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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Opening in theaters this week is a movie that might seem like everything else in the multiplex these days. "Super 8" has fireballs, loud explosion and an impressively creepy digital monster.

But that's where the similarities to the standard blockbuster end. The movie is not a sequel, it's not based on a novel or a comic or a TV show. And it has no stars, just this band of young misfits who live in a small town and spend their time making movies, in this case about the living dead.

(Soundbite of film, "Super 8")

Unidentified Boy #1 (Actor): (As character) How am I supposed to be a zombie?

Unidentified Boy #2 (Actor): (As character) Oh, pretty much just be a lifeless ghoul with no soul, dead eyes, scary. Did you ever have Ms. Mullen for English?

Unidentified Boy #1: (As character) Yeah.

Unidentified Boy #2: (As character) Kind of like her but hungry for human flesh.

NORRIS: "Super 8" was written and directed by J.J. Abrams, a man who has had big success on the small screen with TV shows such as "Lost" and "Alias" and who breathed new life into the Star Trek franchise. And J.J. Abrams joins me now to talk about "Super 8." Welcome to the program.

Mr. J.J. ABRAMS (Director, "Super 8"): Great to be here, thank you.

NORRIS: You know, when you watch this film, you can't help but think of "Stand by Me" - the banter between the boys, the friendship, this group of best friends who help you get through anything in life and the train, except in this case, the train is very different. Did that figure into the story from the very beginning?

Mr. ABRAMS: In this film, you know, obviously I was basing this more on people that I remembered and I knew, and the idea at first was just, you know, a small, intimate story, kind of a story about first love, a story about a broken family. This boy has lost his mother. He's left with a father with whom he never really had a connection to begin with.

So that idea of what happens when you lose a parent and are left with a parent with whom you never had a strong connection was very interesting to me, but it was missing something as a movie. It just - I wanted something external, something sort of physical that would represent those things that were happening, the struggle happening internally with the main character, the main boy.

And I separately had this idea about a U.S. Air Force train that was transporting contents from Area 51 that crashes and something escapes. I had no characters. I just had this premise. And it occurred to me that if I combined these stories, and I brought this train crash into this movie, it started to make sense to me what the kids were shooting, what they were witness to, and then this creature that is out there in the world really does represent all the pain and agony of the loss this boy is suffering.

NORRIS: What was it like for you as a director to be directing a film that was essentially a story of your own youth?

Mr. ABRAMS: It was incredibly surreal to direct a movie where kids were wearing clothes that I used to wear, and they were doing the stuff that I know I, you know, used to do, even using the same kind of camera.

So there were moments on the set, even just because of production design or set dressing, where I would look at a, you know, a TV Guide, and I'd pick it up and just kind of, you know, slowly open the pages and realize that I remembered reading that exact issue cover to cover, you know. And this would happen again and again and again with books and models and puzzles and, you know, posters and things around the rooms. It was just strange.

NORRIS: How challenging was it working with a young cast? You know, children or even young adolescents, preteens, generally have a pretty short attention span. They're back on the infant feeding schedule. They have to eat every two or three hours, otherwise they just break down all together. How do you...

Mr. ABRAMS: Well, so do I, in fairness.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ABRAMS: I mean, I am literally eating right this second.

NORRIS: And you get squirrelly sometimes, also, just like the kids?

Mr. ABRAMS: You know, my wife and I have three kids. The idea of, you know, that kind of energy and the need to wrangle kids, you know, felt incredibly familiar and not so difficult to handle.

But, you know, there were moments when we had six kids, you know, onscreen at one time in a shot, and they would seemingly sort of take turns sometimes just not focusing. And it was just, you know, when you have a schedule, and you've got kids, and they're only allowed to work X number of hours a day, and they can't work past midnight, and it's 11:58, and resetting the shot means having to back up a dozen tanks half-a-block and reset pyrotechnics, and it just was one of the kids was just kind of zoning, you know.

And you're like: Listen, let's go again. And you just try to, you know...

NORRIS: And you were that calm when you said it?

Mr. ABRAMS: Yeah, I'm like: You know, it would be nice if we actually could actually film one that we all got the lines. That would be excellent. But the truth is they were great.

NORRIS: This film really does feel like a valentine to the kind of movies that directors like Steven Spielberg made when they were much younger men. Let's take a listen.

(Soundbite of film, "Stand By Me")

Unidentified Boy #3 (Actor): (As character) All right, all right. Mickey's a mouse, Donald's a duck, Pluto's a dog. What's Goofy?

(Soundbite of film, "Back to the Future")

Mr. MICHAEL J. FOX (Actor): (As Marty McFly) Look at my driver's license, expires 1987. Look at my birthday, for crying out loud. I haven't even been born yet.

(Soundbite of film, "The Goonies")

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) Down here it's our time. It's our time down here.

NORRIS: J.J., I'm tempted to play name that film as we listen to those.

Mr. ABRAMS: Well, I probably could play that if you wanted to.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ABRAMS: Those are, you know, not all Steven's, but those are great examples of movies that I was hoping that "Super 8" could sort of feel like a sister-film to.

NORRIS: Steven Spielberg was a master at these kinds of movies, where the kids had their own universe and they were sort of heroes in their own right. And he's also a producer for this film, "Super 8." I'm curious about the role that he played in the development of the movie and whether you touched base with him as you were in production.

Mr. ABRAMS: Oh, yeah, no, he was, you know, thankfully and wonderfully involved in every process. I called him immediately when I had this idea of doing a film about being a kid, making movies on super 8 film. And luckily he said he was interested in working on it with me.

And I didn't even realize at the time that one of the reasons I called him so quickly was because that period of time in my life was so profoundly influenced by the movies of that era, and many of which were his.

And by having Steven as a producer on this film, I was able to sort of unabashedly sort of dive into that pool and say: Look, this is an Amblin movie. The feeling is a feeling sort of infinite possibility, often of parent-child relationships, child empowerment. They never felt sadistic or dark or, you know, overly creepy.

I mean, there are scary elements in those films, and certainly "Super 8," but the movies, the Amblin films, always felt like they were - you were in good hands and that there's a big heart.

And to me, that is literally the most important thing about "Super 8." I'm proud of - you know, a lot of the kids' performances and the creature design is very cool. But the goal for me with this movie was to embrace a kind of feeling, quality, a sort of heart that I just missed in a certain kind of movie.

And I think that everyone who tells stories is sort of responding to the context of their lives, and what are they seeing, and I just was feeling that there was a lack of this kind of movie. You know, whether it succeeds or not, obviously, is up to the audience to decide.

But the ambition was really about heart. And I think if you listen to those clips again that you just played, it's sort of hard not to feel for those characters, and that was really the most important thing for me, making this movie, was feeling.

NORRIS: J.J. Abrams, it's been great talking to you. Thanks so much.

Mr. ABRAMS: Thank you.

NORRIS: J.J. Abrams wrote and directed "Super 8," and speaking of those clips we just played, for those of you who were playing name that film at home and couldn't quite place all the snippets, they were: "Stand By Me," "Back to the Future" and "The Goonies."

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