Interview: Simon Pegg Talks About Honoring 50 Years of TREK with STAR TREK BEYOND
It must be pretty crazy to be Simon Pegg these days. He's appearing in multiple mega-blockbuster franchises (Star Trek, Mission: Impossible, Ice Age, Star Wars) and now the geek-friendly actor, who stars as Montgomery Scott (aka "Scotty"), has also co-written the screenplay for Star Trek Beyond, which premieres tonight at San Diego Comic-Con. I had a chance to speak with him one on one for a few minutes during last week's junket for the film in Beverly Hills, and though he'd been doing interviews for hours on end by the time I spoke with him early Friday evening, he was just as funny, engaging, and thoughtful as I hoped he'd be. Here's our chat in its entirety.
Ben: When you sit down to write a movie like this, what is the process like of including social commentary, themes, and symbolism? Do you think about that beforehand, or do those elements of the movie present themselves after the basic narrative building blocks have been constructed?
Pegg: We spoke about those kind of things at length. Star Trek has always been a social commentary and has addressed the preoccupations we have at the time, what’s going on in our society, and we spoke about various things that are happening in society and how we could reflect that in the story. We liked the idea of questioning the Federation, the very DNA of Star Trek, was a good thing to do because on the fiftieth anniversary, it’s a good time to reevaluate everything. To look at this ‘Wagon Train to the Stars’ as Roddenberry called it, and wonder if it was just colonialism, whether it was just like the Borg, whether we’re just assimilating the galaxy — if only to come to the conclusion that no, it’s a good thing, and the Federation is right so we can make more movies. But we were very keen to make sure that it wasn’t just a series of derring-do, that it had some meaning. It’s taken on more meaning in a way since we started shooting it because it was always about separatism versus collectivism, and that’s so prevalent at the moment. We’ve just voted to leave the EU in the UK, you’ve got Trump talking about building a wall, these are all things that exist right now for us.
How do you balance the more cerebral aspects with the action elements? Do you subscribe to the theory of "there has to be an action beat every x number of minutes?”
Pegg: [Laughs] No, it comes a little bit more organically than that. You try and have the cerebral element run all the way through, so it’s underpinned by an idea which runs through the entire film. It’s more about breaking up the character interactions and the slightly more grandiose action sequences and making sure that it feels even in that respect. We were very keen to make sure that we had very real, meaningful character interactions in the movie, which is why we paired everybody off in strange ways and mixed it all up a little bit. Particularly with Spock and Bones, which is something we really wanted to do. They’re so often seen in orbit around Kirk, and a lot of their interactions are around Kirk, and just as we take the Enterprise away from the crew to see what happens, we take Kirk away from Spock and Bones and see what happens. So yeah, we wanted to have all of that stuff in there, but with the trappings of a big summer blockbuster movie.
How much pressure do you feel to include those weightier ideas because it is Star Trek and because it has such a storied history with that? Did you feel any additional pressure?
Pegg: Not pressure so much as an obligation, you know? That’s what Star Trek is. That’s one of the things that makes Star Trek, Star Trek. If we neglected to do that, if it did just become action sequence after action sequence with Star Trek spaceships and characters, it wouldn’t feel like Star Trek. It would look like it a little bit, but it wouldn’t feel like it so much. [Laughs]
I know you probably can’t talk about bad studio notes, if you got any, but did you get any particularly helpful ones in this process? I’m sure Paramount has a pretty vested interest in this franchise.
Pegg: Our people at Paramount kind of left us alone in a way that was heartening, because we felt quite trusted. We had our great Bad Robot executive with us, Lindsey Weber, who is fantastic, who is a friend, and is a brilliant influence on me and [co-writer] Doug [Jung] in terms of sense and sensibility. Our more outlandish ideas, [she] would be like, ‘No.’ Or even stuff like, we were desperately trying to put a spin on the ending a little bit, and Lindsey was great at helping us make sure we achieved that in the right way. So studio notes, it wasn’t like anyone was ever telling us what to do. We get notes, sure. Some of them you think, ‘You’re absolutely right,’ and some of them you think, ‘maybe not.’ J.J. [Abrams] would give notes when he could. I’m always a fan of notes in a way, because it helps you to establish exactly what you want. When people start questioning things, it makes you argue for them, and then you realize if they’re right or wrong.
So you obviously know these characters really, really well. I imagine their interactions were some of the easiest things to write in this script. Is that true? If so, what were some of the harder aspects of putting this story together?
Pegg: Yeah, we know these characters so well, the actors that play them know them very well, and they were able to — me and Doug made sure that they knew they could come to us if they wanted to, if they had things they wanted to explore or ideas they weren’t comfortable with. So writing dialogue for the characters was joyful. We had a couple of weeks where Doug came to stay with me in the UK, and we were living on UK time, L.A. was asleep, we could just write, watch the show, and I feel like a lot of the film wrote itself during that period of time. What was hard was trying to make sure that the mythologies we were creating solved in the time that we had. Krall’s story is very complex and interesting, and in a novelization of the film, you’d learn a lot more about his time on Altamede, and how he turned a drone workforce into an army, and how he turned those mining ships into attack ships. All that stuff wouldn’t just be a passing comment, it’d be a deep history. So it was finding ways to convey vast tracks of information and exposition in a way that was functional and also entertaining.
What ideas did [director] Justin [Lin] have that were “requirements?” I know he had the idea to destroy the Enterprise for a non-gimmicky reason and you eventually came around to that way of thinking. Was there anything else that he brought to the table, maybe even before you guys got started in the writing process, that you were like, “OK, we have to include this, and start from this point” kind of thing?
Pegg: Only the Enterprise destruction thing. There were elements in that that were crazy. Bones and Spock in the turbo lift when they find themselves floating in space before they get kidnapped was a whole sequence that Doug and I were like, ‘Are you kidding? This couldn’t happen!’ But generally speaking, we’d have an idea, Justin would pre-viz it, and we’d watch that and it was very much a back and forth. Justin was really open. He was really happy when we had ideas he could work with and go away and start to design. He wanted to do something — he was waiting for material, do you know what I mean? But it wasn’t like he was like, ‘I want this and this and this.’ We kind of came to those conclusions together.
When I spoke to you briefly for Star Trek Into Darkness, you mentioned you were working on something with Edgar Wright and Nick Frost. Do you have any updates on that?
Pegg: We’re still working on it. We haven’t literally been able to sit down and do anything because we’ve been off on various other projects. But Edgar came to the UK premiere the other night, and we were saying we’re going to have dinner next week and start talking about this thing. [Laughs] But yeah, Nick and I are setting up a company, and it’s all going to happen, it’s just a question of when we get a moment.
Any hints of what that thing may be?
Pegg: [Smiles] None at all.
[Laughs] Had to try. Have you started filming Ready Player One yet?
Pegg: I have, yeah.
What has that been like so far?
Pegg: It’s been great. I love it. I’ve been working with Tye Sheridan and Olivia Cooke, they’re great kids, and I love working with Steven Spielberg because he’s Steven Spielberg. It’s going to be great, actually. It’s very exciting to be around it. It’s a really great script.
Spielberg seems like the perfect guy to handle that material.
Pegg: Yeah, absolutely. So I’m back on that when I get back from this press tour.
Star Trek Beyond hits theaters this Friday. Thanks to Mr. Pegg and the folks at Paramount for facilitating this interview.