J.J. Abrams on ‘Star Trek Into Darkness’: ‘Spectacle is irrelevant’

May 17, 2013 | 8:00 a.m.
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J.J. Abrams, who has made a name for himself writing, directing and producing such hits as "Lost" and "Star Trek," was tapped in January to direct "Star Wars: Episode VII." (Tracey Nearmy / European Pressphoto Agency)

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Abrams made his first foray into television in 1998, co-creating the coming-of-age drama "Felicity," which starred Keri Russell as the title character. The show won a Golden Globe and an Emmy. (The WB)

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Abrams created the Jennifer Garner-starring spy thriller series "Alias," which won four Emmys and a Golden Globe. (Norman Jean Roy / ABC)

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J.J. Abrams on the set of "Mission: Impossible III," the first feature film he directed. The film earned nearly $400 million at the worldwide box office. (Paramount Pictures)

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Director J.J. Abrams and star Tom Cruise on the set of "Mission: Impossible III." (Paramount Pictures)

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Director J.J. Abrams and star Tom Cruise pose atop Shanghai's historic Bund 18 building after wrapping up filming in China for "Mission: Impossible III" on Nov. 30, 2005. (Associated Press)

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Abrams co-created "Lost" with Jeffrey Lieber and Damon Lindelof. The suspense-filled show followed a group of people after their plane crashed on an island. The massively popular series became a cultural touchstone, with millions of viewers tuning in for twist after twist. (ABC)

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J.J. Abrams is photographed in Los Angeles in April 2006. (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times

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J.J. Abrams, second from left, poses with the cast members from "Fringe," a sci-fi television series he co-created with Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci. (Rich Lam / Getty Images)

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J.J. Abrams reveals his first casting for his 2009 reboot of "Star Trek" during a 2007 Comic-Con panel in San Diego. (Spencer Weiner / Los Angeles Times)

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A scene from Abrams' 2009 film "Star Trek," which raked in more than $385 million worldwide. (Paramount Pictures)

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Steven Spielberg, left, co-produced the 2011 film "Super 8," which J.J. Abrams wrote and directed. The pair are shown here at a 2009 dinner honoring Spielberg in Beverly Hills. (Michael Kovac / WireImage)

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J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg on the set of "Super 8." (Paramount Pictures)

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Director J.J. Abrams and actor Kyle Chandler on the set of "Super 8." (Paramount Pictures)

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Young actors Joel Courtney and Riley Griffiths discuss a scene with director J.J. Abrams on the set of "Super 8." (Paramount Pictures)

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J.J. Abrams, left, and Eric Kripke executive produce the post-apocalyptic adventure series "Revolution." The pair are photographed here at Abrams' company Bad Robot in Santa Monica on Aug. 20, 2012. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

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Abrams, second from left, shares the stage with "Star Trek Into Darkness" actor Benedict Cumberbatch, star Chris Pine and producer Bryan Burk during a December 2012 press conference for the sequel to their 2009 blockbuster. (Koji Sasahara / Associated Press)

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J.J. Abrams and his wife Katie McGrath are co-chairs of the Children's Defense Fund of California. They're photographed here in December 2012. (Mark Davis / Getty Images)

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J.J. Abrams is photographed in Beverly Hills in June 2011. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

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J.J. Abrams is photographed in Beverly Hills in June 2011. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

With 2009’s “Star Trek,” filmmaker J.J. Abrams breathed new life into one of science fiction’s most venerable franchises. His sleek cinematic reboot re-introduced moviegoers to brash but loyal Capt. James T. Kirk and his level-headed foil Spock, played with a winning hint of modern bromance by Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto.

Now, Abrams has returned to the USS Enterprise with “Star Trek Into Darkness,” which beams into theaters on a course toward what’s expected to be a roughly $100-million opening. The Times’ Betsy Sharkey raved in her review that the film, “bursting at the seams with enemies, wears its politics, its mettle, its moxie and its heart on its ginormous 3-D sleeve.” She went on to describe the movie as the best release of the summer movie season so far.

Late last month, before Abrams embarked on a whirlwind publicity tour to promote the new film, Hero Complex sat down for an interview with the busy director at the Santa Monica headquarters of his production company, Bad Robot, to talk about his creative approach to “Into Darkness,” his evolution as a filmmaker and whether he has any plans to consult comedian Patton Oswalt on ideas for his next project: “Star Wars: Episode VII.”

Do you feel a sense of relief now that the film is finished?

I already feel relieved that all the crazy work is mostly done. I’m really excited about having people see the movie. It’s this weird feeling of having this big secret you just want to tell everyone. I think it’s been in the dark long enough. I’m looking forward to getting it out there.

When talking about the first film, you said that the fact that you were not an ardent “Star Trek” fan afforded you a certain amount of critical distance. Were you able to maintain that same kind of critical distance on this film?

While I was never a fan of “Star Trek,” I love movies, the idea of a big adventure told through a relatable character’s eyes. It’s my favorite thing in the world. I knew that when we started doing work on the first movie, we needed to come up with a way that this wasn’t just a “Star Trek” movie, meaning we couldn’t make it for fans of “Star Trek.” I’m not saying it might not have been better if that had been the case, but I couldn’t do that. It would have been disingenuous. For me, I needed to come at it from the point of view of, it’s a story about a young man who, or a group of people who, and kind of just start there at the most fundamental level. Luckily, we had people like Roberto Orci and Damon Lindelof and Alex Kurtzman who were working with us to bring a sensibility that was from a “Star Trek” fan’s point of view. They could say, “This is what would matter,” or “This really wouldn’t work.” I was coming at it from the point of view of I just want to tell a story I care about and, cool, it will be a space adventure.

What did you want to achieve with this film, building on the success of the last movie? Were there things you wanted to do differently?

On this movie, because we’ve gotten to know these characters, and I’ve sort of fallen in love with this group, not just the actors, but the roles, there was sort of a different challenge. While I still wanted to make sure we were making a movie that was not just for people who like “Star Trek” because I’m still not that person, I desperately wanted to avoid, I think, the biggest pitfall of making a second film, which is assuming anyone cares. A lot of sequels go into the story almost acting like you just came out of that last movie. It’s been four years, you can’t assume for a second anyone is going to remember anything. Even if they remember all of it, they didn’t just watch that movie. They’re coming into this fresh. So … we had a twofold issue. Make a movie that doesn’t feel like you had to have seen anything before it, any of the original show, but we are now making a sequel where I didn’t want anyone to see that or the last movie. Not that I didn’t want them to see it; I didn’t want them to have had to see it. My point is that we were in our own shadow.

Chris Pine, left, Zachary Quinto and director J.J. Abrams on the set of "Star Trek Into Darkness." (Zade Rosenthal/ Paramount)

Chris Pine, left, Zachary Quinto and director J.J. Abrams on the set of “Star Trek Into Darkness.” (Zade Rosenthal/ Paramount)

When we made our movie in 2009, there wasn’t a hit movie or series that had recently come out that we were being compared to. I heard people say, “Oh, it’s a moribund franchise.” “Really, you’re doing ‘Star Trek’? It’s dead. Why are you doing that?” I felt like there was still life in “Star Trek,” and we got to make a movie that our ambition was to prove that. When we did this movie, “Into Darkness,” we were now going to be compared to ourselves, so it was a weird thing to be in our own shadow. What I tried to do to the best of my ability was the same thing I did the first time, which was tell a story that does not rely on any of the “Star Trek” lore because it was never something that I bought into and I’m still the same moviegoer. But I had to, we all did, be extra vigilant and hyper-conscious that we were making a movie that we couldn’t rely on the movie we’d made before. It would help us — we didn’t have to cast all the roles like we did the first time, we sort of had a handle on the design and the look of the ship, the look of the wardrobe. There were things that were familiar and therefore easy to extrapolate what would that be for this film, but we had a challenge, which was not just to make a movie that felt bigger and better but make a movie that acknowledged but in no way relied on anything that ever came before it. So if you’ve seen the other movie, awesome, you’ll love some references. If you saw the original show and you’re a fan, terrific, like the first movie, you’ll get little moments here and there that will make you understand that we’re honoring that. But it has to be made for people that don’t give a damn about any of that stuff.

It would seem, from the outside, that going into a sequel would provide a certain amount of creative liberty. You’ve established your take on the universe. There’s less concern about introducing moviegoers to this iteration of “Trek.” But it sounds like you’re saying really the opposite of that is true.

You have to go into the movie proving yourself all over again and then very differently. You can’t introduce the character the same way you did. It’s got to be authentic. For us, the key was how do you make it special? How do you find the thing that makes you care about these characters? Just because that guy’s name was Kirk, just because he’s being performed by an actor who is likable, just because it’s well-designed and the DP is fantastic, none of that matters. You have to go down to this fundamental basic thing, why does my heart break for that guy? Why do I love that woman? Why do I care about these people being together? And how do I deal with a large group of characters? It’s not just one or two or three or four or five or six people. It’s a big group. You’ve got to figure out how to give everyone their space, their turn, their moment. How’s everyone distinct? How are they distinct in a way you didn’t make them distinct last time? Working with the writers and Bryan Burk, my producing partner, we go into it just fundamentally asking ourselves, what do we want to see. What’s the thing that makes us laugh or gasp or laugh in a that’s-really-cool, that-would-be-amazing way? Sometimes it’s about just continuing to shake the tree and ask ourselves how can we give a better moment to this character? The key though is just finding the specific and intimate way in.

Zachary Quinto, left, as Spock and Chris Pine as Kirk in "Star Trek Into Darkness." (Paramount)

Zachary Quinto, left, as Spock and Chris Pine as Kirk in “Star Trek Into Darkness.” (Paramount)

Was there thought given to finding the right balance of action vs. character development?

There was never going to be any shortage of spectacle, but the thing is, spectacle is irrelevant. The big, giant special-effects stuff, as much fun as it is and as cool as it can be in a movie, it never matters if you’re not loving, caring, relating to the dynamics of the characters that are in that spectacle. I never was concerned we wouldn’t have enough action, but we never wanted there to be action for action’s sake. We wanted to make sure there was always something we were dealing with and grappling with. There were a lot of plates to spin at one time, but it was about being disciplined and making sure that we were doing the best we could to ensure that every character was alive in the piece in some way. Even if he or she was off camera for a little bit, you knew where they were, certainly emotionally. It’s a lot of stuff to juggle, but if you’re going to juggle balls, these are the most fun balls to juggle.

At what point did you and the writers hit upon the story of the film, and can you describe how the story took shape?

We knew a number of things going into it. We knew we wanted the characters to have been together for about a year. We didn’t want it to be five minutes after the last movie. In the first film, there’s that glorious opportunity to do an origin story where strangers come together, but those roots don’t grow very deep. We wanted characters who had a little bit more of a history and yet were still going through a significant first. We knew we wanted to do a story about Kirk going from a guy who got the captain’s chair to a guy who had to really earn the captain’s chair. We knew that there were some opportunities for some characters that we hadn’t gotten to that we’d been talking about for a while that would be fun to have in the movie. But there were some fundamental huge debates that we had to have about what was the best way to do it, who did we want to have in the movie, what does the average moviegoer want versus what would the “Star Trek” moviegoer want. It was a lot of the same stuff we did on the first one, batting around things. We all came to the table with ideas. There were a few things I really wanted to do that I just thought visually could be really cool. I would just say, “This would be great. I don’t know how it fits in the movie or if we could do it, but if so, this would be awesome.” Some were scenes, some were moments that involved locations, facing off with an enemy. It’s funny, I haven’t thought about this in a while, but to look back at those early conversations how much of that stuff ended up in the movie. You go, oh, wow, that started because someone said, “This would be really cool,” and then all of a sudden, it’s part of the film. The process is really just about what is inspiring to us and then working on it.

How long did it take for the final draft of the script to come together?

The script took about a year to come together and then evolved constantly in some small ways and other slightly larger ways even through production. Then, in post, there were things we were working on to really fine-tune key relationships. It was never about the action sequences, those always seemed to work out pretty well. It was mostly about the heart of the characters — what makes you relate to them? What makes you invest in them? How will you care more so that scene works? How do you set up things invisibly so that you don’t realize things are being set up?

Are you a director who enjoys really working with the actors to fine-tune those moments? Or do you enjoy working more on the technical side of things?

I love both. This is why I wanted to do this movie the first time and it’s why I wanted to go at it again. “Star Trek” is, I think, for a filmmaker a nexus of crazy scientific, mathematical, practical challenges that really range from the tangible issues of how to move a camera or how to light a scene to the philosophical, how do you explain the science of the premise? The amazing technology, the amazing resources, the amazing artists that we got to work with, it’s like an opportunity that you never get in life, the idea of doing a space adventure is crazy and all that entails, the scope of that, the idea of doing something where an establishing shot isn’t a building or a city or a continent but a planet. It really is a kind of mind-stretching experience. On the flip side of that, to have characters that I would be compelled to watch if it was farmland in the middle of nowhere, I’m interested in those characters. They make me laugh, they make me root for them, they break my heart, and they’re well-meaning and they’re good to each other. There’s a huge heart in this movie, despite the intensity and the adrenaline rush of it, at the core is this really I think wonderful sweet group of funny and odd characters who, true to [Gene] Roddenberry’s original creation. They’re these perfect archetypes, where the way they work together is sort of constant and wonderfully reliable drama and comedy. There’s always another point of view and there’s always a voice in there that is sort of a perfectly balanced comment on how to handle this particular problem, or deal with that particular villain.

Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Kirk (Chris Pine) confront Benedict Cumberbatch in "Star Trek Into Darkness." (Zade Rosenthal/ Paramount)

Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Kirk (Chris Pine) confront Benedict Cumberbatch in “Star Trek Into Darkness.” (Zade Rosenthal/ Paramount)

We do seem to be living in a golden age of movie blockbusters, where there are some truly terrific, fantastic films coming to the multiplex.

I do think we’ve seen whether it’s in the stuff that Chris Nolan has done or Joss Whedon, we’ve seen examples of movies where clearly a hell of a lot of thought has gone into who’s saying what. For a long time, it felt like there was a lot of thought that went into, “How do we blow that up?” I love big spectacle, but spectacle isn’t spectacle if it’s not spectacular to the characters who are experiencing it. When you’ve got amazing visual-effects teams and huge visual-effects budgets, it’s very easy to rely on the work of those incredible artists to do things that seem like, “Oh, that would make the audience happy.” As soon as you’re in that conversation, you’ve betrayed yourself because you’re talking about something from the outside in, and there’s a disconnect. I think you really have to ask yourself, do I care about this? Why do I care? Not just because I’m making it but because there’s someone of some level of relatability, with some innocence, some hope, some humanity that I connect with who is going through that thing. Those eyes are the most important thing in the story. I do agree that there are a number of movies you can point to — I’m sure you can also point to a number of movies that don’t as well — I can luckily acknowledge a number of films that have completely embraced the potential of visual effects but don’t for a second ignore the only reason that we’re caring, the only reason we go, the only reason anyone ever goes again, which is because I love that person, I love those people, I’m rooting for them.

How have you changed as a filmmaker from “Star Trek” to “Star Trek Into Darkness”?

I’m not sure I’ve changed since I made Super 8 movies. I try to do the same thing. I look at my Super 8 movies now and I acknowledge that they’re horrible, so I don’t know what to say. Having made a “Star Trek” movie and getting a chance to make another one is really surreal. To be on the set again, with the bridge, it was like, “Oh my God, how the hell did we get back here?” I feel like there are specific things I wish I’d done differently the first time, some shots, some coverage, some moments. There were ideas for shots I thought would be really cool. We got to do them this time, some of which ended up in the movie. I think that every time I work on something, the next time gets harder. You’d think it would be the other way around, and it’s the opposite.

Part of it is I feel like there are certain challenges — as soon as you go, “I figured it out, I know how to do that,” the next job, the next level of challenge is a deeper level of challenge. The bad example, I remember driving to the set for an episode of “Felicity,” just driving to the set was hard. I was scared out of my mind, the notion of how do I make people believe I can do this? I was confident that it was going to be OK but it’s very different to be going from a theory to a practice. The next time, it wasn’t so hard, the episode I did. It wasn’t as difficult because I had experienced some of that before. Driving to the set wasn’t as hard, I knew what the lenses were. Then it became, “All right, how do I get the actors to do better and make the scenes start to function? How do I go for a deeper emotional moment and how do I do certain visual effects things?” Then you get used to that. The next thing is, “Well, I’ve done that, now I’m doing a movie.” All I’m saying is that every single time I work on something it becomes simultaneously more of a mystery that anything had worked before, but also the challenges become more significant. I feel like I’ve gotten past that last layer of the easier challenges. It’s peeling back this endless onion of layers. When you first start, any scene you do is good. But I want to make sure I’m being pushed and that the work I’m doing doesn’t feel like it’s lazy or relying on challenges that I’ve either overcome or learned to avoid.

How does it feel to be directing a new “Star Wars” film?

It’s just beginning. We are working on some incredibly exciting stuff. It is very strange to be discussing this world and not just with friends of mine at a party being idiot geeks but to be discussing it with other storytellers and filmmakers, some of whom actually worked on the originals. Larry Kasdan is involved, to be working with Kathy Kennedy,  since before I got in the business [that] is something I was hoping I would get to do. The whole thing is remarkably surreal.

What did you think of Patton Oswalt’s “Episode VII” pitch that made the rounds online?

I have to say that was amazing .… I wonder how much of that was thought out beforehand because … the way he told it, it was as if he’d actually pitched it a number of times. Talk about authenticity, that comes from your soul. That was crazy. I was blown away.

— Gina McIntyre

Follow us on Twitter: @LATHeroComplex


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12 Responses to J.J. Abrams on ‘Star Trek Into Darkness’: ‘Spectacle is irrelevant’

  1. Trekker forever says:

    Seen the movie last and it was great. So much so that I am hoping and praying for a remake of all the Star Trek movies with Mr. Abrams and cast and crew to renew these great feature films.

  2. Tinsel & Tine says:

    I really appreciate Abrams being mostly concerned with story and characters, knowing the battles and spectacle are there to support the heart and plot of the movie. Too many directors get so caught up in new 3D technology and building amazing sets, they forget what's really important. (tinseltinecom)

  3. mark says:

    JJ is not alone but he too has done his part. Gene's vision was killed and remains dead by JJ and the team who took over. All that now matters is WAR. I will never give another penny to these crooks.

  4. William says:

    "and whether he has any plans to consult comedian Patton Oswalt on ideas for his next project: “Star Wars: Episode VII.”"

    Where was this in the article? The only time Patton Oswalt is mentioned is when you ask what Abrams thought about his appearance on Parks and Recreation.

  5. I do hope we see William Shatner back as Prime Kirk in Star Trek 3.

    • scophi says:

      You're kidding right? I loved Shatner as much as anyone, but he hasn't been Kirk for almost 20 years (ST: Generations, 1994). No, his time has passed. The Spock overlap was necessary for the film. A Kirk overlap would just feel forced and out of place.

  6. Ann says:

    Excellant storyline .Loved the Khan integration. This one appealed to trekkies as well as a person in our group that went lastnight that never liked the series. A real stand alone treat .Thank you for not having Shatner stealing scenes and leaving Spock as some extra.Love the Ahora and Spock relationship .Khan was incredable as was Capt Kirk. Waiting breathlessly for “Wrath of Khan”

  7. helen says:

    I hope that Benedict Cumberbatch is asked to come and play with JJ Abrams on Star Wars. If ever there was an actor born to be in Star Wars its him.

  8. Kira says:

    I’m a 14 year old girl and was basically born into Star Trek. My parents named me after the deep space 9 character major Kira. I just saw the movie into darkness and it was the best movie I’ve ever seen. Possibly , in my opinion, the best movie ever created! I hope to God that you keep creating more Star Trek movies like that! There aren’t words to describe how amazing that movie was!

  9. Nestor says:

    "This really wouldn't work…" You mean like Spock–the stoic character–crying every five minutes like an angsty teenager? Stuff like that wouldn't work? Must not have gotten that far.

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