Above and Beyond

Simon Pegg & Doug Jung take on impossible deadlines, exacting Trekkies, and controversial character choices to reaffirm Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek vision.

©2016 Paramount Pictures
Sofia Boutella and Simon Pegg in Star Trek Beyond.
July 22, 2016 Written by Dylan Callaghan
Photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images Simon Pegg
Photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images Doug Jung

Roddenberry was a pioneer and drove things forward, but you could only do so much in whatever social climate you’re in, and I don’t think America was ready for [a gay character]…You have to move things forward, you have to break eggs to make omelets.

—Simon Pegg

Captain James T. Kirk, now comfortably recognized in the form of the neatly-stubbled Chris Pine, sits once again astride the helm of the USS Enterprise in Star Trek Beyond, the new installment of J.J. Abrams winning reboot of the legendary franchise, but the real captaining here was done far from the flight deck by Simon Pegg and Doug Jung—who wrote this new chapter from whole cloth—and the film’s director, Justin Lin.

Pegg is known for his portrayal of Scotty in the first two films of the series and for his acclaimed career as a comedic actor and writer of such culty faves as Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. But when Paramount chose to move in a new direction from a previous script, Pegg’s close friendship with Abrams coalesced with his writing chops and life-long Trekkie bona fides to win him an unimaginable shot at penning this latest entry in the Captain’s log.

Joining him on the mission was writer Doug Jung, whom he’d never met, but who shared a childhood love for Gene Roddenberry’s opus. The two navigated the asteroid field of a big budget studio movie, some of sci-fi’s most devoted and exacting fans, and the perils of a first-time writing partnership, to script a film that has both, like any good Star Trek film, stirred some healthy controversy and a lot of early critical praise. Adding to the heroic nature of the venture, they did it all in less than six months.

Pegg and Jung spoke with the Writers Guild of America West website about the honor and challenge of writing a Star Trek movie, their desire to reaffirm Roddenberry’s vision by calling it into question, and how, through some long hours together, they truly bonded in their shared Trekkie nerdiness.

This is obviously one of the most successful sci-fi properties in history and a first for both of you. How much pressure did you guys feel going into this?

Simon Pegg: We’re laughing because, yes….

Doug Jung: That’s all we felt for a while.

Pegg: We’d never even met and we met for the first time in the SoHo hotel in London for a brainstorming weekend with Justin and our producer Lindsey [Weber]. We were kind of figuratively thrown in at the deep end. Thank God we got along.

Jung: There were two kinds of pressures we were dealing with: one was obviously just the enormous pressure of taking on such a great franchise—especially as fans, and secondly, the demands of the timetable that we were under. So there was pressure pretty much from every side.

But at the same time, you apparently were pretty gutsy. Among other things, you’ve said you wanted to question Roddenberry’s original vision of the Federation itself—which is sort of like a space UN—as maybe not such a good thing.

Pegg: That came from Justin as well. We had this jumping off point of our villain…[who] wasn’t just back for revenge, he had a beef which he could support. He wasn’t just out to bring down the universe, he had ideals and a moral outlook, and it opposed the Federation.

Jung: Obviously we knew that the 50th anniversary was coming up. Some of our earlier discussions with Justin revolved around questioning that Roddenberry-utopian universe he had set up. And here we are in 2016-2015 at the time—but, how would that really work? How could it evolve? We’re still living in a very difficult time with a lot of nuances and differences that still need to be worked out, and we were just trying to reconcile our present day course with what was...

Pegg: Spoken about in Roddenberry’s world.

To that point—how conscious were you of the world’s current struggles with globalization, and its colonial aspects resonating in your script?

Pegg: Roddenberry famously pitched Star Trek as a wagon train to the stars—it’s a very well-known thing. The frontier has been romanticized over the years, but it was violent and penetrative, and it meant the subjugation and genocide of an entire indigenous population. I’m sure that’s not what Roddenberry wanted the Federation to be—it wasn’t a colonizing force, it wasn’t the Borg. We kind of liked the idea that, even though the Borg was a later idea that came from The Next Generation, we liked Krall, who’s our bad guy, comparing the Federation to the Borg, as a force of assimilation and as a conquering force, of spreading its own doctrine and own ideologies. Whereas what we wanted to reaffirm was the idea that it wasn’t about that, that the Federation was about integration and cooperation and harmony. On the surface it might appear to be a wagon train full of cowboys shooting the Indians, but it wasn’t that at all—that’s what we wanted to affirm in the end.

So through the questioning of it, you ultimately wanted to reaffirm it as noble?

Pegg: Yes, it was like, let’s take it apart and stich it back again for the 50th anniversary so we can keep going and make more movies.

So at the end of the day, your motivation was base and cynical?

Pegg: Absolutely.

That’s good to know.

Pegg: It’s Hollywood man, come on.

Taking on a franchise like this is daunting and, as you’ve mentioned, you had never worked together. Tell me how you approached writing something for the first time with a total stranger. What did that require?

Jung: Well, we spoke quite a bit before we actually met. And for me, I’m a fan of Simon’s work and have been forever. If you judge a person by their colleagues and friends, I knew all the guys at Bad Robot, and J.J. obviously, so that’s pretty good company. So you’ve got to imagine he’s doing something right, and all of that was obviously borne out.

But certainly nothing really solidifies a relationship more than when you get to spend time alone. There were a couple weeks where I went out to Simon’s place, and it was by far the best time for me because it was just Simon and me. Simon has a beautiful house, there were horses running around outside or whatever you neighbor has out there, Simon, and we just got to hole up and lock the rest of the world and all that pressure and stuff away. That’s when we had fun, and we got to really unspool the full creative stuff that the Star Trek universe provides.

This sounds like a bromance.

Pegg: It was very romantic! We had some conference calls early on, so we had spoken, and all I’ve heard of Doug was good stuff from people I already knew—like, “You’ve got to get in a room with this guy, he’s really good, he’s got this, he’s got that.” It just sounded like he was the man for me! So yeah, we had a few preliminary meets and then this concentrated time when we just hung out in my place, and we’d write for 12 hours a day. Then we’ll watch a couple episodes of Star Trek, then go get dinner. We hashed out the heart of the thing, the heart of the story, in my home. After that I would come to L.A., and we’d work on the Paramount lot. We always worked better when we were together, didn’t we Doug?

Jung: Oh God, it wasn’t even a question. I mean it was actually kind of scary when we weren’t together—because you’re my security blanket. And also just because good ideas came when we were riffing. We really broke the back of [the script] when we were in your place

What was the span of that intense time at Simon’s house?

Pegg: It was a very, very intense sort of week and a bit…we had a crazy deadline from Paramount, who, without any kind of irony said, “We need act one by Monday, act two by Tuesday, and act three by Wednesday. Me and Doug, I remember looked at that deadline and thought, Are they fucking joking?! It’s ridiculous! So we had to get on with it and just had to do it. It was either that or they’d take us off it. We had to demonstrate that we were up to this job.

Jung: Yeah, it was not even 10 days, something like that. That was like a Star Trek script boot camp. The reward really was when we would go down and watch an episode or two of the original series—that was luxury right there. The rest of it we were literally pounding away. I thought it was cool in one other sense, that because of that, we were able to not censor ourselves that much. We didn’t have time to, and that is how we produced a great 175-page script, or whatever that was.

Pegg: Also, we worked on Los Angeles time—we had a little clock on the wall, which would tell us when Los Angeles would wake up. So there was a period of time where it was like, mom and dad were asleep, and we could just get on with the shit, and we didn’t have to worry about anybody checking on what spaceship we could build, or what sets they could buy—we were left alone.

I don’t mean this remotely in a pejorative way, but there seems to be a bond in the brotherhood of geekdom here too. ‘Cuz this is real for both of you too, right? Like, you love this?

Pegg: Even when we were watching those episodes Star Trek, we were talking and writing stuff down—it was all about getting it right. It was very important to both of us. We just wanted to get it right. We didn’t want it to be two guys just coming in and writing what they thought was Star Trek—we wanted to write Star Trek.

Jung: It was cool because Simon [had] obviously been in them and knew those characters—for me, you were an amazing resource to ask, what’s the best way to handle this scene?

The existing book of Star Trek, if you will, is complex and huge and the geeks that follow it are mercilessly exacting. How did you make sure you didn’t screw it up, you weren’t repeating something that had been done before, or messing up some obscure bit of Vulcan physiology or something?

Jung: We went on the website Memory Alpha quite a bit, which is a great resource for this stuff. The other great thing about it is, there are so many fans of Star Trek that we would get little, not notes, but little things from people on the crew who were Star Trek fans. And the thing that was referred to earlier was—it was my fault really—I got something a little mixed up about Vulcan physiology. And Mark, the guy who did the alien dialect, sent us an email. He was like, “Actually, in this episode of the original series, it was referred to as…” It was great. It’s like a living Star Trek encyclopedia.

Pegg: It is. The thing about Memory Alpha—it’s completely fan-created, so it’s contributed to by the Star Trek fan community. So it’s an exhaustive resource for fact checking and making sure we’re on point with certain things. We actually ended up contacting the guys that founded the site and got them to name a mineral that would become an important plot point in the story, and they came up with a complete etymological breakdown of the name of it, and where it came from. It felt really good to be so plugged into the Star Trek fan community. Because there are a lot of people out there who love Star Trek, and they all have opinions and knowledge. If you’re going to contribute to the story you have to get it right— there’s no margin for error really.

It’s sort of like an open source code…What did you want to accomplish with this installment?

Pegg: The important thing for us was to get the Enterprise crew on the five-year mission—which was probably written back in the ‘60s because they figured they might get five seasons—but it was this fabled central idea, the five-year mission. And so far in the Star Trek movies, they haven’t actually been out on that—they’ve stayed fairly within our own solar system, or at least in that vicinity.

So for us, it was about getting out in the unknown and doing some trekking. For a movie called Star Trek, it felt like they haven’t really done much star trekking. So our major desire was to put them out in the far, far reaches of the galaxy with Earth in their rear mirror and see what kind of challenge that brought up. We started thinking about prolonged space travel and how that would make them feel, and we asked a few questions about, what it’s like to be trapped up in a tin can for years, and that kind of thing. It was all about, let’s write a Star Trek movie which is at least—not in a postmodern way—but is a little bit self-reflective.

Jung: Right, and that goes hand in hand with the other thing we really were focused on, which was advancing the characters in our own way, but in a way that felt appropriate for the third installment of this series. All the things that Simon said, gave it the environment to do that.

So you wanted to go deeper into the star trekking and deeper into these characters?

Pegg: Yeah, the decision to sort of play with Sulu’s sexuality came quite early because we figured it was very long overdue for a universe which is so inclusive and tolerant. We felt that if we did this, it would sort of retroactively correct what was a fairly huge wrong. Star Trek has always been incredibly progressive, so we thought, “Let’s do that for the 50th anniversary—let’s do stuff that Gene Roddenberry would be proud of, or would support.”

How do you feel about George Takei’s reaction to that?

Pegg: I get it. I wrote a little response today that you’ll find online in The Guardian. George is probably a little sad that it couldn’t happen when he was in Star Trek. I’m sure Gene Roddenberry would have been up for exploring that kind of thing, but simply couldn’t because the audience wasn’t ready—they didn’t like the interracial kiss, you know? Roddenberry was a pioneer and drove things forward, but you could only do so much in whatever social climate you’re in, and I don’t think America was ready for it. The fact that it’s actually a talking point now goes to show that the world is still barely ready. You have to move things forward, you have to break eggs to make omelets.

Jung: For a big budget franchise, it’s [one of] the few that—probably the only one—where it not only fits in with the original premise, in a way it’s what you should be doing with Star Trek.

Pegg: Yeah, it feels like it’s overdue. It feels like it’s the right thing to do. The point is, it doesn’t change his character in any way, it doesn’t affect his decisions or anything other than that he’s in a loving relationship, and he has someone to care about, you know? The nature of his sexual orientation—or anyone’s sexual orientation, is not just the theme of the week.

You both have been fans of Star Trek since childhood—this is a dream gig. Is actually achieving a dream you never thought would be remotely possibly at all a letdown?

Jung: Not right now.

Pegg: Right now it’s amazing because it’s filtering back from the first screenings, and we’re hearing some lovely stuff. It was a real journey for both of us. Right, Doug?

Jung: Oh, 100 percent.

Pegg: We couldn’t help but feel, whether it goes well or not—and apparently it’s going down really, really well—we did it! We were challenged with writing a complicated screenplay in a short space of time and we were able to pool our resources and work with a whole bunch of incredibly talented people—including the cast, who we encouraged to be collaborative with us on set—and we managed to pull it off. I feel good. Don’t you Doug?

Jung: I feel great. For me it’s definitely the high point of any work experience I’ve ever had. Whatever happens with box office numbers or anything like that, it will always be an incredible and creative time for me.

© 2016 Writers Guild of America West

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