Just as it takes a crew to keep the starship Enterprise performing at top condition, a film like “Star Trek Beyond” requires a committed spirit of collaboration among its creators to keep the spirit of the 50-year-old franchise on course.
The latest installment of the Paramount Pictures franchise brought together a creative team both seasoned and fresh to the franchise: J.J. Abrams, stepping out of the director’s chair but still at the helm as executive producer; new director Justin Lin, revitalizer of the “Fast & Furious” franchise and a longtime “Trek” fan; genre favorite Simon Pegg, still co-starring as Scotty but now adding screenwriting duties alongside Doug Jung (“Dark Blue,” “Banshee”); and producer Lindsey Weber (“10 Cloverfield Lane”).
The team assembled for a press conference to discuss how they came together in their attempt to both capture the essential “Trek” spirit and still boldly go in new directions.
J.J. Abrams: When we started working on this movie, we’d had prior experience with Doug as a screenwriter, and Simon is my British brother – formerly of the European Union – and so it made perfect sense. As crazy as it seemed on one level, it was also so obvious to ask if Simon would be interested in working on the script.
For a moment, it was a little like juggling cats, when you’re figuring out how it’s going to work. When you put any two writers together who have not worked together, it’s going to be tricky for a moment, but they very quickly found a rhythm. Justin was very clear about things he wanted, that were important to him.
When you have a movie where there’s a schedule, you simply have to figure out a way to squeeze every great idea out in the time you’ve got, never giving up and always assuming that you’re going to have a better idea, but that this is the idea for right now. It’s always a leap of faith that it will work.
Simon Pegg: It was a question of combining an existing mythology and embracing that mythology, wholeheartedly, and also making sure that nobody felt shut out, so that if you were coming to “Star Trek” for the first time, you didn’t feel like you weren’t in on it. It’s a difficult tightrope to walk, really. If you fall on either side of it, you risk alienating a large portion of your audience. We were always aware that we were walking across a gigantic precipice.
We wanted to sort of try and create a hybrid of an episode of the original series with a spectacular cinematic event. These films, the “Star Trek” movies have always been event films. In a TV series, you get time to spend with the characters. It’s a longer game. In the film, you kind of have to hit it. It has to be very self-contained, it has to be memorable.
Justin Lin: I couldn’t ask for a better experience. The one thing that was a fact was that going from idea to production in six months was a challenge. But having a group of people that are really trying to be respectful and build things the right way, I feel very fortunate. It was never easy, but filmmaking is not supposed to be easy.
It’s a good sign that every day was a challenge. Logistically, with the amount of time that we had, we were all very ambitious. I actually really enjoy that. Every time we showed up in the morning, it was going to be a rough day and a tough day, but in the best possible way. I think you want that. And to have this group of people who are there for the right reasons, trying to bring this to life, I just felt like we were shooting a big indie movie. That was the best feeling.
Abrams: Honestly, [not directing the film] was a bittersweet thing that was far more sweet than bitter. The bitterness was only the jealousy that I felt, that they all got to be together. But when I was watching dailies and seeing what Justin was doing with the new cast and with this story, the truth is that I felt an odd fatherly pride that these people who I adore and who are like a family, get to live on.
And then, to see what Justin was doing, pushing the envelope in ways that I wouldn’t and I couldn’t, and doing things that taught me lessons in action and in character, the fact that he cared so long and so deeply about “Trek,” you could just see in every scene, him putting that passion into it. I knew that the story was in incredible hands, but I couldn’t help but envy all of [them] for the time they spent together.
Doug Jung: We had a really productive couple of weeks where Simon and I were off at Simon’s place in London, where it was this magical time that we just got to shut out all the pressure that was going on around us and the huge machine that was starting to get geared up.
Those are the moments where we were just laughing and really enjoying the idea of it all. We wrote 20-page Spock/McCoy scenes and we were like, “We’re writing a ‘Star Trek’ movie. This is amazing!
Pegg: And we watched episodes in the evening.
Jung: That was Simon’s idea. He was like, “If we do good today, we can go watch it.”
Pegg: We’d be writing down the names of Red Shirts and little details that we could weave into it, so that the universe had a continuity. It was such a great pairing, if only because we were always on the same page.
The business of writing a good story and making sure the plot works and all that kind of superseded any kind of wish fulfillment – we had to start with that, really. The whole splitting up the crew into different little interactive groups was nice.
I love the relationships in “Star Trek” and it was nice to pursue those a little bit more, specifically, particularly with Bones and Spock, [and] the scene with Kirk and Bones in the beginning is kind of a vague parallel to the scene in “Wrath of Khan” on Kirk’s birthday when Bones and Kirk have that moment together.
Jung: It was an early decision to get them on the five-year mission. Once we did that, there wasn’t a lot of concerns about how the two previous movies were going to affect that. We felt like we were really in uncharted territory there, and that was incredibly liberating.
Pegg: Getting the keys to that kingdom was a real joy, and it was nice to be able to sort of write our signature underneath the hundreds and hundreds of signatures that have gone into writing the “Star Trek” universe over the years. It was nice to put our little stamp on that, and fill it with little Easter eggs that only we know about.
Jung: We were trying to find a villain that felt worthy of Kirk, but also could be a vehicle for bringing up some of those great thematic things that “Star Trek” always does. So, to have this darker mirror of Kirk represented in Idris Elba’s character seemed like a real natural, fun place to go, and in the spirit of some of those characters we’ve seen before, without specifically addressing any particular episode.
There is a backstory for that character that ties into “Star Trek,” in a really nice way. It fell out organically and seemed like a really good fit for what we were trying to accomplish.
Pegg: I hated the idea [of destroying the Enterprise] at first. I swear, we had, like, rows about it. I was shouting at [Justin]: “We can’t do that! You can’t destroy the Enterprise!” My problem was that, if you think it’s something new, then we’ve seen it before. It happened in “Search for Spock.” It happened in “Generations.”
But Justin was very, very determined, and as we spoke about it, I realized what he was doing, brilliantly, was he was not only sort of taking out a main character, but he was removing the physical connective tissue between the crew to see what happens when you take away the thing that physically bonds them together. If you take away that thing that necessitates their being a unit, do they dissipate or do they come back together?
That was the genius of that thing. You take it away very violently and dramatically, and then you wait and see if they all come back together to be this family, which is essentially what they are. And of course they do. And I realized, I backed down immediately and said, yeah, you’re right. I do occasionally do that, not always. But in this instance, I realized it was a brilliant idea. But yeah, initially I was opposed to it.
Lin: My family immigrated to the States when I was 8. They had a little fish-and-chips shop, and they would close at 9 and we’d have dinner at 10. At 11, [“Star Trek”] came on Channel 13, so my brothers and I would talk our way into just hanging out with them. So, from 8 to 18, that was our level of engagement and our family time.
I remember moving to a new country felt like it was just the five of us, but watching “Star Trek,” it instilled in me that family is not just by blood. It’s through shared experience. That’s what “Star Trek” gave me. Our engagement was through re-runs, but every night, it was a new adventure with new obstacles and new challenges. That sense of discovery and exploration was a big part of growing up.
Lindsey Weber: The best thing you can do as a producer is pick the right collaborators. I was so fortunate to have people who each have their own pre-existing relationship with the franchise. I’m a longtime fan. I went to “Star Trek” conventions, as a kid, and had a card in my wallet in high school that said, “Member of Starfleet Academy.”
It was really a privilege to work on this franchise. Justin, obviously, had his own vision for what he wanted this movie to be, and certainly has this incredible visual sense and long relationship with these characters. All I had to do was help them keep putting one foot in front of the other, and they did a beautiful job.
Pegg: I started out on a sitcom in the U.K. and it was about a nerdy guy [named Tim Bisley] … There’s a line in “Spaced” where Tim says, “As sure as eggs is eggs, as sure as day follows night, as sure as every odd-numbered ‘Star Trek’ movie is shit …” And I wrote that in 1998, I think, and then here we are in 2016 and I’ve written an odd-numbered “Star Trek” movie. And I’m happy to say that Tim is wrong!
It’s an incredible thing to look back on the circularity of that, of having grown up a fan of “Star Trek” and science fiction, to be now participating in that in such an active way. I tried to make the kind of “Star Trek” movie that Tim Bisley would like. That’s what Doug and I did. And when I say Tim Bisley, I’m talking about the people that have been with “Star Trek” for a long time. Because “Star Trek” must have been doing something right, because it’s been around for 50 years. And if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
So we wanted to embody the original show, instill it with what made the original show great but also frame it in a big movie way, which is a luxury they never had back in the day. That’s why the series turned into such a great thing. Necessity was the mother of invention with that show. They had to make these wonderful little teleplays. They couldn’t rely on special effects. Now we can do both, and it felt like I was always thinking “What would Tim Bisley think?”
Abrams: The one glue – as someone who an observer of what was happening because I was working on “The Force Awakens” at the time – was this group of people, some of whom had Starfleet Academy cards in their wallets and others who were fans since childhood and who grew up with it with their families, and I saw how the love of this world really being the thing that united them.
In a crazy way, the story of “Star Trek” and of facing crazy odds and how everyone is critical to survive it was a little bit of what the experience was, making the movie. Every single person was absolutely critical to making this thing work, and they all pulled together to get this thing going in the right direction. It was a wonderful thing to see. And because I’d been involved in the couple of movies prior, it was fun for me not to have to be in the fray the way they were, day to day.
“Star Trek Beyond” opens Friday nationwide.
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