This summer, J.J. Abrams’ film, Super 8 achieved a nostalgic and genuine 1979 with a shot of modern sci-fi adventure. The writer/producer/director wanted to be sure that the film took place in a world that was both visceral and wondrous as the one in which he remembers making his own 8 mm films as a youngster.
“Despite all the wild stuff that happens in the story, this is the first movie I’ve made that has felt so much a part of my life,” Abrams said.
Much of the 1970s’ feel of the film was due to the efforts of production designer Martin Whist, who had previously collaborated with Abrams on Cloverfield. Immediately after reading the script, Whist knew he would need to create a realistic and well-defined world for the characters, and then shake it all up. The world Whist and Abrams created was built on the foundation of the small town of Weirton, West Virginia.
“My first conversations with J.J. revolved around the fact that we wanted to make everything about the town feel textural, tangible and believable for the era,” Whist said. “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 details ingrained into the film’s sets provided some of the subtle touches needed to give life to the 1970’s-era town. On the Main Street set, Whist arranged the Olson Camera Store, the film’s young characters’ own magic shop, filled with all the appropriate technology of the time: the record players, the 8-track players, and of course the Super 8s.
“The store is a pivotal point in the story, so it needed to have a real presence,” Whist said.
Whist was able to source all the vintage equipment locally. “My decorator, Fainche MacCarthy, found a guy with a camera store who still had all his stuff from 1979 stored,” Whist said. “He had also kept all the boxes, so we were able to clean up the old ones to make them look like new. It was an amazing find.”
Another chance for Whist and his crew to express detail was in the bedrooms of two of the film’s characters, Joe Lamb and Charlie. These bedrooms were arranged with everything a boy from their era with their interests would keep. Prop master Robert S. Kyker even hunted down 1970’s-era models, including a Quasimodo model that Abrams remembered from his childhood.
“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,” Abrams said.