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.
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