A soft spot for an old technology led to J.J. Abrams' latest film

by Rick Bentley

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

7 June 2011

Director/writer/producer J.J. Abrams on the set of "Super 8," from Paramount Pictures. (Francois Duhamel/Courtesy Paramount Pictures/MCT) 

LOS ANGELES — J.J. Abrams has embraced the most advanced technology to make TV shows like “Lost” and “Fringe” and movies like “Star Trek.” He’s pushing boundaries again in his latest feature, “Super 8.”

And yet, Abrams still has a soft spot in his creative soul for what now looks like primitive technology — Super 8mm movies. He holds the film format — created in 1965 — in such high regard because it provided the first outlet for his creativity.

“There’s something about looking at Super 8 films that is so evocative,” Abrams says during an interview at the Four Seasons Hotel. “You could argue it’s the resolution of the film somehow because they aren’t crystal clear and perfect so there is a kind of gauzy layer between you and what you see.

“You could argue it’s the silence of them. You could say it’s the sound of the projectors that create a moodiness. But, there’s something about looking at analog movies that’s infinitely more powerful than digital.”

Moviemaking visionary Steven Spielberg, who, like Abrams, started with the small film cameras, shares that soft spot for Super 8. He met Abrams through their mutual passion. Abrams was hired as a teen to edit and repair the 8mm movies Spielberg made as a youngster.

A few years ago, Abrams and Spielberg began to talk about their early film days and that sparked the idea for “Super 8.” The movie, which opens June 10, looks at what happens in 1979 when a group of teen-agers capture some surprise footage while shooting a zombie film. Abrams wrote and directed the new release; Spielberg’s the producer.

Abrams may use a lot different technology these days, but his Super 8 films contain his distinctive style — especially with storytelling.

“I’ve always liked working on stories that combine people who are relatable with something insane,” Abrams says. “The most exciting thing for me is crossing that bridge between something we know is real and something that is extraordinary. The thing for me has always been how you cross that bridge.”

The most difficult part of making “Super 8” was the speed he would take the audience across the bridge. Abrams had to figure out how long he could tease the audience with the mystery element — something that has made “Super 8” one of the most anticipated movies of the summer.

“In a lot of movies, the typical thing that is the galvanizing activator happens by page 30. The structure of this movie isn’t like that. You don’t get the catalyst in this film until page 90,” Abrams says.

It helped that while the movie has a sci-fi movie feel — somewhere between the ‘50s drive-in terror tales and “E.T.” — at its heart is a story about family, love and loss. Abrams feeds the audience partial glimpses of the mystery while telling the story of the young filmmakers and their families.

Finding the balance between those elements worried Abrams while he wrote the script.

“The lack of specific convention makes it a challenge. You don’t want to lose the people who don’t think it’s funny enough or the people who want it to be more sci-fi,” Abrams says. “The goal was to try and give people not just a horror movie, not just a romance story, but give people an emotional experience.”

He’s had plenty of practice writing emotion. Abrams broke into the business in 1990 as a writer and became know for turning out TV scripts for his series “Felicity” and “Alias” on a weekly basis. He continues to write, but his work schedule has changed.

“I’m an impatient guy and tend not to like to stay with one thing for a long time. I’ll never be able to write as many scripts as I did for ‘Felicity’ or ‘Alias’ ever again. I’m just too impatient these days. I want to get on to the next project,” Abrams says.

Those next projects will be the new CBS series “Person of Interest” and the feature film “Mission Impossible — Ghost Protocol.” There’s also another “Star Trek” movie looming.

All of the new projects will require Abrams to use the most advanced technology available. But in his heart, he’ll always be the kid who found a passion for telling stories through Super 8.

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