When J.J. Abrams set out to find the young adult leads of Super 8, his homage to the beloved Amblin films of the early 1980s (such as E.T. and The Goonies) he wanted to find (according to the film’s press release) “fresh faces that the audience could have fun discovering.” He couldn’t have found a fresher face than that of his star Joel Courtney.
Joel, an Idaho native, was visiting his brother Caleb in Los Angeles for his summer vacation and taking auditions with this hopes of booking (maybe) one commercial and making a hundred dollars. “That was my goal,” the young star told us in our interview at the Los Angeles press event for Super 8.
Courtney far exceed his relatively modest goal when his acting coach suggested he go in and see her protege Jason James, who was conducting a nation wide search for the kids of Super 8. “Apparently I did really well,” the young actor reflected, “because they had me come back like eleven times. And then I kept getting acting coaches to help me through.”
Courtney’s innate charm and refreshingly artless manner won Abrams and producer Steven Spielberg over and landed him the staring role in one of this summers biggest and most highly-anticipated films. As early reviews have indicated, this newcomer’s performance is a stand-out as one of the most compelling aspects of the film. As we mentioned in our Super 8 early reviews and impressions piece, his is a bit of genuine casting magic.
Casting a first-time actor as the lead in his film is in line with J.J. Abrams’ (career consistent) desire to surprise audiences and create a sense of mystery. We have no preconceived notions about Joel Courtney before we meet him as his character Joe Lamb. Abrams is a self-proclaimed believer in the idea of “the mystery box,” the notion that audiences, “are most compelled by an unseen mystery, and that a movie should have all the potent unpredictability of an unopened box, out of which absolutely anything could emerge.”
As such, there has been just as much secrecy associated with this film as with Abrams’ previous projects. Secrets, as we know, are hard to keep — especially for kids who are working on something very exciting. When we asked Courtney if holding it all back from his friends has been difficult he replied:
“It has, it really has been. I wanted to tell my friends for a really long time, but I wanted them to be surprised at the same time. I’m really excited to show it to my friends,” the actor continued, “I really want to know what they think.”
Screen Rant: Did J.J. tell you that you were going to go to bed without dinner forever if you let anything slip?
“There weren’t any threats, but there was also that looming presence like…Oh! I love this. So, Zack [Mills] (who plays Preston in the film) and his dad and his mom were so funny, they treated it like if they said anything this black helicopter would come down and FBI agents would be like ‘get in the van!'”
On Pranking Abrams:
The kids in the story of Super 8 are in that first blush of puberty where rebellion and self-definition are the names of the game. They are likely to sneak out, steal cameras, and otherwise create all manner of mayhem in order to shoot the film within the film (titled simply The Case) that they (as a group) are working on when they witness the train crash that will change the course of their lives. The young actors portraying these kids are in the young-punk-prankster phase of their lives as well (a phase which some of us may, or may not, grow out of as adults). We wondered if there were a lot of on and off-set shenanigans in play. Courtney confessed that yes, on-set they, “Played jokes on everybody, it was just a big happy group of people.”
When asked which prank took the cake as the all-time best, Courtney told us a tale of the most perfect April fools joke possible to play on the notoriously close-lipped Abrams.
“The best prank would have to be off-set,” Courtney relayed. “It was April fools day…(laughing) J.J. will probably not ever forgive us for this one. Riley [Griffiths] (who plays Charles in the film) told J.J. that he had left his script in a mall and that he couldn’t find it and when he went back to look for it… it was gone. (Stopping to laugh again) It gave J.J like a heart attack. He was so scared, and then after a little while of just like freaking J.J. out — Riley’s like, ‘April fools!'”
SR: That’s amazing. What a perfect joke! Did he get mad…did he start sweating?
“No, no! He was just so relieved to hear that it was an April fools joke, and he was just so happy, ah (sighing) Riley got him so good. No he just blew it off as a joke — he’s such a cool guy.”
We can just imagine poor Abrams (the master of the “mystery box”) breaking out in a cold and clammy sweat envisioning some intrepid mall-goer happily making a hundred copies of his top-secret script at the local Kinko’s. Those had to be a long couple of minutes for the riddle-wrapped-in-an-enigma director before the kids fessed up to the joke.
The director, as it happens, was not the only adult on Super 8 who was subject to the machinations of the teens.When we asked Courtney about his working relationship with Kyle Chandler (who plays his father in the film) the actor responded that Chandler, “Pulled a lot of the weight for the father/son relationship. He’s such a good actor,” Cortney continued, “and he can run around hotels better than anybody else.”
SR: What do you mean run around hotels?
“So Riley and Ryan [Lee] (who plays Cary in the film) ding-dong ditched him — and they didn’t tell me that they were going to do it. So they do it, and I’m standing there when he opens the door and so I point at him, and then point at them running down that hall, and I take off in the opposite direction. And he’s like chasing me and then apparently at some point in time he was chasing them — and I was like, ‘how can he chase us both!’ And then I went downstairs to the elevator, and I open up the elevator, and he’s (magically) in there!”
There is no end to the Bermuda-triangle-like vortex that opens on an Abrams set it would seem.
Super 8 has at its heart a sense of innocence — of wonder and possibility. It depicts events of great mystery combined with the sweet simplicity of kids-being-kids in an unaffected way that is rarely seen today. When we met with Courtney, he sat there eating an ice-cream Sunday, looking in all ways to be a normal, happy, Idaho teen. He had the same open, amiable and genuine quality as his character Joe. And yet there he was, not at a school in Idaho, but rather in the midst of a Hollywood press junket — a week before the world will have a chance to see him star in one of the event films of the summer. When we asked the young actor if the enormity of this project has hit him yet, he responded:
“I’ve had a couple of people ask me for my autograph and it’s weird. And I don’t really think I’m ready for what’s coming, but people just keep telling me that it’s going to be big, and that I need to stay grounded and stay real and humble and not get a big head and all screwed up and stuff.”
Out of the mouths of babes…
On Working With Abrams:
SR: How did J.J. work with you on-set in terms of inhabiting a world in 1979 that’s so unfamiliar to you. Did he have you watch some of the movies that Super 8 is referencing?
“No he didn’t, but he made references to them, and I had watched (and loved) “E.T.” and “Close Encounters” already but I hadn’t watched “Stand by Me” and “The Goonies,” and so I watched those two during production and all of his references made sense, after I watched those two movies. It was really incredible because there’s so much Steven Spielberg and J.J. collaboration on this movie. You can see it throughout the entire movie. Like, the group of kids and J.J.’s sci-fi thrown in there — it’s like, so apparent.”
SR: Is there one quintessential moment that captures what it was like to work with J.J.?
“There was this one time during the auditioning process where he wanted us to understand about one character, and so he pretty much just told us the entire life story of that one character. And he did it in like thirty seconds flat. He described everything about the character — it was so incredible.”
SR: Which character was it?
“It was Martin.”
Having that level of detail succinctly at the ready is not surprising for a director of Abrams’ skill and experience. What is somewhat surprising for a filmmaker as detailed and in control of the story as Abrams, is the level of freedom and fluidity he offered his young stars. That freedom lends itself to a naturalism in the performances and relationships in the film. One of the most endearing (and relatable) relationships is between Joel’s character Joe, and the girl of his dreams (turned good friend) Alice, played by Elle Fanning.
SR: It was so fun to watch your crush on Alice develop in the film — have you experienced that kind of a crush yet?
“Not really. But it was a lot of fun working across from Elle, because she’s such a good actress and it was a lot of fun to act out having a crush on her.”
SR: How did J.J. work with you on scenes and moments like that? Did he just let you sort of explore and find things on your own?
“Kind of, pretty much. He kind of said, ‘This is the idea, and go do it.’ So we would put our own spin on it and if he didn’t like it he would say, ‘Try it this way.’ And whenever he did that it was always better.”
As mentioned, in the story of Super 8, the friends are making a short, super 8, zombie film entitled The Case to submit to a short film festival. Abrams let the young actors write the script for the short film themselves. You can see their handiwork in full during the closing credits for Super 8. When asked about his participation in the creation of The Case Courtney responded:
” The kids wrote the scenes, we pretty much wrote the entire movie, and it was so much fun because we acted in it and I did the make-up for it (which I didn’t really do, that was the make-up people because I am not that good). I actually didn’t do that much for it but Gabriel [Basso] (who plays Martin in the film) he wrote like practically the entire movie. So I had a smaller part in that movie, but Gabe had a bigger part.”
On Aliens And Explosions:
One of the most elaborate and intense sequences in the film is the train crash the kids witness that unleashes the cryptic creature onto the town.
Take a look at this tease of the beginning of the scene below:
When we asked Courtney about the scene and how it was choreographed with the stunt coordinators, he replied excitedly:
“I love that scene, it was so incredible. It was so much fun to shoot and they had these poppers that would go off and they were just like these little flame explosions. Quite a bit of it was us, most of it was us, and a little bit was the stunt doubles. If there was some stuff that we didn’t want to do, then our stunt doubles would do it, but most of it we wanted to do because it was so much fun. J.J. was like, ‘If there’s anything you don’t want to do you just let us know.’ And we were like, ‘No, I want to do it!'”
SR: What kinds of things would the stunt doubles step in for?
“Well, they blew the building up. So we weren’t allowed to be there. But there was this one part where there were explosions behind us and we could do that, because we were nowhere near anything that was really dangerous. But when the building exploded and there was wood flying everywhere we weren’t allowed to do that — because when they actually blew the building up we were two hundred yards away and still the shock wave hit us — it was immense. The shock was huge. Like I don’t know what they blew it up with, but it was big — and it was crazy.”
But what of what the train’s secret cargo? When asked if he believes in the existence of extra-terrestrial life, the young star responded thoughtfully:
“I find it hard to believe that in such a big universe there is nothing else out there.”
The world will get their first glimpse of the down-to-earth, funny and relatably charming Joel Courtney when Super 8 opens in theaters this Friday, June 10th.
Follow me on twitter @jrothc