Simon Pegg is a man who needs no introduction to genre fans. But more than that, he’s family: Few stars today have expressed their love for the things we hold dear so passionately and articulately. So when we visited the set of Paramount’s next Star Trek film earlier this year, it was Pegg with whom we were most eager to speak. The lifelong Trekker had recently signed on not only to resume his role as Scotty (which he established in J.J. Abrams‘ 2009 reboot Star Trek and its 2013 sequel Star Trek Into Darkness), but also co-write the film with Doug Jung as well. Wearing his trademark redshirt uniform, Pegg sat down with us and a group of our fellow film journalists to explain how he went about developing the film’s story, what new director Justin Lin is bringing to the series, how Star Trek Beyond will honor the franchise in its fiftieth anniversary year, and the difference between Star Trek and Star Wars. Read on, Trekkers — this chat is as epic as the Enterprise’s fabled five-year mission itself!
Nerdist: What’s it like to balance acting and writing with this movie?
Simon Pegg: It was kind of something that came up at the end of the year when I was in the middle of Rogue Nation, and Bryan Burke — who is the producer on that movie and the producer on the previous two Star Treks and Star Wars as well — he was saying they were thinking about blue skying the screenplay and going in a different direction. We just talked about it a lot on set, and then he just pulled me aside one day and said, “Do you want to write it with a co-writer?” I sort of said, “Okay.” I knew it would be difficult, but for some reason I said yes and that was it. Then in January we all met.
I never read Bob [Orci]’s script and neither did Doug [Jung]. We started out in a room at Bad Robot that’s just got white boards around the room, just blank white boards. Which is a terrifying thing to see. Then we just filled them and kind of went through so many iterations and so many story ideas. Eventually we began to hone in on what we have now, and it was a very accelerated, kind of intense process—and a difficult one. It’s very difficult to write a film in pre-production, because every idea you have they want to build a design. And it might not be a good idea. Sometimes you don’t have the time to go, “Wait a minute. That’s not a good idea. Don’t build that.” So every idea we had had to be kind of good. It’s not easy. So yeah, and then we finally go to begin shooting with a full script. But knowing that every single scene was kind of up for grabs in terms of the finessing of the dialogue and certain character aspects. As long as we had all the sets, the shape of it, everything production needed to go into shooting, then we could, once we had the schedule, start prioritizing certain scenes and going back to them and seeing. Also we got all the cast in on it.
We sent an email out to the cast when everyone got here, saying, “Look at your character. If you have any feelings or impulses, you known them better than we do. Let us know.” That’s been really helpful. It’s great to be part of both sides of it. I’m here most days anyway when I’m not shooting, because I’m with Doug. You’ve always got to look out for things that change of the way any way, and little things come up, little character things come up, and we have the freedom to be able to deal with that. So yeah, it’s been extraordinary. It was amazing to get here and start seeing the props and sets. It really hit home what we’d done. That we’d actually written a Star Trek film, and there were things we’d invented that they built.
We actually went out to the Memory Alpha guys, the two founders of the Memory Alpha Wiki and asked them to name something for us. There’s a specific thing in the screenplay that we wanted to get a name for. So I just wrote an email saying, “Hey guys. There’s this thing. I can’t tell you what it’s for, but there’s this item…” Three hours later I got a full etymological breakdown of the word and the history of the thing. So they’re gonna be in the credits for that.
N: One is hard pressed to think of another franchise with the limitless potential of Star Trek. Where did you begin fashioning this story? Did you have a list of things you wanted to have or avoid?
SP: Yeah. Well, we felt that the first two films, chronologically, take place before the five-year mission. As we’ve said with this one, we want it to be about them on that five-year mission. In fact, two years into that five-year mission, and how that impacted them personally and what it meant to be out in space that long. And we liked the idea of also, on the fiftieth anniversary, looking at Roddenberry’s original vision and questioning it. The whole notion of the Federation and whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing and how productive is inclusivity and what is the true cost of expansion. That kind of stuff. So we went in with some big philosophical questions to ask … Star Trek’s had to evolve in order to exist in the current marketplace. A film that was totally in the mood of the original series would not be made today, or make money today. Because people want event cinema. They want [things] to be a little more brash and a little more action-oriented. So we’ve had to dial that into the Star Trek brand. But at the same time that doesn’t mean that can’t be fundamentalized by all the tenants of what Star Trek is, and how those characters have evolved over the years, and to really give its DNA a kind of authenticity. So that’s been a really interesting thing, and that’s something we really wanted to do. So Doug and I, when we were really happy with a day’s writing, we would sit and watch a couple of episodes of the original series just for fun. Not to get ideas.
It’s always good to get names from the original series, like dead redshirts. I have a list of dead redshirts on my phone somewhere. Just to know that the same people exist in the universe. But this is our universe. It belongs to us now. J.J. — very cleverly — was able to establish the story again without damaging or affecting what went before. And it’s ours now. Anything can happen. Anyone can die. It’s not the same events.
N: The first two films referenced the original series of films. Will this do that at all or are you now finally past that?
SP: There will be things in there for every Star Trek fan. It is the same world, and so some of the points of reference will be the same. But they are off in a part of the galaxy that they’ve never been before. They’re far away from the usual suspects I think. As such it’s not like they’re meeting up with an old adversary or someone they’ve met before. We toyed with that. You look at the great episodes and think, “Why don’t we do ‘Mirror, Mirror’ or why don’t we do ‘Arena’?” But that was Galaxy Quest, so that’s off the table. [Laughs.]
N: So unlike the previous film, which took a lot of its story beats from “Space Seed” and Wrath of Khan, this is a completely fresh narrative?
SP: Yes. Yeah, yeah.
N: When J.J. made the original Star Trek he made it like Star Wars, because that’s what he loved. Now that Star Wars is happening, how do you make it different from that?
SP: Yeah, it’s interesting when you look at the original Star Trek. Because it is about an idealistic young farm boy who goes off to fight in outer space. There are similar beats to it. It’s no secret that J.J. was always more of a Star Wars fan … You just try and create a kind of hybrid, I think. Star Wars is science fantasy and Star Trek is science fiction, and they’re two different things. People very often go, “Oh. Star Wars and Star Trek…” [but] they’re not the same thing at all. It’s a bizarre little thing that you can be in Bad Robot now and hear Chewbacca in one room and someone talking about Spock in the other. But they are still two very different things.
What you have to maintain with Star Trek is that it’s rooted somewhere in our universe. In humanity. Star Wars is a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. The thing that makes that Star Trek more science fantasy is there’s a lot of special effects, a lot of fighting. Star Trek never could afford that, in a way. Which is why it had to concentrate on other aspects of production. We can do both now now. So I think it’s kind of finding a way of having that really fun, spectacular event cinema, but grounding it. Because explosions don’t mean a damn thing if you don’t care about who’s involved in the explosions. You can see that most incredible fireworks on a cinema screen. But if you don’t fundamentally care about the people that are in jeopardy then they’re so unimpressive. You see that time and time again these days.
N: What’s more challenging — coming up with those fireworks scenes or coming up with great character moments?
SP: That’s been fun about working with Justin. Justin Lin is a really, really smart filmmaker in terms of his awareness of motion and how to stage action. It just impresses me every day. There’s nothing fancy or extraneous: Everything he does tells a story. As such, when it comes to choreographing the bigger action scenes, we’ve been able to say, “This happens,” and Justin will turn it into something magical. He’s had a huge say in terms of how the story’s moved as well. Sometimes he’s gone, “Look, I really want to do this bit here.” And Doug and I have gone, “Okay,” and we’ve fed that into the story. So I really love doing all the small stuff, the character stuff, the lighthearted stuff. Then Justin, when it comes to an action set piece or whatever, we hand it over to Justin and he handles most of it. He’ll feed the dialogue into that.
N: Is there a particular character dynamic you were really eager to explore?
SP: Yeah, I felt like the Kirk-Spock thing, we’d done that now. Arguably maybe too soon in a way. I think there’s still a lot of time for those guys to become super friends. Maybe we’ll do that further down the line if we do more. I felt like now it was time to move away from the bromance thing and concentrate on the idea of the crew as a family living in a small space together, and what it means to all of them. I really love the dynamic between Bones and Spock, so that’s something we’ve kind of concentrated on a little bit with this one. Kirk’s older than his dad was when he died. All that sort of psychological stuff is playing on him. Scotty’s just still Scotty.
N: Outside of Spock, Scotty’s one of the few characters that gets to have really good one-to-ones with Kirk. How has their dynamic evolving in this film?
SP: They kind of have a friendship whereby Scotty can kind of tell it how it is to Kirk. He respects him but occasionally he will tell him as he does in Into Darkness. So their relationship has evolved from that. I hope when you see us again whatever dynamic evolved through the last two films, there’s been another two years of that. So they’re all very comfortable with each other. They’re all very into the cycle of doing their job. Scotty is just happy to be in the engine room doing his thing.
N: Zoe Saldana has said that as this movie begins the crew is done, they’re drained two years into the mission. Where do you go from there?
SP: It’s less that they’re done with it. Because they know that they’ve still got time to go. It’s more that they’re dealing with what would inevitably be the psychological impact of doing it. It’s not they’re, “Oh, I don’t want to do this anymore.” No one’s over it. It’s just that they’re doing their job. They’re going from adventure to adventure and it’s kind of tiring, and wondering what the end game of it all is. The idea of the movie, the story in the film, is that what they encounter helps to clarify what their job is.
N: What can you tease about Idris Elba’s character?
SP: Idris is doing some extraordinary work at the moment. Me and Doug sat down with him a few weeks ago in preparation for his scenes, and really got to the bottom of who he is in this movie. I can’t tell you that because there’s a lot of complexity about him and mystery about which we obviously want to maintain. But he’s just this very formidable, very powerful, person/thing that they encounter. He is a kind of a… He’s obviously a match for Kirk. But there’s a dynamic between them that is very interesting. That will all become clear.
N: People enjoy seeing the gizmos and gadgets of science fiction. Can you talk about that? And was there anything from the original series that you wanted to incorporate?
SP: Yeah, well, it’s no spoilers to say there’s phasers and communicators and beaming and what you’d hope for from a Star Trek movie. I think a few characters who’ve never beamed before got to be beamed in this one, which was very nice for them. Part of the story at least begins with them docking up at a new Starbase which is at the very edge of space. It’s a new kind of diplomatic hub. It’s called Yorktown, and it’s right on the edge of Federation space. It’s where all the most recent Federation inductees can come and mingle with each other and sort of learn about each other.
N: It’s like Mos Eisley?
SP: No, that’s a wretched hive of scum and villainy! [Laughs.] This is the opposite of that… Me and Doug joked that there were various aliens with leaflets, handing them out to other aliens, like, “Come and see our world!” But it’s basically a place where they can understand what being part of the Federation means, and it’s an important kind of tactical establishment for the Federation. They’re very, very far out, but it’s been built locally, so it’s very interesting to look at. It’s where the Enterprise docks up. For the first time in ten months it’s had proper contact with other people—that’s where the story begins. Designing that … You describe it in a screenplay and then you give it to a production designer and they come back with these amazing concept designs. That was the most amazing thing for Doug and I. You write away and you write away and then you see all these boards with this beautifully designed stuff, and you kind of feel like you can take credit for it. Even though you shouldn’t. [Laughs.]
N: Were there any elements from the previous script that stuck around because they’d already been designed in pre-production?
SP: Not at all. Maybe there were props that they were able to recycle. But because I hadn’t read it … Something I’d like to clear up — I got misquoted recently, saying that I was brought on to make it less Star Trekky, which is not what I’d told that journalist. What I meant was there has to be a degree of universality when you’re dealing with something like that. Which means you can’t alienate the people for whom it’s their very first Star Trek. If they come into it and it’s indecipherable because there’s a lot of stuff that you have to have prior knowledge to understand, then you’re left with something which is a little bit exclusive. It’s always the trick with these properties. Making it at once something that the fans can enjoy and take a lot from, but also knew people can come in and see it as a one-off and go, “Hey, I’ve got fifty years of this I can go and watch now!” Which is a great thing for kids. I love the idea when you used to discover a band and then discover they’d had six albums out before. So that was what I meant by that. The idea of it not being Star Trek is anathema to me. This has to be in every way and every fiber of its being Star Trek.
N: One of your many strengths is comedy. How has that affected the rhythm and humor of the film and that way in which it compares to the previous two? Obviously it’s not gonna be a romp.
SP: Yeah, but understandably when my name was linked to it, people went, “Oh no. It’s gonna be a comedy.” That’s not what we want to do. But obviously both Doug and myself and the whole cast and Justin are very keen for the film to be fun. The jeopardy for it to be real the tension for it to be nail-biting. … The second one is called Into Darkness, so I’m not necessarily leveling this criticism at that film. Obviously — I’m in it. But there seems to be this weird thing these days about if you gritty something up suddenly it’s okay for us to like it as grownups. Like justifying what is essentially aimed at children, but if you suddenly fill it with darkness and blood, it’s okay for grownups. You don’t have to feel guilty about liking it. But fuck that. We can like anything you like.
I feel like Star Trek was always very bright and optimistic. There are some fabulous comic touches in the original series. When you watch some of the interplay between Kirk, Bones, and Spock particularly there’s some lovely stuff. So we want this film to have a sense of fun and a levity which never impacts on the tension and never takes anything away from the bad guy … Galaxy Quest is a great example of a really funny sci-fi film. The threat in that film — the same with the zombies in Shaun of the Dead — is completely serious. And you have comedy happening. We’re not making Galaxy Quest by any means. But it’s possible to have a lightness and a comic touch and characters who are very human, and still maintain a genuine threat and for it to feel real and not flippant. But I sort of balk slightly at this darkness thing, because it just feels like… Own it, you know?
N: Thank you very much, Simon.
SP: Thank you for not asking me about Star Wars! [Laughs.]
Image Credit: Paramount