Super 8: Shooting in the Steel Belt

To create “Super 8’s” 1970s steel town, the production journeyed to Weirton, West Virginia, which lies on a narrow strip of land smack between Eastern Ohio and Pennsylvania, on the Ohio River. The town’s striking skyline, dominated by its sprawling, central steel mill, made it a perfect visual match for the quietly rugged, hard-working American town J.J. Abrams envisioned as the backdrop for his story.

“I always liked the idea of setting the film in a small mill town,” says Abrams.  “My father grew up in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and I always remember visiting as a kid, before mill towns ran into heartbreaking times.  It felt like Anywhere, USA.  There’s a sense in these towns that everything is real and relatable.”

Adds Bryan Burk:  “It’s a town that has changed very little in the last 30 years.  In fact, ‘The Deer Hunter’ was shot in Weirton and the town looks very much like it did then.”

The town, once a bustling, minor metropolis in the heyday of steel, but now with a population under 20,000, inspired cast and crew with its enthusiasm.  Says Kyle Chandler: “It’s not often that you get a chance to step into one of those places where people are so willing to let you be part of their lives.  I immediately hooked up with the local Chief of Police, Bruce Marshall, and spent a day driving around with him meeting all the other deputies. They gave me a real sense of what it’s like to live in a small town.”

A principal set was Main Street, where Whist forged the Olson Camera Store, the dream palace of the young filmmakers in town.   “Creating the camera store was fun,” recalls Whist. “The store is a pivotal point in the story, so it needed to have a real presence. We brought in the electronics layers that are so specific to the period:  the record players, the 8-track players, and then of course the Super 8’s.”

Whist was able to source all the vintage equipment locally. “My decorator, Fainche McCarthy, found a guy with a camera store who still had all his stuff from 1979 stored,” Whist muses.  “He had also kept all the boxes, so we were able to fabricate copies, and clean up the old ones to make them look like new. It was an amazing find.”

The camera store was also a favorite for actor Noah Emmerich. “Entering that set, I experienced the most amazing flashback moment to when I was about 8 years-old. Looking at the shelves of the store brought back such incredible memories – the Kodachrome, and the flashcubes, wow.  All that technology seems almost Paleolithic now.”

Other key locations included Weirton Heights, where Whist found the homes for Joe and Charles. “What we love about the houses that Joe and Charles live in is that they feel quintessential of this town,” Whist explains. “Joe’s house is a small, very working class home built in the 40s that really speaks to who he is and where he comes from. Charles’ house is more of a typical 70s home.”

Adding to the home-town atmosphere, hundreds of people from the local community participated in the film.  Local kids played extras at the school, while adults chipped in on the military action scenes.  They all became actors for a day to create one of the film’s most pivotal moments:  a powder-keg of a town hall meeting, where Jack Lamb must address a crowd of agitated and confused townspeople. The townsfolk were so excited about the shoot that Abrams recalls a few people actually offering to let him blow up their houses to create authentic effects.

“The people in Weirton could not have been more wonderful,” Abrams comments.  “They could not have been more supportive, patient or, frankly, better actors.  In the town hall scene, the group we had was extraordinary. No one was playing too large.  People got into in a way that was a dream.  It wasn’t just about shooting there because it looked good.  It was about shooting there because the people were so wonderful.”

The galvanizing effect participating in the film had on the town was equally thrilling for everyone to watch.  “So many times I heard people say ‘We haven’t all gotten together, hanging out on our porches as a group, like this in years.’  They were having fun coming together as a community,” recalls Abrams.

For the film’s big battle scene, the production requisitioned tanks and personnel carriers from the Virginia Museum and choreographed the action with the help of military expert Sgt. Major Dever.  As filming began, the night sky was set ablaze with gunfire and explosions, and the neighborhood echoed with the rumble of tanks.  News spread for miles around and on-lookers gathered complete with lawn chairs and picnic baskets. Meanwhile, special notices went out to the media to alert people that there was no real invasion going on, so no one would panic!

For the film’s young cast, these action scenes, which build to a frenzy in the latter half of the film, were the thrill of their lives.  “It was just amazing for us,” says Riley Griffiths.  “I mean, what more could a teenager ask for than running through crazy explosions and jumping over stuff?  We just had an incredible amount of fun.”

Following the shoot in West Virginia, the production returned to Los Angeles where Whist had carefully laid out the interiors of Joe and Charlie’s homes as mirror images to their personal histories.

“The look of the rooms was extremely important to us because you are helping to create a character,” Whist explains.  “Here was where J.J. added a lot of the unspoken background to their lives, what their parents are like, what their economic state is, what values they grew up with.  In Charlie’s case, everything is lively and active.  The house is too small, but feels very happy and both parents work, so it’s a little more chaotic than most.  By contrast, Joe is an only child and his mother has passed away just recently, so we wanted to make it a more somber and quiet place.  J.J. and I thought a lot about what these kids would have in their room – what would be on the walls, what kinds of drawing and models would be in there.  The key was to make them feel completely lived in.”

Prop master Rob Kyker even hunted down 70s-era models, including a Quasimodo model that Abrams remembered from his childhood. It all added up to a kind of instant time machine for the cast who had actually lived through 1979.  Says Kyle Chandler: “I took one peek at Joe’s room and felt 14 years old again. Joe’s room could have been taken right out of my room when I was a kid, from the testers paint, to the models hanging from the wall.”

Abrams also got a visceral rush from walking around the set.  He sums up:  “The set dressing was so crazy good that I could pick up almost anything, whether it was a box of Wacky Pack cards or any number of magazines, model or toys and it just instantly took me back.”