SANTA MONICA, Calif. — 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 Friday 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.”
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 cinema verite of monster movies, “Cloverfield,” and last year’s well-regarded “Let Me In.”).
“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-movie 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.
“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’s “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” and Jon Favreau’s “Cowboys & 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.
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 Friday 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. 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.”
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.”
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 smalltown 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.
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’s “The 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.”