Sunday, March 01, 2009

WONDERCON 2009—Star Trek

It must be absolutely thrilling for an enthused pop cultural maestro like J.J. Abrams to stand before a cheering audience of 5,000 fans ravenous for the world premiere of the Star Trek trailer and sneak peek footage of Paramount Pictures and Spyglass Entertainment's revisioning of the Star Trek franchise, complete with a young new crew venturing boldly where no one has gone before; the "before" being essential in that classic tagline as Star Trek is more prequel than sequel. Primed for a May 8 theatrical release, Abrams took to San Francisco's WonderCon stage with Star Trek producer Bryan Burk, writer Roberto Orci, and actors Zoe Saldana (Lt. Nyota Uhura), "heartthrob of the future" Chris Pine (Kirk), and—judging from the raucous audience reaction—the wildly popular Zachary Quinto (Spock).

Frequent copy has asserted that Abrams' intention with his version of Star Trek is to open it up to a wider audience, so naturally one can only wonder how he hopes to strike a balance between long-time fans of the series and prospective newcomers and just how much continuity he's maintaining with all that's come before? Abrams specified that long-time fans of Star Trek are savvy enough to know that if he were just making the movie for existing fans of Star Trek, he would be limiting his audience enormously. Because he is beholden to the fans of Star Trek who—in essence—have allowed the remake, he wanted to assure fans of the franchise that his version is, indeed, for them. "In many ways it goes without saying, though it's important to say it." Admitting that he has received some flak for stating to the press that he was making his film for future fans of Star Trek—as if he didn't care about the existing fans—Abrams adamantly asserted that nothing could be further from the truth. "We love and are beholden to existing fans of Star Trek and one of the ways that we made sure this movie was going to make you happy was that we had this great range of points of view with the producers, one of them being Bryan [Burk], who had never seen an episode of Star Trek at all." "It's at this point," Burk interjected, "where [J.J.] publicly and repeatedly tells everyone what a moron I am." Abrams continued, "Then we've got Bob Orci who is an absolute avowed Trekker. So we have this great balance of people who live and breathe Star Trek and people who…"—Abrams glanced at Burk—"are idiots."

To underscore his loyalty to existing Star Trek fans, Abrams said his film has a million references that only true Trekkies will pick up on and the story adheres to canon, as much as the original series adheres to canon, because "c'mon, you all know, even in the original series there are some contradictions." As someone who was not a fan to begin with, Abrams has come to appreciate and understand and—to a certain extent—even feel jealous that he didn't get hooked earlier because he's now aware of how amazing the TV show was. Orci briefly added that everyone on the panel respected and was inspired by what Star Trek was and Abrams' movie is in a unique position because it is both a prequel and a sequel. All of Star Trek that has preceded this movie was necessary within canon for this movie to happen. "If you're a fan, your knowledge of Star Trek is going to be rewarded. If you're not, you're going to learn why we were all inspired by it."

Asked why he decided to involve himself with this revisioning of Star Trek, Abrams answered, "Honestly, when they came to me and asked if I'd be interested in producing Star Trek, although I was not a massive fan, I could completely appreciate that there were so many people who were. The idea of investigating Kirk and Spock and how they came to be was very interesting to me so I said, 'Yeah.' I immediately called Bryan and Bob and
Alex [Kurtzman] and Damon [Lindelof]—the other writer and producer—and we started meeting and talking about stuff. Alex and Bob went off and wrote the script and—when I read it—it was amazing and so much fun, full of characters and huge action and spectacle. [At this point Bob passed a $20 bill down to J.J., which Abrams quickly pocketed.] It had nothing to do with necessarily having been a fan. I suddenly was. And I knew I would be so jealous of anyone directing that movie every day on the set so I said yes to directing too."

One audience member spotlighted what he perceived to be Abrams' unique talent for blending action, drama and emotion throughout his work and he wanted to know how Abrams communicated with his actors towards achieving that blend? Vulnerability and strength at the same time? "My favorite movies," Abrams answered, "my guess is your favorite movies are movies that combine characters that are relatable, complex, that are broken in a way but you believe them and they're real and they make you feel. Then they're thrown into the craziest shit of all time and suddenly it's like the Reese's peanut butter cup and chocolate—fantastic stuff!—so, for me combining those two things is the key to having it work. Whether I'm writing alone, whether I'm working with Alex and Bob, or with David—and it's so much fun working with these guys because we've been working together since Alias—it's been amazing to work with people who inspire you to do exactly what you're talking about: to push you to try to find ways to feel deeper and more about characters and put them into situations that are increasingly unbelievable. The funny thing to me is that a lot of stuff that you think people might have problems with, they don't. Like, people will go anywhere—that's what's so cool about fantasy, sci fi, horror—people will go there willingly. When we did the pilot for Fringe, where Alex and Bob helped me, it was insane. The main character shares consciousness with her unconscious boyfriend who's turning invisible because of this chemical he's been exposed to. When people saw the show, no one complained about that. No one was, like, 'Oh, c'mon…. Invisible? Consciousness?' No one said that. Instead, they were like, 'Okay, wait a minute. Harvard is going to have a free lab?' The key is characters you care about so thank you for thinking we do that. I have to hand it to the actors who take these things we all write and bring them to life so you care. If not for people like Zoe, Chris and Zach, we would be unable to do anything."

For those in the cast and crew new to the Star Trek phenomenon, one audience member was curious what it has come to mean to them over the process of making the film? Quinto offered that one of the most rewarding experiences for him has been getting to know Leonard Nimoy, aside from working with the people on this specific project. Having Nimoy's involvement was integral and illuminating. "The appreciation I garnered from that was—not only to see the impact it had on his career—but on his life and the kind of man he is. I think that's an extension of what Gene Roddenberry set out to create 40 years ago. The times we live in necessitate that point of view and J.J. is such a great person to take it and move it forward. There's an optimism that lives at the heart of this film and at the heart of the franchise that's a really great thing for us to be able to share with the world right now."

Pine added that being involved in Star Trek has been a great opportunity for him to meet people he now considers friends. "J.J. has such an incredible ability to create absolute equanimity on the set. No one feels like there's a dictator shouting orders from behind Video Village, go here, move there, that kind of stuff. It was a family on the set and I feel so lucky to have been involved with people that I had fun with every day. That family that we built on set will, hopefully, translate to this bigger family out here that will accept this new version. What we've done—and this is where credit must go to Bob and J.J.—is we've created a great blend of action sequences and wonderful relationships between the characters."

Quinto responded that all three actors had just seen the film for the first time this week, the previous night in fact, and "literally, you guys, I couldn't speak for 20 minutes after. I'm not like that. I'm like [nonplussed], 'It was good. It was fine. It was all right.' But it is such a ride. It is so exciting. We're all excited to share it with everybody. For my money, it succeeds on a lot of levels and I hope you all feel that way as well." Invited to comment, Saldana admitted that listening to Quinto and Pine is, in effect, like listening to Kirk and Spock, which makes her so excited she can hardly speak. But she agreed with Quinto that the most exciting aspect of the experience was meeting the original cast members. Nichelle Nichols is "one elegant and sexy Uhura, I'm telling you that." To know how excited they were in this entire project from J.J. Abrams being the creator behind it, and the writers, the direction in which the story traveled, revamping and bringing it back for the fans and to make believers out of generations from the '80s and '90s who originally asked, "Star Trek? What's that?" This project is an opportunity for them to be introduced into this world that has been alive for over 40 years.

Abrams inserted that—though it was very kind of all three actors to call him and the writers the creators of this film—everyone was fully aware of Gene Roddenberry and indebted to him throughout the making of this movie. Having the "First Lady of Star Trek" Majel Barrett-Roddenberry—Gene's wife and the only actor to appear in all five live-action Star Trek series—contribute her voice as the USS Enterprise computer before her death in December 2008, as well as having other members of the original cast participate in the project, not the least being Nimoy—"a more elegant, thoughtful, considerate and caring man does not exist"—is something Abrams wanted to be sure to acknowledge. Without all the talent that has come before, his film could not have existed.

Asked how it felt to take on the relationship of Kirk and Spock, Pine stated it was daunting, to which Quinto quickly joked, "I was not daunted." After the laughter subsided, Pine continued that, yes, he was wary of accepting the role at first because he knew Trekkies were the best fans in the world and he didn't want to disappoint them. Acknowledging that he and Quinto had known each other before they worked on this project, he immediately felt a rapport with Quinto that went above and beyond the relationship in Trek. Added to the atmosphere Abrams generated on-set, and respectful of what had been done in the past, Pine felt their job was to find the life in the characters that this story told, with this particular journey in the journeys of these characters. This part of their journey has not been told or brought to life before. "Instead of feeling encumbered by the responsibility of doing justice to what had been done in the past, I felt a certain amount of freedom to bring my own take on the character."

Quinto recalled that when he first sat down with Abrams about potentially playing the role of Spock, they talked for about 45 minutes. Well, Abrams did most of the talking. About 43 minutes worth while Quinto tried to squeeze a word in edgewise with the remaining 2 minutes. "His vision was so clear," Quinto grinned, "I couldn't have been in better hands in terms of being guided through this. This was a $100-whatever million dollar movie but every day that we showed up for work it really was about what was going on between J.J. and the people in the scene. All of the forces fell in behind that."

Kevin Smith had an opportunity to go into the editing room with Abrams to see some of the Star Trek footage and on his blog Smith paid Abrams a compliment, saying Star Trek fans were not going to be disappointed. A young man in the audience wondered if Abrams had read Smith's blog entry and what he thought of it? "Well, it just proves that we pay someone," Abrams quipped. "Kevin is a friend and I asked him to come see the movie because, obviously, when you're making a movie it's best to have tons of points of view. Kevin is—in addition to many things—terribly funny, wildly talented, and he's painfully honest. I've shown him things in the past that he has ripped apart and destroyed while with other things he's been complimentary; but, he's got a wonderful point of view from a fan base that I care about deeply and so—among many people who were not just Trek fans but comics fans—I had him come to see it and I was thrilled that his response was what it was."

A young woman mentioned that one of her friends had been an extra in Star Trek and that Abrams was known for rapping on the set. She felt WonderCon deserved to hear some of that. "What's the name of your friend who will never work again?" Abrams laughed. "First of all, I want to say that the extras in the movie were spectacular. I'm not kidding you. We had the greatest extras. They were amazing and tireless." Abrams asked any extras in the film present to stand up for due applause. Then, with Chris Pine's assistance, he tapped out a hilarious rap rhythm on the microphone.

Pine was then asked if he had any favorite episodes of the Star Trek TV series that helped him nail his characterization of Kirk? He referenced the episode where Kirk is split into the good Captain Kirk and the evil Captain Kirk as "up there" in terms of influence. He also loved when Kirk fought Finnegan—"that was just hysterical"—and in the episode where Kirk wrestles the young boy, Pine admitted, "I don't think I would do that." What he found in watching the old series was that William Shatner was incredibly funny; the same humor that he brings to Boston Legal, but in a whole different way. "It's that twinkle in his eye, that 'anything can happen', that I couldn't try to re-create for the life of me, but which inspired me to bring my own thing."

The same question was posed to Zachary Quinto. Had he watched many of the TV episodes to get a feel for Spock and his mannerisms? "I did not watch the original series," Quinto confessed. "I had the advantage of working closely with Leonard leading up to the production so I took advantage of that. He and I met a number of times. He was such a valuable resource for me and he made himself so incredibly open and available to my questions. So I really used that initially. I started to watch the original series actually when we were shooting. I would watch them in my trailer. There was usually always an episode playing when I was hanging out in my room. That was really great because none of us—and J.J. was very clear about this from the beginning—this wasn't an endeavor to try to recreate what was created before us. That was certainly a template, a base line, a foundation for us; but, we were all encouraged and I think all of us did our own work and did our best to bring our own interpretations in a world that is not the same world that we live in now in which that show originally took place. For me it was a combination of those things, of utilizing Leonard and my own research. I read a lot about the world. I read a lot about the character. But I felt that the words that Bob and Alex gave us and the situations that the characters found themselves in were really the most important thing."

Quinto was then asked what had been the most difficult aspect of his career balancing between his role as Sylar on Heroes and now Spock in Star Trek? Conceding he's had a remarkable couple of years, "Heroes has been such a gift to me creatively and professionally and then to align myself with these people, there really hasn't been too much difficulty. Maybe a little less sleep but somehow I manage, with a lot of gratitude. I'm having a blast."

Abrams advised that—in addition to the actors being incredible—it was "so cool" working with Industrial Light and Magic on special effects. "They've been outdoing themselves every time and I'm honored to have had a chance to work with them."

Asked if there would be a Cloverfield 2 or some kind of sequel, Abrams offered that they're working on an idea. "The key to doing any kind of sequel—this film included—is that it better not be a business decision. If you're going to do something, it should be because you're inspired to do it. That doesn't guarantee anything. It doesn't mean the film is going to work. But, it means that you did it because you cared, not because you thought you could make a buck. So we have an idea for something that's pretty cool that we're playing with that—if it ends up coming to fruition—would mean that there would be something that could be connected to Cloverfield. But I hope it happens sooner than later because the idea is pretty sweet."

Cross-published on Twitch.
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