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Star Trek Director JJ Abrams Interview: May's Stack Magazines Article
The Quietus , May 15th, 2009 10:08

This month's selection from the Stack Magazines service featuring Little White Lies' interview with Star Trek director JJ Abrams

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This interview with JJ Abrams is taken from Little White Lies magazine, this month's Stack selection.

Words by Matt Bochenski

After 43 years, six series, 10 films and hundreds of millions of dollars, JJ Abrams' re-imagining of the Star Trek universe all hinges on his wife. "This movie was not made by a group of people for whom Star Trek was the end-all," he reveals. "Our concern was that we wanted to make a movie that our wives would love."

There's no bigger gig than Star Trek. James Bond might be the largest franchise by numbers, and Star Wars the cultural touchstone, but no other series is loved as obsessively, as intimately and as jealously as Gene Rodenberry's epic. Created in 1966, five years after President Kennedy called for "a new American enterprise" in space, and a mere three years before Neil Armstrong's giant leap for mankind, Star Trek embodied the hopes and dreams of a generation.

"The great thing about what Gene Rodenberry created," says Abrams, "is that it was an optimistic view of our future. It's not 'a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away'. This is a version of 'us'." Star Trek was the serious geek's programme of choice, a television show with one eye on the future but both feet planted firmly in our world. What other series sent its scripts off to science advisors, or gave birth to books on the politics and religion of its fictional universe? Combined with iconic casting, intergalactic romance and a progressive social agenda, it resonated in an age where America battled the 'evil empire' of communism for supremacy of the stars.

After the heady success of the Robert Evans era, in the 80s, it was Star Trek (and Eddie Murphy) that kept Paramount afloat. Enter the '90s, however, and the franchise became less and less bold, struggling to go anywhere that it hadn't been before. After a decade of diminishing returns – financially and creatively – Star Trek finally ran out of steam. Nemesis was released to global indifference in 2002, while the final series, Enterprise, was cancelled by CBS in 2004.

At the same time that Star Trek foundered, Abrams' own career hit warp speed. The son of Gerald, a successful TV executive, and Carol, an award-winning producer, the business was in his bones. The common image of Abrams is the Hollywood wunderkind who exploded into the big time with the hit show Alias, before cementing his reputation with Lost and getting his big screen break with Mission: Impossible III, the most expensive film ever made by a first time director. But that's only part of the story.

A budding writer and musician, Abrams has been working in the industry since he was 16-years-old. He wrote music for schlock hack Don Dohler's Nightbeast, had his first screenplay developed while still in college, sold the script for Forever Young for $2 million, and was one of six writers who worked on Armageddon. If Abrams is now one of the most powerful hyphenates in Hollywood – producer, director, writer, composer – it's because he's earned it. He's no overnight success, but a harbinger of a tectonic shift in the power structure of Hollywood, away from the old industry players towards a new breed of tech-literate, TV-schooled tastemakers in touch with their inner geek. Abrams is the new 'New Hollywood' incarnate.

All of which is a way of saying that when the franchise came calling, Star Trek needed him a hell of a lot more than he needed it. And what's more, everybody knew it. In the past, he says, the keepers of the franchise were "concerned simply with maintaining their fan base", making movies "with a conscious effort to keep the club closed." This time it was going to be different. Because although he was born in the same year that Rodenberry created the show, Abrams has no special affinity for the franchise. More than that, he's on record as saying that he was never really a fan. "I didn't even realise Spock was half human," he admits.

Twenty years ago, this wouldn't – couldn't – have happened. But with its cinematic reputation in tatters, with its legacy and legitimacy in doubt, Star Trek had nothing left to lose by looking beyond its limited horizons. Forget the final frontier, what the franchise needed was a new direction.

Abrams signed on as a producer, hiring writing buddies Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci to produce a script that appealed to his own sensibilities. "For better or worse, I knew that I wanted to make sure that this Star Trek had a level of roller coaster fun that I had never seen in a Star Trek movie before," he explains. "For the first time, we had the resources and technology to realise the promise of that universe."

As soon as he saw the final draft, Abrams knew that his involvement with the project was going to change: "Once we had a script for it, I realised that we had succeeded and that I would have been ridiculously envious of whomever was on the set calling 'Action!' and 'Cut!' While I had the opportunity, I thought that directing this movie was something I should do."

Not everybody agreed. There was the inevitable scepticism among the fan community who had waited seven years for a new film and didn't want it ruined by a director who couldn't tell a dilithium crystal from a phased pulse generator. And there was the affronted reaction of William Shatner, who left Abrams a series of messages on YouTube complaining about being left out.

But they were the old world and this was the new, as Abrams never seems to get tired of explaining. "We were not going out there to say, 'Let's make a movie for that one [guy] who is a huge fan of Star Trek'," he reveals. "To make a movie for that group is an exercise in myopia."

In fact, so on-message has Abrams been about how he's coming at this from a non-fan's point of view, it's begun to look like the marketing campaign began a long time ago. Paramount is betting the farm on this franchise (they don't have much choice: DreamWorks coined most of the profits from Transformers, while the Mission: Impossible cash cow ended with Tom Cruise's Oprah meltdown), and they know that they won't make the mega bucks they need from Trekkers alone.

And yet, there's a creeping sense that Abrams has been protesting too much – performing a kind of pre-emptive damage control rather than speaking from the heart. "Sometimes the truth can sound like manipulation," he replies when this is put to him. "I've taken a lot of flack for the simple fact that I didn't grow up a Trek fan, and certainly I don't think that marketing sell is necessarily the smartest thing everywhere. It would have been far easier not to say that and not to talk about it. But I gotta say," he adds, "I think that whatever it is, whether it's something as trivial as entertainment or as important as politics, I think when you speak the truth, people feel it and they know it. This movie is one that, for better or worse, was directed by someone who did not grow up a fan of Star Trek, didn't quite get it and always felt that there was a more exciting and thrilling and emotional story to be told."

But with so much history behind the franchise, is it even possible to re-start Star Trek from scratch? Just look at the casting of Leonard Nimoy, who's nothing if not a throwback to that earlier age – the very one that Abrams professes to be rejecting. "The reality is that we had an opportunity to make a movie that stands on its own, [but there is] all of this existing footage in the series and the films that is our backstory. So not to use that would be ridiculous," he argues. "It wasn't about being burdened by this fractured, non-functional albatross that we had to wrestle with and ultimately try and apologise for. Quite the contrary, it was rife with potential." On the subject of Nimoy, he's equally uncompromising: "To use him in a wonderful, wise, mentor role felt like a terrific way not just to acknowledge but grace the fabric from which this was made, and at the same time, if you look at the movie, you've never seen Star Trek like this before."

It's clearly a balancing act for Abrams, but some things remain beyond his control. Not least the fact that he's launching this new enterprise in a vastly different climate than the age of optimism that greeted Rodenberry's original series. With the fall of communism, the space race became a relic of history – an expensive proxy war fuelled by ego and ideology. The 'idea' of space is something very different today, just another adjunct of corporate culture, populated by TV satellites and stellar junk. What place is there for Star Trek in this cynical world?

"The idea of 'space, the final frontier' is a cliché," admits Abrams, "and things that are so familiar and ubiquitous become invisible after a while and taken for granted. But if you actually stop and consider what that means, you know, 'to boldly go where no man has gone before', that idea is actually really exciting and thrilling."

Abrams, at least, retains an almost poetic sense of the possibilities of space travel, and of Star Trek. "I just think there's something that is remarkable and inspiring and thrilling and terrifying about that prospect, and it is only our lack of technology and experience that allows us to feel safe and unrequired to actually consider the ramifications," he enthuses. "But that's one of the things that Star Trek did, and now continues to do, which is embrace the very real possibility that one day we are going to be able to go far beyond what is familiar and, hopefully, go boldly."

In the final analysis, that boldness is evident in Abrams' film. It's a grand vision of a world – a universe – painted in vivid hues and strong dynamics. Like so much about the project, though, it didn't come easily. "You do a movie like Star Trek and it completely fucks with your whole approach to filmmaking," he laughs. "Typically, you know, an establishing shot is a building, on occasion it's a city – in Star Trek it's a planet. You have to literally change the way you consider orienting the audience."

The result is a future that lives and breathes – a rare example of a world which, like Blade Runner's or Alien's, feels fully and realistically integrated into the one that we know. And it's because Abrams was influenced not just by the exciting space opera of Star Wars, but more down-to-earth elements, like an iron works in Maine that inspired the shot of the Enterprise under construction.

Underpinning all of it, though – the grand visuals, the stunning spectacle, even the fans' discontent and our changing relationship with space itself – is the one essential point to which Abrams constantly refers: "We've seen so many space movies, no one's going to care about a space movie. That's not enough. And no one's going to care about a ship flying by – that's not a spectacular vision anymore. But what people will care about are the people who are on the ship. So what I'm hoping is that as we move forward people will embrace this movie not because of what's come before and not because it takes place in space and not even because the effects are as good as ILM made them. But rather because the characters make you laugh, they make you feel and they make you ultimately believe."