Star Trek Into Darkness uses physical sets instead of greenscreen, as much as possible — they even filmed at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, for a key sequence aboard the Enterprise. And when we talked to Simon Pegg and John Cho yesterday, they told us some of their Enterprise scenes were so demanding, Pegg actually threw up.
Minor spoilers ahead...
"J.J. [Abrams] is keen on having as much stuff around you physically as is possible, and using CG as little as possible," said John Cho, in a roundtable interview with Pegg and some other reporters yesterday. "It makes it easier for an actor, certainly, to look up and see things, instead of green felt cloth."
One of the cool sequences in the film involves Kirk and Scotty running down a corridor aboard the Enterprise as the artificial gravity is failing, so at one point they're running along the wall instead of the floor. This corridor set was too big to put on a gimble, so the entire set could be tilted like what you've seen in Inception and similar movies. So instead, Pegg and Chris Pine are "on a wire, running along on our sides, which is very hard to do," says Pegg. "But it enabled us to have that sensation, but do it on a much bigger scale."
That commitment to avoiding greenscreen also includes building huge sets. Says Pegg, "The set we had now was the biggest ever rendering of the Starship Enterprise in the history of the Star Trek story. We had a bridge that was connected to a corridor that went through to the medbay, engineering and the transporter room, so you could do long walking and talking scenes, and get a sense of the ship's size."
They also built a big piece of the Klingon homeworld, Kronos, at Sony. And the red forest from the opening sequence is a gigantic set, which they built in West L.A.
And meanwhile, there's a huge sequence on another starship, which they filmed in an enormous hangar. Pegg had to run the length of that hangar three times, "and then I puked."
He'd had a large lunch, and then came on set afterwards, and asked what they were doing — expecting to hear that it was going to be a big dialogue-heavy scene. And instead, he was told to run from one end of the hangar to the other. Pegg ran insanely fast, faster than he had since he was a child — so fast, the quad bike with the camera on it couldn't keep up. And then they asked him to do it a second time, and he "opened up" and ran all out again. Everybody was congratulating him on his excellent running. And then Abrams wanted one more take of the running sequence — and after this time, Pegg quietly said his apologies and got off set as fast as possible, so he could heave up his guts. "I saw things that I was sure I had eaten in the 1970s, it was quite dramatic."
Filming at NIF
And one of those huge sets is actually the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, home of the world's biggest laser. Filming at NIF "was extraordinary," says Pegg. "Also, aesthetically speaking it formed a brilliant bridge between all the clean lines and that fantastically futuristic bridge, to the industrial metal of the engine room — which is what J.J. Abrams always wanted to look like, the guts of the Titanic. But in the middle of this, you've got the warp core which is this perfect mish-mash of the two. You've got all this steel, and yet it's very modern-looking."
The dirty-looking guts of the Enterprise are sort of borrowed from Abrams' love of Star Wars, with its more shopworn aesthetic, says Cho.
And a bunch of scientists from NIF are in the background of the film, adds Pegg. "All of those guys with the red shirts in the warp core. They're all just guys from NIF who just wanted to be in Star Trek. Bruno [Van Wonterghem], the project leader there, who is the guy who will discover fusion and will go down as the next Edison," and probably win a Nobel Prize, is there in the background, wearing a red shirt, says Pegg.
Pegg has his own theory about how Abrams' Star Trek fits into the original show's continuity: "I had this idea. I think the we might all be the mirror [universe] crew." Perhaps in the third movie, we'll see that "something's going to go to shit, we're all going to turn bad, Spock's going to grow a beard, and we're going to meet ourselves. That could happen."
Pegg and Cho said it was weird to be back with the same cast, in the same costumes on the same sets, after four years away. But on the very first day back, they shot a scene where everybody was on the bridge together — it's a scene that didn't actually make it into the final film, but it was nice to be shooting it all together on the first day.
In that scene, Kirk is back on the bridge after the opening sequence on the planet Nibiru. And he's writing his Captain's Log, completely falsifying the events of the mission and covering up his breach of the Prime Directive, as the crew watches. In the end, this scene wasn't needed, because we find out about Kirk's false log a different way. But it was still nice to film it, said Pegg, because it felt as though those four years between films hadn't happened.
In the new movie, Sulu gets to sit in the command chair at one point — and we were wondering if Cho wants his character to follow the trajectory the original Sulu went on, eventually commanding his own ship. "I am certainly hoping so," said Cho. "That would be amazing. Don't you think? I dug it. I dug the chair, and I'd like another one."
In the new movie, Scotty spends more time with Keenser, his alien sidekick played by genre veteran Deep Roy. Originally, in the first movie, says Pegg, Keenser is just Scotty's companion on Delta Vega, and a couple of weeks after that sequence was finished he and Abrams were talking about how sad it was that Keenser had been left behind on "that fucking snowball," and how they needed to see more of an arc for Keenser and "make sure he's okay." So Abrams called costume designer Michael Kaplan, and asked for a tiny Starfleet uniform.
Pegg enjoys the rapport that Scotty and Keenser have, including their weird little shorthand. Keenser barely speaks, but he's "a character part for Scotty to bounce ideas off," and it's Keenser's "silent judgment that forces Scotty to do the right thing."
Pegg really likes personalizing the random aliens in the film — in one sequence, he's beamed into a prison cell, and he's banging on the window to be let out, trying to attract the attention of an alien female working on a console nearby. And in one take, Pegg yells, "Hey, Janet," that being the alien woman's name. (He's not sure if that take made it into the film or not.)
Abrams gained strength from non-fandom
Not being a fan of Star Trek allowed Abrams to relax and take more chances with the material, Says Pegg: He had the benefit of not feeling like he had to be slavish to the source material, but becoming a fan as he made it — now of course, he's a huge fan. But it's more Damon [Lindelof] and Alex [Kurtzman] and Bob [Orci] who were the aficionados — the writers. So it'll be interesting to see how he approaches Star Wars, because he is a fan of Star Wars.