J.J. Abrams' secretive 'Super 8' comes into focus at CinemaCon

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No summer film has been as cloaked in mystery as J.J. Abrams’ upcoming Super 8, about a group of amateur teen movie-makers in 1979 who accidentally capture footage of a train wreck carrying a large, angry creature from Area 51.

But now Abrams is reluctantly pulling back the curtain. He showcased the key crash scene for theater owners at their annual CinemaCon convention in Las Vegas, along with some of the more intimate scenes featuring the young kids who make up the cast. “The key today really is to show the people who some of our characters are,” Abrams said backstage before Monday night’s Paramount presentation. “Most people don’t even know what Super 8 is. But the whole evolution of the movie was about the characters first.”

For the record, kids, “Super 8″ refers not to a hotel chain or to an octet of superheroes, but to the old 8mm home movie cameras that predated VHS. Most everyone who has grown up since then has played around with their parents’ cameras and made goofy amateur films. So why did Abrams choose to set it in 1979, instead of the present day which surely would’ve entailed more ubiquitous cellphone cameras? “It felt a little more autobiographical. It just felt right,” Abrams said, shrugging. “But it is probably more common now than in the late ’70s and early ’80s. “

Some of the footage he previewed at CinemaCon could have come from any nostalgic coming-of-age film, like Adventureland or Stand By Me — laced with bittersweet truths about growing up and the bonds of friendship forged at that age. But this movie also has a rampaging monster terrorizing the town these kids occupy.

Abrams told the gathering of theater owners he originally intended to make two movies: one about friends making home-movies in the ’70s, and another about an alien on the loose, sort of like the plot of E.T. if the extra-terrestrial was the Rancor monster from Return of the Jedi. (Steven Spielberg is a producer on the film, which borrows heavily from the mood of his E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.)

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The monster remains hidden in Abrams mystery box, however. The showcase featured a scene of it attacking a sleepy, nighttime gas station, vanishing a cop and crushing a police cruiser before bursting through the storefront to shred a hapless teenage clerk. The creature is only glimpsed briefly in a dim reflection, though, and the rest of its havoc is seen only peripherally, or partially obscured in long shot, with the storefront carnage covered by the gas station’s revolving sign as the camera rises up into the night.

The kids in the movie were shown in far sharper focus:

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The Heart and Soul: Joe, played by Joel Courtney, is the central character, a good-natured 14-year-old who wants to help his friend finish his zombie film, and is at odds with his recently widowed father (Friday Night Light’s Kyle Chandler), who is also a local lawman. “He’s a really sweet kid, but he’s a follower,” Abrams said. He’s also nursing a crush on …

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The Tough Girl: Elle Fanning co-stars as Alice, who steals her father’s car to drive the boys to the remote, abandoned train station to shoot a scene for their little movie. “Alice is very important to Joe. She’s the one girl he has admired from afar, but has never spoken to,” Abrams said. “Not only is she going to be in the movie, but she’s going to drive them. They’re 14 years old so the idea of driving anywhere is insane.” In fact, she resents Joe coming along, because she’s afraid he’ll tell his father she was driving underage.

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The Auteur: If Joe is a follower, Charles is the kid with the marching orders. Played by Riley Griffiths, he’s a pushy, barrel-chested kid with big dreams and even bigger expectations for how his friends can help them come true. “All that Charles cares about is his movie and that his movie has a better story and better production values,” Abrams said.

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The Firebug: Carey (Ryan Lee) likes to set things ablaze and is the go-to guy for special effects and fireworks. When the massive train crash almost kills all of them, he’s the only one who thinks it was cool.

The Leading Man and the Extra Man: Martin (Gabriel Basso) is not the brightest of the bunch, but that’s probably not the first time that could be said about a film’s main character. He is mainly a jaw-dropper, stunned by what is happening around them. He’s joined in this duty by Preston, played by Zach Mills, who is the amateur film’s primary background actor — they’re just to make the scene look busy. He fulfills that role in Super 8 as well.

Since Abrams described the movie as “autobiographical,” which of the characters is closest to him?

“A number of them,” he says. “I feel like I’m a little bit of all of them, a couple here and there less so. But I certainly feel I see the world the way the main character sees the world. Joe, he’s very optimistic, and romantic nature, but his heart’s been ripped out because of the loss of his mother. But I’m also very much like Charles, the kid who makes the movies, who’s sort of this bullying loser who coerces his friends into helping him make films all the time, and is a little bit obnoxious.”

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Image Credit: Chris Pizzello/AP Images

What kind of home movies did Abrams make as a kid?

“All sorts of horror movies and crazy graphic fights and murders, and monsters with make-up effects,” Abrams says. “I was always trying out different things, playing out crazy fantasies of chases and fight scenes, and people dying in horrible ways.”

Were they any good, given the limited resources?

“No,” Abrams says definitively. “No, no, no, no, no. They were not good at all. They were very bad. And then you look at them years later and they’re even worse than you remember.”

The perception is the opposite for Super 8, which is slowly building buzz as one of the must-see movies of summer when it opens June 10. Abrams acknowledged the challenge of marketing a movie that’s not a sequel, not based on a comic book or other existing work, and has no major stars. But like Inception last year, its originality could be enough to push it to blockbuster status.

CinemaCon continues through Thursday evening. Check back for details of the DreamWorks Fright Night remake, adaptation of The Help, and Hugh Jackman’s robot boxing drama Real Steel.

Follow Anthony Breznican on Twitter @Breznican for movie news throughout the week.

Read more:
‘Super 8′ footage reminds me there are live-action movies starring kids that I can relate to
‘Super 8′: Full trailer offers more hints, more confusion

Comments (64 total) Add your comment
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  • gustiq

    *drools*

  • Dave

    I can’t wait to see this movie! It looks really cool. I actually like that it has been shrouded in so much mystery. It made the anticipation for it much more exciting. I love that the trailer evoked an early Spielberg-ian tone. I think JJ Abrams and Spielberg are a great combination.

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  • UGH

    Elle Fanning was cast to emulate Drew Barrymore it would seem.

    • Renaton

      Drew was NOT a tough girl/love interest in “E.T.”! What they have in common is that they’re both blonde

      • UGH

        I meant in the looks department.

      • xopher

        yes…remarkable! two arms…two legs..two eyes..blonde hair! I CAN TOTALLY SEE IT TOO!!!!!!

  • jj6

    A movie thats not a sequel and not based on a comic book or other existing work??? Hallelujah!! I will definitely be going to see this opening weekend!

  • LOL

    The monster is probably Glenn Beck.

    • alan of montreal

      two thumbs up

    • Mike

      They ARE in Mormon Country…by the power of Joseph Smith! Ok I made that up, where are they again?

      • Too Bad So Sad

        The are in Lillian Ohio, but in reality it was shot it Weirton West Virginia

    • Bill O”Riley

      Really? I heard it was Hilary Clinton!!

  • Moe

    Let’s hope it’s better than Cloverfield, his last “secretive” movie that was “cloaked in mystery”.

    • Jer

      You mean the one that featured a Rancor-like monster rampaging around a town? I’m sure this one will be different. Cause it’s a smaller town and a smaller group of friends (well, shorter).

    • Sam

      Cloverfield was actually decent. Of course its going to have its haters, but it wasn’t bad.

    • adam

      Cloverfield wasn’t terrible. And anyway, JJ Abrams did not write or direct Cloverfield. He was the producer.

    • mad_andy

      This. But at least Super 8 hasn’t fallen prey to all the horrible viral marketing and bogus websites that were associated with it. Cloverfield was a real disappointment though.

    • Mike

      Cloverfield was fantastic, and I thoroughly enjoyed the advertising methods. It made it exciting. It was just a fun, fresh movie. You people sound like pure misery.

      • Serena

        I loved Cloverfield, too! I’m glad to see someone else also really liked it. My favorite character was Hud. His ending was the only part I didn’t like in the movie.

      • dizzy blonde

        I liked it but the camera work gave me a terrible case of vertigo. Seriously I had to see a doctor and take Valium (which is the cure for seasickness too) for two weeks to get my vision stable and to stop everything from spinning!!

  • Tess

    So much nerdcitement about this film.

    • Clair de Lune

      SO MUCH. it’s like ET and The Goonies had a baby that grew up to be the smoke monster. Throw in a few Close Encounters, and you’ve got the best dysfunctional family the world have ever seen.

  • Kelly

    “Abrams acknowledged the challenge of marketing a movie that’s not a sequel, not based on a comic book or other existing work, and has no major stars. But like Inception last year, its originality could be enough to push it to blockbuster status.”
    -Hello?! That used to be the point! We are being drowned in mediocre garbage now simply because it’s “easier to sell”. That’s the problem with Hollywood now–original ideas are so rare that when one does emerge it’s “groundbreaking”.

    • KM

      So true, Kelly. I was really disappointed to read that line. What ever happened to originality? I remember when sequels were generally laughed at (and it wasn’t that long ago).

    • adam

      It’s sad, but true.

  • Tye-Grr

    I cannot wait for this. It looks amazing.

  • RyanK

    “But like Inception last year, its originality could be enough to push it to blockbuster status.”

    Yeah, except Inception had Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Page, Michael Caine, Ken Watanabe, Marion Cottilard, etc, etc… I’m not saying Super 8 won’t do well. I’m just saying Inception is not a good comparison.

    • Monty

      I’d say the better comparison in that regard would be District 9, except this has 2 huge names behind the camera and D9 only had 1. I’m still more excited to see this movie than any other summer release. HP 7 part 2 included.

  • Dreck

    Yawn. What a waste of Abrams’ time and talent. Pass. I’d rather sleep on a bed of nails and Vagisil than see “Super 8.”

    • Daniel

      Never has a username been more appropriate.

    • MK

      I don’t agree with you, but “I’d rather sleep on a bed of nails and Vagisil” is making me giggle.

  • tigger851

    hope it is better than cloverfield!!!

    • shane

      Cloverfield, IMO, was just pure fun. Exciting,fun, just – as I said below- a movie made for the fun of it, the pure joy of loving a movie for being a movie.
      Its sad that everyone is so jaded that they can’t have fun any more. I even enjoyed Hud, esp when he finally got eaten!

  • shane

    I LOOOOOVE JJ (and yes, I loved Cloverfield too) because he brings the fun of film in all of its passion and youthfulness – he allows his film and tv projects to breathe, in the sense that they are unaffected, purely done for the love of the actors, the work, the words and the moments.

  • Rolo Tomasi

    Lisa S already gave it a C-

  • EC

    Cloverfield was awesome, and I can’t wait for this movie.

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