Look out, the new talent’s arrived
JJ Abrams has reinvigorated the popular family blockbuster. And now he’s working with his idol, Steven Spielberg
Jeff Dawson Published: 17 July 2011
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n his effervescent turns as a public speaker, JJ Abrams likes to show his favourite clip from Jaws — not a ravenous great white ambushing some hapless bather, but a cosy domestic scene featuring Police Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) having dinner with his young son. It’s a simple sequence — Brody, anguishing inwardly over the safety of his citizens, goes through some playful face-pulling with his boy. Soon the mask slips. “Give us a kiss,” Brody says. “Why?” the kid asks. “’Cause I need it.”
Jaws, explains Abrams, was not really about a shark, but the story of a man “dealing with his place in the world”. Likewise ET... No mere tale of some marooned alien, but of a boy traumatised by his parents’ divorce.
“The thing I loved about Spielberg’s movies, as a kid, was there was always a sense of theatrics about them,” he says. “Even in something like Jaws, there’s a sense that this movie has a heart. The idea that we ground a story in some sort of emotional place is absolutely critical.”
When it comes to storytelling, Abrams knows what he’s talking about. Worth in excess of $100m thanks to his various contracts, he is the highest paid writer-producer in Hollywood — specialist subject: sci-fi — to be known for ever as “the creator of Lost”.
And talk he can. Some inclement British weather and a sore throat having failed to derail the verbal express, he perches on the edge of a sofa at the Dorchester hotel, nursing some herbal tea, but without sufficient pause actually to drink it. He’s a pint-sized human dynamo, with a shock of vertical black hair and trendy thick-framed glasses. You just wind Abrams up and let him go.
As a director, he’s something of a late starter — but, with his 2006 feature debut, Mission: Impossible III, making $400m, there were few complaints. Two years ago, commissioned to reboot the Star Trek brand, and despite an avowed lack of interest in the original series, Abrams turned in a movie so deliriously entertaining that it became the franchise’s most successful entry. A follow-up starts filming shortly. He hints, too, at a sequel to Cloverfield, his monster shocker: “There’s a cool idea that came up.”
Abrams’s new film, Super 8, is about a 13-year-old boy, Joe (Joel Courtney), grieving for his recently deceased mother. But you can forgive the marketing people’s preference for its parallel plot line — that of a marauding alien devastating small-town America, with an intrepid group of schoolkid film-makers on its tail. A huge hit in America — and, unusually for such a populist exercise, winning rave reviews — it seems certain to repeat its success here.
Abrams’s most personal movie to date, Super 8 also marks a cinematic consummation of that youthful Spielberg crush. For, though the film is ostensibly a celebration of Abrams’s own childhood, when he and his pals would run around with an 8mm cine-camera making cheesy zombie flicks, he has made a film arguably more Spielbergian than Spielberg ever has, a nostalgic retread of the maestro’s golden period, right down to its 1979 setting (the year Abrams turned 13).
“The first impulse on this movie was not to create a Spielberg homage. The first impulse was a film about this group of kids,” he insists. “But what’s so interesting to me is that period of time, for me, was so genuinely impacted by the films that I loved, it was impossible to separate the movies from my life. The DNA of that time was shared with those films.”
“Those movies informed how we saw ourselves,” he gushes. “Close Encounters — the idea that the government is maybe conspiring to keep things quiet... the notion in ET of an alien crying. There were certain things that felt like the best of us and the worst of us.”
Super 8’s setup goes like this: in the heart of rust-belt Ohio, those meddling kids witness and inadvertently document a (spectacular) night-time train crash. All is not what it seems. Weird stuff starts to happen: the town’s electricity goes off; the dogs go missing; burghers get eaten. Soon the community has gone from blackout to martial law to full-on alien rampage. And it’s all there — the evocations of Close Encounters, ET, The Goonies, not to mention a heavy dollop of Cloverfield, from the bright lights and dry-ice visuals to the carnivorous creature, with its visceral Jurassic Park groaning.
Super 8 even has its own Brody moment, with the local police deputy (Kyle Chandler), Joe’s widowed father, appearing before a public meeting to implore the townsfolk to remain calm, all is well. With Spielberg serving as producer, it’s all done with his blessing — his and Abrams’s names writ jointly and boldly alongside the title in the finest Spielbergian tradition, the director/producer as star.
Abrams and Spielberg go back further than you might think. At the tender age of 15, Abrams and Matt Reeves, his lifelong buddy and frequent producing partner, got some good notices for their Super 8mm entry at a local film festival. Dubbed by the Los Angeles Times “the Beardless Wonders”, they were earmarked as ones to watch. Spotted by a Spielberg associate, they were invited to do some technical restoration of the director’s own home footage, including the second world war films he shot in his Arizona backyard in the 1950s. “There were no copies — Super 8 film doesn’t have negatives — and we repaired them and returned them,” Abrams says. “We didn’t get to meet him at that time, but it was our first brush with greatness.”
Later, their paths crossed again, when Abrams was in talks to write the screenplay for the remake of War of the Worlds. He pitched Spielberg a couple of ideas — one a film about the bunch of kids making home videos, “which he was very quickly excited about, because we’d both had similar experiences”, the other “a monster movie idea” about an alien being transported from Area 51. The first film felt “devoid of spectacle” as Abrams puts it, “but combining the two, that was sort of fun”.
There have been plenty of “new Spielbergs” over the decades, many flattering to deceive — Tobe Hooper, Joe Dante, M Night Shyamalan. At 45, Abrams needs the mantle no more than he does the equally redundant tag “wunderkind”. Still, you sense that Super 8 is some kind of anointing. Abrams laughs and rubs his smooth chin. “Couldn’t grow one if I tried.”
The first impulse on this movie was not to create a Steven Spielberg homage. The first impulse was a film about this group of kids
As he tells it, Jeffrey Jacob Abrams knew what he wanted to do by the age of eight, when he blagged a camera from his grandparents. Born in New York, but growing up in LA, he wasn’t from a “showbiz” family, although the tentacles of Tinseltown soon ensnared them. Abrams’s sister, Tracy, became a screenwriter too. His ad-exec father, who hailed from a steel town not dissimilar to Lillian in the film, moved into television production. “It was as if I had discovered the idea of space travel just as my dad was enrolling in Nasa.”
In Super 8, the kids, largely unknowns, are a treat — the bossy, fat director (Riley Griffiths), the technician with an unhealthy interest in pyrotechnics (Ryan Lee) and, especially, Courtney, as Joe, a make-up artist besotted with the incomer Alice (Elle Fanning, Dakota’s sister).
They were all facets of himself, Abrams says. “I loved blowing the stuff up, but I also loved making the movies. I loved magic, the idea of creating illusion, the idea of music and models and explosions and special effects and make-up and monsters.”
He watched some of those old films again recently: “I was stunned by a) how much better Super 8 film actually looks than you think it does, and b) how bad the actual movies themselves were.” Super 8’s film-within-the-film, The Case, a tribute to the gorefests of George A Romero, plays out over the final credits. It’s typical of the stuff he used to make, he says.
At 16, Abrams scored the music for Nightbeast, an underground horror flick. By 20, while still a student, he had co-written the James Belushi film Taking Care of Business. There followed screenplays for the two biggest stars of the day, Harrison Ford (Regarding Henry) and Mel Gibson (Forever Young).
When, in Richard E Grant’s autobiography, With Nails, the author describes a scene at a 1991 Hollywood premiere — “I met a 24-year-old screenwriter called JJ who has a three-picture deal and talks real fast, as do his friends, all of whom seem young, ruthless and rich” — you suspect it is not an inaccurate observation. By the end of the decade, Abrams had co-written the asteroid extravaganza Armageddon.
In 1998, he took the unorthodox step of moving from films to television, at a time when talent generally flowed in the opposite direction. There followed a college drama, Felicity, then Alias and Fringe. Currently on the go are Undercovers, Person of Interest and Alcatraz, all tagged with his signature, Bad Robot Productions.
In 2004, Abrams had spurned Spielberg’s invitation to work on War of the Worlds because of a commitment: a rush-job TV pilot for ABC. With 12 weeks to write and produce a show about a group of plane-crash survivors, Lost was born — the most compelling programme of the past decade, or its most frustrating.
There is a maxim in screenwriting that asking questions is easier than answering them. It is certainly something the writers of Lost had to wrestle with as the series wore on; something apparent, too, in Super 8, which, for all the wide-eyed magic of its first half, undoes some of its immense charm when faced with revelations and explanations.
Abrams, however, says: “For me, the best answers are the ones that involve the people and the heart and the humanity of the characters, not what’s on the microfilm. What you’re actually watching is how these relationships unfold. And Lost was very much the same thing. What I love about what the writers did for the end of that series was that it wasn’t some techno babble about what the island really was, because how massively unsatisfying would any answer be? What mattered was that the island was real and that it provided the most important relationships in these people’s lives.”
For all that, Super 8 is a film imbued with an innocence you rarely get in a blockbuster any more. The 1970s setting helps, as do the fact that characters meet organically, that information is not sought digitally and immediately — “The idea of instantaneous access to anything, to me, is a huge problem, not just in movies,” Abrams gripes — and that the plot is, for the most part, one step ahead of the protagonists, rather than the other way round.
There is another film recalled by Super 8, the coming-of-age drama Stand by Me — not a Spielberg film, but one that features his leading man of that era, Richard Dreyfuss. It concludes with Dreyfuss, as a writer, reflecting on the endless summer of his youth. “I never had any friends later on like the ones I did when I was 12,” he types. “Jesus, does anyone?”
Super 8 is released on August 5