J.J. Abrams: The modern master of mainstream sci-fi

June 3, 2011

In 1982, at the notably young age of 16, producer-director J.J. Abrams earned his first film credit, on a movie called “Nightbeast.”

The decidedly schlocky horror picture — shot and set in the suburbs of Baltimore, more than 2,000 miles from where Abrams was growing up in Los Angeles — tells the story of a sheriff attempting to fight off an alien monster on a deadly rampage. Abrams, whose name appears in the credits as “Jeffrey Abrams,” acted as co-composer, recording his tracks on a reel-to-reel deck and then mailing the tapes to the B movie’s director, Don Dohler.

The gig was a thrill for the teen, who had already logged eight years shooting his own shockers with his father’s Super 8 camera.

“All my life I had said, if I get my name on a movie, a credit on a film, I could die happy,” he recalls. “That was all I needed.”

Nearly 30 years have passed since that milestone. And now, here is producer-director J.J. Abrams at age 44, calling on the phone from London, where he is promoting the third major directorial effort of his very successful Hollywood career: a potential blockbuster called “Super 8,” which happens to focus on kids making movies and a deputy sheriff attempting to fight off an alien monster on a deadly rampage. Oh, and it’s produced by Abrams’s childhood idol, Steven Spielberg.

Apparently for Abrams — the man who co-created the TV phenomenon “Lost,” rebooted the “Star Trek” motion picture franchise in 2009 and has established himself over the past decade as the modern-day master of mainstream sci-fi — now is the time to reflect on the things that got him to his decidedly envious position. And “Super 8,” which opens in theaters Friday, is certainly a partial reflection of those enterprising, cinematically focused childhood roots.

The film can be described as a loving homage to Spielberg, a portrait of aspiring-filmmaker preteens perpetually seeking production value for their DIY zombie thriller, an emotional story about a child losing a parent, and, oh yeah, a monster movie. But Abrams also views “Super 8,” set in 1979, as a reminder of the sense of discovery that still existed in the late ’70s and early ’80s, the golden era of the unspoiled-in-advance summer blockbuster and a time when the closest thing to a mobile device was the Walkman.

“In a lot of ways, this movie embraces an analog time, which I think is emotionally very similar and, in an important way, very much like the way things are now,” Abrams says. “Friendships, relationships with your parents, first love — all that kind of stuff is still, you know, intact. But there’s a kind of pace and patience that needs to be considered that I think we’ve lost.

“When we look for something online, we’re getting the extra paragraph we need, the exact information we need, so there’s less unpredictability,” he continues. “You won’t stumble upon the song that happens to be playing in the record store. You won’t read the chapters that precede and follow the information that you’re looking for. . . . The more it’s ‘we want what we want,’ perhaps the less we’re getting what we really want, which is an experience.”

Abrams is well-known for his desire to preserve the “experience,” often shrouding his projects in as much mystery as the Internet era will allow. That mysteriousness can be maddening but also enticing — talk to any “Lost” fan for details — and effective. As talented as Abrams may be as a filmmaker, his most significant gift to pop culture may be this: He has renewed our appreciation of anticipation.

“J.J. is of the mind that these should be surprise gifts to people,” says Michael Giacchino, the Academy Award-winning composer and frequent Abrams collaborator who is, essentially, the John Williams to Abrams’s Spielberg. “You know, what we’re making should be a surprise gift to the world, which is why he so likes to keep things under wraps. . . . As an audience member, everyone I talk to is like, ‘I’m so excited to see “Super 8,” I’m so excited to see it.’ And part of that is because of his drive to make sure that it stays hidden until the last minute.”

In keeping with that approach, moviegoers have received only dribs and drabs of “Super 8” details over the past several months (a few trailers, some viral video clips online) and won’t get a good, long look at the monster until nearly the end of the film. (Minor spoiler alert: The creature looks nothing like the low-rent E.T. in “Nightbeast.”)

Abrams tends to have his hands in multiple projects. He “loves being at the center of a creative tornado,” Giacchino says. In addition to his film work, he produces TV’s “Fringe” and two shows slated to debut in fall that are already capitalizing on the buzz his name generates: CBS’s “Person of Interest” and Fox’s “Alcatraz.” But Abrams does not think of himself as a brand.

“Frankly, that’s the last thing I would ever think about,” he says. “What I try to think about is, you know, how do I get better at what I am trying to do and how do I make the kind of things that I want to see that I hope and pray others would as well?”

In other words, how does Abrams stay the same passionate, hungry kid who made melodies for “Nightbeast,” which, by the way, is on DVD and streaming on Netflix.

“Oh, my God, it’s on Netflix?” Abrams asks, incredulous. “You’re kidding me.”

Apparently in this digitally driven, tweet-it-now-and-text-me-later world, even J.J. Abrams is still discovering new things.

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