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It was a love of both magic and movies – and how the two could be combined – that drew J.J. Abrams to make films, especially his latest, Super 8, he tells Andrew L. Urban.

He had just walked through Lucille Ball’s dressing room at Universal Studios (“that was a thrill”) and was admiring how model airplanes were made to look real on the big screen when the then 8 year old J.J. Abrams felt the first itch to get involved with the magic of filmmaking.

“There was a low profile stunt show and matt paintings and all sorts of paraphernalia. I love magic and there I could see that there was a practical way to apply that enthusiasm.”

“I still love magic,” says Abrams (who turns 45 this month [June 2011]), a proud card carrying member of The Magic Castle in Los Angeles, where he rubs shoulders with some of America’s finest working magicians. But he also rubs shoulders with some serious magic buffs in the film industry, including Larry Fong, the cinematographer on Super 8, Abrams’ latest film.

“Larry is a master… he kept doing spectacular tricks on set. And it’s not just HOW the tricks are done … it’s watching him do it,” he says with enthusiasm.

"an untypical Hollywood director and producer"

With his dark curly hair and black rimmed glasses, Abrams is an untypical Hollywood director and producer, although when you consider his various credits – films such as Star Trek, Armageddon, Cloverfield – you could be excused for thinking he’s a sci-fi nerd. But sci-fi guru Arthur C. Clarke’s third ‘law’ states that ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’ Bingo.

Sitting cross legged on a chair in a Sydney hotel room 24 floors above the harbour, zipped up in a soft black top, Abrams is eminently relaxed, despite the heavy media schedule. “I don’t find this a chore at all … when I’m in Sydney,” he adds after a pause, as if to suggest he may not feel the same about media junkets in other places.

With Super 8, Abrams also exercises his nostalgia for super 8 filmmaking, which is how he started – and how he first had contact with Steven Spielberg, who produced Super 8 with Abrams. “My friend Matt Reeves and I had been keen super 8 filmmakers and when we entered a local short film festival in Los Angeles, the Super 8 magazine did an article on us. Spielberg’s office contacted us and asked if we would repair some super 8 footage Steven had shot earlier.

“Of course we did! But we never met him at the time.” ‘At the time’ Abrams was 13 and Spielberg’s Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind had captured the world’s imagination. Super 8 is set in 1979 – the year Abrams was 13.

"making a super 8 zombie movie "

Super 8 brings together several Spielberg elements, from inquisitive children, filmmaking, sci-fi and a small town where extraordinary things happen. The central characters are pre-pubescent friends making a super 8 zombie movie to enter a film festival. 

They are shooting a scene on a disused railway platform, planning to use a passing freight train as a backdrop. But a truck on the railway line smashes into the speeding train, causing a spectacular derailment and ensuing explosions – which reveal that the train was carrying strange, unearthly freight. 

“The most difficult aspect of making this film was the casting,” says Abrams. These are very specific roles that I had written, and we saw hundreds of kids; there was something about the tone of the characters that I felt I had to get right. Some of the kids looked right, but didn’t have the skills. Other kids had acting skills but didn’t look right. And I wanted real kids, not pre-digested Hollywood product.”

"I just had to make sure they never got self conscious"

Abrams finally got what he wanted. “Joel (Courtney) and Riley (Griffiths) are totally new to feature film and they are great. No baggage, no attitude. I just had to make sure they never got self conscious.” 

First published in the Sun Herald.

Published June 9, 2011

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J.J. Abrams


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