Simon Pegg was all set to return for his third go as the U.S.S. Enterprise’s engineer Montgomery “Scotty” Scott in the J.J. Abrams-rebooted Star Trek movie franchise when he was thrown a curveball: The opportunity to not only once again star in the film…but help write it as well. Did the well-documented sci-fi geek nearly break something jumping at the chance?
“I knew if I pondered the idea for too long, I’d probably start weighing out the pros and cons and just saying, ‘This is going to be difficult,’ ” the actor and screenwriter tells Co.Create.
Though he refused to let the prospect of the project’s difficulty weigh on his decision, the lifelong Star Trek fan found the process as tough as it was satisfying. “It felt at times like an insurmountable task,” reflects Pegg, who shared the job with co-writer Doug Jung, whom he had never worked with before. (Jung has penned the thriller Confidence as well as episodes of the Cinemax series Banshee.)
Aside from the pressure to meet the producers’ expectations as well as the pressure the guys put on themselves to write an entertaining film that respected the Star Trek canon while pushing the narrative forward, Pegg and Jung had to meet an unmovable deadline. Roberto Orci had been slated to direct the third Star Trek film, which was originally going to be based on a script he co-wrote, then Orci dropped out of the project. His script was shelved, and Pegg and Jung had to start from scratch and deliver a shooting draft in a mere five months so that the production schedule remained in place, and the film could be released this summer on July 22 as scheduled, just a few weeks prior to September’s 50th anniversary of Star Trek. (Gene Roddenberry’s sci-fi series debuted on NBC on September 8, 1966.)
“All through that process, we were giving production stuff to design and build. We had to settle on stuff a lot quicker than you would ordinarily,” Pegg says. “It’s not like we could have ideas and then ruminate as to whether they were good ideas or not. We just had to trust that they were good ideas because the props department had already built them.”
A month after their Star Trek Beyond shooting draft was turned in right on time in May of 2015, principle shooting began in Vancouver, with the writers still finessing dialogue deep into the filmmaking process. Pegg says he actually wrote part of a Captain Kirk monologue just six weeks ago, noting that the writing didn’t end until director Justin Lin finished editing the film.
Now that he has some distance from the demanding experience, Pegg, whose screenwriting credits include his “Cornetto Trilogy” collaborations with director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World’s End), sees the benefits of not having a lot of time to write Star Trek Beyond. “We were forced to make certain decisions and get in the act of meeting certain deadlines, and it made us work really hard,” he says, though he can’t wholeheartedly recommend screenwriters work with no time to spare “just for the sheer blood pressure raising of it all.”
Pegg was shooting his role in Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation in London when the process of writing Star Trek Beyond began. Jung, Lin and executive producer Lindsey Weber flew over to meet him to get the ball rolling, and the foursome spent a weekend in a hotel talking. “We literally just holed up in this room for 16 hours on the first day and just talked about what we’d like to see in a Star Trek film,” Pegg says.
On that first day, the group imagined an anti-Federation villain, who would become Idris Elba’s Krall, and alien attack ships that would literally dig into the U.S.S. Enterprise. “But it was a while before we really found a shape,” says Pegg, who flew to L.A. not long after that brainstorming session to work with Jung in a room at Abrams’ Bad Robot offices. “They have a room there which had whiteboards all the way around it, and Doug and I filled every single one of them with information. You start with a very nebulous mass of information. It’s like sculpture,” Pegg muses. “You have this great, big, shapeless rock of stuff, and then you just start chipping away, and suddenly, you have a shape which resembles something.”
Pegg and Jung spent weeks in that room. They also worked at Pegg’s home back in the United Kingdom. “Doug and I had a glorious period where Doug came over to my house in the U.K. for a couple of weeks. I live out in the country, so we had a very, very quiet, ideal space to work in. We could hear horses neighing and birds singing, and L.A. was fast asleep when we were doing our work, so it felt like we didn’t have anyone breathing down our necks, asking for information. We could just create in a quiet, conducive environment,” Pegg says. “At the end of the day, we’d go downstairs and watch episodes of the old show as a reward if we met our requirements for the day.”
That was a productive time, and returning to L.A., Pegg recalls days that were fun and fruitful, with the guys writing tons of stuff, then there were days when it was like pulling teeth to get anything on the page. Having each other to rely on as well as Weber to push them helped Pegg and Jung get through those days when the ideas and the words weren’t flowing easily. “You just have to power through. You can’t give up. That’s the thing… The inevitable consequence of the crucible of creation is that sometimes it’s easy, and sometimes it’s hard,” Pegg says, “and all we knew is that we had no choice but to get it done.”
Pegg and Jung were ambitious, eager to give fans all of the action and effects people expect from a blockbuster along with the humanity and heart that Star Trek is known for. Without giving too much away, Captain Kirk and his veteran crew respond to a distress call in deep space and come under attack by the villainous Krall. After the Enterprise crash lands on an unfamiliar planet, and everyone is separated, they have to find each other and a way off the hostile planet. New relationships are forged in the film—Scotty and the crew encounter an ally in the form of a kick-ass alien named Jaylah—and homage is paid to Leonard Nimoy’s Spock. “We wanted to write the Star Trek film for the ages, to embody the spirit of the original series but at the same time embrace the spectacle and size and potential of what we could do next,” Pegg says. “It was all about tying up number one with number 50 and making it feel like a timely expression of the story.”
As longtime Star Trek fans, the pair approached the storytelling from the standpoint of two people making the modern Star Trek film that they wanted to see. “We used ourselves as a gauge really, which felt right because both Doug and I know what we like about Star Trek,” Pegg says. “Justin as well. He grew up watching the show, and he had his own thoughts about it. It was a good collaboration. Justin is an incredible visualist. He can’t always communicate his ideas well because there’s almost too much stuff in his head, so Doug and I would be listening to him trying to figure out what he meant, and it would suddenly dawn on you, ‘Oh wow, I see that. That’s brilliant!’ We learned to speak ‘Justin.'”
Pegg and Jung also sought the input of the cast of Star Trek. “One of the things we did early on was to make sure all the cast knew that Doug and I were completely open to their suggestions. We had a number of really smart, instinctive actors, all of whom are clever human beings, whose input we valued enormously. We sent an email out just saying, ‘Look, if you want to sit down and talk about your arc or anything your character does, come to us. Let’s do it.’ We hashed out a whole bunch of stuff with the cast, which really helped me and Doug to consolidate ideas we had and come up with new ones,” Pegg says.
A new member of the cast, Elba, was particularly helpful in creating his character’s manner of speaking. “We took Idris out to lunch and talked about Krall, and he had the idea that Krall’s speech patterns would be odd because he hadn’t spoken English for a long time. He’d been speaking other dialects for the longest time, so when he did start to speak to Uhura, he was like a stroke victim. That lit a fire with Doug and I,” Pegg says, “and we gave Idris back something that he could really get his teeth into, this awkward delivery, which was Krall reacquainting himself with this language that he’d forgotten.”
One of the most exciting parts of the screenwriting process was being able to introduce new characters like Krall as well as Jaylah, the intriguing alien played by Sofia Boutella. Jaylah is tough and a real survivor. “Star Trek is low on female power, and even though that was corrected over the years in Star Trek: The Next Generation and particularly Voyager where you have a female captain, we felt like we needed to get a greater female influence into our particular story,” Pegg says. “We wanted to have a very resourceful, smart, female character who had found herself stranded on this planet.”
While creating the character, the writers discussed how she was a bit like Jennifer Lawrence’s self-assured, headstrong character in Winter’s Bone, and prior to naming their character, they kept referring to her as Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone. “We’d say, ‘Okay, Scotty comes down, and he’s doing something, and then suddenly Jennifer Lawrence from Winter’s Bone arrives,’ ” Pegg says. “We realized that we couldn’t possibly call her that all the time. We had to come up with a name for her by which time we’d already started calling her J-Law, then we called her Jaylah.”
In addition to creating new characters, Pegg and Jung left their imprint on the Star Trek universe in other, more subtle ways. “Altamid, which is the planet they land on, is an anagram of Matilda, which is my daughter’s name,” Pegg says. “It was nice to be able to do little things like that to leave a little ‘Kilroy was here’ on Star Trek.”
Pegg, being a nerd himself, realizes that Star Trek fans will be scrutinizing the film, analyzing every element, looking for hidden meaning. “I studied film at university, and I spent three years analyzing films at a very forensic level, and it’s one of the great joys for me,” Pegg says. “I’ve long believed that all art is an expression of where we’re from, everything that we’re thinking about. All our preoccupations, our fears, our prejudices, are reflected in how we express ourselves in art, so any text, whether it’s the most facile entertainment, or something a lot more intellectual, you can tear it apart and find all that information inside it. It’s fun to make something like that, knowing that you’re preloading something with stuff that people can find. You know it will be found. You can tuck away the tiniest little things, and they’ll be rooted out.”