The Teen Who Helped Make ‘Super 8′

The Wall Street Journal has an article about Joel Courtney: The Teen Who Helped Make ‘Super 8′

Before starring as Joe Lamb in J.J. Abrams’ “Super 8,” Joel Courtney was just a regular 15-year-old in Moscow, Idaho. With no previous acting experience, Courtney was catapulted onto the big screen opposite Kyle Chandler and Elle Fanning.

The movie is about a group of kids in 1979 who are shooting a Super 8 movie and stumble upon a real-life government conspiracy involving what could be a monstrous alien from outer space. The young actors helped make the movie-within-a-movie; stay for the credits and you’ll see the whole film short unspool.

Speakeasy caught up with an eager and polite Courtney to talk about his stubbornness, his inability to draw and what it’s like to juggle two scripts.

The Wall Street Journal: On Thursday night you attended a midnight screening in your hometown. What was that like?

Joel Courtney: All my friends were there and all the people from my church were there. We did first come first serve so there were only a couple of people who didn’t make it.

A lot of acting you did was on a green screen. As a first-time actor was that difficult for you?

For me, that’s one of my favorite parts of acting because you can bring whatever emotions you can and want. You can imagine whatever you want to imagine. Then the editors get to put in whatever they need to put in.

How much did you influence your character, Joe Lamb?

Quite a bit of my character I brought to the table. But J.J. gave me a good character to work with. In the story towards the beginning I’m easily bossed around. Especially Riley [Griffiths] has control over me and I do whatever he wants me to. Towards the end of the movie I get more stubborn and I brought a little bit of that. I know when other people need to boss me around and when I need to take charge I do. I bring quite a bit to the character.

When are you stubborn?

Sometimes in sports, when people say, “we should do this,” I say, “probably not because it hasn’t worked ever,” and I say my piece. Some people agree with me and some don’t.

In the film how old is your character?

In the movie, my character Joe is supposed to be 14 and I was 14 when we filmed the movie. A month after I turned 15. My character is different than me; he makes models in the movie and I can’t do that at all. I can’t draw a straight line to save my life. I just can’t draw. That’s a big part of his character and a miniscule part of my life.

How was it working off two scripts?

You know, it was a lot of fun. We wrote “The Case” [the Super 8 movie-within-a-movie the kids are shooting] the kids did. And so Gabe [Basso] and I wrote the scene we were in together, and the scene that he was in with Zack [Mills], they wrote that, and the scene he was in with Elle [Fanning], they wrote that. So whatever scenes you said lines in you wrote with that person, which was usually Gabe. So you could go from “Super 8,” like ugh, what is J.J. going to think of my performance to “The Case” where you could be as cheesy as you want: the cheesier the better. And it really is, they really were completely different scripts.

How long did your scenes in “The Case” take you to write? Were you writing as you were filming?

J.J. wanted us to have a finished film while playing the credits. He knew he wanted that. But his main goal was “Super 8.” Every once in a while we would go back and film a couple of scenes of “The Case.” So he would say “here’s what we are going to do. I need a scene between Gabe and Elle and I want you guys to write it.” So they go off, 30 seconds later they come back with the script and they say, “ok, we’ve got something.” And J.J. said “come on, you’ve got to spend a little more time on that.” He usually tweaked it because he knew what he wanted but he wanted it to be cheesy, like teenagers had actually written it. Because he wanted it to be like his movies when he was a kid that he wrote. And I think we did get him exactly what he wanted, ridiculous.

What was your base of knowledge of Spielberg films going into “Super 8?” Did you do any extra research?

I had already seen “E.T.” and “Close Encounters” and “Jurassic Park” and “Jaws.” But I hadn’t seen “Goonies” or “Stand By Me.” I watched those after I finished filming and got a lot of J.J.’s references. I wish I would have watched them but I already knew what J.J. wanted for the chemistry of the kids. I knew what he wanted on the back story of the E.T. “Goonies” feeling. I’m not a huge Steven Spielberg nerd but I know about him and I know of his work.

You aren’t old enough to drive but you drive in the film.

Actually the scene where I’m in front of the steering wheel, that’s inside a building. They put us up on wooden risers and they put these 2×4’s under us and they rocked the car to make it look like we were bouncing along this road. That was kind of crazy and freaky because I’m not really allowed to sit behind the steering wheel in case anything bad happens to the car. So, even though we weren’t moving at all it was freaky. And in the zoomed out shots, that’s actually my stunt double driving.

Did you have stunt double for a lot of the film?

Well actually they did a couple, but we did a lot of our own stunts. A lot of those were us and I’m kind of surprised that they allowed us to do some of those. Most of the train crashing was CGI but there were still some explosions that were close to us which was a lot of fun. I’m glad they let us do that because most times many people aren’t able to do their own stunts ever. I like running around and the scenes where we are screaming our heads off, that was great.

You’ve said in many interviews that your goal with your first audition was to make a commercial. How have your goals changed?

I kind of – they’ve changed a little bit. Now I want to do a little bit more than a commercial. I really do want to act, I love acting and I want to do it in the long run.

Joel Courtney