Super 8: Spielberg and Abrams Join Forces

“Super 8,” written and directed by J.J. Abrams, is produced by Steven Spielberg, J.J. Abrams and Bryan Burk.  The film stars Kyle Chandler, Elle Fanning, Joel Courtney, Gabriel Basso, Noah Emmerich, Ron Eldard, Riley Griffiths, Ryan Lee and Zach Mills.


The Premise

In the summer of 1979, a group of friends in a small Ohio town set out to make a zombie movie.  While shooting their Super 8 film, they witness a catastrophic train crash and, after barely escaping themselves, they soon discover that it was not an accident.  Shortly after, unusual disappearances and inexplicable events begin to take place in town and local Deputy Jack Lamb (Kyle Chandler) tries to uncover the truth – something more terrifying than any of them could have imagined.


At the heart of “Super 8,” are six kids in a 1970s Ohio steel town whose summer dreams of making their first Super 8 monster movie masterpiece are suddenly interrupted.  After witnessing a horrific train accident, the mysterious events surrounding the crash reverberates through their friendships, their families and forever alters the way they view their lives.

The creators behind “Super 8” are two filmmakers who themselves cut their own teeth on 8mm movie-making when they were younger.  J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg both discovered filmmaking in their childhoods, making Super 8 and 8mm format movies (respectively), which laid the groundwork for all of their big-screen adventures today.

As a director, Abrams is known for melding character, humor and suspense within his films “Mission: Impossible III” and “Star Trek.”  The producer behind the monster-thriller “Cloverfield” is also responsible for such TV series as “Felicity,” “Alias,” “Fringe,” and the groundbreaking ABC series “Lost.”

Spielberg, the filmmaker behind some of the most successful and memorable movies of all time including “E.T.,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” has been an inspiration to Abrams since he was a kid.

It was their mutual love of Super 8 films that would bring these two filmmakers together again and again.  Growing up, Abrams first discovered the joys of a Super 8 camera – a format introduced by Eastman Kodak in 1965 – at the age of 8, when he began shooting his home movies themed around the things that he loved as a boy: chases, battles and monsters.

A few years later, Abrams and close childhood friend Matt Reeves (director of “Cloverfield”) had entered films in a Super 8 film festival and were featured in a Los Angeles Times article entitled, “The Beardless Wonders.”  Shortly thereafter, they were approached by Spielberg’s assistant, Kathleen Kennedy, and asked if they’d be interested in repairing Spielberg’s old 8mm movies, which he had filmed during his own childhood. When JJ was just 15 years old, he and Matt Reeves took a job cutting together Steven’s 8mm home movies.

What initially inspired them both would draw the two together again many years later.  “We started talking about the kinds of films we love to see and also about the kinds of film we’d love to make together someday.  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,” recalls Spielberg.

Abrams wanted to create “Super 8” in the tradition of the movies he fell in love with: quintessential tales set in a community where the daily struggles of work, love and family might seem ordinary until they are abruptly interrupted by extraordinary, frightening and fantastical events.  “I wanted audiences to get all the action, humor, suspense and pyrotechnics of a summer popcorn movie, but there is also a real heart to ‘Super 8” and, for me, that is really the most important part,” Abrams explains.  “Despite all the wild stuff that happens in the story, this is the first movie I’ve made that has felt so much a part of my life.”

In developing “Super 8,” Abrams loved the idea of fledgling kid filmmakers as characters, but was in search of a story to drive it.  That’s when he decided to fuse the concept with another idea that had long been percolating in his imagination.  “I had an idea about a train transferring contents from Area 51,” he says, referring to the top-secret military installation in remote Nevada rumored to store wreckage from unidentified aircraft and other unusual phenomena.  “That was a premise without characters, and then I had these great characters who needed a premise. So I thought if they came together that could be a compelling movie.”

Spielberg says: “When J.J. 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 that sets off a mystery and crisis throughout the town, to me that was really intriguing.  I felt it was going to be both a movie about the 70s movie-making culture and it was also going to be about what all that led to.”

Fellow producer Bryan Burk had also met Abrams through his love of Super 8.  “Super 8 filmmaking was always a part of my life,” Burk notes.  “I first met J.J. because I heard about this kid who was making Super 8 films and had cut Spielberg’s 8mm home movies.  It was a background we all shared.  I think the fun of coming up with ideas and just going out and making the movies is still at the core of everything we’ve done.”

Burk loved the idea of melding an intimate, heartfelt story about small-town, adolescent friends with an epic, creative fantasy.  The script for “Super 8” was also an amalgamation of Abrams’ greatest passions including his love of sci-fi invention, his penchant for humor-fueled adventures and his fascination with the crossroads where the everyday and the completely inexplicable meet.

As the full breadth of Abrams’ vision for “Super 8” began to gel, it did so around two abstract ideas that became central to the production.  The first is what Abrams has long called
“The Mystery Box,” the idea that people are most compelled by an unseen mystery, and that a movie should have all the potent unpredictability of an unopened box, out of which absolutely anything could emerge.

Abrams notes that in an age of instant information, it can be a 24-7 challenge to keep audiences literally in the dark until the movie begins, but that hasn’t stopped him from trying to give people the thrill of that experience.  “I think if you can create something original and not spoil it for the audience beforehand, the experience is so much stronger,” he says.

The other idea he hoped to weave through “Super 8” was the free-wheeling, hand-made spirit of Super 8 moviemaking itself.  “Not only did the making of this movie bring back memories, but it paralleled the way we used to make movies,” he says.  “It’s all about the spirit of storytelling, of creating an illusion that feels real, trying to scare people, to make them laugh, to make them feel something.  All that stuff is the same for us now as it was then.”

Spielberg was also exhilarated by all that Abrams brought to it.  “J.J. really has an ability to bridge generations,” observes the filmmaker.   “He brings a love for the way movies used to be, but then he combines that with a real skill for making the kinds of movies people love right now.  He understands what kids are talking about and thinking about today, so he’s as relevant to the youngest generation as he is to mine.  I think he’s simply one of the best motion picture storytellers around, bringing an extraordinary sense of camera, lighting, composition and narrative to everything he does.”

Spielberg adds, “With ‘Super 8,’ J.J. has made a movie that feels at once nostalgic and uniquely new.  He beautifully blends a sci-fi story with the amazing dynamic of a group of kids, who behave in a way that is contemporary, but also universally captures the way kids always have been.”

Abrams was humbled by Spielberg’s hands-on involvement.  “The time Steven spent working on this movie blew my mind because he’s got so much going on, how could he possibly find the time?  Yet, he would sit for hours going over the script or in the editing room,” he recalls.  “It was just surreal for me.  It was really a privilege not only to work with him, but to work with him on a movie about a time in both of our lives that was of such seminal importance.”