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‘Super 8’ Started As A Heist Movie & 9 More Things Learned From J.J. Abrams & Steven Spielberg

'Super 8' Started As A Heist Movie & 9 More Things Learned From J.J. Abrams & Steven Spielberg

After a year of secrecy, J.J. Abrams‘ nostalgia-fueled monster movie “Super 8” is finally done — the film is locked, it has screened for critics (a Playlister has seen it, although we can’t yet tell you what we thought) and it hits theaters in a couple of weeks. While most of the details are still under wraps, Abrams, and producer Steven Spielberg, have started doing the PR rounds ahead of the film’s release two weeks from now.

Empire have some pretty ace access with the film: not only does their latest issue, which hit newsstands yesterday, have an extensive feature on the film, but they also talked to Abrams and Spielberg for a lengthy video interview on their site. While they kept characteristically tight-lipped about the film, there’s a few interesting tidbits that are worth checking out. Below, the ten most interesting pieces of info. For more, check out the video on Empire’s site, or get the July 2011 issue of the magazine.

1. The idea started as a heist movie, and is influenced by Truffaut’s “Day for Night.”
Spielberg: “The idea we had discussed was a kind of Hitchcockian, Zapruder-type 8mm film with something just in the corner of 4 and 5 frames that was going to unlock this entire mystery, bring this other genre over basically what was going to be ‘Day for Night‘ but American. I thought that JJ could have made a great, personal film just about these kids, but we wanted a lot of people to see this movie and so when JJ came up with the idea of bringing in another genre… at one point we thought about a heist movie.”

2. Abrams had crossed paths with Spielberg once before — in fact, “Let Me In” director Matt Reeves had to talk Abrams out of stealing a frame from an early Super 8 short of Spielberg’s that the pair were asked to restore as teenagers. Abrams: “The film said, ‘Written and Directed by Steve Spielberg.’ And I said, ‘Matt, we have to steal one frame.’ He was like, ‘No!’ It wasn’t like we had to make a new edit. We could just take one frame off, they would never know. Matt was like, ‘No, we can’t do that, it’s wrong, it’s immoral.’ And I’m like ‘Matt!’ So we didn’t do it. For years, I regretted it. I still sort of regret it”

3. The film is influenced by Spielberg, but it’s not an homage as such. Abrams: “People said ‘Is this meant to be an homage to Steven?’ and that was never the intent, the goal, it was meant to revisit a time in my life. But that time was so encaptured by the films that I loved, and in many cases those movies were movies that Steven had done. There are others film as well, there are horror movies I love, adventure movies I love… but when I think about that time in my life, it’s impossible to separate cinema from that time from being that kid, making those movies. So it actually connected to that type of film.”

4. But it’s a little embarrassing when one of your influences is also your producer. Abrams: “He never pulled the ‘I’m Steven Spielberg’ card. It’s a crazy thing doing a movie with Steven. All the references you make sound like you are being sycophantic. You are collaborating with him, just wanting to talk about story, and you are like, ‘I just sound like a kiss-ass.'”

5. It is, however, useful when making a monster movie to have a walking encyclopedia of aliens, past, present & future, on the team. Abrams: “The greatest thing about working with Steven on this is that he knows every alien that has ever been put to film, and most of them that are coming to film. It was a good thing, because I could show him a certain design and he’s be like “You know, in ‘Cowboys & Aliens‘ there’s an alien that already has this” I’d be like ‘Shit!’ They always had the steal on us.”

6. Not that the monster will be all over the movie. Abrams: “Not just about ‘Super 8,’ but movies in general, the monster is almost the secret that people don’t really want to know the answer to. When I was working on ‘Lost,’ “What’s the island… don’t tell me!” they would literally tell me not to tell them the second they ask the question, and I think monsters, you want to see the monster, but at the same time there’s something wonderful about it being withheld.”

7. The film has autobiographical elements, not just from Abrams, but from Spielberg, and even other key crew members; take the inciting incident, the giant train wreck glimpsed in the film’s teaser trailers. Spielberg: “My first movie was a train wreck movie. My first 8mm movie I did was with my electric trains, I crashed them into each other, and that was the first time I ever came up with the idea of ‘Well, if a train is going left to right, and then you’ve got a train going right to left, and they meet in the middle on your third cut, you create a little story,” and that was how I figured that out. I felt a little bit like the ape in ‘2001,’ with the bone… The first movie I ever saw was ‘The Greatest Show on Earth,’ which had that spectacular train wreck in it.”

Abrams: “Ben Burtt [the legendary sound designer behind ‘Star Wars‘ and ‘Wall-E‘ among others) did the sound design, and he brought with him one day a copy of this Super 8 film that he made when he was a teenager, that was about a train wreck, a WW2 film, and it so was much like what happened in this movie, it was uncanny. I was jealous, wishing I had a train wreck to go to when I was a kid.”

8. Abrams tried to keep the style as close to the 1979 setting as possible, but is aware he had to make concessions for modern audiences. Abrams “‘If you look at the way Michael Bay edits on Avid, they are these amazing, visceral, frenetic experiences. I wanted Super 8 to breathe more than a movie now normally might. Having said that, I also know it wouldn’t have the same power if the train crash looked like a 1979 train crash. So this movie is sort of a cocktail of the feeling I got seeing movies of the era that Steven made, with what I know you need to do to convey an idea now.”

9. But the soundtrack at least is firmly in-period, including The Commodores, Blondie, Cheap Trick, The Cars, ELO and, most notably, for a key sing-along sequence, The Knack’s “My Sharona”. Abrams: “Of course they’d never heard it before. All day the kids were like ‘Never gonna stop, give it up’ and the crew would go ‘Oh, that infernal song!’ We did it in one take, and what was great about it was that they were just real; they were 14-year-old boys sitting on a curb singing a song.”

10. Even having directed the mega-hit “Star Trek,” Abrams was terrified of working with children. Abrams: “I will say after the first couple of days I was really scared on a level I can’t even describe. It was a cold-sweat-level scared, and I realized that it was mostly because they were so scared. The first couple of days were big days. We had 300 extras. We had multiple cameras. One of the big things I learned is that if you’re going to do a movie with kids, start small. By the third day, they started to relax and get it. But I’ll tell you that I was in a panic. Seriously”

“Super 8” hits theaters on Friday, June 10th.

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