‘Star Trek’ director J.J. Abrams on tribbles and the ‘Galaxy Quest’ problem


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EXCLUSIVE: This is the first part of an interview with J.J. Abrams about his cinematic voyages aboard the Starship Enterprise. Read part two here.

Gene Roddenberry had this notion in the early 1960s about a television show that felt like ‘Wagon Train’ in space, a frontier tale with groovy sci-fi imagery and a proud parable spirit. And just look what he started. In May, the pop culture phenomena of ‘Star Trek’ proudly returns where it has gone before -- the movie theater -- with the 11th film in the franchise. This time the director is J.J. Abrams, a creative force in television with ‘Alias,’ ‘Lost’ and ‘Fringe’ as well as the director of ‘Mission Impossible III.’ He talked to Hero Complex about navigating his movie through the neutral zone that lies between hard-core ‘Trek’ fans and summer moviegoers. This is part one of the interview.


GB: As franchises move into new eras it’s interesting to watch how they change -- or don’t change. ‘Battlestar Galactica’ could hardly be more different than it was in the 1970s while ‘Star Wars’ is essentially the same. With ‘Star Trek’ you seem to be pursuing a revival like we’ve seen with Batman and James Bond, which holds on to core mythology but recalibrates the tone.

JJA: I think I benefited because I came into this movie as someone who appreciated ‘Star Trek’ but wasn’t an insane fanatic about it. The disadvantage is I didn’t know everything I needed to know immediately at the beginning and had to learn it. The advantage though is I could look at ‘Star Trek’ as a whole a little bit more like a typical moviegoer would see it; it allowed me to seize the things that I felt were truly the most iconic and important aspects of the original series and yet not be serving the master and trying to be true to every arcane detail. It let me look at the things I knew were critical.

GB: What are some of the things that made that ‘critical’ list?

JJA:The characters was the most important thing in it. We needed to be true to the spirit of those characters. There were certain iconic things -- if you’re going to do ‘Star Trek,’ you’ve got to do the Enterprise and it has to look like the Enterprise. If you’re going to do ‘Star Trek’ you have to do costumes that feel like the costumes people know. You have to be able to glance at it and know what that is. Even the text, the font of ‘Star Trek’ has to look like what you know.

The phasers, the communicators, the Starfleet logo -- there are all these things that are the touchstones, the tenets of what makes ‘Star Trek’ ‘Star Trek.’ If you’re going to do this series those are things you don’t mess with. And yet, they need to withstand a resolution that ‘Star Trek’ has never had to withstand before. And I don’t just mean IMAX -- though it will have to work there too -- but what I mean is that audiences are so savvy now and they’ve seen every iteration of ‘Star Trek,’ ‘Star Wars,’ two separate versions of ‘Battlestar Galactica,’ they’ve seen ‘Alien’ and ‘Aliens,’ they’ve seen countless science fiction movies. They’ve seen it all. And even worse, they’ve seen a movie as ‘Galaxy Quest’ that completely mocks the paradigm in its entirety.

GB: That’s very true, you can’t afford any accidental ‘Galaxy Quest’ moments on your ship’s bridge.

JJA: The trick is how do you use a ship like that, uniforms like that, characters who look like that and the name ‘Star Trek’ and make it feel relevant and legitimate. the challenge is to take the familiar -- for better or worse -- and embrace the elements that make it unique but be sure the master you’re serving is the making of the most entertaining movie possible. You can’t look backward and try to make sure that every decision you’re making is true to the past. that’s not to say that we weren’t true to the past, but that wasn’t our guiding principle.

GB: You know that no matter what you do, you’ll get an earful from hardcore fans.

JJA: The key is to appreciate that there are purists and fans of ‘Star Trek’ who are going to be very vocal if they see things that aren’t what what they want. But I can’t make this movie for readers of Nacelles Monthly who are only concerned with what the ship’s engines look like. They’re going to find something they hate no matter what I do. And yet, the movie at its core is not only inspired by what has come before, it’s deeply true to what’s come before. The bottom line is we have different actors playing these parts and from that point on it’s literally not what they’ve seen before. It will be evident when people see this movie that it is true to what Roddenberry created and what those amazing actors did in the 1960s. At the same time, I think, it’s going to blow people’s minds because its a completely different experience than what they expect.

GB: In the footage you showed at the Paramount lot I was really struck by the comedic touches. There was a humor that felt natural and exuberant ... there was also some vamping moments for your cast.

JAA: Yeah, among the kind of anecdotal critiques I read online some people said ‘Oh, look at this, they’re trying to sex it up,’ by having Kirk in bed with a girl or Uhura undressing, and they said, ‘Oh that’s not ‘Star Trek.’ Other people wrote, ‘Oh there’s comedy in it, that’s not ‘Star Trek’ I know.’ Look, if you actually watch the show, that show was always pushing buttons all the time and was considered very sexy for its time. It had the first interracial kiss on television and it was a show that was sexually adventurous. And it was very funny. One of my favorite things about ‘Star Trek’ wasn’t just the overt banter but the humor in that show about the relationships between the main characters and their reactions to the situations they would face; there was a lot of comedy in that show without ever breaking its reality. That’s important to us.


GB: Last time I saw you, you mentioned there would be a tribble in the movie. That’s fun.

JAA: Yes! There is a tribble in there. But you have to look for it. And there’s that other surprise I told you about but please don’t write about that one.

GB: I won’t, I won’t, I promised. There’s plenty of other stuff to talk about. I’m fascinated by the challenge facing your captain. Chris Pine has the biggest acting dilemma of 2009: How do you play James T. Kirk without imitating William Shatner?

JAA: Totally. I think all of the actors have a similar challenge. We lucked out on ‘Star Trek’ with the production designer, the costume designer, the visual effects, the composer -- everywhere you look on this production we lucked out and got the people doing the best work in the business. They are all so good. But I have to say that the place where I could not be more grateful or amazed, is with the cast. To go into a movie like this where you are casting these iconic characters who were played by actors who defined them and created them -- certainly as much as Roddenberry did --the odds of finding the right people to fill those shoes are very small. And having all of the people you cast actually work out is even smaller. I feel like we managed the impossible by finding actors who are so committed to their roles and so are all so right and funny and real and emotional and complicated but yet still familiar. They are the characters from the show and yet no one is doing an imitation of one of the former actors.

The reason that it works -- or the reason I believe it is working -- is that I and people who have seen it have walked away feeling that these are the characters. There’s a transition that happens. It’s a weird thing. it’s not that you will ever forget what DeForest Kelley did or George Takei or Shatner or any of them. It’s almost though as if another door opens and you’re letting in something else into a space that was sacred. It doesn’t diminish what was before, it doesn’t lessen the quality or impact of what was. It’s like when you look at James Bond. There are people out there that feel that Daniel Craig is it. And then there are people who say, ‘Oh my God, Roger Moore, that’s the only James Bond who will ever work,’ and people who think Sean Connery is clearly the one true Bond. The thing is, what Craig is doing now doesn’t undermine what those other actors did. They can coexist.

PART TWO: Abrams says ‘Star Trek’ must escape the shadow of ‘Star Wars’

-- Geoff Boucher

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UPDATE: An earlier version of this post flubbed Abram’s funny Nacelles Monthly reference. Sorry.

Mary Frampton/Los Angeles Times