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Rewrites: J. J. Abrams’ Super 8

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Spoilers ahead!

Last night I had the good fortune of standing in line with my wife, 14-year old son, and more than 200 other people to see J. J. Abrams’ new film, Super 8, at the Cinerama Dome in Los Angeles. The film is about a group of kids in 1979 making a George Romero-inspired zombie film with Super 8 film, the home movie format of the time, and I was especially interested in the film because one of my undeveloped ideas is about a father and son making, or failing to make, a monster film together in the Sixties with Super 8 equipment.

The two-headed giant in Popeye the Sailor Meets Sinbad the Sailor

Abrams’ film has many good points, but it ultimately comes across as a monster with two heads that do not get along with each other. On the one hand you have the kids and their adventures making a film and defeating a monster. On the other hand, you have a melodrama which attempts to reduce these adventures and monster into some kind of externalization of the kids’ problems with a big catharsis at the end. I didn’t feel anything for these characters at that point probably because the film loses its focus on the way to that ending. I think that the best element of the film is the kids and their attempt to make a film, but this is not developed as much as it could be because the film drifts away from the kids to change into a film about family reconciliation.

The film should have been better, and so this is not a review, but a rewrite or “re-imagining” of Super 8.

As I said, the film resembles a two-headed monster with warring heads. One of the  “heads” must go. Here are the possibilities:

  1. Cut the army and “real” monster stuff and stick to the story about a group of kids making a monster film. Contrast the genre horror in their film with the real-life horror of their home life. You don’t have to change much. It’s more a matter of cutting and emphasis. Instead of The Goonies meets E.T. meets Ed Wood, it would be The Goonies or Little Rascals meet Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets. The important thing is to provide the kids with a sense of empowerment by means of the making of a movie. Abrams’ film ends up doing the opposite. The kids’ movie can never stand up against the production values of the blockbuster Hollywood  movie. So of course the movie that the kids make produces laughs. It’s a bit like Burton’s Ed Wood, actually, except since they are kids, not much is expected from them. But we still laugh at their film, a film that is not supposed to be a comedy, and they are denied a sense of empowerment through something that they do. Instead, they are reduced to standing still in awe at the special effects of Abrams’ movie. My re-write fixes that.
  2. Cut the melodrama. In fact, get rid of kids’ backstory and get rid of the adults. Make it a bit like Peanuts where the emphasis is almost 100% on the kids without any adults to get in the way of their fun. The kids are making a classic monster movie, not a zombie movie, when they run into a real-life monster. They are not scared in the least, and take it as an opportunity for adventure. The conflict would be more with the army than the monster. Once again, it’s more a matter of cutting and emphasis than any major change to the film. All of these elements are there in Super 8, but are diluted by the backstory and the conflict with and between parents. The scenes with Charles, the kid director, and his family is the way to go if you must show parents in action. Show them as being more or less oblivious to what’s going on with their kids. By the time comes when the kids succeed in helping the misunderstood monster escape the army, the adults are still in the dark about everything that happened.
  3. This is more of an alternative ending than a rewrite and does not involve cutting off one of the “heads.” There is a clear falling out between Joe and Charles over Alice. Charles says something like, “She only likes you because she feels sorry for you because of your mother.” The monster needs the kids’ help to complete its spaceship (it involves the piece of the spaceship that Joe took from the wreck), so Joe makes a deal with the monster that involves the monster agreeing to “act” (it could be nothing more than letting Joe know what’s going to happen so the kids can be prepared to film it) in Charles’ film in exchange for the kids’ help. Joe makes the deal without Charles even knowing about it until it happens. It’s Joe’s way of making up for “stealing” Alice from his friend. This ties things together better than the original ending and Charles gets his production value in spades!

So, those are my ideas for a rewrite. Here are some additional comments about the film:

  • I’m curious about why the script has the army call what they do to the town, Operation Walking Distance. “Walking Distance” is the title of one of the earliest Twilight Zone episodes. It is about a man who travels back in time to his childhood where he meets his father and younger self. Is Super 8 Abrams’ version of traveling back to his childhood? If so, did his childhood really resemble a Spielberg movie? I suspect that Abrams identifies more with Charles, the filmmaker, than Joe, the best friend who steals the girl that Charles likes.
  • The presentation of the film included a short clip at the beginning in which Abrams more or less says that he hopes that the people watching like his movie the we were about to see. This was amusing because Super 8 ends with Charles, the director of the film-within-the-film, addressing the camera just as Abrams did, saying more or less that he hopes that the people watching liked his movie that we had just seen.
  • Am I wrong thinking that the kids in the movie watch the Army footage about Project Belttrap that they find in their teacher’s locker is Super 8 format film and that they watch it on a Super 8 projector? The date of this Army report is April 8, 1963. According to Wikipedia, Super 8 format film was not released to the market by Kodak until 1965. Of course, Kodak would have used the army to give it a test first by using it to document such secret projects such as Operation Belttrap. Much better to use an untested product on a top secret project than the familiar 16mm format. So I’m sure there’s no real error here on the part of the filmmakers. I suppose they can always say that the guy transferred 16mm originals to Super 8. I’m sure he would do that.
  • The kids break laws. Alice drives a car without a license; Charles steals money from his mother to pay for film; Joe takes his father’s camera without his father knowing, etc. Is Abrams saying that making a film, or, perhaps, doing anything worthwhile, requires breaking society’s rules?
  • The kids cooperate awfully well while making Charles’ movie. My experience as a kid with projects involving other kids was nothing like this. We always ended up fighting and yelling at each other, assuming I could even get a bunch of kids together in the first place. What we see in the film of the kids working together to make a film seems to me to be as much of a fantasy as the zombie film they are making. If only it had been like that!
  • The audience reaction at the end was somewhat subdued, perhaps a bit less energy than the filmmakers would have liked for this kind of film. It seemed to me that the train wreck near the beginning was received with more enthusiasm.

Now I’ll use the excuse of the FTC guidelines regarding endorsements to shamelessly drop some names while saying a bit about my “connections” to Super 8.  I was in film school at the same time as one the producers of Super 8, Bryan Burk. Everyone said that he looked like someone who spent most of his time in a tanning salon. Perhaps his family had one in their Bel Air home. One of my teachers showed his film, Stop Light, a 310 (a short film without dialogue made with a student crew of two) which he had made in that teacher’s class the previous semester. It was about a guy stuck in the middle of the night at an intersection with a red light that will not change. It was funny. I was also in a class in which he was production manager on the 480 (a short film with dialogue and a student crew of 8, only four of which were chosen to be made per semester) directed by James Gray, Cowboys & Angels. I saw Burk a couple of times when he visited the set of the 480 I was crewing on. (He was a friend of the director, Erik Fleming.) The following semester he directed his own 480 which starred Robert DoQui, a member of the cast of Nashville, one of my favorite films, and DoQui was the only good thing about it. I haven’t seen Burk since then, and I doubt he’d remember me.

While I’m at it, I might as well say something about James Gray, who, as I just wrote, was at USC when I was there. (This is the same James Gray who directed Little Odessa, etc.)

1. I saw Gray’s 310 which, I think, was called Territorio. At that time, a 310 at USC was an 8 minutes long film or video without synchronized dialogue. Gray’s film was about a homeless guy fighting other homeless guys for territory. (Homelessness seemed to be the subject of every other student film at the time.) Although I know of at least one person who saw it and was impressed, and the fact that it got Gray a 480 directing gig means that more than one person was taken by it, the film did not make much of an impression on me. However, there was one memorable scene. That would be the one in which the main character jerks off. Seriously.

2. I was in the 480 class in which Gray directed Cowboys & Angels (written by John Albert), a 12 minute film with sync dialogue, although I crewed on another film in the class, Joel Was Here. Once again, the film did not make much of an impression on me. It was more or less the Jodie Foster storyline of Taxi Driver, about a guy hired to track down a runaway teenage girl. The original grade Gray was given for the film was an “F” because he broke a class rule by setting a scene in a club which included a very visible topless dancer. But Gray appealed the grade, got an “A,” and the film was a hit at First Look, the USC student film screening. Lesson? It pays to break the rules, especially when it comes to nudity. Put simply: boobs work. Also, it doesn’t hurt to imitate Scorsese (or whoever is hot at the time).

3. Gray also broke at least one other rule on his film. Each 480 was supposed to have two crew members who did everything on the film that involved sound, from boom operator to sound design to final sound mix. The director is not supposed to intervene except to offer ideas and provide a general idea of what he wants. He is not supposed to literally do the sound design himself. However, during the shoot one of the sound guys, Bryon, was seriously injured in an auto accident. (He did not return to school for at least a year.) This allowed Gray and the film editor to take over the sound design. Todd, the official sound guy, did not really do the sound on that film. (I wish I had had this arrangement on my 480, Shadows on the Wall.)

4. I remember talking to Gray only once, when he visited the set of the film I crewed on that semester, Joel Was Here. Godfather III had been recently released, and most critics had trashed it. Going against the prevailing opinion, Gray told me he had been moved to tears by the ending of Coppola’s film and did not understand how anyone could not be similarly affected. I had been unfortunate enough to have seen the film when it opened, Christmas Day, but declined to express my opinion. I’m not entirely sure how this conversation arose, but I’m pretty sure that Gray, seeing me fiddling with my sound boom with little else to do while  the DP set up the next shot, just started talking to me about the film out of the blue.

5. I was visiting the roommate of Shane, the DP on Gray’s film, when Shane played for the first time a message Gray had left on her answering machine. The message was pure verbal abuse of a kind that I had not heard before, and, luckily, have not heard since. Later, I asked her if she would work with Gray again. Despite the abuse, she said she would because he knew what he wanted. This was a funny thing to say because the final version of the film was very different from the script because the film changed a lot during the editing process. Not exactly the sign of someone who knows what they want, but typical of how most of us actually work.

Update (6/10/11):

In an interview at /Film, Abrams says:

But there was a kind of movie that I loved when I was a kid where I would be laughing one minute, crying the next minute, I would be amazed the next, and scared the next.  And by the time the movie is over I felt like I had been through this sort of roller coaster of various emotions and it was a wonderful, satisfying thing. The goal of Super 8 was to try to make a movie that was not just a comedy, not just a horror movie, not just a science fiction film, not just a love story, not just an emotional family trauma or a weird sort of paranoid thriller, but all of them.

In other words, the two-headed nature of Abrams’ film that led me to rewrite it is exactly what Abrams wanted. This is also an example of what I think, despite my rewrite, is the best way to make a film: create a list of things that you like, then create a framework that links them together. It’s like a variety show, but the more you emphasize plot and the logic that links events in the plot, the more limited you become in what you can include in the story. I do not know if Abrams’ began his film with a list, but his description above suggests that this was his method. Doing it this way may produce a film that lacks the power that can only come from a united front where all elements build to a climax, but such an emphasis on unity often leads to something bland. Whatever Super 8 may lack, it’s not blandness. Hardly any film is satisfactory to everyone, but it usually has at least one or two elements that you like. Perhaps the ideal film is one that combines your favorite bits and pieces of your favorite films. When are films going to be interactive?

Update (6/14/11):

Turns out that “Walking Distance” is Abrams’ favorite episode of The Twilight Zone.

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Written by David Kilmer

June 9, 2011 at 9:14 am

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