J.J. Abrams may not be a Trekkie, or a Trekker, but he's directed a rock 'n' roll version of Star Trek that not only captures the spirit of the original TV series but also takes the franchise where it's never gone before with more scope, action and zip. Abrams & co. have re-imagined Star Trek as an origin story, in which the indelible Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto) and McCoy (Karl Urban) meet for the first time at Starfleet Academy before embarking on their first bumpy voyage aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise to confront a vengeful Romulan (Eric Bana). As the buzz has been great and a franchise box office record looks imminent, Abrams discussed finding the right cast and Trek vibe.
Q: What was the biggest challenge in re-imagining Star Trek as an origin story?
J.J. Abrams: From the beginning, we all realized that we wanted to embrace certain tenets of Star Trek and maintain the spirit of the original but make it relevant. And that was really just a big discussion of what elements to maintain and which ones to update.
Q: Like what?
Abrams: There were like 80 million small [design] decisions. But if you're doing Star Trek, do Star Trek. The silhouette of the Enterprise needs to be the Enterprise. I wanted at a glance for you to think, "Oh, look, it's the wardrobe, I get it -- it's the characters." The audience is very sophisticated now and it had to work on a [higher] level they didn't have to worry about in '66.
Q: How difficult was it casting Kirk and Spock?
Abrams: The casting of the movie -- and we knew this from the beginning -- was maybe the most important thing. I was never worried about the visual effects; I was never worried about the design. What I was worried about was finding actors to make this feel real.
Q: What were your specific concerns?
Abrams: It only would work if you believed the characters, and that requires actors who could deflect the burden of playing iconic roles, not impersonate the original actors. The model that we had was Richard Donner's Superman. Up until that point, Superman had been a comic book, a TV show, a campy cartoon, but the logline for that film was, "You will believe a man can fly." It was all about treating it with believability. To me that hadn't been done with Star Trek. A lot of it had to do with the resources that they had.
Q: Which character presented the biggest challenge?
Abrams: I thought Spock would be the most difficult character to cast, and when Zachary Quinto first walked in, I gasped. It was so obvious that he was born to play this part. Kirk was the last one that we cast. This guy needed to be cocky and smart and great looking and quick. But he also needed to be funny. I think that's the magic ingredient...with every single member of this cast. It not only made the shoot much more fun but it [also] allowed the movie to have intrinsically a sense of humor so that Star Trek, which has been parodied so many times, wouldn't be laughed at.
Q: You were not a Trekkie at all, were you?
Abrams: I was not a Star Trek fan to begin with. I appreciated it but I never quite got it, the way certain people did. And yet when they asked if I was interested in being involved as producer, I thought that was a cool challenge to be part of creating a Star Trek that was appealing to me. My first reaction was, "A new Kirk and Spock." I said, "Let's go back to the beginning," and [screenwriters] Alex [Kurtzman] and Bob [Orci] had the same instinct.
Q: Talk about the challenge of making a prequel.
Abrams: Because of the story that we came up with, it avoids the sort of prequel dilemma of Star Wars, which is a good example. I don't care how exciting that sequence is [where Obi Wan is in jeopardy]. I know that he lives because I've seen Alec Guinness play that character later. If you've seen the films that follow in a linear timeline it undercuts the drama sometimes. What I thought was ingenious about our story was its own parallel universe....We need a new word: paraquel?
Q: What’s with the Tyler Perry cameo as Admiral Barnett?
Abrams: This is a man on his own terms who has created an industry, and I've been blown away. So I sent him an email and asked if he'd be interested. He's never acted in anyone else's movie -- he's never been on anyone else's set. He'd never seen Star Trek. He said yes, I couldn't believe it.
Q: Being his first time on someone else’s set, how’d it go?
Abrams: He was so funny. He was in the middle of doing his line and he goes, "Cut!" because he's so used to it. And he's like, "I'm sorry!" I said, "It's OK." He's just not used to having someone there. But he was wonderful to work with.
Bill Desowitz is senior editor of Animation World Network (www.awn.com) and VFXWorld (www.vfxworld.com). He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, USA Today, Wired, Variety, Editors Guild Magazine, Below the Line, and Premiere, among others.
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