From Basketball to the Bridge: Talking Star Trek with “Beyond” Director Justin Lin

In 1966, the very first episode of the very first Star Trek TV show aired, boldly introducing the world to Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, the starship Enterprise, strange new worlds, weird new alien civilizations, and incredibly cool technology. The original Star Trek only lasted three seasons, but it created a universe that would eventually include four more shows (with a new one on the way) and 13 movies — with the latest, Star Trek Beyond, warping into theaters Friday.

The third installment in the new adventures of Kirk, Spock, Dr. McCoy, Sulu, Uhura, Scotty, and Chekov pits the Enterprise crew against a new foe, Krall, bent on destroying them and the Federation. The movie also introduces a new director to the series: Justin Lin. Lin might be best known for his work on four Fast and Furious movies. But he’s also a big Star Trek fan — and a huge hoophead. He discovered both Trek and basketball after moving to Los Angeles from Taiwan as an 8 year old, and both loves ultimately helped him become a filmmaker and helm the movie that celebrates Star Trek’s 50th anniversary.

Sports Illustrated Kids talked with Lin about his love of basketball and Star Trek, making Beyond, and one of his next projects, the sequel to a little movie called Space Jam. Excerpts from our conversation are below, and be sure to pick up a copy of our September issue for the full story on how basketball shaped one of Hollywood’s hottest directors!

You were born in Taiwan. What are your memories of living there?

I was really young. I actually don't remember that much. I remember when I was there, things were very strict. You wore uniforms to school. It was a very different time. So when we moved to the States, it was kind of overwhelming but in the greatest way, you know? There were a few things. First was watching Star Trek with my family, and then discovering basketball through the Lakers. It changed my life. Ultimately, basketball led me to filmmaking, which, to me… My dream was to play in the NBA. But, mmm, I kind of capped out in high school. But I do feel like I'm living my NBA dreams by being a filmmaker, by being a director.

How does basketball fit into your life now that you're this big-time Hollywood director?

Unfortunately, you know, I'm so out of shape now because I make movies that I kind of... (laughs) It's so frustrating playing because what my brain wants and what my body can deliver is, like, so far apart. But I kind of feel like I'm living my dream still because making movies is very much like basketball. You're the point guard and also the coach at the same time. It's about prepping the team, motivating everybody, and going after a common goal. That's something that I feel like it's lived on through me. And that's what I really love about filmmaking.

It sounds like the two big formative things for you as a kid were basketball and Star Trek. Is that fair to say?

Yeah, no, I think Star Trek was a big part of my sense of family and also the idea of exploration and discovery. I think that was really big for me growing up. But basketball was what really helped me find empowerment. And the idea that hard work can really lead to something. I think one of the biggest lessons that I've learned through basketball is that, any given day, you can always play good on D. Offensively? Some days everything's going to go in, some days it's just not going to happen. You're not going to have the touch. But every day, you can play good D because it's all effort and using your head. So those are kind of the fundamentals that I think are still kind of within me.

In terms of watching Star Trek as a kid with your dad, can you talk a little bit about what that time together was like and if you have any favorite memories from that time together?

It was really cool. First of all, we got to stay up late! (laughs) As much as I think my parents both wanted us to go to sleep, the idea of us hanging out together was very special. Obviously when I started watching it at 8, my level of engagement was just, like, "Oh, cool, aliens" or spaceships, you know? But it was cool to be able to have that TV on every night so that by the time I was 12 or 13 we're watching it and my engagement was more about the characters and about some of the obstacles they have to overcome. It was funny, when Kirk or Spock does something really smart, my parents liked to repeat that plot point to me just so it would be instilled in my head. That's one of those things where, when I look back now, it was a good strategy on their end.

How does your deep personal connection with this franchise and these characters impact you when you're directing this movie?

Well, I think it's to really respect the essence of these characters, to respect the essence of Star Trek. But at the same time, I think it's my job to also set the mission statement of Star Trek, which is to be bold and push it forward. So it was a really cool balancing act making the film, to really embrace what has made it great but also challenge everybody. So it was a little push and pull, but that I felt like was something that was needed for the approach.

Were there any things in particular that you felt like the movie had to hit in order for this to be successful?

I think you definitely have to emotionally connect with the characters in a very sincere and honest way. I think if that doesn't work then the movie's not going to work. You can have all the action sequences, but it's not going to mean anything unless you have some sort of emotional connection. So that was something that when I got in the room with [writers] Simon [Pegg] and Doug [Jung] as we were building the script, building the movie, I wanted to make sure we were always checking in on that and never letting that go.

There's a mention in the press notes that when you were working with Simon and Doug you kept telling them to "go bigger." Is it possible for Star Trek to go too big?

No, I don't think so. If you can connect with the characters emotionally, then you can never go too big. I mean, this is the one, unique franchise where its been able to thrive in multiple mediums. So I think that if you can really anchor anything through the characters, then it should be limitless in what kind of adventure you want to take them through.

The Enterprise gets destroyed in this movie. Was there any hesitation on doing that? It's something that people have seen in at least two other movies, so what went into the thinking about doing it in Beyond?

When I signed on, one of the things I wanted to do [was] try to deconstruct Star Trek, the notion and the philosophy of Star Trek. And I think what we arrived with was a kind of very literal notion of deconstructing, which is to take away the one thing that's glued everyone together, the security blanket if you will, which is the Enterprise. I didn't take that lightly. None of us did. If you watch the movie, you'll see that it was done for a reason, and hopefully by the end you realize the Enterprise is built from the crew. The heart and soul of it are the people who are in it and interacting with it. And hopefully reaffirms why we love Star Trek. So that was the reason for it. I know its been done before, but when you watch the film you'll see that it's done with a lot of care and it's not like anything you've seen.

You've mentioned that Dr. McCoy is your favorite character. What is that?

I think that he's kind of like the curmudgeon uncle that I've always wanted. And I love his humor. And he's also very loyal. But he's not sugary and he doesn't try to play up... He's just who he is. And I think that's something that I always loved, that sensibility of Bones. And so, I think one of the joys of making this film was getting together with Karl [Urban] and really exploring that through this incarnation of McCoy.

Karl Urban is a big Star Trek fan, too, right?

Huge! Huuuge! (laughs) Yeah, it's amazing! I mean, he would know, like, the necklace that McCoy was wearing in this movie, and it's just so fascinating talking to him. He's so passionate about Bones and also Star Trek.

I need to ask: You've talked about making Space Jam 2. What's the status of that? Are there any updates?

I think when I hang up the phone with you and I go home I'm going to be working on that. (laughs) It's been a lot of fun. I grew up with Looney Tunes and I have a 7-year-old now and when I talk to him, he doesn't know what Looney Tunes are, which is is so surprising to me. And so the idea of potentially reintroducing those characters to a new generation but also being able to kind of work in basketball because of my love, I think that's something that's very appealing to me right now.

Photos: Kimberly French/Paramount Pictures, Jaimie Trueblood/Paramount Pictures (Lin with Krall)

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