Welcome to the dark side: J.J. Abrams creates more jeopardy for 'Star Trek' crew
"I was never a fan," confesses J.J. Abrams. He's talking about the “Star Trek” series created by Gene Roddenberry in 1966. So Abrams was surprised when he was asked to direct Star Trek, the 2009 franchise reboot that earned almost $400 million worldwide.
Now his sequel Star Trek Into Darkness is poised to take on this summer's blockbusters. The Paramount film—the 12th feature in the franchise—will be in select theatres in IMAX 3D on May 15 and in theatres everywhere on May 17. Most of the cast and crew return from the earlier Star Trek.
Speaking from his office in Los Angeles, where he is overseeing the soundtrack mix, Abrams thinks back to the first "Star Trek" television series. "When I was a kid, it didn't strike me as cool or particularly exciting. It wasn't until I worked on Star Trek and sort of found a way in to the characters and settings that I could appreciate what so many people had found before me."
Calling the first film "a crazy balancing act," the director admits to worrying about disappointing series fans while still finding a way to chart his own course. "You have to embrace the spirit of what came before," he explains, "but for Star Trek we were reintroducing characters that we had to assume people never knew. Yes, there might have been some awareness of Kirk and Spock and the gang. But who were these people really? And since I was never a fan, I needed to make sure that this would be a movie that I would love."
But Abrams wasn't afraid to upend audience expectations, or to disrupt the mythology surrounding the series. As for the sequel, the director insists, "We could never for a second assume that anyone would care or know anything about the characters, the premise. We approached it as a brand-new story."
A writer, producer and composer as well as director, Abrams speaks in quick, breathless bursts, adding his own italics and emphasis. He uses the word "luck" a lot when describing the Into Darkness project, especially when discussing the cast and crew.
Abrams worked with Star Trek writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman for about a year developing the Into Darkness script. They were joined by Damon Lindelof, who helped create the hit TV series "Lost" with Abrams, and Bryan Burk, the co-founder of Abrams' production company Bad Robot. The team batted around ideas that came up during the Star Trek shoot, making adjustments as they went along.
Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto return as Captain James T. Kirk and Commander Spock, respectively, but the other key players from Star Trek are back as well: Zoe Saldana as Lt. Uhura, Simon Pegg as Lt. Commander "Scotty" Scott, Karl Urban as Lt. Commander "Bones" McCoy, John Cho as Lt. Sulu, and Anton Yelchin as Ensign Chekov.
Asked about how he can concentrate on performances in the midst of 1,500-plus effects shots, Abrams replies, "It was a dream working with these actors. They are able to make me believe that they are actually hurtling through space, facing off against the most terrifying villains you could imagine. That the film works this well is really a testament to the actors."
Many crew members have been working with Abrams for years, and the director is quick to share credit with them. Director of photography Dan Mindel shot the previous Star Trek, as well as Mission: Impossible III, which Abrams co-wrote and directed. The director calls their collaboration "wonderful, effortless."
"I'm always open for a good idea, the better idea, but I also always know where I want to put the camera," Abrams says. "I'm always, or at least often, very clear about how a scene will be choreographed and how it will be shot. We usually shoot with two cameras, and here's the beauty of having people like Dan and Colin and Philippe [camera operators Colin Anderson and Philippe Carr-Forster, also Star Trek veterans]. I cannot tell you how many times Dan will make a suggestion, or Colin or Phil will say, 'What about this?' And all of a sudden they make something work twice as well as it ever would have. Even if it's a suggestion that I don't think is quite right for the scene, it's a wonderful way to kind of kick the tires, shake the tree, see what the scene wants to be. There's nothing wrong with another idea."
Abrams feels this kind of creative collaboration gives him the freedom to "mix it up" on the set. "The way I work typically is we will pre-viz things that we need to so everyone knows what we're doing and how we're doing it," he says. "Then I like to come to the set, listen to the actors, look at the light, and approach a scene from a fresh point of view. Keeping in mind of course context, where we just were, what just happened, what the energy of the scene is, what needs to be happening here.
"But my favorite thing is to just come in and kind of go with my gut, as opposed to following a predetermined shot list," he adds. "That way it's always evolving. If you've written it and you pre-vized it, you storyboarded it, and you're on the set and you're just going along doing all the things you made sure you had to do—to me, I feel like, a) it's not fun and b) you're not open to the better idea that invariably presents itself on the set. You know, you're just creating a coloring book in advance and then sort of coloring it in on the set."
Abrams and his crew did try to follow principles they established on the first Star Trek. "One of the things we wanted to work on was to figure out how to ground the movie. That's one of the reasons we shot both movies on film, to give them a more analog look and feel. It's also why on both of the films, as much as possible, we shot on actual locations. Keep it real and grounded."
And despite the added expense, Abrams tried to shoot exterior scenes outside, instead of on stages. "We tried to embrace natural light, real locations, give scope and scale to the scenes that would demand it."
The director took a similar approach to stunts and action. "A great stunt is one that you feel you can relate to," he says. "Take a number like one million, your brain goes, 'Oh, a big number.' You freeze. You can't imagine a million. But if I say, 'Six,' you go, 'I can see six, I know six.' At a certain point stunts become so crazy and big that you can't relate to them."
Which isn't to say that Star Trek Into Darkness doesn't have its share of "big, crazy visual things." Again, Abrams feels he found the special look and feel he wanted by using film instead of digital. "We also were shooting in IMAX," he explains, "and we could not have done that digitally. IMAX allowed us to shoot at a preposterously high resolution, which gives quite a bit of the movie an amazingly stunning, immersive look that we could not have gotten digitally."
As the director recalls, it was Paramount's decision to post-convert the film to 3D. Working with anamorphic film ruled out shooting footage in 3D.
"They said they needed it to be 3D for the business side of things," he remembers. "I was really against it at first. But we did some tests on the first film and I was amazed at how well scenes worked in 3D. I was shocked at, you know, how much fun it actually was."
Stereographer Corey Turner worked on Into Darkness and, in Abrams' words, "he has really been pushing the limits of what's been done before in 3D. So my goal became: Make as good a 2D movie as I could, then embellish it, sort of add a little hot sauce for those who wanted 3D. I would not want to use 3D on any movie, but Into Darkness was the absolute right kind of film to use this technology."
Abrams has been working with editors Mary Jo Markey and Maryann Brandon since the late 1990s. "We have a system that works really well," he says. "They split up the movie, decide among themselves who cuts what while I bounce back and forth between the editing rooms."
For some scenes, Abrams will supply a suggested shot order. "But quite often, because we're sort of discovering things as we go, I'm really interested in seeing what is their interpretation of the moment," he adds. "What are they feeling? What are they seeing? When I sit down and watch a scene, it's always the beginning of a discussion. It's always fascinating because I feel like, 'Oh, they've made a choice I never would have made. Oh my God, look how that changes the point of view of the scene.'"
By editing sequences during the production, Abrams could return to scenes, "make decisions, shoot a little pick-up here and there. Every scene gets better because of the collaboration. I love seeing how you can completely remake, unmake or save a moment, how you can exchange a scene or sequence in the editorial process."
Abrams uses the word "luck" to describe the creative family he has gathered around him, but it seems clear that his method of open-ended collaboration, of allowing scenes to evolve during production, of tinkering and experimenting with his material is also a key factor in the director's success. Despite the pressure of working on a blockbuster with a huge, easily disgruntled fan base, Abrams seems to have thought through any problem you can throw at him. As Kirk says at one point in Into Darkness, "I have no idea what I'm supposed to do, I only know what I can do."
Asked why the universe Gene Roddenberry thought up almost 50 years ago still resonates with moviegoers, Abrams suggests, "He created a story with strong archetypes, specific characters, this dynamic of great voices traveling together and exploring the unknown."
Abrams will face similar audience expectations while helming Star Wars Episode VII, scheduled to open in 2015.