San Diego Comic-Con kicked off with a lavish outdoor Imax premiere of Star Trek Beyond and commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Gene Roddenberry’s creation. The event had a decided family feel: the entire cast came, and those who could not – Leonard Nimoy and Anton Yelchin – were given touching tributes. At the center was Justin Lin, the Taiwan-born filmmaker best known for taking on the Fast And Furious series when it was running on gas fumes, and transforming it into a billion-dollar franchise over four films. Lin’s own family sensibilities – his parents immigrated from Taiwan to California and worked around the clock in their fish and chips store – was the secret sauce behind Fast racing past movies about fast cars and toward the multi-cultural family sensibility that sustains it. Lin’s family ties to Star Trek are more profound; it is not coincidence that a starship that saves the day is called the USS Franklin. The director’s father’s name is Frank, whose influence is all over this picture.
DEADLINE: When JJ Abrams relaunched the Star Trek franchise, he plugged us right back into the characters and actors from the ’60s TV series. Star Trek Beyond takes that connection a step further. What was your relationship to Gene Roddenberry’s series?
LIN: My parents had their little fish and chips shop. It would close at 9:00, we had dinner at 10:00 and then Star Trek came on at 11:00 on Channel 13 in L.A. We had just immigrated to the states and at 8 years old, I didn’t understand what a rerun was. But that one hour a night became our routine for 10 years, until I was 18 and left for college. It’s where the fan fiction element started building in my head. I started thinking, what happens when they’re not working? Where does Sulu hang out, and do Bones and Spock even like each other? You start building a whole universe outside the screen, while you’re engaging with the characters onscreen. That was my level of engagement with Trek and the basis of my love for it. There were five of us, we’d just come here, I was learning how to speak English…
DEADLINE: Did you learn English by watching TV shows like Star Trek?
LIN: As much as by following sports and reading encyclopedias and absorbing everything at that age. But I had my family, and in Star Trek there was this group of people from varied backgrounds on these journeys. It was really powerful because my reality was the five of us, in this new place. Now, because of the friends and relationships I’ve built through my own film journeys, my 7 year old has uncles and aunts who aren’t my blood. He’s got Uncle Vin [Diesel] and people like that and that is his life. All of my definitions of family were heavily influenced by my Star Trek experience.
DEADLINE: Why did your parents connect so strongly with Star Trek?
LIN: We had a pretty good life, growing up in Taiwan, and I think my dad really made a concerted effort to say hey, we’re going to take a chance and go halfway around the world so that my kids can have more opportunities. He was a pilot; he did all these things there. Growing up, I felt there was nothing my dad couldn’t do, but didn’t get the chance to do when we moved. I think he latched on to Trek because of the sense of exploration and discovery, and hope. I think that’s what he connected to.
DEADLINE: So when he came here, this pilot who was grounded in a fish and chips store, he got to vicariously be the explorer through William Shatner’s Captain Kirk?
LIN: It was more that we were just a working-class family, and he’d done so much when he was young and then basically said he had to settle down for us. So he just worked his ass off, all day. And then, every night he was able to keep exploring, his sense of discovery fueled by that show.
DEADLINE: When JJ Abrams stepped away from this film to reboot Star Wars and called you, how much of your personal connection to Star Trek made him connect with your vision for this film?
LIN: If you talk to JJ you’d probably get a better answer. But he called me on a Thursday and asked me to think about it and sit down the following Monday. I told my parents and drove over to have dinner with them that weekend. Just talking with them, I realized how much of this decision would be personal and emotional. I also knew that there was all this pressure, that this was going to be a logistical nightmare. This film went from a new idea to production in six months. That’s never really been done before on a film of this scale. That was definitely in my head. I also understood it was necessary because the 50-year anniversary for such a celebrated franchise was important. Even though all this was in my head, the family passion made it something I just couldn’t resist. I felt like it was almost like a rescue mission in a way and I felt like I could go in there and do it. You have to separate the commerce from the art form with these movies, separate yourself as a filmmaker from all the things people are saying, and focus on what is important. In those conversations where people were saying the movie should be more like this, or more like that, my appreciation for the uniqueness of Star Trek grew. It’s the only property in the history of cinema that’s thrived in TV, and then features. I thought that instead of trying to make this movie something else, we should double down on what Star Trek is. It has to be equally compelling, whether it’s two characters in a room talking, or a giant space battle. That’s what‘s so cool about Star Trek. For me, it became about embracing all the essence in all these great characters while recognizing the mission statement mandate has to be about being bold and exploring and discovery.
DEADLINE: What is the biggest challenge, hitting that 50th anniversary target?
LIN: Everything from the sheer size, to getting the characters right. Fortunately, I’d done this juggling act with big movies on tight schedules, but the Fast movies were done as tight as you can go and they took two years, minimum. It has been a year and a half from when I said yes to talking to you right now. It was also hard because it’s not like we could take every idea in my head and just shoot it. Everything here had to be built. So I flew to London, met with Simon [Pegg], Doug [Jung] and Lindsey [Weber]. I’m in a room with them, and none of us knew each other but we start talking about the movie. I pitched the idea of what if, after fifty years, we try to deconstruct the federation, and Star Trek, and put these characters in a situation we hadn’t seen them in. And then build it back up so that by the end we reaffirm why we love Star Trek so much, and why there’s so much passion. That was the jumping off point. We had people in different parts of the world, and what I loved most was their passion. It reminded me of my indie movie days. Sometimes with these big movies you get all the bullshit and the petty mess of politics, but we just didn’t have time for that.
DEADLINE: Your first taste of franchise fare was Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift. It seemed tapped out, with original leads Vin Diesel and Paul Walker not behind the wheel. Despite the tragedy with Paul, the seventh movie was the biggest. Why do people want more and more, even though most fast car movies fail?
LIN: The characters, and the family aspect. I remember when I was doing Tokyo Drift I sat, you know, I sat with Vin by his pool for five hours, trying to get him to do the cameo. He wasn’t really having it and I heard that he was never going to do it. I started talking to him about the connections from Han [Sunk Kang] from Tokyo Drift and the mythology and connection between all these characters. Nobody really talked about that and I could see Vin get hooked. Turns out he’s a big Dungeons & Dragons guy and he’s talking about the character building that goes on there. I knew nothing about Dungeons & Dragons but I remember so vividly how everything we talked about that day played out in Fast 6. It reinforced that whether you are a filmmaker, or a fan, there is nothing unless you have a relationships and a connection with these characters.
DEADLINE: You mentioned your indie film origins. Your debut Better Luck Tomorrow depicted Asian Americans using their brains for nefarious purposes and hedonistic lifestyles. You got an earful of criticism for negative ethnic stereotyping at Sundance, until Roger Ebert stood up for you and said these naysayers wouldn’t attack a white director the same way. What was that like, a new filmmaker being championed by the most famous film critic of his time?
LIN: You just brought me right back to that Library Theater screening. I didn’t know what I was doing, I was definitely overwhelmed. What I loved about what Roger Ebert did was, it wasn’t that he defended me. It was that he put everything in perspective, and created an opportunity to start a discourse. When it first got that reaction, it was so intense. It was overwhelming for me and the whole cast and crew. I returned to Sundance a couple years ago and people still talk about that moment with Roger Ebert. It shows how powerful film can be, especially in this day and age with all the shit that is going on all around us. We need more discourse, it can only lead to positive results. People use that moment when they discuss the idea of the sense of representation and the responsibility a filmmaker has, and all this happened 14 years ago.
DEADLINE: Let’s say you introduced that film right now, when everybody is waiting to feel offended and wronged. Would you be in danger of being accused of betraying your ethnicity?
LIN: We were conscious at the time that it could happen and it was really the reason to do it. This was 2001; I had saved up a chunk of money and ran up ten credit cards and I put myself into debt I might never climb out of. I thought, if that is going to happen, I thought, I want to make a film that is trying to say something, and could promote discourse. But I think if that Roger Ebert thing never happened, here’s what would have happened. The Asian American community would have jumped in to kill the movie. He made it okay for people to be passionate and take a side, but that this wasn’t going to be a lynching. It would not be okay to try and kill the film. We definitely were aware of what we were doing, but we didn’t know how it was going to play out.
DEADLINE: Ebert championing you led to getting picked up by Paramount, your studio on Star Trek. How did that first studio experience go?
LIN: Complicated. MTV Films bought the film at a time they were trying to broaden into films. Nothing happened and I would hear things. Like people there saying they’d rather sell cigarettes to kids than release this movie. So we were stuck. Paramount wouldn’t release it. The journalist Patrick Goldstein had lunch with Sherry Lansing and he said hey, you should really look at this film that you own; it’s really good. She saw it and she loved it. She called me and she said oh this will be great, we’ll release it through Paramount Classics. I remember telling her, no. Because at Sundance, the one studio that went out of their way to try to really kick us was Paramount Classics. Ruth Vitale was running it. I don’t know what her deal was, but she went out of her way to talk shit about us. So I said, I’m not letting you release it through Paramount Classics because I didn’t want to contribute to her career if it is successful. She [Lansing] laughed about the whole ordeal and said, you know what? It’s going through Paramount.
DEADLINE: The white guilt narrative during the last Oscars discounted the hardship that informed your early career and seems common to new filmmakers of all colors. The controversy focused on the lack of black nominees in the last two Oscars. As an Asian American director, how do you see it?
LIN: It’s very complex, but I’m glad diversity is being talked about. The issue really is opportunity, and then in making the most of it. They don’t call in Asian American actors or the African American actors unless it’s specific, like for Asians if the part is a Kung-Fu master. I have always felt, why don’t you just call in everybody and whoever is best gets the role? So that’s what I did before the idea of color blind casting got a little better because of this conversation that’s being had now. I remember that when I started demanding they call in everybody, the Asian American actors that came in, they were not making a good impression.
LIN: They give you pages. If you are looking at your pages in your audition, you’re not going to come across very well. But if you are looking at the other person, and you are acting, you’ll have a much better chance. I pulled some of them aside and I said look man, if you’re going to go for a lead of a movie, you have to know your f**king lines. One actress said, I’ve only ever gone out for one or two lines. That is all Asian Americans get called in for. But what I say is, even if you don’t get the role, you can make an impression, make someone remember you and they will call you back again, for something else. Casting directors and filmmakers, we remember. We want to work with great talented people so it’s very important to go out there and make sure you are on your game. There’s a little bit of learning curve on both sides.
DEADLINE: There was controversy over Cameron Crowe casting Emma Stone in Aloha, playing a character who was part Hawaiian. Tilda Swinton was cast in Doctor Strange in a role that had been male, but there was an outcry because the original character had been Asian. You’re developing Lone Wolf and Cub where Keanu Reeves has been mentioned as possible star, and it does seem every time Hollywood develops Japanese manga, it’s tailored to male stars who are usually white. It makes sense to me to cast bankable talent, and so of course you get Emma Stone if she chooses your movie over others. How do you process it as an Asian American artist? What is your feeling about this growing outcry over whitewashing?
LIN: Well, there was that case in 21, based on these Asian American kids. They went and cast a bunch of white kids, and I didn’t know who any of them were. If your source material says the character is Asian American or whatever, you better engage at the right level. Emma Stone, she’s a big name, and the filmmaker has the right to choose what they think is best. If I was making that, the way I would handle it is, I would scour the earth trying to find the best match for the source material. I’m not judging here; but I remember being in film school when 21 came out. It wasn’t like they were casting De Niro in place of these Asian Americans. It felt like they were trying to cast white kids because they thought that would be the only way that white audiences would relate to that movie. That pisses me off, as a film watcher. Again, I don’t fault any filmmakers for making choices, but there’s consequences to all our choices no matter what we do anyway.
On Lone Wolf and Cub, I love the original material and I’m not trying to make it into The Road to Perdition. My goal is to be true to Lone Wolf and Cub, and that is a very Japanese property. And the global marketplace is growing. My job with that film is to really try to honor what I love about it, and part of that is that this is a Japanese character. I don’t want to sound judgmental, this is just my opinion as a director and a film viewer. That is my approach.
DEADLINE: Are you a member of the Academy?
DEADLINE: Will this infusion of new members change the dialogue in a constructive way?
LIN: I have my personal feelings and I appreciate the fact that I’ll be able to get in there for that dialogue. I haven’t really engaged in any dialogue that I feel is that relevant, yet. Right now, I think it’s definitely a reaction to the things that happened. But as a member, I’ll be very attentive to the kind of dialogue this is going to bring about. I will be as critical in that discourse as I need be, in that room, for those conversations. It is an opportunity I won’t take lightly. It needs to be done right, and I’m glad I’ll be able to be there and wholly voice my point of view.
DEADLINE: You made four Fast and Furious movies and you’ve deconstructed and built back up the Star Trek franchise, positioning it for more. Will you hang around for an encore?
LIN: I was going to go back and make an indie movie when JJ Abrams called me. I don’t know what my choice will be, but I love having these opportunities. I owe two scripts and can’t wait to get in a room and write. Space Jam is one of them. So I don’t know what my feelings are going to be. All I know is that I think Star Trek was so personal to me, probably the most personal movie I’ve made. Better Luck Tomorrow was my observation about identity, and this generation of Asian Americans that I didn’t understand and wanted to explore. I loved Fast, but I’m not a car guy. So this was my most personal film and it has led me to think about other personal stories I haven’t told yet. I’m intrigued by what I might choose, in the next couple of years. The great thing is choices. That’s something I didn’t have 14 years ago. Now I do, and I don’t ever want to take it for granted.