The Talented Mr Abrams
In 1982, at the notably young age of 16, producer-director J.J. Abrams earned his first film credit, on a movie called Nightbeast.
The decidedly schlocky horror picture — shot in the Baltimore suburbs, more than 2,000 miles from where Abrams was growing up in Los Angeles — tells the story of a sheriff attempting to fight off an alien monster on a deadly rampage.
Abrams (credited as Jeffrey Abrams) acted as co-composer, recording his tracks on a reel-to-reel deck and mailing the tapes to the B-movie's director, Don Dohler. The gig was a thrill for the teen, who had already logged eight years shooting his own shockers with his father's Super 8 camera.
"All my life I had said, if I get my name on a movie, a credit on a film, I could die happy," he recalls. "That was all I needed."
Nearly 30 years later, here is producer-director Abrams at 44, calling from London, where he is promoting the third major directorial effort of his very successful Hollywood career: Super 8, which happens to focus on kids making movies and a deputy sheriff attempting to fight off an alien monster on a deadly rampage. Oh, and it's produced by Abrams' childhood idol, Steven Spielberg.
Apparently for Abrams — who co-created the TV phenomenon Lost, rebooted the Star Trek film franchise in 2009 and established himself as the modern-day master of mainstream sci-fi — now is the time to reflect on the things that got him to his decidedly envious position. And Super 8 is certainly a partial reflection of those enterprising, cinematically focused childhood roots.
Sense of discovery
The film is a loving homage to Spielberg, a portrait of aspiring-filmmaker preteens perpetually seeking production value for their DIY zombie thriller, an emotional story about a child losing a parent, and, oh yeah, a monster movie. But Abrams also views Super 8, set in 1979, as a reminder of the sense of discovery that still existed in the late '70s and early '80s, the golden era of the unspoiled-in-advance summer blockbuster.
"In a lot of ways, this movie embraces an analogue time, which I think is emotionally very similar and, in an important way, very much like the way things are now," Abrams says.
"Friendships, relationships with your parents, first love — all that kind of stuff is still, you know, intact. But there's a kind of pace and patience that needs to be considered that I think we've lost.
"When we look for something online, we're getting the extra paragraph we need, the exact information we need, so there's less unpredictability," he continues. "You won't stumble upon the song that happens to be playing in the record store. You won't read the chapters that precede and follow the information that you're looking for... The more it's ‘we want what we want,' perhaps the less we're getting what we really want, which is an experience."
Abrams is well known for his desire to preserve the "experience," often shrouding his projects in as much mystery as the internet era will allow. That mysteriousness can be maddening but also enticing.
As talented as Abrams may be as a filmmaker, his most significant gift to pop culture may be this: He has renewed our appreciation of anticipation. "J.J. is of the mind that these should be surprise gifts to people," says Academy Award-winning composer Michael Giacchino, who is the John Williams to Abrams's Spielberg.
"What we're making should be a surprise gift to the world, which is why he so likes to keep things under wraps... Everyone I talk to is like, ‘I'm so excited to see Super 8, I'm so excited to see it.' And part of that is because of his drive to make sure that it stays hidden until the last minute."
Moviegoers have received only dribs and drabs of Super 8 details over the past several months and won't get a good, long look at the monster until nearly the end of the film. Abrams tends to have multiple projects. He "loves being at the centre of a creative tornado," Giacchino says.
In addition to his film work, he produces TV's Fringe and two shows slated to debut in the autumn that are already capitalising on the buzz his name generates: CBS's Person of Interest and Fox's Alcatraz. But Abrams does not think of himself as a brand.
"Frankly, that's the last thing I would ever think about," he says. "What I try to think about is, you know, how do I get better at what I am trying to do and how do I make the kind of things that I want to see that I hope and pray others would as well."
In other words, how Abrams stays the same passionate, hungry kid who made melodies for Nightbeast, now on DVD and streaming on Netflix. "Oh, my God, it's on Netflix?" Abrams asks, incredulous. "You're kidding me."
Apparently in this digitally driven, tweet-it-now-and-text-me-later world, even Abrams is still discovering new things.
— Washington Post