Star Trek helmer J.J. Abrams on how he remade the franchise

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

J.J. Abrams, the director of Star Trek, and his writers, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, told reporters that now is the perfect time to reboot the 43-year-old franchise.

"Star Trek inherently was an optimistic story," Abrams said in a news conference last month in Beverly Hills, Calif. "It told [about] a future that was about collaboration, about survival, about working together, cross-cultural, ... political, racial lines and special lines, and the idea that we wanted to maintain that spoke to the tone of the movie."

Abrams added: "There have been many films in recent years, many of which we have all loved, that have depicted a very dark, dismal, cynical, grim future. And that's not what [Gene] Roddenberry created, and that's not what we were interested in doing."

Following is an edited version of the rest of the news conference. Star Trek opens today. (Possible spoilers ahead!)

Should there be a second movie, can you envision going back to one of the classic stories from the original series?

Orci: We haven't really talked about it. We're waiting to see how people react and kind of get this movie out and give it the proper sendoff and not assume much beyond that until we see what the reaction is. ...

The film has time travel and sets up an alternate timeline. Can you talk maybe a little about why you chose to do that and, obviously, where you think this is going?

Orci: We did it just because ... this movie had to be both for new fans, because just the expense and the pressure of it, but it couldn't just throw away what fans knew, and it couldn't disrespect what I as a fan loved about Star Trek. ... The freedom is literally bought by Leonard Nimoy's Spock in a time-travel scenario—which has been covered in episodes of Next Generation, thus making it canon, essentially—it seemed like the perfect solution to bringing something new, so you wouldn't have to know anything about Star Trek, but if you did, you were literally following the continuing adventures of Leonard Nimoy's Spock.

Kurtzman: The other problem that we all faced was, ... when we said, "OK, we really want to do this," well, we know ... the fate of the characters. We know some die. We know some live. So how do you ever put them in genuine jeopardy in a way that's truly unpredictable and surprising for the audience? Because, again, it is a five-year mission, so hopefully there will be more than one, and if there's more than one, then we want the audience to be able to not stay ahead of them. And that's what led us to the solution that we all came to.

I was really struck by how the film gets the characters to say classic lines from the TV show, but in a way that feels natural. How did you do that?

Abrams: Well, even as a non-fan, you know, [there are touchstones:] "I'm giving it all she's got." ... "Beam me up." There are certain lines that, if I were to see a Star Trek movie and didn't see those things, I would feel like I was cheated somehow. But the brilliance of Bob and Alex's script was that it didn't have those lines in scenes that would not have existed without those lines. Meaning they were situations that were real and urgent and specific and necessary, and those lines organically came out of those moments, so that you had those kind of little peeks of recognition, but they were justified and they were intrinsically connected to the scene, so you didn't ever feel like, "Oh, yeah, you know, that line." They came out of the blue. They would surprise you. And when I read the script, I thought, "This is genius." So it's funny how ... doing those lines was beside the point. And yet we all knew, "Yeah, yeah, yeah," a by-product of including those lines will be that ... appreciation and nod to what people, ... fans of Trek had loved for years.

Kurtzman: It became, like, ... "Can we put it here?" "No." "Can we put it here?" "No." You know? And then finally, I think, after whittling it down, it became clear that ... we had to have the most emotionally organic context for those moments. And then, once we could do that, that would tell us where the perfect place was. ...

The movie is really a love letter to these characters. But you do make some pretty big changes in canon and structure. Also, if you were a kid in the backyard playing Star Trek, which of these characters would you be?

Abrams: I think you're right. I mean, the movie is all about the characters; it is a love letter to the characters. That's why I wanted to direct the movie. When I read the script, I just ... fell in love with them. And at the beginning of the process, if you had said, ... "Who is your favorite? Which one would you play?" I would say, "Well, probably none of them. I don't really connect to any of them."

And now I'd say, "I couldn't choose one, because I love them all." ... I never felt like I was Spock. I never felt like I was Kirk. I wasn't Bones. I wasn't Scotty. I wasn't Uhura. I wasn't Sulu. I wasn't any of them, really. Now I sort of feel like I love all of them, and I know all of them. I don't think any of them are expendable. I think the genius of what Roddenberry created is that paradigm of all of these characters. ... You've got the id, the ego, the superego. The group, obviously.

But beyond just Kirk and Spock and Bones, with this film especially, [at] the end of the movie you realize that they wouldn't be there if all of them hadn't done their job. Meaning that each one of them contributed in a critical way, and each of them has put their lives in ... the other's hands. Not to say that if we were to do another film—who knows what the story would be? But I would say that in this one I loved how each character was absolutely critical, and you got to know them in a way that personally I felt I hadn't had a chance to do before. ...

You got Majel Barrett Roddenberry to voice the part of the computer before she passed away, and the film carries a dedication to both her and Gene Roddenberry.

Abrams: ... We were very lucky to have Majel come and do the voice for the Starfleet computer, which she had done in ... the series and the films. She came to the set one day when we were shooting on the Narada [Nero's Romulan ship]. And she was just lovely, and she was elegant and funny and supportive. And it's that crazy thing, you know. We were working with Nimoy, so we knew we had someone who had been there and was part of it, and ... Walter Koenig [the original Chekov] had visited the set, and that was great, and Nichelle [Nichols, the original Uhura,] visited the set. We had a breakfast with George Takei [Sulu]. But to have Majel come, it was a different kind of thing. Because, you know, she ... was part of the behind-the-scenes of it as well as being on camera. And to have her say to us, ... basically, she said that Gene would have approved what we were doing. And that meant more than I could say. And we always knew we were dedicating the movie to Gene Roddenberry, because we never would have, obviously, been doing any of this if it weren't for him. But, sadly, when Majel passed away, we added her name to the card at the end.