Filmmaker Justin Lin likes to keep busy. His debut feature, the crime drama Better Luck Tomorrow, won distribution after screening at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival. In the years since, he ascended to the A-list by making four consecutive films in the Fast & Furious franchise, each one a bigger global hit than the last. He’s also directed episodes of two much-discussed TV series, NBC’s Community and HBO’s True Detective. Just last month, Google posted Lin’s immersive short film HELP, about a monster on a rampage through downtown Los Angeles (see below). Running less than five minutes, the short nevertheless appears to foreshadow the way virtual reality may alter the way we experience blockbuster films.
The 44-year-old’s newest feature project is Star Trek Beyond. Continuing the adventures of the youthful crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise introduced in the 2009 reboot feature, Star Trek, the movie arrives in U.S. cinemas on July 22—about seven weeks shy of the 50th anniversary of the original Star Trek’s premiere on NBC.
Air & Space/Smithsonian will be commemorating that occasion in a special section of our September issue. We reached Lin by phone in Los Angeles this week for a brief talk about the longevity of the franchise, and his approach to keeping it fresh. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Air & Space: A lot of pop culture that originated in the 1960s has been revived decades later, but Star Trek is the only property I can think of that’s been a constant for half a century. I’m pretty sure that over that entire span, there’s never been a period longer than five years without either a Star Trek TV series on the air (not including reruns) or a Trek film in theatres. Why do you think Star Trek has had such a long shelf life?
Lin: For me, I think it’s the idea of a shared journey, of pushing and exploring the unknown. That to me is at the core of Trek. I remember watching [the original TV series] as a kid for the first time, and not knowing what’s going to happen on the next episode. That sense of unknown exploration is key. But through that experience you get to know the characters more and more, and ultimately you get a sense of family among these characters.
You’re inheriting the Trek movie franchise from J.J. Abrams, and a lot of fans believed his two Trek films were his attempt to make the series feel more like Star Wars. Abrams always said the old Trek TV show was too cerebral for him; that he wanted more action. You’re certainly best known at this point as the guy who made four Fast & Furious sequels. So does bringing you onto Star Trek mean that the series is continuing on that action-driven trajectory? Or will we all be surprised when we see the new movie?
Well, action is action. It’s more about what these characters are going through. One thing I love about Star Trek is that it’s the only franchise that’s been able to thrive on TV, in [mid-budget] feature films, and in big-budget feature films. A scene with two characters talking in a room can be as compelling as a huge space battle. To me, that’s what’s so unique about Star Trek. You can enjoy these journeys with these characters in all those different media but also all those different situations.
In conceiving and developing and making this film, I tried to tap into the essence of that. I hope to have found a journey that will organically create action and reaction, but also create spaces to get to know these characters a little bit more. To see them evolve. To put them in uncomfortable positions. Hopefully, by the end of the movie, that reaffirms why we love this franchise, and why it’s been around for 50 years.
What I’ve appreciated most about the two films with the new cast so far is that while these are still recognizably the characters we remember from the old TV show, we’re still learning new things about them. Uhura and Scotty have been fleshed out, for example. That seems like a difficult thing to pull off, given that you’re making a two-hour or maybe 135-minute film instead of a 22-episode season of television.
One of the things I enjoy most in filmmaking is to not take anything for granted. Whether it’s a scene with Chris Pine [who plays Captain Kirk] or Zach [Quinto, who plays Mr. Spock] or just a day player who’s coming in for one day, I want to treat them all equally. Even if the character is just there for plot purposes, hopefully I can take the time to talk with the actors and find the subtext. I want to bring an ensemble quality to anything I do.
I love all these characters, because they’ve been a part of my life, from my childhood. I want to make sure we respect all the characters.
You were born in Taiwan; your family emigrated to the United States when you were eight. I believe you’re the first person of color to direct a Star Trek feature. Some aspects of the original series look retrograde now, but it was progressive in its time, especially on matters of race. Your Fast & Furious movies have been praised for the diversity of the cast, and those films are popular all around the world. Is Trek’s history with representation and diversity something that you think about?
It’s a very personal choice for me. When I was doing the Fast films, I had a lot of battles. I never understood it. Casting to me is an opportunity. Unless [the race of the character] is specified, and there’s a reason for it, it should be open to everybody. When I was casting those films, studio people would ask, “Can a Caucasian viewer relate to an Asian character?” To me, that’s insulting. I would tell them, “Hey, I related to Sylvester Stallone as Rocky. Why can’t it work the other way?” Fortunately, I’m at a point in my career now where when we have an opening for a role, I can make it open call. That is important to me. It’s about who’s best for the job. I definitely want diversity, but I don’t want that to be driving [casting decisions]. I just want a level playing field.
Is there a particular Star Trek story that resonates most with you? It could be an episode of any of the various TV series, or any of the films, or even one of the spinoff novels or comics or what-have-you.
I was eight years old the first time I saw [the original series]. I didn’t realize they were reruns for a long time! It took me a while to figure out that it wasn’t a new show every night. It left an imprint on me. We had just moved to the States; it was just the five of us, my parents and my brother and me. To see this crew on this exploratory journey together really redefined for me the idea of family. That it could be a crew.
I have a six-year-old now. He’s got an Uncle Vin and an Uncle Sung. [Note: Lin is referring to Fast & Furious series stars Vin Diesel and Sung Kang.] They’re his family and my family. Family isn’t just by blood. So Star Trek has influenced me in that way. I didn’t realize it until this movie, but the family aspect of my Fast films—I think that’s the mark Star Trek left on me as a kid.