Few genre properties bring out someone's inner geek – much less in actual fans of the show itself - more easily than Star Trek. Whether you love it or loathe it, everyone seems to have an opinion or a perspective, and almost everyone has an emotional entry point for the long-running series: a parent's welcoming knee or cold shoulder, the dingy carpet of a rec room or the negligent boyfriend next to you, a shelf full of spinoff novels or their indecipherable prose, an unwieldy stack of VHS tapes or the interminable hours suffering through commercials. It seems that no one could possibly be unfamiliar with Trek, no matter how they tried; but it was the unenviable task of writers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci to digest some 40 years of characters, stories and mythologies, and tell a story that behaved as if no one but them had ever seen all that material.
The result of their labor is Star Trek, a spectacular opus, space opera, mythmaking science fiction story that condenses the sum total of its source of inspiration and reintroduces the series' mythology to viewers both old and new. Cinematical sat down with the duo at the recent Los Angeles press day for the film to discuss the process of reviving and reinventing the franchise for a completely new generation of moviegoers, much less potential Trek fans. In addition to indulging this critic's own passion for Kirk and company, Orci and Kurtzman talked about their ongoing creative collaboration with director-producer J.J. Abrams, discussed their own directorial ambitions, and dished a few details about their forthcoming follow-up to 2007's Transformers, Revenge of the Fallen.
Just to get started, can you talk about juggling the demands of a passionate and knowledgeable fan base, and introducing an entire mythology to folks unfamiliar with Star Trek?
Orci: It was tough to come up with the idea, but once we had it, then it kind of went downhill – the idea being this is going to be an origin story, but it's going to connect a canon, because Leonard Nimoy as the original Spock is going to have something to do with the changes in the universe. Once we hit upon that idea, it wrote itself, as they say.
Kurtzman: It allowed us to stay true to all of the expectations that we as fans would have about what you wanted from the characters and how they came together. Not just how their iconic lines some into play, but just who they are, and once we had the context for the world, we were able to go to that place.
Orci: It took us eight months to come up with the initial thing, and then once that happened, then it went quickly.
What specific things did you know you wanted or were going to include, and what things did you know you were not going to be able to put in the film, no matter how much you liked them?
Orci: When we hit the idea of an origin story, we knew that we wanted to do some of the classic things that you knew about Kirk. We wanted to see him go to the Academy and cheat. We wanted to see how he became captain. With Spock, we wanted to see some of his classic stuff; we wanted to see when he leaves the Vulcan Science Academy over the objections of his father, which we all knew. We wanted to see that he was half human, which we all know as fans, but other people don't [know]. We wanted to see that he was the first guy in Starfleet from Vulcan. A lot of those things we wanted to see, and we knew they would be good things to learn if you had never seen Star Trek and it went back to that balance of, actually, that's great if you're a fan, and it's actually perfect if you're not because you're just following them from the beginning.
How tough or easy was it to put together the storylines for each character? Looking at the established characters from the original series, it seems like it could be unwieldy to create really satisfying stories for each of them, not to mention provide their individual payoffs.
Kurtzman: I think that the key for us was creating organic contexts for those moments. One thing we really wanted to avoid was making any of those things cartoony. You know that there are those iconic lines that you need to hear, but if they're in the wrong place somehow or the context is wrong or you feel like you're winking at the audience, I'd be pissed. I wouldn't really want that. So we sort of just came up with the story first, made sure the context was right, and then once it was, those lines kind of weirdly fell into place.
Orci: And so did their roles. We never wanted to have, "they're ready to go, but let's interrupt because here comes somebody!" It was, "okay, we need to get to warp speed now. Who's there? Oh my God, it's Sulu!" and you meet him in context exactly as you would want to meet him as opposed to just kind of willy nilly. So once we had the story, it was difficult, but we approached it as let's figure out the story first from the point of view of Kirk and Spock, our two sort of brothers, and from then, because it is an origin story and they're going to be growing, we'll find the places that are meaningful for the rest of the characters.
Kurtzman: And then suddenly, once the context was there and you're writing scenes, those lines could go all over the place. But then you have to narrow it down to sort of the best moment that you feel like it needs to be delivered.
One of the things I was most stricken by was that each scene feels like the best version of what could happen. For example, in the beginning as the elder Kirk is in his ship and you hear the baby crying, I thought, that's kind of manipulative, but then I went, but you know, if they hadn't done that, my first thought would have been, well, you know what would have been more powerful?
Orci: (Laughs) That's awesome – thanks!
How do you write scenes together, in order to build them up or maximize their effectiveness?
Kurtzman: That scene was always structurally exactly what you saw, but the blocking and the intercutting and the introduction of Kirk being born in the scene was moved around quite a bit.
Orci: For example, we always knew that Kirk should be born in space this time, and he should be born in the heat of battle, and he should have a loss there, so we knew that. But we had a version where he was beamed out of the womb – I was pushing for that –
Kurtzman: We wrote that version!
Orci: - and then J.J. and Damon were kind of like, "no," so it did go through changes. But the basic idea of having him born in space, in battle, and his father dying was always the same.
How scary was it to know that you're not just reinventing, but defining these characters in a way that is familiar and new at the same time? For example, not only do you completely capture the essence of the classic McCoy in his first scene, but you define that character's personality perfectly for any viewer regardless how familiar he or she is with DeForest Kelley.
Orci: We didn't want to rely on the audience liking these people already. J.J.'s talked about this a lot, about how he had a hard time getting into Star Trek because it somehow assumed that you already liked them and already knew them. So we tried to approach it like if you're a new audience member and don't know sci-fi and don't want to rely on any of that, how are you going to just see a vivid person there.
Kurtzman: Yeah, and in the case of Bones, what was fun was that we knew that he had been divorced and came from Kentucky, but he was way past that when you met him on the show. So the main thrust was, what if he was still raw from that experience, because he would be pissed. What a perfect way to meet him since you know him as the cantankerous doctor. And then, you also knew that he hated flying. Suddenly, we looked at each other and were like, wait a minute - this would be great. Kirk meets him on the way up to space after he's just gone through a divorce; it will be everything you know about Bones, but those details hadn't been quite filled in.
Orci: Sometimes it felt like it was just sitting there waiting to be discovered. It was almost like, there it is! So it wasn't that scary because it felt very fortuitous.
Kurtzman: I think what was scary was the decision to do it, to try it. Once we committed to it, it was like, okay – let's go.
Was that the same with the Uhura-Spock relationship?
Kurtzman: The Uhura-Spock relationship actually evolved a little differently because we'd originally done a Spock-Nurse Chapel storyline, and the gag was that Nurse Chapel was totally in love with Spock and he wasn't giving her the time of day. I think what happened was when we came to the context of what he loses at the midpoint of the movie, we felt like he genuinely needed to be comforted by somebody in a way that I think the audience wished he would be. And, keeping in line with the idea that you are in a parallel universe, and yet we want to make homage to –
Orci: The first interracial kiss between Kirk and Uhura. So it was an interspecies kiss.
Kurtzman: Some things could be similar, and some things could be different, so it just felt like a really, no pun intended, logical mirror to Kirk and Uhura.
Orci: That was scary. We were like, oh my God, are fans going to kill us?
Kurtzman: For sure. We talked about it a lot, and J.J. was the one who said, "you've got to do it," and he kind of gave us the confidence to know that we could take the leap.
That scene totally defines both their relationship and their characters. That she understands when he tells her what he needs is really powerful.
Kurtzman: The other thing is that in all of the other movies, Spock goes through such an enormous trauma in that sequence, and were things as they were in the other films, the person he would emote to, in quotes, would be Kirk. But he can't do that in this movie because their friendship is still forming, so it kind of became, wait a minute, we definitely need a moment for him with somebody. Who's the most organic person?
Talking about the idea of these things waiting to be discovered, was the Kobayashi Maru one of them to you?
Orci: Totally – top of our list. Like, if you make a list, your list would probably be similar to our list, you know? When we convinced everyone to do an Act One like Superman or The Godfather II where you're really going to see an origin story, well, we've got to do the Kobayashi Maru. Come on!
It was clever that you managed not to resolve that.
Orci: Resolve - ?
In the sense that the trial is interrupted. Was that a necessity or did you specifically want to leave the judgment of that ambiguous?
Kurtzman: No, we knew we wanted to interrupt it, but we knew in the lore that he had won a commendation for original thinking for the way he cheated, and that was not landing in the story structure as we were doing it. It just didn't work.
Orci: We always thought that what if the adventure is what sort of got him off the hook?
After the early screenings of footage, there was some concern that the material would take a more Joseph Campbell-style mythmaking narrative.
Orci: Well, that's still the case in a way, but via quantum mechanics.
I think in context, the movie answers that criticism in the sense that it's about a guy who has talent, but is sort of lacking purpose. How tough was it to make the story suitably epic without making it melodramatically mythic?
Kurtzman: I think looking at Superman, which was a massive influence on us, every scene that you had in the first hour that led you to when he finally flies into the camera from the Fortress of Solitude, was a critical turning point in his formation. From being shipped off Krypton to meeting his parents to sort of the way he was an outsider at school, everything, there was not one inch of film that was not absolutely necessary in telling that story. So that was the standard that we thought we had to hold it to – whatever scene you have with Kirk and Spock couldn't be extraneous. They needed to be key moments in the formation of their identities so that the audience wasn't feeling like it was weirdly meandering or somehow not consistent.
Orci: And we tried to use science to fill in for destiny. So whereas in Star Wars you have a magical Jedi Knight in Ben Kenobi, here it's Leonard Nimoy, and he is in a way acting as a destiny device in that he is pushing Kirk to be captain, but he's doing that because he knows he'd be a great captain. So it actually fulfills both roles, and again, that's why Leonard Nimoy's involvement is so critical. He helps to push the universe into what it's supposed to be and it gives it that sense of destiny and it buys you exactly that mythic thing you're talking about but it does it in canon.
How do you define the creative process that you share with J.J.?
Orci: It's different on every thing. Like, Fringe we just all sat in a room together and created the show, just went back and forth [asking] asking what kind of show do you like? What about this? That's a good idea. And stack, stack, stack. Mission: Impossible III we wrote together, so literally it was the three of us passing scenes around. Star Trek, he didn't even think he was going to direct, so we wrote it and he started getting interested and he then he jumped into looking at pages with us and started giving notes.
Kurtzman: We had a secret plan to get him to direct the movie all along, and the way to do that is to give him like 30 pages at a time and start getting him really invested in a lot of the choices that are being made so that by the time he reads the end script he feels a lot of ownership of it. And then as he said, he would have been really jealous of anyone else who directed it, so I think we felt like mission accomplished on that.
You guys are executive producers on this film, but do you harbor ambitions to direct?
Kurtzman: For sure, absolutely. We've been so unbelievably fortunate lately to have the run of not being able to have time to consider directing right now, so as soon as we catch a breath, absolutely.
I read a recent interview you did about Transformers 2 where you describe the tone as the same or similar to the first film. But given how dark the trailer seems, is that that franchise's Empire Strikes Back?
Kurtzman: That was definitely the model for us, for sure. It's a darker movie, and yet it has all the same humor that the first one had, if not moreso.
Orci: It's almost more extreme in its tone. It's like we're [balancing] between sort of a serious drama and very funny. This one does it, I think, even more effectively, and somehow seems even smoother and more consistent. So it's not exactly the same, but it has both values and they're just in better balance – I think.