J.J. Abrams: Super 8's monster is no cuddly E.T.S

We chatted with J.J. Abrams about Super 8, his monster action homage to Steven Spielberg's friendly alien films like E.T. and Close Encounters. He talked about recreating 1979, the challenges of making a movie about kids, and why his alien is kind of a bastard.

We spoke to Abrams during a conference call yesterday afternoon. The topic was almost exclusively Super 8, although he did mention that news about the Star Trek sequel should be coming in the near future. Our two questions are first, followed by the rest of the Q&A. The discussion includes some minor spoilers.

The movie's monster couldn't be called cuddly by any stretch of the imagination. Did your creature start out as something gentler that was more in line with the Amblin source material, or was it always going be scary?

The monster is a tricky thing from the story [perspective] to make work. The reason it's in the movie is that it's a physical manifestation of the struggle going on inside this boy who has lost his mother. The idea of confronting this thing, the inevitability of having to confront this thing, really maps the inevitability of having to deal with that loss and figure out a way to get past it. And so having to see and confront this thing that's the scariest thing in the world, by definition, this creature has to be terrible.

J.J. Abrams: Super 8's monster is no cuddly E.T.

Having said that, once you actually confront the thing that's so scary to you, it's never exactly as you imagined. And it's often survivable. Who among us hasn't wanted to have a certain confrontation, but once it was over, feel so much better that it was done. The cliché of what doesn't kill you make you stronger is sort of the point. This creature needed to have nuance and not just be something that was a chest-pumping beast. It needed to be scary, but it needed to get to a place where it was not scary – that's not to say it was ever going to do a 180 and be ET and adorable and loveable and cuddly – it was never designed as such.

How do you evoke the world of 1979 without just having characters say things like, "Hey, did you hear that thing President Carter said?" - without falling back on really obvious clichés?

It's funny, you nail a huge question for me, which was how do we avoid just doing a greatest hits of the 70s, and part of it was literally to avoid just that kind of thing, stuff that was just there for the sake of being there. It's tricky, like what songs do you use? You kind of want to use like that second tier kind of song that was known but not necessarily the top ten [hit]. Though "My Sharona" made sense because it literally came out that summer.

There were a lot of choices where I'd just think this looks right or feels right, and there were other choices where I would go, "Oh I'm going to get in trouble, because people will think I just stuck this in there." And it can be a haircut, it can be a prop, it can be a reference, a line. For me, the key to making it work was to work from the inside out, where the little details start to add up, and the really big, sort of gross motor function references could be avoided.

On mixing different genres together...

These kids obviously felt crazy familiar to me, and so writing them was much easier than it otherwise might have been. The hard part was just combining the various genres. I never wanted this thing to feel like Scooby-Doo, where the kids were suddenly investigating and having an impact on the story that wasn't commensurate with who they actually are in the world. Meaning they couldn't stop this creature from doing it wanted to do, nor could they help this thing in doing what it wanted to do. I didn't think they were strong enough to get in the way of what the military or the local police or even local residents were doing. They were kids, and so they had to remain in the periphery for much of the second act of the movie.

It's a staggered narrative, and that's what the character's father picks up and is shouldering for the second act of the movie, which is forty-some minutes. And so I needed that character to be someone who you didn't mind being with, who you kind of connected to but at the same time identified as a broken guy who was not necessarily the most sweetheart [guy], particularly to his son after the death of his wife.

J.J. Abrams: Super 8's monster is no cuddly E.T.

So that was a challenge, but luckily we have Kyle Chandler who is so crazy watchable that I think he could make even a serial killer someone you wouldn't mind hanging out with. A lot of the hard work was trying to balance the kids being the lead storytellers and force of the narrative, then handing that off to the dad for a while so that the kids could just be kids and let the kids pick it up again at the end of the second act, which becomes more of their story again. So it was really a weird experience, a very unlikely structure for me, but dealing with it was a fun experiment, and again having Steven Spielberg around to work on this was a priceless benefit.

Did the kids really write and direct the horror movie that they are filming throughout Super 8, which is ultimately shown during the end credits?

I always knew that I wanted to have the movie that they were making show during the credits of the movie. What I wanted was that it would be there throughout the whole movie and you wouldn't really think about it, and then you get to see what all that effort was about. I thought it was a fun idea. They didn't write and direct it, but they wrote some of it, some of the scenes. So, for example, I would say to them, "OK, here's this scene. Here's the situation. Go off and write the scene." They'd go off and do a pass on the scene and then come back, and I was trying to get them invested in the movie itself.

What was it like working with child actors?

J.J. Abrams: Super 8's monster is no cuddly E.T.

As a father of three, the idea of wrangling these kids felt familiar to me. Steven gave me great advice, which was just to give them line readings, to tell them how you want the line read. And normally that's something I never think to do, but it was actually great advice. I used that a bit. Another great piece of advice I actually got from Ron Howard, I asked him, "You were a kid actor, what did you have or use or do or wish you had?" And he said one of the great things he had on The Andy Griffith Show that he also had on American Graffiti was there were people who would run lines with them, the young actors, and they would just continue to run lines so that when they got to the set so that they were completely prepared to jump in.

And we had this great acting teacher, Jay Scully, and he was there just to read the lines with them so that they came to the set knowing what to do. And they did. I can't really quantify how much time we saved having kids come to the set that prepared. It was very helpful. In terms of style, you direct everyone differently, every actor requires a different sort of rhythm and sort of energy. And the kids were just so great, that my big fear was just getting out of their way. I wanted to make sure I let their dynamic live and breathe in the movie. I didn't want to [force] them into other people, I wanted them to maintain significant elements of their own personalities and let that shine through, because otherwise I would be in trouble of being disingenuous.

Why all the secrecy surrounding the film?

J.J. Abrams: Super 8's monster is no cuddly E.T.

The idea was really just to maintain a certain level of discovery for the audience so that you didn't give them the little bit of plot synopsis in every trailer we released, whether it was trailers or commercials or clips. One of the interesting things about this movie was it's a combination of genres, there are kids that share and even own the spotlight, there are definitely a lot of challenges to selling the movie. But one of the things that drives me crazy is seeing the trailer and feeling I have no real need to see the whole movie now, because this showed me everything. So the goal was really just to try to keep things [secret] to the point that the audience would actually come to see the movie.

What role did Steven Spielberg play in the creation of this movie?

J.J. Abrams: Super 8's monster is no cuddly E.T.

Steven was involved in various stages of production. I worked with him on the story, editing the script, casting, during production he watched dailies and came to the set a few times – he was filming another movie but he still came by a few times, which was great – and in post he spent some hours in the edit room and was incredibly helpful with that because it was a real challenge to structure the thing. In post we had a bunch of second act things that we needed to figure out and he was really helpful in that. It was one of those things where I was amazed at how available he made himself to me and to this movie.

One of the fun things about working with him was always know that I could email him or call him and ask him his advice on a scene we were going to shoot or something that we'd cut together and get a response. There were times we were sitting in the editing room and he'd say, "You know what I would do?" and he'd give a suggestion. And I'd laugh inside because I can't tell you how many times I was working at any stage and said, "What the hell would Steven Spielberg do?" So to have him just sitting there going, "You know what I would do?" was just unbelievable.