'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Justin Lin ('Star Trek Beyond')

The Taipei-born filmmaker, who made his name at Sundance before helming four 'Fast and Furious' blockbusters in eight years, opens up about his youth as an undocumented immigrant, Hollywood's resistance to diversity and his "most personal" film.
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Justin Lin

"I've been making movies now for 15 years," says Justin Lin, the 44-year-old director of this weekend's most anticipated new film, Star Trek Beyond, as we sit down in a San Francisco hotel room with a panoramic view of the Bay Area to record an episode of the 'Awards Chatter' podcast. "I have to say, I think this is probably the most personal movie. I think Better Luck Tomorrow [the Sundance indie that put him on the map] was more observational. I think Fast and Furious [the franchise to which he contributed four blockbusters in eight years] was more about myth and a character-building exercise. And this was actually something that, when I decided to do it, it was an emotional choice."

(Click above to listen to this episode now or click here to access all of our episodes via iTunes. Past guests include Steven SpielbergAmy Schumer, Louis C.K., Lady GagaWill SmithKristen Stewart, Harvey WeinsteinBrie LarsonJ.J. AbramsKate Winslet, Samuel L. JacksonJane Fonda and Michael Moore.)

That is, in large part, because Star Trek has been a part of Lin's life ever since he was eight years old and his parents relocated their family from Taipei, Taiwan, to Orange County to run a fish-and-chips shop. (They overstayed their visas and were undocumented immigrants until President Ronald Reagan signed an amnesty bill in 1986.) "We were the only Asian-American family," he says. Each night, he recalls, "They closed the shop at 9, we had dinner at 10 and we watched Star Trek, the original series, at 11 on Channel 13. From [age] eight to 18, that was our family time."

Star Trek Beyond is also special to Lin because it marks a reunion with John Cho, the American actor of Korean descent who starred in the first film the director ever made, the no-budget Shopping for Fangs, back when Lin was an undergraduate at UCLA. They subsequently partnered on Lin's next film, Better Luck Tomorrow, which Lin funded with 10 credit cards. That film premiered at Sundance, where it was the focus of headlines after Roger Ebert stood on a chair during a Q&A and yelled at a man who criticized it for depicting Asians unflatteringly. Over the course of our conversation, Lin talks about that incident — and why he turned down Sherry Lansing's offer to release the film through Paramount Classics, Paramount Pictures' former art-house division. (It ultimately went out through Paramount itself.)

Lin soon moved on to bigger-budget projects, first the poorly received but profitable 2006 film Annapolis and then the third through sixth installments of the Fast and Furious series — The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006), Fast & Furious (2009), Fast Five (2011) and Fast & Furious 6 (2013) — which established him as a director of action-packed and effects-driven blockbusters. After four films in eight years, though, he'd had enough. "I left Fast and Furious because I just felt like, at a certain point, after [Fast & Furious 6], there wasn't another story that I wanted to tell. I couldn't grow anymore. I needed other challenges." Those included directing two episodes of True Detective's controversial second season and planning a film about the Los Angeles Riots. But then came a phone call from J.J. Abrams.

Abrams encouraged Lin to take over the Star Trek film franchise that Abrams had rebooted, to great acclaim, with 2009's Star Trek and, to a lesser extent, 2013's Star Trek Into Darkness. Abrams, who would remain involved as a producer, encouraged Lin to "boldly go" wherever he wanted with the story — and so, working under a tight timetable, Abrams and co-writers Simon Pegg and Doug Jung literally and figuratively blew up much of the franchise. They destroyed iconic set-pieces. They separated characters who had never been apart. And they even explored the sexuality of a character whose love life had never been addressed before: Mr. Sulu, the character made famous by George Takei and played in Beyond by Cho, turns out to be gay, like Takei is in real life.

"Simon had the idea of 'Sulu and his partner,'" Lin recalls. "It felt like it was overdue, you know? But, at the same time, it was very clear to me that it's really not a big issue for me and it's certainly not a big issue in the Star Trek world, so that's the way we need to present it, you know?" Recent headlines have indicated that Takei did not respond to the news in the way that Lin expected he would — he felt Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, who died in 1991, would not have approved, and so he did not, either. "I think John called George and he got a really weird reaction, so I called George and we talked. We had a really long conversation. And I told him, you know, 'Hey, thank you, I appreciate it for the context, I will do what I think is best,' you know? So that's where it all kind of came from. And since then, George just kind of went out and he's speaking and sharing a private conversation in a way that I think is misleading, a little bit. It's his choice. But at the same time, I'm the gatekeeper on this one, you know, and that's my choice. As a tribute to Gene Roddenberry, and in the spirit of Trek, I felt like it was appropriate."

Much more troubling to Lin was the sudden and tragic death on June 19 of the actor who plays Chekhov in Beyond, Anton Yelchin, who was killed when his own vehicle backed into him. "For me, I'm still processing it," says Lin. "It's still — it's hard to believe, you know? I had just seen him a week before. He came in to do his ADR [automated dialogue replacement] and we had such a great time." Lin made sure to add two dedications to the final credits of Beyond: one to the original Spock, Leonard Nimoy, in February 2015, and the other to Yelchin. "[He] will live on with all of us," Lin says. I know [he] will live on with me."

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