Instead of smartphones in your pocket, there were telephones with cords; instead of fuel-efficient hybrids, Buick Skylarks big as buses. And instead of shooting comedy bits and homemade music videos for upload to YouTube, kids shot backyard epics using hand-painted models, firecracker pyrotechnics and Super 8 home-movie film cameras.
That's the bygone world of 1979 that writer-director J.J. Abrams remembers and recreates in his new film "Super 8," opening June 10. But because Abrams, of TV's "Lost" and "Fringe" and the 2009 movie "Star Trek," isn't John Boorman or Barry Levinson, we don't get the nostalgic, naturalistic childhoods of "Hope and Glory" or "Avalon." Instead, there's a nostalgic childhood with a flesh-eating alien.
But not at first. "The first idea for this film, the very, very first notion, was to do a movie called 'Super 8' about kids making movies in the late '70s," says Abrams, phoning from a publicity swing in Singapore. "I didn't know if it was going to be a straight drama, I didn't know if it was going to be more like 'Stand by Me' (1986), I had no idea what. I just knew I could find a character that I would love. And I called Steven immediately, and luckily he was interested."
That would be Steven Spielberg, the film's executive producer -- for whom Abrams worked as a teen, repairing some of Spielberg's own, older-format 8-mm childhood movies. After much discussion, the two settled on a science-fiction framework, although Abrams insists: "The movie was never, ever intended to be an homage. I never went into this saying I want to make a movie that's a love letter to Spielberg." Instead, he says, "It was always in the spirit of not just movies I loved as a kid, but about being a kid at a time when those movies had so much impact on you."
"Super 8" opens in February 1979 when the mother of Ohio middle-schooler Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) dies. Four months later, Joe has recovered enough to immerse himself in the Super 8 zombie movie written and directed by his Cartman-esque best friend, Charles Kaznyk (Riley Griffiths). Joe does special-effects makeup -- the movie gives a film-geek shout-out to the Famous Monsters of Filmland special issue "Dick Smith's Do-It-Yourself Monster Make-up Handbook," written in 1965 by the future Oscar-winning makeup artist -- on the six-kid project.
One of those kids, Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), captures Joe's young-adolescent heart. And whatever monstrosity escaped from that Air Force transport that derailed as the kids were filming at the train station also may capture his heart -- and eat it.
The child actors, however, suffered no anxieties from Abrams. "There were six of us kids, and he was pretty much the seventh," screen newcomer Courtney, 15, cheerily recalls of the director's 65-day shoot, September through November, in Weirton, W.Va. Was Abrams anything like the movie's kid-director, Charles? "Like Charles but not nearly as bossy."
"I didn't have the confidence that Charles has," Abrams says of his own childhood filmmaking. "He's kind of a bull, and that wasn't me, but I certainly was the chubby kid making movies. I feel more like Joe, though I probably wasn't as quiet as he was. I always did feel a little bit the outsider. I also loved blowing things up like Cary (Ryan Lee), but I didn't have his obsession with it."
Who's his daddy?
The movie's science-fiction elements intertwine with the tense relationship between Joe and his stern, widowed father, Deputy Sheriff Jack Lamb, played by Kyle Chandler ("Friday Night Lights"). Chandler responded viscerally to a scene that echoed one from his own childhood: Lamb, fed up with Joe fooling around with this movie stuff, and up to his ears in evasive Air Force officials and a panicked town with missing people and electrical outages, orders Joe to stay home. And Joe, for the first time in his life, stands up to his father and says, "No."
"I was 14 in 1979," Chandler recalls. "My father died Jan. 9, 1980. There was a moment when I was a young man that I had said 'no' to my father. And I thank God I had that moment because in that moment there were a few things that came from my father" that are strikingly visible in Deputy Lamb's face. "First, anger. Second, confusion. But the third one was -- and I'm glad to this day about it, and I'm 45 -- there was a little bit of respect there also. The moment a father sees his son turn into a man, if you will."
Abrams, who was 13 in 1979, didn't consciously pattern "Super 8" as a latter-day Spielberg science-fiction film. Still, what with his movie's single-parent, close-knit group of small-town kids and an extraterrestrial alien thing that wants to go home, there's as much "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" as there is "Alien" and "The Thing."
But it also was highly personal. Being on the set "took me back in a weird memory-sense flashback kind of way," Abrams says. "And I would take time in between setups just walking around in a daze looking at all these details" from that analog era. "It felt so much like being in a waking dream of my childhood."
J.J. Abrams locked into 'Alcatraz'
BY FRANK LOVECE, Special to Newsday
Alcatraz, the storied former prison on a rock off San Francisco, has such a hold on the public imagination that it can be a two-week wait for tickets for the ferry ride and tour. And "Lost" co-creator J.J. Abrams, knowing something about islands with stories, is now the executive producer of "Alcatraz," a Fox drama with an initial 13-episode order and a planned midseason premiere.
Written by "Lost" veteran Elizabeth Sarnoff, it posits that on March 21, 1963, when Alcatraz closed and its prisoners were set to be transported elsewhere, they were really transported elsewhere -- because now 302 of them are in 2011, and judging from killer Jack Sylvane (premiere-episode guest star Jeffrey Pierce), they haven't aged. Now, San Francisco police detective Rebecca Madsen (Sarah Jones) and Alcatraz expert Dr. Diego "Doc" Soto (Jorge Garcia, who played Hurley on "Lost") must uncover what is going on. They're either helped or hindered by mysterious government official Emerson Hauser (Sam Neill) and his chief tech, Lucy Banerjee (Parminder Nagra). Robert Forster plays Madsen's surrogate uncle, a former Alcatraz prison guard.
What may it all mean? It's waaaaay too early to tell.