Birth.Movies.Interview: Justin Lin On STAR TREK BEYOND

The director talks about taking the reboot film series into the unknown and remembers the late Leonard Nimoy.

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After directing several entries of the endless Fast & Furious movie series, as well as a couple of True Detective episodes, Justin Lin takes on the Star Trek universe with Star Trek Beyond, the third film since J.J. Abrams brought new life to the beloved science fiction franchise back in 2009. Director Lin’s task is quite clear, though certainly not an easy one: take the reboot series to new places.

Star Trek Beyond, which opens nationwide on Friday July 22, comes in a very special year, as the first Star Trek TV show premiered in 1966. It was a day after the recent 50th anniversary celebration (the fan day at Paramount Pictures Studios), when I had the chance to speak with Lin about, among other things, his relationship with Abrams and Simon Pegg, the love he has for the original series (and for the late Leonard Nimoy), and the new themes and character relationships that Beyond will explore.

What does it mean for you to be the new leader of the Star Trek movie series?

Justin Lin: It means a lot, it comes with a lot of responsibility and pressure but at the same time you sort of want that. I feel very fortunate because I was with a group of people who felt the same way. Filmmaking is always a challenge but to have people who say let’s go and do it, that’s what I was looking for.

How was the collaboration with J.J. Abrams and the writers [Simon Pegg and Doug Jung]?

JL: During our first conversation, J.J. [Abrams] said: look, if you want to do this, take it, be bold. To me that gesture was unbelievable, it was a class act, someone who has built this franchise saying, hey I trust you, go do it your way, you don’t have to do it my way. At the end of the day, that convinced me to do it. The process was really relentless and challenging but I knew that signing up.

I’m a big fan of Simon Pegg as an actor but also as a filmmaker; I was also a big fan of Doug Jung. We didn’t know each other and we had to get in that room and decide what the movie is. As the script was being written, I had to prepare to shoot in three and a half months, which is something unusual. For us to be able to have a crew of hundreds of people waiting for directions, while we also had to write the script, was extremely challenging.

We got to know each other really well very quickly. It’s nothing but respect. Hollywood is a crazy town and I feel fortunate to have two really good people as my collaborators. I really wanted to deconstruct the franchise and hopefully reaffirm why we love Star Trek.

As a fan of Star Trek, what did you think back when J.J. Abrams decided to reboot the franchise?

JL: Honestly I was very hesitant, I thought oh boy since my engagement to Star Trek was the original series but it was also from eight to eighteen because when I went off to college I saw the Star Trek: The Next Generation stuff, but my relationship was really with the original crew.

When I heard about the reboot I thought, how can you do it? My love for Star Trek is because of the people, but J.J. pulled it off. He picked an all-star cast and reconnected us with the characters and we wanted to go on these journeys with them. I didn’t think that was possible but he did a really amazing job.

That was one of the luxuries I had when I came on board because the whole cast was there. I got to experience first hand what great people and actors they all are.

Was it difficult to adapt into this group that has been together for many years?

JL: I wanted to be respectful. Zachary [Quinto], for example, has been developing that Spock with not only J.J. but also with Leonard Nimoy. Even though his Spock has the same DNA, in the last two movies he’s starting to come into its own after facing so many obstacles. I was very conscious of that and the same with Chris [Pine].

At the same time, I had a lot of fun with Karl [Urban] because his character McCoy had a lot of undiscovered angles. Growing up, McCoy was my favorite character by far; I just loved his dry sense of humor but always coming from a good place. We had a lot of fun saying: here’s the DNA of the McCoy we love and the decisions he has made, so where are we going from there?

That was great, you want to embrace a new timeline, accept the mission statement and go into the unknown and that includes the characters. Maybe in two, three, four movies from now they might become a little or a lot different because they are going to evolve and have new challenges and react differently.

How much were you involved in bringing the new cast members?

JL: Very much. I wanted to deconstruct the Federation and to do that I needed a character with a very valid philosophy, a point of view, and presence. Idris [Elba] was number one on my list so I called him, we talked for an hour and he was in.

Sofia [Boutella] was also someone who came in and audition. As soon as I saw her I said, stop, let’s put her makeup, test, and I built a character off of her. I got my top choices right away.

In the new footage presented at the fan day there were existential themes, particularly between McCoy and Kirk. What can we expect from that?

JL: Sequels are earned, when the movie does well, that’s how you get another sequel. So the hero has already been the hero and especially in Star Trek Into Darkness, Kirk literally died for his crew, so I felt it was important to really address that: what happens when you have already been the ultimate hero and you are still pretty young in life? I wanted to address more existential issues of why we do things. It was very subtle and something new to the franchise, though I know it existed in older Kirk stuff with [William] Shatner.

As much as I loved the last two movies, there’s still a lot of room for all the characters. That was part of the joy because when I watched the show as a kid, it was mission-based every week but the more I saw the reruns the more I started thinking, well, they have to eat, sleep, and they probably get mad at each other. All those things were in my head for all these years so that was the threat, to be able to create unusual situations, and by doing that we get to know the characters better.

In the behind-the-scenes material we also saw a lot of new alien races. How fun was working on that?

JL: It was amazing. You get to work with some of the best people in the world like Joel Harlow. I didn’t ask Joel to make fifty aliens, he wanted to! We had workshop sessions to talk about the evolution of these species and where they came from. It was a great exercise; even though some of them will be just walking pass the shot.

Part of this movie is about federation and connection; to have connection you need to have species and these species require a backstory. That was the most work for the least amount of screen time.

Is there a particular Star Trek episode or film that inspired you the most?

JL: The two episodes that I can think of right away is the original pilot without Shatner, which is one of my favorites. The other is "The Enterprise Incident" where Spock had this whole relationship with the Romulans, and at the end he had this one moment with so much humanity. It always kind of shocked me because I thought Spock as logical and what Leonard Nimoy did so well is that he brought humanity into it.

During the fan day there was a touching tribute to the late, great Leonard Nimoy. Do you have a particular fond memory of him?

JL: Unfortunately he passed a week or two after I joined the film but through the cast and J.J. I really got a sense of him as a person. I will always have a relationship with him through Spock because he brought so much to the show. He really helped formed what Star Trek is all about.