“…SUPER 8… feels at once nostalgic and uniquely new…"
–Producer Steven Spielberg
Set in the time when Spielberg was first spinning his magic with films like CLOSE ENCOUNTERS and E.T.: THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL, SUPER 8 is an homage to the filmmakers of the period—from the inspiration of those films to the stumbling and thrilling first steps of nascent screen storytellers. Writer/Director J.J. Abrams collaborated with Set Decorator Fainche MacCarthy SDSA, Production Designer Martin Whist and their teams to bring about this coming-of-age tale that resonates for anyone of any age.
“The characters were very specific to what J.J. remembered from growing up and what he imagined as a boy in 1979 small-town America,” explains MacCarthy. “It was definitely a collective and developing saga to create the right look—J.J., Martin, my team and I worked to get it just so.”
“We had very little prep—9 weeks for two states—so when I started the movie, the first step was to nail down the research specific for 1979. I really wanted to ground us in the period, as that was essential to the look of the movie. Leadperson Grant Samson, Art Department Coordinator Genelle Ciccarelli and I combed through anything we could get our hands on…libraries, eBay, magazines, books, old research files from History for Hire, internet…you name it. Grant was an absolute wealth of info. He remembered everything from that period and sourced everything he could find on eBay, while I looked for the bigger pieces. Grant’s ideas and passion for the era was instrumental to giving the movie the validity of the time period.”
“Everyone had a nostalgia for the period…the memories from whatever age we were at that time…so it was fantastic to watch the crew and cast walk through the sets. From their responses, including a lot of, ‘I remember this from…,’ we knew we had nailed the period and had done our job correctly. There was so much life in the sets, as they were real.”
“The secret to creating the authenticity of an era is to be understated,” reveals Whist. "It’s the cumulative effect of small, visceral moments that make you feel you’re in another time, and that’s what we aimed for. We had to establish a strong sense of everyday reality, so that when the fantasy elements come into it, the surreal becomes a haunting layer over something that feels very familiar.”
The boys’ rooms
Best friends Charles [Riley Griffiths], the driven, perfectionist visionary of the group and the writer/director of the Super 8 monster movie they’re making, and Joe [Joel Courtney], the artistic modeler and monster-make-up person for their movie, live down the street from each other in entirely different environments. Charles has a large, boisterous family and shares his cramped bedroom with his little brothers. As Whist points out, “In Charlie’s case, everything is lively and active. The house, a typical 70’s home, is too small, but feels very happy. Both parents work, so it’s a little more chaotic than most. By contrast, Joe is an only child and his mother has passed away just recently, so we wanted to make it a more somber and quiet place. Joe’s house is a small, very working class home built in the 40s that really speaks to who he is and where he comes from.”
“J.J. lived this story on many levels, and although the story was fiction, he helped me with so many ideas for the boys’ rooms—everything from Wacky Packs to monster magazines to the horror film posters,” remembers MacCarthy. “For dressing the boys’ rooms, Martin suggested putting a few of our talented set dressers in the room and just let them revert back to being age 14 in 1979! Mike Coulter, Bobby Pollard and Josh Towers created some amazing set dressing by layering in what we had gathered, from comic books to candy packages we had remade accurate to 1979, and then creating their own hand drawn artwork for the characters.”
“Since the character Charles was obsessed with film, monsters and magic, along with a passion to make movies, the set dressers kept adding more and more layers on layers. So much effort went into the authenticity of each set,” says MacCarthy. “Mike Coulter spent an entire day drawing monsters and ‘film sets’ for Charles’s ‘ideas’ for his movies. The desk became Charles’s editing station. Grant meticulously sought out the right movie gear from sources all over. Genelle and Min Soo Kim, our production assistant, hunted down leads on the phone, securing us original posters, magazines such as TEEN BEAT, 17, Super 8, etc. A lot of the dressing in the boys’ rooms developed naturally through all the prep that went into finding the right pieces.” Propmaster Robert S. Kyker brought in 70s-era models, including a Quasimodo model that Abrams remembered from his childhood.
MacCarthy offers a side note about Charles’s and Joe’s rooms, “When we were trying to pin down dressing for Charles’s room, J.J. suggested monster masks. Because he was such a horror fan, we wanted to make sure to use the right masks from the time period—masks a kid would get as a special gift for Christmas, etc. Min Soo was introduced to Daniel Roebuck, an actor (LOST, GLEE) and premiere collector of all things Monster and Science Fiction! He let us into his home in Burbank and into what seemed like an endless collection of books, magazines, models, games, toys, posters and masks in display cases. There were also a good dozen collectors hanging out ready to pounce, as Dan had finally decided to sell off most of his prized collection, which he has amassed since he was a teenager. He was the perfect resource for what a 14-year-old boy from 1979 would have strewn about his room and what kind of magazines he would be into, because Dan Roebuck was that 14-year-old-boy in 1979! He showed me old photographs of himself, dressed up with monster makeup on—something he learned from Dick Smith's Monster Makeup handbook, which was referenced in SUPER 8. He also provided many of the authentic magazines and masks, and much of makeup from that time—the actual paint set in the film is from Roebuck's collection from the late 70s.”
“The posters were an internet dig for the most part,” MacCarthy recalls. “After trekking on foot to every classic poster shop around L.A., we tracked down original and reprints from collectors around the country. Many of the posters were specifically requested by J.J. We found classics, such as the iconic Keep on Trucking— very rare and in mint condition from the late 1970s, with bright colors on felt. The NASA space shuttle poster featured in Joe's room was also a one-of-a-kind mint poster from 1979. All the posters in Joe's room specifically were from the late 70s and came from all over the states. Most of the vintage toys, like the handheld football game and the toys laying about in Charles’s home came from a collector in Wisconsin, who had saved these toys in great condition for the last 30 years.”
Says Kyle Chandler, who plays Joe’s father Deputy Jackson Lamb, “I took one peek at Joe’s room and felt 14 years old again. Joe’s room could have been taken right out of my room when I was a kid, from the Testors paint, to the models hanging from the wall.”
Abrams also got a visceral rush from walking around the set. He sums up, “The set dressing was so crazy good that I could pick up almost anything, whether it was a box of Wacky Pack cards or any number of magazines, model or toys and it just instantly took me back.”
“I always liked the idea of setting the film in a small mill town,” says Abrams. “My father grew up in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and I remember visiting as a kid, before mill towns ran into heartbreaking times. It felt like Anywhere, USA. There’s a sense in these towns that everything is real and relatable.”
Weirton, West Virginia, the same place where the film THE DEER HUNTER was shot 30 years ago, filled in as the struggling small town in Ohio for SUPER 8. “We started dressing the street during our prep, as it was such a massive set—two long blocks with every store re-dressed for our time period,” MacCarthy points out. “We had furniture stores, a pawn shop, toy shops… We grabbed original photos from Weirton from June, 1979, which was exactly the month we were aiming for, and we combed through the shots to see what storefronts were there that year, and then re-created some of them. The townsfolk loved it and would come around in the evenings after another store had been dressed to see what we had done. The next day, a townsperson would show up in a truck with something they had dragged out of their basement that they were sure we should use. We always tried to put it in! They were amazing people–they even included us in their Friday night potlucks. We pretty much all knew each others’ names by the time we left!
We sourced most of our dressing locally for that portion of the shoot. We were lucky to have such great people, who were instrumental in helping us find what we needed through word of mouth. Buyers Becky Brown and Barbie Pastorik’s experience and connections in Pittsburgh and the surrounding areas were also essential. For example, the script suddenly called for a playground...finding 70’s metal playground equipment in West Virginia, let alone L.A., is no easy task. Becky spent days calling every small borough she could, until she tracked down our playground. It was still installed in a park, but had been condemned as too dangerous—the same ones we all used to play on as kids in the 70s! Becky went to 3 or 4 town hall meetings in that borough to convince the town to sell to us. She finally won them over and our team went over to literally take it out of the ground. Ironically, when we were shooting the battle sequence, one of the army tanks starting rolling down the hill towards the playground we had just installed. It stopped when it hit a car!”
“A short time later, when we realized we were doing a period camera store in Pittsburgh rather than L.A., I panicked thinking I would need to grab everything from L.A.” Whist adds, “The store is a pivotal point in the story, so it needed to have a real presence.” MacCarthy continues, “It turned out that Barbie had a connection in Pittsburgh, a gentleman who had a private ‘museum’, an homage to cameras. We went into the attic and found most of the pieces we needed! With a little love and re-making of some of the broken boxes, and a lot of polish and shine, we had a fantastic set.” Whist notes that they accomplished “… the electronics layers that are so specific to the period—the record players, the 8-track players, and then, of course, the Super 8's.” The camera store was a favorite for MacCarthy, as well as for actor Noah Emmerich, who plays Nelec, “Entering that set, I experienced the most amazing flashback moment to when I was about 8 years-old. Looking at the shelves of the store brought back such incredible memories – the Kodachrome, and the flashcubes, wow. All that technology seems almost Paleolithic now.”
“We shot on location for roughly 4 weeks, prepped for 5,” MacCarthy imparts. “It was hit the ground running and get it done, then rush back to L.A. for another few months of shooting There were four stage sets in L.A.—Charles’s House, Joe’s House, Alice’s House and the Cave. Everything else was a dressed location. Assistant Set Decorators Brana Rosenfeld SDSA and Amanda Serino staggered themselves in L.A. with me to get the stage set houses done. They worked pedal to the metal to pull together the dressing and orders as we were so jammed in West Virginia with schedule changes. Buyer Erin Fite worked hard to grab wallpapers, carpets and the larger fixtures from the period for the kitchen and bathroom as well.”
The train wreck
“The train wreck was an incredible set,” she continues. “Grant and I did the trailer 5 months before we shot the film with Martin, so we had an idea of what we were trying to accomplish. When we shot the actual film, we had a massive area to work with. We went to S&A scrap metal in Long Beach and pulled 10 trucks of scrap to give us twisted metal, burned and charred large pieces, and train parts, which they also recycle. Everything required a crane, forklift or a pettibone to be moved. The drivers worked with us to move the pieces in order to create the train wreckage. We hunted down army supplies from 1979 through a number of different vendors. Our construction and paint department made the stenciled cargo boxes which we smashed and then dressed with 1979 communication equipment. We shot in the immense wastelands of Aqua Dulce, CA in all manner of weather—dressing telephone poles on a pettibone in gusting winds was a tough one for our crew, but it got done and looked great. It was so vast, you could have gone on and on dressing the set…thank God we finally started shooting it!”
The range of a set decorator
Comparing her last two film projects, and how she dealt with the extremes, MacCarthy shares, “SOMEWHERE was a small movie with a small crew. It created a sense of intimacy. SUPER 8 is massive…big sets, special FX, explosions! I just put together a solid reference file and turned over every rock.”
An abridged list of resources for SUPER 8:
Daniel Roebuck: Personal collection of monster and science fiction items
History for Hire: Period electronics, graphics
S&A: Scrap metal
Blast from the Past: Trading cards from the 70s, including Wacky Packs