Steven Spielberg and J.J. Abrams: Kids at heart
The filmmakers behind ''Super 8'' swap stories about their wide-eyed beginnings, their lifelong obsessions, and listening to their inner children on set
There is a wall in J.J. Abrams’ office bearing the image of a silly man looking like he just ate something awful. He’s a cartoonish character lifted from the packaging of novelty items and magic tricks Abrams loved as a kid. The wall itself is a clever gag too, for it is also a sliding door to another, more private room, which on this April morning is being used by another icon from Abrams’ childhood — someone who has become a very real part of his present. ”I would be lying if I said there aren’t moments that leave me paralyzed with disbelief,” says Abrams of his surreal friendship with our most celebrated living director. ”Steven Spielberg. Crazy.”
Movie fans are now seeing for themselves what happens when two of the industry’s most creative minds decide to dream up cool stuff together. Super 8, written and directed by Abrams and produced by Spielberg, is a PG-13 sci-fi adventure in the old-school Amblin mode engineered to evoke the movies Abrams loved as a kid, including Spielberg’s E.T. and Jaws. It’s suffused with nostalgia for the filmmakers’ wonder years, which were largely spent doing what they’re doing now: making movies. The story, set in 1979, follows a tight-knit band of geeky proto-Goonies who witness a horrific train derailment one night while making a zombie movie using a Super 8 camera. Soon they’re tracking a monstrous and possibly misunderstood entity that has recently escaped from military confinement.
Some might say the Abrams-Spielberg partnership was inevitable. They’d certainly crossed paths many times — including a close encounter when Abrams was just 15 (more on that later). In 1989 Abrams — a promising young screenwriter thanks to his script for Taking Care of Business — formally met Spielberg while pitching ideas for a proposed sequel to Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Fifteen years later, Abrams, who’d by now become a hotshot TV producer with Felicity and Alias, declined an invitation from Spielberg to write the script for War of the Worlds, due to the demands of launching Lost. But the courtship did facilitate an introduction to someone who would launch Abrams’ feature-film directing career: Tom Cruise. (The superstar handpicked Abrams to make Mission: Impossible III.) Since then Abrams and Spielberg have become closer, with the former often seeking the latter’s advice. ”Steven has been my consigliere,” says Abrams, 44. ”I feel like there’s been a collaboration going on long before Super 8.”
A few years ago, when Abrams got the idea to make a coming-of-age movie about wannabe young filmmakers growing up in the late ’70s, he asked Spielberg to serve as the project’s godfather. ”What appealed to me was that it was biographical for both of us,” says Spielberg, 64, who had spent his own childhood making 8mm movies with his father’s camera. ”We’ve always been nostalgic guys, and we always talk about the movies that we loved. We also share a passion for science fiction, and I had been working on a number of ideas about kids making movies, so it was an interesting merger that took place between us.” The movie truly snapped into focus when Abrams decided to flesh out the plot by blending in a monster-movie idea he had already pitched to Paramount, inspired by a conspiracy theory concerning the alien hot spot/military base known as Area 51. The result is a movie that could be called ”Spielbergian” — a word that Spielberg himself dislikes, especially since it diminishes what he believes is a milestone movie for Abrams. ”In many ways I think J.J. has made his first film with Super 8,” says Spielberg. ”J.J. has a very original, unique voice, and this is the first time he’s been able to turn up the volume on how he tells stories and the themes he thinks about. I don’t see homage when I see this film. I see J.J.’s whole childhood expressed on the screen, and everything he is, and everything he wants to be.”
Abrams and Spielberg spoke to EW about filmmaking and about the serious business of being kids.
EW What first compelled you to pick up a movie camera and tell a story?
Steven Spielberg The first movie I made was a means to another end. I was denied a chance to break my trains for the 20th time. My dad said, ”You break your trains one more time, I’m taking the set away.” So I took my dad’s movie camera and staged the final train wreck — which is ironic, since we have this humongous train wreck in Super 8. I shot one train going left to right, and the other train going right to left, and then shot both running into each other. After that, I was able to enjoy watching the trains collide without having to risk breaking them. [Later] I was going for a photography merit badge in the Boy Scouts. We were supposed to tell a story with photographs, and my dad’s still camera was not working. I asked, ”What if I told a story on the 8mm instead?” I got the badge and a career out of it.
J.J. Abrams Do you still have the badge?
Spielberg I still have the whole sash! Of course 90 percent of the badges I earned are [for] skills I never practice anymore.
Abrams I went to Universal Studios for a tour before it was an amusement park. It was incredibly impactful. That night I took my dad’s Super 8 camera and started doing an animated movie with a desk lamp, purple construction paper, and clay. The whole process of making movies — shooting the film, taking the film to the camera store to be developed, the mounting anticipation of ”I can’t wait to see what it looks like” — was like a drug.
Spielberg When movies are your life, it takes you by the throat and it does not let go. I was very influenced by my dad’s war stories and war movies like Sands of Iwo Jima. I made this 45-minute 8mm war movie, and I think it was the best amateur movie I ever made. I was raised in Arizona, and there was desert everywhere, so I set it in North Africa. I went to the Army surplus store and got WWII American helmets. For the German costumes, we dyed white T-shirts black and glued cutout eagles holding swastikas onto them. I would go with 20 friends and shoot for three or four weekends in a row.
Abrams The Super 8 experience that sticks out the most to me was the movie I was making in high school when I met Matt Reeves [Abrams’ Felicity co-creator and Cloverfield director]. It was a geek-in-love-with-a-girl-in-school story, except it was a comedy-meets-science fiction-meets-love story. What I liked about it was it did my favorite thing, or attempted to, which is to combine genres.
EW J.J., you told me it was ”uncool” to be a moviemaking nerd during your ’70s youth. Steven, was that your experience too?
Spielberg I was so uncool that there was nothing I could have done to be any uncooler. Making movies just made me king of the geeks.
EW You screened these movies for your friends and family?
Spielberg Strangers, too. My mom and dad were amazingly cooperative. And I’d charge 25 cents. It’s how I paid my dad back for letting me use his camera.
Abrams Genius. I was always just doing it for my friends. I’d be watching them the whole time. Did they get that moment? Did that work? It reminds me of when I was younger and would do magic tricks. It’s all about the gasp. The reaction to a trick done well was the greatest feeling in the world.
EW J.J., when you were a teenager, you and Matt Reeves helped restore Steven’s 8mm movies, correct?
Abrams Yes. Matt and I were in a Super 8 camera film festival, and the L.A. Times did an article about the festival, and there was a picture of us. At the time, every director in Hollywood had a beard. But at 15, Matt and I did not. So the caption on the photo was ”Beardless Wonders.” We received a call from Steven’s assistant, who said Steven’s 8mm movies were in disrepair and asked us if we would fix them. If this were a movie, I’d say, ”You know the part I don’t believe? That the greatest director in history would trust these kids with no beards to touch these movies of incredible significance.”
Spielberg Because when I saw the picture I said, ”Those are the two most trustworthy faces I’ve seen in months!”
Abrams I remember this one film where it said, ”Written and directed by Steve Spielberg.” Not ”Steven.” Steve Spielberg! I wanted to take one of those ”Steve Spielberg” frames and keep it for myself, but Matt talked me out of it.
Spielberg People only called me Steven after my first screen credit. I prefer Steve, but those days are long gone.
EW J.J. got his directorial start making two franchise movies, Mission: Impossible III and Star Trek. If you were starting out today, with a shot at directing a franchise, which one would it be?
Spielberg When I first started making movies, the only franchise I cared about and wanted to be part of was James Bond. When I started out as a TV director, my pie-in-the-sky dream was to make a little movie that would get some notoriety, and then [the late Bond series producer] Cubby Broccoli would call me and ask me to direct the next James Bond picture. But I could never get Cubby Broccoli to hire me — and now, sadly, they can’t afford me.
EW What got you interested in telling stories about alien visitation?
Spielberg What was engaging to me were all the UFO reports of the 1950s and 1960s. So I was just determined to make a movie about the UFO phenomenon. I didn’t think of it as science fiction. I thought Close Encounters was science speculation. I’m a little less convinced now than I was back in the ’70s, but I was pretty convinced we had been visited. I also wanted to make a movie about Watergate, so that whole story was my version of melding two genres — the political conspiracy genre and the UFO phenomenon.
EW As your career has progressed, your alien stories have gotten darker. Close Encounters and E.T. presented aliens as benevolent. But War of the Worlds and your new TV series Falling Skies, not so much.
Spielberg Before Close Encounters, all the encounters between man and alien in the movies were hostile, so I thought I would buck the trend. I simply didn’t believe that anything traveling 10 million light-years to Earth was coming here to blow us to smithereens. As I got older, and as I watched the world starting to blow itself up, I got a little more cynical.
EW J.J., you’ve said something I have heard others in Hollywood say, which is that it’s hard to believe a studio could make Close Encounters today because…
Abrams It’s the story of a man who abandons his family for aliens! Moreover, the last 15 minutes, the main characters don’t do anything. They’re just observing the aliens. There are all these reasons why the movie shouldn’t work — and it couldn’t work more perfectly.
Spielberg When older people read my script, they wanted me to make him a single man who wouldn’t have to give up his family. I saw it as a story about a man who has to follow his dream — his obsession — to its natural conclusion. Everybody of my generation got it, but everybody older thought it was irresponsible.
Abrams It would never have been as powerful if he had been a single guy.
Spielberg But I must tell you, I would not have written it that way today, now that I have seven children. Never. I would never write a story today that encourages the father and husband to abandon his family.
EW Steven, being on the set of Super 8 and its evocation of the late ’70s — what was that experience like for you?
Spielberg When I came onto the set and I saw these kids improvising and being raucous, it just completely threw me back to how much fun I had making E.T. It was the first movie I ever made where I wanted to have a family after I said goodbye to my actors. I never had any idea I was going to be a dad or any ambition for that; I was just a complete cinephile. E.T. transformed me as a person completely, and changed what I was hoping to have in my future.
EW Super 8 aspires to have the balance of human emotion and high-concept sci-fi that films like E.T. and Close Encounters possess. Was it difficult to achieve?
Abrams It’s something we wrestled with. E.T. wasn’t really an alien-visitation story. At heart it was a movie about a family struggling with divorce. Those family scenes are the ones I cared most about. But I wonder, with today’s cinematic style being so boom, boom, boom, if a movie that had that number of quieter scenes could be ”studio-approved,” so to speak. Yet when you watch E.T., there’s only one way that movie could have had the emotional punch it had, and it was the way it was made. For me, Super 8 involved the challenge of figuring that balance out for myself.
EW Do you consider Super 8 an overt homage to Steven’s early oeuvre, as well as other films that influenced you like Halloween, Alien, and Stand by Me?
Abrams There are moments that share the DNA of movies that Steven has made. Had we not been collaborating, I probably wouldn’t have done it. But the movie began as nothing other than an opportunity to visit that time in my life and Steven’s life that was so important. It’s impossible to do a movie that takes place in the late ’70s about a group of kids with a science-fiction element and not have it cross over into territory covered extensively. Working with you, in a weird way, allowed this movie to be the truest version of what it would be.
Spielberg You could have made this movie just as great without my involvement. All films owe an allegiance to films that had a powerful impact on us. We’re colored by everything. Especially in this digital age, our brains are cluttered with so much noise that a century of information overload has given us. You’ve got to duck and cover if you want to stay true to an original idea. The thing that impressed me more than anything is this troupe of kids, who have such an original voice and are so unique in their passions for making movies. It makes us feel safe when we can compare it to other things that are more anchored in tradition and in the firmament of film history. But that, for me, is even superseded by these kids. I root for these kids from the beginning, right to the very end.
The Games Spielberg Plays
Filmmaking isn’t his only pastime. Check out what’s on the director’s console.
J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg are avid gamers. (Both are big fans of Valve, makers of the current smash Portal 2, and both were eagerly anticipating the newly released L.A. Noire when we interviewed them.) Abrams admits he’s been to busy fine-tuning Super 8 to play much of anything these days, but Spielberg counts these five games among his current favorites.
Aliens and a pandemic lay waste to a near-future New York City in an intense, ultrarealistic videogame War of the Worlds.
Most fans of Microsoft’s blockbuster sci-fi franchise love playing together online — but not Spielberg. He’s a solo-campaign kinda guy.
Medal of Honor
The Saving Private Ryan director created the war-game franchise, which was set in WWII before an edgy update to Afghanistan last year.
Unreal Tournament 3
This hardcore sci-fi shooter — full of weaponry, vehicles, and evil ETs — has been praised for its fast pace and slick visuals.
Spielberg likes EA Sports’ entire line of games, but especially its flagship football title. He even plays it on his iPhone.