Justin Lin didn’t realize he was a Trekkie until J.J. Abrams called him out of the blue. Between a Thursday phone call and what ended up a Monday meeting, Lin had dinner with his family, who had emigrated from Taiwan to run an Anaheim grocery store when he was 8 years old. That’s when it hit him that between age 8 and 18 he had grown up with Gene Roddenberry’s “Star Trek” TV series. It was embedded deep inside him.
Lin had turned away from directing the seventh installment of the “Fast and Furious” franchise, which grew from 3-6 with worldwide grosses of $158 million for “Tokyo Drift,” $363 million for “Fast & Furious” and $626 million for “Fast Five” to $789 million for “Fast & Furious 6.” (James Wan continued the trajectory when the seventh film earned $1.52 billion.) He was producing and directing TV (“Community,” the “Scorpion” pilot and “True Detective”) and exploring production in China, among many budding projects.
The “Star Trek” filmmaking challenge was daunting, even for a veteran director of a worldwide action franchise. Lin was going from zero to 60 — long-time screenwriter Roberto Orci had backed out of directing — with no script and six months to get ready for a $150 million studio sci-fi epic, the latest iteration of a 50-year-old multi-media franchise.
But after sitting down with Abrams, actor-writer Simon Pegg (who also plays engineer Scotty) and screenwriter Doug Jung, Lin knew what he wanted to do: Return “Star Trek” to the human scale of the TV series. And build the same sense of family on the part of the cast and crew, along with a devotion to character, that he had created on the “Fast and Furious” films.
“It’s bringing the humanity back to telling the story,” he said in our video interview. “Let’s build it together and treat it as the biggest budget indie movie ever made. It was probably time to come up with the journey that would deconstruct ‘Star Trek’ and the Federation.”
And so “Star Trek Beyond” does not take it easy on the audience. In the first act, Lin pulls the Enterprise out from under its crew, under brutal assault from villain Krall (Idris Elba). It’s wrenching. “I love that ship,” said Lin. “It should be emotional, it’s their home, it’s the vessel that takes them on this journey, to have that ripped away from them at the beginning — we are left with the characters having to figure out what they are going to do.”
With a bigger budget, Lin was able to scout global locations to improve the on-set rock climbing from the TV series, from Vancouver to Dubai. He loves to figure out, via hours of conversations about cameras with his cinematographer, the best way to shoot every scene, whether angles on the vessels or doing a nodal move. He’s known for obsessing on the details, from VFX attack swarms to character quirks, adding new dimensions to Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine), Dr. “Bones” McCoy (Karl Urban), Lieutenant Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and Commander Spock (Zachary Quinto). “Beyond” also introduces kick-ass action star Sofia Boutella as Jayla, who helps the Enterprise crew to battle Krall.
And controversially, this “Star Trek” gives Mr. Sulu, played by Lin’s frequent collaborator John Cho (“Better Luck Tomorrow”), a husband played by writer Jung (it’s not spelled out, and, Cho told Vulture, Lin cut their kiss. Original Sulu, George Takei, who is gay, protested that this was not true to “Star Trek” canon).
“With these films I get that it’s where art collides with commerce,” Lin said. “I know there’s a studio putting a lot of money into this, they call it a tentpole for a reason. I wanted to make sure that we don’t have that cerebral business ‘whatever’ infect what we’re trying to do, at the same time we had to find the right journey for this film. ‘Star Trek’ is the only franchise that has been able to thrive in multiple mediums, our challenge was whether it’s a big space battle or two human beings talking in a room — the idea is to try to make it equally compelling.”
During the final stages of editing, Lin learned the heart-rending news that Anton Yelchin (Chekov) had died in a freak accident. “It’s still very raw,” he recalled. “I took time off with the whole crew, I went back and revisited the footage, and through that process, there were a couple of moments that were not in the original cut, that I felt really kind of captured the essence of what I love about Anton. We were able to put them into the film.” (One sweet reflective moment is in the toast scene.)
While Lin leaves the door open to doing another “Trek” or “Fast and Furious,” he’s eager to get back to all those indie projects he’s been working on — three scripts are currently commanding his attention.
“Look, I love this whole journey and the people and the cast, but it was a detour for me,” he said. “It’s become the most personal movie I’ve made to date. I’m ready to go make my little indie movie — I came from the indie world.”
“Star Trek Beyond” opens on Friday, July 22.