Youth Impact Report 2011: Bigscreen Chaperones

Impact: Built a tentpole starring five unknown kids with “Super 8,” which earned $127 million domestic.
Next: Producing “Mission: Impossible’s” fourth installment, “Ghost Protocol,” directed by Brad Bird.
Causes: The Children’s Defense Fund. He and wife Katie co-chair org’s L.A. fund-raising dinner.

J.J. Abrams wanted “Super 8″ to resemble his own experience at a young age, when he goofed around with friends making amateur movies and creating low-grade special effects from scratch. Or as he puts it, “The feeling of being involved with a crazy way of expressing ourselves. But obviously, this was a story that would require a young cast.”

And not just any young cast. “We were looking for that sense of innocence that seems to be harder to find in kids today than 30 years ago,” he says. “And after sitting through a number of casting sessions (with casting director April Webster), it became clear that kids who are already working had a confidence that seemed counterintuitive to the kids I needed.”

To sell the studio on casting almost exclusively unknown child actors (with the exception of Elle Fanning), Abrams brought out the big guns: Steven Spielberg. “I’d always wanted to work with him, and if anyone could help get a movie like that made, it was him,” he says. “The studio felt like there was an insurance policy knowing he was involved.”

To get natural perfs, Abrams created a mutually respectful environment that made them feel comfortable. “I talked to the kids before we shot and told them we were all working for the movie; the crew was not there to serve them,” he says. “There’s nothing uglier than entitled kids.”

Abrams also cast actors at precisely the right moment in their own development. “We wanted kids on the verge of young adulthood,” he says. “Three weeks after filming, I called Riley (Griffiths), who plays Charles, and his voice had dropped two octaves. We just missed what would have been a nightmare.”

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