As the co-screenwriter of “Star Trek Beyond” Doug Jung got to go on a journey he’d only imagined as a fan of the franchise – and during work breaks he got to binge episode of the original series with his co-writer, who also happened to one of the stars of the revived franchise and one of fandom’s great genre wits, Simon Pegg.
If that wasn’t enough, he also got to near-literally enter the 23rd Century in character as Ben Sulu, the newly revealed husband of helmsman Hikaru Sulu (John Cho). So yes, after all that and the near universally positive reviews for the third film set in the alternate “Kelvin” timeline, “Star Trek’s” been as good to Jung as he’s been to it.
With the film now available for digital download and on Blu-ray and DVD, Jung joined CBR to look back on his experience putting the film’s story together, plus a peek forward at his next collaboration with producer J.J. Abrams, the forthcoming sci-fi film “The God Particle.”
CBR: I know that you were a fan beforehand. Tell me about that feeling when you got the invitation to jump on board this starship and make your contributions to it. What was going through your head and your heart?
Doug Jung: I was incredibly excited at the prospect, and I think for a little while, I kept wondering, “Is this somehow going to get taken away from me?” And then after that, and after it settled in, the creeping terror of the responsibility kind of hit me. But it ended up being a really good kind of fear. So it was great all the way through.
And you had sort of an unusual time that you got to spend first apart and then together with Simon Pegg, because his schedule being what it is. So tell me where you guys intersected right away, and how you knew you'd be able to see this through as a team.
Good question: we spoke on the phone quite a bit, which is kind of hard. Also, Bad Robot and Lindsey Weber, our executive producer who knows us both well, and J.J. had said, “We think you guys would get along, and like each other, and compliment each other.” They’re good at these things. We spoke on the phone quite a bit, and we kind of developed a rapport. Then when we were together…I don’t know, it’s just one of those things where you kind of realize, “Oh yeah!” Simon’s great – he’s as funny and as smart as you imagine he is.
So it wasn’t a stretch by any means, but we had a talk about this before, we had sort of a time where just he and I got to be alone. We were out in the country in England. I mean, we’d been working for months up until that point, but when it was just the two of us alone going back and forth and literally writing the script, I remember leaving there and thinking we were both really, really happy because we weren’t finished, but we saw that we had the ability to finish it, and that was like…you have no idea how happy that made us!
Being as familiar with the show as you were, what were those “Star Trek” essences that you wanted to bring in from the get-go, and then how did that evolve as you really started putting the screenplay together?
Well, one of the things that we talked about – Justin [Lin] as well, not just Simon and I – is that with the 50th anniversary, we wanted to really kind of launch, or take our first step off into this, kind of trying to hold up the universe that Gene Roddenberry had created to our modern time, and kind of address it head on. Challenge it a little bit and see where it can go.
We came up with a lot of reasons why something like this utopian vision of the world, in the most cynical of ways, couldn’t exist. But what we kept coming back to was “That’s just not who we are.” So what started to kind of bleed through naturally, and especially when you think of those characters and the sort of canon as a whole, is that sense of optimism and hope and inclusion, and all those things.
It can sort of sound a little corny when you’re sitting there and talking about it in a writing sense, because we always want to be intellectual and deep, but it’s undeniable that that’s really the message that he created, and is really the fiber of the show and the movies and the whole franchise. So it was interesting to see how we really went far out and then ended up coming back to this place where he originally started, which was nice.
Tell me about those times at the end of the day, after you guys had been working on the screenplay throughout the day, that you got to sit down and throw on some episodes of the original “Star Trek.” Anecdotally, what were the best things that came out of that as far as like, either seeding the Easter eggs you wanted to seed, or just getting the spirit, channeling that spirit.
First of all, if you’re going to watch a “Star Trek,” watch it with Simon Pegg, because he is amazing! It’s just really fun. So I think we kind of have these Easter eggs, and we were plucking names. Whenever we’d see something we were like, “Is there a way we could get that in that’s not going to be too obvious or too corny, or just have people say to us ‘Why do you keep trying to fit this stuff in?’”
But one of the big takeaways was just sort of like, the spirit of it, the idea of at times how kind of fun it is, in a different way. They were doing the best they could without the spectacle that we have now with CG and stuff like that. So I felt like we kept taking away how amazing is that when Clint Howard shows up and that’s the last thing [you expect], you know what I mean? And how do we get that? Can we get that feeling in this scene? Or the interplay between the characters: one of the things, for example, we found was – I’m forgetting the name of the episode. It’s the one where Spock believes that Kirk is dead.
“Amok Time!” And when he shows up in the end and he blurts out, “Jim!” His human side just bursts through. We wanted to get a moment like that in with Spock, and we got it through Bones, when he sort of laughs. Stuff like that, we were keying in on.
It sounds like you guys had such a blast doing it. I know the plans are afoot for a fourth film, but nothing’s official with you. Is there any movement on maybe you taking part in the next one?
No, not right now. The guys who are doing it now are, I know them a bit, and they’re huge “Star Trek” fans, massive. So I feel like it’s in good hands. I’m really just excited about seeing what they come up with. J.J.’s heavily involved, so it’ll be great to, you know what I mean? I get to step back as a fan again.
And of course you’ll be back as Ben Sulu.
Well, I’m trying to angle that! I’m trying to work out a three-picture deal. Talk with Paramount!
You are now part of Kelvin canon as Ben. People are going to put you in the licensed novels and fan fiction and games…
You know what? I never even thought of it that way! Now I’m terrified! No, whenever people ask, it wasn’t by design like I ended up doing that. Because of just really the situation: we were shooting in Dubai, and the actor who was going to play that role ended up dropping out two days before. So they asked me if I’d do it.
It was really, really great to do. It was not only just fun, because you’re sort of involved in that way, but also, we were all really proud of that facet of the movie. As a screenwriter, you don’t often get to kind of like put your money where your mouth is in certain ways. So to be able to actualize something you wrote in that way…I guess Simon’s doing it all the time, but for me I was like, “Oh, this is really great!”
Were you happy with the response to the take on Sulu? “Trek” fans are one of the more inclusive bunches you could ever hope to find. Even though there was a little media kerfuffle with George Takei early, were you happy that everybody kind of landed on “This is great – we love this?”
Yeah. It’s funny: I never thought for a second there would be any other reaction. To me – this is my own personal view – part of the reason why I think we wanted to include it is that, of course that’s going to be a part of life in the future as it’s a part of our lives now, today. So one of the thing that we talked about a bit was like, statistically speaking, it would be impossible for that not to be a part of normal everyday life.
I actually never thought of the reaction, fan reaction, or anything. I was more afraid of missing on some other things like, “Spock would never say that!” “That’s actually counter to something that’s referenced in ‘The Corbomite Maneuver.’” So maybe it’s, again, that firm belief that the foundation of that universe supports these ideas and the people who are fans of it, of course are going to accept it, in a way. Knock on wood. Fantastic that it worked that way.
Jaylah was your original creation, essentially. Do you hope she becomes a permanent addition to the “Star Trek” crew?
Yeah! The reception we got for Jaylah was great. And Sofia - it’s funny: when we wrote the character, we thought she was great, and her interaction with Scotty would be great. And in every step of her being realized, we just kept going, “This has got to be really good.” And it started with casting Sofia because she was awesome. And then when you meet her, she’s even more amazing, she’s so talented and good.
Then when Justin and Joel Harlow, who was the makeup effects person, started to come out with the designs of what she looked like, you just kind of knew, like, “Oh, okay!” which is great. Because you want to stack up the stuff you feel really good about, versus the stuff that “I hope we can pull this off.” So yeah. I hope she really becomes a part of the universe in a bigger way. She’s great.
Tell me about your next film, “The God Particle.”
The “God Particle” I worked on for a while right after “Star Trek.” They finished shooting. I think they’re editing now. Totally different kind of science fiction, but really, really cool. A talented director. I can’t really say too much about it, but I think it will be a really interesting movie. If you’re a sci-fi buff, you’ll enjoy some of the different kind of sci-fi that you get out of that, as opposed to “Trek.”
What was the sort of magic dust that J.J. Abrams sprinkled in his role as producer on the project?
J.J.’s really great. He’s kind of like a master craftsman for screenwriting. So there’s that. But he’s really great at injecting these ideas into the story where you go, “First, I would have never thought of that. Second, I’m not sure how to make it work,” and then he shows you how to make it work. And then you go, ah. So it’s like that part of the brain either he can access, or we don’t have, or whatever, that shows up very casually, but ends up being like this really cool factor.