Super 8was J. J. Abrams’ mash note to the early work of Steven Spielberg, and, on that front, it hits all the right notes: Aliens, child-like wonder, the small-town experience, directorial economy, ominous caravans of military vehicles, etc., etc. But Abrams also managed to make the movie his own, and, in anticipation of Tuesday’s release of the movie on DVD and Blu-ray, we asked the director about the difficulties in reconciling the two styles, as well as his uncanny knack for keeping a lid on spoilers.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Looking back, what was it like working on Super 8 with Spielberg?
J.J. ABRAMS: To work with Steven, which was something I always wanted to do, and have it be as educational and rewarding and fun as it was, I feel like I just dodged the biggest bullet in my life. Working with your hero, if it ends badly, it’s a scar for life. So the fact that it ended well was a real relief.
So you two are still on speaking terms?
We’re actually still friends.
How did you approach the task of alloying your own personal vision with an homage to him?
What I thought the movie needed to be was an Amblin movie, a movie that would fit in the library of the movies that Steven produced over the years like The Goonies and Poltergeist and Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. There were so many movies that were of a certain genre and it felt like I hadn’t seen a movie like that in so long. It wasn’t like I was trying to steal specific moments or storylines or shots. In fact, Steven was always much more aware of the things to look out for and he was incredibly encouraging about using conventions of the genre to our advantage, and not being afraid of the notion of government or conspiracy when it comes to an alien landing. I was very careful. I didn’t want to rip anything off. I wanted it to feel like a movie that was embracing the spirit of those films.
It might be because so many of their protagonists are young, but I feel like those films tend to have been important to a lot of folks during the formative years of their childhood. For example, I still hold onto my worn-out VHS copy of E.T. with the green tapeguard.
The fact that the characters are young probably has something to do with it. There was something so exhilarating about working with these kids. They were so funny and there was none of that jaded self-awareness. They didn’t have any kind of agenda other than being good and authentic in the movie. There was a real sort of inherent and true sweetness to them that didn’t feel posed or manufactured and that was a great thing to see on the set and watch on dailies.
I have a question about your own childhood. When you were a kid, were you good at keeping secrets? Because you strike me as someone who would have been.
I’m not sure I ever had any good secrets to keep.
You definitely do now.
I feel like as a kid what I really loved was going to the movies and seeing a trailer for something that I had never heard of and being excited about what the trailers would be because it told me what movies were coming. I also loved going to movies and being surprised by what the movie itself was. I feel like in a lot of ways, given the Internet and the immediate access to information, we’ve almost lost the ability to be surprised and to not know about what’s coming. So that feeling I had as a kid is what I try to fight for now, which is to allow people to have that sense of discovery when they go to the movies, because that was part of the fun of it. It seems to be increasingly hard to maintain.
But by being so mysterious about your projects, like Super 8, you make people even that more eager to figure out what it is ahead of time.
I think a fun aspect of not knowing is wanting to know. I think we’re so accustomed to getting what we want instantly that it’s nice to have to wait it out. It’s never meant to be a trick to get people excited and freaked out. The fact that that ends up being a result of not getting all the information and knowing answers to what’s going on in a show or in a movie, it says that there’s a kind of value in it. There’s fun to be had in anticipation, there’s nothing wrong with living with that and being a little bit hungry for the answers. It will make the answers, if satisfying, that much more rewarding. Getting the answer instantly deflates the importance of the moment because the instant you had that itch, it was scratched. I think there’s something great about protracting that itch a bit so that when you finally get there and see the movie and get the answers and understand what the story is, you’ve lived with and you’ve engaged with it and it’s more meaningful because of it.
Coming on the heels of that, this question is going to be both ironic and quite likely hypocritical: How is Star Trek 2 coming?
[Laughs] Good, good. It’s coming along great.