This year marks the 50th anniversary of Star Trek and the latest film, Star Trek Beyond, is well aware. Its mission? Give fans a film with the spirit of the original series, but also figure out what it actually means to Trek through the Stars. The stardate is August 7, 2015, and we’re witnessing day 30 of 77 on the Vancouver set where Star Trek Beyond is currently being filmed.
Like most big, exciting movies, the Beyond set looks inconspicuous from the outside. On day 30, filming is taking place at Bridge Studios in Vancouver. The film has stages all across this facility, as well as Vancouver Studios across the street. A few weeks later, production will shift to Dubai, all under the code name “Washington.”
Star Trek Beyond starts a little over two years after the end of Star Trek Into Darkness, which means not even halfway through the Enterprise’s five-year mission. “[The crew] as been working for two years straight,” Zoe Saldana explains. “We’re exhausted. I think we kinda need a break. It’s not like we hate each other, but we need a break as people. We’ve just been working and sharing the same space. That’s how we start the movie.”
Beyond has been designed to give bigger arcs for all the characters as they’re separated for large chunks of the film. It doesn’t focus as strongly on the Kirk/Spock relationship that was at the center of the first two movies, but has plenty of big idea of its own. “We liked the idea of, on the 50th anniversary, looking at Gene Roddenberry’s vision and questioning it,” Simon Pegg said. “The whole notion of the Federation and whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing. How productive is inclusivity? What is the true cost of expansion? That kind of stuff. So we went in with some big, philosophical questions to ask.”
New director Justin Lin agrees. “I feel like it’s important to try to deconstruct why Federation, Starfleet, and Star Trek is special,” he said. “And, hopefully, at the end of it, we can reaffirm why it’s been around [so] long and we can keep it going.”
On this mission, Pegg not only plays Scotty, he also co-wrote the script with Doug Jung. The pair was brought on after original writer and director Roberto Orci left the project, and the entire film was restarted from scratch. “I never read Bob’s script, and neither did Doug,” Pegg said. “We met in a hotel in London with Justin, and we started to hash out ideas.” To make the 2016, 50th-anniversary release date, the trio were working on the script in tandem with preproduction. “It’s very difficult to write a film in preproduction,” Pegg said. “Because every idea you have they want to build or design, and it might not be a good idea. Sometimes you don’t have the time to go, ‘Wait a minute, that’s not a good idea. Don’t build that.’ So every idea we had had to be kind of good.” All in all, it only took about five months for things to come into place, which is a shockingly small amount of time compared to the development of similar films this size.
Lin, of course, is replacing J.J. Abrams, who himself was working on a big sequel with “Star” in the title. Growing up, Lin used to watch Star Trek with his family, and he wondered about what happened during the downtime on the ship. Did they play ping pong? What if two characters who never hung out got to hang out? The opportunity to answer those questions is one of the reasons he took the job. The other was something Abrams said during their first conversation. “He said, ‘Look. Just take it over and whatever you do, be bold.’ I took that to heart,” Lin said.
So the film starts with the crew on their mission, going a bit stir-crazy after a few years out in space. They dock on a big, melting-pot spaceport called Yorktown (which will primarily be shot in Dubai). Something happens, the Enterprise is attacked, and they all have to abandon ship. The crew is scattered, some of them get captured by an alien named Krall (played by Idris Elba), and the others have to break them out. Along the way, they’ll be trusting a new alien named Jaylah, played by Sophia Boutella, who is the personification of Lin’s boldness—she’s a striking alien with white skin and dark black marks down her face, buckles and belt all over her clothes, and platinum blonde hair pulled back into a ponytail.
If this alien sounds alien to the Star Trek universe, you are 100% right. “Because of the 50th anniversary we wanted to create 50 different alien races,” said makeup designer Joel Harlow. “The nature of the story allowed us to bring into play alien races we haven’t seen before. Aside from Vulcans, everything else is brand new.”
That includes Elba’s Krall, whose presence was the set’s biggest mystery. The mere mention of his name had stars turning to their superiors, unsure what to say. “[Krall] is definitely not a character you’ve seen before,” said Lin. “For me, it was important because this film would not exist without this character. And I feel like it was important [this film] hinged on the antagonist’s philosophy.”
While on set, we saw two scenes filmed, both from the middle of the movie. The first featured Captain Kirk, Bones, and Scotty taking care of an injured Spock. “Give me a plan, Spock, I don’t have one,” says Kirk. “We’ve got no ship, no crew.” Spock responds, “We will do what we always have, Jim. We will find hope in the impossible.” Bones, who gets featured in a reverse shot filmed a few minutes later, is going through a bunch of crappy old electronics. “These are from the blasted dark ages,” he says, finally finding something he can use. “This is a proto plaster, it should stop the internal hemorrhaging—at least I hope.” Spock retorts, “The miserable have no medicine, only hope.” “Death’s door and he’s quoting Shakespeare,” Bones jokes. Lin asks the actors to run the scene several times and each time the deliveries and banter get crisper and faster, always faster. By takes seven and eight, things are perfect and Lin screams “Niiiiice!”
That Bones-centic reverse shot proves to be a bit more difficult. Karl Urban has to go through a ton of props, finally settling on a beautifully designed piece that looks like an elaborate color graphics calculator. Lin shoots the simple line “These are from the dark ages” about 10 times and at one point, Pine could even be heard off camera getting a tad frustrated.
The next scene, which will take place a few minutes later in the film, was shot as a Reservoir Dogs style one-take. A steadicam sweeps around a table where Kirk, along with Jaylah, Spock, Scotty, Chekov and Bones, try to figure out a plan to rescue the captured crew of the Enterprise. They’re on board an alien ship called The Franklin, which has a distinctly more lived-in, rundown aesthetic than we’re used to in Star Trek.
The following all happens in one take, although whether or not it’ll remain that way in the film remains to be seen. Jaylah explains that there’s a tunnel out of the crater where she escaped. Kirk says that’s how they’ll get in and infiltrate Krall’s base to get out the crew. Chekov explains he can’t beam anyone out of the crater directly and Scotty adds that he can boost the signal. Kirk asks how many people he can beam at once to which Scotty replies probably 20. The plan is then laid out; Kirk, Jaylah, Chekov and Bones will go rescue the crew, while Scotty will stay back to beam everyone aboard. Spock isn’t mentioned as he’s still recovering from an injury. So he says, “Captain, Dr. Chekov’s technical acumen makes him more valuable here on the Franklin, it’s only logical that I take his place.” Kirk says that’s not logical because of the injury but Spock adds Uhura is in that base. Kirk understands and agrees. Then, Jaylah says there are too many troops for this to work. Spock suggests they need a diversion and Kirk says he has an idea.
It’s a complicated shot that they do about 15 times in full. However, if you count the times Lin calls cut mid-take, the total ends up closer to 30. Along the way the camera person and others have to figure out the movements of the actors in the frame so the steadicam can move around the table. Everyone not only has to be visible when they deliver their lines, but possess the energy and familiarity we expect from these characters.
The energy is definitely there for the actors themselves. Watching the scene filmed, the camaraderie between the cast, who’ve now been together for three films, is obvious. Pine gets the giggles and curses out Pegg, while Quinto screws up and apologize profusely. When they were watching the feedback on the monitor, you’d hear everyone laughing from across the stage. They love it when someone messes up, but they love it more when they nail it.
Another interesting note about the scene is how Pegg the actor and Pegg the writer alternate seamlessly. At one point, right in the middle of the scene, he changes Jaylah’s line from “Comes into the crater” to “Comes out of the crater.” Boutella takes the note, but it’s difficult for her to integrate without some practice.
“It’s been great to be part of both sides of it, in a way,” Pegg said. “You’ve always got to look out for things that change along the way anyway, and little things come up. Little character quirks come up, and we have the freedom to be able to deal with that. So yeah, it’s been extraordinary.”
Extraordinary isn’t the half of it. Unlike previous films where J.J. Abrams would “do the camera hand job” (this according to Saldana) to mimic motion, Lin has gone the opposite way. Instead of the camera moving and sets staying stationary, Lin is using massive, rotating sets that make everything move themselves. The Enterprise itself is made up of five different sets on five different stages, only one of which we were allowed to see. We saw a 90-foot long, elevated, rotating set with a diameter of 25 feet and about 35 feet off the ground. This will be used as multiple Y-shaped hallways on the Enterprise, which light up blue, and have been fitted to look like they’d been blown up. As for the Bridge, the jewel of any Star Trek movie, despite hours of begging, we weren’t allowed to see it (which leads to healthy speculation about what could have happened).
When we left the set of Star Trek Beyond, we had more questions than when we arrived, but everything that was said and seen certainly raised hope. Hope that after the sub-par second film, it seems like the Enterprise may have been righted, just in time for the anniversary.
“I feel like a kid playing make-believe,” said Yelchin. “Except now someone has invested millions of dollars into making your make-believe really fucking awesome.”
* Correction: Beyond filmed in Dubai not Abu Dhabi.
Note: Paramount Pictures paid for io9/Gizmodo’s travel to Vancouver to report this piece.