Super 8 – BEHIND THE SCENES
BEHIND THE SCENES with JJ Abrams
At the heart of “Super 8,” are six kids in a 1970s Ohio steel town whose summer dreams of making their first Super 8 monster movie masterpiece are suddenly interrupted. After witnessing a horrific train accident, the mysterious events surrounding the crash reverberates through their friendships, their families and forever alters the way they view their lives.
And, if the heart of “Super 8″ is the group of kids, the soul behind “Super 8″ are two filmmakers who themselves cut their own teeth on 8mm movie-making when they were younger. J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg both discovered filmmaking in their childhoods, making Super 8 and 8mm format movies (respectively), which laid the groundwork for all of their big-screen adventures today.
As a director, Abrams is known for melding character, humor and suspense within his films “Mission: Impossible III” and “Star Trek.” The producer behind the monster-thriller “Cloverfield” is also responsible for such television series as “Felicity,” “Alias,” “Fringe,” and the groundbreaking ABC series “Lost.”
Spielberg, the filmmaker behind some of the most successful and memorable movies of all time including “E.T.,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” has been an inspiration to Abrams since he was a kid. It was their mutual love of Super 8 films (and a little bit of fate) that would bring these two filmmakers together again and again. Growing up, Abrams first discovered the joys of a Super 8 camera — a format introduced by Eastman Kodak in 1965 — at the age of 8, when he began shooting his home movies themed around the things that he loved as a boy: chases, battles and monsters.
A few years later, Abrams and close childhood friend Matt Reeves (director of “Cloverfield”) had entered films in a Super 8 film festival and were featured in a Los Angeles Times article entitled, “The Beardless Wonders.” Shortly thereafter, they were approached by Spielberg’s assistant (then Kathleen Kennedy) and asked if they’d be interested in repairing Spielberg’s old 8mm movies; ones he had filmed during his own childhood. When JJ was just 15 years old, he and Matt Reeves took a job cutting together Steven’s 8mm home movies.
What initially inspired them both would draw the two together again many years later. “We started talking about the kinds of films we love to see and also about the kinds of film we’d love to make together someday. We landed immediately on our mutual history of making 8mm films. We both thought it would be cool to make a movie about young people having an adventure making movies,” recalls Spielberg.
Abrams wanted to create “Super 8″ in the tradition of the movies he fell in love with: quintessential tales set in a community where the daily struggles of work, love and family might seem ordinary until they are abruptly interrupted by extraordinary, frightening and fantastical events. “I wanted audiences to get all the action, humor, suspense and pyrotechnics of a summer popcorn movie, but there is also a real heart to “Super 8″ and, for me, that is really the most important part,” Abrams explains. “Despite all the wild stuff that happens in the story, this is the first movie I’ve made that has felt so much a part of my life.”
In developing “Super 8,” Abrams loved the idea of fledgling kid filmmakers as characters, but was in search of a story to drive it. That’s when he decided to fuse the concept with another idea that had long been percolating in his imagination. “I had an idea about a train transferring contents from Area 51,” he says, referring to the top-secret military installation in remote Nevada rumored to store wreckage from unidentified aircraft and other unusual phenomena. “That was a premise without characters, and then I had these great characters who needed a premise. So I thought if they came together that could be a compelling movie.”
Spielberg agreed. “When J.J. came back to me and suggested taking the idea of kids making Super 8 movies and blending that with a larger, sci-fi event, where something appears in their film that sets off a mystery and crisis throughout the town, to me that was really intriguing,” he says. “I felt it was going to be both a movie about the 70s movie-making culture and it was also going to be about what all that led to.”
Fellow producer Bryan Burk had also met Abrams through his love of Super 8. “Super 8 filmmaking was always a part of my life,” Burk notes. “I first met J.J. because I heard about this kid who was making Super 8 films and had cut Spielberg’s 8mm home movies. It was a background we all shared. I think the fun of coming up with ideas and just going out and making the movies is still at the core of everything we’ve done.”
Burk loved the idea of melding an intimate, heartfelt story about small-town, adolescent friends with an epic, creative fantasy. The script for “Super 8″ was also an amalgamation of Abrams’ greatest passions including his love of sci-fi invention, his penchant for humor-fueled adventures and his fascination with the crossroads where the everyday and the completely inexplicable meet.
As the full breadth of Abrams’ vision for “Super 8″ began to gel, it did so around two abstract ideas that became central to the production. The first is what Abrams has long called “The Mystery Box,” the idea that people are most compelled by an unseen mystery, and that a movie should have all the potent unpredictability of an unopened box, out of which absolutely anything could emerge.
Abrams notes that in an age of instant information, it can be a 24-7 challenge to keep audiences literally in the dark until the movie begins, but that hasn’t stopped him from trying to give people the thrill of that experience. “I think if you can create something original and not spoil it for the audience beforehand, the experience is so much stronger,” he says.
The other idea he hoped to weave through “Super 8″ was the free-wheeling, hand-made spirit of Super 8 moviemaking itself. “Not only did the making of this movie bring back memories, but it paralleled the way we used to make movies,” he says. “It’s all about the spirit of storytelling, of creating an illusion that feels real, trying to scare people, to make them laugh, to make them feel something. All that stuff is the same for us now as it was then.”
Spielberg was also exhilarated by all that Abrams brought to it. “J.J. really has an ability to bridge generations,” observes the filmmaker. “He brings a love for the way movies used to be, but then he combines that with a real skill for making the kinds of movies people love right now. He understands what kids are talking about and thinking about today, so he’s as relevant to the youngest generation as he is to mine. I think he’s simply one of the best motion picture storytellers around, bringing an extraordinary sense of camera, lighting, composition and narrative to everything he does.”
Spielberg adds, “With ‘Super 8,’ J.J. has made a movie that feels at once nostalgic and uniquely new. He beautifully blends a sci-fi story with the amazing dynamic of a group of kids, who behave in a way that is contemporary, but also universally captures the way kids always have been.”
Abrams was humbled by Spielberg’s hands-on involvement. “The time Steven spent working on this movie blew my mind because he’s got so much going on, how could he possibly find the time? Yet, he would sit for hours going over the script or in the editing room,” he recalls. “It was just surreal for me. It was really a privilege not only to work with him, but to work with him on a movie about a time in both of our lives that was of such seminal importance.”
The Kids of “Super 8″
For J.J. Abrams, the heart of “Super 8″ was always in the characters. Even as the most bizarre and unexplained events begin to unravel their once-quiet Ohio town, these characters are moving through very real relationships and experiences of loss and love. He knew that finding just the right mix of actors was going to be essential, so Abrams and his team began with a massive search.
The mission was to uncover fresh-faced young actors who would be fun for the audience to discover, but also an ensemble that could pull off that enchanted yet volatile chemistry that true childhood friends and rivals always seem to have.
Adds Bryan Burk: “What is great about this group of kids is that they all have that rare ability to let go enough that it never feels like they’re performing. I think it’s also a real testament to J.J. because he not only found just the right kids, he knew how to work with them.”
The final set of teens chosen was remarkably diverse. Some were seasoned pros while others had never acted professionally before at all. They hailed from across the nation: Elle Fanning (Alice Dainard) was originally from Conyers, Georgia; Joel Courtney (Joe Lamb) is from Moscow, Idaho; Gabriel Basso (Martin) from St. Louis, Missouri; Riley Griffiths (Charles) from Cedar City, Utah; Ryan Lee (Cary) from Austin, Texas; and Zach Mills, (Preston) from Lakewood, Ohio.
For the role of Alice, the filmmakers cast one of Hollywood’s fastest rising young actors: Elle Fanning, whose recent films include the award-winners “Babel,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and “Somewhere.” Fanning could not have been more excited to get the part.
“It was crazy,” recalls Elle. “It was a total surprise to hear back from J.J. himself. He said ‘Hey, Elle, this is J.J. Abrams, and it’s going to be so much fun working with you.’ I sort of burst inside, I wanted to scream, but of course I couldn’t because he was on the phone so I was like doing my little dance silently. Then, when he got off the phone, I just shouted. I was so excited!”
Abrams remembers being taken by surprise at Elle’s audition. “When Elle came in, my first thought is that she might be too young, because she was 12 and had to play 14,” he says, “but I soon realized she’s infinitely more sophisticated than I am! She has incredible poise, yet fit in perfectly with this goofy group of boys.”
Elle immediately fell in love with the complexity of Alice’s character. “She’s kind of a tough girl, a tomboy, and she’s had a hard life,” Elle explains. “Her mother is gone and her father is always drinking, so when the boys ask her to be part of their movie, she’s like ‘What the heck? I’ll do it.’ Then it turns into this whole incredible event for all of them.”
The opposite of Elle, Joel Courtney had never had any professional acting experience at all when he was offered “Super 8’s” lead role of Joe Lamb, a kid trying to come to grips with the sudden loss of his mother.
“I knew J.J. was taking a real chance on me and I didn’t want to let him down. I wanted to do a good job for him, myself and for everybody working on the film,” Joel explains.
Abrams adds, “I didn’t want the main character in ‘Super 8′ to be the director of the movies. I wanted him to be the kid who follows the director, who’s there because he’s lost his mother and is having a tough time with his father and is looking for his way.”
From the beginning, Joel understood why Joe devotes himself to making his friend’s Super 8 movie at a time in his life when nothing else is certain. “Joe’s mom has passed away and his dad, being the town deputy, is never really around,” Joel comments. “So, Joe finds his only comfort with his friends. His dad wants him to be a regular kid and play baseball, but Joe just wants to make movies. He’s in charge of all the makeup, sound and special effects and he loves that stuff.”
Most of all, Joel was kept intrigued by the mounting tension of the story. “I love the mystery of it and it is a total adrenaline rush,” he says.
Portraying Martin, the gullible kid who often finds himself the butt of his friends’ jokes while starring in their monster movie, is Gabriel Basso, who stars on Showtime’s acclaimed show “The Big C.” Abrams notes that Gabriel is the utter opposite of his character. “Gabriel is incredibly smart and I think you have to be to play dumb well,” the director notes.
As soon as Abrams explained the basic outline of the story to him, Gabriel was hooked. “I love that it’s a story about kids who witness something they shouldn’t have seen,” he says. “They’ve got their hands in the forbidden cookie jar.”
Another newcomer to film is Riley Griffiths who makes his feature debut in “Super 8″ playing Charles, the driven, perfectionist visionary of the group and the writer/director of the movie they’re making. “I love my character because he’s so determined and serious about making movies,” says Riley. “Things like ‘production value’ are really, really important to him, but his friends don’t get it.”
Riley recalls that J.J. Abrams posed a big question when he told him he got the role. “He asked me: ‘Are you ready for this?’ and I said ‘I am so ready,'” he laughs.
Notes Abrams: “Riley was amazing when he came in, but he had never been on a set before so he had a big challenge.”
Riley stepped up, becoming so obsessed with slipping into the role of a would-be director that he began shadowing Abrams around the set, picking up on the director’s style and mannerisms. “I just watched how J.J. directs and then I tried to transfer all of that onto Charles” he says. “J.J. also told me all about Super 8 cameras and how this was the same camera he had as a kid so that was really cool.”
Ryan Lee, who plays the group’s most mischievous member, Cary, and has already been seen in diverse film and television roles, was a huge fan of Abrams’ “Star Trek.” “I had never watched ‘Star Trek’ on TV before, because to me, that was my parents’ era, but the way J.J. did it was so cool,” he says. “When I found out I would be auditioning for J.J., my heart started pounding.”
The feeling was mutual for the filmmakers. “Ryan was spectacular in his audition,” says Burk. “He was hysterically funny and actually the first actor we wanted to cast.”
After winning the role, Ryan was especially excited to play Cary. “He’s the kid who’s always making trouble and having a really good time. He’s a lot of fun,” he says.
Rounding out the group of fledgling filmmakers is Preston, the confident know-it-all who is one of the stars of the kids’ production. Playing Preston is Zach Mills who has been widely seen in film and television, including roles in “Hollywoodland,” “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium” and Clint Eastwood’s “Changeling”.
Zach got a kick out of Preston. “He’s smart to the point of being a little obnoxious,” he confesses. “He really knows his stuff and he loves giving out facts to people, which gets interesting when lots of very weird things start happening!”
He also had a blast with his co-stars. “The friendships in the movie are very real,” Zach notes. “We were always hanging out on the set and having fun together even when we weren’t filming.”
“We’ve become really good friends, almost like family,” Joel explains. “It’s been so amazing to have kids our own age to talk to.”
Elle sums up: “As soon as we started rehearsing, we just clicked, and became best friends. We had so much fun together that just being together became another cool part of making the movie.”
The Adults of “Super 8″
As the kids in “Super 8″ grapple with seeing something they should never have discovered, they are brought into conflict with parents, teachers and authorities of all kinds, each played by an adult cast that includes Kyle Chandler, Noah Emmerich and Ron Eldard.
Chandler, well known for his roles on television’s “Friday Night Lights” and “Early Edition,” plays Deputy Jackson Lamb, Joe’s father, who begins to investigate the unusual disappearances and other odd happenings that suddenly afflict the town. A hard-working law officer, but struggling widower, the deputy is drawn into a consuming mystery at a time when his emotions are most raw and his son most desperately needs him.
Abrams says the key to Chandler’s performance is a slightly broken-hearted quality that shines through his harsh exterior. “Kyle is an incredible actor,” says the director, “wildly likeable and a great Everyman. He plays Jackson with a strength and a toughness, yet lets you see that, despite not being the best dad, he really is a broken soul, and therefore sympathetic.”
“His wife has passed away and now he has to care for a son who he doesn’t understand all that well,” Chandler explains. “He wants to protect Joe as much as possible, but he also sees that Joe is growing up and he’s going to go on adventures with his friends, whether Jackson likes it or not.”
He was also fascinated by what Jackson Lamb witnesses all around him as the town is overtaken by fear and anxiety. “People in the town start doing what we all do when we can’t solve a mystery — they start pointing fingers at each other,” he notes. “A shadow starts to pervade this little Ohio town and then you have these young kids who are right in the thick of something huge, even as the police are trying to figure things out.”
Working with newcomer Joel Courtney as his son was a particularly special moment for Chandler. “I can only imagine what it would be like to come onto a large, intimidating, complicated set like this, having never worked on a movie before,” he muses. “Joel handled it so well, meeting every challenge.”
Noah Emmerich, whose film roles range from “The Truman Show” to “Little Children,” and the television hit “The Walking Dead,” takes the role of the hardened, mystery-laden Air Force colonel who comes to town on a mission so covert he can tell no one what he is really looking for.
Emmerich could not resist the chance to work with Abrams. “J.J. was the big draw for me,” he says. “It’s rare that you come across such a masterful storyteller. You know that whatever he does, you’re going to be in good hands. He has that ability to create a deep sense of mystery for audiences, to really make the viewers lean forward in their chairs and ignite their curiosity. J.J. and I were both magicians as kids, and I think J.J. has somehow brought that quality of being able to elicit wonder and intrigue to his movies.”
As for his secretive character, Emmerich simply states: “He’s a dark and scary guy and I’m sure I’ll be frightening kids who see me for the next decade!”
Providing a local foil for Jackson Lamb is Ron Eldard, the actor who began his career on the hit medical show “E.R.,” then headed into a film career with credits including “Sleepers,” “Black Hawk Down” and “Freedomland.”
As Alice’s angry, troubled father, Louis Dainard, Eldard describes him as “a guy who is really struggling. He’s struggling with his work at the steel mill, he’s struggling because his wife has left him and he’s struggling with a daughter who is coming of age. He doesn’t particularly want her out with a bunch of boys, but she wants to be part of these budding filmmakers.”
That brings Louis into conflict with Jackson Lamb just as their kids become closer as friends. “They’re two very competitive characters,” remarks Eldard. “Once Jackson and Lewis were really good friends, but stuff happens and now they’re on opposite sides of the tracks. Jackson is a law man and Louis is a renegade but, only as things get worse, they find that they’re going to have to help each other.”
“Super 8’s” Movie Inside a Movie
Inside the story of Super 8 is another story: J.J. Abrams decided early on not to write a formal script for the movie that the kids are shooting within the film but, instead, to let it emerge organically, in-the-moment, from the cast’s imagination.
The filmmakers were impressed. “They all had an amazing knack for picking up filmmaking really quickly,” observes Bryan Burk.
Adds Burk: “What I hope and get excited about with ‘Super 8′ is that kids seeing this film might be inspired to go out and make their own movies. There’s something magical about that time when all that was required to make a movie was convincing your friends to spend their summer devoted to the project. I think J.J. will give people that bug, when they realize all you need is a camera, a group of friends and an idea to make great things happen.”
Abrams observes that aspiring moviemakers growing up today have a wealth of digital technology at their fingertips that his generation could only dream about. “The technology has been so democratized that, whereas in 1979 it was a real exception for a kid to have a camera, today they are ubiquitous,” he says. “Every phone has a video camera. The ability to make a home movie that looks the way you can today is something that never existed when I was a kid, but I wish it had.”
The 70s World of “Super 8″
If the cast and filmmakers are the heart and soul of “Super 8″, the equally vital skeleton of the film is its visual design. It brings to life a kids’ eye-view of a typical late 70s, working-class, Midwest town and then catapults it into fantastical events, which turn the carefully crafted reality of the place inside out.
“J.J. very much wanted the feel of the movie to be 1979 but, at the same time, he wanted to give audiences the kind of visuals that only today’s special effects make possible,” notes executive producer Guy Riedel. “There’s that sweetness and lightness evoked by 70s movies, but there’s also no doubt that it is very much a 21st Century J.J. Abrams movie.”
The merging of styles began with the work of director of photography Larry Fong (“300,” “Watchmen”), who Abrams first started working with back in the Super 8 days and has continued to collaborate with on several television series, including “Lost.” Fong is not only one of Hollywood’s top action cinematographers, but also a highly accomplished magician and Abrams wanted him to bring that same sense of the out-of-the-ordinary and sudden surprise to the imagery of “Super 8.”
Says Abrams: “Larry was a kid making movies across the street when first I met him. We became friends and have remained friends since. It was so much fun working with him on this movie because it reminded us so much of what we loved to do as kids.”
Fong’s visuals, which can move from the intimate to the eye-popping, impressed the filmmakers, but it was his prestidigitation that captivated the young cast. “Larry Fong is a mind-blowing magician,” states Joel Courtney. “Every once in a while he would show us how to do a cool trick, but the best part was not knowing how he did them.”
Adds Ryan Lee: “Larry really understood that we needed to have fun to keep us from getting too stressed out on the set. His tricks constantly kept us guessing.”
Meanwhile, the trick of bringing to life the prototypical American mill town of Lillian, Ohio fell to production designer Martin Whist, who previously collaborated with J.J. Abrams on “Cloverfield.”
Whist always expects a fun read when Abrams is involved, but the script for “Super 8″ took him aback. “It read like an immediate classic,” says the designer. “It had all the elements of movies I loved growing up, but it also felt as though it was the next generation of that kind of story telling.”
He knew from that first reading that he wanted to create a very well-defined, detailed world for these characters and then shake it all up. “My first conversations with J.J. revolved around the fact that we wanted to make everything about the town feel textural, tangible and believable for the era,” Whist recalls. “We had to establish a strong sense of everyday reality, so that when the fantasy elements come into it, the surreal becomes a haunting layer over something that feels very familiar.”
Whist and Abrams both wanted to be as true to the vibrant styles of the late 70s as they could. “We wanted it to be subtle, but the era is an ever present visual influence in the film, especially in the strong colors.” Whist explains. “They stand out because we don’t really use a lot of those colors anymore like olive, burnt orange and ochre. I think I used more shades of brown in this movie than I ever have in my life before!”
Whist continues: “J.J. helped us a lot with the research. He has a great collection of Super 8 magazines from the past, which contained a lot of ads. Looking at all that stuff really cued our own memories and then we would just start brainstorming as to what to create for each character. To me, the secret to creating the authenticity of an era is to be understated. It’s the cumulative effect of small, visceral moments that make you feel you’re in another time, and that’s what we aimed for.”
Costume designer Ha Nguyen (“Shooter,” “Mask”) also found much of her research material in magazines and catalogs; especially in circa 1970s clothing catalogues, which revealed what regular Midwesterners were sporting in that in era.
“I looked at some real school yearbooks from the late 70s,” comments Nguyen. “One was from Ohio, another from Texas and one from Indiana. I compared them to the clothing catalogues I had and it was also pretty much the mid-western clothing that was selling, so it all fit together. We didn’t want the wild 70s styles you might see in fashion layouts. We wanted people to look real.”
With such a large number of military costumes needed for the latter half of the film, Nguyen brought in a Military Costumer, N. Edward Fincher, to work with her. “Ed took care of all the uniforms for us to make sure it was all done very authentically,” she says.
For the main characters, Nguyen set out to highlight six very distinct, young personalities. “Each kid has his or her own completely unique look, with different patterns and colors. Some are a little quirkier, like Charles, and some are a bolder and brighter, like Cary,” Nguyen explains. “We especially had a lot of fun with Joe’s clothing which changes as he goes from being more soft-spoken to really gaining confidence. The colors he wears get stronger and stronger, building towards the climax.”
Dressing Elle Fanning as Alice was another intriguing challenge. “The description of Alice in the script was that, even though she is still a kid, she is also very beautiful,” says Nguyen. “That’s not hard to get across with Elle because she, herself, is absolutely stunning. J.J. also wanted her to be a bit tomboyish. I found softer fabrics for her t-shirts to give her a little more shape, but still kept her tomboy look by using a slightly rougher fabric for the outerwear.”
Fanning sums up the cast’s reaction to the costumes: “They totally transported us back in time. I was mesmerized by them. I’ve always loved vintage clothing. It’s just fun to wear totally different clothes because it allows you to be a totally different person.”
Beyond the look of “Super 8″ is another key layer: Michael Giacchino’s score, which challenged him to meld the fun-loving sounds of the 70s with the roller-coaster emotions of a dramatic thriller. An Oscar® winner for “Up” (Original Score), Giacchino has collaborated with Abrams on all of his films.
“Like the rest of us, Michael made Super 8 movies as a kid and he told us ‘I have to score this movie,'” recalls Burk. “He approached it completely from the character’s point of view and he and J.J. spent a lot of time talking about everything that was happening emotionally in the script. Music is always at the center of J.J.’s films, and Michael is always right there with him.”
Shooting in the Steel Belt
To create the 1970s steel town for “Super 8,” the production journeyed to Weirton, West Virginia, which lies on a narrow strip of land smack between Eastern Ohio and Pennsylvania, on the Ohio River. The town’s striking skyline, dominated by its sprawling, central steel mill, made it a perfect visual match for the quietly rugged, hard-working American town J.J. Abrams envisioned as the backdrop for his story.
Explains production designer Martin Whist: “Weirton is a part of the American steel belt, much like the town in our story. It was great because not only did it have the right feel of a once-strong steel town, but it still had all the bones for us to make it look like 1979.”
“I always liked the idea of setting the film in a small mill town,” says Abrams. “My father grew up in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and I always remember visiting as a kid, before mill towns ran into heartbreaking times. It felt like Anywhere, USA. There’s a sense in these towns that everything is real and relatable.”
Adds Bryan Burk: “It’s a town that has changed very little in the last 30 years. In fact, ‘The Deer Hunter’ was shot in Weirton and the town looks very much like it did then.”
A small town, with a population of under 20,000 inspired cast and crew with its enthusiasm. Says Kyle Chandler: “It’s not often that you get a chance to step into one of those places where people are so willing to let you be part of their lives. I immediately hooked up with the local Chief of Police, and spent a day driving around with him meeting all the other deputies. They gave me a real sense of what it’s like to live in a small town.”
A principal set was Main Street, where Whist forged the Olson Camera Store, the dream palace of the young filmmakers in town. “Creating the camera store was fun,” recalls Whist. “The store is a pivotal point in the story, so it needed to have a real presence. We brought in the electronics layers that are so specific to the period: the record players, the 8-track players, and then of course the Super 8’s.”
Whist was able to source all the vintage equipment locally. “My decorator, Fainche MacCarthy, found a guy with a camera store who still had all his stuff from 1979 stored,” Whist muses. “He had also kept all the boxes, so we were able clean up the old ones to make them look like new. It was an amazing find.”
The camera store was also a favorite for actor Noah Emmerich. “Entering that set, I experienced the most amazing flashback moment to when I was about 8 years-old. Looking at the shelves of the store brought back such incredible memories — the Kodachrome, and the flashcubes, wow. All that technology seems almost Paleolithic now.”
Other key locations included Weirton Heights, where Whist found the homes for Joe and Charles. “What we love about the houses that Joe and Charles live in is that they feel quintessential of this town,” Whist explains. “Joe’s house is a small, very working class home built in the 40s that really speaks to who he is and where he comes from. Charles’ house is more of a typical 70s home.”
Adding to the home-town atmosphere, hundreds of people from the local community participated in the film. Local kids played extras at the school, while adults chipped in on the military action scenes. They all became actors for a day to create one of the film’s most pivotal moments: a powder-keg of a town hall meeting, where Jackson Lamb must address a crowd of agitated and confused townspeople. The townsfolk were so excited about the shoot that Abrams recalls a few people actually offering to let him blow up their houses to create authentic effects.
“The people in Weirton could not have been more wonderful,” Abrams comments. “They could not have been more supportive, patient or, frankly, better actors. In the town hall scene, the group we had was extraordinary. No one was playing too large. People got into it in a way that was a dream. It wasn’t just about shooting there because it looked good. It was about shooting there because the people were so wonderful.”
The galvanizing effect participating in the film had on the town was equally thrilling for everyone to watch. “So many times I heard people say ‘We haven’t all gotten together, hanging out on our porches as a group, like this in years.’ They were having fun coming together as a community,” recalls Abrams.
For the film’s big battle scene, the production requisitioned tanks and personnel carriers from a museum and choreographed the action with the help of a military expert. As filming began, the night sky was set ablaze with gunfire and explosions, and the neighborhood echoed with the rumble of tanks. News spread for miles around and on-lookers gathered complete with lawn chairs and picnic baskets. Meanwhile, special notices went out to the media to alert people that there was no real invasion going on, so no one would panic!
For the film’s young cast, these action scenes, which build to a frenzy in the latter half of the film, were the thrill of their lives. “It was just amazing for us,” says Riley Griffiths. “We just had an incredible amount of fun.”
Following the shoot in West Virginia, the production returned to Los Angeles where Whist had carefully laid out the interiors of Joe and Charlie’s homes as mirror images to their personal histories.
“The look of the rooms was extremely important to us because you are helping to create a character,” Whist explains. “Here was where J.J. added a lot of the unspoken background to their lives, what their parents are like, what their economic state is, what values they grew up with. In Charlie’s case, everything is lively and active. The house is too small, but feels very happy and both parents work, so it’s a little more chaotic than most. By contrast, Joe is an only child and his mother has passed away just recently, so we wanted to make it a more somber and quiet place. J.J. and I thought a lot about what these kids would have in their room — what would be on the walls, what kinds of drawing and models would be in there. The key was to make them feel completely lived in.”
Prop master Robert S. Kyker even hunted down 70s-era models, including a Quasimodo model that Abrams remembered from his childhood. It all added up to a kind of instant time machine for the cast who had actually lived through 1979. Says Kyle Chandler: “I took one peek at Joe’s room and felt 14 years old again. Joe’s room could have been taken right out of my room when I was a kid, from the Testors paint, to the models hanging from the wall.”
Abrams also got a visceral rush from walking around the set. He sums up: “The set dressing was so crazy good that I could pick up almost anything, whether it was a box of Wacky Pack cards or any number of magazines, model or toys and it just instantly took me back.”
The VFX of “Super 8″
Much of the film was held tightly under wraps in an effort to keep the film’s climactic scenes a fun secret for the audience. A massive, oddly shaped cave was carved on a soundstage, creature effects were set into motion and the train-crash sequence and post-train-crash sets were forged.
To capture the staggering chain-reaction of the train crash itself, special effects supervisor Steve Riley designed a sledge-type battering ram weighing about 2,000 pounds that was shaped like the front piece of train. “We used a green sled pulled through the building by a crane with a 15,000 lb weight to create the visual effect,” he explains. “As it smashes through, we had a sequence of explosions going off to create the kind of debris that a crashing train would actually throw off. We used about thirty ounces of black powder and about four hundred feet of hundred-grain primer cord, which is a high explosive. It is very fast acting, so it gives off a very loud report and when it goes off. It’s very intense.”
For the post-crash site, which leaves the six student filmmakers in shock, Whist commandeered full-sized, full-dimension boxcars strewn at imagination-defying angles. “Everything was very heavy to maneuver, so we used cranes to place them, then heavy machinery to tear them up to look like they had been through this incredible collision,” he says.
VFX-Enhanced Set Design played a major role in allowing these scenes to feel real enough to stop your heart. “The way visual effects can now extend physical design opened up a lot of avenues in this movie,” notes Martin Whist. “It gave J.J. and the crew opportunities for shots that might otherwise be not be as visceral and exciting.”
However, it was the special effects that needed to create what happens after the train crash that really pushed the team and everyone involved in the film agreed should be kept hush-hush until audiences have a chance to be startled by them.
These effects were brought to life by the digital wizards at ILM, while the film’s climactic revelations fell to creature designer Neville Page, who previously worked with J.J. Abrams on “Cloverfield,” but had never done anything quite like what he created for “Super 8.”
All that Abrams will say of the special effects at this juncture is: “A lot of work went into making sure that it all feels unique and real. We never saw the creature as a visual effect, but as a character. ILM played an incredible role in this. Every time I work with them I think, ‘they’re outdoing themselves again,’ and that was certainly the case on ‘Super 8.'”
Adds Burk: “ILM was the perfect partner for this film. They really took the lead and made it far more spectacular than we ever thought.”
Steven Spielberg also brought on board several film legends, including Dennis Muren, the six-time Oscar®-winning visual effects artist, whose films include “E.T.: The Extraterrestrial,” “Jurassic Park,” “Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom,” “War of the Worlds” and several episodes of George Lucas’ “Star Wars” epic; and Academy Award® winning sound designers Ben Burtt and Gary Rydstrom (additional sound design), who have been frequent collaborators throughout Spielberg’s career.
Collaborating with so many people whose work both Abrams and Burk grew up loving proved to be a full circle experience for them. “When I was a kid, making movies was a salvation for me,” Abrams confesses. Summing it up, Burk added, “To make a movie about kids making a Super 8 movie, and to make that movie with Steven Spielberg, who was at the epicenter of everything we loved when we were kids, is something beyond our wildest dreams.”