Interviews: the cast of Super 8

As JJ Abrams' Super 8 arrives in the UK, we chat to Kyle Chandler, Elle Fanning, Joel Courtney, Riley Griffiths and Ryan Lee...

So, who’s in Super 8? Who are the big names to look out for when the curtains are pulled back and the lights go down?

Okay, there’s Kyle Chandler. You know, the guy from King Kong and TV’s Friday Night Lights. There’s Elle Fanning, from Somewhere. And then there’s someone who used to be in E.R. who’ll have you asking “Is that …?” when you realise who it is beneath the long hair and unkempt beard. Good enough for you? 

The truth is, Super 8 isn’t a film populated by movie stars. There are no names above the title here, and it’s all the better for it. Super 8 is a film filled with actors who put in such great work that you’re sad when the lights go up and you have to leave your seat. 

Den Of Geek got to sit in front of a lot of them, split up to make it manageable, and ask them how it was to make a J.J. Abrams film produced by Steven Spielberg that no one knows much about, but a lot of people should see. As soon as they can.

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First up was Elle Fanning. As Alice, she’s the only girl in a group of teenage friends making a zombie movie, a Super 8 masterpiece that gets interrupted by something big and scary. What, exactly? Well, you’ll have to buy a ticket and find out. This is J.J. Abrams, after all.  He’s not going to tell you before you’ve seen the film.

You seem to go through quite a lot in this film: a big emotional scene, fun and hijinx, action and danger. Is that ever exhausting?

EF: I think that’s what makes really special, great movies, that it has all those emotions in it. I always love to have- In one day you could be having a really dramatic scene and then the next you could be laughing and having fun. I think that’s what makes moviemaking so special for me.

Is that what drew you to it? It’s such a secretive project. Did you know much about it before you signed? Were you allowed to know?

EF: You know, I wasn’t. I got the part when-  even before I read the script or even knew anything about it.  Because, in the audition process, when I auditioned, the scenes were totally different. They weren’t from Super 8. The characters’ names were different. It was so secretive.

And after I got the part, J.J. called all of us personally, all the kids personally, and said that we were going to be in Super 8, and then we had a lot of rehearsal periods, and then we got the script. And J.J. actually read it to us out loud and we were all sitting at a table and read it together for the first time.

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Is that ever scary? Because it sounds like you couldn’t say anything about it to anyone, whether in the lead up to it, or when you left the set.

EF: Yeah, I was so excited about getting it that you wanted to tell everybody, but you really couldn’t. And for a while, I couldn’t even say that I had a movie. [laughs] And then it started coming out that it was called Super 8 and J.J. Abrams was doing it and that was about it. I think that, just starting now, that I can say more about it, now that people are seeing trailers and posters and things. For a while there, we couldn’t say anything.

There’s a great dynamic between the characters in the film. You’re the one girl in there, so how was that on set?

EF: It was so fun. [laughs] We had the best time together. I was like one of the guys, really. I just hung out with them. And we were all in West Virginia, in this really small town. So, you couldn’t help but hang out with each other. How we were on screen was really how we were off screen as well.

So, did you get much lead in time to hang out together?

EF: Yeah, we had a lot of rehearsals together, and right when we met each other for the first time, we all just became instant friends. And you can’t but be friends when you spend so much time together, laughing together. And J.J., as well, just made everybody feel so comfortable.

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And there’s a great film within the film, which your characters are making. What was the more fun for you, making Super 8 with J.J. or the home-made zombie movie?

EF: We actually got to write it. J.J. allowed us to do that. He said it had to be a zombie movie, but that was all he told us, and we could do whatever we wanted. So, we wrote all the lines out and we would hand the scenes to J.J. and he would read them and tweak them. But we basically made that film and we had a camera there that filmed us, so we could all say that we’ve done what our characters have in the movie.

And when the movie finished, it’s playing over the end credits. People were all ready to leave, but stopped dead and hung around. We were drawn to it as much as we were to the actual movie. That must be satisfying.

EF: I know. We were all excited that we actually got to write it and we got to make it as cheesy as possible, because it’s like a funny home video. It was just so cool that J.J. let us do that.

And the last film I saw of yours was Somewhere. How much do you look for a change in pace? Because Somewhere is very different to Super 8.

EF: Yeah, and I went from Somewhere to Super 8. And being on Somewhere, where Sofia [director Sofoa Coppola] talks so soft and the crew is really small, and then going to Super 8, where J.J.’s on a microphone talking so loud, there are explosions happening, and there’s a huge crew, it’s totally opposite. But they’re both experiences that I had never done before, so it was neat to experience both sides of them.

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J.J. has become a name himself now. And then you’ve got Steven Spielberg as a producer, one of the biggest names there is. Did you get much time with both of them?

EF: Yeah.I mean J.J.’s like a big kid, really. We basically had seven kids on set. He related to us so well. And Steven came on the set a lot. You could really tell that Steven was, like, mentoring J.J., and J.J. was really looking up to Steven. 

And I had met Steven before when my sister did for War Of The Worlds, but I was really little, so I didn’t remember him that much. But seeing him there and being a part of something he’s a part of is just so special.

Next up, it was the boys, Joel Courtney, who plays the quiet hero, Joe; Riley Griffiths, the bossy Super 8 director, Charles, and Ryan Lee, who, as Cary, gets to set off almost as many explosions as J.J,. the director. Just smaller ones, obviously. 

On screen, they’re like the Goonies version 2.0, an infectiously fun group who make you want to turn the clock back twenty years and do it all again. Off screen, they’re just one down from that.

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How much fun was it making this film? Because some of the scenes you guys share are a real blast, especially the movie within the movie that you make, The Case.

Ryan Lee: Oh yeah.

Riley Griffiths: It really was a lot of fun. We got to write and direct it, and set up the shots all on our own. J.J. let us do that, which was really amazing. And it really kind of just showed us the other side of making the movie, not just the acting, which was really cool.

And was that more fun for you? Because you’ve got this huge J.J. Abrams sci-fi film, and then your film within it.

RG: J.J. just pretty much gave us the whole script and just gave us all the power over The Case, so-

RL: He gave us the idea of it. He said, “Look, let’s do a zombie movie,” and then he basically just handed out pen and paper and went, “Go!” So, every scene that we had with each other, we’d write it. Every zombie scene that I was in, we even do the stunts if we were fighting and I was about to get killed or something.  t was a lot of fun like that, which was really cool.

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And you get killed quite a lot in the zombie film, Ryan. Did you ever ask if someone else could get killed?

RL: The good guys have got to win, right? I mean, I like dying. It was pretty cool. [laughs]

And J.J.’s said that he was a little bit of each of your characters. Ryan, your character is the one who blows a lot of stuff up. He’s a real practical joker. And on this film, J.J. gets to blow a lot of stuff up. Was it a fun set?

RG: Oh yeah, J.J.’s just like the seventh kid, really. But he’s very serious about his work. But he does it in such a fun way that it doesn’t feel like work at all. It feels like we’re all hanging out on camera. Yeah, he’s got an amazing sense of humour as well.

RL: If we were ever having a hard day, J.J. would always crack jokes just to make us feel more comfortable. He was a genius. He could always relate to us and never made us feel uncomfortable. If we were having trouble with something, he’d let us change the line and we’d start ad-libbing. It was really cool.

Did you ever turn the tables on him?  If he’s playing jokes all the time-

RG: Oh, yeah. Actually, on April Fools we were all trying to come up with an idea for the greatest April Fool’s joke for him. We came up with this idea where we told him that I’d lost the script in a mall in L.A. And I was so scared doing it. I went in there- I think I was more scared than he was, but we got him so good. I got him and [producer] Bryan Burk with it.

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RL: We were all in it together. We all came up with the idea. We scripted it out, basically. The script is the key to this whole film, and if somebody got our script, we were going to be done. So, it was a lot of fun.

And that’s the thing. A J.J. Abrams film is such a secret event these days. With a lot of films you kind of know what they’re all about before you see them. That must be thrilling for you guys too. Do you get excited now, when the film’s coming out?

RG: Oh, yeah. I’m excited to see all my friends’ reactions, their facial expressions, when they see all the surprises. I mean, this movie’s like a Swiss army knife. Things just keep popping out of it.

And did you guys actually get to see the monster? Because it’s a slow reveal in the film. Or were you kept in the dark as well?

Joel Courtney: Well, kind of. J.J. just kind of said, “Imagine the scariest thing you can possibly imagine.” And I did, and when I saw the final outcome it was like ten times scarier. I should have gone way scarier. But, it was really good.

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Is it the classic ‘tennis ball on a stick’ thing when you’re shooting it? Is that still the norm?

RL: Yeah, I mean, like Joel said, we were just imagining things and that’s part of this whole process. And being an actor is just having a great imagination. And so, the tennis ball was our scary whatever it is That was our thing.

Last up, it was one of the film’s grownups. As father of Joe and the town’s deputy sherriff, Kyle Chandler’s Jackson Lamb is like Roy Scheider in Jaws, only sterner and less likely to make faces over the dinner table.

And Chandler himself does a fantastic pitch for Super 8. I’m just not sure if it would fit on a poster.

There’s a real shroud of mystery surrounding the film. Does that change it for you when you’re filming it?

Kyle Chandler:  Well, the difference between filming it and seeing it are two different things, because you don’t know what’s going to be in between the lines, or what comes along.

If you wanted to, and if you were on the set, you could ask J.J. Abrams the questions and he would give you the answers. Myself, I’ve never been one to want to know too much about what’s going on with other characters in the storyline. Not in these types of things.

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Once you step outside your own character, and you know what’s happening to other characters that the character wouldn’t know otherwise, unless you were stealing this information, it’s no good.

So, when I saw the film, I got to be surprised by a lot of these moments that I didn’t search for answers for earlier. That is a long, convoluted answer! No one’s ever going to understand that!

No. That’s good. But the film centres on the kids saving the day, and you’ve got your character trying to do his part, but very separate.  Dd you hang out with the kids much on set?

KC: No, no I didn’t. I mean, there weren’t many scenes I had in the movie with the young actors, other than Joel, and there are a few scenes with Elle. However, with that said, I think the whole reason Super 8 works, for myself, as an actor, what I loved about the movie, is that you’ve got all these characters in this movie- Every scene that you have with these characters, you’re watching them grow in some sense.  They’re constantly growing and moving throughout the film. And as they grow, you are being taken into some of these scenes and you’re moved.

You may question, “Why am I moved by this? Why am I seeing this and it’s affecting me in such a way?” It doesn’t really matter. It does happen. And the thing that’s so nice about it, and the thing why I think this is such a great film, is because all those character changes and all that character development is deserved, and it’s honest. So, it’s able to grab you honestly and take you along for the ride. 

And then ,within that, which is just simply called good storytelling and character development, it’s set in this incredible world of beautiful special effects. It’s beautifully shot. The camera angles and the shots are wonderful. I mean, it’s a dance sitting up there. And you’ve got mystery, you’ve got intrigue, you’ve got this super scary thing that’s running around. You’ve got everything you’d want in a wonderful story. But, at the core of it, you’ve got heart and character development that draws you to the very end. And that’s why it’s such a great movie.

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You’ve made me want to go and see it again.

KC: You probably will. I can’t wait to see it again, to be quite honest.

There’s a real nostalgia in the film, a look back at the 70s/80s

KC: You know you’re old when you’re looking back at 1979. Or you’re starting to get old, anyway.

Did that bring back memories for you?  Because it has a great feel to it, a real warmth.

KC: Yeah, in Super 8, it takes place in Lillian, Ohio in 1979. In the movie, my son’s 14 years old. In 1979, I was 14 years old. I came from a small town. We were living in a small town in Georgia then, so it was not lost on me at all what a small town was like. 

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So, stepping into this world, I’d certainly been there before. I know how it feels. I know how it smells. I know how people react. I know how people know each other, people help each other, and there’s a community.

And within the story of Super 8, it is a community, and it’s about those people’s reactions and how they work together, and that part of the film is very realistic.

Were there films J.J. had you watch? Does he work that way, to get you in a certain frame of mind?

KC: No.  For myself, I came to the set and we began. I came to the set, showed him my wardrobe and we began. There was no preamble to how we were going to do this. We just began, and he began directing, and he’s very enjoyable to be directed by, and he’s very enjoyable to be around as a person and as a friend. You can do a lot worse than work with J.J. Abrams, that’s for sure.

Elle Fanning, Joel Courtney, Riley Griffiths, Ryan Lee and Kyle Chandler, thank you very much.

Super 8 opens in cinemas tomorrow, Friday August 5th.

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