JJ Abrams on controlling Star Wars and Star Trek

Star Trek: Into Darkness director JJ Abrams. Picture: GettyStar Trek: Into Darkness director JJ Abrams. Picture: Getty
Star Trek: Into Darkness director JJ Abrams. Picture: Getty
AS Star Trek Into Darkness beams into cinemas, director JJ Abrams - also the man helming Star Wars VII – tells Alistair Harkness what it’s like to be master of two universes

‘WHEN I saw Star Wars for the first time it just blew my mind,” announces JJ Abrams. Holding court in the curved, Federation-like environs of London’s City Hall, Hollywood’s most geeked-out director may be in town to promote Star Trek Into Darkness, the belated sequel to his hugely enjoyable 2009 Star Trek reboot, but he’s not committing sci-fi heresy when he proclaims his affection for that other influential space flick. Having signed up last December to direct Star Wars: Episode VII, it’s simply impossible for him to talk about one without the other being brought up. That’s hardly surprising given the Darth Vader/Khan-like power (delete as appropriate) he now wields over the two most pervasive sci-fi franchises in popular culture. Then again, he’s never made any secret of the fact that his approach to the saga he’s currently overseeing has always been heavily influenced by the saga he’s about to oversee.

“What I loved about Star Wars was the visceral energy of it and the clarity of it,” elaborates Abrams. “I loved the innocence and the big heart of it. Star Trek always felt a little more sophisticated and philosophical; it debated moral dilemmas and things that were theoretically interesting, but for some reason I just couldn’t get on board.”

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He wasn’t the only one. When Zoe Saldana first got a call from her agent telling her that Abrams wanted to cast her as the Starship Enterprise’s communications officer Uhura in the Star Trek reboot, her first reaction wasn’t ‘why does he want to speak to me?’, it was ‘why are they re-launching Star Trek?’ “We were the generation who grew up on Star Wars,” says Saldana. “I’d look at my mom and what Star Trek represented to me was what old people used to like.” Ouch. She’s quick to point out that when she did win the role (which she reprises in Into Darkness), she sat down with her mother and picked her brains about what Star Trek was really all about. “That’s when I gained a lot of respect for the people who are so dedicated to the show.”

Likewise, it took working on the Star Trek reboot for Abrams to really fall in love with its characters and concepts. His hope back then was that he’d be able to find a way to maintain the spirit that Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry brought to the original 1960s TV show – “the stuff that Zoe’s mother loved,” quips Abrams – and infuse it with the kind of energy, pace and action of the cooler, more accessible Star War films. The payoff was a movie that grossed $386 million worldwide, five times more than the franchise-stalling Star Trek: Nemesis had made seven years earlier.

The downside was that Star Trek immediately became a victim of its own success. Abrams (who had directed Mission: Impossible III and was best known as the creator of hit TV shows such as Alias and Lost) used his newfound box-office cachet to make Super 8. Meanwhile, the so-called “Star Trek brain trust” – long-term writing collaborators Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci and Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof – found themselves increasingly in demand on other projects – although there was another, more fundamental reason why it took so long to get the sequel going.

“With the first movie we only had one idea,” says Orci of the sly time travel plot device that allowed them to simultaneously reference and deviate from Star Trek’s 40-year history. “With the second movie we could do anything we wanted. That was terrifying and horrible.”

The genesis of the sequel was simply trying to figure out where to take the characters. Having reintroduced them in the first film, it was important not to presume they would just be the crew of the Enterprise going forth. “They had not quite gelled yet as a family,” says Kurtzman. “Kirk and Spock in particular were still trying to figure out who they were to one another.” The new film, then, finds them at odds with each other after Kirk (Chris Pine) loses command of the Enterprise and Spock 
(Zachary Quinto) is reassigned to another ship. The emotional toll this takes on each resulted in both actors having to get more in touch with their characters’ feelings this time out. “Spock is erroneously assumed to have no emotion,” says Quinto, “so to cultivate an inner life that conveys there is a deep well of emotion was a consistent challenge.” As the brash, cocky, rule-breaking Kirk, Pine wasn’t averse to getting a bit touchy-feely either. “This story gave us a chance to explore sides of our character that we didn’t get to do beforehand,” he says. “For me it was about trying to find the fragility and vulnerability of a character that was so genetically self-assured.” Blimey.

Lest this make Star Trek into Darkness sound like a four-hankie weepie, though, not everyone in the cast had to be quite so intense. Speaking Klingon and delivering Star Trek tech-talk at “JJ speed” was, says Saldana, the trickiest thing she had to do for her character, while Simon Pegg, returning as chief engineer Scotty, concentrated on getting the phrase “Haud oan wee man” into the film in tribute to his own Glaswegian wife Maureen.

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Then there’s Star Trek newbie Alice Eve. Cast as feisty new science officer Carol Marcus, she found herself in the traditional role of the strong, smart, beautiful woman who must at some point strip down to her underwear. “I like Carol Marcus’s fierce intelligence,” she deadpans when asked what she identified with most about the role. “She can be so distracted by it she’ll even change in public.”

Old-fashioned sexism not withstanding, the new film does attempt to be modern in its central war-on-terror-themed plot, which, true to its title, does get pretty bleak thanks to the film’s agenda-laden villain John Harrison.

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Played by Benedict Cumberbatch, whom Abrams cast as Harrison after seeing him in Sherlock (Cumberbatch also sent him an audition video made with his iPhone), he may be threatening to destabilise everything Starfleet holds sacred, but the film takes care not to reduce him to a one-note villain.

“There’s a lot of motivation and reasoning behind what he does,” nods Cumberbatch, treading cautiously so as not to reveal any spoilers. “He has a moral core, he just has a method that is pretty brutal and abhorrent. You know, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. I think there’s an ability to sympathise with his cause, if not his means of achieving his ends.”

And on the subject of ends being achieved, now that Abrams has finally made a second Star Trek movie, the prospect of directing a third seems increasingly unlikely given that he’s contracted to deliver the new Star Wars film in 2015. The big question now is, having made two Trek films, and become an avowed fan of it in the process, how will this influence his approach to his beloved Star Wars? Apparently, not that much. “In terms of Star Wars, it’s early days going forward,” he says. “Obviously it’s a completely different universe and feels like it has a different tone and history and characters. If I had a Venn diagram of the two, I don’t feel like there would be much of an overlap.”

• Star Trek Into Darkness is in cinemas nationwide from today