We caught up with STAR TREK BEYOND co-writer Doug Jung ahead of the July 22 premiere, and now that a little time has passed with the film in theaters, we thought it was safe to now share our spoiler-heavy interview – talking about everything from Jaylah and Krall’s backstory to the writer’s surprising on-screen debut as Sulu’s husband.
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TREKCORE: I want to hear about how you and Simon collaborated. You didn’t know each other, right?
JUNG: We didn’t know each other, but obviously I was a fan of Simon, and knew him from his work. I work with Bad Robot, and he and J.J. Abrams are close, and they were just saying, you know, “Listen – he’s great. Simon might be a movie star or celebrity or whatever, but he’s great; a really creative guy.”
We just met and we sort of got on. He’s great. He’s cool. He’s as smart and funny and nice as you’d imagine.
We started off with a blank page. The creative team of this movie had never met each other before – and had nothing. [Laughs] I give Bad Robot, J.J., and [producer] Lindsey Weber a lot of credit to be able to wrangle that and to get something out of us.
TREKCORE: In terms of your process, how did you come up with some of the deep-dive Trek references?
JUNG: A lot of them kind of came from like, we remembered something or we knew kind of what we wanted, and we’d think, “Oh, it would be great if we could find something that fit that.”
A lot of those line references are us just sort of having fun, like when Simon says “the big green hand” or we took some names of some red shirts that had been killed. So a lot of those were us just sort of having fun – but there were other things that were built into the mythology that helped us.
For example, we had the idea with [Krall]. We knew what we wanted him to go through. We knew we wanted him to have this sort of idealistic, philosophical difference with Starfleet, but we didn’t quite have why – so we were like, “Maybe he came from this world that was taken over by the Federation,” but then we were sort of like, “Well, why don’t we wrap it back around in the mythology?” and we got to, “Why don’t we make him a former member of M.A.C.O.?”
We get to shine a light on what I imagine would have been a very turbulent time, right before the Federation is created. And for him to be in that sort of precipice of change and to be a guy who is being asked to make a big change, and is unable to do it, that sort of just fit in thematically with everything we were sort of saying. So it was a gift of fifty years of Trek lore rising to the surface when we need it.
TREKCORE: That’s such a great reference. I never would have thought the M.A.C.O. forces would have been disbanded because of that kind of thing.
JUNG: I thought it’d be kind of interesting, too. You can make some modern analogies in terms of like the CIA, which is – you’re asking these people, you’re training them their whole lives to see the world one way, and then you say, “Oh, by the way, you’re now obsolete, but we’d like you to do [this other thing].” It’s tough.
TREKCORE: Did you feel any responsibility to include these types of deep Trek things?
JUNG: I don’t think we felt like we had to do it, but we wanted to do it – and also, there was some kind of sneaky fun in it. But for sure, we wanted fans to feel like we weren’t taking too pedestrian of a view of this.
JUNG: Yeah, that’s right! [Laughs] I totally forgot that. That was a Simon thing. And some of the dates we used were references; we talked about the ship a lot, the Franklin. But that was all fun, too, you know – like back then, they didn’t actually have human transporters, you couldn’t beam a human up.
So we had to put a line in where Scotty says, “I made these recalibrations.”
TREKCORE: So, in terms of the script – tell me about the evolution of Jaylah.
JUNG: We wanted to have a strong female character; I think Simon’s talked about this, like Jennifer Lawrence in “Winter’s Bone.” We just kept referring to her as ‘Jennifer Lawrence’ for a long time, then somebody, joking, was like J-Law? [Laughs]
TREKCORE: Well, no one picked up on it until you guys talked about it!
JUNG: Well how would you? [Laughs] It’s so esoteric. But phonetically, it sounded good – ‘Jaylah.’ It sounded a little foreign.
We wanted her character to be someone who was outside of the understanding of the Federation and what it means, and really, to really be a blank slate in the sense that she has no real understanding even of her own people, in a way.
Again, it’s a little bit obvious, but she’s basically a survivor who is all about herself. Even the initial deal she makes to help the crew, she doesn’t do it out of the kindness of her heart. We thought it would be nice to have a character who can feel the full effect of what it means to be a part of this Federation and this group of people. To adopt their sort of unifying way in which they look at who they are.
She was kind of great, and Sofia was amazing. As soon as we saw the makeup effects they were going to use, we knew it was going to be great.
TREKCORE: Okay, same thing for Krall – what was your goal with his character?
JUNG: That was one of the first conversations we had. Again, we were trying to find something that felt it was worthy of the fifty-year anniversary – so a character who could challenge the Roddenberry universe.
Justin had an interesting take on it. He’s a Taiwanese-born guy who’s interested in politics, and I am, too, and we had this talk, with Simon, too, saying “Could that utopian kind of universe actually exist? What does that mean? Is it even necessarily good – and without a sort of Darwinist drive, do people evolve or will they just not? And what is the Federation?” If you look at it one way, it feels like it’s sort of colonization.
These are themes that have sort of been addressed in Star Trek. We thought it would be an interesting thing to bring up and also parallel with Kirk’s personal journey of realizing his initial purpose for joining Starfleet – or, at least one of them – has been accomplished. He’s eclipsed his father. Now what? Now what do you do?
It sort of felt like they were all kind of dancing around the same idea of “How do you find purpose? What does it mean that we’re trying to create this ideal as a society?” That’s how Krall came out of it.
TREKCORE: What about the challenges in conveying the whole ‘DNA vampire’ aspect – about how Krall was sustaining himself on the lives of other people?
JUNG: Well, here’s the thing – it was really easy to talk about, but once we got there it was pretty challenging. There were ways we could have done it to demonstrate that he has this technology, but again, if you get to into it you start to cast light on some of the things that might not be quite as believable – or, you just tip your hat too much that he’s not who he is.
We had a lot of different versions. We hinted at it a lot more at one point. We talked about it more at one point. And then ultimately we just sort of decided that we needed it to be part of the whole reveal package. It’s a complex idea, if you really think about what he had to do and how he had to get there.
TREKCORE: The lynchpin of the movie is the reveal of Krall’s true history – I loved it, but as I was watching I knew some people would say, “Oh, it’s just another bad guy in heavy makeup.”
JUNG: Well, there was actually another phase [of makeup] that we took out, where Krall became too human-looking, and you would have connected the dots a little more. But one thing that surprised me is that no one was saying “Oh, there’s Idris Elba in a lot of makeup; there’s an NX ship that seems like it shouldn’t be there. He’s going to end up being the [captain.]”
NOTE: This interview was was conducted before the ‘Krall is Edison’ TV spot was released.
TREKCORE: No, there wasn’t even a word of that.
JUNG: But that was a tough one; that was one of the big balancing acts. How do we portray this guy without giving away too much, to kind of make him interesting and try to make him seem like he’s not just another dude with a beef. At some level you can’t avoid that. You have to preserve the things to come.
But because we were preserving that surprise, there was no other way to do it than to basically have him talk about it. And to have him talk about it in the past was much better than to have him talk about it in the future.
There was one version where he was talking about in the future, and he explained it all, and it leaves [the audience] wondering, “Why are you explaining this to us? No one cares. We just want you dead.”
TREKCORE: Justin Lin talked a bit in our interview about backstory to the drone soldiers that didn’t make it into the film – can you expand a bit on that?
JUNG: We had loftier ambitions about that planet from early on. Justin’s idea was that [the soldiers] were sort of like drones in a way, and that they don’t actually have a lot conscious thought of their own. That sort of answers how Krall would be able to come in and take all this stuff.
But they weren’t a society that had weaponized anything. He took this energy source and perverted it in a particular way, and took over what was essentially a mining colony out there. It was one of those things were we felt that he didn’t have an invading force, but he was taking his skills as an ex-soldier and applying them in a way that he probably never thought he would have to do.
TREKCORE: What about your role in the film as Ben, Sulu’s partner? Had you ever acted before?
JUNG: No, I’d never done it before, and it sort of came up as a last minute thing. There was an actor they had cast in Dubai – and it is really hard to cast in Dubai, because there are not a lot of local actors – and he fell out for whatever reason and Justin and Lindsey kind of said, “Listen, if you’d be up for it, it would be great. Cho’s up for it.”
I was self-conscious about just being up on the screen. I’m not an actor. But Cho’s amazing just in the way we talked about it, and how Justin wanted to it, and how everyone wanted to portray it.
It was great to do and I was really proud to be able to do it, because it’s not often you get to put your money where your mouth is and it’s something we all believed in so strongly.