"I've got property damage, I've got theft and now I've got nine people missing. There are things happening around here that I can't explain."
The deputy sheriff in an Ohio town has a population in panic as military forces scramble to cover up something…they won't reveal what …that is stalking the streets. It all starts as the deputy's teenage son and his friends are out late one night at an unused train station. It's the perfect setting for a key scene in the homemade zombie movie they are shooting with a "Super 8" film camera.
The scenes of kids fumbling their way as they learn to make a movie are familiar to writer-director J.J. Abrams. He did the same thing as a teenager, years before he created the TV hits Alias and Lost as well as the recent feature film of Star Trek.
"Super 8 is inspired initially by the desire to go back in time and tell a story about being a kid making those movies on Super 8 that were often not quite as good as you wanted them to be," explains Abrams.
|Left to right: Kyle Chandler plays Jackson Lanb, Joel Courtney plays Joe Lamb, Elle Fanning plays Alice Dainard and Ron Eldard plays Louis Dainard in SUPER 8, from Paramount Pictures.|
It also echoes the experience of producer Steven Spielberg, who got his start making amateur eight-millimeter movies.
"If you want to be a movie director, you've got to start somewhere," notes Spielberg. "It's a lot easier today because it's so easy to get a video camera, go out and make a movie and you can put it right on YouTube. In a sense, not only can kids today make their own movies, they've got distribution. We didn't have that in the eight-millimeter days. We had to lug a projector, plug it in to somebody's wall, put up a screen and show it to someone patient enough to sit there for five minutes and watch..... J.J. began his career the same way."
"Production value! Gary, you put film in the camera, right?"
|Left to right: Gabriel Basso plays Martin, Ryan Lee plays Cary, Joel Courtney plays Joe Lamb, and Riley Griffiths plays Charles in SUPER 8, from Paramount Pictures.|
In Super 8, as the kids are making their movie, the young director spots a real train coming down the track toward them. They scramble and start their scene as the train roars by. But it jumps the tracks in a spectacular wreck that they inadvertently capture on film.
"Guys, watch out! Oh my God!"
J.J. Abrams pulls out all the stops, creating a frighteningly realistic disaster. He says it had to be a part of the story and not only big explosions.
"There's a weird thing that happens when you connect a person to an event," Abrams says. "Suddenly the event has different meaning. It's not just the event, which is maybe cool and interesting in itself, but suddenly it is relatable and it's a relative experience. So as the kids are running [from the train], I wanted it to be what they would remember the train crash being as opposed to technically how the train crashed."
|Center left to right: Joel Courtney (as Joe Lamb) and Riley Griffiths (as Charles) discuss a scene with director/writer/producer J.J. Abrams on the set of SUPER 8, from Paramount Pictures.|
It turns out the crash is not an accident, and the kids are the first to learn what's on the train and why the twisted wreckage is sealed off by the military. Abrams would rather not reveal those secrets beforehand so audiences can see them as the characters in the film do.
"Between clips and trailers and commercials and magazines and online, it just feels like people are force-fed so much stuff. So to try to keep it a little surprising for the audience is part of the goal," Abrams explains.
However, it's science fiction and Abrams compares Super 8 to Spielberg films that he watched growing up, like E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
"They are all about suburban American ordinary people going through something that was hyper-real," Abrams says. "There are fundamental and relatable relationships, broken families in some form, often friendships that are really critical and important, often kids at the center of the films, parent-child stories, first love …and clearly a spectacle in a sense of something you never see in normal life that was happening; but there was a big heart."
|Left to right: Zach Millsl plays Preston, Elle Fanning plays Alice Dainard, Riley Griffiths plays Charles, Ryan Lee plays Cary, Joel Courtney plays Joe Lamb and Gabriel Basso plays Martin in SUPER 8, from Paramount Pictures.|
Abrams scoured the country to find kids with no professional acting experience, like 14-year-old Joel Courtney of Idaho, who plays the central character. The exception is Elle Fanning, also 14, who has been on TV and in movies since she was two.