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Star Trek – JJ Abrams interview

JJ Abrams directs Star Trek

Interview by Rob Carnevale

JJ Abrams talks about some of the challenges of rebooting the Star Trek movie, working with Leonard Nimoy, who reprises his iconic role as Spock.

He also outlines some of the reasons why he chose to ignore Star Wars as a reference point when it came to reconstructing set pieces that may bear similarities and whether he’d be open to returning to the franchise for a sequel.

Q. What aspects of the original Star Trek TV series or subsequent incarnations seemed the most insurmountable at the outset of this project and how did you approach dealing with that?
JJ Abrams: I think that the world of Star Trek… it’s so much bigger than anything I’ve worked on before and the scope is so crazy. Despite it being Star Trek and being a fantasy, our goal was really to make the film feel real and alive. It’s a strange one because you’re dealing with a lot of obviously over-the-top science fiction fantasy, but I really want you to believe in it and the only way you can do that is with the characters. So the biggest challenge was to to take something that has pre-existed us for decades and make it feel legitimate and vital and relevant for today. And the only way to do that was through the characters that these actors brilliantly portrayed. None of the visual effects and spectacle would matter if you didn’t care about and believe those characters and that was the goal we had.

Q. To what extent did you feel that you had to be a historian of Star Trek to dot the i’s and cross the t’s? To what extent did you take poetic licence and re-draw it the way you wanted to?
JJ Abrams: I was never a huge Star Trek fan when I started working on this so I didn’t have that feeling of it being a sacred text that I couldn’t make creative decisions that would make for a better movie. The risk there obviously was alienating fans of the original Star Trek and I didn’t want to do that, but I also felt that if we did our job and we made a movie that was entertaining it would include Star Trek fans. Things like the exact look of a certain species – that’s changed in the history of Star Trek anyway. You can even look at the original series and find inconsistencies that they had, but it’s part of the charm and the reality of an ongoing series – it’s fiction. You know, at a certain point, you have to make the right choice for the right movie and if we had only gone after pleasing the original Trek fans I think our movie would have been a very different film, so things like that were really a question of: “What feels right for now, what feels interesting?” We knew that we would always upset someone.

There’s always someone that will say it’s sacrilege that we changed this or that or with this adjustment or that adjustment, but I couldn’t approach this film… none of us could, from the point of what one particular fan wants. We had to look at the film and try and put blinders on and not listen to the noise of that kind of nitpicking stuff.  The overall concern we had, I think we were protected by Roberto Orci, one of the writers, who is a huge Trek fan, and he made sure that we weren’t slapping the face of the die hard fan. And we’re beholden to that person. We wouldn’t be making a Star Trek movie if those people hadn’t kept it alive for so many years. So, it was a tightrope to walk.

Q. I think the film is extraordinarily topical in terms of modern politics and the way that we’ve got two guys really developing their characters in the heat of battle. If either of them were to run for president – Spock or Kirk – which one would you vote for bearing in mind the qualities you’ve discovered in them while making this film?
JJ Abrams: Well, I would say Kirk but only because Chris [Pine] is sitting right next to me. But if Chris weren’t here, I’d say Spock. But I think the thing about Kirk and Spock is that they’re both separately full of great potential but it’s not until they come together as a team that they can accomplish almost anything. To me, they key to the movie is that friendship. In fact, my approach to the movie was almost like a story of two brothers. I felt it was their relationship that was the spine of the film. So, I think the two of them together… really, they have to run as a team.

Q. I noted a couple of big similarities between this and Star Wars. Were they deliberate?
JJ Abrams: The thing about Star Wars is that across those six films they’ve done everything. They’ve done every weather system, every character, every weapon, every ship – the shadow looms so large that for us, my guess is that everything in any space movie will feel somewhat derivative of it. That, to me, was almost more of a threat to this movie – the fear of ripping off Star Wars. It was more of a concern I had than any sort of Trek fan concern I had. And the only way to deal with that was to not worry about things like: “Oh, they’ve done snow, we can’t do snow.” If we did that, we wouldn’t do anything. So it was really about focusing on the characters and knowing that if you have a character that might be small… I can name a number of characters from Star Wars that might be small, but that wasn’t an inspiration on any of the things we were trying to do. We were just trying to keep our focus on our people and our objectives and just accept the fact that they’ve made these amazing Star Wars movies that we have to live after. Although Star trek did come first, I’ll point out.

Q. You’re obviously a competitive person, so there must be a bit in you that thinks in re-inventing this Star Trek tale you’re going to make it the best in the genre?
JJ Abrams: Again, my own point of view, and this was something that because I wasn’t a fan going into it I felt like there had not been a version of Star Trek that was as appealing to me as I would have liked to have seen. For example, The Twilight Zone was my favourite show growing up and I would never want to even try to do a Twilight Zone show or movie because I feel like it had been done in a way that I could never out do them. But what’s come before in Star Trek is 43 years, tonnes of hours, amazing stuff and huge fans… just because it didn’t work for me as it did for many other people doesn’t mean that it’s not far better than what I could do. But this is my own point of view and working with this cast and this amazing crew, our goal was to make the best possible version ever. But the key to that was just the emotional way in. I’ve become a lover of Star Trek, which I can’t even believe, but it’s out of examining these characters, and getting under the skin of these characters. I never knew why I should care about Kirk. Now I do and it’s not because I directed it; it’s because I appreciate now what Jean Roddenberry created. He was amazing and the dynamic of the characters, we didn’t change that, we just brought them back to life by casting amazing actors and luckily had a script that they were able to turn to.

Q. How did you tackle the issue of whether or not to bring back any original cast members? And why Leonard Nimoy?
JJ Abrams: Did Bill [Shatner] ask you to ask this question? My first reaction when they asked me to be a producer was to do the Kirk and Spock story because there had been so many versions and iterations of Star Trek, it felt like doing another ship, a whole new group of characters wasn’t the way to go. I thought, starting on the ground floor, where I never felt like there was an emotional way in, that was what interested me. I called the writers, with whom I’d worked before – Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, and the producers, Bryan Burk and Damon Lindelof, and the five of us got together, one of whom was – Orci – a huge fan, one of whom – Bryan Burk – had never seen the show before … so we had this range of experiences on Star trek and by talking about story and finding a story that worked for all of us, that was sort of the way in. We knew that we needed to embrace what had come before and we knew we needed to tell a story that involved Spock, who would be a catalyst in the story. And that required Leonard to be in the movie. So we met with Leonard and we pitched him a story – we sat with William Shatner and did the same – and Leonard was interested but didn’t commit. So we thought, ok, and wrote the script. We gave him the script and crossed our fingers. And amazingly he did. He’d said no so many times in the last couple of decades that we were thrilled. So, that was the way in.

Q. What was it like actually working with Leonard and directing him?
JJ Abrams: Even as a non-fan going in, first day of shooting with Leonard, he had the ears on, the hair, he was in wardrobe, you just felt this legend on set. Here was this guy who’s been playing this for 42 years… I remember he did his first line reading and I was backstage behind the camera watching him and I had some notes… So, I started walking towards him and as I’m doing so, I stated to ask myself: “What the hell am I doing? How the hell do I tell Leonard Nimoy how Spock should talk? This is the dumbest thing.” So, I slowed down and realised I was sweating. I get there and he’s got the ears on and he’s like: “Yes?” And I said to him: “Mr Nimoy, I want to give you a note, I just don’t know how to do it…” And he grabbed my shirt and said: “Tell me, tell me, tell me.” And I just saw in his eyes that he’s an actor, he’s an artist and he’s a collaborator… I cannot tell you how wonderful it was to work with him. He was just a gentleman, he’s incredibly co-operative and the most amazing thing is – and then I’ll shut up – is that he was so supportive – not just of what we were all doing, but specifically of Zachary. I mean, here’s a guy, if you can imagine, who has played this role for almost half a century and here’s this young, handsome actor who is just starting in his career coming in and taking over that character. I just think it could have been a lot of things, but what it was the definition of grace. He was so wonderful and so supportive to the whole crew and especially in a wonderful way to Zachary.

Q. Did you ever give in to the temptation to seek tips from him about how you were doing?
JJ Abrams: I remember when we were doing the scene with the two Spocks together, I pulled Leonard aside and said: “I have to ask you this, because you were in the scene and you were watching him [Zachary] play Spock, so what do you think? Is there anything I should be telling him? Is there something you’re not seeing because no one knows this character better than you?” And he just said: “He’s pretty good.”

Q. Will you be back for a sequel?
JJ Abrams: Nothing would be more fun than to work with them again, but I think what Chris Pine has said is right. It is insanely presumptuous to be talking about it. The good news is that if people like it and there’s demand for another one, the actors and the writers and I will be back. But we don’t have a story, we don’t have a script, we don’t have an outline or a thought. We just have this movie.

Read our review of Star Trek

Read our interview with Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto

Read our interview with Simon Pegg