Friday, November 20, 2009


For the release of the new STAR TREK film on Paramount DVD and Blu-ray, director J.J. Abrams and his co-screenwriters/fellow producers/frequent collaborators Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman sat down recently to talk about their revival of the franchise, what it’s like on disc, and what we may look forward to for STAR TREK II.
For starters, Abrams says he’s mostly relieved by fan reaction to his bold excursion where no reboot has gone before. “I think that luckily, because they didn’t kill us, the hardcore fans for the most part were okay with the movie. They are a very vocal, passionate [group]. I was warned time and again, by many people, ‘You’ve got to be careful, you must be terrified doing STAR TREK,’ and it was a little nerve-wracking, mostly because people kept warning me about the fans. But they seemed to really embrace it and I give complete credit the cast that managed to take over these roles that were iconic roles, even for people who didn’t know STAR TREK well. Everyone sort of knew, ‘Yeah, yeah, Kirk and Spock,’ and Chris Pine, Zachary [Quinto], Simon [Pegg], John [Cho], Anton [Yelchin], Karl [Urban] – the whole group I think embodied these people in a way that made it safe for not just new viewers and new audiences, but also existing fans to embrace those characters. And finally, because Leonard Nimoy was in the film in a meaningful way, he really provided the bridge between the existing STAR TREK and what is now. We could never have made the movie without him.”
Orci and Kurtzman agree. “We couldn’t have made the movie without Leonard,” says Orci. “We knew early on that so much of what was going to be required in reimagining STAR TREK and also staying true to everything that came before was going to hinge on Leonard in a way blessing us moving forward and also in a way telling the audience that, ‘It’s okay, you can make this transition now, I’m here to help you.’ So we knew that without Leonard, we were never going to be able to have a movie.”
“We didn’t agree to do the movie until we had the idea to get Leonard to be in the story,” Kurtzman adds, “a way of pleasing old fans and having him, the soul of STAR TREK, be the plot reason for the changes. So we needed his blessing. It wasn’t until we hit upon that that we said, ‘We might know how to do it.’ It was critical for us. We couldn’t have done it any other way. We took a big risk. We spent five months writing it with him in it, not knowing if he’d say yes.”
“Pitching Spock to Spock was a little unnerving,” Orci elaborates. “It was, ‘And then your planet blows up. Huh, you like that?’ But it was great. And actually, I think he gave us the confidence. He didn’t commit right away, but he gave us the confidence to move forward, knowing that he liked a lot of the direction we were going in. So I think both creatively in our hearts what we wanted the movie to be and what the movie became could not have happened without his okay.”
However, although the character of James T. Kirk, played by Chris Pine, appears in the new film, William Shatner, who originated the role, is absent. Abrams is happy to address the topic. “I would love to talk about ‘The Shatner Conundrum,’ because the Shatner thing comes up quite a bit and as someone who was frankly a William Shatner fan in a huge way just because of the TWILIGHT ZONE episodes he did, and then completely appreciating what he did in STAR TREK, but not becoming a fan of Shatner until working on this movie, it was a foregone conclusion we wanted him in the movie. The problem was, his character died onscreen in one of the TREK films and because we decided very early on we wanted to adhere to TREK canon as best we could, which was a huge challenge, because even the original series in many ways didn’t always adhere to TREK canon, the required machinations to get Shatner into the movie would have been very difficult to do, given the story we wanted to tell and also give him the kind of part that he would be happy with. It was this thing where it would have felt like a gimmick in order to get Shatner in the movie, which would have honestly to me been distracting. Having said that, would it have been fun to have him in the movie? Of course. Would it be great to work with him? No doubt. I was as excited to work with him as I was Mr. Nimoy, who luckily we did get to have in the film. I will say that ‘The Shatner Conundrum,’ which you’ll see in the DVD, talks to this, which is essentially, how do you put him in the movie when you want him in it so badly and yet it’s at counter-purposes with the movie you’re trying to tell, the story you want to tell. In terms of moving forward, I’m open to anything.”
By now, it’s generally known that the plot of the new STAR TREK hinges in many ways on time travel and events that change the future of the characters and the STAR TREK timeline as we have come to know it, without changing the relationships between the characters. Abrams says this is discussed at length in the home video release. “It’s in the special features and deleted scenes that address the storyline and the logic of it. One of the things that people had issues with was, ‘Oh, come on. Kirk was going to run into an ice cave and was going to run into Spock? That is the dumbest thing ever.’ And granted. But in the scene where they’re in the cave, there is a sequence that is on the DVD that was cut from the movie where Spock speaks to that and talks about how this is sort of the timeline’s way of trying to repair itself, and it’s as much about fate as anything. It’s a funny thing – when we were working on the script, it was one of those moments when I went, ‘How in the name of God are we going to figure that out?’ One of the genius moves that Alex and Bob did is, they just did it. They made it about inevitability, they made it about how Kirk and Spock – the movie is about this family that nothing will keep apart, and it’s about that kind of friendship that just will endure anything. So there’s a kind of genius in taking the most unlikely moment, a coincidence that I would never in a million years buy, and hang a huge lantern on it and say, ‘That is fate working.’ It really in my mind didn’t need to be explained away. I think people who’ve seen it have said, ‘Oh, that was really good, though, because it helped explain why that unlikely thing happened.’ So I think people might find that added thing a piece that was missing. The trick in doing a movie like this, maybe even especially something that involves some weird sort of alternate reality/time travel thing is, you don’t want to not explain it, but you don’t want to explain everything. I mean, I think you have as much fun with the missing pieces as you do with the pieces you get. For me, not knowing every detail allows me to get inside of the story. I start to fill in the blanks. When everything is spoon-fed, typically I feel like I’m being pandered to, or it’s too expositional.”
During pre-production, production and post, how conscious were the filmmakers of what they wanted to do on the eventual DVD? “I’m always thinking about the DVD part of it,” Abrams replies, “because I’m a fan of the DVD. So I want to make sure that we’re doing stuff that is going to be beneficial. [Part of it is] about getting video crews in as early as possible to just document moments that might seem insanely mundane and unimportant, but in a context of how things got made – the crew of a movie like this, and especially this crew, work so hard, and they did such incredible work, and they’re usually the invisible person. If they do a great job, you’re not really thinking about the costume that you’re looking at. If they do a great job, you’re not really thinking about that visual effect or that prop or that set. It’s even more reason that they should be celebrated, so I love that in the special features, people like Michael Kaplan or Scott Chambliss or Roger Guyett or Michael Giacchino, these people get to take the stage and talk about and have got documented the amazing work that they do and get credit for, but often don’t get screen time, so it’s a really nice thing to see them front and center. We have a great group that worked on this DVD with whom we’ve worked before. There are people at Bad Robot, notably David Baronoff, who does a lot of work with our DVD and online materials. Bryan Burk and I obviously watched the cuts and the ideas, the proposals and the final cuts, give our notes. I’m excited to have the special features that show a little bit of kind of the personalities of the actors. Even the gag reel, which I think is very funny, when you see Zachary [Quinto as the younger Spock] screw up and kind of go from Spock to Zachary, Spock to Zachary, the back and forth is so funny to me, because he could not be less like Spock, and yet he was so convincing, and so to have him bounce back and forth so quickly as he screws up, it just makes me laugh every time. But there’s that kind of stuff. You see the personality of the actors and just see how great they were off-camera is wonderful. Then again, the work of people like [production designer] Scott Chambliss, who had as hard of a job, I think, doing this movie as Chris or Zachary did, with only the redesign of the ships and the world that avid fans are so passionate about, so I think my favorite thing is seeing those aspects of the production spotlit and celebrated.”
There is plenty of discussion of both story structure and production in the disc’s special features, Kurtzman notes. “In fact, I remember a good four to six hour session of walking onto the studio being very blurry, having gone through everything from all of the decisions we made from if we even wanted to start doing it again to how things changed as we went along, so a lot of the answers to these questions are on the DVD.”
There are also deleted sequences, Abrams adds, some of which include our old friends the Klingons. “You actually see Klingons and they’re in the movie. It was one of those things that I hated to cut for a number of reasons. I loved the design, I loved the world, I loved the story and that moment was really cool, so I’m very excited for people to see these scenes, but also, Victor Garber [who starred in ALIAS for Abrams] played a Klingon, had a ton of makeup, a very heavy, hot costume and we shot with him and I had to call him and tell him that his scene wasn’t in the film. And a huge consolation for me was, it’ll live forever on the DVD and Blu-ray, so I’m psyched for people to see that.”
Is STAR TREK timeless or does it need to be continuously updated for as new generations come upon it?
“It’s hard to give a blanket answer to that question,” Abrams replies. “I do think that whether it’s STAR TREK or anything else, whatever is being investigated or created or produced now in movies or TV needs to consider the context in which it is being distributed. It’s not a vacuum. So there are certain universal themes of love or conflict, loyalty, family – there are certain things that are everlasting that need to be presented in a way that make it feel relevant. Even if it’s a period piece, you need to consider what context that film, that story, those characters are being seen in. But having said that, with STAR TREK, it’s not like we’re looking to make the second movie some kind of heavy political allegory. I think that it’s important that there is metaphor to what we know and that there is relevance, and I think that allegory is the thing that made shows like THE TWILIGHT ZONE and STAR TREK resonate and still viable today. The first movie was set up about introducing these people, and was very much of a ‘premise’ movie, which is how do you bring these people together, it made it difficult to also have the film go as deep as it could about certain conflicts, about certain relationships, about kind of the heart of who some of these characters were. I think it was successful in what it needed to do to introduce these people, but I think now that we’ve done that, I think that it is the job of the next film to go a little bit deeper – not to be less fun, not to take itself too seriously – but to consider now who these people are and to sort of grow with them, now that we’ve gotten through the pleasantries and introductions.”