Interview: JJ Abrams

The Lost creator on working with Steven Spielberg on Super 8

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Interview: JJ Abrams
Written By
Andrew Collins
Future Hollywood big shots, take note: if you want to become a hugely successful producer and director, like, for instance, Steven Spielberg, or the latest mogul-in- the-making JJ Abrams, you’d better start when you’re in short trousers.

In the mid- 1950s and 20 years away from making Jaws, the teenage Spielberg was busy shooting amateur 8mm movies with his friends in Scottsdale, Arizona. In the mid-70s, 20 years away from writing Armageddon, the young JJ Abrams was doing the same with his own schoolboy pals in Los Angeles, except using the Super 8 format.

This summer, their names appear side by side for the first time on the poster for Super 8 – Spielberg as producer, Abrams as writer and director. The story that brought them together, and which arguably sees the senior partner and mentor handing over a torch to his younger self, concerns a bunch of teenage friends shooting a home movie in the late 1970s in a small Ohio town, and capturing more than they bargained for.

On his latest film…

A traditional monster movie in many respects, Super 8 uses new-fangled technology to celebrate the nostalgic magic of the old. “I was all of those kids,” enthuses Abrams, sitting back then bouncing forward on a sofa in a posh hotel room like a child who’s been eating too much food colouring. “And I knew that Steven had been as well.”

Jeffrey Jacob Abrams, 45, who in real life is a cross between Radar O’Reilly on M*A*S*H and George Costanza on Seinfeld, remembers his eureka moment: “It was a few years ago... I was in my office and had this clear notion of this movie, called Super 8, and the first thing I did was call Steven. Frankly, I’m not even sure if contractually I was even allowed to do that, because I have a deal at Paramount, but instead of calling them, I called Steven.”

On working with Spielberg…

Abrams has earned the right to call Spielberg “Steven”, having sold his first screenplay to Touchstone when he was still in his early 20s – co-written while he was a college senior, no less – and subsequently used his growing reputation as screenwriter and producer to move into network TV, where he co-created back-to-back hit series: Felicity (four seasons), Alias (five) and the game-changing existential island mystery Lost (six). During that time, Abrams pitched ideas to Spielberg for a shelved Who Framed Roger Rabbit sequel in 1988, and did some writing work for him in 1994 on Casper. Spielberg told Entertainment Weekly that even then he’d admired Abrams’s plot structure and dialogue: “There are a lot of writers who can do wonderful confrontational drama and comedy, but not everybody knows story.”

When Abrams took Super 8 to Spielberg, it was as if their time had come. “He was so immediately interested in the idea of revisiting that time,” bubbles Abrams. “Though, of course, we grew up in a different place and time, we share the same childhood experience. So it began like that, and our first impulse was to do a movie about that period.”

With the gang mentality of 1985’s The Goonies – written by Spielberg – Super 8 will have appeal to nostalgic adults, and kids. Little wonder it’s being anticipated as the defining movie of the summer. Just as the classics of David Lean had inspired a young Spielberg, for Abrams, well, it was the classics of Steven Spielberg, such as Close Encounters and ET.

On the response to Super 8…

I tell Abrams that it’s like watching a film made in 1979. “I’m so happy you said that. I said to Larry Fong, director of photography (whom I met when I was 12 through Super 8 film ’cos he was a friend of the guy across the street), I don’t want to make this like a ‘found footage’ movie. I want it to look like the way you remember Close Encounters looking. It was such a desperate goal we had, to try and give people that experience. As if to confirm the same Peter Pan Complex that is often diagnosed as the secret of Spielberg’s success, Abrams adds, “Making movies was about acting the way we thought adults act.”

“Revisiting that period was truly surreal, because there would be moments when I was on the set and I would find a TV Guide and I’d flip through it, and remember reading that cover to cover when I was a kid, or looking at some of those models, or games, or posters, or Wacky Packages cards, and having this weird sort of sense-memory of being in my room at that age... and about what was in the drawers... so the whole spirit of the movie was a throwback.”

Super 8 had only just been screened for critics when I met Abrams, so he was hungry for initial feedback, which he absorbed with equal parts joy and relief: “I’m thrilled you feel that way! That’s fantastic! I couldn’t be more grateful! Oh wow!”

On the controversial Lost ending…

Although we’re here to discuss Super 8, I can’t allow this opportunity to talk about the epic Lost to pass by. Abrams co-created the series in 2004 for ABC with Damon Lindelof, from an initial pitch by Jeffrey Leiber. He and Lindelof wrote the pilot – which at between $10 million and $14 million was the most expensive in network history – but Abrams directed it. Then, in a boldly cavalier fashion, he relinquished control of this insanely ambitious project to Lindelof and fellow “showrunner” Carlton Cuse.

So you watched the majority of Lost like the rest of us, on the telly?

“Ohmigod. Completely! For me, it was kind of like watching a child go off and win a Gold at the Olympics! I couldn’t believe what that kid was capable of. It was a wonderful thing to see.”

The ending didn’t please everyone – some felt it was too soppy. What’s your take on it?

“If you were looking for some kind of technical explanation, you had missed the point. How you could look at that ending, which was beautifully rendered, and not find it wonderful and satisfying is beyond me. I believe that if people didn’t like the ending, they didn’t like it because it was gone.”

On 25 years in the business…

Married for 15 years to PR executive Katie McGrath, with whom he has three children, two sons aged 13 and 5 and a daughter aged 12, Abrams retains a childlike sense of wonder that seems to keep all cynicism at bay. Not bad for someone who’s worked in the cut-throat worlds of Hollywood and network TV for 25 years.

Having successfully reinvigorated the Mission: Impossible franchise, co-writing and directing number three (Sunday August 7, Film4) in 2006, and rebooted the tired Star Trek brand with an “origins” story he directed and co-produced in 2009 (and which went on to be the biggest hit of the series), it’s tempting to see Abrams as a one-man revenge of the nerds.

“Oh, completely!” he hoots. “The reason I even got into movies is because I wasn’t the most popular kid: I wasn’t into sports, I wasn’t in the library studying all the time, I wasn’t the kid playing chess or Dungeons and Dragons – I was in no group. And when I was eight and went to Universal Studios and saw how animation is done, make-up, special effects, it was immediately clear that this was the best thing in the world. I suddenly had a clear path.”