/Film Interview: Bryan Burk and Damon Lindelof Discuss Choosing the Villain in ‘Star Trek Into Darkness’
Posted on Tuesday, May 21st, 2013 by Germain Lussier
When the subjects are good, no amount of time is sufficient to do an interview. That goes double when you’re speaking with two producers of one of the summer’s closely scrutinized films: Star Trek Into Darkness. Preparing to speak to producer Bryan Burk and producer/co-writer Damon Lindelof, I prepared two dozen questions for a ten-minute interview. I asked three.
Thankfully, the answers were illuminating. Mainly, we talked about the process that the pair went through to decide on the film’s villain, along with director J.J. Abrams and co-writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman. The pros and cons of the choice; how Star Trek: The Next Generation influenced that decision; and how the reveal changed the selling of the movie all came up. Finally, I asked Burk would repeat that process for his next film, Star Wars Episode VII.
Major Star Trek Into Darkness spoilers follow.
/Film: Hey, what’s up guys? How are you?
Damon Lindelof: Hey, Germain. How are you?
Bryan Burk: How are you doing?
Very good. So when JJ was doing Super 8 and unsure if he was going to direct this movie, it seemed like the film itself was sort of in flux. How much of the movie changed when he came on board? What elements were there all the way through?
Lindelof: Let’s see, I think we had already decided right around the time the first movie came out, we were having conversation in the first movie about Trek villains in general and we were being asked repeatedly by everyone who was both a casual Trek fan and hardcore Trek fan whether or not we were going to be doing Khan. And we made it pretty clear in the first movie that we were not going to be doing that, but the question became so precocious that it would have been irresponsible for us as storytellers to not start asking each other the same question, so I think that that locked in… I remember meeting in JJ’s office where all five of us were there and we literally had a list and it was pros and cons of doing that.
Burk: An “EROC.”
Lindelof: Yeah. Right, exactly. We decided that we would. And so that became the mission statement of “Well how can we do this and essentially knock all of the cons off of the list?” “Here are the reasons not to do it,” one of which was “Been there, done that.” We had to find a way to do that story. Obviously, the story that most people are engaged in and know is Wrath of Khan, but a lot of people don’t know about Space Seed, which was the origin story for that character and that happens to be the time and space in which our movie was taking place. We also knew that if the Enterprise just came across the Botany Bay floating, the audience would know something that the bridge crew did not, which was “Whatever you do, don’t wake that dude up.” So we didn’t want to put the bridge crew behind the audience in terms of what they knew about Trek.
So those were the fundamental challenges we tried to overcome as we were starting the story making process. And to be honest with you, while JJ was off directing Super 8, not much was happening on Trek. I was still doing the last season of Lost, Bob and Alex were doing a couple of movies and television shows, Burk was running Bad Robot and producing Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol. It wasn’t until Super 8 was released that all of us got together and started to have intensive story conversations about what the plot of Into Darkness was going to be. And not just the plot, but “what were the character relationships going to be?” “Where were Kirk and Spock on their parabola of friendship?” “How long has the crew been out there?” “Where were they in the process of their own evolution and coming together?”
First and foremost, I think the issue that garnered all of our time was “What did we owe from the first movie?” We blew up Vulcan and Vulcan is a founding federation planet, and then after Vulcan is destroyed there is this attack on Earth that is repelled, but still. So, if you are Star Fleet, what do you do in the wake of that? Which is a tremendous aberration from existing canon and the answer that we came back with was that men who were in Star Fleet would gain an unprecedented amount of power based on fear and the idea that “we can never let this happen again.” We wanted that to be the back drop of all of our storytelling and if there was a way to weave Khan into that storytelling, then we would do it and if there wasn’t, then we would not do it and so in that phase JJ was very involved in the story telling.
Why has it been so essential to keep it a secret? I feel like it’s an iconic character, the reveal is mid-movie, it’s not the biggest spoiler in the movie.
Burk: I think it was, at least speaking for myself, it’s a couple of things. As Damon said, the characters are going through it and they believe he is one person, he’s John Harrison. If everything you know going into the movie is “It’s a guy named Khan,” even if you don’t even know who Khan is, you know that you’re watching a film where for forty-five minutes or an hour of the movie you are ahead of the characters, so you’re just kind of waiting for them to catch up with what you already know, that he is not who he says he is. So there’s the general idea of going to see a movie and allowing it to unfold as it normally does.
And then for those who are fans of Star Trek and know who Khan is … You know our world, we did similar things on Lost or whatever it may be, which is people are always interested in the spoilers, but the truth of the matter is I don’t believe every one is interested in spoilers. I feel it is incumbent upon us as story tellers to try and maintain the excitement of going to a movie, sitting down, and experiencing a movie without knowing everything in advance and I can site examples of this just as a film goer myself. Had I not read the comic book for Return of the Jedi the week before the movie came out, I missed the revelation that they are brother and sister, which I would have had in the movie had I not read the comic book. Had someone told me that Vader was his father or had someone told me… I didn’t know that Kevin Spacey was the serial killer in Se7en until he suddenly was there and it was this revelatory thing. So it’s just, in general, it’s not that we are being coy, it’s just trying to maintain the excitement of allowing the people who wanted to see the movie to see it the way they’d want to see it and I think people who do like spoilers will always be able to find them and seek them out, so it’s trying to maintain that experience as best we can.
Lindelof: And Germain, I’ll just say one other thing, which is my favorite Trek was Next Generation and one of the things I loved about that show was that there was just a hardcore mystery element to the show and it usually took a good fifteen to twenty minutes for The Enterprise to figure out what the hell was going on. There would be strange things afoot that they had to figure out and obviously the original series also flirted with that in some of their best episodes. I think infusing that feeling of Kirk on the bridge with McCoy and Spock saying “What the hell is going on here?” is just something that really drives us and you know that we are big mystery fans in general, sometimes to our deficit, but we just can’t avoid it and so that idea of keeping secrets is endemic to telling mystery stories.
Bryan, Bad Robot is definitely famous for secrecy but recently Kathleen Kennedy said that for Star Wars that’s something that might be slightly rethought. What are the conversations going on about secrecy as related to Star Wars? Is there any chance that maybe it will be a little bit lighter? Then in addition to that, Damon, as a Star Wars fan, without a dog in this fight, what are your feelings on that?
Burk: I don’t know what Kathleen’s comment was. What did she say? I’m sorry.
In an interview recently she said there had been discussions about the secrecy surrounding the film, but once the movie is in production there was a possibility you guys might lighten up on the secrecy a little bit.
Burk: Well we haven’t had those conversations, but I’m sure she would agree, and by the way having grown up watching all of her movies, you know… nobody saw ET before and I didn’t know what the temple in The Temple of Doom was until I saw it. I guess what I’m saying is it’s always that balance. It’s a hard thing. If I were to right now tell you all of the things that were going to happen in Star Wars in detail, the left side of your brain would say ’Awesome,’ you guys would have this exclusive and know all of this stuff. But the right side is going to sit down one day and see the movie for the first time and you’d have all of that kind of spoiled, so it’s that balance of wanting to know everything and not wanting to know everything at the same time.
It’s like a magic trick and there’s nobody who wants to know how all of the magic tricks are done more than me. Then the second I learn how they are done, it’s like “Oh” and it kind of goes away. So it’s a little bit of that balance and it’s funny, because I’m having this conversation with Damon sitting next to me who we would regularly talk about this on Lost. His mother is one of those people who, when reading a “whodunnit” novel, will always turn to the last page immediately and find out who did it. She is one of those people, but I think people who are desperate to find out what’s going on with Star Wars as we move forward are going to find out what’s happening with it. It’s just you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t.
And Damon, are you going to search out stuff once this starts happening?
Lindelof: No, in fact I’m seriously contemplating a Twitter hiatus, not that I don’t love it and taking on all of the people who hate my work, but I have gotten inadvertently spoiled on stuff just for the sake of being on Twitter. I went and saw Iron Man 3 yesterday and I knew something going into the theater that I shouldn’t have known, that the filmmakers took great and extensive steps for me not to know, but that somebody on Twitter [said] for the sheer joy of essentially saying ‘There’s a twist in Iron Man.’
The best twists are in movies where you don’t know there’s a twist, that’s why when we all saw The Sixth Sense we were shocked. You suddenly go like ‘Oh my god, this movie wasn’t even presenting itself that way.’ So just telling me that ‘There’s a twist in Iron Man,’ I go into the theater and I’m looking for the twist and within ten minutes if you’re looking for it, you can pretty much figure it out and that kind of ruined the movie for me in a lot of ways and it’s my own damn fault.
Star Trek Into Darkness is now playing.