After directing the first two movies in the so-called Kelvin Timeline of Star Trek — 2009’s Star Trek and 2013’s controversial and divisive Star Trek Into Darkness — J.J. Abrams stepped away from the franchise he rebooted to help relaunch another one (you might have heard of the movie he directed next, Star Wars: The Force Awakens). But while Justin Lin from the Fast and Furious series stepped in to direct the new Trek adventure, Star Trek Beyond, Abrams stayed on as producer and one of the keepers of the franchise flame as it approaches its 50th anniversary.
We spoke with Abrams at the Star Trek Beyond press day about changing his role, getting Justin Lin on board, the mistakes he learned from on Into Darkness and whether he’s looking forward to watching the new Star Trek TV series coming to CBS All Access in 2017.
How did you see your role this time, moving from director to producer? What was your primary function on this one?
J.J. Abrams: You know, my role was to help in any way that Justin needed help, but he didn’t need much help. When I called him to see if he’d be interested in doing this, I’d heard that he liked Star Trek, I didn’t know how deep or real that was, and I soon found out it was very real — he grew up watching the show with his parents and loved the characters — and knew he had an amazing facility with action ‘cause of the Fast films. So watching him do the thing I was hoping he would do, which was sort of bring more of an original series vibe to the movie, but also do it in a way that felt very much “now” in a kind of big, muscular, spectacular way, it was really ideal as someone who was jealous of anyone who got to work with that cast, ‘cause the cast was so great.
But my role was, I was editing The Force Awakens while he was shooting, but my role in the beginning was to help with story, my role in post was to help with the cut, and you know, just watching cuts and giving notes and then Justin would go off and do his thing and it was kind of a great collaboration. He was a wonderful director to work with.
Obviously there was some criticism of Into Darkness at the time and you acknowledged that. Do you feel this was a chance to — not course correct, but apply lessons that you learned on that film?
Yeah, I think one of the biggest mistakes that we made in Into Darkness was not having them get the hell out of Dodge — like, they needed to go somewhere else. It just felt a little bit like, let’s move forward. And the Khan thing — I loved that we did Khan, I loved that we did it with Benedict, but I think that we should have 100 percent said up front, Khan’s in this movie. What we were trying to do was preserve the surprise that the crew experiences 40-something minutes in, and it ended up being stupid because it looked like we were trying to pull one over on people or something, which of course we knew they would find out when they saw the movie, what was going on, but it was just a miscalculation.
So that to me was the biggest sort of error we made in talking about the movie. This movie, to me, does the thing that you want a Star Trek movie to do, which is they trek the stars. They go somewhere else, they get away, and then they have to deal with what they stumble upon. In this case, doing the thing that Justin wanted to do — which is destroy the Enterprise so early on, which is a ballsy move, I think — really worked. It throws these characters, I think, into classic, stranded on a planet, old school situations.
How do you feel about the franchise coming back to TV via CBS? Are you looking forward to watching that as a fan…?
And do you get any special VIP early look?
Well, I’m obviously friends with Alex Kurtzman and I’ve known Nick Meyer since I was 11, so I can’t wait to see what those guys do. My friend Jesse Alexander’s on it. And I’m sure it’s going to be awesome. I can’t wait. I mean, there’s clearly, as the past has proven, there’s enough room for sort of multiple Star Trek iterations and I really look forward to what they’re going to do. I’m sure they’ll kill it.
Star Trek Beyond hits U.S. theaters on July 22, 2016.