Friday, May 08, 2009

J.J. Abrams talks Trek

J.J. Abrams is on the phone, heading back to L.A. from a round of TV interviews in New York (Charlie Rose, a very funny turn on Stephen Colbert), just a day before his $150 million Star Trek reinvention blasts into orbit. Here's more of what he had to say -- stuff that didn't get into Sunday's On Movies column.

Q: You've said that you were never a huge Star Trek fan. Once you were onboard to direct the film, though, did you go back and look at episodes, some of the other films?

Abrams: Oh sure, I watched a bunch.... I needed to do my homework. But what I didn’t want to do was become like a student of Star Trek, whereby the preexisting series, whether it be television or film, would overly impact or influence what I wanted to do. I felt that the fun of approaching it anew was being able to not be constrained by the rhythms and the style of what came before, and yet I needed to know enough about it to be able to connect it. So it’s a strange thing, it’s almost like I wanted to have the movie be influenced by it, but I didn’t want to be influenced by it.... At a certain point I felt like if I delve too much into the minutae of what they did, and became too connected to it, that I would end up losing my advantage -- I didn’t want to become too much of a fan that I would suddenly be making the movie out of the desire to be consistent, as opposed to out of the desire to do something that felt relevant. Obviously the fundamental building blocks of this movie were literal connections to what had come before. So it wasn’t as if we desperately needed to find a way to make this feel more like Star Trek. We had Kirk and Spock, we had the fundamentals — so that was a point of departure in terms of the pacing, rhtyhm and tone of the thing.

Q: Can you talk about the ideas behind casting a bit? Did you have anyone in mind, going in?

Abrams: I had never met any of the main actors before with the exception of John Cho and Simon Pegg. And Eric Bana I actually had met as well, and he was someone I wanted to work with for a long time and felt very lucky that we got. But the only person who I knew needed to be in the movie was Nimoy, and if he had said no we would have been completely screwed.
As for Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto, our Kirk and Spock... well, we were re-casting these iconic characters, and we had to find actors that would take the inspiration of those original actors but not do an impersonation of them. That was critical. On the one hand, there was more pressure than I had ever felt before, in terms of casting, because clearly there was a certain level of expectation and familiarity that some of the audience had. And then on the other hand, it was like any project: you’re desperately looking for the actor who will own it, where it won’t even be a discussion, it will just be obvious.… And Chris and Zachary, well, that's what happened.

Q: Star Trek's vision of the future is nowhere near as dark, gloomy, apocalyptic, as most of the sci-fi that's out there now. Was that one of the things that appealed to you about taking this on?

Abrams: Very much so. I felt that as I worked on the story with the writers and producers and then when I finally read the script, it felt optimistic, it felt refreshing, it felt fun. And I think that there have been so many movies in recent years — and many of which I’ve really enjoyed — that have depicted a cynical and grim and unpleasant future. And again, I’ve been a fan of so many of them. But there was something about this that just felt distinctly hopeful.... That there was something extraordinary, and extraordinarily good, coming down the pike was something that felt — that I realized I was hungry for. It was one of the things that really compelled me to direct the movie.... And a hopeful, optimistic future is never a bad thing to get a glimpse of.

Q: Speaking of hope and optimism, what do you make of the comparisons in the media beween Spock and Obama? The calm, unemotional, rational, logical mind?

Abrams: I’ve heard and read people making that connection. But I think it’s less about any one character, for me -- it’s less about Spock and more about [Gene] Roddenberry. It’s more about the world of Trek. Spock is a wonderful and a kind of cool, complex character, but he’s sort of half of the yin-yang of Kirk and Spock. I think that the beauty of both of these characters is that it’s not until they come together that they can accomplish almost anything. So, for me, it’s not about, you know, "elect Spock," or "elect Kirk." For me it’s the ideal that you don’t want logic without the gut instinct, and you don’t want gut instinct without the ability to understand the conditions, the strategy, the enemy you’re up against.
And the idea of having a president in office who is a hopeful, optimistic one seems like more a byproduct of people being hungry for that kind of hope. I can just say that it was the same hunger that fueled our making his movie, starting three years ago.

Q: So Kirk and Spock, not quite Biden and Obama?

Abrams: I’ll leave that to someone else to make the call.