Interview : J.J Abrams

Moviehole’s Ashley Hillard sat down with “Star Trek” director J.J Abrams over the weekend to discuss the imminent blockbuster.

Q: What is the possibility of a sequel to this film? Will you continue with the boldness of the first film?
JJ: Obviously, it was a dream to work with these guys and the whole cast and crew, and it would be incredible fun to get to do it again. It is also insanely presumptuous to assume that it will work when it’s out there, that people will like it, and that there will be a need for another one. If there is, the good news is that there’s a deal for the writers and a deal for the actors. It’s in place. We have not had one meeting. We have not had one discussion. There’s no outline. There’s no script. There’s nothing. We’re fishing for ideas.

Q: In trying to reinvent something that people love so much, was there ever a moment where you thought, “Oh, my God, what am I doing”?
JJ: Yeah, there honestly were a few moments where I was looking at what we were doing from the outside in and just started sweating and was just terrified. You get so inside of it that you’re talking about these characters and these issues, and Romulans and Kligons, and the Starship. And then, every once in awhile, you’re on the set and you look at it from the outside and you’re like, “This is ridiculous!” I had to literally psych myself back into the moment and say, “This must be what Peter Jackson and George Lucas have gone through,” and I’d get focused again. But, because the script was so strong, because the characters were so good, and because the actors were so good, I felt like the risk of playing with something that is precious to many people was, to me, such a worthy risk. I felt like the result, if we did our job, could be a really fun movie and could introduce to so many people, who had never seen it or thought it wasn’t for them or had never even heard of it, these characters who are so wonderful and the actors were so great.

Q: Was there a point in the casting where you were worried that you’d never find the right actors?
JJ: Casting the movie was a huge challenge and we were incredibly lucky to find these actors. April Webster and Alyssa Weisberg, who are our casting directors, are terrific. But, I’ve never had to cast something that had something that pre-existed it, where the actors have to take over these iconic roles. The key to each of these actors, and the one or two similarities, is that beyond just being incredibly talented, they’re all funny. They all have a great sense of humor, and that was incredibly important ‘cause I knew Star Trek had been parodied so many times that it had to be funny from the inside out.

Q: Why did you decide not to put William Shatner into the film?
JJ: Nothing would have made us happier than to have William Shatner in this movie. His character died on screen, in one of the films. When we tried figure out a way to put him in, every time we did it, it was a gimmick. Every time we figured out a way that we thought it could work, it ended up being a gimmick, unless the whole story was about bringing him back, and that would have changed the entire story that we wanted to tell. So, it was either change everything or do it without him. But, we definitely love Mr. Shatner. Working with him is something that we would obviously be thrilled to do, and wanted to do. It just literally didn’t work for our story, and he didn’t want to just do a cameo. We could have done a flashback, but he didn’t want to do that. And, if we had reinvented everything, it would have just been crazy. And, the YouTube thing happened because I was interviewed about it and I said, which was true, that we tried many different ways to get him in the movie and it just didn’t work. I guess he heard it and thought that they were saying that we had tried to get him in, and called him and were making efforts, so he did this video saying, “You didn’t call me.” So, then I had to respond to that and say, “No, no, no, I don’t mean we called you. We were trying, internally, to tell a story that was worthy of you and worthy of the audience.” There was no way to do it and have it not be a cameo, so it didn’t work in this one. But, all is good.

Q: What made you decide to bring Winona Ryder into the Star Trek fold?
JJ: I’d always been a fan of Winona’s. One of the models that we had for this movie was Superman, the Dick Donner film. The way that he cast that film, all the lead roles were essentially unknowns and many of the supporting roles were people that you had seen before and knew, to some degree, and obviously, with Marlon Brando, knew very well. I just thought it would be nice, given that we had a cast that was, for the most part, unknowns that we give roles that we could to actors that were known. Eric Bana is essentially hidden in disguise in this movie. You can’t really recognize him. For the role of Amanda, to get Winona Ryder was just one of those things where I thought it would be great to have an actress who people would recognize and, hopefully, not get pulled out of the movie, but feel like there was some support for the younger, fresher faces.

Q: What is going to be on the DVD and Blu-ray? Are there extra scenes?
JJ: We shot a few extra scenes. I hate to do this because, whenever you cut a scene, all you’re thinking of is how that time could have been used to make other scenes better.. But, of course, the day you’re shooting it, you’d kill someone if they said, “This scene won’t end up in the movie.” You’re like, “That’s not true! This is critical.” But, there’s a scene with the stepfather and young Kirk, there’s a scene of Nero in prison, and there’s a scene of young Spock as a baby, having just been born. There are a couple extra scenes, and they’re all scenes that would have been fun to have in the movie, but some things, like the prison sequence, just confounded the audience. Every time we’d screen the movie for a group, that sequence threw them. Even though it had some of my favorite designs in the whole movie, with the wardrobe, the location and some of the visual effects. It was really fun. But, if it’s better without it, then cut it.

Q: Are there any scenes that just look fantastic on the Blu-ray?
JJ: Yeah, it’s unbelievable. I’m a huge fan of the Blu-ray system, so it’s nice to see movies, and not just this one, at that resolution.

Q: Obviously, our vision of the future differs from the original series’ vision of the future. What moments did you decide to keep and how did you decide to update it?

JJ: It was a weird conundrum to do a movie with a vision of the future from today, based on a vision of the future from 50 years ago. But, there were certain things that we all decided we wanted to maintain. As someone who was not a huge Trek fan to begin with, I had my instincts about things that I thought were important, but really Bob Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Bryan Burk and Damon Lindelof were much bigger Star Trek fans than I was and they knew that there were things that needed to be maintained and details I never would have even been able to speak to. I just knew that the shape and silhouette of the Enterprise needed to be maintained. You don’t want to change everything. If you’re a fan, you go, “Oh, wow, it’s different,” but the casual fan or the non-fan will just say, “Oh, wow, it’s a cool design.” That was important. The prism through which everything had to be seen through was, “How do you take the spirit of what was created nearly half a century ago, whether it’s character, prop design, ship design, the world of it or anything, and make it feel relevant for today?,” and that was just a billion small decisions.

Q: Why did you decide to use lens flares?
JJ: I went insane with lens flares, but it was one of those things where I felt like I wanted the movie to have a visual system that felt unique. I know there are certain shots where even I watch it and think, “Oh, that was ridiculous. That was too many.” But, I love the idea that the future was so bright, it couldn’t be contained in the frame. The flares weren’t just flares that were happening from on-camera light sources, but they were happening off camera, and that was really the key to it. I wanted that sense that, just off camera, something spectacular was happening and there was always this sense of something. Also, there’s a really cool, organic layer there. They were all done live, in camera. They weren’t added later. There’s something about those flares, especially in a movie that potentially could be incredibly sterile and CG and overly controlled. There’s just something incredibly unpredictable and gorgeous about them. It was a really fun thing. Our D.P. would be off camera, with this incredibly powerful flashlight, aiming it at the lens. It became an art because different lenses require different angles and different proximity to the lens. Sometimes, when we were outside, we would use mirrors, and a certain size mirror would be too big. It was ridiculous! It was like another actor in the scene. We started calling it Best in Show because it was like a spotlight. We’d be doing a scene and I’d look over at Dan Mindel, the D.P., and he’d look at me and be like, “Best in Show?,” and I’d be like, “Best in Show.” We had two cameras, so sometimes we had two different flashlight operators and, when there was atmosphere in the room, you had to be really careful because you could see the beams. It was this ridiculous, added level of pain in the ass, but the final effect, to me, was a fun, additional touch that, while overdone in some places, felt like the future is that bright.

Q: You did a great job at keeping everything under wraps. Were you worried about any leaks?
JJ: I’m the most paranoid one, so I was like, “Yes, we must have a military operation.” The hardest part is with the crew because, when you’re shooting the movie, you want everyone to be on the same page and know exactly what’s going on and, on this movie, we could not give the script out. People had to come in and read it in a place where there was someone watching them read it. It was preposterous. And so, when people needed information, they’d have to go to the script supervisor, who had the script. No one else had the script, and it did not get leaked. There were people who posted online, “We’re going to get the script and review it,” so we were like, “Okay, we’re not going to let you get it.”

Q: Where did you get the idea to end the film with that music and the dedication to Gene & Majel Roddenberry?
JJ: From the very beginning, I felt like the Alexander Courage theme music was something that was so celebratory that it just felt like the movie finally earns it, at the end. Until the family is the family, you can’t really play that music. If it worked, you’d forget about that and you wouldn’t be thinking about it. And then, when the family comes together and the ship begins the five-year mission, it felt like the perfect icing on the cake.. And, the dedication was always intended for Gene because none of us would be here doing any of this, if it weren’t for what he created. Sadly, when Majel passed away, we added her name to the card. We already had the card for Gene, so we added her name as well.

Q: It’s very impressive how the cast captures the essence of the characters without doing caricatures. Did you have to watch out for that?

JJ: The script was so good that all you needed to do was give these actors, who were young actors that were eerily accomplished and naturally wonderful, direction that was fairly clear because the characters were written so clearly. What was cool was that it didn’t take much machination, even in the writing of the script, because the characters live. You read the script and you go, “Oh, these are those characters.” As someone who was not a big fan, of course I did my homework before directing and, when I read the script, it’s not like these are scene and moments cut from other episodes or movies, but you felt them live and they were recognizable. You could read a line and go, “Oh, that’s Bones.” You’d just know it was Bones. It really speaks to the great paradigm that Roddenberry created in ‘66. These characters were so strong. They were archetypes, but they were also very specific. They weren’t just archetypical. So, that was great. And, I said to all the actors, “Please do not do impersonations of any of these actors. This is all about you owning it, and the only way it’s gonna to work is if you are free to do your thing.” But, the perimeters were so clearly defined in Alex and Bob’s script that it wasn’t like you had to push them to be more like those actors. We just did what was on the page.

Q: With all of the action sequences, what was the most difficult to film?
JJ: The most difficult to film, in some ways, was the space jump sequence and the drill. But, every sequence had its issues. The whole snow sequence with the monsters was crazy because of all the paper snow. We shot both of those things at Dodgers Stadium, in the parking lot, and it was insane. With all the stuff on the bad guy’s ship, there were challenges there because there was one set, even though it looks like all of these different areas. It was this modular set, brilliantly designed by Scott Chambliss, to move around, so we basically would take the set and move these enormous pieces overnight to take that one place and make it another place. And then, using ILM, they would help and add backgrounds and extensions to those sets. So, shooting on that location, it wasn’t the location. It was this crazy, malleable set, where you had to understand what the set was supposed to be that day. It’s all the same room, and yet you have to make it feel like it’s this massive location. So, every scene had its own weird, often mechanical, challenges. But, the space jump was the most obvious because it was the longest.