The new (totally sweet) Star Trek movie recently released to DVD. Last night I got on the horn with the very talented and exceedingly nice Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, who co-wrote the screenplay and served as executive producers on the film. They were gracious enough to answer a few questions for me.
BB: Were you fans of the franchise, or possibly even full-on Trekkies, before you started working on this film?
Bob: We were both fans. We never would have done it otherwise. We knew what thick waters those were.
BB: What are the challenges/advantages of working in an established franchise like this versus a blank slate?
Alex: The list of challenges is so long, that we wouldn’t have time for it in the interview. Knowing where Star Trek was, what it meant to us as kids, and what we wanted to do with it was very complicated. And we knew that times had changed in terms of what draws people to a movie.
Having gone through the Transformers experience, we knew that there were certain things that were going to be required, visually, for a movie like this. That Star Trek was always about, essentially, naval sea battles in space. And in a way that we loved, those ship battles were always relatively slow — it was always about coming up behind the other ship and outsmarting the other ship. So we knew that had to be a huge element in the movie. We also knew that no 12-year-old boy would be able to sit through the movie like that, not the way that we could when we were 12. Things are different — movies have evolved so much in terms of visual effects. We had to retain the spirit of what we knew was essential to Trek, but also update it.
And that was the biggest problem: how do you do both of those things? Because you don’t want to piss off the diehard fans, and you want to make an easy entry point for people who have dismissed Trek in the past because they thought it was too cold or too episodic somehow: that if they had missed everything that had come before it, they wouldn’t be able to come see this movie. So those were the challenges, among many.
Bob: On the plus side, because it was Star Trek and we knew and loved it, we had a great context for what would be something we would love. We had the benefit of the education of 40 years of Star Trek. So that’s the nice thing about an established franchise. We knew what we wanted to see as fans, and hoped that would somehow translate.
BB: Did you do a lot of source research — watching the old movies/shows, reading old scripts — before you started writing, or did you only use what you already knew?
Bob: We all did various levels of research. Alex and I sort of distributed different homework to people. We gave [Director] JJ [Abrams] a doctoral thesis analyzing the cultural meaning of Star Trek. Some of the guys watched shows, Alex and I were fans of some of the novels, so everyone kind of covered everything.
BB: The time travel device allowed you to deviate significantly from known Star Trek history/canon. How did you decide how much to turn the dial in terms of changing back-stories and characters?
Bob: We tried to change as little as possible. There had never been an origin story of how these characters came together. So while there was canon established by a single line here or there about how they all met, this story had never been done. So that automatically gave us a degree of freedom. And then whenever we were violating something we knew absolutely had dimension, we knew we had the time travel element to get us through it. But theoretically they could have met the same way in the original universe — Kirk and Spock in the Academy — theoretically many things that happened in the movie could have happened in both continuities. It was just a matter of not changing anything just to reinvent it, but also not being hampered by anything because it had been mentioned once before.
BB: Related to that, Simon Pegg (@simonpegg) tweeted this the other day: “What blew me away about Alex and Rob’s script. New Trek cannot exist without old. Nothing is discounted. Spock Prime validates all. So smart.”
Alex: God bless Simon Pegg, is all I can say.
Bob: And God bless Leonard Nimoy, because he’s right: that’s what allowed us to do what we did. You know, Leonard came out of retirement on that character to do that for Star Trek. So, God bless Leonard Nimoy.
BB: That was obviously the pivotal point of the movie premise. How early in the process did you come up with that, or did JJ Abrams have that vision from the beginning?
Alex: No, not at all. We knew from the word go that we had to have [Nimoy] in the movie, and that if he said no we weren’t going to have a movie. So when we presented our take to JJ and [Producer] Damon [Lindelof] about needing Spock, it became a conversation between all of us about how we were going to get to him, because we knew he had said he was never going to play that part again. And we explained why we felt like it was a necessary move; not only at a story level, but also because without Leonard Nimoy telling Trek fans that it was okay to move into this iteration, I think we as fans would have felt a little bit dubious. So we just knew that it was all about him, and JJ got on board immediately.
BB: Casting was especially important for a movie like this, where you’re rebooting such a treasured franchise. As writers, how involved were you in the casting process?
Bob: Well this film we also executive produced, so we were right in there through the whole process.
Alex: Casting this movie was really tough, because you’re trying to recast these unbelievably iconic parts. And you want to pay homage and respect to the amazing actors who played all the parts, but you also want to bring something new to it. And you definitely don’t want to parody them in any way. You don’t want your new actors to feel like they’re cartooning these characters that we’ve loved so much.
BB: You didn’t want somebody “doing Kirk”, so to speak.
Alex: Exactly. And I think that certainly one of JJ’s superpowers is his ability to cast. There’s no question: he is as good as it gets when it comes to looking at undiscovered talent and knowing what he can get out of them.
BB: Despite all the time I spend rocking the internet and how closely I followed the production of this movie, I knew next to nothing about the plot before seeing it. Was secrecy a big part of the production?
Alex: It was huge.
Bob: Yeah, the set of Star Trek was like joining the CIA. The actors were brought in on covered carts under tarps at night. It was crazy. None of us had the script on a file that was accessible on the internet — people had to come read them in the office under guard. We kept it tight. We knew that part of the surprise of the movie was going to be what happened, and this wasn’t the kind of movie where you can do all your revealing in the previews — part of the deliciousness of it was to unravel the story. And so we were very protective of it.
BB: Star Trek has gone through a lot of iterations, but remains extremely popular, perhaps now more than ever. What do you think is so compelling about the series?
Bob: There are so many things. I think it was born in the golden age of television, and it had so many progressive firsts — reflecting civil rights, and reflecting the Kennedy administration, grappling with war, first interracial kiss — and all those things conspired, I think, to make it something more than just pop, and it actually became part of our culture. Even people who don’t know the movies know the names Kirk and Spock like they know Zeus and Hera or something. They’re just part of our classical culture, in a way. And when something gets to that level, then it’s going to bubble up again and again as different generations take a look at their cultural heritage. Maybe that sounded lofty, but that’s how I like to think of it.
BB: Finally, we all know there’s going to be another movie, and I believe you’ll be working on it. What stage is it in right now?
Bob: We’re all figuring out the story together. We’re in what we call the coffee shop stage, where you go to a coffee shop and you talk about the story.
Alex: Until all the themes land and all the big ideas land, and you then start building the bricks on that.