Star Trek Beyond: Interview with Director Justin Lin

Chinese Involvement

Justin Lin: They came in a little bit later in the game, but this whole process has been very organic.  When I got the call from J.J. Abrams about 18 months ago, you know the challenge was having to come up with an idea and go into production in six months and then being here with everybody in 18 months, that was the challenge.

The studio (Paramount) has been nothing but supportive; and so I think with Huahua and also with Alibaba, they’re really just financial investors.  That level of respect and the relationship has been great.  As a filmmaker, that’s what I require, to have partners who are there to be supportive, but at the same time, we’re making a movie, we gotta have a point of view and we didn’t have a lot of time.

Chinese Money Reshaping Hollywood

JL: It depends on how they want to do it.  I came from the indie world.  Fourteen years ago when I was making my credit card movie, I mean part of the money that I saved was actually a grant that I got from this organization, and that’s like helped me build my career.

I understand that filmmaking is where art and commerce really collide, but as a filmmaker, I need to have a point of view and I need to have a voice, and that’s the only way I know how to make movies, and so I need situations that are supportive of that.

There’s been a lot of Chinese money and I think it’s come in on a very supportive level.  That’s smart because Hollywood’s been around and I think if we can kind of engage on that level, it will be a great relationship.  But if you’re coming in and everyone’s telling each other what to do, then I think you’re doomed.

TV Series

JL: When my family immigrated to the U.S. when I was 8.  They had a little fish and chips restaurant and they’d close at 9pm and we had dinner at 10, and then Star Trek in reruns came on at 11.  So, every night, that was my engagement with my family, that was our family time from age 8 to 18.

There are a lot of the shows that I love, a lot of the themes of the show of family.  It’s about a group of people from various backgrounds coming together and going on this journey.  That’s the essence of “Star Trek” that I love, and the idea of exploration and discovery, those are things that I think are core to “Star Trek.”  And doing this movie, especially 50 years into its existence, I felt like it’s my job and our job as a team to really embrace the essence of what’s made it great.  But at the same time, the mission statement of “Star Trek” is also to explore, to push forward and be bold, and it’s a combination of that that really excited me.

What I’m really proud of is to be part this franchise because this is the one franchise in the history of cinema that’s been able to thrive in multiple mediums.  In essence, a good Star Trek and any kind of Star Trek, it needs to be equally compelling if it’s a battle in space just as much as if it’s two characters talking in a room.  That’s what’s made – for me, that’s what made Star Trek so special is that if you watch the original series, it could be a couple of characters just talking and I love it.  But at the same time now, you’re talking about a, if you find the right journey in this kind of feature kind of summer tent-pole kind of arena, hopefully it could be equally compelling.

Gay Character

JL: It was something that Simon Pegg and I had talked about, and it was something that we really kind of had to put a lot of thought into it.  It was just an idea, and I think in many ways, the fact that it hasn’t been part of this franchise was surprising. We wanted to do something, and so it was very organic.

When Simon came up with the idea, it wasn’t something that we thought ‘oh, let’s just do it.’  It was really thought through, I talked to a lot of people and ultimately, I decided that it’s a good thing.  Also, the way we’re going to present it, it wasn’t just about that.  I wanted, having grown up with “Star Trek,” from night to night, they’re always on the bridge and something intense.  Even in this big movie, I wanted to bring in little moments with these characters, the slice of life that you get to share with them.  When we decided to do that for Sulu, I felt like it was important to really kind of present that as a slice of life, and that’s the way I feel, and I think that’s the way it comes across in the film is that it shouldn’t be an issue.  It’s not an issue for me today and it definitely shouldn’t be an issue in the world of “Star Trek.”

Strategy as Director

JL: I approach everything the same.  I didn’t grow up wanting to be an action director.  I came from the indie world and so, when I make movies that have action in it, my process is the same.  My design, how I think it through, my process, has always been the same.  I never think of “Fast and Furious” as an action movie; it has a journey that has a lot of obstacles that result in action.  But it’s always kind of character-based for me, and thematically kind of linked and driven.

I grew up with these characters, I love them and there are certain themes of “Star Trek” and I feel like in 50 years, it’s time to kind of deconstruct what’s made it so great, but at the same time, let’s deconstruct it so that hopefully through that journey by the end, it’ll reaffirm to us why we love it so much, why there’s so much passion for “Star Trek.”

Anton Yelchin’s Death

JL: I feel like personally I’m still processing it.  It happened recently and when it happened, we still had a few more weeks of finishing the film.  I was with a great group of people and we were all kind of processing it together.

One of the things that we did was I went back and relooked at the movie and I revisited all the takes with Anton and it really brought a lot of great memories.  I’ve had the pleasure of working with him on this one movie, but he reminds me every time I engage that he just does things the right way.  He comes in every morning with a smile on his face and whether he has like 10 lines or he’s just in the background, he always is thinking and he’s always bringing new ideas.  And sometimes in this business, especially doing the big budget movies, sometimes people get lost, but he never.  He was always present, and I think that will always stay with me and I’m grateful to have had that time with him.

Justin Lin and James Wan

JL: Surprisingly, there’s only like two Asian-Americans and they always get confused.  I had good exchange with James.  I think it was, Fast and Furious, we were family.  It was eight years of my life, and it was kind of evolving and building that franchise that we’ve developed a family, so to walk away from it was very kind of emotional for me.  We had a good exchange in handing it off because when I left that, I wanted to just make sure it was all James and I had to kind of walk away.  Obviously he’s very talented and he’s done a lot, but I think we have a pretty good relationship.  For me to decide to walk away, I felt like the best thing for me to do was to distance myself to, and so we had a good exchange as we crossed paths, but I think that was the best way and I told the cast and crew, this is the new director, you really have to build that relationship and trust with him.

Global Appeal

JL: I never really thought about it.  I do know that in the 14 years I’ve been able to make movies, I’ve had so much fun travelling around the world.  I think a lot of times when you travel, you’re just a tourist, but I get to actually settle down and work with people and then engage with the crew and a lot of times with the fans and we talk.  And the one thing that if there was a universal thing that links everything is the fact that there’s an emotional relationship with the characters.  And that’s the thing that like – I love the characters; I don’t care if it’s the lead or someone that’s a small… like I love them equally and when I talk to the fans, I get that sense all around the world.  When there’s a connection, it’s always through the characters.


It’s not something that I am conscious about.  When I was coming up in the indie world and I was making Better Luck Tomorrow, everyone said, “Hey, you can’t make that because how can anybody relate with a bunch of Asian-American kids?”  And I thought that was always kind of ludicrous because I grew up and I can relate to Rocky Balboa and he’s Italian-American.  It’s about human connections.  I get to set the table, I get to play with the pieces.  I just want to get the best qualified people and I want to reflect the world that I live in, because growing up, the movies didn’t reflect my world, I didn’t see myself in those movies.  So, it’s more personal.

Taking Over Star Trek

JL: It’s very daunting.  More than anything, it was the logistical challenge.  I come from fast movies and those are insane schedules at two years, and here I knew going in that it was going to be a year and a half.  What I was excited about was that we were going to start from ground up and build something, to get in that room with Simon and Doug and to go from nothing to going into production in six months was insane.  But I’d prefer that than to just jump on and do something that existed already.  That was the tradeoff, and it was a very personal choice.  I think to date, this is probably my most personal movie.  And that was very important to me, it was an emotional choice.

Learning from J.J.

JL: J.J. has been nothing but gracious and generous.  I think we had a talk, he called me and he said, “I want you to take this if you want it, be bold and make it your own.” And as a fellow filmmaker, I’m appreciative of that and he’s very supportive.  But at the end of the day, as a filmmaker, all I want and all I require is to have accountability.  Like so, if you guys go see it and you don’t like it, it has to be on me.  I don’t like making movies by committee or anything, and I’ve had a very good career, because I came from the indie world, that’s my career, the films are my points of view.  And so to have that kind of respect from J.J. and also from the studio, it’s all I can ask for.

I love J.J., his brain.  I think I’m pretty relentless, I love working.  And he comes in and he has like a thousand ideas and the idea of not being afraid to just talk about and throw things in there.  But with J.J., it’s like, ‘well, until it’s over, let’s keep talking,’ and it’s a different approach but in a great way that I’ve kind of enjoyed on this one.

Sulu’s LGBT Family

JL: A lot of times it’s more about making that decision and seeing what the reaction is, and that’s kind of holding the merit to us as a society.  I don’t think it should be, but if the reaction is, then it just tells us where we are as a society.  Again, I felt like the way of bringing it and sharing it with the audience and the way it was shot was to not make a – like it’s a nonissue for me, and that’s the way I wanted to present it.

Conditions of Work:

JL: I like to have a house, I like to have a kitchen.  Like in Japan, when we shot there, they’re used to shooting like crazy hours, like they shoot 20 hours a day, and I like to come ready and pace the crew.  It was about learning how they were respecting that and then they can kind of get a sense of how I work and by the end, like I remember for, I shot like Tokyo Drift and then when we went back to shoot a little bit for Fast and Furious 6, it was like seeing family again.  But it takes a little time to adjust and like shooting in the UK, they go 10 hours straight.  You work through lunch and it’s a very different way than the US way of working. But I love trying that and then at the same time, like we get to know each other and to me, that’s so important because for everybody, it’s two hours of their lives to see the movie; for me, it’s two years of my life and I love to be able to earn that respect from each other and to be able to build something from an idea to having it come to life.  That, to me, is very appealing and I love it, and it’s one of the part of the things that I love most about my job.

China as Emerging Market

China’s an emerging market and there’s been a lot of opportunities and there’s a lot of people that are trying to engage in filmmaking, but it’s also very raw right now.  Structurally, obviously, there’s a huge market but also there’s a whole industry there already, so I just want to be respectful.  Like my level of engagement is that I grew up in the US, I enjoy visiting China because there’s a lot of the sensibility culturally of China that is part of me and my family, but at the same time, I’m also very American.  But in no way do I think I can walk in there and think, ‘hey, this is the way you do things.’  I’ve worked around the world, that’s ridiculous.  And so, my level of engagement has to be what I can contribute to that scenario, that relationship. I’m also just trying to find the right partners and if it doesn’t work out, it’s okay.  I just want to make movies and I want to make movies with passionate and good people.  And so, again, it’s like I’m in a great place and I get to meet some great people, but it’s always a bit of a dance and I think if you hurry, it just then, it becomes more business than it is about process, then I don’t need to do that.  I haven’t had to do that in my career and I don’t plan on doing it now

New Cast Members

It was exciting because as much as my love for all the original cast, I also felt like a lot of times, when you see Star Trek, they go to a new planet, they meet new civilizations and then those characters almost becomes a bit like outsiders and I wanted to try to see if we can create something where this character is actually empowered and is entitled.  Sofia was the third audition that I saw and as soon as I saw her audition, I said let’s get her in a screen test.  So we put her in makeup, she flew to Hollywood in L.A. and she did it.  As I was getting to know her, we were developing the character, so I was able to kind of – Simon and Doug and I were able to kind of build that in.  And so, it was a great process because a lot of times you build it and then you try to find a good match; but here we were able to find it early on and build it together.

Lin as Trekkie

I don’t know if I’m a Trekkie, but it was a big part of my life.  I definitely… there’s a love for it and I always associate it with this idea of family.  And again, like I was saying earlier, my family and I, we emigrated when I was 8 to the States, and so I remember feeling very alone because I had to learn how to speak English and at the same time like there was only five of us, and Star Trek taught me that family doesn’t have to just be by blood; it’s about the people you go on a journey with. It made a real imprint on me and that’s kind of where my love for Star Trek is much more the essence and it’s more emotional.

Shooting in Dubai

When you go to Dubai, it feels like you’re in outer space sometimes, right?  And there’s something about, when we were shooting there, it was like 120 degrees outside and you can’t fake that.  That’s a group of us trying to get through the day and there’s something very real and organic about that.  And it’s, again, they’re in the environment; they’re not just looking at tennis balls and green screen.  They’re actually there and I think that makes a big difference.  It makes you, when you watch a movie, I feel like you do feel that they’re interacting with some sort of environment.

I was not financial. If anything, it was probably a bit more costly, but it was worth it.  I felt like it was important to not just get stuck on a stage somewhere.  Dubai, we used some of the stage, but we were there for the exteriors and everything.

Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift

JL: I love that because that’s where I started in that franchise and I really wanted to kind of honor like that culture of loving the cars, of building it.  I know that in the scope of the franchise, I felt like without that, we would not have any of the others because that was the seed to try to build the mythology and the relationship between the characters.

What I love about the Fast and Furious experience for me was that I didn’t feel like I was making the same movie over and over.  Fast and Furious is very different than the other ones, but that one, I really wanted to support those characters and I love hearing that because in many ways, that was the movie that started it all.  I mean, when I did that movie, I actually met with Vin Diesel to do the cameo and in that meeting, I outlined his relationship with Han and how we were going to build it and the mythology of the relationship.  And that actually, that conversation took three more movies to have it bring to life, so without that movie, you would not have the rest and that’s where it all started and it has a very special place.