On May 8, 2009 the Star Trek franchise was revitalized with the release of J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek movie. In honor of the 10th anniversary, TrekMovie chatted with Roberto Orci, who co-wrote the film with Alex Kurtzman and was an executive producer. In this first part of our interview, the lifelong Trek fan gives us an oral history of the development of the film, along with revealing some of the paths not taken.
Let’s go back to the beginning: Paramount approached you and Alex [Kurtzman] just a few years after Nemesis. Had they decided they wanted to bring Trek back or just feeling you out?
They were just feeling us out. It was Marc Evans who was an executive over there, and it was prior to Mission: Impossible III [released in 2006], it was before we did that with [director] J.J. [Abrams]. He knew we were Star Trek fans and said, “Do you have any ideas of what it could be?” And we said yes. We would go back to the youth. We didn’t have the whole idea, but we had an inkling of how it should feel and going back to the original characters. We didn’t know yet how to figure out an in-canon reboot. And then when we did M:I III, that is when Paramount came to all of us officially and asked if we would be interested in writing something for J.J. to produce. After they saw how well we all worked together on M:I III, that is when they came to us officially.
Did Paramount have specific parameters for you, such as which characters to use, or all new characters, or era?
It was blue sky. They were very open about how they didn’t understand what made Star Trek tick. All that they knew is they wanted to make sure you didn’t have to be a die-hard fan to understand it. That was the only parameter we had. The late [Paramount CEO] Brad Grey admitted he didn’t understand Star Trek at all. J.J. was the same and admitted he wasn’t a fan of Star Trek, prior to becoming the director and really getting his feet deep into the water of it. So, it was very blue sky for us, which was both wonderful and horrifying because freedom is terrifying. As the French philosopher Rousseau used to say about America, freedom can be as binding as slavery.
So we just decided: let’s go this way. And when Alex and I came up with the idea of an in-canon reboot sequel, we knew it was going to be the right thing for a new audience, but also a pleasing thing for anyone who knew anything about Star Trek.
Since the 1980s, Star Trek movies had been small to mid-sized budget films. And yet coming so soon after Star Trek: Enterprise had been canceled and Nemesis bombed, you guys proposed going with a big budget. How much resistance was there for moving it into the tentpole level?
Paramount was very brave. They were very much behind the idea of taking it into the 21st century and making it a mega-splash, like the things we had done before like Transformers and M:I III. They knew that to really get a global audience, they had to put their money where their mouth is. So, much credit to Paramount for supporting a big-budget vision. But, we didn’t write it to be big budget. We could have told that story any number of ways, for less. But J.J.’s appetite and Paramount’s appetite dictated a level that we were happy with. I always preferred less, but I was not going to argue with making it as good-looking as it could be.
Did you seriously develop any other stories besides a sort of reboot of TOS with Kirk and Spock?
We developed one story, which was the Academy days, and you see a little bit of that in Star Trek ’09. We developed a version of it which was just the Academy, very much inspired by one of the Next Generation episodes where Wesley is in the Academy and he goes through that whole tribunal where his ship was part of a disaster [”First Duty”]. That story inspired us to develop a complete “Academy Days” story. But then as we got further into it and started to realize they were going to hand us the keys to the kingdom and the idea that we could get to Leonard Nimoy, that made us expand our scope.
This academy story would still involve Kirk and Spock?
Your final story pitch relied entirely on Leonard Nimoy saying yes. Was there a plan B?
There was never a plan B for me. Maybe Paramount had a plan B, but for me and Alex, it has to be Nimoy or bust and that is why that meeting with him was so pivotal. His role had to be essential, otherwise, he wouldn’t have done it. So, to have a plan B would have been disrespectful to him, and the franchise. I didn’t know how else to do an in-canon reboot/sequel original story. If you have a plan B, then your plan A wasn’t so great.
This was before the highly-connected MCU was really a thing. The most recent big genre movie was Christopher Nolan’s reboot Batman Begins. This was also the era of Ron Moore’s Battlestar Galactica. Reboot was a hot-button word back then.
The word reboot is something I used because that is what people called it, but I myself would never classify what we did as a reboot at all. I consider it a sequel. It is just a sequel that tells you an original story of how they met that could have happened in canon. I find the term reboot distasteful in regard to this franchise because I don’t think it was that simple or that is what it was? Reboot implies throwing out a bunch of stuff because of the idea of Nimoy coming back and changing history, it is well within the parameters of what Star Trek had established within its own rules. So, I just used that term because that is what the press calls it but reboot is a dirty word in regards to Star Trek.
And you guys never considered doing a total reboot?
Nope, not for a second.
And because the film takes place partially after Star Trek: Nemesis, that’s why you see it as a sequel.
Correct. Part of why it worked is that if you don’t know those ten films, you don’t need to know that it is a sequel, but if you know those ten films, you know it is a sequel.
And now Alex is going to pick up on some of those elements for the new Picard series.
I didn’t know that. Remind me to ask him for a check. [laughs]
Once you agreed on the approach, was writing the script and getting it approved more or less challenging than your other projects?
It was the least difficult, because we had such a passion for it, and because we had such a clear plan, there was no turning back. It wasn’t a multiple choice question. It was: This is the movie, and that was it. It was one of the most pleasurable, natural experiences we ever had as screenwriters.
With the script, were there any other significant blind alleys you guys went down or major changes or things that you cut?
Sure. Originally, we had it so the original Nimoy Spock would show up very much at the beginning of the story in the teaser as this mysterious character. You didn’t know who it was. They were chasing this potentially trouble-making time traveler as a fake villain, who would be revealed to be Mr. Spock. And he would reveal why he had gone back in time, because of this whole problem. He was a MacGuffin Darth Vader figure who was mucking around in time. And then it turns into what was the reveal we have for Mr. Spock in the ’09 movie.
The other blind alley we had was that he was disguising himself as Robert April or something like that and that he was the origin of the character of Robert April. We also explored doing that in Star Trek: Into Darkness as well, but decided it was too inside Star Trek.
Also, in the original pitch I had Carol Marcus in the story as a love interest for Kirk, and to set her up for sequels. But it turned out to be a little bit too unwieldy for what we were trying to do. We already had a kind of bromance with Kirk and Spock and the whole crew, and that felt like something more important.
Another change was as we turned in the script and Paramount got more confident, we were to expand some of the action. So, for example, the scene where they space jump onto the platform. That was more impressionistic originally. Once we got the green light to be bigger, we turned that into a whole action sequence that didn’t exist in the original script. It was much more theoretical. So some of the action was augmented. Same with the destruction of Vulcan and being on location with everything. Those kinds of things got bigger and bigger as we got more confident with what we had.
You guys did write an alternative version of the ending which would have included William Shatner. How serious of an effort was there to make this happen?
It was serious. Ultimately J.J. nixed it because he felt it was too inside baseball. I personally stand by it and we subsequently had a conversation about it where he sort of said maybe we should have done it. He was not sure. But, ultimately it was his call and if you were to ask him I think he would honestly say he was ambivalent about it to this day. I certainly loved that ending but I also love giving Nimoy his due as we end it now. But, I liked that scene a lot and it felt very natural.
And wasn’t there talk of a post-credits scene?
We considered finding the Botany Bay as a post-credits sequence. But, it felt like it would have locked us into a sequel we weren’t ready to commit to. Again, I don’t think that would have meant anything to non-fans and I think that is why we ultimately nixed it. We wanted to make one movie that was completely self-contained before we started counting our chickens before they hatched.
More of Orci’s Star Trek 2009 discussion to come
Stay tuned for part 2 of the interview where Orci talks about the response to the film, things he would have done differently, where he sees the franchise going, and more.