There exists a parallel world where Super 8 does not represent the first time pop culture polymaths J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg have collaborated on a movie. In fact, perhaps in the “over there” universe of Abrams’ Fox TV series Fringe, there exists a sequel to the Spielberg-produced Who Framed Roger Rabbit written by Abrams that was released sometime in the early ’90s. In our world, however, that movie project was only discussed, never made, and its only significance to our present is that it facilitated the first meeting between Spielberg and Abrams. The year was 1989, and Abrams was a recent college grad whose first sold script (written with Jill Mazursky), Taking Care Of Business, was about to become a modestly amusing major motion picture starring James Belushi for The Walt Disney Company. The previous year, Disney and Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment had scored a massive worldwide hit with the Robert Zemeckis-directed Roger Rabbit and were soliciting ideas for a sequel. Abrams was invited to pitch some. He didn’t get a job (and to date, a sequel remains unmade despite years of development with many other writers), but Abrams recalls leaving the meeting totally animated nonetheless. “I remember calling Matt Reeves [Abrams’ friend and Felicity co-creator] in the car and being just so out of my mind excited that I got completely lost,” recalls Abrams. “I had no idea what freeway I had gotten on. I was miles off course. I shouldn’t have been driving, frankly.”
The first official Spielberg/Abrams collaboration occurred when Abrams did some writing work on the Spielberg-produced Casper, released in 1995. By that time, Abrams had penned the movies Regarding Henry starring Harrison Ford and Forever Young starring Mel Gibson. “At this time in his career, [Abrams] wasn’t yet a director, but a writer, and he was a great writer,” recalls Spielberg. “He was very witty and he adores plot structure and storytelling. There are a lot of writers who write brilliant dialogue and who can do wonderful confrontational drama and comedy. But not everybody knows story. Whether it’s a character story or a pure plot-driven story, J.J. is amazing.”
Then came the near miss in 2004 that changed the course of Abrams’ career. Recalls Spielberg: “I brought Tom Cruise over to meet J.J. We were looking for someone to write War of the Worlds and my first choice was to give it to J.J., but he was so involved with Lost that he just didn’t have the time to jump into it. But Tom remembered how impressed he had been with J.J. that he asked him if he would direct Mission: Impossible III.” (Spielberg and Cruise ultimately hired David Koepp to script 2005’s sci-fi smash War of the Worlds, which would go on to gross $591 million worldwide.)
Abrams told EW his side of this story in a 2009 interview: “In that blur [of putting Lost together], I got a call that Steven Spielberg, Tom Cruise, and Paula Wagner [Cruise’s longtime producing partner] wanted to come over for a meeting. I was like, What the hell? None of it made sense. I felt like it was an episode [of] Punk’d. We had this two-hour meeting. I had known Steven for a few years, but it was always an out-of-body experience, and so to compound it with having Cruise on the same sofa, it was freaky. It was really fun, Tom and I got along great, [but] I couldn’t do the movie because I was filming the Lost pilot. I felt like I had just committed career suicide.”
Instead, turning down Spielberg and Cruise set in motion a chain of events that brought to life a new dimension of Abrams’ career. He made his feature film directing debut with Mission: Impossible III, which earned great reviews and nearly $400 million worldwide. Over the years, Abrams and Spielberg remained in touch. In fact, Abrams says Spielberg’s encouragement to direct Star Trek was a big reason why he took the job. “Whether it’s been with Mission or Star Trek, Steven has been sort of been my consigliore,” says Abrams.
A few years ago, Abrams got the idea to make a coming-of-age movie about wannabe young filmmakers growing up in the late ’70s. Abrams made movies using a super-8 camera while growing up in Los Angeles in the ’70s, and he knew Spielberg — famously — made movies using his father’s 8mm camera growing up in Arizona in the ’60s. (Abrams actually helped restore Spielberg’s home movies when he was a teenager; see our new issue for the full story.) “When I came up with this idea for Super 8, [Steven was] the first person I called. It might not have even been allowed: I had to deal with Paramount, [Steven] was with DreamWorks. But I couldn’t make this movie with anyone else,” says Abrams. “What was great was that he’d been thinking about doing a movie that would include an element like this.”
“I had been working on a number of ideas about kids making movies — a kind of junior Day for Night,” says Spielberg. “So we kind of brought our ideas together. We also share a passion for science fiction, so it was an interesting merger that took place between us. What appealed to me of what J.J. was pitching was that it was an idea that biographical for both of us.”
Yet Abrams says it took some time to turn personal inspiration into a story: “We had a number of meetings about the characters and the potential of the core idea, of kids making movies. There wasn’t the element that made me feel like: Oh my god I have to go see that movie! The weird thing here was that the very piece of this movie that was incredibly compelling to me was ultimately not enough to complete the big picture of making a movie. We worried that people might go ‘Who cares?’ about that stuff.”
“We talked about many ideas to round it out,” says Spielberg. “One idea I threw onto the table was that these kids would be making a movie, and in the background of the movie they were making, there was a bank robbery or something. The only evidence of this crime [would have been] inadvertently captured by these kids making this innocent movie. But we both threw that out.”
“Then it occurred to me,” says Abrams. “I had another idea that I actually had already pitched to Paramount about a mysterious train derailment. When we were making Star Trek, somebody told me a story about how the military had secretly moved all the contents of Area 51 to other bases. I just thought: How would they have moved them? And then I thought: What if while moving that stuff, what if something went wrong? The idea of moving stuff from Area 51 to another location, and then something goes wrong like a train wreck, and then something escapes, what would that thing be — I thought: ‘That’s a cool monster movie.’ I called Steven, I pitched blending the two together, and his reaction was such an instinctive reflexive ‘Yes’ that I suddenly got incredibly excited. Frankly, at that time we were even discussing possibly finding another writer, but the second he said yes, I knew I had to write the movie. Was I really gonna let someone else do that?”
Adds Spielberg: “I wasn’t really sure whether J.J. was going to direct it, either. He kept saying: ‘Let’s wait and see’ — meaning, ‘Let me get the script written and then let’s see how invested I become in the actual writing.’ But I think once J.J. started making that investment, he started realizing: ‘There’s nobody else who could direct this.'”
For more of our interview with Abrams and Spielberg, plus a guide to the young stars of Super 8, pick up the new issue of Entertainment Weekly, on stands June 10.
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