Interview | Screenwriter Doug Jung on ‘Star Trek Beyond’ (and Beyond)
To mark the release of the Star Trek Beyond on BluRay/DVD, we are revisiting our chat with the film’s screenwriter Doug Jung. Jung talked us through the ‘ridiculous’ turn around for the film, as well as entering a writing relationship with two amazing writers that he hadn’t worked with previously.
Jung reveals some of the finer details of how things such as character, and plot developments came to be. This is some vital research for anyone about to watch the film. Or, for that fact, great revision for anyone who already has.
Writing a Star Trek movie would be a dream come true for just about anybody. Writing one in just a couple of months, on the other hand, was tricky as hell.
The new film Star Trek Beyond was in development for a long time before Doug Jung and his co-writer (and series co-star) Simon Pegg came on board to write an all-new screenplay. The film was originally going to be written and directed by Roberto Orci, who co-wrote the last two movies in the series, Star Trek (2009) and Star Trek Into Darkness. But when Orci left the project, Paramount and Bad Robot decided to start over from scratch, but to keep their Summer 2016 release date, in order to honor the 50th anniversary of the franchise.
The result, against all odds, is one of the better Star Trek movies. And of course I had to find out how the hell that happened. I sat down with Doug Jung in Los Angeles one week before the film’s theatrical debut to learn more about the creative process that brought us Star Trek Beyond, what has happened to the crew of the Enterprise between movies, and how he feels about incorporating classic episodes of the original series (TOS) or elements of Star Trek: The Next Generation into the franchise.
Some MINOR SPOILERS are coming. You have been warned.
Crave: I think this is my favourite Star Trek since First Contact.
Doug Jung: Oh wow, that’s a huge compliment. We considered putting “Magic Carpet Ride” in [Star Trek Beyond].
That would have been appropriate! Gene Roddenberry once wrote down the rules of Star Trek, what is and is not Star Trek. Do you have rules about what is and is not part of this separate universe, that you have to follow? That one thing is canon now, this can change, this can’t change…?
Right… no, not really in the Kelvin timeline. I feel like it’s funny, the Kelvin timeline, it’s such a compressed amount of time. Not that much time is covered in those two movies if you really think about it. So that was actually really freeing up because there are certain things obviously we didn’t want to bring up again from [Star Trek Into Darkness]. We were told we could politely ignore some of the things that might be problematic for us, you know?
What might have been problematic for you?
I mean it’s been criticised before, but it’s like… some of the things that they used in Into Darkness, like…
Magic blood, or beaming to a planet [from across the galaxy], just stuff like that. But I mean the construct of the story we had was so carved out from those two movies, that we weren’t really beholden to too much.
Your timeline to write and produce this was ridiculous.
I know that there was work being done on it before you guys came along. Was any of that other material salvageable or did you start from square one?
We were not given the script. We weren’t actually allowed to read the script.
I think they just wanted a clean, unadulterated view. In hindsight… by the way, we tried everything we could to get that thing. I was looking around Bad Robot late at night. Nobody was giving it up. But I think they just were trying to protect us from borrowing, or… I don’t know what it is. Maybe it was just like a studio idea of, “Let’s just keep it super clean and see what they come up with.” We had heard, a couple of times we had heard like, “Eh, maybe there was an element of that in the old draft that didn’t really work” or something.
They wanted to move away from whatever that direction was…
Yeah, but in the vaguest of ways they would tell us.
Yeah, it was weird. It was sort of interesting.
Is the version of Star Trek Beyond we saw, the story that we saw, the initial idea that you pitched to them or did you go through different iterations?
We went through different iterations. In other words it wasn’t like, “Why don’t you guys come in and tell us what you want to do?” It wasn’t really that. It was a constantly evolving thing because we all came to it so late. Or at least we never met until the first week of January 2015. So we all came in and we had thoughts and ideas, and certainly we had things that we liked and were hoping to do, but there was no concrete story foundation. That didn’t evolve until later, and you know, it’s a bit hard [on] the creative process, I think, when you have the creative auspices of something not knowing each other. You’ve got to build a sort of pathway of trust…
“Not knowing” meaning you and Simon Pegg, to be clear…?
I didn’t know Simon. I didn’t know Justin [Lin]. Justin didn’t know Simon. I was a fan of Simon’s obviously, and I was a fan of Justin’s, but we had never worked together and that’s a totally different thing.
That’s got to be unusual, right? To be shoved into a writing relationship with someone? Isn’t there a sort of alchemy there?
Yeah, I think it’s unusual. I’ve heard it done in other places since having done this but generally I don’t think it’s something you want to do. [Laughs.] But you know, I trusted… I think all of us trusted Bad Robot because J.J. [Abrams] has got a good nose for these things, and Lindsey [Weber] is great at bringing these things together.
How did your relationship work? Was Simon Pegg particularly good at one element, and you brought in a different take on a different element? Was one of you more structure and the other more dialogue?
I think it was a little bit of that, and never all one thing at the same time. There were certainly times when I was really leaning on Simon to, say… or we’d come up with a scene and this is generally what we want the scene to be. Simon is so great because not only did he know the characters so great, he knew the actors playing the characters, so he was able to sort of say, “Zach [Quinto] could do this this way and it would be great.” And then there were times… when I say we did everything, I mean even Justin would come in and help with script ideas and stuff too. So there was never this sort of “You’ll take care of that and I’ll take care of this and we’ll meet somewhere in the middle.” It was just a constant, you know…
What unlocked that story that we see now? What was the starting element? Was it the MacGuffin about the weapon that needs to be created, or the planet, or the…?
I remember the MacGuffin… not the MacGuffin… I remember, to me and my recollection of it, the thing that I look back on, remembering that that was one of those foundation conversations that we had…. It was very early on with Justin and Simon and talking about, what are we going to do for the 50th anniversary? What are we going to say about this movie and this franchise?
And one of the conversations that we had very early on was talking about [Gene] Roddenberry’s utopian view of the universe, and looking at that now – in 2015, at the time – and saying, “Is that something that could exist? This [idea] that someone came up with the ‘60s?”
And again, it’s been done before in shows, I know, but to really sort of say how could this be challenged? In what particular way? And I think that sort of broad-themed conversation led us down the road to certain things that ended up being in the script.
So your villain, Krall. Obviously Idris Elba brings a lot of gravitas to him but what I thought was interesting is that the structure of the script is such that his true motivation and backstory is kind of a twist.
That’s tricky, to keep him interesting and threatening throughout the film. Were you ever tempted to just put that information in earlier so your theme could be clearer? Or was that always kind of the point, to unlock it at the end?
Well, we wanted to unlock it at the end, and again it was always that balancing act of… by the way, I’m sort of – at least in most people I’ve talked to – I’m sort of surprised that people didn’t come to that [conclusion] sooner. Because in a way we’re asking a lot of the audience, like you said, to keep a guy who can kind of seem a little, “Oh, he’s two-dimensional in a way.” We were trying to infuse him with [more], but it became kind of clear as we doing it, like we had to hold off on almost everything or else it would be given away. That was a real challenge. How do we keep him at least mildly interesting before you reveal who he is? [Laughs.]
And really, one of the things that we were sort of playing on is the trope of like, here’s another guy with a beef with the Federation who wants to destroy the Earth, or some proxy of the Earth. We liked the idea that ultimately he’s a guy who espouses these grand philosophical ideas but he’s just kind of pissed and petty.
He’s an internet commenter!
He’s a troll! But the idea being that this guy, he hasn’t evolved. He’s stuck back in this time when he can’t see beyond his own concerns. He’s a got a legitimate kind of gripe, but he’s sort of a less evolved kind of person who can’t [move on].
Was it important to create a new villain, as opposed to – for example – Star Trek Into Darkness, which took a classic villain and revamped him? Was that part of the thing, that you wanted to do something new, or did you ever consider…?
I don’t think we ever considered pulling someone out, largely because I think that tends to dictate where your story’s going to be, quite a bit. And then I just think that we just loved the idea to create a villain, a Star Trek villain, who is our own and kind of can embody our tastes and what we want to do with him, without being beholden to something that existed before.
Simon Pegg said that Jaylah’s name came from “Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone,” but shortened. Were you Nick Kroll fans? How did Krall get his name?
[Laughs.] I don’t even remember! He had so many names in the beginning and I think… I don’t even remember, it sort of just evolved. The Jaylah thing came out of a joke, because we kept saying, “No, she should be resourceful. She’s Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone.” Then we kept calling her “Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone.” Like, literally we’d be in a story meeting and be like, “No, no, Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone is going to come in.” Or, “Why don’t we give that line to Jennifer Lawrence from Winter’s Bone?”
And somebody just said like, “Well, we’ve got to name her, like, ‘J-Law.’” And we were like, “Okay.” I would not be surprised, I just don’t remember, if Krall came out of something like… we named him this, and somebody was like, “What about Krall?” and that just stuck.
I thought Krull was a very underrated movie!
Krull, yeah, J.J. brought that up. I think when we were in post he was like, “Does anybody remember that movie Krull?” and we’re all like, “Oh yeah…”
I think that’s how most people remember the movie Krull.
Or like Ice Pirates. Like, “Oh yeah…”
I love Ice Pirates. Ice Pirates is funny. I saw Guardians of the Galaxy and I was like, “This is just Ice Pirates!”
Yeah! It totally is! [Laughs.]
Were there any influences on Star Trek Beyond besides Star Trek? For example I feel like Krall’s story had a sort of Forbidden Planet element, with the ancient technology that affects him…
You know, it wasn’t so much… that’s a really good reference. I don’t think we talked about that. [Laughs.] There was a movie that Justin referred to a lot. Do you remember the movie Breach?
With Ryan Phillippe?
Yeah! It’s a good movie.
Who’s the spy in that movie?
Chris Cooper, and Ryan Phillippe is his assistant.
Does he play Aldrich Ames?
I think it’s an analogue. Like a contemporary analogue.
So in that movie, because we liked the idea that [Krall] was petty, Justin went, “Oh yeah, like Breach!” And we’re like, “What’s Breach? What do you mean, Breach?” and he finally said because at the end of that movie you realized the guy was spying because he wasn’t given the corner office.
Something really petty.
Yeah, something really petty. So we used a lot of references to more contemporary movies as opposed to science fiction things, just because most of the time we were making references to character things. I don’t remember, I’m sure we had a bunch for Kirk when we were trying to figure out what his journey through this whole script was. But there was an interesting idea there about a guy who’s trying to find another purpose for what he’s doing, and I know we talked about a couple things but I just don’t remember off the top of my head what we referenced in that.
I appreciate the sense of balance you had with the ensemble cast. I think that’s one of the things that separates the better Star Trek movies from the lesser Star Trek movies, because you get the sense in some of the lesser ones that they only cared about one character.
It’s all about Kirk, or it’s all about whatever, and here you found a really good way to keep them all in focus. For a significant portion of the film everyone is paired off. Some of them are obvious. Spock and Bones, how do you not put them together?
But for example, Uhura and Sulu is an interesting pairing. What made you decide to make them spend so much time together?
Really early on I remember being way up on this idea, like, how do we talk about these characters in a way? I remember talking to Simon, I think we were at his house, and I was like, “Have Sulu and Uhura ever had a conversation on-screen?” and he was like, “Yeah!” And then he was like, “Wait a minute… no!” And I’m like, “Has Chekov ever looked over at Sulu and be like, ‘Hey man, what did you do this weekend?’” Probably! But you just never saw it on-screen.
So we were like, it would be great if we could shake up their relationships and get them… a lot of times I find that in Star Trek, the crew tends to move as a group. Their greatest strength is that collectively they’re this incredibly smart, efficient group. But they tend to move in tandem with each other so much that their individual graces are illuminated, but they’re generally in the purpose of a collective thing.
And I just thought it was so interesting to… what if we could take them… and Simon had said this at one point, which I thought was really smart. He said, you know, the Spock, Kirk, Bones friendship is inferred since ’09, but it’s inferred because we know of this history between DeForest Kelley and William Shatner for so long. We’ve never seen it on-screen [in this version]!
Not much! They had a couple of scenes in ’09, but that’s it.
But that’s like the beginning of their relationship. So why I love the scene between he and Kirk in the office mess [in Star Trek Beyond] is, you understand what their relationship is. You understand that this is a close confidante of Kirk’s, that he talks about his deepest, most personal things with, and Bones gives his somewhat hamfisted [response].
But again, even more so, what’s the relationship between Spock and Bones? It’s inferred that they’re the devil and the angel on Kirk’s shoulders but what is their relationship outside of that triumvirate, you know? So to see that they have this mutual respect… I think that you understand that generally they would, but you never see it. And then to understand that Bones can be empathetic towards this guy in a way is really kind of interesting.
And then Sulu and Uhura just seemed kind of interesting because they’re just two characters you don’t see that often together.
It raises an interesting question, because when we got the initial Star Trek movies we’d spent dozens of hours with these people before…
You mean TOS…?
The original, TOS. When we got Star Trek: The Motion Picture we had seen many episodes with those characters. Their relationships for the most part had been established.
And even if you hadn’t seen all of the show, there was obviously a natural rapport. It seems like you could use it too much as a crutch in this new one, relying on all that old history because you don’t have all those episodes. You only have these major event movies.
What do you talk about regarding their adventures between films? It’s been about three years since Into Darkness. What adventures have they been on? Where have their relationships gone? We see at the beginning they’re kind of stir crazy, but where have they been?
We talked a lot that they had become the ship that had basically bagged the most new Federation members. So they were out there making a lot of headway. We don’t name those planets or those races, but the idea is that’s what happened. But a lot of the stuff was kind of indicative of what you saw in the prologue, which is sort of these weird diplomatic things, that you have a hard time pinpointing “What are we doing? Why are we doing this?” And that sort of builds into Kirk’s questioning about himself and where he is in life. So we were trying to, that’s what we sort of talked about and imagined that they had been doing for a while.
You think about the way that the show played out and there were a lot of fun or silly episodes, like the cowboy planet…
…but then there were these seminal moments. The City on the Edge of Forever. Has that happened? Do you think that’s informed what Kirk is doing right now, or do you think that even needs to happen in this timeline?
I think it probably needs to happen. I think it’s probably another great movie. But just to get him into the psychological place that we wanted to get him into, we were sort of saying that they may have happened but he may not have come out with a full understanding of what those events meant, or questioning what they could be.
I think also the thing that we kind of talked about was there’s probably a lot of downtime on that thing, you know what I mean? You’re just going into nothing! You’re just going and going, when does it end? We went crazy for a while on what that initial Captain’s Log could be and how we meet them. There was talk at one point of like, what if they’d just gotten a little sloppy?
They’re all there with their shirts off on the bridge…
Or just like, not even so much that but like, those ensigns probably should have put those packing crates away but they just sort of left them there. [Laughs.] But it just doesn’t work with the aesthetic of Star Trek, but you know, that was something that we were really interested in. Boredom has set in. No one’s done this before, so no one knows how they’re really going to react, and it’s interesting to see in this sort of unimagined thing.
There was a kind of great moment in shooting when – again, this wasn’t what we were trying to do, it just was a funny thing that we joked about – was there was a couple scenes that we shot where John Cho said something to Sulu in a way, and in this particular take Anton [Yelchin] kind of looked at him like, “You’re stating the obvious.”
You mean like the Galaxy Quest kind of thing…?
Or like Chekov said something, just in these particular takes John gave him a look like he was a kiss-ass. In our minds we were like, “Oh, it would be so great if actually they HATED each other.” [Laughs.] “Chekov’s such a kiss-ass,” and Chekov’s looking at Sulu like, “Oh my god, Captain Obvious over here.” You know? But that was just more fun, of how were trying to imagination how their relationship would have evolved in the last couple of years.
In the press conference you talked about how you watched the old episodes and incorporated some of them into the world [of Star Trek Beyond].
Did you ever watch Star Trek: The Next Generation? Were those tools in the toolbox? Because obvious Picard hasn’t been born yet but The Borg exists. Q exists.
Was there ever any talk about that?
No, we never really talked about bringing The Borg in. I love Q and I love those big ideas Q brings into it, but we never really went to try to set that stuff up, because… partly it is, I think a lot of work’s been by J.J. and this cast to make this feel like their own, and we just never had that adventure yet that – you know what I mean? – slots into their particular deep space exploration adventure.
Two films in, they hadn’t gotten to the show.
Yeah, they hadn’t gotten to the show. So I think we kind of felt like, let’s let them have that first adventure we see be something that’s not just a jumping off point to something that we’re all going to go, “Oh! It ties into X!” Conversely, tying it into something in the past too. We just didn’t want to do that.
Do you think the way to go for future sequels would be just more adventures? Because you only get so much time with these cast members…
If I had my druthers?
Yes, if you had your druthers.
I think this cast could continue on, they could have more adventures. Maybe start to point to some things that would exist as we know of them in the future, like Next Generation, but who knows? Not being restricted by trying to make that your destination point. I also think it’s just a great universe that you can have spin-offs with ad nauseum, you know? And I think they can exist both in the TV world, which I think is fantastic, but I also think that it’s a franchise…
Hopefully this movie can show that there’s blockbuster potential in it still, and then you can have these movies that are off-shoots, like Rogue One, in an analogy to Star Wars. I think that could be really, really exciting because there’s so much of this we haven’t explored yet in modern cinema, that it would be fantastic!
Top Photo: Paramount Pictures
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved, Rapid Reviews and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.