Film reboots seem to be rather passé these days. But neither Batman nor James Bond had to contend with the weight and fandom which is Star Trek.
Created for TV by Gene Rodenberry in 1966, Star Trek has gone on to become an influential and profitable media franchise. 11 feature films. 6 television series. A splattering of literature, from novels to comic books, and everything in between. And on top of it all the loving – some might even say fanatical – adoration from a legion of fans, whose passion for the Star Trek universe has given way to both awe and ridicule, with even Captain Kirk himself, William Shatner, urging his followers to “get a life” in a notorious sketch on Saturday Night Live.
4 years after the TV series Enterprise was pulled from the air, a new chapter in the Star Trek legacy has been created. Backed with an estimated $150 million dollar budget, Star Trek circa 2009 tries to do the impossible: re-introduce the now iconic characters of the original USS Enterprise, and re-cast them with little known actors. The result: a critical and financial success of universal proportions, which will appeal to both hardcore Trekkie, and unaffiliated newbie.
“I approached it from the point of view of what’s a good story, and what’s a compelling movie”, said producer/director J.J. Abrams. “Not necessarily what’s a compelling Star Trek move, because the priority for me needed to be: How do I write a story that will work for me?”
BOLDLY GOING WHERE OTHERS HAVE GONE BEFORE
It is a slightly breezy yet sunny day in Sydney, and Abrams is holding court fielding an array of questions from a group of online journalists, all buzzing from the previous night’s screening of his new opus, Star Trek. Oozing an infectious energy while displaying a finely tuned wit, Abrams may not come off as the entertainment magnate that he is, but let it be known: J.J. Abrams is perhaps the hardest working man in show business.
After starting out in Hollywood as a screenwriter (Regarding Henry and Armageddon among his credits), Abrams went on to conquer television, creating shows as diverse as college drama Felicity; espionage thriller Alias; and the immensely popular mind fuck, Lost.
A foray back into film saw him direct his first feature, in the Tom Cruise blockbuster Mission Impossible III (the best of the series), and produce the mega monster movie hit, Cloverfield, through his production company Bad Robot.
And as Abrams explains, it was while developing Star Trek that he got the urge to get back behind the lens.
“We were working on the script for about a year, and I found myself really intrigued by it, and excited by what it could be, and literally planning on thinking on who the director would be to come in and do it. And I had this sort of sense of where it could go, and then I read the script, and I was like: Hell if I’m gonna give this to someone else! I was so excited by it, and I thought that I would be an idiot...I just know that I would be jealous of whoever it was that would get to yell action or cut on the movie. If I didn’t do it myself -or at least try- then I would regret it always.”
And through his new venture, Abrams fulfilled a childhood dream, brought on by a Trek inspired experience which left a profound impact on the filmmaker: “I remember when I went to go see the first Star Trek film. My father is a TV/movie producer, and he had an office at Paramount. So he took me to a screening of Robert Wise’s film at the theatre on the lot, and I will never forget that.”
However, it seems that his pre-existing fanfare for Trek stopped there, opting more for Star Wars than Star Trek. And from that came a sense of freedom in his approach to the task at hand.
“I was not a huge fan of Trek, and because of that, I didn’t have that sense of terror, or reverence that I needed to necessarily adhere to what come before,” stated Abrams. “My goal was trying to make this thing believable. Despite it being Star Trek, despite its province, despite its science fiction and fantasy, how do you believe it? And that was really all about casting actors who have been terrific.”
A GUIDE ON HOW TO PORTRAY AN ICON
Situated in their hotel room, actors Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto are clearly famished, having already gone through a cascade of interviews before hand.
Settling into their comfy chairs, the two burgeoning thespians delve into a bowl of crackers and dip to the bemusement to us interviewees.
Quinto pulls a face: “Those are cookies! Not a cracker. Bad combination”.
And so the fun begins.
It is easy to see why Abrams cast Pine and Quinto in the pivotal roles of heroic Captain James T. Kirk, and his second in command, Vulcan/human hybrid Spock.
Although a relative new comer with several films to his credit (the most famous Joe Carnahan’s multi character crime flick Smokin’ Aces), Pine simply screams movie star, evoking a James Dean-esque coolness which enhances his pure Americana good looks.
Having beaten out the likes of Matt Damon for the role, Pine reminisces about taking on a character which is seen as a pop culture icon: “I was intimidated at first. But I think it is only natural, because unlike any other fan community, I think Star Trek takes the cake in terms of the protectiveness the fans have over the material. But it’s really a credit to JJ that... I never felt encumbered by the responsibility of having to live up to the expectations of fans, as much as we had the fans expectations and desires in mind when we were making it.”
It is an opinion shared with his co-star, Quinto, who has already acquired a dedicated fan base in the science fiction community due to his role in television drama, Heroes.
“For me to go from Heroes to Star Trek was in a lot of ways a natural progression,” stated Quinto. “But I don’t really feel like these characters, the experience of the characters, had the same kind of impact then it had on (William) Shatner and Leonard Nimoy 40 years ago, because I don’t think science fiction has the same stigma attached to it.”
Later in the day, another Star Trek cast member, New Zealand actor Karl Urban –who plays Chief Medical officer Dr. Hank “Bones” McCoy – goes into further detail about portraying such iconic characters.
“JJ was very much an advocate of allowing us to discover the characters, and bring something fresh to the table. My personal approach to it was, I felt as a long term fan, that I will feel short changed if I didn’t see some semblance of continuity in the character. So it was a tricky combination of trying to sort of capture some very essence of what Mr. (De Forrest) Kelly did so wonderfully well for 40 years. Yet, also bring something that was fresh and new, in obviously portraying the character in a completely different period of his life. That was the challenge.”
“I wrote this script for Superman years ago, and it ended up being reviewed online, and it was a work in progress, not a completed script, and it was decimated!” revealed Abrams. “And the reaction was a really interesting thing, since it was one of things that it happened in a way that on the one hand I was, like, horrified. But on the other hand it was very educational.”
With such an experience, it is of no wonder that Abrams went to do the lengths he did in order to keep Star Trek out of the prying eyes of internet spies and tabloid journalists. And while the level of secrecy was a welcome approach for many who enjoy the element of surprise -which is often non-existent in these online spoiler heavy times- it was clearly a frustrating experience for the cast to adhere to the strict rules laid down from above.
“It was kind of a pain in the ass. There was one (day where) I had to go to the bathroom, so bad, but the first AD would not let me go out, because it required a lot of preparation. So I finally said ‘screw it!’ ran outside without my cloak and dagger, and peed against the wall!” reminisces a hysterical Pine. “I think its fine, I am relieved, I had to go so I can finish the day. And the next day, when I’m getting ready at like 5am, the FBI knocks on my door. And they ask: “Did you hear about the pictures?” Some guy had a telephoto lens, 200 yards away, like delta force recon, or something.”
It is a story which Quinto knows only too well: “I remember my first day we shot at a cemetery around 30 miles out of L.A., a 35-45 min drive without traffic. So it is a commitment to get there. We were shooting in a chapel that had a big bay window. And we had been given these (coats) to wear over our costumes, when we were walking from our trailers to set. And before the end of the day, JJ came to me with his phone, and showed me a picture of us, in that room that we were standing in that moment, that had been taken earlier in that day, that was already online . So the next day when we showed up, (the coat) changed to a floor length, fire man jacket with a hood. And we had to get into golf carts immediately from our trailers, and get zipped into these tarps. We called them the Pope mobile. All of our base camps, where ever we went, were surrounded by obscure fencing. (But)
We understood it, because there is this insidious and insatiable desire for people to have information, now!”
“I was very, very thankful that we didn’t encounter the same problems that other films had with leaked versions”, states a clearly relieved Urban, in reference to the infamous Wolverine leaked DVD work print. “We want the audience to discover this film fresh, in the cinemas for the first time. We didn’t want any pre-conceptions.”
IN AWE OF A MASTER MAGICIAN
With such lofty expectations, the chance that Star Trek could crumble under the weight of such anticipation was a given. Yet it is to the credit of Abram’s deft skills as a story teller and on set general that the film succeeded the way it has.
“JJ is such a wonderful director”, enthuses Urban. “He’s extraordinarily gifted. He reminds me a lot of Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings), in the fact that he creates this fun, loose environment, that is also hyper focused, and very fast moving, and a lot of fun. I don’t think I’ve laughed so much on a film, as I did on this.”
Both Pine and Quinto enthusiastically agree.
“JJ created an atmosphere on set, where you never felt like you were making a big budget studio film, and never felt the weight of responsibility. We just had a lot of fun!” said Pine. “And JJ is so collaborative. One of the first things that I remember him telling me, is that he knows that 100 heads are better than 1. And to have that sense of equanimity on set, to have that feeling of mutual collaboration was fantastic.”
Quinto concurs: “He’s a magician! He literally does magic tricks on set sometimes. It’s really unfathomable to me, that someone who is so accomplished, and so talented, and responsible for so many different impactful series and films can be so authentic and accessible. It’s really impressive! I spent the first three weeks just figuring out how to be like him, you know? The process was always enjoyable. It was a really, really nice experience.”
Yet according to Abrams, all praise for anything Trek should go to its creator: “What was fascinating with what Roddenberry was able to do was...yes he wrote the show and crated the show, but it was fascinating even looking at things like...I got my hands on as much stuff as I could. I even got my hands on notes that he wrote to the producers of the third Star Trek film. And at that point I think he was almost relegated to the sidelines, and yet he was still voicing his opinion, writing about the vision of the future, how essentially war had been rendered obsolete. His view was not just a surface view. He really had this deep sense of what society would be like, and how it functioned. And I was just stunned by that, because it was wonderful to see how thought out it was. He just knew it and felt it. So I was really incredibly humbled by his talent and vision, and fee lucky to be able to visit this world he created.”
Star Trek is now released in Australia, through Paramount Pictures Australia.