The new J.J. Abrams film “Super 8” reaches theaters today with a coming-of-age story about young, amateur filmmakers who follow a spidery space alien on the loose in Ohio during summer 1979.
To those who know the 44-year-old Abrams, that plot seems only slightly more fantastic than the real-life, three-decade story that led to the film.
“Super 8” was written and directed by Abrams, but it was produced by his childhood hero, Steven Spielberg, and at times feels like a $50-million valentine to that older filmmaker’s movies about aliens, family and family alienation.
Their cross-generation collaboration on the film began, technically, two years ago when Spielberg took a call from Abrams, heard the proposed title and agreed on the spot.
But the project has a spiritual history that traces to 1982 when an article was published in the Los Angeles Times under the headline “Beardless Wonders of Film Making.”
It was pegged to a local festival called “The Best Teen Super 8mm Films of ’81.” As the name suggests, it put the spotlight on acne-aged auteurs who made backyard movies but dreamed of studio soundstages.
The most ink was given to Abrams, then just 15, who said: “I see stuff by Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter, and I want to do it too. I’ve always wanted to be a director. I did a clay animation thing on my parents’ home movie camera when I was 7, and I’ve been making films ever since.”
The newspaper reached the office of Spielberg and his assistant, Kathleen Kennedy, who soon was reaching for the phone.
Kennedy, who would later be one of Hollywood’s elite producers, had an unlikely job offer for Abrams and his pal Matt Reeves, another teen filmmaker quoted in the article: Would the pair be willing to do the frame-by-frame repair work needed to save the frayed and fragile 8mm movies that Spielberg had made in his youth?
This was less than a year after the release of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” so it’s a bit shocking that Spielberg’s team, with all of its resources, would entrust the one-of-a-kind artifacts to some wide-eyed kids.
But that’s just what happened, and the fragile reels soon arrived at the Santa Monica home of Reeves (who would go on to direct the cinema verite monster movie “Cloverfield,” and last year’s well-regarded “Let Me In.”).
“On one hand it was unnerving because the movies we were repairing were documenting the earliest work of one of the greatest filmmakers of all time,” Abrams recalls, sitting and chatting at Bad Robot, his Santa Monica offices that are like some sleek museum of the pop culture past with vintage toys, movie props, board games and other florid relics.
“On the other hand it was weird to see that his movies were as rough as mine in a way and as rough as my friend’s in a way. It was heartening and also somehow scary: ‘How could he have made movies where the cuts look like that?’ ”
“It gave me this bizarre sense of connection to a man whose work I loved.”
The connection is visible to others, too. In 2006, when Abrams inked a $55 million production deal with Paramount Pictures and Warner Bros. Television, Paramount Chairman Brad Grey described him as “the next Steven Spielberg.”
Spielberg says he has watched Abrams’ career with interest – the television success with “Felicity,” “Alias” and “Lost,” and the move into feature films with “Mission: Impossible 3” in 2006 and “Star Trek” in 2009.
He’s also been a mentor. Abrams said that when he was weighing the offer to direct “Star Trek,” he turned to two people: his wife, Katie McGrath, and Spielberg. “And,” Abrams said, “they both said to do it.”
He’s now weighing the decision whether to direct the “Trek” sequel. But even if he does, Spielberg says the much smaller film arriving today will be the true signature moment for Abrams.
“Even though J.J. is seasoned from television and certainly from two humongous productions, to me, and I say this selfishly, this is J.J.’s first real film – a film that came out of his heart, that he wrote and directed and it isn’t part of a franchise that was once someone else’s television series and brainchild,” Spielberg says. “This is pure J.J.”
Not everyone has been so kind to “Super 8” and its visual and spiritual romance with movies such as “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial,” “Close Encounters of Third Kind” and “The Goonies.”
After seeing the scenes of feathered-haired boys on bikes, mysterious lights in the sky and government flashlights in the night, online reviewer Devin Faraci wrote that the film never works completely except as “cheap nostalgia porn.”
It’s a line that will make Paramount Pictures executives shudder, but Spielberg is unfazed.
“I was interested in how J.J. was going to use all the movies that have influenced him since his adolescent years into his first real, original screenplay,” he says.
“We’re all responsive to all our influences. My movies are all very beholden to Walt Disney, Alfred Hitchcock and David Lean. All of us have to go back to the generation that we grew up with, and we’re influenced by all that, and it comes out in the wash.”
The film started as separate projects. When Abrams called Spielberg two years ago with a movie called “Super 8,” there was no sci-fi element; the movie was going to be a pure coming-of-age tale.
Abrams says some frustration followed because “it lacked a higher purpose” in its plot and felt a bit aimless. So he and Spielberg decided to mash up the story with a genre film.
For a moment they flirted with a heist movie motif, but then Abrams thought about another one of his back-burner projects, an alien-on-the-loose story that was wanting for memorable characters.
“He didn’t just want make a movie about a group of kids who in the process of making a little 8-millimeter drama discover a tremendous event – the biggest event in the world,” says Spielberg. “J.J. from the very outset was talking about a very interpersonal story about families.
“One family has suffered a tragedy; the other has suffered a breakdown. That’s the context of the movie.”
The finished film is, in a way, three stories projected on one screen – the history of Spielberg, the childhood of Abrams and of the characters from the script.
The huge train crash in the film, for instance, takes on different shadings when you find out that the first movie Spielberg remembers watching in a theater was Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Greatest Show on Earth,” which featured a spectacular collision of trains.
For Abrams, it all goes back to that day in 1982 when two reels arrived in his home like artifacts from another world that he desperately wanted to visit.
“It was more than seeing someone’s movie and saying, ‘You know, I bet I’d get along with him.’ It was more than seeing a painting and thinking, ‘I bet I know what matters to that artist,’ ” he says.
“This was an oddly personal thing never intended for viewing – at least not in the context I was seeing it in. I always kept that in my heart and head.”