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J.J. Abrams’ Super 8: 10 Behind-The-Scenes Facts From The J.J. Abrams Movie

Joel Courtney in Super 8
(Image credit: Paramount Pictures)

It has been 10 years since the June 2011 release of J.J. Abrams Super 8 movie in theaters, which told a story that was equal parts coming-of-age drama and monster thriller, and one that both entertained moviegoers and took them back to the late 1970s. In honor of this momentous occasion, we have put together some of the best behind the scenes facts from not only the making of the summer blockbuster but also some that go into Abrams’ years of planning and even his relationship with Steven Spielberg long before he took us to Lillian, Ohio, and all its mysteries. Here’s how Super 8 came to be…

Elle Fanning and Joel Courtney in Super 8

(Image credit: Paramount Pictures)

Writer-Director J.J. Abrams First Met Producer Steven Spielberg When He Was Asked To Restore A Super 8 Film

If there were to be a real-life Forrest Gump in Hollywood, there is a strong case to be made for J.J. Abrams being that person. Over the years, he has become involved with box office megahit franchises like Mission: Impossible, Star Trek, and Star Wars, and even helped flesh out the Escape From New York ending. However, one of the most fascinating stories of Abrams’ life and career comes from when he was just a teenager obsessed with Super 8 films, who had a chance encounter with none other than Steven Spielberg.

Shortly before the 2011 release of Super 8, J.J. Abrams spoke with SFGate and shared the story about the time he and his friend, Matt Reeves, found themselves restoring Super 8 films for the legendary director. After participating in a film festival, Abrams recalled receiving a phone call from Steven Spielberg who hired them to restore his early films Firelight and Escape to Nowhere. A couple of decades later, Abrams would find himself not only working with his childhood hero, but making a movie alongside him.

Kurt Russell in Escape from New York

(Image credit: AVCO Embassy Pictures)

Super 8 Was Influenced By J.J. Abrams’ Childhood Memories And Love Of Visionary Filmmakers Like John Carpenter

Super 8 is one of J.J. Abrams’ most personal movies and that’s partly due to the writer-director drawing from his own childhood experiences and combining it with his love of legendary filmmakers like John Carpenter, George A. Romero, and Steven Spielberg. 

When speaking with SFGate (in the same interview mentioned above), Abrams described the movie as a “weird sort of cocktail” because of his own experiences as a kid and his childhood obsession with those visionary directors. During the June 2011 chat, Abrams explained that the second act of Super 8 is where the sweetness (the semi-autobiographical story of a group of friends making a monster movie) and the horror (actually encountering a monster) come together. At this point, the movie feels like both a love letter to Abrams’ youth and one for figures like Carpenter.

Zachary Quinto and Chris Pine in Star Trek

(Image credit: Paramount Picutres)

J.J. Abrams Finally Settled On The Idea Behind Super 8 While Working On Star Trek

Years before Super 8 came to be, J.J. Abrams had been toying around with the idea of making a coming-of-age movie about a group of young filmmakers in the 1970s, but couldn’t find a way to make it work or jump out at audiences. As time went on, Abrams started coming up with different ideas and started making other movies, like 2009’s Star Trek

The writer-director would later tell EW that, during production of the sci-fi space adventure, he had a conversation with someone about how the military moves stuff to and from Area 51 and he started to think about what if something went wrong during one of those transports. After that, he called Steven Spielberg and pitched an idea that would combine elements of his story about kids making movies with the premise of an alien escaping a military transport. The rest is history.

The alien in Super 8

(Image credit: Paramount Pictures)

J.J. Abrams Needed The Monster In Super 8 To Eventually Be Less Scary While Also Not Being ‘Lovable And Cuddly’

The alien at the center of Super 8 is definitely a terrifying movie monster, but also comes off as a sympathetic character with a great deal of emotion. Finding this balance was something that J.J. Abrams spent a great deal of time considering when planning out the creature, as he explained to Gizmodo during a June 2011 Q&A conference call. During the chat, Abrams explained that the alien was the physical manifestation of Joe Lamb’s (Joel Courtney) struggle to let go of his recently deceased mother and so it had to initially to be terrifying before eventually becoming less scary, but not toned down too much:

This creature needed to have nuance and not just be something that was a chest-pumping beast. It needed to be scary, but it needed to get to a place where it was not scary – that's not to say it was ever going to do a 180 and be ET and adorable and lovable and cuddly – it was never designed as such.

J.J. Abrams said the monster was one of those "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger" types of situations, in that sometimes what we fear isn't nearly as terrifying once we build up the courage to face it.

Jeremy Renner in Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol

(Image credit: Paramount Pictures)

Jeremy Renner Turned Down The Role Of Jack Lamb And Ended Up Getting Cast In Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol In The Process

It is hard to imagine anyone besides Kyle Chandler taking on the role of Deputy Jack Lamb in Super 8, but J.J. Abrams originally wanted a different star for the crucial role in his 2011 monster film, and that person was Hawkeye star Jeremy Renner. When appearing on Conan in May 2015, Jeremy Renner revealed that he was offered the role but “wasn’t quite feeling the part” and decided to have a sit-down with Abrams to explain why he was turning down the gig. 

During the conversation, Abrams told the actor he wanted to hear what he had to say but also wanted to offer him in Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, which hadn’t even been written yet. Later that day, Renner met with Tom Cruise who then called him to ask him if he would be in the movie, concluding what the actor called a “really strange experience.”

Joel Courtney in Super 8

(Image credit: Paramount Pictures)

Joel Courtney Landed The Role Of Joe Lamb After Meeting Several Casting Directors And J.J. Abrams On The First Day Of His First Audition Ever

Joel Courtney, who would later go on to star as Lee Flynn in Netflix’s The Kissing Booth franchise, made his acting debut in Super 8, and had quite a first day while auditioning for the role of Joe Lamb. In ForbesSuper 8 oral history, Courtney broke down the whirlwind of a day that was unlike anything he had ever experienced. After going through the first audition, Courtney was sent to another room and read lines for another casting director. Courtney must have impressed the casting directors because they quickly told him they wanted to try it again, only this time with J.J. Abrams sitting in to watch it go down. Courtney barely had time to catch his breath.

Ron Howard on The Andy Griffith Show

(Image credit: CBS)

Ron Howard And Steven Spielberg Helped J.J. Abrams Get A Better Grasp On Working With Child Actors

A large portion of the Super 8 cast was made up of child actors, which presented another set of challenges for J.J. Abrams when planning out the production. During the Q&A conference call with Gizmodo mentioned earlier, Abrams revealed that he reached out to Ron Howard and Steven Spielberg for advice since the former was a child actor before turning to directing, and because the latter had gotten so much out of kids’ performances over the years. 

Basically, both filmmakers told him that the best thing he could do would be to tell them how he wanted them to read their lines and then continue to work with them on those lines so that they would be completely prepared by the time cameras started rolling. Abrams also credited acting teacher Jay Scully for getting the cast comfortable with their lines and delivery before and during production.

Joel Courtney in Super 8

(Image credit: Paramount Pictures)

The Super 8 Cast Had To Learn A Great Deal About The 1970s, Including The Slang And How To Use A Rotary Phone

Super 8 takes place in 1979, a world much different from anything the younger members of the cast knew growing up. To get around this and make the movie feel more authentic to the era in which it takes place, the production team taught them how to use things like rotary phones and understand the slang of the era. 

In Forbes’ Super 8 oral history, Joel Courtney recalled J.J. Abrams giving everyone little cheatsheets with all the lingo their characters used throughout the movie, including the iconic “mint,” “turkey,” and “you’re a brain.” On top of that, the cast was given a list of words and phrases they couldn’t use while filming because they were too modern.

The Super 8 cast

(Image credit: Paramount Pictures)

The Super 8 VFX Team Added Flying Debris Whenever The Child Actors Flinched During The Train Derailment Scene

One of the most memorable sequences in all of Super 8 is the epic train derailment that takes place not long into the movie. This over-the-top action set piece was both practical (the child actors were running on a set with large objects in their way) and digital (the train and other parts of the environment were CGI), which gave the team at Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) a lot to work with. 

In June 2011, Popular Mechanics published an extensive profile on how this catastrophic scene came to be, and some of the tricks ILM used to make it so powerful. In the piece, VFX supervisor Kim Libreri revealed that J.J. Abrams used long lenses when shooting the kids and explosions together, which made them seem like they were much closer to danger than they really were. One of the most fascinating tricks involved adding CGI debris to the scene whenever the actors would flinch, adding more realism to the shot. 

The Super 8 cast

(Image credit: Paramount Pictures)

‘The Case’ Short Film Shown During The Super 8 End Credits Was Mostly Shot By The Cast

During the Super 8 end credits, the film that the younger members of the cast were working on — The Case — plays out in its entirety. The five-minute movie, which was shot entirely in the Super 8 film format, was also mostly written and directed by the young cast themselves. When speaking with Forbes for the Super 8 oral history, Riley Griffiths revealed that the kids had full control when it came to writing and directing the film, calling it a great experience. The only time any adults helped out would be to set up the lighting and help set up the shots. Everything else was from the mind and experiences of the young cast.

Hopefully, all of this makes you want to go back and revisit Super 8 after all these years. If you've already re-watched J.J. Abrams' love letter to his childhood and influences, check out CinemaBlend's updated schedule of 2021 movie premiere dates.

Philip Sledge

Philip grew up in Louisiana (not New Orleans) before moving to St. Louis after graduating from Louisiana State University-Shreveport. When he's not writing about movies or television, Philip can be found being chased by his three kids, telling his dogs to stop yelling at the mailman, or yelling about professional wrestling to his wife. If the stars properly align, he will talk about For Love Of The Game being the best baseball movie of all time.