Producer-writer-director J.J. Abrams

Award-winning writer-director discusses his latest film, sci-fi thriller and box office hit Super 8, and explains why he deliberately wanted to keep people in the dark about the film’s plot.

J.J. Abrams' name is as familiar as the stars of his projects. Successful in both TV and film, the award-winning producer-writer-director created—and composed theme music for—several small-screen hits, including Lost and Fringe, and made his feature directorial debut with Mission: Impossible III. The NY native became infatuated with the business at age 8 and sold his first screenplay before college graduation. Abrams has a new feature release, Super 8, and two new primetime shows on tap for next season, Fox' Alcatraz and CBS' Person of Interest.


Tavis: Pleased to welcome J.J. Abrams back to this program. If you’ve been in the dark about his latest film, it is because Mr. Abrams wanted it that way. But now the cat’s out of the bag and “Super 8” is in theaters across the country. The sci-fi mystery is produced by Steven Spielberg. Here now, some scenes from “Super 8.”


Tavis: Before we get to the content of the film, I’ve got a few questions about context – the build-up to the film. First of all, congrats on a great weekend.

J.J. Abrams: Oh, thank you.

Tavis: Let me start, though, with what the purpose, the value is on a film like this in deliberately keeping people in the dark?

Abrams: Honestly, for me it’s about the experience of the audience. When I was a kid going into the movies, you weren’t force-fed information everywhere you looked about what the movie was going to be. So when you went there, you actually had an experience. You got to be surprised and have fun.

I feel like now I go to the theater and I see a trailer – I don’t know if you ever feel this way – but the trailer’s over, I’m like, “Well, that was it. That was the movie.” You know what I mean? (Laughter) The biggest laughs, biggest surprise. You could almost tell someone the story as if you’d seen it.

I just like going to the movies and having an experience that’s a little bit more surprising. So we weren’t trying to be coy or clever, we were just trying to preserve the fun and the surprise for “Super 8” for the audience.

Tavis: Since everybody else in the business is doing it the other way, the way you suggested that it’s been done for a while, which is basically giving you a trailer that pretty much tells you the whole film, what is the risking rolling it out in a uniquely different way?

Abrams: There’s a huge risk, especially in a movie like “Super 8,” coming out in the summer, surrounded by movies that – there might be a number at the end of this title, but it’s not a sequel.

Every movie is a comic book, it’s a sequel, it’s a franchise, and I’ve done sequels. There’s nothing wrong with doing sequels, they’re just easier to sell. So the risk, obviously, is putting out a movie that you haven’t said enough about, so the audience is like, “I don’t know that, therefore I shouldn’t go,” as opposed to “I want to see something fun, something new.” Hopefully, that’s what people will say.

Tavis: What’s a studio say, even though you’re J.J. Abrams and Spielberg is in the meeting with you, but what’s a studio say when you walk in and say, “This is a film, but it ain’t a sequel?”

Abrams: Well, I have to say –

Tavis: You didn’t get laughed out the room?

Abrams: I think honestly having Steven Spielberg on your side is not a small thing, and we said, “Look, we want to make a movie,” a responsible number. We didn’t go crazy and go $100 million over budget. It was, relatively speaking, a responsible amount of money.

Steve was with me, and Steven was saying, “We want to make a movie that feels like those old movies that have heart, that make you feel, that’s a love story, it’s about fighting for what you believe in, it’s about finding your own voice. It’s a community of people.”

There’s an extraordinary supernatural element to this thing, like an otherworldly thing, so they were into it. Paramount Pictures supported the film, frankly.

Tavis: Typically when there’s a summer blockbuster there’s a theme. You’ve got to blow something up; you’ve got to have a lot of action. You need a bankable star.

I had Will Smith on this show once before and I’ll remember as long as I live, Will just told me how he studied how to make himself a star – I’m paraphrasing now. He talked about the ingredients that go into making a summer blockbuster, and how he and his partner studied the summer films, those that had become blockbusters, and they found four or five things.

I won’t give Big Willie’s recipe away, but if you saw the show, you saw it. But there are four or five things that go into making a summer blockbuster. You’ve to some of those things, but you’re missing a key ingredient, and that is a major star.

There’s no major, major star carrying this film. The truth of the matter is the stars in this film, the names on the trailer? J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg. Now, that may be enough –

Abrams: I should have called Will Smith. I obviously –

Tavis: (Laughs) No, no, no, I’m just asking. The decision to put a movie out that you expect to do well, and there’s no big name attached to it.

Abrams: You are 100 percent right. It is a risk, and yet I think people love discovering people. I think that there’s something – it’s been shown to me, and even, by the way, “Star Trek,” which of course had the name “Star Trek,” but the cast of that film, people didn’t really know Chris Pine or Zoë Saldana or John Cho. Simon Pegg as well.

Then the movie came out and people still went. I think that there’s a fun to going to the movies and seeing people and just getting to sort of discover them yourselves and not feel like oh, it’s another sort of star vehicle.

I love working with the right actor, and if the right actor happens to be unknown, that should be allowed, too, I think.

Tavis: A lot of folks saw this, obviously, last weekend. For those who have not seen it as yet, what do you want to tell us about what the film is without giving too much of it away?

Abrams: “Super 8” is a movie about a group of kids in the late ’70s making a movie on super 8 film, like I used to do when I was a kid, and they’re making a zombie movie. They think it’s really scary. They’re filming one night, they’ve snuck away and they’re filming at a train depot in the middle of the night. Their parents don’t know they’re there.

They’re witness to a train crash, from the wreckage of which something escapes, something scary. The movie is sort of in that way a kind of innocent kid’s point of view monster movie, but it’s also really a love story. It’s a story about parents and children. It’s a story about, like I said, becoming a leader and not just a follower, and finding your own voice.

Ultimately, the message of the film is that you can go through real tragedy in your life and still live and actually be stronger afterwards than you were before.

Tavis: As director, for those of us who are fans in your work, and I include myself –

Abrams: Oh, thanks.

Tavis: – you can see J.J. Abrams’s touch on the film. You can see some of the things that you do cinematically that speak to Abrams’s style. But it’s pretty clear that Spielberg’s imprint is on this movie as well. You talk about kids making super 8 movies back in the ’70s, there are some old Spielberg themes that you see popping up throughout this film.

Abrams: Oh, yeah. I owe so much to Steven just in terms of when I was a kid, that period of my life, with friends, making movies; I wasn’t much of an athlete. I was the one chosen at the very end to be on the team. (Laughter) I wasn’t the smartest kid, I was never in the library, “Just a minute, one more chapter, hold on.” I was not that guy.

So I didn’t really have a niche. So in a weird way, making movies was for me kind of a little bit of a salvation. So when I was one of these kids making movies it was not just influenced by that context, it was influenced by the movies of that era.

So Steven Spielberg’s films, among others, but really, Steven’s movies had such a profound influence on me as a kid that this movie, while never intended to be overly influenced or ripping off or borrowing from any of the specific films that he had made, that period of time in my childhood, it’s impossible to separate the movies and the influence of those films of that time from being a kid at all.

Tavis: This is not your first encounter with Mr. Spielberg, is it?

Abrams: It isn’t. I met him in ’89 at a story meeting as a screenwriter. But in 1982 I was 16 years old and there was a super 8 film festival in Los Angeles. A good friend of mine, Matt Reeves, and I were in this film festival, and there was an article in the “L.A. Times” about us.

It was called, “The Beardless Wonders,” comparing us to people like Spielberg and George Lucas, who had beards, implying we were incapable of growing a beard, which I to this day am offended by. (Laughter)

The next day, Spielberg’s office called Matt – it was Kathy Kennedy, who was his assistant at the time; she’s this big Hollywood producer now – and she called and said, “Would you guys be interested in repairing these movies that Steven made when he was your age?”

We’re like, “What?” Like, nothing made sense, you know what I mean? (Laughter) Like how is that even a possibility that they would – because this is not like where you take a copy? These are the original movies. Like, Steven Spielberg, who had done “E.T.,” he’d done “Raiders,” he had done “Close Encounters” and “Jaws.”

You’d think one of the great filmmakers, not just in American cinema but one of the great filmmakers, that his early works would be, like, protected by the government.

Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)

Abrams: That there would be some kind of –

Tavis: At the Smithsonian or something like that.

Abrams: Yeah, there would be a museum or a hangar somewhere, a clean room. You don’t give them to these kids you don’t know. It’s a huge mistake. But he did, and we repaired the movies and returned them, and it was – just to watch those movies, because there were no DVDs or special features in that era.

So to watch these early films of Steven Spielberg was just unbelievable. They were far better than ours, but they showed us that he started somewhere.

Tavis: What did that kind of access and that kind of opportunity at 16 do for your confidence, that opportunity?

Abrams: Well, it’s funny. There’s a kid in “Super 8” who’s the director of these movies, and he is so much more confident than I ever was as a kid. I don’t honestly think – we may get comfortable sometimes, we may start to get, like, used to a certain thing, but I don’t think we ever really outgrow that thing that we are, meaning I think you’re always kind of, deep down, still as uncertain and insecure.

So there was an inspiration that I had in watching those movies and realizing, oh, my God, look what he was doing when he was our age. We should keep going. But frankly, I don’t feel like I ever was remotely as confident as the kid who makes the movies in “Super 8.”

Tavis: You may not be as confident as him, but I have to imagine – I’m going back to your own formulation. So by your own admission you’re not necessarily the smartest kid, you’re not the most athletic of all the kids, but you are the only kid, you and your partner, who’s getting a call from Steven Spielberg, who’s being given an opportunity to work on his personal stuff. That had to do something for your confidence. I’m only asking that because I know your wife works with Marian Wright Edelman –

Abrams: She does indeed.

Tavis: – at the Children’s Defense Fund. So much of what Marian does is to try to give these young kids hope and opportunity and access.

Abrams: First of all, when you see these kids who – there’s an event that my wife and I chair every year called Beat the Odds, and it’s completely inspired by Marian and it’s this amazing work that the Children’s Defense Fund does to celebrate five kids in different cities.

There are different events in different cities, who despite odds that you cannot believe and lives that are just criminal – literally criminal – are still succeeding in school, still have plans.

Most of these kids – the thing that’s so inspiring about these kids is they want to go back. When you talk to these kids, most of these kids want to succeed to go back and help the kids that are in those environments. That’s really what it is – they know who they are, and they know the truth of who they are.

They are more confident than – despite everything, and that’s what’s so inspiring. People leave those dinners literally just sobbing because of how inspiring those kids are.

So as trivial as it is making movies or doing entertainment and growing up and talking about insecurity, it’s events like that and the work that Marian Wright Edelman does every day in support of the youth of this country that it just makes everything else just seem trivial.

Tavis: My time is up. “Super 8” is the movie, but you’re such a busy guy in this town, you got a few television shows this fall. Want to run the list right quick? You have so many; do you even know how many you have? We know “Fringe” is bag.

Abrams: “Fringe” is coming back. We have a show that Joe Nolan created called “Person of Interest.” It’ll be on CBS. We’ve got a show called “Alcatraz” that Liz Sarnoff wrote. It’s going to be on Fox mid-season.

Tavis: Oh, to be J.J. Abrams.

Abrams: Oh, Tavis, please.

Tavis: But I’ll just be Tavis Smiley. (Laughter) Good to have you here, man.

Abrams: Such a pleasure. Always great to be back.

Tavis: “Super 8” is the film, as if you didn’t know, at a theater near you.

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Last modified: June 14, 2011 at 1:00 pm