Published in Idol Magazine, August 2011. Original article here.
JJ Abrams’ memory lane
With otherworldly successes such as Star Trek and Lost on his record, it’s clear JJ Abrams has a thing for the supernatural. With his new film Super 8 there’s plenty of mystery, but this time it’s personal. We sat down with JJ Abrams for a chat about creating a teenage world, working with a childhood hero, and learning to trust your own voice.
“I was definitely the fat kid making movies. I was the loner oddball kid who didn’t have the confidence,” says JJ Abrams. It’s still all about the films, although it’s safe to say life has changed since the days of Abrams’ early directing efforts. But even at 46, the director has some of the geeky kid left in him as he greets me with a polite handshake, in his horn-rimmed glasses, blue checked shirt and a curly mop of hair standing on end. Elle Fanning, Super 8’s sparkling leading lady, called him “a big kid” at the press conference earlier in the day, and it’s easy to see why. When Abrams gets excited about a topic there’s no stopping him: words stumble out and hands gesticulate wildly, oblivious to time-keeping PRs tapping their watches.
While Abrams is sticking with a sci-fi theme with Super 8, his new Hollywood release takes him back to own teenage experiences with a camera loaded with 8-millimetre film. Super 8 is set to 1979, where a group of teenagers are making a film much in the same way Abrams used to do: “I felt it would be fun to revisit that period of my life.”
The retro setting prompted Abrams to get in touch with the man who for him is the embodiment of the era’s cinematic style: Steven Spielberg. “He just got it instantly. He said ‘Yes, I love that idea’.” Spielberg and Abrams ended up developing the story about the young filmmakers into a larger sci-fi adventure, where the kids become witnesses to a massive train crash outside their hometown. Amazing discoveries follow as they start digging into the mysterious circumstances surrounding the accident.
But this isn’t the first time Abrams has worked with Spielberg. It was a teenage JJ who, at 15, received a surprising phone call from the director. Spielberg had taken notice of Abrams and his friend during a Los Angeles film festival: “We were asked, ‘Would you be interested in repairing Spielberg’s old 8mm films?’ We were confused as hell by this,” laughs Abrams. Because with 8mm-film there’s only one copy, meaning Spielberg was trusting a couple of random kids not to wreck his originals. “It made no sense at all. When I talk about this with him now he says, ’Well I knew you guys would take care of it.’ I still don’t believe him. It’s a ridiculous story, but it’s true.”
Abrams never met Spielberg during this early restoration project, but the experience became a turning point. When the two directors finally met many years later, Abrams was keen to see if Spielberg remembered who he was: “My heart was pounding!” But sure, Spielberg remembered young JJ, and told him he’d been following his career. Abrams called his friend as he was driving home to tell him about his long-awaited meeting with his hero: “I remember looking up and I was completely lost, I had no idea where I was driving. I was so excited!”
As a young filmmaker, it was a valuable lesson for Abrams to be able to see the early efforts from a leading director, and to understand that no one makes Jaws without some practice first. Back then there were no DVDs with hours of background materials, so it was a rare insight into the process.
“But I am still terrified by everything I do, what the reaction will be. The confidence [the Super 8 filmmakers] have is something I would see in friends of mine from school, and just … where the hell does that come from!” Abrams laughs.
But modesty aside, the director has become one of the most popular new names in Hollywood. Amongst his new projects is a script collaboration with the author Colum McCann, and Abrams hopes to start filming a new Star Trek film soon: “The script is being worked on right now so I’m looking forward to seeing it.”
So after working with Spielberg can we now say the teacher has become the master? “Eh, that sure hasn’t happened,” says Abrams, chuckling. “But I will say that working with Steven has been an education. Partly one in temperament and patience, and also going back to confidence, in trusting your own voice.”
As a sci-fi director, Abrams is quick to praise advancements in technological, which mean he can deliver increasingly better special effects. But there is no doubt the 1970s world of Super 8 has brought on a bout of nostalgia.
“And I think it goes far beyond just film. There is now a kind of instant information, instant purchase, instant understanding that is so counter-intuitive and lacking in experience. Think about [when you had] to get in your car or on your bike and go to the store, walking through the aisles, hearing the other music and finding the album and going to buy it. Then you pay and you’re meeting the person who’s working there … There’s a whole investment into that and when you get home you make sure you listen to that song or the whole album because you’ve just [done all this].”
The PR has is now loudly clearing her throat; we have gone over our allotted time. But Abrams isn’t finished, so he apologises and talks even faster: “There was such a thrill working on a story that existed in an environment pre-cellphone, pre-VHS, pre-downloads. It made me miss it, frankly. … [Now], by not requiring any real investment in time or thought, both the desire for things and the acquiring of things lacks any sort of effort. There is a sort of entitlement to knowing [we can] contact the person we want right away. That is so not the way it used to be, and there is something wonderful about the unknown and the unpredictable. It’s getting increasingly harder to find.”