JJ Abrams on hiding Benedict Cumberbatch's Star Trek role

News Simon Brew 3 Dec 2013 - 06:38

JJ Abrams looks back at attempts to keep Star Trek Into Darkness spoilers under wraps, and his slight regret at doing so...

The story contains spoilers for Star Trek Into Darkness.

By the time Benedict Cumberbatch's character, John Harrison, finally revealed himself to be Khan in last summer's Star Trek Into Darkness, a pretty constant war had been raging for months to keep the spoiler under wraps. Director JJ Abrams was one of a few who had been relatively adamant that Cumberbatch wouldn't be playing Khan in the film. And in a new interview with MTV, he's chatted about why - even when strong rumours started to circulate - they continued to protect the identity of Cumberbatch's role.

"The truth is because it was so important to the studio that we not angle this thing for existing fans. If we said it was Khan, it would feel like you've really got to know what Star Trek is about to see this movie", Abrams said. That didn't stop Paramount ruining the surprise to an extent by listing Cumberbatch as Khan on the back of the DVD and Blu-ray packaging for Star Trek Into Darkness though.

"I can understand their argument to try to keep that quiet, but I do wonder if it would have seemed a little bit less like an attempt at deception if we had just come out with it", he admitted. "The truth is that I think it probably would have been smarter just to say up front 'this is who it is'. It was only trying to preserve the fun of it, and it might have given more time to acclimate and accept that's what the thing was".

In truth, it's hard to say it's a bad thing that the team behind a film worked so hard to keep a spoiler under wraps. The other thing we'd note is that at the screenings of Star Trek Into Darkness we went to, nobody seemed in the slightest bit surprised when the reveal came. But then, were they all onto a loser from the start in trying to protect their secret?

It matters not now, of course. But we'd be quite happy if Abrams continued to try and protect plot and character spoilers for his films.

As for a director for the next Star Trek film, Abrams didn't shoot down the rumour that Attack The Block's Joe Cornish was the man in the frame. "I don't know if Joe Cornish is the guy. My guess is that's up in the air. I adore him and love him and can't wait to see what he does next", Abrams said.

More on the next Star Trek film as we hear it...


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Agreed, it wasn't a big shock in the screening I went to either. Plot holes were a bigger issue in the film, so it's the writing I'm more worried about for the follow up!

I was more shocked Khan Noonien Singh was a white guy. Again. In 2013. I must have missed the bit where they explain that the Panjabi was genetically engineered out of him to make him stronger.

It was so clearly Khan that I didn't even react when they 'revealed' it. If only this was the biggespt problem in the movie...

I always to my utmost to avoid spoilers (inc trailers) of films I know I want to see, so I managed to have the wonderful surprise of Cumberbatch being Khan in the movie and I only wish everyone could have had the same experience :)

The smart thing wasn't to just come out and say it was Khan. The smart thing would have been to actually come up with something original. You know, like a proper director

No problem whatsoever with trying to keep things a surprise until an audience sees the film, wish more would do it quite honestly. In this particular case though there were two big problems (IMO of course):

1) When we have the big "My name... is... Khaaaan" reveal it's entirely aimed at the audience. The Enterprise crew should have been standing there going "well, that's nice, I'm Jim, that's Spock, he's Leonard and this is expendable crew man number 90210". In universe there's just no context for it being a big secret. Now if he'd done the whole "My name is Khan Noonien Singh and I have laid waste half your little world etc etc" as a matter of fact boast it might have worked a bit better.

2) Recycling half of a much better movie, often line for line, pretty much from the point Khan was revealed. Suddenly Khan goes from being a cool 'oh crap' moment to a millstone around the neck of a film that had, up that point, been doing quite well at showing us something different.

Fair play to JJ Abrams for not unveiling every sodding plot point of the film in the trailer! Trailers are supposed to entice the viewer into watching the film and not explain/spoil the whole film. I hope he keeps the security as tight around the new Star Wars film, it will be nice to go in and watch it without knowing everything about it. Abrams viral campaign for Cloverfield was brilliantly executed and kept the fanboys on the edge of a nerdgasm for over a year!

I think the comic book can explain a few things. IMO, they should have come clean on Khan, issued the comic book as a prequel but omitting the parts that pertains to the movie itself.

I don't see what the problem is. Is the race of the character an integral part of the character's identity in the films? And yes it is 2013, and nowadays there are plenty of multi-racial people with 'ethnic' names who look more like one race than another. A friend of mine has a Chinese sounding name and yet most people have no idea that he's half-Asian - they think he's white. Perhaps it's the same with Khan.

IGN posted Cumberbatch's response about this, it's hilarious. You should include it in your report.

I thought their take on Khan was actually all right... it was just the re-hashing of the other elements of Wrath of Khan that really let the film down in the second half, amongst other things! Oh, and the fact that you can seemingly warp from Earth to the Klingon boarder in all of 5 minutes annoys me... this Abrams-verse just seems too small!

Two words - retroactive continuity

Hmmm, I don't really care about the 'twist', fact is I just didn't think it was a very good film. Changing the identity of that character wouldn't have improved it any.

agreed with you until you bashed JJ, man I don't get all the hate I really don't

The Star Trek Into Darkness Honest Trailer / How It Should have ended video (I forget which) depicts that scene nicely, with the crew reacting with 'so your name is Khan, that's supposed to mean something is it?'

I also agree that new ideas should be the agenda with Star Trek, I was totally against the idea of bringing back Khan, as it had origianally been done so well. As for JJ, I honestly think he's a great director. I love his enthusiasm, and that comes across on screen - the actors and crew all love him dearly too, and they are willing to go that extra mile for him. Fans need something to moan about, and JJ being so open and honest usually gets their flack.

...just wait until episode VII.

I just think directors who chose to do remakes over doing something original are hacks. It must be an amazing opportunity to be a film director, to have the opportunity to create something truly original and imaginative that can last for generations. If you are choosing to get paid to rip off someone else's ideas, you are just churning out product, and get no respect from me

None of the rumours I've heard about the new star wars films change my mind about this. So far, it seems to have all the old cast, R2D2 and C3PO, and they've built a new Millennium falcon? Why not just be honest about it and remake A New Hope?

Seen the script have we...? You know nothing other than what they allow you to know. Hope you find the dummy you spat out.

I didn't mind them keeping the "twist" a secret, but for the life of me I can't see the benefit it had on the movie. I think a whole lot of people who actually care about these things (otherwise known as "fans") would have preferred Cumberbatch to have played the disgruntled and genetically modified Starfleet officer John Harrison throughout the whole movie and the people the movie was actually aimed towards (otherwise known as "not the fans") couldn't care less if he was new guy Harrison or Khan retread.
The whole Wrath of Khan redux thing were the weaker elements of an enjoyable action movie (as long as you left your expectations of seeing an actual Star Trek movie at the door but hell, First Contact rode all over characterisation and continuity in it's own way)

I don't think the problem was holding back spoilers, which is something I am all for and am very happy that JJ Abrams continues to see the value in this, the problem was that (without naming the guy) they'd made it fairly obvious that this was who BC was playing. To then openly deny this and then expect us to be shocked at the reveal that the bad guy was in fact (dah dah daaaaaah) the person we though it was all along was plain stupid. That said, the far bigger problem was to waste the opportunity to tell a new story in a new universe and abandon what could have been a fun film to go down the retread route. My main problem with the film was that it was unclear who this was done for - new Trek fans wouldn't care about Khan and so we could have had a new character and story, old Trek fans have seen Wrath of Khan and don't need a watered down "greatest hits" version of that film. The studio wanted familiarity, and they got a real step down from the 2009 film, which had set this new universe and possibility up so nicely. Just wait, in three years I'm guessing the "big reveal" will be the Borg, purely on the basis that everyone's heard of them, which kind of makes keeping it a secret rather pointless.

"Amazing opportunity"? JJ Abrams did not win the lottery. He got where is today by sheer talent and 30 years hard work. He earned his position as somebody trusted to reinvent the two most successful sci-fi series in the world, which means he gets a heck of a lot of respect from me.

I managed to avoid even the speculation about him being Khan. Until about 20 minutes before the film started and one of my friends casually mentioned it that is. But I like the idea of directors keeping secrets like this.

I wonder if he regrets using Old Spock AGAIN and using magical death defying blood?

Which they can now keep in bottles on the Enterprise in case anyone gets killed again. Rendering all future Trek films completely pointless...

I, and a lot of other people, could have done without those stupid lens flares.

I'm not saying he did, its just disappointing that he (and many other directors for that matter) don't use their talent to create original movies. Its like being an amazing songwriter then forming a covers band.

Khan was supposed to be Punjabi? He was Mexican in the TV series. At least, Ricardo Montalban was.

I totally agree with Honest Trailer's complete assessment of the film.

I think Benedict Cumberbatch is a great actor, and he performed what he was given quite well. I just completely disagree with the direction and storyline the writers came up with.

This movie could have been so much more original, but instead they rehashed major points from every other star trek movie, including major parts from the previous film.

"Recycling half of a much better movie." ...too true.

Into Darkness was doing so well right up until the Khan reveal, I was so underwhelmed that they cut and paste so much material from Wrath of Khan. The whole war with the klingons threat at the start was a lot more interesting and should have been carried on. There was absolutely no reason for him the be Khan in this film.

See that's what's so frustrating. Starfleet gearing up for war in secret, a Klingon empire that seems a wee bit more aggressive than their classic-trek equivalents and into that mix you throw someone like Khan... it could have been incredible. It could have been a real reboot of the character with his approach that so clashed with the original series seeming a little more reasonable in the new continuity. You could have had this incredibly charismatic and capable character (which, god knows, Cumberbatch could play with his eyes closed) being accepted by Starfleet and even the wider Federation after the destruction of Vulcan with the Enterprise crew working away at the mysteries. It could have been fabulous.

Instead we get a nonsensical Khaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan, Kirk becoming superhuman and any attempt at rational thought thrown away to shoehorn in as many references to Wrath as possible. Worst kind of movie IMO, one where you can see the potential and promise of what could have been but instead get a huge helping of disappointment.

Khan the character, as envisioned by Gene Roddenberry was a Panjabi, specifically a Sikh. The actor who portrayed him on TOS was indeed Mexican, Ricardo Montalbán. If you compare his appearance with that of Fantasy Island he appears to have 'blacked up' for the Khan role

Also greatly reduces the perils of wearing a red shirt! It's just not right!

If they did end up being the Borg at some point, it could actually be interesting seeing how Kirk and crew would deal with them. So long as the plot was more than just re-hashing First Contact.

Sikh is a religious denomination - so your description of Khan being "Panjabi, specifically a Sikh" means as much as "English, specifically a Methodist". So that's kind of an odd aside.

But, anyway, Cumberbatch wasn't Indian or Pakistani. Neither was Montalban. Whatevs.

Well said. He wasn't white-washed for the wrong political reasons I guess. Let's think about an Indian terrorist for a second. It is just safe thinking to let the terrorists in US blockbusters be white guys instead of any other culture. Just in case they might bomb them... or the other way around.

In the Dark Knight films it was always a white bad guy, even the real Ras Al Ghul was played by Liam Neeson. In Iron Man 3 they changed the Mandarin to a white guy. And so on. Just think about it. It is the safer choice nowadays. So a white Khan makes sense in the end. Doesn't it?

It was the writers. Not the director. Not to say JJ is a very good director, but he can't be blamed for the screenplay. Sometimes the directors just film what's in there. Maybe he is one of these guys. So blame Roberto Orci, Damon Lindelof and Alex Kurtzman.

On the other hand did Christopher Nolan write The Dark Knight Rises. He can be blamed for that AND was the director, too. See the difference?

Sikhs are defined as a race under UK law and have been since 1983 - Methodists aren't.

Me, too. I don't think he is a great director though. His films are flashy and have too much shakycam. But he doesn't write all the screenplays, so he can't be blamed for that essential part, too.

His Mission Impossible was the weakest of the four IMHO, because it had the least intriguing Action scenes and nearly no suspense or thrills at all. You can see Brian dePalma and John Woo in the first two installments, although they were just hired directors without too much storylike input. Brad Bird did a good job as a hired director on the fourth, too. But JJ, I don't know. It was the least entertaining one of the bunch. The personal family story of Ethan Hunt didn't interest me that much. And just compare the shakycam Action scenes in M:I3 with the precise SlowMo Action in the first and the second. Storywise they might be mediocre, but the style was clearly over substance there. And what style!

Next is Star Trek. He did good altogether by opening it up to everyone who sniffed at Star Trek all these years. He brought a whole new audience to the nerds and geeks. His Action scenes were still too flashy and shaky and fast-cut compared to the ten Star Trek films that came before. But I like his approach. He casted it perfectly (Bones and Scotty; Spock as well) and took it to a whole new level by tricking it to be another timeline just to not annoy the elder fanboys. Good thinking.

I sincerely hope that someone at Disney tells JJ Abrams that the nearly-no-cut stillcam from Gravity must be the path to new Star Wars glory. Then he will do fine. We'll have to wait and see, I guess.

Martin Scorsese did two remakes (Cape Fear and The Departed). Sergio Leone started with one (A Fistful of Dollars). Christopher Nolan did two (Insomnia and Batman Begins). John Carpenter did one (The Thing). Brian De Palma did it (Scarface).
Alfred Hitchcock did a remake of his own film (The Man Who Knew Too Much).
Steven Spielberg did one (Always). The Coen Brothers did one (Ladykillers).
Sam Raimi produced one (Evil Dead).
Werner Herzog did one (Bad Lieutenant).
Just recently Spike Lee did one (Oldboy).

I highly recommend all these directors to any filmfanatic, regardless whether they did or didn't successfully remade anything. But in fact, they did.

And he got to know Steven Spielberg very early in his career. That might have helped, too...

JJ Abrams...somebody please, get this tard off the franchise that I have been a religious fan of since I was a small child.

...for a completely new audience. If just the hardcore Trekkies would've shown up, it would have made roundabout 50 million just in the US. Nemesis made 43 million. Into Darkness made 228 million. He did alter it down for the mainstream, but he was successful. That's all that counts in ShowBUSINESS, you know. Nothing to add here. You must've been disappointed as a real Trekkie, but at least Star Trek is still alive. That is all that counts in the end. The idea is bigger than the both of us and JJ. But he even managed to get it to a whole new audience. Might not be yours or mine, but it's Star Trek's in the end. Good for it, isn't it?

Introducing a fan favourite character is fine - and it did peak my interest - but that fell away when they just went the whole 'betrayal' plotline I've seen a million times before and the reminder that these characters shared none of the history the prior characters shared weakens Khan considerably.

As for the final acts of the movie - disappointment does not even begin to cover it. They had an amazing plotline with a potential Klingon war, Star Trek HQ being revealed as being corrupt, genetic experiments, terrorist bombings. The whole movie could have been so new - if only the villain was someone else. Remove the Khan aspect and the movie improves.

As for hiding the villain? Everyone knew the identity of the character long before release and if your movie improves if the villain was a different character then you messed up badly.

Good post Sten , so I feel obliged to reply....

There are some films in your list that are fair game when it comes to remakes. Remaking something that is old or obscure, so as to bring it to a new audience is fair enough (for example, I don't think many people had seen the Robert Mitchum's Cape Fear, or the 1932 Scarface, and I would imagine a lot of people wouldn't have been Kurosawa fans before Leone came along)

Directors can also take the concept of a film, and remake make it into something different, such as The Thing and Cronenberg's The Fly (also, are you saying Batman Begins is a remake of Tim Burton's Batman or the 60's version?)

Then there are films you list which (I would say) are regarded as those directors weakest (Always, Ladykillers, Oldboy, Insomnia). If you are remaking a film that is already established and well received, you'd better do a bloody good job, or its going to look bad in comparison

I think there is a whole generation now who think remakes are normal, and probably don't realise that until about 15 years ago, they just never happened. Every week, every single film that came out was something completely new and original. Not based on an old film, comic book, crap 60's TV show or anything, completely brand spanking new.

It wasn't like something happened in 2000 that prevented the world from having new ideas or anything, its just studios got lazy and Directors let them get away with it. This is why we still have franchises from that era then that studios are still actively running into the ground (Alien, Die Hard, Terminator), in a desperate attempt to avoid coming up with something new.

Personally, I think the rules for directors are pretty much the same as cover versions. They are fine if you want to take something obscure and make it your own, by changing it so much that it sounds nothing like the original. If you are just copying someone more talented than yourself and trying to claim it as your own, you are an x-factor contestant

It was a stupid decision from the get-go. Most of us had anticipated that the villain was going to be Khan a year before the film was released. And for those not familiar with Trek, the reveal meant nothing. Dumb and dumber. Frankly, after this debacle, I wish they had done a real reboot: no old Spock, no alternate time-line, no references to tribbles. Just a full-on reboot. This would have freed them up from worries (and whining) about canon, and made it easier to create new characters and stories. They wanted to have their cake and eat it to, which rarely works. I actually blame Paramount; you can see their mindless, meddling fingerprints all over the crime scene.

JJ has a balk of orginal work he has directed and even written him self though! which kinda counters your argument! and dont forget remakes CAN be better than the orginal, its happened in the past.
example would be Scarface and cape fear

If you're calling Batman Begins a remake then surely Raimi's Spider-Man also counts.

I read an article once in which it was said that they should remake crap movies and "better" them. Perhaps movies, that failed the first time. Like they did recently with Dredd, which was surely better than the Stallone version. Unfortunately it failed at the box office. But the idea is still worth thinking about.

Yep. And the reboot as well. I liked the Raimi version better, but both were successful. Batman Begins was a new take filmwise. Although it has its roots in comics. And there are a lot of different takes to every story. Itmight not be a classical remake though.

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