JJ Abrams Interview, Star Trek

Posted by: Sheila Roberts

We sit down to go into warp drive with JJ Abrams and talk Star Trek and his new generation! J.J. Abrams brilliantly reenergizes the long running Star Trek franchise and engages us at warp speed with a superb story brought to life by a terrific cast, spectacular action sequences, amazing set pieces, and extraordinary sound and visual design. Intelligent, witty, exhilarating, and visionary, this Trek boldly goes where no sci fi film has gone before.

“Star Trek” is truly a masterpiece in innovative cinematic storytelling inspired by the spirit of Gene Roddenberry’s vision of an enlightened future. Set in the 23rd century, the greatest adventure of all time begins with the incredible story of a young crew’s maiden voyage onboard the most advanced starship ever created: the U.S.S. Enterprise. In the midst of an incredible journey full of optimism, intrigue, comedy and cosmic peril, the new recruits must find a way to stop an evil being whose mission of vengeance threatens all of mankind.

The fate of the galaxy rests in the hands of bitter rivals born worlds apart – two wholly opposite men who come together like two lost halves and embark on a perilous mission in a way neither one could have alone. One, James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), is a delinquent, thrill-seeking Iowa farm boy and a natural-born leader in search of a cause. The other, Spock (Zachary Quinto), grows up on the planet Vulcan, an outcast due to his half-human background, which makes him susceptible to the volatile emotions that Vulcans have long lived without, and yet an ingenious, determined student, who will become the first of his kind accepted into the Starfleet Academy. As fiery instinct clashes with calm reason, their unlikely but powerful partnership is the only thing capable of leading their crew through unimaginable danger.

The cast also includes Bruce Greenwood as Captain Christopher Pike, Karl Urban as the ship’s Medical Officer Leonard “Bones” McCoy, Simon Pegg as Chief Engineer Montgomery “Scotty” Scott, Zoe Saldana as Communications Officer Uhura, John Cho as Helmsman Sulu, and Anton Yelchin as the U.S.S. Enterprise’s youngest officer, 17-year-old whiz kid Pavel Andreievich Chekov. Eric Bana plays the villainous Romulan, Captain Nero.

MoviesOnline sat down with producer/director J.J. Abrams, writers/executive producers Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman, and executive producer Bryan Burk to talk about their exciting new movie. Here’s what they had to tell us:

MoviesOnline: J.J., you took on one of the most beloved franchises in the history of television. Why did you feel so compelled to do this and why now in the year 2009? Is it the right time to revisit this world?

J.J.: I think that the embarrassing truth is that because I was not a Star Trek fan, my initial reaction when asked if I’d be interested in producing was “Oh, that’d be cool to try and work on a version that did appeal to me.” And I immediately called Alex and Bob. They’d already been talking to Paramount about Star Trek and they were trying to figure out how to do it and Alex and Bob and Bryan and Damon Lindelof who couldn’t be here today, he’s doing a Lost thing in France, we all got together to start talking about what Star Trek could be for now because I was not a huge fan, because Bryan had never seen an episode, and because Bob and Alex were big fans and Damon as well.

We had a range of relationships with Star Trek and the key was to find a story that we all embraced, again knowing that Star Trek inherently was an optimistic story. It told a future that was about collaboration, about survival, about working together across cultural, political, racial lines and spec-ial (species) lines and the idea that we wanted to maintain that spoke to the tone of the movie, which is to say that there were many films in recent years, many of which we have all loved, that have depicted a very dark, dismal, cynical, grim future and that’s not what Roddenberry created and that’s not what we were interested in doing and the idea to go back to Kirk and Spock and tell their origins story, create an emotional way in, which would give people like myself a way to love these characters, was an exciting one, and to tell a story that was ultimately optimistic with a big heart. It felt like the movies we loved as kids, and that was one of the things that was the most exciting to work on.

MoviesOnline: I know the movie hasn’t opened yet but it’s been reported that you’re already thinking about a follow-up. The problem with origins movies is you have a lot to do and in the second movie you’re allowed to go where you want to go. Do you envision going back to one of the classic stories or do you envision coming up with an original one or mixing the two for a follow-up?

Bob: We haven’t really talked about it. We’re waiting to see how people react and kind of get this movie out and give it the proper send off and not assume much beyond that until we see what the reaction is.

MoviesOnline: Did you get Greg Grunberg working in this movie? [Greg has known J.J. Abrams since kindergarten and gets parts in almost every project J.J. works on.]

J.J.: Yes, you know, when young Kirk is driving his stepdad calls him? That’s Greg Grunberg.

MoviesOnline: What’s with the big red balls? Everything you do has big red balls in it.

J.J.: Not everything. Just a couple. There were a couple shout outs to some of the stuff that we’ve worked on before and one of them is the big Rimbauldi ball from Alias

Bob: And now we know what that ball is.

J.J.: It’s just a cameo.

MoviesOnline: It was a genius way to reboot the series using the theory about multiple, alternate timelines going against everything that Back to the Future taught us about time and embraced this theory. Can you talk a little bit about why you chose to do that? Obviously it gives you greater freedom moving forward so where do you envision it going?

Bob: There’s two things.

Alex: We did it just because we wanted…this movie had to be both for new fans because just the expense and the pressure of it. We couldn’t just throw away what fans knew. We couldn’t just disrespect what I as a fan loved about Star Trek, so the idea of having it be something where the freedom is literally bought by Leonard Nimoy’s Spock in a time travel scenario which has been covered in episodes of The Next Generation thus making it canon essentially. It seemed like the perfect solution to bringing something new so you wouldn’t have to know anything about Star Trek but, if you did, you were literally following the continuing adventures of Leonard Nimoy’s Spock.

Bob: And the other problem that we all faced was when we said, okay, we really want to do this, we know the fate of the characters, we know some die, we know some live, so how do you ever put them in genuine jeopardy in a way that’s truly unpredictable and surprising for the audience because again it is a 5-year mission. So hopefully, there will be more than one and if there’s more than one, then we want the audience to be able to not stay ahead of them and that’s what lead us to the solution that we all came to.

MoviesOnline: I was really struck by how you incorporated a lot of iconic things about the characters and the show, like certain lines, but you did it in a way that wasn’t cheesy or winking to the audience. How did you do that and were you worrying about putting in those lines and making them seem natural?

J.J.: Well even as a non-fan, I’m giving her all she’s got. There are certain lines that, if I were to go see a Star Trek movie and didn’t see those things, I would feel like I was cheated somehow. But the brilliance of Bob and Alex’s script was that it didn’t have those lines in scenes that would not have existed without those lines, meaning there were situations that were real and urgent and specific and necessary and those lines organically came out of those moments so that you had those little peaks of recognition but they were justified and they were intrinsically connected to the scenes so you didn’t ever feel like, oh yeah, that line. They came out of the blue. They would surprise you. When I read the script, I thought this is genius. It’s funny how it was not… Doing those lines was beside the point and yet we all knew a by product of including those lines will be that appreciation and nod to what people and fans of Trek have loved.

Bob: It became kind of like, “Can we put it here?” “No.” “Can we put it here?” “No.” And then finally I think after whittling it down, it became clear that wherever we had to have the most emotionally organic context for those moments and then once we could do that, that would tell us where the perfect place was.

MoviesOnline: Star Trek has this strange sort of fan base. There’s these old classic fans and there’s the Next Gen fans which are closer to our age who grew up with it in the 80s and the movie doesn’t really give any shout outs to the Next Gen fans. Is that something you guys thought about long term since those actors are still around.

Bob: Well Leonard Nimoy’s plot comes off of the reunification plot that began in Next Generation. Actually the whole events of the movie are spawned very much left off from Next Generation.

Alex: Admiral Archer gets referenced.

Bob: That’s Enterprise.

Alex: Yeah, I know.

Bob: But in Next Generation.

MoviesOnline: But as you were inspired to recreate characters and recreate things from the first series in this movie, is that something you would consider down the road?

Bob: I love the Next Generation so that’d be great but we literally have not discussed it.

MoviesOnline: J.J., in everything you do for television or cinema, the sound is always amazing, especially the way you use it to create emotions. Is that something you particularly thought of here?

J.J.: Thank you very much for saying that. The sound is always absolutely critical. One of the keys to the sound being as good as it is in this film, certainly Cloverfield, certainly Lost, is the guy sitting at the other end of the table, Bryan, who oversees the mixes. He does an amazing job and he’s gotten us to talk about it. He’s now going to discuss why he’s a genius. Ladies and gentlemen, Bryan Burk.

Bryan: We have amazing sound people working with us on everything. Mark Stoeckinger was our sound designer and then there was a window at the end of the year where we wanted to have a lot of these very iconic sounds that were obviously in the original series and Ben Burtt, who is arguably one of the fathers of sound design with Star Wars and everything else, happened to be available. We were able to get him and to say we’re sycophants of his is an understatement. Just working with him and then working with Andy Nelson and Anna [Behlmer], we had these incredible mixers and we spent a lot of time, more time than usual actually, doing the mixes and going back in and really kind of making sure that there was always something present – be it the sound effects or the music – and then all the silence. That all came out of J.J. perpetually liking the idea of really loud, then silent, then really loud, then silent. We referenced a lot like The Exorcist, which for me had incredible sound design. You’re terrified watching that movie. You could be terrified covering your eyes just because it’s loud, soft, loud, soft. It’s kind of a fun process that at the end of making the movie we just spent a little extra time.

MoviesOnline: J.J., your movie really is a love letter to these characters but you do make some pretty big changes in canon like the destruction of Vulcan. Do you think any of these characters are expendable? Also, if you were a kid in the backyard playing Star Trek, which one of these characters would you be?

J.J.: I think you’re right. The movie is all about the characters and is a love letter to the characters. That’s why I wanted to direct the movie. When I read the script, I fell in love with them. At the beginning of the process, if you had said who was your favorite character? Which one would you play? I would say probably none of them. I don’t really connect to any of them. Now I’d say I couldn’t choose one of them because I love them all. I never felt like I was Spock, I never felt that I was Kirk, I wasn’t Bones, I wasn’t Scotty, I wasn’t Uhura, Sulu, I wasn’t any of them really. Now I sort of feel like I love all of them and I know all of them. I don’t think any of them are expendable.

The genius of what Roddenberry created is that paradigm of all of these characters. You’ve got the id, the ego, the superego. The group obviously beyond just Kirk and Spock and Bones ,with this film especially the end of the movie, you realize they wouldn’t be there if all of them hadn’t done their job, meaning that each one of them contributed in a critical way and each one of them has put their lives in the other’s hands. Not to say that if we were to do another film who knows what the story would be. But I would say that in this one I’d loved how each character was absolutely critical and you got to know them in a way that personally I felt I hadn’t had a chance to do before.

MoviesOnline: How did you come to cast Tyler Perry in this role?

J.J.: Tyler is someone who I’ve admired for years, not just in his abilities as a writer and director and actor but as an industry. I mean, this guy is amazing and quite frankly, I’ve been jealous of him for a long time. The work that he’s done has been incredible. We have people in common and I just used those connections to reach to him and send an email just to say hey, it’s J.J. Abrams, would you be interested in playing a role in this movie. He was intrigued. He’d never seen Star Trek before so he didn’t really know and I kind of pushed him a little bit. I sent him the script and he said yes, but he’d never seen Star Trek still. He did this part and he’d never been anywhere else on set before. He’s never acted in anyone else’s movie. The way that he has created his business, his industry, his studio, done his work, TV and film, is unbelievable to me. Again, I’m just a fan. So, working with him was an honor as it was working with Leonard Nimoy and Eric Bana, both of whom I’d also wanted to work with.

To be the first person that he collaborated with in this way was a thrill and I was just telling him one day we were shooting one of the scenes and he was doing his lines and he was in the middle of it, he didn’t like it and he said “Cut!” and he said, “Oh, sorry!” He was just so used to doing his thing. I love Tyler and what was nice, the last thing about it, what was nice about it was that -- and this has happened a few times when there are actors or composers or writers or directors whose work you appreciate, musicians too -- there’s a weird thing when you go, I don’t know that person. It’s presumptuous, but I bet I get along with him. And literally, on the set with him, it was like he was a brother. It was like we had the same kind of references. It was the weirdest thing and working with him just felt like just one of those. It couldn’t have gone better and I had high hopes for it.

MoviesOnline: J.J., all of the actors today have demonstrated an amazing camaraderie with each other and obviously it was apparent on set and that translated into a lot of funny moments on screen. Were there any funny moments or practical jokes that happened on set?

J.J.: The thing about this cast is, and you know we all saw a ton of actors, the key was that they all needed to have a sense of humor. I knew that was going to be the most important thing because if they were too serious…. Star Trek already exists in that place that’s been parodied so many times. If it was too self-serious… and the original show had great wit. The best thing in some episodes of the original series was that amazing repartee between the characters. It was just too good and so every single actor including Eric Bana and Bruce Greenwood and Mr. Nimoy are funny. So that was awesome.

It wasn’t awesome on one particular day when we were shooting this one scene and they were all together and it was one of those things where we had no time and it was really late. We were way over schedule. We had all this work to do. The next day was going to be a disaster. It was one of those few scenes on the bridge where they were all together. A lot of times it’s two actors here, three actors here. It was one of those scenes and they were just all in the mood to goof off. The first AD whose job it is to make sure that we make our day and ride me so that we finish the scene was looking at me like we’re screwed, this is a disaster. The actors could literally not get to their lines without laughing.

On any other day I would have been like yaaaay, this is fun, but no. This day was like…and I remember they were all goofing off and I was trying to like…and I have three kids so it’s not a completely unusual situation to try and wrangle. I was trying to wrangle and they were doing their thing and finally I was like, when you guys are ready, come get me. I just walked off. And I walked away and I’m thinking, wow. And I went back and I got some water and somebody came up to me and said, are you okay? Yeah, I’m fine. I want to see what happens. And then they came back and said, okay, they’re ready to go. I came back literally three minutes later and they were just like [snaps fingers] and they were totally serious and they did their scene. But it was more like the only time where their amazing sense of humor, camaraderie and natural personalities was actually a pain in the ass. Other than that, it was awesome.

Q:  You seem to be doing a lot of science fiction lately. Are you planning to take over the genre?

J.J.: All I know is that since working together on Alias, the four of us, and then with Damon on Lost, when you work with people that you love, when you have a great shorthand and you appreciate similar kinds of things, it’s not to say that you don’t want to do comedy. These guys have written and produced things that have nothing to do with genre. Bryan and I have produced things that don’t. I’ve written things that don’t. But we also have to love that stuff. We all look at it as a fun collaboration. Again, I just hope I’m lucky enough to keep working with these guys on whatever it is because it’s fun.

MoviesOnline: J.J., you seem to have a certain kind of creative restlessness. You’re always moving from one idea to the next or from one kind of storytelling to another. In retrospect or as you go forward, do you have an identifiable or conscious idea or concept that you are trying to explore or something that you especially like to bring to each new thing? Or is the difference in each of them the thing that appeals to you?

J.J.: Personally and obviously, these guys can speak to their quirks too. I never think about stuff from the outside in like that so I have no idea what the hell I do. But I know that when there’s something that interests me, it’s undeniable. I guess if I deconstruct it I can sort of find connections but then it feels too mannered or too self aware. I would hate to be logical about why I’m approaching a project.

Literally the idea of doing Star Trek was another sequel to a series of films based on a television show that Leonard Nimoy started. I’ve done that with Mission Impossible but I didn’t think oh, I’m going to do another one of these. It just happened that when I read the script and after we worked together for awhile and I just read it and thought I will literally be so envious of whomever directs this movie. I just knew I’d go to the set and it would kill me. Not that they couldn’t do it better but that I’d be frustrated I didn’t say yes to the opportunity to do it. But it wasn’t an intellectual thing at all. It was actually counter-intellectual. It was an emotional thing.

So the key for me, and I think the way that these guys work too, is when you work on something that you truly love, that is undeniable, even if it ends up not being any good, at least the ambition was right. But if you ever work on something and think, oh, they will like this, I think you’re in such dangerous territory because you have no idea. Then it’s false pretenses from the beginning.

Bob: I think we all grew up just voraciously devouring television and movies and to be able to spend a day going from movie to movie to movie in a multiplex was like the best day you could possibly have in your life. When you’re graced enough to have people allow you to do it, it’s like walk into Toys R Us and pick one. It’s impossible. You want everything. We all thrive off of the energy I think from each other and the idea of getting to tell lots and lots of stories. It’s just fun. It’s just what we love to do.

MoviesOnline: J.J., I wanted to ask a little bit about the casting because you didn’t necessarily go with actors that look exactly like the original actors that portrayed those characters. What were you looking for?

J.J.: Well the only one that we needed to cast that really had to resemble was Zachary because he was playing the same character and we knew there was going to be a scene with the two of them and if they looked nothing alike, it would just be too distracting. The fact that Zachary is an eerie doppelganger didn’t hurt. But that was sort of the only literal … Look, the fact is, at a certain point it’s a movie. It’s called Star Trek, and we knew that the audience needed to accept certain artistic license, that we had to be able to say to the audience, look, it’s different actors playing these parts, you have to just go with us.

What we always knew, not looking at this as a series of films at all, but we just knew that this movie was a bridge between the Trek that people know and this new group that’s starting this 5-year mission. So that, to me, was the critical thing. We needed to, as much as we could, assume the audience would go along with us on this ride so the actors who played the other characters needed to embody them. They needed to be inspired by what was created 43 years ago but, at the same time, own it. And the only way it would work is if they really owned it.

Zachary would walk on the set and he wouldn’t even talk and it’d be like, that’s Spock. And it got to a place where I literally would forget what the original Spock looked like a little bit because I was… It was a weird thing. I was like, oh, that’s Spock. And I’d see a picture of Nimoy and go, oh, I see… It was very strange. With the other characters, it was really about just finding great actors who could make those roles come alive. So, finding John Cho, I was a little worried at first, because okay, he’s not of Japanese descent. And I thought, but this is ridiculous. He’s right for the part. I knew that we inherited these characters so they had to… I knew Uhura needed to be of African descent but that didn’t mean that she had to be exactly like Nichelle Nichols.

In fact, that issue of relevance, the master we needed to serve was what makes it viable for now and not try and do a skit. On every level, from the casting we were discussing to the props to the ship design to the production design, everything was a choice, kind of filtering it through that, like how do we make it work for now even though it’s inspired by a half a century ago idea.

MoviesOnline: You had Majel Roddenberry on set. How was that? It was just before she died, wasn’t it?

J.J.: Yeah, it was. We were very lucky to have Majel come and do the voice for the Starfleet computer which she had done in the series and films. She came to the set one day when we were shooting on the Nerada and she was just lovely. She was elegant and funny and supportive. It’s that crazy thing, we were working with Nimoy so we knew we had someone who had been there and was part of it. Walter Koenig visited the set and that was great. Nichelle visited the set. We’d had breakfast with George Takei.

But to have Majel come, it was a different kind of thing because she was part of the behind the scenes of it as well as being on camera and to have her say to us that this is… Basically she said that Gene would have approved of what we were doing and that meant more than I can say. We always knew we were dedicating the movie to Gene Roddenberry because we never would have obviously been doing any of this if it weren’t for him. But sadly, when Majel passed away, we added her name to the card at the end.

“Star Trek” opens in theaters on May 8th.

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