Damon Lindelof has a lot on his plate right around now. He’s promoting Star Trek Into Darkness, which he co-produced and co-wrote, and in the works or on the way are Tomorrowland, World War Z and The Leftovers. StarTrek.com chatted recently with the talkative, amiable Lindelof and picked his brain about most of the above. Below is part one of our conversation, and visit StarTrek.com again tomorrow to read part two.
You co-wrote and co-produced Star Trek Into Darkness. How did you wind up doing more on this film than on Star Trek (2009)?
LINDELOF: I was show-running Lost at the time that we were working on the story for the first Trek. When J.J. (Abrams) first asked me if I wanted to be involved I said, “Of course, but I’m not going to be able to write it. I’m working 80 hours a week on Lost right now and I can’t split my focus there.” He said, “No, no, Bob (Orci) and Alex (Kurtzman) are already on board to write.” We all, all five of us – J.J., Bryan Burk, Alex and Bob and myself – broke the story for the movie together, just like we do on TV, but Alex and Bob wrote the screenplay. I had a producer role on that because what ended up happening is that the writers’ strike occurred the day before we started principal photography on Star Trek (2009). So I was able to be on the set for a really big chunk of the movie in a producing capacity and then was involved quite a bit in the post-production.
And this time around?
LINDELOF: This time around, I think we all decided, “We don’t know where the writing ends and the producing begins. So let’s just say that Bob and Alex are also producers on it and I’m also a writer on it.” The screenplay was written by all three of us and also J.J. and Bryan had a tremendous amount of input on the writing and the story as well, but they did not take writing credits because the bulk of the actual generation of pages happened between Bob and Alex and myself.
We know the basic plot of the new movie and we know you’re not going to reveal specifics or the whys. But, for you, what’s the emotional underpinning of the story?
LINDELOF: I think that the emotional core of this story is always the emotional core of Trek, which is the idea of keeping the vision of optimism, keeping the idea of mankind – and I include all genders in there – going where no person has gone before. I think it’s the idea that we can all achieve the best of ourselves and, although there is a part of us that is less than great, that is inclined to bad behavior, or war-like behavior, or just violent behavior or dystopian thought processes, Trek is always about striving for utopia and optimism. But the world is complicated, and I think when you weigh what happened in the first movie, which is the destruction of Vulcan, it has cast a pallor over this entire Federation that needs to be reconciled. So I think, in a lot of ways, Kirk (Chris Pine) and the crew of the Enterprise is fighting for the soul of Starfleet in this movie. I think that’s one of the really powerful themes there.
What can we pry out of you about John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch)?
LINDELOF: I wish I could be more specific about John Harrison and what he’s up to. All I will say is all great antagonists are sort of distorted mirror images of protagonists, and John Harrison in many ways is a cautionary tale for what Kirk could potentially become if he allowed himself to go down a certain road. I think we’ll just leave it at that.
People have been speculating for a long while now about who John Harrison really is. What do you make of all the anticipation and guessing?
LINDELOF: There’s a certain level of anxiety when you are planning a surprise party for someone because everything is calibrated towards two things: thing one is that they don’t find out that you’re planning a surprise party for them and thing two is that, when you spring the surprise party on them, they actually have a great time. Both of those things create a lot of anxiety, and I think the idea that we’re keeping a secret just because it’s fun for us to keep a secret is not at all the case. In fact, the reason that we don’t want to get into specifics about it is we don’t want to put the audience ahead of the crew. We’ve always prided ourselves on the fact that Kirk and Spock (Zachary Quinto) and the crew of the Enterprise, they are you. They are the audience. So the audience shouldn’t know more than Kirk and Spock do when they buy their tickets to the movie. We’re trying to preserve that effect for them. That’s really why we’re keeping our mouths shut. And, ultimately, I feel like there’s been so much fanfare about “Who is Benedict playing?” and “Is it such a character?” that, if it’s not those things, that there’s just going to be a fundamental letdown or a sense of disappointment. So, like I said, we’re only keeping the secret to preserve the relationship that the audience has with the characters going into the story.
Which character or characters did you most enjoy writing?
LINDELOF: Oh God, it changes every day. I think that the bread and butter of it is any scene where Kirk and Spock are arguing with each other or trying to understand each other is just so much fun, but then you write a scene where Bones (Karl Urban) and Kirk are talking to each other or Bones and Spock are talking to each other and you go, “Well, that’s amazing.” Then, suddenly, you’re like, “Oh my God, here’s a Chekov (Anton Yelchin) scene or a Sulu (John Cho) scene.” There are so many great markers in the box that every time you take one out to color with you’re just amazed by how good it looks on the page. It’s a little bit like asking a mom or a dad which kid is their favorite. It’s really impossible to choose.
What was your sense of how quickly and easily the regular cast members settled back into their respective roles?
LINDELOF: I think that they were chomping at the bit to play these characters again. Considering that it had been over three years since they’d been in front of a camera doing it, it was amazing how fast they were able to acclimate. I think a lot of these actors have done a lot of work in that time (between films). Particularly Chris and Zach have achieved some level of stardom and notoriety since the original Trek. So they’re just more professional and have a tremendous amount more experience. But it was really great putting the band back together. Everyone gets along so well with each other. It’s an incredibly fun set, and that’s all a testament to the way J.J. directs and the production team we have around us, especially Jeffrey Chernov, who produced both movies, and Tommy Gormley, who’s the assistant director. It’s just a really, really nice place to work.
How did Benedict Cumberbatch, Alice Eve and Peter Weller all fit in?
LINDELOF: Great. There’s a fun spirit of teasing and hazing that exists amongst the cast themselves, of just jokester-dom that is very fun and awesome. So when any new actor basically ccomes into the mix, they’re indoctrinated into that spirit and welcomed. I think that everybody got along really well. Peter Weller is not only an actor, but a director, so he was kind of the dad of the set whenever he was around. Cumberbatch is just an amazing human being. As fantastic as he is as an actor, he’s not the Method guy where he basically just goes to his trailer and then appears and then suddenly he’s just this incredible badass. He’ll sit and hang out in video village with the other actors and crack jokes with them, but when it’s time to be on set, he’s in character and totally amazing. And Alice… Zoe (Saldana) was the only woman who was around in the first movie, so it was just nice to bring in some more feminine energy. I think Alice did an amazing job.
Visit StarTrek.com again tomorrow to read part two of our interview with Damon Lindelof.