‘Star Trek Beyond’: Director Justin Lin on How His Approach Differs from J.J. Abrams

     May 31, 2016


Last year when Star Trek Beyond was filming in Vancouver, I got to visit the set with a few other reporters. During a break in filming, we got to speak with director Justin Lin. During the wide-ranging interview he talked about how his film will be different from the J.J. Abrams films, how he got involved with the sequel, what it’s like being the new guy on set, how Idris Elba’s character will differ from the previous Star Trek antagonists, and more. Check out what he had to say below. Star Trek Beyond opens July 22.

star-trek-beyond-posterQuestion: How is your Star Trek film different from the J.J. Abrams Star Trek films?

JUSTIN LIN: Well, you know, for me, coming in, I felt like I’ve had years and years as a fan, as a kid kinda growing up watching the TV show, I wanted to really kind of explore the five-year journey, and also to kind of explore all the relationships. I think what J.J. did was great in setting the world up, and I was able to kind of come in and…At the same time, it’s 50th anniversary coming up, and I feel like it’s important to maybe try to deconstruct why Federation, Starfleet, and why Star Trek is special. And, hopefully, at the end of it we reaffirm why it’s been around that long. And hopefully we can help keep it going.

J.J.’s film was bright and flashy. Is this going to be more in line of that with the first one visually?

LIN: No. It’s different. It’s kind of my sensibility. I think a lot of it…Again, the journey of making this film, it’s so compact, in a way, when I signed up. Coming up with an idea and then also jumping in with Simon and Doug and the whole crew and building this world in five months, it’s unprecedented. It’s never been done before.

And I think to really embrace that, I felt like the way to do it is to really kind of just trust your gut. You know, trust my gut in what I think, you know, why I love Star Trek. So by doing that, a lot of it was just about, tonally…And it is very different than the other two. But it reflects kind of my chapter or my turn as a gatekeeper for this one.

When you first sat down with J.J. and Paramount, what were some of the main things that you had that you wanted to see in your Star Trek movie?

LIN: Well, I love kind of what he did in ’09 in setting up this new canon. I love the old shows because of just them traveling and exploring new worlds. So that was one of the things I felt like was important to have.

And the other one, it was really just…It came off the first conversation with J.J. and him just saying, “Look. Just take it over, and whatever you do, be bold.” I take that to heart. I think that’s been a great partnership. I’m in a place in my career where I don’t have to do things just to do things. So it was really great to have that kind of, again, environment to work in where I could really explore and really just try things.


Image via Paramount

Your background, obviously you’ve got a lot of acclaim for your action work. The last film had a lot of action. Can you talk a little bit about this film’s action sequences differ from what we’ve seen in prior Star Trek’s?

LIN: I don’t know how to totally answer that. I kind of approach action/non-action very much similarly. It has to be character-based and it has to kind of come off the theme and the overall arc. I had a very strong opinion on what sets this journey off. That’s been the centerpiece of this film.

So that, to me, it leads to a literal kind of deconstruction, but also, at the same time, thematic deconstruction of Star Trek. And I think it puts our characters at a point where they have to kind of work together. It gives each character an arc and also relationships that I’ve always wanted to see them have.

It’s amazing, like 10 years of my childhood watching it, I thought, “God, can Chekov hang out with Kirk?” So I get to answer all those questions. You know, like Bones and Spock, like the two characters on Kirk’s shoulders. I’d love to see how they would interact if they were…

So a lot of that came off the construct of kind of the impetus of what sets this journey off.

Could you talk a little bit about your antagonist in this film? What can you tease? A lot of times, it seems like some of the better movies that come out have a great antagonist. And sometimes, when they are forgotten about or it’s just a weak one, it lessens the entire film.

LIN: I think that’s very important. That’s why I feel very fortunate talking to Idris. I remember our first conversation. It was just so much fun talking about it, because I wanted the character to have a very specific and valid philosophy and point of view. And I wanted to create something that would challenge, and also in a very valid way, the philosophy of The Federation. And I think that’s what this character…My goal is to really have him do that. So far we’ve been having a lot of fun doing that.


Image via Paramount Pictures

We heard you came in and first pitched that, you showed the animatic that impressed J.J. 

LIN: I did? [laughs]

Well, we were told that. We were told that there was this big sequence near the end of the film that you…

LIN: That was actually what I was talking about, about the inciting incident for the movie. [laughs] I do have animatic of it, but…It takes months to get those things done. I don’t think I went in and pitched that. But it’s something that I love doing with these big-budget movies. Soon after I signed on, I got to really kind of build that. As of this week, I think we’ve finally kind of completed 90% of it. So I’m really excited to see it come to life.

Chris Pine mentioned that there’s an incident that happens maybe a quarter of the way into the movie, and from there it’s just a roller coaster ride.

LIN: That’s the incident. [laughs]

Talk a little bit about…when you are making a big movie for four quadrants, for a huge audience, you obviously have to have action. Can you talk about the balancing of the action with those great little character moments that Star Trek fan and all of us love?

LIN: I mean, to me it’s always very important that first meeting that I have. And I’ve been very fortunate in my career that I’ve learned that that’s the most important meeting to have, because I get the marketing. I get the budgeting. I get it’s a business. I get that it’s commerce. But, at the same time, I can’t be servicing that. So what I can do is to articulate what I want to do, and if it fits, then I think it’s a great relationship. And if one of them doesn’t quite fit, then I shouldn’t be doing it.

I think that, to me, is important. Like, action to me is no fun if it’s not built around character. And that has to come from the very original impetus of why this movie exists. So far, I mean all the action pieces are set off of that incident and all how our characters react to it. So, for me it’s exciting because it’s organic. It’s not artificial. It’s not something that I do an action because people want to see action. It’s because this journey, whatever happens, whatever causes this to happen, whatever our characters do to try to counter it somehow organically creates that.


Image via Paramount Pictures

How did working on your long experience on the Fast and the Furious films inform this movie? Everyone thinks of the Fast and the Furious movies as action movies. Of course the character dynamics are so important there.

LIN: Yeah. It was very important, because I think when I signed up for that franchise, it had already a lot of definitions attached to it. And I think maybe it was coming from the indie world. I wanted to explore those characters.

The thing is, the environment to create that was always very difficult just because of the timeframe and trying to change a culture coming in. so it really helped me kinda understand, when I came in here, to really kinda…And also having J.J., who is still a part of this, to have that conversation, to have that trust, to build that trust I think was very important.

You are coming in now to a franchise that’s already had two films. The cast and some of the crew have been together for all this time. What is it like coming in as the new guy?

LIN: It’s very interesting, because, you know, I definitely want to approach it with respect. Obviously I was in the theaters watching the first two. And so, a lot of the experience they have, I want to really embrace that.

But, at the same time, I’ve been brought in to hopefully have a point of view. You know, this is a big universe, and in my turn I wanted to explore here and this is what I want to do. That’s something that I can’t speak more highly about this cast and crew. Again, under this kind of circumstance, everybody has been great and we’ve been able to build that trust pretty quick. And I think to jump in together and to really kind of believe in each other, I think that’s been a lot of fun.


Image via Paramount Pictures

Can you say how Idris’s character may differ from the antagonists we’ve seen in prior Star Trek films? Is it safe to say he won’t be revealed as a character we’ve seen before?

LIN: It definitely is not a character you’ve seen before. For me it was important because this film would not exist without this character. And I feel like it was important when I had that first meeting, and once I decided what journey this film should take, it really was hinged off, again, this antagonist’s philosophy. And so, that’s one of the things, and also getting one of Idris’s caliber and talent has been amazing.

You are a lifelong Star Trek fan. Are there any Easter eggs you’ve thought about that you wanted to plant in this thing?

LIN: Organically, there’s a lot of Easter eggs, just because Simon, and Doug, and myself and everybody. I think the fans are going to have a really good time. I don’t know all things, but that’s been a big part of me. I just want to really kind of embrace the essence of that.

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