Star Trek Into Darkness: Interview with Director Abrams

In a legacy that has sparked four TV series, 11 motion pictures and countless galactic imitations, this is the first time audiences will experience Star Trek 8-stories high and in three dimensions,

In 2009’s “Star Trek,” a group of undeniably promising but mischief-prone spacefarers, fresh out of the Academy, set out on an enthralling maiden voyage to the stars. It was the first major test of their smarts, their skills and the loyalties lying just beneath their clashing personalities, but it was also just the beginning. Now, as they come into their own, the novice crew of The U.S.S. Enterprise must head both further into the vast darkness — and back to 23rd Century Earth, as sinister forces of war threaten both the sanctity of home and worlds yet unseen.

With “Star Trek Into Darkness,” J.J. Abrams returns to his human vision of the Star Trek universe – one that pays affectionate homage to an iconic piece of pop culture while hurtling it into uncharted territory.

The first film won accolades for merging the irreverent humor, charismatic characters and boundless imagination of the humble 1960s television series with 21st Century pacing and action– and, in the process, forging a fresh, emotional origins story. Echoing Gene Roddenberry’s core premise, Abrams’ “Star Trek” seemed to speak to the stargazer in everyone, and to make infinite possibility feel palpably real.

On the heels of that film’s success, Abrams had no intention of resting on those laurels. Following the Star Trek dictum, for their second journey, he knew every aspect of the film would have to go deeper, to probe more boldly than ever before into what makes the Star Trek characters tick and why their mission is so compelling. This meant an incredible new array of challenges for the filmmakers. The Enterprise would expand beyond anything anyone has yet seen. Entire new worlds would be imagined, then built. And to take the story into yet another frontier, Abrams made the decision to shoot the film in a hybrid mix of IMAX® and anamorphic 35mm, and to present it in 3D, .

And yet the biggest changes of all are those faced by Kirk, Spock, Uhura, Bones, Scotty, Sulu and Chekov. When Starfleet is shattered by a terrifying attack, they must not only face the shadow side of Starfleet and a fearsomely brilliant new enemy, but they will question the only thing they will ever be able to rely on in such an unpredictable universe: each other.

“This movie goes further than the first movie in every way – there are volcanic planets, wild spaceship chases and massive special effects, but there is also a more nuanced story,” says Abrams. “The Enterprise crew is up against a lot more this time in terms of their personal and moral dilemmas as they face questions of trust, loyalty and what happens to your principles when you are put to the most extreme test? The goal we had was to keep all the comedy, humanity and buoyancy while going into more complex and darker territory. For Captain Kirk, what begins as a mission of revenge becomes a quest for what it really means to be worthy of being captain.”

Abrams goes on: “For the story to move forward, this had to be a more ambitious movie than the first. The action and the scale are light years ahead. Bringing IMAX® and 3D technology in will give audiences yet another level of excitement and fun to be had. But at the same time, no matter the scale or the format, the thing that still mattered most to everyone was to tell the most exciting and emotional story yet.”

That story was once again tackled by screenwriters and producers Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman, along with Damon Lindelof, who turned the writing process into a near-constant brainstorming session. “I can’t even tell you how many story meetings we had,” muses Abrams. “We were constantly collaborating, making adjustments, figuring out what needed to be set up. I felt really lucky to be working with Bob, Alex and Damon again. They were tireless, and they created a story in which, at one point or another, each of the main characters has their life and their ideals on the line.”

Producer and Bad Robot co-founder Bryan Burk notes that another foundation for the script was the idea that the Star Trek crewmembers are developing into an inseparable, if sometimes unruly, band of friends. He explains: “The script for ‘Into Darkness’ started with one question: how can we put The Enterprise team into the greatest jeopardy and conflict? We felt that if the first film was about how this team came together then this story had to be about them really growing up and how they are becoming adults. That idea had tremendous energy and possibility.”

To take the film’s intensified dramatic energy to the next visual level, Abrams used IMAX® and a painstaking post-production conversion to 3D to blow past previous expectations. It was not a decision the director took lightly, for his bottom line is to keep things authentic, even in the most fantastical story. But after looking closely the most cutting-edge 3D and IMAX® films of the last few years and working with director Brad Bird, who used IMAX® on “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol,” Abrams became convinced the time was right to marry the scope-broadening technology to Star Trek’s wide-open storytelling.

“When a film is shot in IMAX®, it’s like nothing else out there,” says the director. “The resolution is insane and you are swallowed into the movie. But I’d yet to see a space adventure presented in this way. Christopher Nolan was incredibly sweet and screened for me the portion of ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ using IMAX®. Watching that incredible footage, it made me realize if we had an opportunity to shoot some of this movie in IMAX®, we’d be crazy not to.”

As production began, the results proved to be worth the brain-racking logistical challenges. “We are finally able to convey the story’s vast scale, not just in space but on earth and the starships. I think that is going to be insanely exciting,” Abrams says.

Adds Roger Guyett, the Industrial Light & Magic visual supervisor who returns to the team as well: “With a concept that is almost like ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ in space, IMAX® was a magnificent way for J.J. to reveal the grand vistas that the Enterprise experiences.”

Using IMAX® photography for a percentage of the film also served its own creative purposes. “A number of our sets are more vertical then horizontal, and IMAX makes the scale feel even bigger,” explains Abrams. “We used it for the volcanic jungle planet Nibiru in the beginning of the film, the Klingon planet Kronos, and especially at the end where there’s an incredible chase through San Francisco. It became a rule that when the action was outdoors, we shot using IMAX®, and when we were indoors, we used anamorphic 35.”

When it came to creating a 3D experience to match the spark and immediacy of the Star Trek world, Abrams and his team pushed the envelope even further. At first the filmmakers were reticent to use it at all, until they realized they could do it in a way that would match their visual ambitions. “We’ve never done 3D on any of our films before,” Burk notes. “But when we looked at what ‘Star Trek’ is all about – epic battles, sweeping planet vistas and nail-biting action — we thought, if ‘Star Trek’ isn’t worthy of 3D, then what movie is? The bottom line for us was that if we were going to embrace 3D for the first time, we wanted to make it special and different.”

That process started with the premise that simply adding 3D to the mix is not enough – it has to be used to heighten the storytelling, or in “Star Trek’s” case to bring unseen worlds alive. “James Cameron really raised the bar with ‘Avatar’ and showed us something we’ve never seen before. But just shooting a movie in 3D doesn’t make it ‘Avatar,’ as we’ve seen with many releases that came after,” Burk continues. “We knew if we did this, we wanted to really go for it.”

To do that, they brought in stereographer Corey Turner, who has worked on some of the biggest 3D movies of the last few years . . . and then spurred him to take his techniques for forging depth and immersive detail into territory audiences have not yet seen. “The process was both extremely laborious and more precise than we ever imagined,” says Burk. “Along with Corey, we literally went through the film frame by frame, pushing every aspect of the 3D that was possible – really making objects feel as if they are coming out from the screen. We would routinely say to Corey ‘let’s push it further’ and he would say, ‘this is as far as anyone could possibly go’ and we would say ‘Go further! Go further!’ and then he would. We hope that the combination of the IMAX® and 3D will be unlike anything audiences have seen.”

Visual magic also came to fore in Abrams’ collaboration with cinematographer Dan Mindel, whose innovative use of lenses, lighting design and angles set the course for 2009’s “Star Trek.” Says Abrams of Mindel: “He’s one of the best directors of photography out there, and he shot this movie in a way that lends a tactile emotional texture to every scene. Dan uses the photography to give the story guts and reality, to allow the characters to be accessible and the world to breathe.”

For all of the film’s visual fantasy and imagination, Abrams still prefers to create everything he possibly can in-camera. He uses green-screens and CG only when necessary to take audiences into galaxies no one has ever seen, but he likes the action and drama more gritty and intimate, making for a rich contrast. “Obviously, you can’t do a movie called ‘Star Trek’ and not have green screen elements,” the director remarks, “but one of the things we’ve continued from the first movie in “Into Darkness” is the idea of finding locations or building sets whenever we could to create a world that isn’t synthetic or sterile, but feels very, very real.”

Notes executive producer Jeffrey Chernov: “Even though this movie takes you into deep space, there’s always something down to earth about J.J.’s story telling. He understands that if emotion drives your action and effect, that makes even the most wide-ranging story personal.”

Abrams notes that in taking Star Trek into new visual and emotional territory, he felt a bit like Captain Kirk heading into a cosmos where you never know what’s coming next . . . and yet you better be ready for it. “On a film like this, you’re being tested every single day on every single level to do better than you have before,” he explains. “But a lot like Kirk does in this story, I’ve come to really appreciate the opportunity of that.”

Concludes Burk: “With the first film we really wanted to defy expectations of what Star Trek could be. Now, I think J.J. has gone to the next step of complexity, so that people might leave the theatre after this one asking, ‘wow, that was a Star Trek film?’”