Interview: Quiet man who has the knack of making winners

JJ ABRAMS is often seen, but rarely heard. Shereen Low has an exclusive chat with the elusive director about his new film Super 8.

At first glance, JJ Abrams, with his trademark black glasses and rolled-up sleeves, appears an unassuming man.

But beneath the quiet exterior is someone who knows the winning formula for success on both the small and big screens. It is Abrams – whose initials stand for Jeffrey Jacob – who launched Jennifer Garner’s career from sci-fi series Alias, and turned Lost into a TV phenomenon. His directorial works with Mission: Impossible III and the Star Trek reboot have won him acclaim from both critics and fans, proving he isn’t a one-hit wonder.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

But you won’t find the multi-talented film-maker, who directs, writes, produces and composes music, flaunting his awards (he won three for Lost), nor will he feel entirely comfortable speaking about his accomplishments.

“Even this interview is killing me on some level,” he admits, with a sheepish grin, quickly adding. “But I’m very happy to be here. It’s a relief to get this film out of the editing room and be discussing it with people other than the post-production crew. We’ve been driving each other crazy for the last few months.”

A skim over the 45-year-old’s past catalogue indicates a bias towards science fiction and adventure, and his latest film, which he directed, wrote and produced alongside Steven Spielberg, is no exception.

Super 8 is a combination of genres, but it’s basically about kids in 1979 making Super 8 films. It’s a love story, it’s a family drama, it’s a little bit of a monster movie,” he explains. “What I love about these kinds of movies is that they take you on a ride. And by the time you’re done, you’ve hopefully gone through all sorts of emotions – none of which you necessarily expected.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The children in the film, played by teenagers Joel Courtney, Riley Griffiths and Ryan Lee in their film debut, as well as Somewhere star Elle Fanning, set out to make a zombie movie. While they’re shooting, they inadvertently witness a catastrophic train crash, which soon leads to inexplicable other-worldly happenings in their small Ohio town.

Much like the boys on screen, as an eight-year-old growing up in the same era, Abrams began shooting short films about things he loved, predominantly monsters, battles and chases, on a Super 8mm camera. It’s no wonder then, that he feels Super 8 is his baby: “Not only did the making of this movie bring back memories, it paralleled the way we used to make films. Despite all the wild stuff that happens in the story, this is the first movie I’ve made that’s felt so much like a part of my life.”

Abrams and Spielberg’s mutual appreciation of this retro format may have brought them together for Super 8, but it wasn’t the first time the two had met.

As a 15-year-old, Abrams and childhood friend Matt Reeves (who directed Cloverfield) were introduced to the legendary film-maker when they got a job cutting together his 8mm home movies. For New Yorker Abrams, the collaboration with Spielberg was a childhood dream come true.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“Steven was wonderful in terms of the development of the story and the script. He helped with the casting and was always available when I had a question or concern. He came on set a few times and was helpful in the editing room,” he reveals. While he may have been in the director’s chair, Abrams – who is father to three children with wife Katie – was more than happy to release his inner child.

Abrams admits: “The idea of hanging out with kids felt oddly familiar because my son is 12 and my daughter is 11. There were times when it was a little tricky, especially when you have six kids in a shot and you’re trying to get them to focus. A couple of them hadn’t been in anything before, so they were brand new at this. But by the time we were into the second week, there was a real ease about the film.”

Secrecy is clearly a big issue with Abrams, who succeeded in keeping the film under wraps. Even the actors weren’t aware of the story when they signed up for their roles.

“I’ve had personal experiences where scripts that I’ve written have gone online and been reviewed long before the film even went into production, and in some cases, never went into production,” he says. “We’re in an information age where all it takes is one person to send a PDF file to someone else and all of a sudden, it’s everywhere. I wanted to make sure we were being careful.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

With Super 8 done and dusted, there’s already a buzz circling around Abrams’s upcoming movies, especially the eagerly anticipated Star Trek 2, which he’s rumoured to be directing and producing.

But all he will say is: “Hopefully we’ll be able to have some information on it sooner rather than later. We want to make sure it’s done right. The guys we’re working with are obviously brilliant, so I’m really excited to get back into it.”

Super 8 is on general release from today.


* Lost – The TV phenomenon, which Abrams created with Damon Lindelof, spawned six award-winning seasons.

* Star Trek – It was risky reinventing the much-loved sci-fi series, but he managed it, winning an Oscar for his efforts.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

* Mission: Impossible III – Abrams’s directorial debut was applauded by critics, though it wouldn’t have happened without Tom Cruise, who offered him the job after getting hooked on Alias.

* Fringe – The sci-fi TV series Abrams created with Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, has scooped numerous awards while gaining a cult following and is now in its fourth series.

Related topics: