1st AD Tommy Gormley on making Super 8

As summer hit Super 8 comes to DVD and Blu-ray, the film’s Scottish first assistant director and co-producer Tommy Gormley takes us on an exclusive journey of the making of the film…

JJ Abrams first mentioned his idea for Super 8 to me in late 2009, but I think the idea had been in his mind for many years. Set in a small American town in 1979, it’s a combination of a coming-of-age tale, action/adventure film and monster movie. The main protagonists are two young amateur filmmakers who are making their own Super 8 zombie movie when they witness a life-changing event.

When the project was green-lit in summer 2010, Paramount Pictures asked me to come on board. It would be the third time I had served as JJ’s first assistant director, after Mission: Impossible III and Star Trek. On this occasion, I was given the added responsibility of being the movie’s co-producer. A great team was assembled alongside me, including executive producer Guy Riedel, associate producer and UPM Udi Nedivi, cinematographer Larry Fong and production designer Martin Whist.

From the time principal photography began in September 2010, Super 8 presented myriad challenges. For starters, it wasn’t a classic summer tent-pole movie; it had no big stars, wasn’t a sequel or a franchise, and it wasn’t a superhero movie. It was a potentially very expensive and complex movie to make: a period film with big action and visual effects sequences. Yet we knew that it couldn’t—and shouldn’t—be big-budget. Because it is, in many ways, such an intimate film, this would have done it a disservice. So we resolved to make the film for as little money as possible, while still giving it the scale and spectacle it warranted.

Having come off a run of mega-budget pictures, it was interesting for me to re-examine every stage of the process. Less resources actually make you more resourceful. I was always conscious of my times working with Ken Loach; Ken is the master of doing more with less, and he knows that the more stuff you have, the more it gets in the way of telling the story.

On Super 8, the biggest challenge, from my point of view, was the kids. Namely, how you plan and shoot a movie on a very tight schedule, starring six kids, that’s set mainly at night. Kids’ working hours are extremely limited: nine hours total, made up of five hours of actually working, three hours of school and one hour of rest. The kids also have to finish by 10 p.m. on a school day and 12.30 a.m. on a weekend. This is a scheduling nightmare.

Added to this, only two out of the six kids had ever acted professionally before. You can’t presume that someone who’s never been in front of a camera before can deliver the desired performance in normal time—it might take them 20 or 40 takes, not three or four. As one of the people who had promised to deliver the film on budget and in just 66 days, that was a slightly scary prospect! But my worries proved unfounded. They were great kids, honest, talented and real, and they matched the amazing Elle Fanning—the only experienced actor among them—scene by scene. With intelligent use of photo and stunt doubles, we managed to continue filming long after our young friends had gone home for the night.

Photo credit François Duhamel

We started shooting in the old steel town of Weirton, West Virginia. It’s a place that has suffered greatly from the loss of its primary industry, and it’s also deeply atmospheric, with a sense of time having stood still. It was an exhilarating location to work, thanks entirely to the local people. We were welcomed with open arms, and no one complained when we spent endless nights blowing up the neighbourhood. After four weeks there, we moved back to LA for the rest of the shoot. The train-crash sequence was shot in a ranch in a valley north of LA, the bus-attack sequence was shot in the citrus groves of Ventura County, and all the film’s interiors were either LA locations chosen to match Weirton, or sets we built inside the famous Howard Hughes aircraft hangar at Playa Vista.

The most complex scene to shoot was the train crash, which involved three separate blocks of work. We built a beautiful train station, and shot on it with the kids for several nights for the pre-crash scene, using green screen for the moment the train is racing past them. Then we went away for a week, and came back after the station had been rigged by the special effects team. This was particularly nerve-wracking; with six cameras and no possibility of take two, we blew the place up using a giant 20-ton steel sledge as a makeshift train, and a huge amount of pyrotechnics. These events always make me nervous, but your job is to stay calm, rehearse it endlessly, run the safety meetings, watch the crew and cast like a hawk and breathe the biggest sigh of relief when you roll and it works as planned. We left again while Martin Whist’s team built the post-crash carnage, and returned to shoot the aftermath sequence.

Unlike most current major movies, our default setting was always, ‘How can we do this in camera, with no tricks?’ If there was a way to achieve a shot without resorting to visual FX, we chased it fanatically. It suited our film.

As the filming drew to a close, the pressure increased. The ending, which was just an outline when we began shooting, coalesced into something rather more complex, so the weight of work we needed to shoot increased. But, by a combination of hard work, long hours, goodwill from an amazing crew and large chunks of sheer good luck, we completed principal photography just before Christmas 2010. And an unusually accelerated post schedule, with much credit due to ILM for the visual effects work, allowed Super 8 to be ready in time for a summer 2011 release.

My colleagues and I were relieved, knowing that we had taken an ambitious project, done it justice in terms of scale and scope, delivered it on time and budget and most importantly, had helped realise the film JJ Abrams wanted to make. For me, it has become a great template for how to approach future projects.

Super 8 is released on DVD and Blu-ray from Paramount Home Entertainment

Taken from movieScope magazine, Issue 25 (Nov/Dec 2011)

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