37 Things We Learned from J.J. Abrams's 'Super 8' Commentary

"Thank you, Steven."

The kids of Super 8
Paramount Pictures

Welcome to Commentary Commentary, where we sit and listen to filmmakers talk about their work, then share the most interesting parts. In this edition, Rob Hunter revisits Amblin’s triumphant return to YA action/adventure, Super 8.


Steven Spielberg‘s production company, Amblin Entertainment, began life with some more traditional comedies, but it quickly became synonymous with with family friendly genre adventures. 1982’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial started that ball rolling, and the years that followed saw Amblin produce the likes of Gremlins (1984), The Goonies (1985), Back to the Future (1985), Harry and the Hendersons (1987), Arachnophobia (1990), and more.

The company slowly moved away from such fare, but 2011 brought their first new stab at it since 1998’s Small Soldiers. The film was Super 8, the director was J.J. Abrams, and the result was a box-office hit. While some argued that Abrams was trying to ape Spielberg’s style, the director’s own touches (ie lens flares) came through clearly. The film is new to 4K UltraHD — and it looks unsurprisingly fantastic — so we gave a listen to Abrams’s commentary track.

Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary for Super 8!

Super 8 (2011)

Commentators: JJ Abrams (director, writer), Bryan Burk (producer), Larry Fong (cinematographer)

1. Steven Spielberg is notorious for not doing commentary tracks, so Abrams tries to circumvent that by texting him a question during the commentary and then sharing it. “That will unofficially be his being a part of this.”

2. Abrams had the image in his head of starting a film with a factory’s “Days since last accident” sign being reset for years. He didn’t realize until they were well into Super 8‘s production that this was that movie.

3. They recommend listeners stop listening to the commentary and instead check out the featurette showing Fong doing magic. “It really is what makes making movies with Larry one of the best experiences.” He’s also a pretty good cinematographer.

4. Jackson Lamb (Kyle Chandler) telling Joe (Joel Courtney) that he’ll be home soon is him “saying to the movie that he will the home for this boy soon, but that he’s not yet.” I’m not convinced this one comes across successfully while watching the film.

5. Abrams didn’t want to add the “Four months later” card, but Spielberg convinced him that audiences need to know where and when they are in a film.

6. One of the challenges in making a movie about movie-obsessed kids in the late 70s was that they couldn’t put any Spielberg-related movie posters on their walls — films like Jaws (1975) or Close Encounter of the Third Kind (1977) would have been the obvious choices, but it would have been too self-referential. Abrams made Charles (Riley Griffiths) a fan of horror movies instead.

7. Abrams took inspiration in his messy, busy family homes from Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

8. A reference to the Three Mile Island accident was initially part of the script, but Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi meltdown occurred while they were in post-production so they removed it.

9. Early test audiences “hated” Jackson. They worked in the editing to shift him into a broken man instead of merely an asshole.

10. Elle Fanning was twelve-years-old during filming meaning she wasn’t legally allowed to drive the car. Instead, they had a stunt person on the floor of the car controlling it with a small steering wheel and monitor. “What’s weird is, that’s legal.”

11. Super 8 was shot on film, but later pick-up shots were captured with the RED digital camera.

12. Every shot of a train during that train station scene was accomplished by ILM.

13. Abrams wanted the train crash sequence to be like the kids would remember it as opposed to how it actually would have been. “So it’s definitely a larger than life, ridiculous, over the top crash, but that was really part of the fun of it.”

14. It was composer Michael Giacchino‘s idea that there should be no music during the train crash. “Part of it is I think he’s just lazy.”

15. They only had access to the child actors for limited hours, so nearly every time you see a reverse shot showing their backs they were stand-ins. “The kids could only work until midnight and then go back to their cages.”

16. The shot at 28:05 — looking through the family at the breakfast table as the two boys sit glued to the news report — was Spielberg’s suggestion as he visited the set that day. “So I was sort of forced to do it,” says Abrams.

17. Abrams was nervous on the kids’ first day of filming, so he called Rob Reiner and Spielberg for advice. As you do.

18. The shot at 34:51 between Jackson and the sheriff was a pickup done at Bad Robot’s offices.

19. The M-38 power line mention at 44:24 is an overt reference to Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It is a power line mentioned in that film’s script but never made it into the movie. Spielberg laughed when he read it in Abrams’ script.

20. The mention of Operation Walking Distance is a reference to Abrams’ favorite episode of The Twilight Zone. “Walking Distance” is episode five of the show’s first season.

21. It bugs Abrams when actors cry on-screen and don’t wipe away the tears. “It feels like they’re showing off,” so for the scene at 53:38 when a tear drips down Joe’s face Abrams was just off camera whispering “wipe it off, wipe it off!”

22. The flies circling Dr. Woodward’s (Glynn Turman) head were real and attracted to the bloody makeup. “They were going to get rid of them, but I thought no, it’s just so disturbing.”

23. Much of Super 8‘s Super 8mm footage was shot on different kinds of film including Super 8mm.

24. The interaction at 1:03:00 between Alice (Fanning) and her father (Ron Eldard) concerned Abrams in that he didn’t want it to feel too dangerous or threatening. Rather than have the man stand he instead kept him sitting in the chair. It’s a lesson he learned from Brad Bird who faced a similar experience making The Incredibles (2004). “Everyone thought that Mr. Incredible was really beating up on his wife in one of their scenes, and he just reanimated it a little bit, didn’t add any dialogue, and had her get bigger than him at one point, like stretching taller than him, and it changed the entire dynamic.”

25. “Firelight at 0500 hours,” is a reference to Spielberg’s 1964 student film made when he was just seventeen-years-old.

26. David Gallagher plays the camera shop employee. “He was the little kid on 7th Heaven, and now he’s a bearded stoner. Sad what time does.”

27. The water tower isn’t real, and this includes the crane shot at 1:05:32 that goes up from the town street and eventually becomes 100% CG courtesy of ILM.

28. Ryan Lee (plays Cary) already had braces, but they were the modern style so the production removed them and replaced them with the clunkier late 70s style.

29. After arguing about what to actually email Spielberg during the commentary they finally do so at 1:25:00. They asked him why he doesn’t do commentaries. The legend obviously doesn’t get back to them before the film ends.

30. The tracking shot starting at 1:28:21 of Joe and Cary running down the war torn street is one of Abrams’s favorites in the film. It’s also actually two stunt women standing in for the boys.

31. Abrams recently watched Joe Cornish’s Attack the Block and loved it while acknowledging the similarities. “I thought his movie was just extraordinary.”

32. “The whole idea was that this creature was this metaphor for the pain that this kid was going through, having lost his mother, that not until he confronts it can he live and move on.” Abrams still isn’t sure if he gets that across well enough in the face-off between Joe and the creature.

33. The creature’s eyes as it comes into focus around 1:37:50 are actually the eyes of Joe’s dead mother (Caitriona Balfe).

34. Spielberg suggested Jackson’s line “I got you,” and Abrams is appreciative.

35. Abrams wanted to end Super 8 with a shot of the kid looking up towards the sky as the ship flew into the atmosphere, “but it was literally the end of E.T.

36. They tried to get George Romero to cameo — he’s from Pittsburgh, they were filming in Pittsburgh, and they wanted him for the zombie Super 8mm movie — but he wasn’t in town. Probably for the best as Romero would have told him off for not realizing that zombies need to be shot in the head.

37. The Super 8mm footage that plays during the end credits features train crash sound effects by Giacchino and visual effects by Abrams.

Best in Context-Free Commentary

“To everyone who says we ripped off E.T., I say no. E.T.’s in the movie.”

“This is me and my obsession with lens flares.”

“It looks like Elle’s crying listening to our commentary, and I don’t blame her.”

“I think that this is the first time that digital throw-up has been used in a movie.”

“Thank you Steven.”

Final Thoughts

Super 8 remains a fine entry in the Amblin filmography, and while the Spielberg influences are abundantly clear I’d argue that Abrams succeeds in putting his own stamp on it throughout. The new 4K disc is fantastic, and the commentary is a great listen for fans. I’m not entirely convinced they actually emailed Spielberg their question — should have sent a text at the start of the commentary you bastards! — but it’s a fun conceit. Still, I do wish someone would convince Spielberg to start doing tracks of his own…

Read more Commentary Commentary from the archives.

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