Interview with Simon Pegg for ‘Star Trek Beyond’

Way back in 1999, Simon Pegg’s character in TV’s ‘Spaced’ uttered a line about every odd numbered ‘Star Trek’ movie being… ahem… subpar. Just to remind us that fate has a sense of humour, Pegg was tasked with co-writing the third movie in the Star Trek reboot. caught up with the comic actor turned writer to find out more about how daunting this new gig was. Beam us up Scotty!

Before we get into talking about ‘Star Trek Beyond’, I just want to express my condolences to you about the death of Anton Yelchin.
Simon Pegg: Thank you. We are devastated; I can only begin to tell you.

We talked last year for ‘Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation’ and you seemed slightly stressed about writing ‘Star Trek Beyond’. How do you feel now that it is all over?
SP: Inordinate relief. It just felt like we were standing in front of a thousand Everests and only had six months to climb them. When you are faced with that kind of creative adversity, you have to just go forward and trust that you’ll get up the hill. It was hard and it was, at times, maddening and terrifying [laughs] and depressing, but looking back at it now it feels like a wonderful experience and I am so glad that I persisted with it.

I did actually read that you tried to quit a couple of times and JJ Abrams wouldn’t let you…
SP: Yeah I did. It was purely because it just felt like an insurmountable task. The trouble was I was in the UK and I was writing with Doug [Jung] over the phone and on email and that’s hard to write like that; I like to be in the same room as the writer, as I always am when I write with Edgar [Wright] or Nick [Frost]. Doug came over to stay with me in the UK and I went to LA and we got through it, but there were a couple of times when it was like “This isn’t going to work!” [laughs] but JJ is so used to living in the pressure cooker, he knows the score and was able to reassure me. I didn’t quit because I wanted to be talked back, I was deadly serious, but JJ knows what he is talking about so I was able to just listen to him, and go “OK fine, I’ll go back!” [laughs]

Your screenwriting in the past has been all original characters and scenarios, how did it feel to jump into a pre-existing franchise like this?
SP: Yes it was extraordinary because we were given a pre-existing universe – and it is a universe, literally… Or at least a galaxy. There’s so much pre-existing material and we were given characters that were ready made, and situations, a reality that had already been shaped and explored, so in some respects it was fantastic to be given those tools to work with. In others, having to make sure that it was of the right quality and living up to the 50 years of history that have gone before it was obviously a big challenge. To be given a pre-existing set of building blocks to work with was really interesting.

Having written the script, how did you feel filming it? Were you precious about it at all?
SP: Oh god yeah. I was on set all the time, when I wasn’t filming I was at the monitors with Doug, and because of the way I was writing it, Doug and I were still writing in our lunch breaks for stuff we had coming up because we were finessing things that we had already written. We had the space to make sure that everything was firing properly, and I would be there in rehearsals, working through stuff with the cast sometimes. I am used to being very hands on and I had to relinquish that with this a little bit because it wasn’t just my gig; there was Justin [Lin] and my co-writer Doug, and the producers and we had to share. It was a great group of people to do that with because it’s just trust left right, and centre.

In terms of the writing, were you given an outline or a starting point for the film, or were you just told “Into Darkness is over… Go!”
SP: We were given a room full of empty whiteboards and were told “Off you go!”. We had one brainstorming session at the Soho Hotel in London when Justin, Doug and Lindsey [Weber] our producer flew over. I was shooting ‘Mission: Impossible’ so they came over to me and we literally shut the door in a hotel room for 16 hours and tried to start bashing out ideas, some of which sucked, some of which didn’t. Then I went to LA to Bad Robot, into the room with the whiteboards, and we just filled them with ideas. We had the idea that we wanted the film to take place a certain way into the five year mission, that the first original series was all about, so they were far far away from Earth, so the film wasn’t about them being near Earth or Earth being a direct target in the film; it was about them being in deep space. That was very important to us. We came up with the idea for a space station, which was a proxy Earth in a way; a diplomatic hub on the edge of Federation space that was a lynchpin of peace in the area, and started off from there. It’s interesting to look back on how the story grew; it was quite an organic process.

Obviously you have a vested interested in ‘Star Trek Beyond’ as an actor as well as a writer. Were you ever tempted to kick Chris Pine to the side and give Scotty the lead?
SP: [laughs] I was more tempted to sideline Scotty to be honest, because I didn’t want anyone to look at the film and go “Oh he’s written himself a big role!” [laughs] and I would always defer to Doug; I would write Scotty, but with Doug there I would make sure that he kept an eye on how much Scotty was in it. I am very aware of my role as Scotty, and what Scotty’s part is in the ‘Star Trek’ family, so it wasn’t difficult to distance myself from the fact that I play that role. I looked at Scotty as another character in the film and I didn’t see him as me, I saw him as another part of the story. It wasn’t too difficult to modulate how much he was in it; I get some cool moments, but Pine gets all of the really cool stuff! [laughs]

Was there any particular character or relationship that you wanted to, and got the chance to explore in ‘Star Trek Beyond’?
SP: Yeah I felt like we had explored the Spock/Kirk dynamic quite thoroughly with the first two films – and maybe even a little prematurely in terms of their relationship together. We were all in for ‘Into Darkness’ and we were looking at them in ways that the original series had waited many episodes and many films before they started to look at the relationship between Kirk and Spock. We thought we would maybe separate them for this one and concentrate on the relationship between Spock and Bones because their relationship is very much the kind of devil and angel of Kirk’s shoulder, and we thought it would be interesting to take Kirk away and see how they reacted if they were put together. They have quite an antagonistic relationship but it is underpinned by a very deep respect. They are also polar opposites emotionally, you have got the completely stoic logical thinker, and you have got the slightly more emotionally reactive one in Bones, and it felt like a really great pairing. We thought “let’s take away the lynchpin that holds everyone together – which is their ship – and separate them into difference places and see if they come back together; see if they are simply about the place where they work or are they something more than that.

You have a distinct, comedic writing style that fans know you for. Did you find it difficult to put this to one side to write ‘Star Trek Beyond’?
SP: When it was first announced that I was involved, as expected people were slightly worried that it would turn into a comedy since I am mainly associated with comedies, but I knew what I was writing, and one thing I didn’t want to do was undermine it in any way. ‘Star Trek’ has a great history of lightheartedness, and there is some wonderful humour in ‘Star Trek’ that we were able to mine and use appropriately. At the same time it was great to be able to write more serious, more dramatic stuff, and have it not be undermined by comedy in any way, to actually play it straight for once, and take pleasure in the straightness of it, and the jeopardy, the dilemmas that they were in. The film isn’t a comedy; it has some very funny moments in it, but at the same time all the serious stuff has to work in and of itself.

I read that you approached the people who run Memory Alpha – the ‘Star Trek’ wiki – to name something for the film…
SP: Yes we did. We used Memory Alpha extensively when we were writing, just to fact check. Even though this is a new timeline, big events would have been the same as they were in the original series universe. Also, there are certain things in the history of ‘Star Trek’ that would have occurred before the timeline broke; anything about the history of the Constitution Class vessel or what’s inside a photon torpedo or the names of various Red Shirts that have worked on the Enterprise… We were constantly fact-checking on Memory Alpha, and we realised that we owed them a great debt, so we called the guys that founded the Wiki and we asked them to name a mineral for us. We described to them what it was, and within two or three hours they had sent back an entire break down of the name and the geological history of this thing. They were amazing, and they will be in the credits for that. That is an entirely fan-created Wiki and it is totally and utterly exhaustive in terms of the information on there and we liked that idea of plugging into the fan knowledge of ‘Star Trek’, which is immense.

The idea of home, of Earth is a powerful one in the film, and has been in literature and cinema ever since the beginning – from Homer to ‘The Wizard of Oz’ and everything in between. Was this idea something you wanted to play with?
SP: In a figurative way, yes. The one thing we really wanted to do was put Earth in their rear-view mirror by quite some margin, so they were way, way out into the depths of the galaxy but had stopped off at a proxy Earth, if you will, which is the Federation Starbase Yorktown, a diplomatic hub on the very edge of Federation space, where all of the new inductees in the Federation can go and mingle with other races and new species, and learn about each other. It’s this melting pot that becomes a vitally important symbolic thing for the Federation, and becomes a target. At the same time, we wanted the film to be thinking about home, they have been out on this mission for 966 days when they come to Yorktown, and they have been trying to evaluate why they are doing this, and what it’s for, and whether it’s worth being away from home so much. We felt that had never really been explored in ‘Star Trek’; they were just out there, going from adventure to adventure and never really questioning why. We thought it might be interesting for Kirk especially to start having… Not second thoughts, but start being a little philosophical about why he joined the Federation, why he joined Starfleet – in our timeline he joined because Pike dared him to. In the original timeline he probably joined because his father was long-serving; his father didn’t die on the Kelvin in the original timeline. It just felt like some interesting stuff to explore in the wake of the 50th anniversary.

Each director brings something new to ‘Star Trek’, what do you feel Justin Lin has brought to ‘Star Trek Beyond’?
SP: Justin just has a really great sensibility. People will often dismiss him or at least just understand him as being the ‘Fast and the Furious’ director, when he was an independent filmmaker – he made a couple of little tiny, what he called “credit card movies” and then suddenly got handed this massive gig by a giant studio – which often happens these days; if you are a director and you make a film that is critically well received, you will just get snapped up and given a giant franchise. He obviously cut his action teeth on those movies, and turned what was essentially a fairly successful second-tier property for Universal into a massive cash cow, by making these insanely exciting, fun car chase movies. He has the combination of being an indie director at heart with a visual master tagged onto that. He was able to bring those qualities to ‘Star Trek’. He’s a huge ‘Star Trek’ fan; he was a fan from when he arrived from Taiwan as a kid and started watching and started watching it on TV. You could tell that it was a real labour of love for him’; it was something that he genuinely had passion for, and I loved watching him on set; he is masterful when it comes to moving the camera and his composition, it’s just really clever. It was very exciting those first few days, just watching playback, and realising that he really had this!

Words: Brogen Hayes

‘Star Trek Beyond’ is released in Irish cinemas on July 22nd 2016. Watch the trailer below…