JJ Abrams Round Table Interview. ENI rounds up our trio of Paramount Transformers/Trek DVD Pre-release Press with a full interview with Star Trek director JJ Abrams… Star Trek Beams Up to a Single and Two-Disc DVD and Three-Disc Blu-ray November 17, 2009.
Question: Have you gotten any reaction from the long time fans? Do you feel that they approved of the new film?
J.J. ABRAMS: I think that, luckily since they didn’t kill us, I think they were for the most part okay with the movie. Star Trek has a very vocal and passionate… (fan-base). I was warned time and again, and by many people, that “You have to be careful” “You must be terrified” by doing Star Trek, and it was a little nerve racking. But mostly because people kept warning me about the fans. But, they seemed to really embrace it, and I give complete credit to the cast. They managed to take over these roles that were iconic roles, even for people who didn’t “know” Star Trek well. But everyone sort of knew about Kirk and Spock. Chris Pine, Zachary, Simon, John, Anton, Karl, the whole group just embodied these people in a way that made it safe, not just new audiences but also existing fans, to embrace these characters. And finally because, Leonard Nimoy was in the film in a meaningful way, he really provided a bridge between existing Star Trek and what is “now”. We could have never made the movie with out him.
Question: When you were making the film, how conscious were you of the DVD content?
ABRAMS: I’m always thinking about the DVD, partially because I’m a fan of the DVD, so I always hope that we’re doing stuff that’s going to be beneficial. So, even if it’s just getting video crews, to document moments that might seem mundane or unimportant, but in the context of how things got made… You know, the crew of a movie like this, and especially this crew, work so hard. They do such incredible work, and they’re usually the invisible people. If they do a great job, then you’re not really thinking about the costumes, you know, if they are doing a great job, then you really aren’t thinking about that visual effect or that prop, or that set. And its even more reason that they should be celebrated. So I love that on the special features, they get to take the stage and talk about the amazing work that they do, and have that documented. And often they get credit for but not screen time, so its really a nice thing to see them on screen.
Question: Are there any scenes that were deleted from the film that you regret? Will any of these be held back for potential release in the sequel?
ABRAMS: One of the special features that we’re doing on the DVD and BD is (a deleted scene) where you do get to see Klingons, and they are in the movie. It was one of those things that I hated to cut, for a number of reasons and one of them is because I loved the design and I loved the world, and I loved the story that you see in those moments, so I’m excited for people to get to see those scenes. But also because Richard Garber is one of my favorite actors, played a Klingon and was in the movie, and had a ton of makeup on, a very heavy, hot costume, and we shot with him, and then I had to call him and tell him his scene wasn’t going to be in the film.
But a huge consolation for me is that it will live forever on the DVD and Blu-Ray. But in going forward, the fun of this movie series we’ll have the opportunity given the alternate timeline to cross paths with any of these experiences, places, characters that existed in the original series. But you have to be very careful doing that obviously, because I don’t want to do something that’s so inside that once again, only the hardcore fans will appreciate. But I guarantee you that whatever the story is, and we’re only just now starting to work on the script, we’re just beginning the process – What ever the final movie ends up being, I know it will be something that will work on it’s own terms and be something that you don’t need to study “Star Trek” to get it, but if you are a fan, you will be rewarded, hopefully, with gift after gift of connections references and characters and things that you hopefully hold near and dear to you.
Question: While making the film, did you define in concrete terms, the rules of how the time-travel and Alternate universe works?
ABRAMS: There are elements in the special features and deleted scenes that address the storyline and the logic of it. For example one of the things that people sort of have had issues with is “Oh come on! Kirk is going to run into an ice cave and he’s going to run into Spock? That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard” And well, granted, that was unlikely. But, there is a scene where they’re in the cave and it was cut from the movie where Spock speaks to that and he talks about how this is the Timeline’s way of trying to repair itself. And it’s as much about “Faith” as anything. The funny thing is that when we were working on the script, it was one of those moments where we thought, “How in the name of God are we going to explain that?” and one of the genius moves that Alex and Bob (Kurtzman and Orci, writers of the screenplay) did is that they just did it. They made it about inevitability and they made it about how Kirk and Spock, really about this family, that nothing could keep apart. And its that kind of friendship that will just endure anything. So there was a kind of genius in taking the most unlikely moment, of course that I would never in a million years buy, and hang a huge lantern on it and say, “That is fate!” And you just kind of go, “okay”. But then that moment, which you can see in the dvd, didn’t, in my mind need to be explained away. Although people who have seen it think that it was really good though because it helps explain why other things happen. So, people might find that added thing a piece that was missing.
Question: Do you think people will want more of an explanation in the sequel?
ABRAMS: The trick in doing these kinds of movies, something involves these weird kind of alternate reality or time travel is that you don’t want to not explain it. But you don’t want to explain everything. I mean, the fun of any movie is that you can have as much fun with the missing pieces as you do with the pieces you get. So for me, not knowing every detail allows me to get inside of the story and it starts to fill in the blanks. With everything thing explained, I think you start to feel like you’re being pandered or
there’s too much exposition.
Question: How far ahead do you envision your involvement with the franchise? Is it a movie-by-movie basis for you, or do you see yourself involved with it for the foreseeable future?
ABRAMS: That’s a wonderfully optimistic question and I appreciate that, but the answer is that it’s obviously just movie-to-movie. The fact that we are now actively discussing the second film is surreal and very nice, and I’m thrilled. I hope that that results in something worthy of your time. But, it’s one of those things that you just don’t know. And so, I cannot presume it’s gonna’ be a series that goes beyond those. Do we have ideas for a few movies and have we discussed them? Of course. You can’t help but go, “Oh, it would be really cool, if we could do this, or if we can set that up there?” You throw those things around. But, we can’t presume it’s going to be anything more than now another film that we’re lucky enough to do.
Question: In a recent lecture you gave, you spoke about the “Mystery Box”. Can you talk about that here?
ABRAMS: Sure. The mystery box was this thing that I bought at a magic store, that my grandfather used to take me to when I was young in New York. And they had this “Magic Mystery Box” that was $15 and it was a box with this big Question Mark on it, and you don’t know what you’re getting. But you’re spending $35 and you know you’re getting, what they claimed was $50 worth of magic. So my Grandfather bought it for me but I never opened it. The reason I never opened it is because I just knew that whatever was inside of that box, was going to be far less intriguing than the Idea of “What was in the box?” By keeping it closed and by keeping that mystery box sealed, there was mystery. And inherently there was possibility inherently that was an exciting notion. If I opened that box the day I bought it, I would not remember, but by having it there, it allows for anything to be inside the box. And I was asked to speak at that conference, and I didn’t know what to talk about. Then my producing partner said, “Why don’t you talk about the box?” And it occurred to me that there was this bizarre connection between this silly box that I’d had for years, that remained unopened, and the process of story telling.
Specifically for Star Trek, I will say that, well, I don’t overtly go into a project thinking “How can I apply the Magic Box theory to it” but it’s simply story telling. In describing it in the talk that I gave, it was really about how every aspect of movie making seems to involve the Mystery Box. Everything from opening the computer screen to write something and it’s a blank screen, and it literally is this sort of box. That is sort of asking to be filled with something of interest. And there’s that sense of potential that it could be something great! When you go to a movie theater, and the movie begins, there’s this box and you’re going in to see this film, and what is it going to be, and you don’t quite know… Then in those early moments of the movie, when the lights go down, and the studio credits come up, it’s just full of possibilities. Anything could be contained in that box.
So the idea in story telling is, it can be literal, such as in “Pulp Fiction” where you just don’t know what’s in the brief-case you just have no idea. We completely stole that when we did “Mission Impossible 3” and we had the “Rabbit’s Foot” which is a McGuffin, that you never really know what it is. But it doesn’t matter because the bad guy wants it, and so do we.
In Star Trek, I would say that in the very beginning of the film you’re thrust into this story where this massive alien ship and proceeds to destroy a federation ship and you don’t know who the bad guy is, or where they came from, you don’t know what it means. That is a mystery box. So immediately you’re hooked.
In television, the first act of a TV-show is called a teaser, and literally it’s meant to tease you into, not leaving and into watching the next act. Every act should, in theory, end with some kind of mystery box. You will sit through that toilet paper commercial that comes next, so that when the next act begins, the box can be opened.
So in Star Trek, that notion of, where does the bad guy come from, or what’s going to happen if Spock find’s out that he’s in that same timeline as an older man. Or that question mark of how will Kirk ever defeat the bad guy. Or that question of what will they do to save earth. These are all versions of the Mystery Box for me… This provides the audience a way of filling in the blanks, which to me, its almost like a neurological thing, where you actually become active in the story. And you personalize it in a way.
I’ll give one final example and then I’ll shut up. In the “Graduate”, there was the scene where they’re having their date, and they’re in the car, and the top goes up, and the best part of their date begins. You don’t hear any of it, but you’re watching them have a moment that you know is incredibly meaningful. That to me is the perfect definition of “Mystery Box”. Where you giving that moment, the most romantic, the most connected, the most wonderful scene, dialogue, exchange that can possibly happen, but you’re not being shown it. So I think, whether it’s the shark you barely see, or the alien you barely see, or the romantic moment you don’t really get to see, that makes it scarier, more romantic, because you didn’t see it. And that to me is what all storytellers should try to achieve.
Question: Can you tell us a little bit about the “Shatner Conundrum” special feature on the DVD/BD?
ABRAMS: Let me say this, because the Shatner things comes up quite a bit, as someone who was a huge William Shatner fan in a huge way, just because of the Twilight Zone Episodes he did. And then completely appreciating what he did in Star Trek, but not becoming a full fan until I worked on this movie…The idea of having William Shatner in the movie, well it was a forgone conclusion that we wanted him in the movie. The problem was, his character died onscreen in one of his Trek films. And since we decided very early on that we wanted to adhere to Trek Canon, as best we could, and that was a huge challenge because even the original series in many ways didn’t always adhere to Trek Canon.
The required machinations to get Shatner in to the movie would have been very difficult to do given the story we wanted to tell. And also give him the kind of part that he would be happy with. It would have felt like a gimmick to get Shatner into the movie, which would have been, to me, distracting.
Having said that, would it have been fun to have him in the movie? Of course. Would it have been great to work with him? No doubt. I was as excited to work with him as I was with Mr. Nimoy, who we luckily did get to have in the film. I will say that the Shatner Conundrum special feature on the DVD talks to this, which is essentially “How do you put him in the movie, when you want him in it, so badly and yet the story actually seems a bit in counter purposes with the movie you’re trying to tell, er, Story you want to tell.
In terms of moving forward, I would love to sort of figure out something, that given the challenge of introducing these new characters, given the burden of having to cast people, I think the first movie did some of the heavy lifting that needed to be done in order to free us in order to continue going forward. Maybe there’s less of a burden and more opportunity on what we can do… I would love to work with him, we speak, we actually have a lunch date planned. I’m a fan, I’m a friend of his, I would love to … well he’s a friend of mine, he may say otherwise on his blog today, but I really couldn’t like him more, and I would love to work with him.
Question: Leonard Nimoy recently said that a Star Trek sequel might not need him anymore. What is your reaction to that?
ABRAMS: I can’t imagine a Star Trek movie not needing him. I’m sure that what he’s saying is a combination of modesty and honesty. He may actually feel that way. But, the truth is, we could never have made this movie without him, and working with him again would be a joy. It is clearly too early, given that we are just now talking story, to conclude whether or not Spock Prime is in the film or not. Do I want to work with him again? Of course, 100%. I’d love to.
Question: What are your plans for him on Fringe, beyond this week’s episode?
ABRAMS: In terms of his role as William Bell, none of us could believe our luck that we convinced him to say yes to being on the show. He is wonderful on the show. And, I will say that this is not the last you will see of his character.
Question: On this week’s episode, William Bell gets to have a meeting with Olivia (Anna Torv). Will viewers get to see him face off with Walter Bishop (John Noble)?
ABRAMS: I don’t want to give anything away, but this is not the last you’ll see of him. He is so good and so wonderful to work with that I wouldn’t limit the possibilities of what he’ll get to do.
Question: With all of the projects you are involved in, how do you balance your work with your private life?
ABRAMS: I take my kids to school every day, and I try to be home to put them to bed every night. I don’t work on the weekends, and with my wife and 3 kids, we took a lot of time off this summer. We traveled in Europe… The truth is that any of our jobs is hard to juggle with the responsibilities and find time for life and friends and you know, the family is the most important thing so its not like there’s an option, you know, that just is the priority. The challenge is, how in a work day do you balance all the stuff that I need to do, and the answer, for me at least is, I work with amazingly talented people, a lot of wonderful producers and writers and executives, who do amazing work. Are there fires to put out? Are there problems that come up? Of course! There are days when I feel like I can’t possibly do it well, and there are certainly days when I don’t. But the balance is, there’s a challenge and its also a question of, to the best of my abilities, delegating responsibility to people who are worthy and deserving of that and more and to be lucky enough to give people a chance to do their best work, for example, Tom Cruise gave me an opportunity to direct a feature film. Which was, in many ways, crazy, I’d never had that chance before, and he let me do it.
There are amazing writers who should be directors, and there are great composers who should be producers, and there are great filmmakers who should continue doing what they do and be encouraged. So I just try to work with people who make all of us work better, and that’s really the only answer that I can give.
Question: You managed to contemporize what was an aging franchise, with your work on Star Trek, and you talked about including more current events in the sequel. Do you think that Star Trek is something that needs to be continuously updated for each generation?
ABRAMS: It’s hard to give a blanket answer to that question. I do think that, whether it’s Star Trek or anything, whatever is being investigated, created or produced now, in movies or TV, needs to consider the context in which it is being distributed. It’s not a vacuum. There are certain universal themes of love, conflict, loyalty or family that are everlasting and that need to be presented in a way that makes it feel relevant, even if it’s a period piece. You need to consider what context that film, that story and those characters are being seen in.
But, having said that, with Star Trek, it’s not like we’re looking to make the second movie some kind of heavy political allegory. I think that it’s important that there is metaphor to what we know and that there is relevance, and I think allegory is the thing that made shows like The Twilight Zone and Star Trek resonate and still be vital today. But, because the first movie was so much about introducing these people, and it was very much a premise movie about how to bring these people together, it made it difficult to also have the film go as deep as it could, about certain conflict, certain relationships and the heart of who some of these characters are. I think it was successful in what it needed to do, to introduce these people, but I feel like, now that we’ve done that, it is the job of the next film to go a little bit deeper. It shouldn’t be any less fun or take itself too seriously, but consider who these people are now and grow with them, and just examine them a little more closer, now that we’ve gotten through the pleasantries and introductions.
Question: Do you have a specific team that prepares the DVD releases as opposed to the Theatrical crew?
ABRAMS: We have a great group of people who worked on this DVD, and people who we’ve worked with before. There are people at Bad Robot (JJ’s Production Company) notably Dana Benhoff, who does a lot of work with us on the DVD and with online materials. Brian Berk and I watch the cuts and the ideas and proposals, and the final products and give our notes. I think that thing I’m most excited about is the special features that show a little bit of the personalities of the actors. Even the gag reel, which is funny, when you see Zachary screw up. You get to see him go from Spock to Zachary, Spock to Zachary. The back and forth is so funny to me, because he could not be any less like Spock. And yet, you know he was so convincing, to have him bounce back and forth so quickly when he screws up; it makes me laugh every time. There’s that kind of stuff that to see the personalities of the actors and just see how great they were off camera – its wonderful. But then the work of ILM or the brilliant design technique of Scott Chambers who had as hard of a job, I think, doing this movie as Chris or Zachary did, working on the redesign of these ships and this world and again, that the fans were so passionate about. My favorite thing is sort of seeing those aspects of the production spotlighted and celebrated.
Question: Nicholas Meyer watched all 79 episodes of the original series before directing “Wrath Of Khan”, how many of the original episodes did you watch in preparation for making the film?
ABRAMS: I saw most of the original series. Actually I watched a lot of them with my kids, and they loved it so much more than I ever thought they would. They were scared to death in parts, and it was so cool to see these episodes through the eyes of an 7 or 8 year old.
But I want to speak a moment about Nicholas Meyer. He was an amazing director and writer. He was friends with my parents, when I was a kid. And when I was a kid, among the other embarrassing things I would to, and there is a list of stupid things, I would make these dumb comic tapes, like with friends, Greg Rumberg and I would do countless moronic comic tapes. I did remember one night though when Nicholas Meyer was over for dinner. He came into my room and I was probably nine, and he and I made a tape together. It was some stupid interview tape, where he and I were playing characters interviewing each other. And he was just sort of a guy who was willing to be silly and goofy, and I knew that he was a writer. But I didn’t really know much about what he did…
But that idea that later he would go on to direct a Star Trek movie, and then even later I would is so weird to me, and I’ve never discussed this because, its obviously so painfully boring, but its one of those things… And years later he came to my Bar Mitzvah, and he gave me Unabridged Sherlock Holmes, which I still have, and it’s just bizarre to me, cause I was such a fan of the films he did. And really that was the height of my Star Trek fandom when his films came out, I just loved them. So anyway I felt a bit of a kinship because I knew that guy! It was very surreal for me to finally be in those shoes and saying “Action!”
Question: Any thought of Leonard Nimoy reprising the role of Paris in Mission: Impossible 4? Can you rule that out?
ABRAMS: How cool would that be? I just got a call that Peter Graves is in great shape, which would be a very bizarre bend in the space-time continuum, for obvious reasons. I almost feel like you could make him serious again and bringing him back. Whether it’s Nimoy, who I have an incredible affinity for, or Graves, or anyone, we’ll see. I actually tried to get Martin Landau in Mission 3, in a very small little moment just for fun, and was told that he had no interest in doing it. But then, when I met him, after the movie came out, it was the greatest thing. We were at this restaurant in New York, for one of the TV Upfront parties, and someone introduced me to Landau. They took me over and Martin Landau came over to me, extended his hand, and [pretended to lift his face off]. That was the greatest thing I’d ever seen.
Question: With everything you have going on, for the next couple months, what will you be focusing on mostly?
ABRAMS: Jeff Pinkner and Joel Wyman are running Fringe very well. We’re still very involved in that, but they’re running that. We have a new series, that we just sold to NBC, that we’re going to be producing. It’s a pilot. And, there’s a movie that I’m writing that I would love to direct, early next year, so we’ll see if that comes to fruition. There’s a movie, called Morning Glory, that’s coming out next year, with Harrison Ford, Rachel McAdams and Diane Keaton, that’s being edited now. Roger Michell directed that. And, we’re obviously hard at work on Star Trek 2 and Mission: Impossible 4. There’s a lot that we’re working on.
Question: Any chance of you shooting the next Star Trek film in 3-D?
ABRAMS: Paramount talked to me about doing the first one in 3-D and, having it only be my second film, I was petrified just at the addition of it. I thought it would be another dimension of pain-in-the-ass. I was just like, “I want to make a decent 2-D movie.” I was so worried that, instead of being a decent 2-D movie, it would have been a bad 3-D one. I’m open to looking at it ’cause now I feel a little bit more comfortable. And, if I, in fact, direct the Star Trek sequel, 3-D could be really fun, so I’m open to it. What I’ve seen of Avatar makes me want to do it because it’s so crazy-cool looking.