J.J. Abrams is making good use of his boyhood apprenticeship shooting super-8 movies.
The director of 2009's "Star Trek" and creator of TV's "Lost" revisits his childhood with this summer's "Super 8," about a band of kids shooting a monster movie who end up documenting a train wreck that unleashes an alien force.
The movie is the most autobiographical he has worked on, Abrams said in an interview at CinemaCon, a Las Vegas convention for theater owners where he showed off footage Monday night.
The youths in "Super 8" are doing exactly what the 44-year-old Abrams was doing three decades ago, when he was obsessed with making his own horror films and monster flicks.
"It was sort of an uncanny thing shooting it, because it felt like I had gone back to my childhood in a way that was just incredibly surreal and oddly disturbing," Abrams told The Associated Press. "There are moments where I was like, 'My God, this is exactly what it was like.' The set dressing, the costumes. Certainly, some of the subject matter was just very transportive."
Due in theaters June 10, amid Hollywood's onslaught of visual-effects and action tales, "Super 8" began as a quiet drama about teen filmmakers in a small town. Abrams decided that while he loved the characters he had created for that scenario, it needed something to make it an event audiences would want to see.
At the same time, he was working with distributor Paramount Pictures on a sci-fi adventure about a train that crashes while carrying an alien presence from Area 51.
"The problem with that premise is I didn't have characters that I loved and cared about inside that world. So I had a sort of premise on the one hand with no characters I could get inside of, and on the other, I had characters I was inside of with no story. So I thought, fit them together," Abrams said. "Why don't they answer each other's problems and become one thing?"
Abrams has been making sci-fi movies for decades. He fondly recalls a visual effect he created by making an alien ship out of papier mache and model parts, then suspending it in front of a makeshift rear-projection screen displaying footage shot from a moving car, so it looked as though the ship was flying.
"I was always trying to do things that any kid now with a computer would fall over laughing at the preposterousness of it," Abrams said.
"Super 8" has an alien master among its producers in Steve Spielberg, whose blockbusters include "E.T. the Extra-terrestrial" and "War of the Worlds." Spielberg also gave Abrams an early job as a teenager.
After reading a news story about Abrams and other young filmmakers, Spielberg's office contacted him with an offer: repairing and restoring the super-8 films Spielberg shot in his own youth.
Abrams said the offer flabbergasted him, figuring Spielberg must have had a huge team devoted to preserving his early work. Why would he hire unknown kids?
"It was because he knew we would take care of them," Abrams said. "He had done the same thing we were doing."