TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. It is good to be back after a case of laryngitis and a sore throat that lasted way too long. I want to thank Dave Davies for hosting during most of my absence and for being so good natured about taking on FRESH AIR in addition to his other work here at WHYY. And thanks to David Bianculli for hosting last Tuesday.
Now, on to todays show. My guest, J.J. Abrams co-created the TV series Lost, Felicity, and Fringe, and created the series Alias. He directed the films Mission: Impossible III and Star Trek. He wrote and directed the new film Super 8. It connects to his own childhood when he made horror films using a Super 8 camera, relying on family and friends as his actors and creating his own special effects. "Super 8" is set in 1979 in a small town in Ohio, where six friends, who are about 14 years old, are making a zombie movie. They're about to shoot a scene at a train station where the husband is ready to depart but his wife wants him to stay. As they prepare to shoot, they hear a real train in the distance. The film's director starts shouting for everyone to hurry and get ready so that they can shoot the scene with an actual train speeding by. But as you'll hear, something shocking happens.
(Soundbite of movie, "Super 8")
(Soundbite of crowd chatter)
Mr. JOEL COURTNEY (Actor): (as Joe Lamb) Shut up. I am trying.
Unidentified Boy: We're not set up. We're not set up.
(Soundbite of train approaching)
Mr. COURTNEY: (as Joe Lamb) Collision. Collision. Ready. Start filming. Be extra live when the train passes by. Here we go. And action.
Unidentified Girl: (as character) John, I don't like it, this case, these murders.
Unidentified Boy: (as character) What do you want me to do? Go to Michigan with you?
Unidentified Girl: (as character) Mackinaw Island is beautiful this time of year.
(Soundbite of train engine)
Unidentified Girl: (as character) I think you're in danger.
Unidentified Boy: (as character) I don't have a choice.
Unidentified Girl: (as character) You do have a choice. John, I've never asked you to stop. I need to know this isn't the last time I'm going to see you. I love you so much.
Unidentified Boy: (as character) I love you, too.
Mr. COURTNEY: (as Joe Lamb) Guys, watch out.
Unidentified Boy: (as character) Joe, what the hell are you...
(Soundbite of crashing)
(Soundbite of yelling)
Mr. COURTNEY: (as Joe Lamb) Oh, my God. Run.
Unidentified Boy: (as character) Oh, my God.
(Soundbite of explosion)
GROSS: Well, that's the sounds of the train exploding. Why and how it explodes, introduces the science fiction part of the story. It should come as no surprise that there is a sci-fi dimension. This is, after all, a J.J. Abrams production and Steven Spielberg is one of the producers.
J.J. Abrams, its really a pleasure to have you on the show. Thank you so much for coming.
Mr. ABRAMS (Director, Super 8): I'm so happy to be here. Thank you.
GROSS: So the kids in your movie are making a zombie movie shot with a Super 8 camera. So before we go any further, please describe the Super 8 camera you had when you were a kid.
Mr. ABRAMS: It was the camera that they are using in the film. It is, it was a Eumig camera that was a sound camera and my grandfather bought it for me when I was around 13. And I really wanted to make sure that the camera that the kids were using in the movie was the same one.
GROSS: So why did you want to make a movie about kids shooting a Super 8 film who happen to witness and catch on film something very bizarre?
Mr. ABRAMS: The very first impulse here was just to do a movie about being a kid making movies, which is what I used to do. And before that idea was even formed that much, I picked up the phone and called Steven Spielberg, who I had gotten to know over the years and I just, I asked him would you be interested in being, you know, a producer with me in a movie called Super 8 about kids making movies? I knew he had made films when he was a kid as well and it was just, he said yes, luckily, and it was the beginning of the sort of process of figuring out what this movie might be. But that was the impulse.
GROSS: And, of course, there had to be a supernatural or extraterrestrial dimension.
Mr. ABRAMS: Well, you know, it didn't have to be but it was one of those things where it started out I actually thought it was going to be much more sort of a straight drama comedy. You know, much more of a kind of a Stand By Me, type movie. And as we worked on the story, I felt that there was something missing. There was some kind of, you know, I needed something in the movie that was going to be a physical manifestation of what the main character was going through, you know, internally, the sort of struggle, having lost his mother and being left with a father he never really connected with.
And so there was a kind of need that I had. But separately I had an idea about the U.S. Air Force moving Area 51 contents from Nevada to another destination and the train crashes and something escapes. But I didn't have more than that but there was a premise so I thought that's kind of a fun monster movie. And the idea of connecting these two movies suddenly, they started, it started to answer each others questions and that was sort of how that began.
GROSS: So when you were making Super 8 movies, what wee the movies that you made? Were they zombie films like in your movie "Super 8?"
Mr. ABRAMS: They were the worst. I mean...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ABRAMS: They were just these ridiculous horrible - I mean they were no good. Yeah, I would take anyone who was available, my sister, my mother, any friends and I would, you know, kill them in crazy ways. We would do, you know, makeup effects. And I wrote fan letters. When I was a kid I used to write fan letters to like makeup artists whose, you know, special effect makeup stuff blew my mind like Dick Smith and, you know, Rick Baker, Tom Savini, these guys who are sort of known for just incredible, you know, of course, as a kid when youre, 11, 12, 13 you can't do that and they, you know, but I would try. So I would take the Karo syrup and food coloring and stuff from the kitchen and I would make blood and I would, you know, ask my mom if I could borrow her makeup which, you know, didn't trouble her because she knew that I was going to just kill someone basically with it.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ABRAMS: So it was just it was all ridiculous.
GROSS: So what was the strangest way you kill people in your movies?
Mr. ABRAMS: Well, I mean I remember there was this fight scene that I did where there were these two guys fighting on a, at the films of UCLA, the parking structure, and there were these two guys fighting. And one guy gets like gets flipped over the railing in like the fifth floor and he's holding on to the railing and these guys are fighting. And the guy didnt die in the I dont actually remember how that incredibly exciting cliffhanger ends. But my, I remember my father watching this. I was editing the movie and he came into my room and I was watching the scene, and he literally got angry at me that I would risk someone's life for a scene in the movie. Now it was the greatest victory because it was a dummy and I had rigged it with like wires so the legs were kicking and all this.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ABRAMS: And he left the room like really pissed and I was just I was so happy that he believed it. and it literally just speaks to that desperate desire as like a little fat magician kid, you know, wanting, you know, your family to believe that that little, you know, foam yellow rabbit just disappeared from your hand or whatever. You know, it's that same thing of just you all you want is for people to believe it.
GROSS: And did you tell him finally that it was a dummy and that you weren't really risking someones life?
Mr. ABRAMS: I did but he yeah, then I think he was then he got mad because I think he felt like he was, you know, he was embarrassed. You know, it was all good. It was one of those things where when I did finally tell him, he was like well, okay, you know. But it was great because it actually showed that these three cuts, by having the two guys on the ground floor and flipping over the side but then looking up to the fifth floor looked like they had flipped, you know, it was all that kind of stuff that is pretty, you know, fundamental moviemaking stuff.
But it was those kind of things. You know, I had friends come over and we would, you know, I would do all sorts of, wed make sets in rooms. Like I'd take all the furniture out of my room and I would, you know, put like black crepe paper on the wall and, you know, all this crazy stuff. My parents would come home and all the furniture would be in the hallway and they'd be like, what the hells going on here? You know, it was always like some ridiculous thing that we were doing.
GROSS: And the black crepe paper was for?
Mr. ABRAMS: It was like I was making it was a film Terry, called The Attic.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ABRAMS: And it was just so good. And there was a scene in it where one of the kids says oh, an attic. I didnt even know we had an attic. Its one of the and actually Greg Grunberg, whos a, one of my, you know, best friends since kindergarten, I've known him forever, hes been in a lot of TV shows that I've done and he was on Heroes, he was in that movie. And so what I did is I took all the furniture out. This is such a good story. You're not going to believe it. And I'm, of course, being sarcastic.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ABRAMS: All the furniture out of the room, put black crepe paper on the wall and then put like, you know, like wood, like contact paper to look like wood, like wood paneling - classic 70s, beautiful contact paper, and made it look like there was an attic basically in the room, like there was like the beams - the cross beams and it was just this set, which actually for one angle functioned fairly well. But these were all just experiments of things to try and create an illusion of something that I wanted to do.
My guest is J.J. Abrams, the co-creator of Lost. His new movie is called "Super 8."
Now there is an element I'm trying not to give away a lot of the more supernatural or, you know, stop me if I'm making you real uncomfortable with what I'm giving away here, but I won't say much. But most of your stories have an element of either the supernatural, the inconceivable, you know, aliens, all of the above. Is that just because of the influence of TV, movies, books that you loved? Or did you ever have the kind of experience that seemed, you know, impossible and impossible and only had, you know, like a supernatural explanation?
Mr. ABRAMS: Its a funny thing. I remember as a kid just being in absolute tears over the Charles Laughton Hunchback of Notre Dame I had seen on TV.
GROSS: That is one of my favorite films ever made.
Mr. ABRAMS: Me too. It is literally this defining movie for me and it was just killed me. And the idea of this misunderstood, you know, huge hearted, you know, seeming monster to strangers. And it was the idea of that love story was so profound and I was aware...
GROSS: Because there was a Gypsy dancer who has compassion for him when everyone else just sees him as a deformed monstrosity.
Mr. ABRAMS: Exactly. And the idea of not just that kind of love, but the idea that it was, you know, a movie that used makeup effects. It was a movie that used - there were visual effects. It was an incredible thing when they shot it at, you know, Universal Studios. But the idea of that movie was so profound to me and I loved that notion that you could combine something that was a monstrous and I think, you know, as a kid, you know, whether you're watching, you know, Batman and people are dressing up in, you know, costumes or youre, you know, you're watching cartoons or youre, you go to see movies, you know, there's something about monsters that I think kids always, you know, are drawn to and curious about. I always loved that idea of combining that kind of emotion with something that was so, you know, kind of like horrific or scary or, you know, literally an effect, a makeup effect. And so whether it was that or, you know, Frankenstein, I mean The Elephant Man years later, which I just, you know...
GROSS: Oh, what a great film.
Mr. ABRAMS: ...feel the same way.
GROSS: Yeah. Mm-hmm.
Mr. ABRAMS: Oh, my god. So the idea of using, you know, visual effects, whether they be makeup effects or now, you know, CG effects, to convey an emotional story was something that was really important to me. And "Super 8," you know, while, you know, obviously like anything its like there are, you know, there are, its imperfect and there are things that dont work, you know, here and there as well as I would have like and all but, you know, you always look back and think oh, I wish this, I wish that. But the thing that I'm the most, you know, sort of - it was most important to me at least going in, the ambition, was to create something that had, yes, it had a creature. But more important to me was that it was something that had feeling and had heart.
GROSS: And you mentioned the creature and the creature is seen as like very monstrous and it is very destructive, but it's also misunderstood and like in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, once you know what the story is, you have empathy for it.
Mr. ABRAMS: Mm-hmm. Yes.
GROSS: So can we talk little about without giving away too much...
Mr. ABRAMS: Sure.
GROSS: ...what you were up against in designing a creature?
Mr. ABRAMS: You know, the struggle, you know, you look at one of the recent Star Wars movies and you realize that every single creature in the history of time has been done. Like there's just...
Mr. ABRAMS: You know, you can't - it's all been done and all the paradigm. You know, what color is the creature? How many legs does the creature have? Have many, you know, are the eyes, where are the eyes? You know, whats going to, you know, is it a biped, a quadruped? Like, you know, there are these kind of categories and they've all been completely covered. And so working on this creature is important to me that it be not just a sort of raving beast, chest thumping, you know, scary thing, that it needed also be, you know, sentient and dexterous and, you know, have thoughtful and nuanced and yet also just out and out terrifying. So it was this thing of trying to figure out what is something that could be hard to define for most of the movie so that you don't ever feel like, oh, I get it, I got it. But the designer of the creature, Neville Page, did an amazing job and I think he gave us something that took a ton of iterations but he really nailed it and, you know, I'm really proud of how Island brought it to life.
GROSS: If youre just joining us, my guest is J.J. Abrams, the co-creator of Lost and now he has a new film called "Super 8."
Well take a short break here and then well talk some more.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If youre just joining us, my guest is J.J. Abrams, the co-creator of Lost. he directed Mission: Impossible III. He directed Star Trek and now hes got a new movie, which is called "Super 8." And its about a group of boys around what, 12, 13 years old?
Mr. ABRAMS: Fourteen. Fourteen.
GROSS: Fourteen years old were making a Super 8 movie and accidentally capture this train crash on it and the train has been carrying really mysterious stuff that leads to all kinds of mysterious and monstrous complications.
So one of the things you're famous for is trying to keep the story's plot, the plot twist a secret, particularly on things like Lost, but in this movie too. I read so much about how, you know, you're trying to keep everything a secret. How obsessive are you about that really?
Mr. ABRAMS: About 15 years ago or so I wrote a script for a Superman film and it was leaked out of the studio at Warner Brothers and someone reviewed the script online in great detail, and it became this big thing. And ultimately, the film didn't get made. I'm sure not just because of the review, but because of any number of things.
And, but it was one of those things where the, you know, to have a script that is nowhere near the latest draft, let alone the final draft, being reviewed online, it frankly made me, you know, a little bit paranoid. And I realized, you know, all they had to do was not give the script out to everyone. All they had to do was to take a few, you know, steps and something that was I know very important to the studio and to the filmmakers, you know, wouldnt have been released prematurely.
Of course, you know, you never want a script to be reviewed before the movie even gets made. The point is I guess that there are certain things that I think are important to kind of keep quiet and yet I think frankly, this whole secrecy thing has kind of been blown up a little bit out of proportion.
On Star Trek we had a lot of rabid fans we just were trying to kind of protect the experience for them. But I just, I don't know how many times I've gone to the theater, to the movies and seen a trailer and felt like, all right, well, now I certainly don't have to see the movie anymore because I just saw everything. And the experience of going to a film and seeing the movie and not knowing every plot twist to me is something that has been ruined and spoiled for moviegoers.
And I certainly don't want to be coy and be some kind of jerk and, you know, be withholding and some kind of, it's not a Machiavellian sort of thing. Its literally wanting people to have a good time and to have a little bit of a surprising time. And so whenever I'm trying to keep things quiet, it is 100 percent an effort to make the experience of actually seeing the movie or the TV show more enjoyable for the viewers.
GROSS: Now we talked before about how when you were a kid and you made Super 8 films and you used special effects, makeup and, you know, killed your characters off in all kinds of creative ways, one of the kids in the film loves making things blow up and he always has firecrackers on him and stuff.
Mr. ABRAMS: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: Are you into pyrotechnics? And what was it like to direct this multi-explosion scene?
Mr. ABRAMS: I was, you know, as a kid I would make models and I would film them as I blew them up. I mean that was I wouldnt say a hobby but it was one of the things I would try to do. Of course, you know, you didn't have the lenses to get the shot quite right and you didn't have slow motion so, you know, when you watched the movie it was always over in like four milliseconds. Like you're like what?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ABRAMS: You know, you spent hours doing this whole thing and you get back and youre like...
(Soundbite of noise)
Mr. ABRAMS: And youre watching it. And its like its always over instantly. And you just that think that was the biggest waste of an afternoon. So these kids, you know, directing these kids in that experience, all I cared about was obviously that they were safe. And secondly, I wanted them to, you know, be scared. They have to pace themselves because they had to be just terrified out of their minds for, you know, for days.
GROSS: Did you want the actual kids to be scared or the kids to look scared? Yeah.
Mr. ABRAMS: Yeah. Well, I wanted the kids to look scared. I mean I never wanted them actually to be scared.
Mr. ABRAMS: And, you know, the whole thing for me with these kids was always that they feel safe, so that they could be free to do the things that they might just do in the privacy of their room, you know, like I mean like act out and do certain things. I needed them to feel like anything was okay. And I never wanted to play tricks on them.
It was funny. I was freaking out, just as a side bar, the first couple days of shooting. Frankly, I didn't know if it was going to work. And we had, you know, Joel, the main kid and Riley and they were nervous. I mean I was probably more nervous than they. But they were really nervous and I just really...
GROSS: Because of the explosives?
Mr. ABRAMS: No. No. This was like the, it was like, you know, schools out and it was just early days of shooting...
GROSS: I see. Okay.
Mr. ABRAMS: It was before we were at the train crash. Sorry. And they, I was, I really thought oh my god, this is, I don't know if this is going to work. And I was at a panic. And I, you know, called my wife. I'm like, I don't know if this is going to work. And I, you know, emailed Steven and I'm like this, I don't know. This is I'm terrified and we did 30 takes of something and hes like, you know, he sends me back an email, 30s a lot.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ABRAMS: And I remember I was just freaking out. And I called Rob Reiner, who had directed, you know, Stand By Me. And I called, you know, him. I said Rob, I'm, you know, I'm working with these kids. I'm trying to be calm, working with these kids, it's all fine, but I just want to know do you have any advice whatever? He's like well, do trust them? Do they have good instincts? I'm like I, I think they do, you know. But can you just give me some advice? Just something? Can you just tell me something? He was like, I was an actor. We had three months of acting school. I worked with them. They were, you know, like, he wasn't helpful at all.
But what he didn't say to me though, was when he was filming the scene, the train scene, they wouldn't get riled up in Stand By Me. They wouldn't get to that place. And finally he yelled at them and he just said, you know, this whole crew, everyone here, they're working for you and you can't, you know, you're not able to get. And he literally got them to a place where they work crying. And he just said that, you know, maybe sometimes you got to pull that out of your pocket and sort of use that. And I never had to use it. But the filming of the train crash in "Super 8" was really the most fun I think these kids ever had. Every time we'd do a shot they would immediately after I said cut, say please, one more time. One more time. One more, and they were just so into running with these huge explosions happening, you know, hundreds of yards away from them.
GROSS: J.J. Abrams will be back on the second half of the show. He wrote and directed the new movie "Super 8" and co-created the TV series Lost.
I'm Terry Gross.
And this is FRESH AIR.
This is FRESH AIR. Im Terry Gross back with J.J. Abrams. He co-created the TV series Lost, Fringe and Felicity, and created Alias. He directed the movies films Mission: Impossible III and Star Trek. Abrams wrote and directed the new film Super 8. Set in 1979, its about a group of kids making a Super 8 zombie movie, who witness a mysterious train explosion that leads to inexplicable phenomena. Part of the film was inspired by Abrams experiences as a kid making Super 8 horror films.
Let me warn you, if you're squeamish or listening with young children, that Abrams is about to get a vivid description of a surgical procedure.
Right at the beginning of the movie, one of the main characters, one of the kids mothers dies in an accident at work. And so one of his friends, I think it's a friend who's actually directing the "Super 8" movie.
Mr. ABRAMS: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: Some of the kids are talking to each other in theyre saying will he really want to make a zombie movie now that his mother has died? You know, will that be right? And yes, he still wants to make the movie. But, you know, the zombie movie is about the living dead and he has a mother who is now really dead. And that led me to wonder like when you were young and you were into, you know, all the special effects and blood and gore and stuff, had you witnessed real blood? Had you experienced real death?
Mr. ABRAMS: You know, as a kid I think because I didn't really go through anything like this, it was safe to play in that, and it was something that was kind of terrifying and, you know, provocative and interesting. And because it wasn't real it was something that was safe. And so as a kid, the idea that, you know, these horror films were, you know, as I just remember seeing the most ridiculous, horrific, gruesome sometimes horribly executed, by the way, deaths in movies. But at the time it was sort of a way to kind of, you know, I don't know, play with that idea of death.
And I remember I was I think I was 12, maybe I was 14, and I got, I came home one day and there was a box, a little teeny box. And I, it said Dick Smith on the, you know, Larchmont, New York on the postmark. And I opened up the box and it was a tongue in the box.
Mr. ABRAMS: And it was from, The Exorcist, and which he had done. And it was, and he had this little handwritten note, I still have it, that said, put a little dab of peanut butter in the tongue and it will stick and, you know, it'll stay there. And it was what Linda Blair wore in one of the scenes where she had to stick her tongue out. It had to be like, you know, four or five inches longer. And my mom came home and she was like, what's that? I'm like oh, it's just a tongue that Dick Smith, you know. She's like what man sent you a tongue? What's going on? It was like...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ABRAMS: It didn't seem like a good thing for her kid to be doing. You know, so the answer to the question, you know, did I experience death, did I see death, you know, I did not in that way. But it was like all around me in all the stuff that I was, you know, interested in. And there is a, I think as you get older it's far less fun that kind of stuff. I mean I am in no for before, you know, I don't even know how many years, movies that are of that genre, that kind of like, you know, that sort of torture porn, horrific ultra violent movie. You know, I used to love those movies as a kid. And now, of course, having three kids those films are repulsive to me. And yet I'm, you know, amazed and kind of and applause the work of the artists who create the illusions of those movies.
GROSS: But let me ask you this, like when you pass a car accident when you were young, would you look or not look?
Mr. ABRAMS: You know, it's a funny thing. I've always been interested in that kind of stuff. But, you know, I think when youre actually confronted with the real deal it changes everything. I wrote this movie years ago. I was writing it called Regarding Henry and there was a character who gets shot in the head and survives. And I was actually interested in seeing a brain surgery and I called a cousin in our family who is a doctor and I asked him if he knew of any way I could get into see in operation, a brain surgery. And he said well, let me, you know, let me see. And anyway, five years later I swear to God, he calls me. He's like still want to see a brain surgery? I'm like what? I had no, I was like oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. Sure.
That next morning, 5 a.m., go down to USC and there was a woman who had a tumor on her pituitary gland and it was being removed. And we are in this, you know, operating room and right there watching this woman. And they go to put the, you know, the anesthesiologist comes over and he puts the mask over her face and they're talking to her and she's going under. And literally, the promise of what was to come like turned my stomach. Like even the promise of what was going to come next.
And it was an interesting thing because I mean this was the kind of thing that I had been obsessed with as a kid and would, you know, put derma wax on, you know, my sister's face and then, you know, cut it with a little, you know, wooden dowel and put blood inside. You know, I would do these kinds of cuts all the time. And I left the room for a minute. I was like holy what, like this is really, you know, and I went back inside and I watched as they did this amazing thing, which is they, once she was under the opened her mouth and they cut above her gum line, and above her teeth, her upper teeth and they did this insane thing, which was just directly out of any of those makeup magazines that I would have read as a kid.
And they pulled her mouth open past the nasal cavity, and they went into the nasal cavity to remove this tumor, which they did. And they sewed her up and, but it was an amazing thing to watch. And, you know, again, obviously being privileged to be sort of witness to a miracle like that to see what doctors can do is incredible. But it was an amazing thing to see for real something that had been, you know, play for essentially my whole childhood.
GROSS: And does that have an effect on you in terms of showing gore?
Mr. ABRAMS: Doing a movie that was a truly gory movie hasn't really interested me. I mean it's not that I'm opposed to it and I'm a, you know, a big fan of directors like David Cronenberg and some of the work that theyve done in showing just crazy horrific things. And I love, for example, John Carpenter's The Thing, the work that Rob Bottin did on the effects of that movie are just amazing. But the idea of doing a horror film or a slasher movie or something that's too overtly gory doesnt appeal to me.
I remember when were doing the pilot for Lost, there's this big plane crash and I knew there was one moment I really wanted to have an impact, which was when they were pulling the guy out from out of this sort of engine cowling and you see his leg and how bloody it is. And so what occurred to me was to have no red at all in the scene. So I didn't want the plane to have any red in its logo. I didn't want to have any red on the, you know, the wardrobe. I didn't want to have - there was a little bit of blood here and there but I wanted to keep it really about sort of dirt and sand, and you know, just a mess of this crash and so that when they pull him out and you see blood it really has an impact and it really stands out.
And it's interesting. I've seen the pilot these years ago with - like full audiences in a couple screenings and the reaction that theyve had, it's like the communal immediate repulsive reaction to the blood. And all it really was blood - fake blood poured on the guys - you weren't seeing bones stick - it wasn't anything crazy but it was such an interesting thing. And I think it spoke of how we become desensitized to that stuff. And so it's a little, you know, a little bit to me is a far more effective tool and it doesn't feel disgusting and gratuitous and I just have no interest in that stuff.
GROSS: Okay. While we're on the subject of the pilot of Lost, the first episode, you know, so that scene youre describing its not, it doesn't look just like blood. It looks kind of like something you'd see in a butcher shop, you know. And...
Mr. ABRAMS: Yeah. Its probably because it was on his clothes too. Yeah I was pants.
GROSS: And then, like within just a few seconds, you see that leg and then you, a woman is kind of crawling to the shore shrieking because she's like nine months pregnant and she starting to have contractions. And one guy is sucked into one of the jet engines of the crashed plane and he's kind of totally...
Mr. ABRAMS: Yea.
GROSS: ...sucked into it and that makes the whole engine explode.
Mr. ABRAMS: Yeah.
GROSS: Like and this is all in a few seconds. Its...
Mr. ABRAMS: Right.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Its so much it almost verges on funny its so much.
Mr. ABRAMS: I dont but first of all, it's exactly right. And the idea of that guy getting sucked into the engine though it was never meant to be like, you know, a laugh, it was meant to be a kind of oh, my God, this is insane kind of feeling.
Mr. ABRAMS: Where it was almost like a circus of just of horrors. And the idea of, you know, the subjective experience of that character, Matthew Fox was playing Jack, and his experience in that was really about just how this guy is, you know, he needs to be 10 places at once. And then, of course, the engine gag was really about kind of just how frightening this airplane that it was, you know, the monster had fallen but haven't died yet, and that there was still some danger left in it. And it just was about, you know, what would you do if you were surrounded by that kind of madness, and that that was the reason we went so far.
GROSS: If youre just joining us, my guest is J.J. Abrams and his new film is called "Super 8." He also co-created Lost. He made the films Star Trek and Mission: Impossible III. He created Felicity. So lets take a short break here, then well talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: My guest is writer, producer and director J.J. Abrams. He co-created Lost. His new movie is called "Super 8." It's about a small group of kids -about 14 years old who are making their own Super 8 movie. This is a set in 1979. And while they're making a movie they witness and their camera records a very mysterious train explosion which kind of sets the plot in motion.
Although the film "Super 8" is set in a small town in Ohio, you grew up in Manhattan?
Mr. ABRAMS: Yes. I was born in New York but I was raised in L.A.
GROSS: Okay. And in fact, your father was a producer of several movies and TV shows.
Mr. ABRAMS: Yeah. He still actually is a, produces TV movies and my mother actually produced a couple as well.
GROSS: So you got to spend some time on a set at Paramount, was it?
Mr. ABRAMS: He had an office at Paramount but there were any number of TV movies that were being filmed and I would visit the set. And I was very lucky to get to, you know, as a kid, watch the process and see how movies got made and it was, you know, enormously informative.
GROSS: So what's one of the things you learned watching on the set of one of the films that your father got you into as a child?
Mr. ABRAMS: One of the biggest lessons actually came from a movie that he didn't have anything to do w. But one night I was, I guess I was like 15 years old, and one night my dad said I want to take you somewhere. And we drove to Paramount Studios where he had an office and we got to the small theater at Paramount. And we get there and they are probably 20 people there, 20 people in this theater. And I would recognize one of the people there as John Carpenter and he's a director who had done Halloween and The Fog and...
GROSS: Escape from New York, yeah.
Mr. ABRAMS: Well, this was the movie he was going to show.
Mr. ABRAMS: And he announced that, you know, what we're about to see is an incredibly rough cut of Escape from New York with much, none of the visual effects at all, no special effects, with a lot of the sounds of missing. He's like I'm going to be reading a lot of the lines that aren't on the soundtrack. I was stunned. My mouth hit the floor. You know, I couldn't believe that I was I was in this small theater with this director who my father knew I admired so much. So I'm sitting there in this theater and John Carpenter starts this film and there was a whole opening sequence where the main character, Snake Plissken, is robbing a bank and he ends up getting caught, and the movie plays and the whole thing, it was magical, like it was amazing. And the movie was over and John Carpenter said, you know, okay, I want to talk about the movie.
And what I learned was just by watching him be open to any criticism. And it was just incredible watching him take notes that were sometimes easy and understandable other times huge, and he knew he had a movie that at the time was problematic in certain ways and he was trying to fix it. And I remember my dad raised his hand. I was like ooh, God. What? Just dont...
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Mr. ABRAMS: And he said yes. You know, my dad said cut the opening for the movie. And I thought, I'm leaving. I am out.
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Mr. ABRAMS: So mad that I'm here. I am so humiliated. And John Carpenter said, what do you mean? And my dad said it is Snake Plissken is a more imposing character. He's more of a mythic character if you don't see him get caught. But when you meet him he's already held and you know. And I thought this is just the dumbest thing I've ever heard. God, I wish he hadn't said that. And in the final movie John Carpenter cut it out and that the whole sequence is not in the film.
The other thing that was interesting is I remember I finally had the guts to raise my hand. And I said, and he said, yes, you husky, husky kid in the back...
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Mr. ABRAMS: Like it was - and I said I couldn't tell that this one character that Adrian Barbeau, who was his wife at the time, played - I couldn't tell that she had died in this crash on the bridge. And he said, oh, interesting. That's interesting, you know.
And anyway, years later, so I see the movie - the movie had come out later that year and not only was that opening scene gone, but there was a shot of Adrienne Barbeau dead on the ground after she was killed. And I said, oh my god, that's cool to put that in. Years later, I was working for Steven Spielberg - doing a couple weeks' work on a script for this movie they were doing. And Dean Cundey was the DP and he was also the director of photography of "Escape from New York."
And I went up to him and I said, excuse me, Mr. Cundey, my name is J.J. Abrams. I said, you know, I'm a big fan. You know, it's funny 'cause I was at the screening of "Escape from New York" at Paramount years ago - I was describing it, he said, oh, no, no, no. I totally remember that night. And I remember a kid in the back saying that. He said the next night, we went out onto John Carpenter's driveway and shot Adrienne Barbeau dead on the ground because we (unintelligible) people needed to see that she had actually been killed.
So that was hopefully not the last time I collaborated with John Carpenter, but certainly the first.
GROSS: So, one more thing. One of the things you're famous for is the mystery box. You gave a great TED lecture and those TED lectures of, you know, like, incredibly creative, genius people. And so yours is like...
Mr. ABRAMS: And me.
GROSS: And you, right.
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GROSS: And yours is, like, really funny and entertaining and very kind of informative about your process of thinking through movies. And one of the centerpieces of it is you talking about this mystery box that you bought at this magic shop in Manhattan. And it was, like, a $15 box in which you were supposed to get $50 worth of magic stuff. But you never - you've had the box for decades and you've never, ever opened it because what you love is the mystery and you didn't want to open it and see what was really inside. So I imagine it's still unopened.
Mr. ABRAMS: It's unopened. Yes.
GROSS: Yes. Now, for me things like that are always about disappointment.
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GROSS: Because, like, if you open them, what they've given you is actually probably really disappointing. It just reminds me this is really different. But, like, when you buy Cracker Jacks back in the old days and there'd be, like, a surprise inside and the surprise would always be this, like, cheap little piece of junkie thing.
Mr. ABRAMS: Paper. Nothing thing. Yes.
GROSS: It would be like nothing.
Mr. ABRAMS: Yeah. Yeah.
GROSS: And a lot of those, like, surprise mystery kind of things, if you do open it, it's just going to be disappointment. So are you protecting yourself from disappointment or just in love with the mystery that if it was solved might be disappointing?
Mr. ABRAMS: You know, I think it's a great question. I think the answer is a sort of combination of things. I think clearly I know, having gone through my share of Cracker Jacks, and when I tell you - that I know that I open that magic mystery box and there's no way it's going to be, you know, something that is satisfying.
In fact, I will tell you, it is - that it the key to magic itself. The magic mystery box for me, of course, I know that whatever it is inside can't be the, you know, the end all. But there's something about, first of all, the box remaining closed that, you know, even just aesthetically I love that box. There was a really cool question mark on it. But for me the thing is is that box -with it closed, the potential for what is inside is endless.
The possibility of what might be in that box. And it's not a literal thing where I actually feel like, well, maybe it's this great - it's not - it's all kind of this metaphor. For me the thing that I love and I've talked about this as well, you know, in a movie like, you know, "Jaws," like, famously the shark wasn't working so they couldn't show it very much. So your imagination is going crazy. Sort of imagining where it might be, what exactly does it look like.
In a movie like "The Graduate," Ben and Elaine had their first real date and they're, you know, sitting at a restaurant eating in his convertible car and people are being very loud and they put the top up. And they're having this conversation and you can't hear it, but you're watching it. So you get to sort of, you know, fill in the blanks and I think there is a sort of - almost a reflexive reaction that we have to fill the blanks in when there's something of some substance and pieces are missing. You sort of fill it in.
I think there's something about the unseen and the unknown that has real value in moments. But I do think that, you know, you can't apply a magic box approach to everything. And if you go to see a movie or if you watch a show, you better have something of substance that you're building to. The whole thing in itself can't be a magic box.
The magic box is a great sort of device to kind of enhance a moment to make something more frightening or romantic or mysterious. But, as an end, it must be serving something of value and of substance.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us, J.J. Abrams. Thank you. It's been really fun.
Mr. ABRAMS: It has been such a pleasure. It's been a blast. Thank you so much, Terry.
GROSS: J.J. Abrams wrote and directed the new film "Super 8." He's the producer of two upcoming TV pilots: "Alcatraz" on Fox TV and "Person of Interest" on CBS.
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