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J.J. Abrams: The 'Super' Career Of A Movie-Crazed Kid

Super 8 director J.J. Abrams says the inspiration for his latest science-fiction thriller came from his own childhood obsession with filmmaking. He shares his thoughts on the film industry and on trying to make movies more enjoyable for audiences.

44:32

Other segments from the episode on June 13, 2011

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 13, 2011: Interview with J.J. Abrams; Review of Ron Hansen's novel "A wild surge of guilty passion."

Transcript

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J.J. Abrams: The 'Super' Career Of A Movie-Crazed Kid

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. It is good to be back after a case of
laryngitis and a sore throat that lasted way too long. I want to thank Dave
Davies for hosting during most of my absence and for being so good natured
about taking on FRESH AIR in addition to his other work here at WHYY. And
thanks to David Bianculli for hosting last Tuesday.

Now, on to today’s show. My guest, J.J. Abrams co-created the TV series “Lost,”
“Felicity,” and “Fringe,” and created the series “Alias.” He directed the films
“Mission: Impossible III” and “Star Trek.” He wrote and directed the new film
“Super 8.” It connects to his own childhood when he made horror films using a
Super 8 camera, relying on family and friends as his actors and creating his
own special effects. "Super 8" is set in 1979 in a small town in Ohio, where
six friends, who are about 14 years old, are making a zombie movie. They're
about to shoot a scene at a train station where the husband is ready to depart
but his wife wants him to stay. As they prepare to shoot, they hear a real
train in the distance. The film's director starts shouting for everyone to
hurry and get ready so that they can shoot the scene with an actual train
speeding by. But as you'll hear, something shocking happens.

(Soundbite of movie, "Super 8")

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

Mr. JOEL COURTNEY (Actor): (as Joe Lamb) Shut up. I am trying.

Unidentified Boy: We're not set up. We're not set up.

(Soundbite of train approaching)

Mr. COURTNEY: (as Joe Lamb) Collision. Collision. Ready. Start filming. Be
extra live when the train passes by. Here we go. And action.

Unidentified Girl: (as character) John, I don't like it, this case, these
murders.

Unidentified Boy: (as character) What do you want me to do? Go to Michigan with
you?

Unidentified Girl: (as character) Mackinaw Island is beautiful this time of
year.

(Soundbite of train engine)

Unidentified Girl: (as character) I think you're in danger.

Unidentified Boy: (as character) I don't have a choice.

Unidentified Girl: (as character) You do have a choice. John, I've never asked
you to stop. I need to know this isn't the last time I'm going to see you. I
love you so much.

Unidentified Boy: (as character) I love you, too.

Mr. COURTNEY: (as Joe Lamb) Guys, watch out.

Unidentified Boy: (as character) Joe, what the hell are you...

(Soundbite of crashing)

(Soundbite of yelling)

Mr. COURTNEY: (as Joe Lamb) Oh, my God. Run.

Unidentified Boy: (as character) Oh, my God.

(Soundbite of explosion)

GROSS: Well, that's the sounds of the train exploding. Why and how it explodes,
introduces the science fiction part of the story. It should come as no surprise
that there is a sci-fi dimension. This is, after all, a J.J. Abrams production
and Steven Spielberg is one of the producers.

J.J. Abrams, it’s really a pleasure to have you on the show. Thank you so much
for coming.

Mr. ABRAMS (Director, “Super 8”): I'm so happy to be here. Thank you.

GROSS: So the kids in your movie are making a zombie movie shot with a Super 8
camera. So before we go any further, please describe the Super 8 camera you had
when you were a kid.

Mr. ABRAMS: It was the camera that they are using in the film. It is, it was a
Eumig camera that was a sound camera and my grandfather bought it for me when I
was around 13. And I really wanted to make sure that the camera that the kids
were using in the movie was the same one.

GROSS: So why did you want to make a movie about kids shooting a Super 8 film
who happen to witness and catch on film something very bizarre?

Mr. ABRAMS: The very first impulse here was just to do a movie about being a
kid making movies, which is what I used to do. And before that idea was even
formed that much, I picked up the phone and called Steven Spielberg, who I had
gotten to know over the years and I just, I asked him would you be interested
in being, you know, a producer with me in a movie called “Super 8” about kids
making movies? I knew he had made films when he was a kid as well and it was
just, he said yes, luckily, and it was the beginning of the sort of process of
figuring out what this movie might be. But that was the impulse.

GROSS: And, of course, there had to be a supernatural or extraterrestrial
dimension.

Mr. ABRAMS: Well, you know, it didn't have to be but it was one of those things
where it started out I actually thought it was going to be much more sort of a
straight drama comedy. You know, much more of a kind of a “Stand By Me,” type
movie. And as we worked on the story, I felt that there was something missing.
There was some kind of, you know, I needed something in the movie that was
going to be a physical manifestation of what the main character was going
through, you know, internally, the sort of struggle, having lost his mother and
being left with a father he never really connected with.

And so there was a kind of need that I had. But separately I had an idea about
the U.S. Air Force moving Area 51 contents from Nevada to another destination
and the train crashes and something escapes. But I didn't have more than that
but there was a premise so I thought that's kind of a fun monster movie. And
the idea of connecting these two movies suddenly, they started, it started to
answer each other’s questions and that was sort of how that began.

GROSS: So when you were making Super 8 movies, what wee the movies that you
made? Were they zombie films like in your movie "Super 8?"

Mr. ABRAMS: They were the worst. I mean...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ABRAMS: They were just these ridiculous horrible - I mean they were no
good. Yeah, I would take anyone who was available, my sister, my mother, any
friends and I would, you know, kill them in crazy ways. We would do, you know,
makeup effects. And I wrote fan letters. When I was a kid I used to write fan
letters to like makeup artists whose, you know, special effect makeup stuff
blew my mind like Dick Smith and, you know, Rick Baker, Tom Savini, these guys
who are sort of known for just incredible, you know, of course, as a kid when
you’re, 11, 12, 13 you can't do that and they, you know, but I would try. So I
would take the Karo syrup and food coloring and stuff from the kitchen and I
would make blood and I would, you know, ask my mom if I could borrow her makeup
which, you know, didn't trouble her because she knew that I was going to just
kill someone basically with it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ABRAMS: So it was just – it was all ridiculous.

GROSS: So what was the strangest way you kill people in your movies?

Mr. ABRAMS: Well, I mean I remember there was this fight scene that I did where
there were these two guys fighting on a, at the films of UCLA, the parking
structure, and there were these two guys fighting. And one guy gets like gets
flipped over the railing in like the fifth floor and he's holding on to the
railing and these guys are fighting. And the guy didn’t die in the – I don’t
actually remember how that incredibly exciting cliffhanger ends. But my, I
remember my father watching this. I was editing the movie and he came into my
room and I was watching the scene, and he literally got angry at me that I
would risk someone's life for a scene in the movie. Now it was the greatest
victory because it was a dummy and I had rigged it with like wires so the legs
were kicking and all this.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ABRAMS: And he left the room like really pissed and I was just – I was so
happy that he believed it. and it literally just speaks to that desperate
desire as like a little fat magician kid, you know, wanting, you know, your
family to believe that that little, you know, foam yellow rabbit just
disappeared from your hand or whatever. You know, it's that same thing of just
you all you want is for people to believe it.

GROSS: And did you tell him finally that it was a dummy and that you weren't
really risking someone’s life?

Mr. ABRAMS: I did but he – yeah, then I think he was – then he got mad because
I think he felt like he was, you know, he was embarrassed. You know, it was all
good. It was one of those things where when I did finally tell him, he was like
well, okay, you know. But it was great because it actually showed that these
three cuts, by having the two guys on the ground floor and flipping over the
side but then looking up to the fifth floor looked like they had flipped, you
know, it was all that kind of stuff that is pretty, you know, fundamental
moviemaking stuff.

But it was those kind of things. You know, I had friends come over and we
would, you know, I would do all sorts of, we’d make sets in rooms. Like I'd
take all the furniture out of my room and I would, you know, put like black
crepe paper on the wall and, you know, all this crazy stuff. My parents would
come home and all the furniture would be in the hallway and they'd be like,
what the hell’s going on here? You know, it was always like some ridiculous
thing that we were doing.

GROSS: And the black crepe paper was for?

Mr. ABRAMS: It was like I was making it was a film Terry, called “The Attic.”

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ABRAMS: And it was just so good. And there was a scene in it where one of
the kids says oh, an attic. I didn’t even know we had an attic. It’s one of the
– and actually Greg Grunberg, who’s a, one of my, you know, best friends since
kindergarten, I've known him forever, he’s been in a lot of TV shows that I've
done and he was on “Heroes,” he was in that movie. And so what I did is I took
all the furniture out. This is such a good story. You're not going to believe
it. And I'm, of course, being sarcastic.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ABRAMS: All the furniture out of the room, put black crepe paper on the
wall and then put like, you know, like wood, like contact paper to look like
wood, like wood paneling - classic 70s, beautiful contact paper, and made it
look like there was an attic basically in the room, like there was like the
beams - the cross beams and it was just this set, which actually for one angle
functioned fairly well. But these were all just experiments of things to try
and create an illusion of something that I wanted to do.

My guest is J.J. Abrams, the co-creator of “Lost.” His new movie is called
"Super 8."

Now there is an element – I'm trying not to give away a lot of the more
supernatural or, you know, stop me if I'm making you real uncomfortable with
what I'm giving away here, but I won't say much. But most of your stories have
an element of either the supernatural, the inconceivable, you know, aliens, all
of the above. Is that just because of the influence of TV, movies, books that
you loved? Or did you ever have the kind of experience that seemed, you know,
impossible and impossible and only had, you know, like a supernatural
explanation?

Mr. ABRAMS: It’s a funny thing. I remember as a kid just being in absolute
tears over the Charles Laughton “Hunchback of Notre Dame” I had seen on TV.

GROSS: That is one of my favorite films ever made.

Mr. ABRAMS: Me too. It is literally this defining movie for me and it was just
killed me. And the idea of this misunderstood, you know, huge hearted, you
know, seeming monster to strangers. And it was the idea of that love story was
so profound and I was aware...

GROSS: Because there was a Gypsy dancer who has compassion for him when
everyone else just sees him as a deformed monstrosity.

Mr. ABRAMS: Exactly. And the idea of not just that kind of love, but the idea
that it was, you know, a movie that used makeup effects. It was a movie that
used - there were visual effects. It was an incredible thing when they shot it
at, you know, Universal Studios. But the idea of that movie was so profound to
me and I loved that notion that you could combine something that was a
monstrous and I think, you know, as a kid, you know, whether you're watching,
you know, “Batman” and people are dressing up in, you know, costumes or you’re,
you know, you're watching cartoons or you’re, you go to see movies, you know,
there's something about monsters that I think kids always, you know, are drawn
to and curious about. I always loved that idea of combining that kind of
emotion with something that was so, you know, kind of like horrific or scary
or, you know, literally an effect, a makeup effect. And so whether it was that
or, you know, “Frankenstein,” I mean “The Elephant Man” years later, which I
just, you know...

GROSS: Oh, what a great film.

Mr. ABRAMS: ...feel the same way.

GROSS: Yeah. Mm-hmm.

Mr. ABRAMS: Oh, my god. So the idea of using, you know, visual effects, whether
they be makeup effects or now, you know, CG effects, to convey an emotional
story was something that was really important to me. And "Super 8," you know,
while, you know, obviously like anything it’s like there are, you know, there
are, it’s imperfect and there are things that don’t work, you know, here and
there as well as I would have like and all but, you know, you always look back
and think oh, I wish this, I wish that. But the thing that I'm the most, you
know, sort of - it was most important to me at least going in, the ambition,
was to create something that had, yes, it had a creature. But more important to
me was that it was something that had feeling and had heart.

GROSS: And you mentioned the creature and the creature is seen as like very
monstrous and it is very destructive, but it's also misunderstood and like in
“The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” once you know what the story is, you have
empathy for it.

Mr. ABRAMS: Mm-hmm. Yes.

GROSS: So can we talk little about without giving away too much...

Mr. ABRAMS: Sure.

GROSS: ...what you were up against in designing a creature?

Mr. ABRAMS: You know, the struggle, you know, you look at one of the recent
“Star Wars” movies and you realize that every single creature in the history of
time has been done. Like there's just...

GROSS: Right.

Mr. ABRAMS: You know, you can't - it's all been done and all the paradigm. You
know, what color is the creature? How many legs does the creature have? Have
many, you know, are the eyes, where are the eyes? You know, what’s going to,
you know, is it a biped, a quadruped? Like, you know, there are these kind of
categories and they've all been completely covered. And so working on this
creature is important to me that it be not just a sort of raving beast, chest
thumping, you know, scary thing, that it needed also be, you know, sentient and
dexterous and, you know, have thoughtful and nuanced and yet also just out and
out terrifying. So it was this thing of trying to figure out what is something
that could be hard to define for most of the movie so that you don't ever feel
like, oh, I get it, I got it. But the designer of the creature, Neville Page,
did an amazing job and I think he gave us something that took a ton of
iterations but he really nailed it and, you know, I'm really proud of how
Island brought it to life.

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is J.J. Abrams, the co-creator of
“Lost” and now he has a new film called "Super 8."

We’ll take a short break here and then we’ll talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is J.J. Abrams, the co-creator of
“Lost.” he directed “Mission: Impossible III.” He directed “Star Trek” and now
he’s got a new movie, which is called "Super 8." And it’s about a group of boys
around what, 12, 13 years old?

Mr. ABRAMS: Fourteen. Fourteen.

GROSS: Fourteen years old were making a Super 8 movie and accidentally capture
this train crash on it and the train has been carrying really mysterious stuff
that leads to all kinds of mysterious and monstrous complications.

So one of the things you're famous for is trying to keep the story's plot, the
plot twist a secret, particularly on things like “Lost,” but in this movie too.
I read so much about how, you know, you're trying to keep everything a secret.
How obsessive are you about that really?

Mr. ABRAMS: About 15 years ago or so I wrote a script for a “Superman” film and
it was leaked out of the studio at Warner Brothers and someone reviewed the
script online in great detail, and it became this big thing. And ultimately,
the film didn't get made. I'm sure not just because of the review, but because
of any number of things.

And, but it was one of those things where the, you know, to have a script that
is nowhere near the latest draft, let alone the final draft, being reviewed
online, it frankly made me, you know, a little bit paranoid. And I realized,
you know, all they had to do was not give the script out to everyone. All they
had to do was to take a few, you know, steps and something that was I know very
important to the studio and to the filmmakers, you know, wouldn’t have been
released prematurely.

Of course, you know, you never want a script to be reviewed before the movie
even gets made. The point is I guess that there are certain things that I think
are important to kind of keep quiet and yet I think frankly, this whole secrecy
thing has kind of been blown up a little bit out of proportion.

On “Star Trek” we had a lot of rabid fans we just were trying to kind of
protect the experience for them. But I just, I don't know how many times I've
gone to the theater, to the movies and seen a trailer and felt like, all right,
well, now I certainly don't have to see the movie anymore because I just saw
everything. And the experience of going to a film and seeing the movie and not
knowing every plot twist to me is something that has been ruined and spoiled
for moviegoers.

And I certainly don't want to be coy and be some kind of jerk and, you know, be
withholding and some kind of, it's not a Machiavellian sort of thing. It’s
literally wanting people to have a good time and to have a little bit of a
surprising time. And so whenever I'm trying to keep things quiet, it is 100
percent an effort to make the experience of actually seeing the movie or the TV
show more enjoyable for the viewers.

GROSS: Now we talked before about how when you were a kid and you made Super 8
films and you used special effects, makeup and, you know, killed your
characters off in all kinds of creative ways, one of the kids in the film loves
making things blow up and he always has firecrackers on him and stuff.

Mr. ABRAMS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Are you into pyrotechnics? And what was it like to direct this multi-
explosion scene?

Mr. ABRAMS: I was, you know, as a kid I would make models and I would film them
as I blew them up. I mean that was I wouldn’t say a hobby but it was one of the
things I would try to do. Of course, you know, you didn't have the lenses to
get the shot quite right and you didn't have slow motion so, you know, when you
watched the movie it was always over in like four milliseconds. Like you're
like what?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ABRAMS: You know, you spent hours doing this whole thing and you get back
and you’re like...

(Soundbite of noise)

Mr. ABRAMS: And you’re watching it. And it’s like it’s always over instantly.
And you just that think that was the biggest waste of an afternoon. So these
kids, you know, directing these kids in that experience, all I cared about was
obviously that they were safe. And secondly, I wanted them to, you know, be
scared. They have to pace themselves because they had to be just terrified out
of their minds for, you know, for days.

GROSS: Did you want the actual kids to be scared or the kids to look scared?
Yeah.

Mr. ABRAMS: Yeah. Well, I wanted the kids to look scared. I mean I never wanted
them actually to be scared.

GROSS: Okay.

Mr. ABRAMS: And, you know, the whole thing for me with these kids was always
that they feel safe, so that they could be free to do the things that they
might just do in the privacy of their room, you know, like I mean like act out
and do certain things. I needed them to feel like anything was okay. And I
never wanted to play tricks on them.

It was funny. I was freaking out, just as a side bar, the first couple days of
shooting. Frankly, I didn't know if it was going to work. And we had, you know,
Joel, the main kid and Riley and they were nervous. I mean I was probably more
nervous than they. But they were really nervous and I just really...

GROSS: Because of the explosives?

Mr. ABRAMS: No. No. This was like the, it was like, you know, school’s out and
it was just early days of shooting...

GROSS: I see. Okay.

Mr. ABRAMS: It was before we were at the train crash. Sorry. And they, I was, I
really thought oh my god, this is, I don't know if this is going to work. And I
was at a panic. And I, you know, called my wife. I'm like, I don't know if this
is going to work. And I, you know, emailed Steven and I'm like this, I don't
know. This is I'm terrified and we did 30 takes of something and he’s like, you
know, he sends me back an email, 30’s a lot.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ABRAMS: And I remember I was just freaking out. And I called Rob Reiner,
who had directed, you know, “Stand By Me.” And I called, you know, him. I said
Rob, I'm, you know, I'm working with these kids. I'm trying to be calm, working
with these kids, it's all fine, but I just want to know do you have any advice
whatever? He's like well, do trust them? Do they have good instincts? I'm like
I, I think they do, you know. But can you just give me some advice? Just
something? Can you just tell me something? He was like, I was an actor. We had
three months of acting school. I worked with them. They were, you know, like,
he wasn't helpful at all.

But what he didn't say to me though, was when he was filming the scene, the
train scene, they wouldn't get riled up in “Stand By Me.” They wouldn't get to
that place. And finally he yelled at them and he just said, you know, this
whole crew, everyone here, they're working for you and you can't, you know,
you're not able to get. And he literally got them to a place where they work
crying. And he just said that, you know, maybe sometimes you got to pull that
out of your pocket and sort of use that. And I never had to use it. But the
filming of the train crash in "Super 8" was really the most fun I think these
kids ever had. Every time we'd do a shot they would immediately after I said
cut, say please, one more time. One more time. One more, and they were just so
into running with these huge explosions happening, you know, hundreds of yards
away from them.

GROSS: J.J. Abrams will be back on the second half of the show. He wrote and
directed the new movie "Super 8" and co-created the TV series “Lost.”

I'm Terry Gross.

And this is FRESH AIR.

This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross back with J.J. Abrams. He co-created the TV
series “Lost,” “Fringe” and “Felicity,” and created “Alias.” He directed the
movies films “Mission: Impossible III” and “Star Trek.” Abrams wrote and
directed the new film “Super 8.” Set in 1979, it’s about a group of kids making
a Super 8 zombie movie, who witness a mysterious train explosion that leads to
inexplicable phenomena. Part of the film was inspired by Abrams’ experiences as
a kid making Super 8 horror films.

Let me warn you, if you're squeamish or listening with young children, that
Abrams is about to get a vivid description of a surgical procedure.

Right at the beginning of the movie, one of the main characters, one of the
kids mothers dies in an accident at work. And so one of his friends, I think
it's a friend who's actually directing the "Super 8" movie.

Mr. ABRAMS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Some of the kids are talking to each other in they’re saying will he
really want to make a zombie movie now that his mother has died? You know, will
that be right? And yes, he still wants to make the movie. But, you know, the
zombie movie is about the living dead and he has a mother who is now really
dead. And that led me to wonder like when you were young and you were into, you
know, all the special effects and blood and gore and stuff, had you witnessed
real blood? Had you experienced real death?

Mr. ABRAMS: You know, as a kid I think because I didn't really go through
anything like this, it was safe to play in that, and it was something that was
kind of terrifying and, you know, provocative and interesting. And because it
wasn't real it was something that was safe. And so as a kid, the idea that, you
know, these horror films were, you know, as I just remember seeing the most
ridiculous, horrific, gruesome sometimes horribly executed, by the way, deaths
in movies. But at the time it was sort of a way to kind of, you know, I don't
know, play with that idea of death.

And I remember I was I think I was 12, maybe I was 14, and I got, I came home
one day and there was a box, a little teeny box. And I, it said Dick Smith on
the, you know, Larchmont, New York on the postmark. And I opened up the box and
it was a tongue in the box.

GROSS: Hmm.

Mr. ABRAMS: And it was from, “The Exorcist,” and which he had done. And it was,
and he had this little handwritten note, I still have it, that said, put a
little dab of peanut butter in the tongue and it will stick and, you know,
it'll stay there. And it was what Linda Blair wore in one of the scenes where
she had to stick her tongue out. It had to be like, you know, four or five
inches longer. And my mom came home and she was like, what's that? I'm like oh,
it's just a tongue that Dick Smith, you know. She's like what man sent you a
tongue? What's going on? It was like...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ABRAMS: It didn't seem like a good thing for her kid to be doing. You know,
so the answer to the question, you know, did I experience death, did I see
death, you know, I did not in that way. But it was like all around me in all
the stuff that I was, you know, interested in. And there is a, I think as you
get older it's far less fun that kind of stuff. I mean I am in no for before,
you know, I don't even know how many years, movies that are of that genre, that
kind of like, you know, that sort of torture porn, horrific ultra violent
movie. You know, I used to love those movies as a kid. And now, of course,
having three kids those films are repulsive to me. And yet I'm, you know,
amazed and kind of and applause the work of the artists who create the
illusions of those movies.

GROSS: But let me ask you this, like when you pass a car accident when you were
young, would you look or not look?

Mr. ABRAMS: You know, it's a funny thing. I've always been interested in that
kind of stuff. But, you know, I think when you’re actually confronted with the
real deal it changes everything. I wrote this movie years ago. I was writing it
called “Regarding Henry” and there was a character who gets shot in the head
and survives. And I was actually interested in seeing a brain surgery and I
called a cousin in our family who is a doctor and I asked him if he knew of any
way I could get into see in operation, a brain surgery. And he said well, let
me, you know, let me see. And anyway, five years later I swear to God, he calls
me. He's like still want to see a brain surgery? I'm like what? I had no, I was
like oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. Sure.

That next morning, 5 a.m., go down to USC and there was a woman who had a tumor
on her pituitary gland and it was being removed. And we are in this, you know,
operating room and right there watching this woman. And they go to put the, you
know, the anesthesiologist comes over and he puts the mask over her face and
they're talking to her and she's going under. And literally, the promise of
what was to come like turned my stomach. Like even the promise of what was
going to come next.

And it was an interesting thing because I mean this was the kind of thing that
I had been obsessed with as a kid and would, you know, put derma wax on, you
know, my sister's face and then, you know, cut it with a little, you know,
wooden dowel and put blood inside. You know, I would do these kinds of cuts all
the time. And I left the room for a minute. I was like holy what, like this is
really, you know, and I went back inside and I watched as they did this amazing
thing, which is they, once she was under the opened her mouth and they cut
above her gum line, and above her teeth, her upper teeth and they did this
insane thing, which was just directly out of any of those makeup magazines that
I would have read as a kid.

And they pulled her mouth open past the nasal cavity, and they went into the
nasal cavity to remove this tumor, which they did. And they sewed her up and,
but it was an amazing thing to watch. And, you know, again, obviously being
privileged to be sort of witness to a miracle like that to see what doctors can
do is incredible. But it was an amazing thing to see for real something that
had been, you know, play for essentially my whole childhood.

GROSS: And does that have an effect on you in terms of showing gore?

Mr. ABRAMS: Doing a movie that was a truly gory movie hasn't really interested
me. I mean it's not that I'm opposed to it and I'm a, you know, a big fan of
directors like David Cronenberg and some of the work that they’ve done in
showing just crazy horrific things. And I love, for example, John Carpenter's
“The Thing,” the work that Rob Bottin did on the effects of that movie are just
amazing. But the idea of doing a horror film or a slasher movie or something
that's too overtly gory doesn’t appeal to me.

I remember when were doing the pilot for “Lost,” there's this big plane crash
and I knew there was one moment I really wanted to have an impact, which was
when they were pulling the guy out from out of this sort of engine cowling and
you see his leg and how bloody it is. And so what occurred to me was to have no
red at all in the scene. So I didn't want the plane to have any red in its
logo. I didn't want to have any red on the, you know, the wardrobe. I didn't
want to have - there was a little bit of blood here and there but I wanted to
keep it really about sort of dirt and sand, and you know, just a mess of this
crash and so that when they pull him out and you see blood it really has an
impact and it really stands out.

And it's interesting. I've seen the pilot these years ago with - like full
audiences in a couple screenings and the reaction that they’ve had, it's like
the communal immediate repulsive reaction to the blood. And all it really was
blood - fake blood poured on the guy’s - you weren't seeing bones stick - it
wasn't anything crazy but it was such an interesting thing. And I think it
spoke of how we become desensitized to that stuff. And so it's a little, you
know, a little bit to me is a far more effective tool and it doesn't feel
disgusting and gratuitous and I just have no interest in that stuff.

GROSS: Okay. While we're on the subject of the pilot of “Lost,” the first
episode, you know, so that scene you’re describing it’s not, it doesn't look
just like blood. It looks kind of like something you'd see in a butcher shop,
you know. And...

Mr. ABRAMS: Yeah. It’s probably because it was on his clothes too. Yeah I was
pants.

GROSS: And then, like within just a few seconds, you see that leg and then you,
a woman is kind of crawling to the shore shrieking because she's like nine
months pregnant and she starting to have contractions. And one guy is sucked
into one of the jet engines of the crashed plane and he's kind of totally...

Mr. ABRAMS: Yea.

GROSS: ...sucked into it and that makes the whole engine explode.

Mr. ABRAMS: Yeah.

GROSS: Like and this is all in a few seconds. It’s...

Mr. ABRAMS: Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: It’s so much it almost verges on funny it’s so much.

Mr. ABRAMS: I don’t – but first of all, it's exactly right. And the idea of
that guy getting sucked into the engine though it was never meant to be like,
you know, a laugh, it was meant to be a kind of oh, my God, this is insane kind
of feeling.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. ABRAMS: Where it was almost like a circus of just of horrors. And the idea
of, you know, the subjective experience of that character, Matthew Fox was
playing Jack, and his experience in that was really about just how this guy is,
you know, he needs to be 10 places at once. And then, of course, the engine gag
was really about kind of just how frightening this airplane that it was, you
know, the monster had fallen but haven't died yet, and that there was still
some danger left in it. And it just was about, you know, what would you do if
you were surrounded by that kind of madness, and that that was the reason we
went so far.

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is J.J. Abrams and his new film is
called "Super 8." He also co-created “Lost.” He made the films “Star Trek” and
“Mission: Impossible III.” He created “Felicity.” So let’s take a short break
here, then we’ll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is writer, producer and director J.J. Abrams. He co-created
“Lost.” His new movie is called "Super 8." It's about a small group of kids -
about 14 years old – who are making their own Super 8 movie. This is a set in
1979. And while they're making a movie they witness and their camera records a
very mysterious train explosion which kind of sets the plot in motion.

Although the film "Super 8" is set in a small town in Ohio, you grew up in
Manhattan?

Mr. ABRAMS: Yes. I was born in New York but I was raised in L.A.

GROSS: Okay. And in fact, your father was a producer of several movies and TV
shows.

Mr. ABRAMS: Yeah. He still actually is a, produces TV movies and my mother
actually produced a couple as well.

GROSS: So you got to spend some time on a set at Paramount, was it?

Mr. ABRAMS: He had an office at Paramount but there were any number of TV
movies that were being filmed and I would visit the set. And I was very lucky
to get to, you know, as a kid, watch the process and see how movies got made
and it was, you know, enormously informative.

GROSS: So what's one of the things you learned watching on the set of one of
the films that your father got you into as a child?

Mr. ABRAMS: One of the biggest lessons actually came from a movie that he
didn't have anything to do w. But one night I was, I guess I was like 15 years
old, and one night my dad said I want to take you somewhere. And we drove to
Paramount Studios where he had an office and we got to the small theater at
Paramount. And we get there and they are probably 20 people there, 20 people in
this theater. And I would recognize one of the people there as John Carpenter
and he's a director who had done “Halloween” and “The Fog” and...

GROSS: “Escape from New York,” yeah.

Mr. ABRAMS: Well, this was the movie he was going to show.

GROSS: Oh.

Mr. ABRAMS: And he announced that, you know, what we're about to see is an
incredibly rough cut of “Escape from New York” with much, none of the visual
effects at all, no special effects, with a lot of the sounds of missing. He's
like I'm going to be reading a lot of the lines that aren't on the soundtrack.
I was stunned. My mouth hit the floor. You know, I couldn't believe that I was
I was in this small theater with this director who my father knew I admired so
much. So I'm sitting there in this theater and John Carpenter starts this film
and there was a whole opening sequence where the main character, Snake
Plissken, is robbing a bank and he ends up getting caught, and the movie plays
and the whole thing, it was magical, like it was amazing. And the movie was
over and John Carpenter said, you know, okay, I want to talk about the movie.

And what I learned was just by watching him be open to any criticism. And it
was just incredible watching him take notes that were sometimes easy and
understandable other times huge, and he knew he had a movie that at the time
was problematic in certain ways and he was trying to fix it. And I remember my
dad raised his hand. I was like ooh, God. What? Just don’t...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ABRAMS: And he said yes. You know, my dad said cut the opening for the
movie. And I thought, I'm leaving. I am out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ABRAMS: So mad that I'm here. I am so humiliated. And John Carpenter said,
what do you mean? And my dad said it is Snake Plissken is a more imposing
character. He's more of a mythic character if you don't see him get caught. But
when you meet him he's already held and you know. And I thought this is just
the dumbest thing I've ever heard. God, I wish he hadn't said that. And in the
final movie John Carpenter cut it out and that the whole sequence is not in the
film.

The other thing that was interesting is I remember I finally had the guts to
raise my hand. And I said, and he said, yes, you husky, husky kid in the
back...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ABRAMS: Like it was - and I said I couldn't tell that this one character
that Adrian Barbeau, who was his wife at the time, played - I couldn't tell
that she had died in this crash on the bridge. And he said, oh, interesting.
That's interesting, you know.

And anyway, years later, so I see the movie - the movie had come out later that
year and not only was that opening scene gone, but there was a shot of Adrienne
Barbeau dead on the ground after she was killed. And I said, oh my god, that's
cool to put that in. Years later, I was working for Steven Spielberg - doing a
couple weeks' work on a script for this movie they were doing. And Dean Cundey
was the DP and he was also the director of photography of "Escape from New
York."

And I went up to him and I said, excuse me, Mr. Cundey, my name is J.J. Abrams.
I said, you know, I'm a big fan. You know, it's funny 'cause I was at the
screening of "Escape from New York" at Paramount years ago - I was describing
it, he said, oh, no, no, no. I totally remember that night. And I remember a
kid in the back saying that. He said the next night, we went out onto John
Carpenter's driveway and shot Adrienne Barbeau dead on the ground because we
(unintelligible) people needed to see that she had actually been killed.

So that was hopefully not the last time I collaborated with John Carpenter, but
certainly the first.

GROSS: So, one more thing. One of the things you're famous for is the mystery
box. You gave a great TED lecture and those TED lectures of, you know, like,
incredibly creative, genius people. And so yours is like...

Mr. ABRAMS: And me.

GROSS: And you, right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And yours is, like, really funny and entertaining and very kind of
informative about your process of thinking through movies. And one of the
centerpieces of it is you talking about this mystery box that you bought at
this magic shop in Manhattan. And it was, like, a $15 box in which you were
supposed to get $50 worth of magic stuff. But you never - you've had the box
for decades and you've never, ever opened it because what you love is the
mystery and you didn't want to open it and see what was really inside. So I
imagine it's still unopened.

Mr. ABRAMS: It's unopened. Yes.

GROSS: Yes. Now, for me things like that are always about disappointment.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Because, like, if you open them, what they've given you is actually
probably really disappointing. It just reminds me this is really different.
But, like, when you buy Cracker Jacks back in the old days and there'd be,
like, a surprise inside and the surprise would always be this, like, cheap
little piece of junkie thing.

Mr. ABRAMS: Paper. Nothing thing. Yes.

GROSS: It would be like nothing.

Mr. ABRAMS: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: And a lot of those, like, surprise mystery kind of things, if you do
open it, it's just going to be disappointment. So are you protecting yourself
from disappointment or just in love with the mystery that if it was solved
might be disappointing?

Mr. ABRAMS: You know, I think it's a great question. I think the answer is a
sort of combination of things. I think clearly I know, having gone through my
share of Cracker Jacks, and when I tell you - that I know that I open that
magic mystery box and there's no way it's going to be, you know, something that
is satisfying.

In fact, I will tell you, it is - that it the key to magic itself. The magic
mystery box for me, of course, I know that whatever it is inside can't be the,
you know, the end all. But there's something about, first of all, the box
remaining closed that, you know, even just aesthetically I love that box. There
was a really cool question mark on it. But for me the thing is is that box -
with it closed, the potential for what is inside is endless.

The possibility of what might be in that box. And it's not a literal thing
where I actually feel like, well, maybe it's this great - it's not - it's all
kind of this metaphor. For me the thing that I love and I've talked about this
as well, you know, in a movie like, you know, "Jaws," like, famously the shark
wasn't working so they couldn't show it very much. So your imagination is going
crazy. Sort of imagining where it might be, what exactly does it look like.

In a movie like "The Graduate," Ben and Elaine had their first real date and
they're, you know, sitting at a restaurant eating in his convertible car and
people are being very loud and they put the top up. And they're having this
conversation and you can't hear it, but you're watching it. So you get to sort
of, you know, fill in the blanks and I think there is a sort of - almost a
reflexive reaction that we have to fill the blanks in when there's something of
some substance and pieces are missing. You sort of fill it in.

I think there's something about the unseen and the unknown that has real value
in moments. But I do think that, you know, you can't apply a magic box approach
to everything. And if you go to see a movie or if you watch a show, you better
have something of substance that you're building to. The whole thing in itself
can't be a magic box.

The magic box is a great sort of device to kind of enhance a moment to make
something more frightening or romantic or mysterious. But, as an end, it must
be serving something of value and of substance.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us, J.J. Abrams.
Thank you. It's been really fun.

Mr. ABRAMS: It has been such a pleasure. It's been a blast. Thank you so much,
Terry.

GROSS: J.J. Abrams wrote and directed the new film "Super 8." He's the producer
of two upcoming TV pilots: "Alcatraz" on Fox TV and "Person of Interest" on
CBS.
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'Guilty Passion' Leads A Housewife To Homicide

TERRY GROSS, host:

Award-winning writer Ron Hansen is particularly known for his historical novels
such as "Mariette in Ecstasy" and "The Assassination of Jesse James by the
Coward Robert Ford," which was adapted into a film starring Brad Pitt. Hansen's
latest novel, "A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion," is about an infamous crime of
sexual transgression.

Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN: Lust makes people do crazy things - as demonstrated by the
almost weekly addition of yet another politician to our national walk of shame.
But, bad as the marital infidelities and lewd twitterings of our elected
officials may be, there's cold comfort to be found in the fact that none of
them have gone completely over the edge.

In fact, if I had any pity for Schwarzenegger, Edwards, Weiner and company, I'd
recommend that, in their exile, they might want to read Ron Hansen's new novel
about the real-life Ruth Snyder murder case, just to see how much worse things
can get when the libido goes homicidally haywire.

Hansen's latest is called "A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion," and its story weds
two of his fascinations as a novelist: the strange mutations of desire, which
he explored in "Mariette in Ecstasy" and the inner life of outlaws, most
notably, Jesse James. As its overheated title suggests, "A Wild Surge of Guilty
Passion" delves deep into the hormonally saturated psyches of two people driven
by desire to commit what was called in 1927 "The Crime of the Century."

In Hansen's version of the tale, Queens housewife and mother Ruth Snyder was a
voluptuous Jean Harlow blonde, antsy to escape a flat marriage. On a shopping
trip into Manhattan, Ruth meets a traveling lingerie salesman named Judd Gray.
Despite his racy job, the married Judd is rather repressed, that is, until Ruth
introduces him to the romping delights of sin.

For months, they sneak away for trysts in the Waldorf Astoria and to less
elegant hotels in places like Buffalo and Scranton along Judd's sales route.
But Ruth wants more: She wants hubby Al to do the 23 skidoo, permanently. After
taking out extra life insurance on the unsuspecting Al, Ruth makes a number of
almost vaudevillian attempts to kill him by gas and poison. Nothing works until
the night that Judd garrotes Al with wire.

Ruth tells the police that a couple of giant Italian burglars were the
culprits, but that story is as flimsy as the lingerie Judd peddles. Soon, the
two are on trial for murder, and the 11 newspapers then in circulation in New
York City have a ball relaying all the salacious details about "The Viking
Vampire," as they called the Nordic Ruth, and her stooge of a sex-addled
boyfriend.

If this all sounds a bit familiar, blame James M. Cain, who mined the Snyder
case for both "Double Indemnity" and "The Postman Always Rings Twice." Given
Cain's classic novels, the immortal films noir that were made from them, and
the many other books, including Snyder's and Gray's own jailhouse memoirs, that
have been written about this quintessential tawdry tabloid crime, the question
arises: Do we really need Hansen's novel? I'd vote yes - with qualifications.

If I had to put only one creative retelling of the Snyder case in a time
capsule, it would be Billy Wilder's "Double Indemnity:" Barbara Stanwyck
defines femme fatale in that movie. What "A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion"
contributes to the Snyder canon is, first of all, a deliciously tangible
appreciation of how the giddy sexual and commercial spirit of the Roaring '20s
were linked.

Hansen delights in festooning his novel with all manner of period places and
products, which somehow heighten the '20s' devil-may-care social mores: hosiery
shops and riotous smorgasbord restaurants, Wrigley chewing gum, Helena
Rubinstein lipsticks and Mavis talcum powder.

Even more dazzling is Hansen's rendering of Judd's besottedness with Ruth: I
can't quote the relevant carnal passages on the radio, but they sizzle. Even as
he knows he's being played, Judd is too weak in the knees to ever attempt the
return trip back to wife and family.

Hansen follows the story to its fated conclusion: the 1928 death by
electrocution of Judd and Ruth for the murder of her husband. Tabloid
photographs of Ruth Snyder, most of them taken during her imprisonment, don't
show her to be the knockout or wowzer she was supposed to be. Hansen's account
remedies that, however, by conjuring up Ruth's dark eroticism and the way it
whispered to a man that sex was worth any sacrifice.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion" by Ron Hansen. You can read an
excerpt on our website FreshAir.npr.org, where you can also download podcasts
of our show.
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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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