Back in 2006 JJ Abrams ignited a bidding war between Hollywood studios for his next contract. In the end he went with Paramount and when he had the pick of projects, he chose the task of reviving Star Trek. In our exclusive interview with the director we get JJ to talk about some of the big decisions he made along the way to make this film, including what he cut. We also talk about William Shatner, and may be breaking some news.
[interview contains MAJOR SPOILERS]
TrekMovie interview with JJ Abrams
Abrams: You know I check your site out all the time.
TrekMovie.com: Are you serious? I thought Bob [Orci] was the spy to keep an eye on all of us.
Abrams: Well I don’t get as much as he does… But I check it out. I learn stuff about Trek from your site all the time…Whenever I go one there is always something cool and interesting to see and it is a great read, I love it.
TrekMovie: Speaking of keeping up with what people are writing. How much to you pay attention to buzz and reviews? Like how you guys are on the cover of Newsweek now?
Abrams: In general I think it is a great sort of tool in the toolbox to get a sense of consensus or point of view to see what people are thinking. On a TV show there is a different value because it is an ongoing project and you can make adjustments as you go. On a movie, it comes out and that’s it!
TrekMovie: Unless you are George Lucas.
Abrams: That’s true, that’s true [laughs]
TrekMovie: Did you see the review in Nacelles Monthly…it was brutal.
Abrams: No [laughs]…that cover was so good, it was hysterical.
JJ Abrams – Nacelles Monthly fan
TrekMovie: I enjoyed your Mystery issue of Wired. As a big fan of puzzles, mysteries, the Twilight Zone, and that kind of thing, what do you see as the fundamental mystery of this Star Trek movie?
Abrams: Clearly something like Alias or Lost, which is insanely Byzantine by nature, and even Fringe has its own mythology. These are tricky things for audiences to follow sometimes. We wanted this Star Trek movie to be simultaneously fun and complex in its own way and rich in character and subtext, but we didn’t want it to be impenetrable. And so we don’t apply the same kind of mystery and misdirect plot in this movie like we would do in one of the shows we do, because we don’t want people to leave the theater feeling confounded by what they just saw. There is a complicated time-travel story if you want to analyze it, figure out what the chronology is, figure out why everyone is doing what they are doing. You can probably go a few levels deeper than the movie overtly gives you, but you don’t need to in order to understand and enjoy the movie.
What I thought the central mystery of the movie, as opposed to a plot device, had to do with the baggage we had inherited. People know when they go to see this movie, even if they have never seen Star Trek — the majority of the audience knows that Kirk is Captain Kirk and you are somehow born genetically understanding that Spock is a pointy-eared Vulcan that is logical. So what I loved was meeting this kid, not just as a newborn, but as a young man and seeing that here is a guy that could not be less of a captain. And he may have all the potential in the world, but he is not a captain. And here is Spock, who doesn’t know Kirk, and he is in conflict with his Vulcan nature. And how do you reconcile being half-human and half-vulcan when the choice to become logical requires you to forego your humanity. So there were these two characters that were messed up and a little bit broken and certainly not who we know them to be and not even knowing each other, and when they do know each other, they hate each other and are at odds. So the mystery for me is kind of using what people expect — to me that was the fun of the movie. The mystery is: how do these two characters become those characters that I believe is going to be inevitable..
CLIP: Answer Me
Clip from Star Trek showing that Kirk and Spock don’t start off as friends
TrekMovie: You talk about how people do not need to know a lot to enjoy this film. One thing that I do think may be an issue and have some people at least asking the question: What was Nero doing for 25 years? We know, because you talked about removing the whole Rura Penthe prison sequence [see article]. Talk me through the decision to remove that. The one thing I would like to see in this film was more Nero.
Abrams: Well you are not wrong. Not only would it have been nice, but I thought it was nice to have that stuff in there. But I don’t think the majority of the audience has the patience and the willingness to do the kind of work that deep-routed fans of genre, and certainly of Trek, are willing to do and in fact live to do. I have found on Lost and on Fringe that the casual viewer may be confounded by a plot turn that I love. What I love about this is not just mystery, but sometimes these diversions that take you into a really weird place, then kind of get back on track and continue. That sequence took the audience off track into a whole new place that I thought was really cool, really weird, beautifully designed and had great mood. I loved the visual effects and the whole thing. It broke my heart to cut it. But when we showed the movie to the audience with that sequence it really threw them. Because we had a bad guy who is suddenly imprisoned by other bad guys. You didn’t know who was who. There was exposition that I really enjoyed, that people felt was confusing and distracting. And it threw the audience off and took them on this diversion and the truth is, not unlike Richard Donner’s Superman, the movie really begins in earnest about half an hour into the movie, when in that film Christopher Reeve is flying away from the Fortress of Solitude as Superman. Everything that preceded it was critical to emotionally connect to the story, but now the story begins. In our movie it just felt like a five minute diversion that people were like ‘what?’
TrekMovie: Will we see it on the DVD and Blu-ray as a deleted scene or possibly an extended cut?
Abrams: I think it will only be deleted scene, which will be fine. People will see the scene and chose whether or not it is — there may be a version where we could put it in sequentially too.
Abrams heart ‘broke’ over cutting Nero’s time at Rura Penthe
TrekMovie: Most Trek fans got into Trek at a very early age, some very early. Your goal for this film was to bring in a new audience, but you decided to shoot for PG-13. Did you feel that maybe you paid a price for that as opposed to being PG?
Abrams: Honestly that was not a concern of mine making this movie. I was not approaching this thinking ‘how do I make it match to what has come before.’ What I needed to do was respect this story and this movie and try to make the best version of this movie and know that I had Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof who were to me the people I trusted the most to make sure of the concerns of Trek fans. If I had heard from them early on that doing a version that is PG-13 is going to be sacrilege, that might have been something I would have considered, but it never came up.
TrekMovie: Way before you decided to direct this movie you told me you wouldn’t make the decision to direct until you saw the script. I know it is presumptuous, but let’s assume a sequel happens. What will be your decision process will be to direct that one?
Abrams: I think that the dream version of any job is to chose the job because you love the job. And for me I have only directed two films and they are both films that are sequels to TV shows that Leonard Nimoy starred in. I would love to try and do something else. That is not to say that can’t do something else first and maybe come back and do the sequel to this. But I do honestly think that it is insane to think about a sequel when the first one hasn’t come out it. I pray people see the movie and I pray they like the film. And if there desire for another one, not only am I thrilled to produce that movie and help realize it, but I am wide open to the possibility of directing it. It is something I need to decide when we have discussions about the story, which we have not had yet. We have literally not had one discussion about what the sequel will be. Not one meeting, there is no outline, not one.
Abrams on set directing "Star Trek" – has yet to decide if he will direct potential sequel
TrekMovie: You and the rest of guys are often described as Trek’s new ‘Supreme Court’. What would you say was the hardest decision that the court had to make with regards to this movie?
Abrams: I think I would have a different answer than Bob or Damon would, because I didn’t come to this feeling like it was sacred text as much as they did. I was more excited by the opportunity and possibility of what we can do here. They were more the living and breathing Star Trek fans, so they had more at stake. For them things like the fate of Vulcan I am sure. I certainly wasn’t blind to that being a massive choice, but I also felt that as a filmmaker, if we don’t do something f–king mind-blowing, then the movie is just tepid. We had to go there to make the movie and push buttons and make it feel like a substantial story and that losses were felt and it was palpable.
I think the hardest decision that I felt was not having William Shatner in the movie. And that really was because, as a non-fan, you feel like ‘you got to have Shatner in the movie – come on!’ And then I realized he had died in [Star Trek: Generations], which I had not seen before I was working on the film, that getting him back in the movie would literally mean starting from scratch and coming up with a new story. And the decision to move forward, despite the necessity given our story, and to exclude the guy that everybody associates with the series – that bothered me. And yet I felt like we had to do this for this movie. Talk about the wrath. I thought we are going to eat it, fans are going to kill us. And yet the reason why I felt it might ultimately work for us is it felt like the righteous decision. It felt like we need to do it for the story, but the righteous decision is not always the easiest.
TrekMovie: So when you said at Comic Con 2007 that you were working hard to find a way, you really meant that.
Abrams: No question. Why in a million years would we not want him in the movie. It would only be better to have him in the film. But even before everyone was talking about ‘Trek canon’. Everyone was like ‘we want you to follow canon’. Now I know, in fact the first sequence of the movie, veers hard left from Trek canon, but that is the point. As much as we could we wanted to be consistent with the thread that had been established. A lot of the same people who were saying ‘you must follow canon!’ were saying ‘Shatner has got to be in the movie!’ Dude, how do you do both of these things!? We could have created some sort of time travel detour thing, but literally when you start going down that path, especially with Mr. Shatner saying he did not want to do a cameo, it became this whole thing that would literally be a reinvention of our reinvention. It is just too hard.
TrekMovie: I would have to agree after seeing the film that it wouldn’t work with this film, unless you wanted to bring up the word ‘Nexus’
Abrams: Exactly [laughs] which we were not going to do.
TrekMovie: But hey, you got the sequel…
Abrams: That’s actually a possibility.
William Shatner in 1994’s Generations – Abrams toughest call was not bringing him back
Up Next – Anton Yelchin
Our week long series of interviews is not over yet. On Friday TrekMovie talks to Anton Yelchin about that Russian accent, being a boy genius and more. And we will finish off the week-long series with a couple of Romulans, Eric Bana and Clifton Collins, Jr.
Other final pre-movie exclusive interviews at TrekMovie:
- Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman
- Leonard Nimoy
- Zachary Quinto
- Zoe Saldana
- John Cho
- Karl Urban
- Bruce Greenwood
Here is some ‘b roll’ of JJ on the set of Star Trek (not some sections have no audio)