthirsty fans speculated over the pictures.
Whether the images are accurate is not for us to say. But to focus so much on the mystery might mean you miss the forest for the trees.
Super 8 may be a movie with a monster in it. But it's not a monster movie.
"It's a human story. Even if you took away all the action, it's about relationships between fathers and their kids, and it's a love story, it's about finding your first love," says Elle Fanning.
"JJ has created a story with all these little moments of honesty and change and growth, with the characters surrounded by this beautifully shot film with wonderful special effects," adds Kyle Chandler.
"He created a story that doesn't manipulate our emotions, and that's good storytelling. It's all deserved, it's all honest.
"When you see the final film you see the sum of all the parts, and it's beautiful."
Super 8 is released in UK cinemas August 5 2011.
What's in the box?