Justin Lin interview: Star Trek Beyond, MC Hammer

As Star Trek Beyond launches in the UK, we talk to its director about making the sequel and how MC Hammer helped his career...

Director Justin Lin has come a long way since his debut feature, Better Luck Tomorrow in 2002. Taking on the ailing Fast & Furious franchise with Tokyo Drift in 2006, he managed to transform it into an unlikely multiplex behemoth, with each sequel outperforming the last since Fast & Furious in 2009. Lin’s reputation is such that he’s been given the keys to the Star Trek franchise, taking over from Roberto Orci (who in turn took over from JJ Abrams) during Star Trek Beyond’s turbulent pre-production.

We caught up with Mr Lin next to a bowl of fruit in a plush hotel room, where we picked his brains about gravity-defying cinematography, his thougths on the longevity of the Trek franchise, and why his career owes a debt to 90s pop sensation MC Hammer…

I sensed that going from the Fast franchise to this gave you a chance to give your imagination a workout when it came to the way you shot this. 

Yeah. In Fast, I tried to push physics, and here I get to have a lot more leeway!

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There’s a shot as the Enterprise launches, and it’s as though the camera’s mounted on the hull.

It’s interesting, having grown up with Trek. [The Enterprise] has been in so many episodes and movies. That ship’s been such a  part of my life. And I realised that it’s been photographed beautifully from every angle. So I really wanted to explore the ship, because it’s such a big part of the franchise, and it’s also the home for the characters. It was really a lot of fun – I had a ship made up, so I was living with it, trying to find different ways of bringing its personality out. 

What’s your approach, then, to designing some of these shots?

As a kid watching Star Trek, you always had these beautifully framed shots as they’re going around planets and stuff, and when I got older I started thinking, “What’s up, what’s down, what’s east, what’s west?” In space, it’s what you make of it. I really wanted to bring that direction. Especially thematically, with where Spock and Kirk are at this point in their lives, to try to find direction and balance. That was something I built in very early on. 

Of course, there was a very aggressive schedule but I wanted to make sure there was so much prep that you can have opportunities to be spontaneous. I think that was the goal going in.

There’s an interesting use of digital editing in this, where your camera flowing seamlessly into another. What’s your process of designing those?

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I wanted this film to have much more of a tactile feel. I came from film school where, when we started, it was a camera on a tripod, and that’s all you had. When we got our first dolly shot… [a knock on the door]

That must be your coffee! [Waitress comes in with a cup of coffee on an ornate tray]

…Um, so as technology has evolved, even the way aerial shots are done now, it’s very gyro, very smooth. I miss the old aesthetics of filmmaking from the past, where you really get the sense of interaction between the characters, but also the sense of the camera operator and the crew, you know? So that was very much by design. This movie’s very much harking back to the past; it’s honoring that tripod I had. I feel it brings more humanity, in a very subtle way. We have more tools now than ever to capture an image, and I really didn’t want to be greedy. It’s to service every moment, and really be there with the characters.

There’s a danger in the digital age that films can become too pristine, I guess.

Oh, yeah. That and also, in a CG environment, there’s no right and wrong – it’s very subjective. I had a really good time crafting this movie, trying to honour every character beat and tell the story subjectively – how the camera frames, how the camera moves. 

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I read that you built parts of the Enterprise on a gimbal so you could move them around and shake them. So you don’t have to do the classic TV series camera shake any more.

I’m proud of that! I couldn’t believe that in 50 years, we’re the first to do it. It must mean they did it [camera shake] very well in the past. But in this film, I wanted… the actors are great at their craft, but because of the technology, there’s just staring at a green screen. Just nothing. So I wanted to go back to the tactile feel. It’s amazing how, even on a ten degree tilt, the way your body moves is different. I could see it in the performance and how they interact with each other, and I felt it was important to do that for this movie. Especially with all the sequences in the Enterprise, and also the chase in the middle of the film. 

The whole Star Trek franchise has always been about unity and humanity, equality – all these positive themes. Do you think that’s why it’s endured so well for 50 years?

That was the first thing I thought about when the potential to take over came up. It became very interesting to me to try to deconstruct that. It’s been around for 50 years and you see this crew, and you see the Federation – utopia. And sometimes that’s assumed, you know? So I really wanted to deconstruct it, and hopefully at the end of the movie we can reaffirm why people have been passionate for so long. 

I grew up watching the original series on reruns, and it was very unique. I saw people from very diverse backgrounds together on a shared journey. That was my first sense that family doesn’t have to be by blood; it’s about a shared journey. I think that is very important, and that was part of the goal when I got together with Doug [Jung] and Simon [Pegg] was to really honour that, and challenge it with a new philosophy brought in by Krall [Idris Elba’s villain] – literally deconstruct it by ripping away their home, and see if they find each other. Hopefully, again, it reaffirms [Star Trek] and propels it for another 50 years.

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That’s the useful thing about science fiction – it can explore those themes and sometimes push boundaries. Star Trek was the first American programme to show an interracial kiss, for example.

Yeah. I’ve never done anything sci-fi, but when we got together, Simon, Doug and I, we were very aware of that. And it comes with a responsibility, because it’s there, and you have to be conscious of it. Great sci-fi, great Trek is always an allegory for something that’s happening to us as a society. On every level, on every scene, we’re conscious that we’re exploring those things. Sometimes they’re so subtle that you might not notice it, but hopefully you’ll feel something. 

One of the things Star Trek brought with it 50 years ago was this utopian vision of the future. Do you think we’re closer to that vision in the 21st century? 

I think we’re closer than we were in 1966. But there are always going to be growing pains. Especially now, there’s always stuff that’s happening, but you have to have hope. I think that’s what Star Trek has – at the end of the day, with all the adventures and all the conflict, what I love is the sense of hope. The fact that we’re human beings, and we’re flawed, but at the end of the day, we have to believe that we’ll eventually make the right choices.

Some great character moments in this movie, too. We’re seeing characters interacting in ways we haven’t seen before. Is that something you discussed early on?

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That was a personal goal. I started watching Star Trek with my family when I was eight, and it was a rerun. So if you imagine that you watch it for a year, you end up seeing the same episode maybe three times! It got to a point for me, as a kid, where I’d think about what happens off-screen. I see every episode where there’s a huge challenge and the crew has to go through something intense. But then I’d think, “What happens when Sulu and Chekov leave the bridge? Do they hang out or do they go their separate ways because they can’t stand each other?”

I love that. That’s the relationship vibe I’ve had with these characters ever since I was a kid. Now there’s the opportunity to contribute something to the legacy, I thought, that’s something I’d love to do. Just to get to be with these characters in situations they’re not used to. So a lot of the time, McCoy’s standing next to Spock, but we really get to see them interact away from Kirk. So it was very special to be able to explore those situations, to create a scenario where we separate the characters and through their actions we get to know them more and more.  

The trajectory of your career so far has been amazing. Better Luck Tomorrow was the movie that got you noticed by critics. But I read that it was partly funded by MC Hammer; is that correct?

[Chuckles] It was a credit card movie. I had 10 credit cards, I was in crazy debt. I had a little bit of money saved up, and that wasn’t enough – it was only something like $100,000. I got to the point where I hadn’t got the minimum raised, and I didn’t know anybody. 

I’d met MC Hammer a few years before, and he was just a nice guy. He gave me his number and said, “What do you do?” I said, “I hope to be a filmmaker one day.” He said, “Call me if you need anything.” So it got to a point where I was at the deadline and if I didn’t hit the number I’d have to give all the investments back and I couldn’t finish my movie. 

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So I had [MC Hammer’s] phone number, and I thought I’d call him. I’m pretty sure he didn’t remember me, but we just talked and I think the passion in my voice somehow translated. He wired the money the next day and saved the movie, so I’m forever grateful to Hammer. Filmmaking is such a crazy journey. But some of the people who you meet along the way, like MC Hammer, are just guardian angels.

It’s such a tough industry to break into. Sometimes you need people like that who can act as patrons.

Yeah. That’s the thing I learned, especially coming from the independent scene. Money is currency – I get it. But really, when you make an indie movie, it’s about passion. If you’re really passionate, and other people are passionate, from the actors all the way down, that means you’re doing it for the right reasons. So when I jumped to studio films, that was the biggest challenge; I wanted to remove the money. I acknowledge that it exists, but even though we’re well compensated, I want us all to show up and be passionate. That was the biggest challenge for a while. In the 10, 14 years I’ve been a professional filmmaker, I’ve been able to work with some amazing people, and slowly, that family’s building. That’s something I’m very proud of.

 

How did you adapt to that world of big studio movies? How can a filmmaker adapt to it, psychologically? 

My approach is the same. When I got my chance, the studio gave me more leeway, because they hired me because I’m an indie guy. So with success, we had a partnership where if it worked once [it could work again]. All I can ask for as a filmmaker is accountability. I would hate to do a movie and you either like it or not like it, but I’m not accountable. That’s not the way  I am, and it was a great way in for me, and it’s worked out really well. I just want to be accountable. That’s very important to me, because making films is a privilege. Even doing sequels – they’re not a given, they’re a privilege. It takes a lot of people make an even small idea come alive, so my approach has been the same – I learned it from the indie world, and that’s what I’ve applied. I wouldn’t want to work in any other way. 

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Are you signed up to make another Star Trek?

No, we haven’t talked about it. I signed up to do one, and I had a great time. But it was a detour in many ways. I didn’t plan on doing it, and so I’m just kind of enjoying it. 

Do you think you’ll do something smaller and more indie next?

That’s what I was doing when JJ [Abrams] called me! It’s become the greatest detour in my career. But I’ve been trying TV, all these different things I haven’t done before. I’m ready to start doing that. 

Justin Lin, thank you very much.

Star Trek Beyond is out in UK cinemas now.