Cloverfield: Godzilla Goes 9/11

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Sam Emerson / Paramount

Michael Stahl-David in Cloverfield

J.J. Abrams, creator of Alias and Lost and director of Mission: Impossible III, produced Cloverfield, a monster movie for the YouTube era, opening Jan. 18. TIME's Hollywood correspondent, Rebecca Winters Keegan, sat down with him on the set of the new Star Trek movie he's directing, where Abrams talked about sci-fi as catharsis, the age of self-documentation and why we're so obsessed with the end of the world.

TIME: What's behind the enduring popularity of apocalyptic tales?

ABRAMS: Stories in which the destruction of society occurs are explorations of social fears and issues that filmmakers, novelists, playwrights, painters have been examining for a long time. The theory of attack became the reality of attack seven years ago. It's no coincidence that so many stories are being told that grapple in different ways with "us vs. them."

What's your version?

Cloverfield is fantasy. The movie is meant to be entertainment — to give people the sort of thrill I had as a kid watching monster movies. I hadn't seen anything that felt that way for many years. I felt like there had to be a way to do a monster movie that's updated and fresh. So we came up with the YouTube-ification of things, the ubiquity of video cameras, cell phones with cameras. The age of self-documentation felt like a wonderful prism through which to look at the monster movie. Our take is what if the absolutely preposterous would happen? How terrifying would that be? The video camera, we all have access to; there's a certain odd and eerie intimacy that goes along with those videos. Our take is a classic B monster movie done in a way that makes it feel very real and relevant, allowing it to be simultaneously spectacular and incredibly intimate.

Movies that take on themes of terrorism and war head on don't do very well at the box office. Is sci-fi the best outlet for our societal fears about those things?

My favorite series was the Twilight Zone. Before that, Rod Serling was dealing with issues of politics and race and getting into a great deal of trouble with the censors and the advertisers. The feeling was that people watch TV to forget those things. When he did the Twilight Zone he made a conscious effort to do a show that could deal with those things and not get him into trouble. He was a brilliant social commentator. Everything you were looking at was incredibly resonant, even though you were talking about a guy with three eyes or a woman who was 90 feet tall.

With Cloverfield we were trying to create a film that would be entertaining and, as a by-product of the subject matter, perhaps be a catharsis. We wanted to let people live through their wildest fears but be in a safe place where the enemy is the size of a skyscraper instead of some stateless, unseen cowardly terrorist.

Did you fear cutting too close to the bone by setting it in New York City?

Certainly we could have set the film in Chicago or San Francisco, but there's something about Manhattan that is for me the most powerful and iconic city in the world. When Godzilla came out, the idea of doing a movie about the destruction of a city because of a radioactive man-made thing — it must have had a similar feeling. It was very much a way to deal, in a social, communal way, with everyone's common fears. On the one hand it's a silly man in a rubber suit; on the other hand it's a way to process these fears that are mostly bottled up. Anyone who is upset about Cloverfield must have had the same reaction to the recent Spider-Man films or I Am Legend or the King Kong remake.

But Cloverfield's storytelling style looks to be much more intimate than a big-budget CGI movie, and, therefore, maybe scarier.

There are hundreds of incidents and images out of Iraq on hand-held video that are horrifying. All of those images we considered in making the movie 'cause they show the way things actually look. A lot of the reality of this film is sold on your feeling like this was not documented by a director or a photographer, but rather by an everyman. In many of these Iraq videos, we felt like we were just missing the most terrifying thing.

Does the popularity of end-of the-world narratives suggest we're secretly longing for it to happen?

Not for me. For me, it's the idea of the bigger they come the harder they fall, the idea of seeing the Titanic, the unbreakable, unsinkable ship go down. Whenever a toddler sees a pile of blocks, he wants to tear it down. Cloverfield takes the incredibly familiar and relatable, and it adds an element of absolutely fantastical. It's like in Planet of the Apes: When you see the Statue of Liberty on the beach, you realize, this creepy and compelling story happened where I live.

Did you cast lesser-known actors in order for the story to be more relatable?

They're for the most part more attractive people than you might find in your average home videotape, but we wanted to show you actors you wouldn't remember from another movie or TV show, like this was found material.

Like you just got invited to the party with hot people?

Yes, a party I never got an invitation to, by the way.