JJ Abrams Star Trek Interview

“Star Trek”

Let’s presume there are people on this planet who have never heard of STAR TREK before. What makes it an interesting premise for a story?

ABRAMS: What I loved about the script was the idea of a character that had all this potential, but was aimless. We know Kirk ends up being the Captain, but he started out so misguided. That is what struck a chord in me. We meet someone who has not found his way. Then there is this other character, Spock, who is half-human and half-Vulcan, and he is always fighting with this notion that he is not able to fit in. I had never really thought about that. These two characters were fascinating, and then the idea is that they come together and have this contentious relationship. At the end of the story, they have gone through this crazy adventure together, and put their lives in each other’s hands and ultimately are victorious because of their combined power. I loved that idea. Having worked on this incarnation, I have come to love all of the characters. What I hope this film does is what all my favorite films do -- combine emotion and character with unbelievable visuals and great action.

How much does the location of space lend to the story?

ABRAMS: It is intrinsically connected. You can’t find where one begins and one ends. The themes of the film, the emotional connections, in theory, could be transferred to another time and place and find analogous situations and relationships. You wouldn’t have teleportation if you were doing a western, but you would find another way to get the characters there. You wouldn’t have the issues that space lends, such as time, speed and warp travel, but you would find other things that would lend themselves to the story you are telling. What makes these stories work is that we are dealing with characters that we care about.

Here we have a TV series that went through various TV incarnations and then different film series. What is it about this particular story that lends itself to so many incarnations and retellings?

ABRAMS: I suppose one of the answers could be there is an inherent sense of adventure with the show; you are pitting characters against unexpected conflict. It is what makes a show like ER successful -- you never know what they are facing each week. There is a natural broad stroke that works in that regard. My feeling is that, cynically, there is a studio that owned the property and wanted to exploit it and so they kept coming up with different things that would ride the coattails. Some of the series like NEXT GENERATION were infinitely more popular in their first run than the original series. It is about the luck of having found good storytellers who were passionate about what they were doing. It worked side-by-side with what the studio desired. This version of STAR TREK comes from the same place of the studio wanting to exploit, but I am hoping audiences will feel that this film was not done for a business decision. It was done because the story was valid and relevant with characters that were emotionally appealing.

When you first came aboard to help put together the story, how many incarnations were there? How long did it take to come up with this premise?

ABRAMS: It took us a year or so to come up with the story. Alex Kurtzman and Bob Orci did an amazing job and wrote a great script. A lot of it was just me, Bryan Burk, Damon Lindelof and Alex and Bob getting together and just developing the story and ways of telling it in the most exciting ways. There were huge challenges, but I think we got past them. It was that script that made me want to do the film.

Who came first with your casting for this film?

ABRAMS: I thought Spock would be the hardest role to cast, but it was the first. Zachary came in, and I couldn’t believe how much he looked the part and how good he was. We cast him very quickly. We then cast everyone else, but we didn’t have the Captain. It was getting to the point where we had to start measuring people for wardrobe. Then Chris Pine came in, and he was so funny and smart. He was confident, yet vulnerable and tough. Kirk faces so many extreme situations in this movie, and we needed an actor who was versatile. He was that -- really smart and asked great questions and was hungry to do it. More than anything, whoever was going to take this role was going to have to shoulder this movie. We were making a big movie with no movie star. The only feature film directing experience I had was MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III. Every day that I was on set, I knew why I was on that set. It was Tom Cruise’s set, his movie and his thing. It was a wonderful relief because I had that support. When I got to STAR TREK, I didn’t have ‘that’ guy. But from the first day that Chris started working, he had this confidence and determination and focus that made me feel it would be okay. He was so hungry to do it. He wasn’t self-conscious, so I was lucky to have an actor to do a job that wasn’t just about acting. He was number one on the call sheet, and he shouldered that responsibility. In retrospect, I appreciate that even more. If you have someone new and not comfortable in that situation, it is unsettling and even the crew feels it. We finished on schedule in large part because Chris did a great job.

So as the leader of the ship he created this leadership role on the set.

ABRAMS: It was a strange thing. When I did ALIAS, Jennifer Garner had to do so much work. She was in basically every scene of that show. She was so sweet and hardworking and determined to do a good job, she even used to bake desserts for the crew. The crew loved her -- they wanted to make it better for her, and you felt this thing happen where everyone on and off screen just tried harder. If you have a bitter, angry, unhappy star that is the number one on the call sheet, it will make for a crappy experience. Chris has never done this and he came in like it was his 12th movie. There was no attitude and he had great humor. On screen, he brought it and did an amazing job. It was a big thing to have someone who has never done that before shoulder that responsibility. You can see it in his eyes. He did it all effortlessly, yet I know he put in a lot of effort. Look, I feel the whole cast is amazing. Some people leave the theater and speak highly of Spock and others of Kirk.

Is it true that Matt Damon was at one point mentioned to play Kirk?

ABRAMS: I actually approached Matt and we had some discussions, but everything happens for a reason. On the one hand, it would have been great to work with Matt -- but at the end of the day, it was such a better move to cast the movie with unknowns. Not because it is fun to discover the stars of tomorrow, but even more so, just like with the first STAR WARS, you didn’t know who those people were when you saw the movie. You believed that guy was Luke Skywalker. You didn’t recognize him from six other movies. You bought into who this guy was. It is a slippery slope when you cast any actor that is somewhat known. What is the cut off point? If you cast half famous faces and half unknown, it can throw an audience -- but this way, we weren’t beholden to any fame meter.

What was it about Zachary that let you believe right away he was right for Spock?

ABRAMS: I knew his acting, but when he walked in the room, I was so struck by his likeness to Leonard -- who I knew was going to be in the film. We needed someone that we felt could be the younger version of Spock. It was his physicality and eagerness to play this role. It didn’t come from a massive case of fandom, but the struggle of a character. The combination of his look, skill and his desire to play the role for all the right reasons made it a no-brainer.

You mentioned that Nimoy will be in the film, but Shatner has been vocal about not being in the film. Did you try and find a place for him?

ABRAMS: We did meet with him at the beginning and pitch him the story. He was not in the film, though we discussed a number of ideas for how his character could be in the film. I knew that if we did that, it would make it a different story. I wasn’t saying it couldn’t happen, or that if we did another one we couldn’t find a way to make it happen. But for this film, it wasn’t the story we were telling. He made it clear that he didn’t want to do a cameo and so the alternative was to really change the story. Every time we tried to figure out a way to put him in the film because we thought fans would love that, every version felt like some stupid attempt to just put him in the film.

You mentioned before that you were not a real fan of the TV show so why did you want to come aboard and direct?

ABRAMS: I was initially asked to produce, and then I became intrigued by it all. I thought it would be interesting to do a version of STAR TREK that would grab me the way it did friends of mine. I called the writers, and added my two producing partners from LOST, and we came up with this story that I thought was great. One of the writers, Bob Orci, is a huge fan of STAR TREK. Bryan Burk, on the other hand, had never seen an episode or any of the films, so we had this great balance. By working on it together, we found a story that worked for all of us. When I read the script, I knew I would be jealous of anyone who directed it because it was a funny and very emotional story that was a huge spectacle. There was massive action and a fast pace. This is why I wanted to make movies. I didn’t want to make another sequel to a series of films that had been a TV show. I had just done MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III, and the last thing I thought I would do was direct another one of these. I said to my wife that I was offered STAR TREK, and she advised me not to do it. I gave her the script and she told me I had to do it because the script was so good.

Normally in Hollywood films, there is a clear-cut villain, like the Germans or Russians or the Japanese. In the world of sci-fi, we don’t have those clear-cut historical enemies. Instead they battle the Romulans. How much does this reflect our world in crisis? Audiences like to identify with the enemy so who are these people?

ABRAMS: One of the things that science fiction does brilliantly, when it is done right, is allegory. My favorite show is TWLIGHT ZONE. Rod Serling got in trouble year after year with networks and sponsors because he was writing about issues that really mattered to him, like politics and race relations. Finally, he decided to do the TWLIGHT ZONE and write about the same issues, but make it aliens instead of Russians. He would take the issues that clearly mattered, and swap out some of the specifics – this way he was allowed to tell the same story without getting into trouble. People still discuss it now because it resonates today. He told stories that mattered. It wasn’t really about aliens. Even STAR TREK was created when there was high tension with the Soviet Union, and there was a U.S. versus Them moment in time. But there was optimism in the show that, in our future, we would all work together. As Gene Rodenberry said, there was this prime objective where we would all go out and explore and discover new worlds -- but not to conquer them. Even though, as in this film, STAR TREK had conflict and bad guys and some scary stuff, it is ultimately an optimistic story and that is why it continues to come out in different versions. Yes, it can relate to current fears, but all stories have conflict. You can always find your analogous fear in science fiction stories or otherwise, but having said that, there is an inherent sense of optimism in the film. Now more than ever, it is something that I am hungry for. That sense of hope is connected to that vision of the future and what the future might be. It is a fantasy, but STAR TREK gives you that. For the past ten years or so, many science fiction films have been darker and more grim -- while they are entertaining, they are much more pessimistic.

The TV show was also groundbreaking in casting African American, Asian and other minority actors and it made a huge impact. In this day and age of an African American President, you cannot make the same impact. So how do you deal with racial and social issues today?

ABRAMS: While it is true that there is nothing shocking today about having an African American woman in a position of power, or an Asian character onboard, it doesn’t have the same meaning now as it did back in the 1960’s. It was a nice by-product of the times, but I agree that today it is actually more relevant because this is increasingly the way the world looks. It is less about being groundbreaking, and more about being reaffirming. With LOST, casting a Korean couple that didn’t speak English was something I was afraid audiences would have problems with. But we never got one comment when we had an episode where 75% of the episode was subtitled. I think people are hungry for diversity. It is not about getting more of a Latin or African American audience. It is more a reflection of the time we live in. Even our extras have diversity. I felt it was something important to show. While it won’t have the same initial impact, like when STAR TREK had the first interracial kiss on television in the 1960’s, it does have a reaffirming positive message to send. It is consistent with the optimism that STAR TREK represents.

Looking at your prior work, there isn’t a lot of special effects history there. Actors sometimes have to go to boot camp to learn skills, so what did you have to do to immerse yourself in the language of special effects?

ABRAMS: That is a cool question. I have always been a crazy fan of this stuff. I remember being 8 years-old and going to the Universal Tour and watching the cool effects of how they did the AIRPORT films, where they would hang the plane upside down so the strings would be upside down so when they played it back, you wouldn’t see the strings. I’ve been fascinated by make-up effects and visual effects and miniatures all my life. So the films I did when I was a kid always had exploding models. I would put firecrackers in them and blow them up. Now, with visual effects, I am a huge fan of the tools that are being used. These computer programs that even allow consumers at home to have access to the same tools that professionals use. I love this technology, and so with my limited knowledge, when I talk to my visual effects supervisors, I can talk to them about what I would do. I have a perverse passion for it, but I also think it helps me with the filmmaking process.

What was the biggest visual challenge for you?

ABRAMS: This film was literally taking everything I have done before and putting it into a quarter of this film. This was such a huge challenge. The sequences were so different and so I had to use every trick I knew and then learn others. The biggest challenge for me was just the scale. In a typical movie, the establishing shot is a building or maybe even a city. Here it was a planet. It was like going to Las Vegas. You walk from one hotel to the next, and thirty minutes later; you still are not there yet. It is so vast. The scale is so ridiculous that it plays with your mind in relation to size. When you create a planet, you don’t just worry about what it will look from a distance, but what will its atmosphere be like? What is the culture like here? What do they wear? How do they speak? Every detail has to be accounted for. If my character crosses a normal street, I know street, plants, and buildings. Nothing can be assumed in this film. The biggest challenge was in the parameters of the world of STAR TREK, and everything that has come before -- how do we make these worlds, and make them believable? I didn’t want to shoot them all green screen and have it look like it was on a stage. I needed to find different locations so I could get outside and move the cameras. There was a lot of stuff. There was this big overall design approach.

I want to ask you about your visual influences. Where did you go to for research and inspiration?

ABRAMS: We have all seen 2001, STAR WARS and all those sequels, BATTELSTAR GALLACTICA and even all of the hundreds of hours of STAR TREK, that it would be very hard to show an image of a ship flying by that we have never seen before. What I came to realize is that it is not about the ship flying by, but who populates the ship. The only reason you care about the Enterprise is that you love the characters that inhabit it. We did reference all of those prior films so we didn’t step on anyone’s toes. We felt that there were certain things that we had to do, but I tend to go with my gut feeling of the way something should look, rather than borrowing a look or style.

Were you handcuffed at all in dealing with the characters because the fans already know exactly the characteristics of each of the lead protagonists?

ABRAMS: It is not so much that knowing the personality would be a hindrance. In doing STAR TREK, we are exploring these characters that do come pre-loaded with these character traits. The fun is seeing how these characters with those traits react to a story that has never been told before. We see these characters not only deal and respond to each other, but get to know each other. By the end of this film, they are this family that has put their lives in each other’s hands. At the beginning of the film, it is this disparate group of misfits and neophyte cadets. They are young adults just forming their lives. Because of this adventure that they never could have anticipated, they form this relationship. That aspect of the story wasn’t explored in the previous STAR TREK stories. We were just supposed to connect with them. I never felt cocky enough to be Kirk; logical enough to be Spock or even Scotty, Bones or Sulu. I wasn’t feeling me in the world. But by deconstructing them, those were amazing ways into a story.

Did you leave any breadcrumbs for the audience? What I mean is that since we know the characteristics of our leads from their later years, did you have moments where we see where these characteristics came from; such as why they say a certain thing or why they do a certain thing?

ABRAMS: Yes, but you have to be careful not to be too cute. I am not saying we didn’t have nods to what came before, we have plenty of those, but I have seen films where a character does something and there is this big flurry about it and it means nothing in context. Had I known that comic book, for example, it would have had huge resonance. For those who do, it does. But you have to be careful you don’t presume too much about what the audience knows, otherwise it has an air of self-importance. We were careful not to go too far. It was important that we use the existing zeitgeist fundamentals that people know about STAR TREK. There is great power in meeting someone like Kirk, knowing he will eventually become Captain, and seeing how he begins. It is using the baggage we inherited. It wasn’t about breadcrumbs or self-reference, it was just about appropriate moments for this story.

Is it true Gene Roddenberry’s widow has a cameo in the film?

ABRAMS: She was always the voice of the Star Fleet computer, and we recorded her voice for the film before she passed away.

How difficult was it balancing directing this film and still overseeing TV shows such as LOST and FRINGE?

ABRAMS: It was really hard this year. We did CLOVERFIELD, STAR TREK and the TV show FRINGE at the same time. The answer is to work with people that are great. I wrote FRINGE with the Alex and Bob, two guys that I worked with before and CLOVERFIELD with Matt Reeves, with whom I created FELICITY so I tend to work with the same people over and over again. Bryan Burk produces everything I do so I have shorthand with all these people. We wrote the script and were in pre-production on FRINGE before we were shooting TREK. Then we were shooting TREK while Bryan oversaw FRINGE. I was giving notes on that. I couldn’t direct two things at once, but I could produce because I have a great team that can focus on the other project. I am not really doing LOST. Damon and Carlton run the show and I stand in awe of what they do.

What do you want audiences to take away from this film?

ABRAMS: Honestly, as someone who was not a huge fan, I hope they get the same thing I did. It is a great story with great characters that is emotional, funny, scary, fast paced and action filled. I wasn’t trying to make a movie that would cure the world of social ills, but I did want to make a film that would be like the great ride at the amusement park. When you go to an amusement park, there is always one ride that you have to ride and I wanted this film to be that. I didn’t want it to be too shallow or short or not have it deliver. I wanted a film to surprise you in what it delivered. Even beyond your STAR TREK expectation, I wanted you to get back in line again. The only way you get that movie is to make it as intimate and emotional as possible, in addition to the great action. When you balance big action with real emotion that, to me, is my favorite movie. That was my ambition.

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