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EXCLUSIVE: Three weeks out from starting production on Star Trek 3, director Justin Lin took time away to drop his hands in cement at the TCL Chinese Theater in Hollywood, alongside Huang Xiaoming and Zhao Wei, to celebrate the iconic movie house’s 88th anniversary. Lin took a few moments to reflect on a career that began with maxing out 10 credit cards to help fund his debut Better Luck Tomorrow, a gamble that has left him in an enviable place.
After directing four Fast & Furious films that re-established that stalled car franchise, Lin exited to take the Star Trek job and direct the first episodes of HBO’s returning cop series True Detective. He also made his first foray into China filmmaking with the Mandarin-language comedy he co-wrote and produced, Hollywood Adventures, which stars Huang and Zhao and opens in China on June 26 through his Perfect Storm banner. Lin is also partnered with the Russo Brothers in Bullitt, a venture formed to create opportunities in the commercial space.
Why did Lin exit a thriving franchise in The Fast & The Furious for a Star Trek franchise still trying to reach that commerce level? “I was in the last week shooting True Detective when JJ Abrams called last December,” Lin said. “He asked me, do you like Star Trek? If you do, you should take this, be bold, and just go for it.’ ” Unbeknownst to Abrams — who was leaving to direct the revival of Star Wars — he called the right guy. “I thought about how much a part of my life Star Trek was,” Lin said. “Growing up, my parents had this little fish and chips restaurant in Anaheim in the shadows of Disneyland, and they didn’t close until 9 PM. As a family, we didn’t eat dinner until 10 PM, and we would watch the original Star Trek every night at 11. My dad worked 364 days a year, only took Thanksgiving off, and from age 8 to 18, the only time I could hang out with my parents was by staying late. And every night, it was Star Trek on Channel 13 in L.A. That was my childhood. All my friends were Star Wars kids but I didn’t go to the movies, so I was the Star Trek kid. Thinking about this, it became a very personal and very emotional decision.” Then it became a blur. “On Fast 6, we had a year turnaround and that was crazy. This one gave us six months to get ready, which makes it like an incredibly expensive indie movie.”
How does one put a stamp, coming into the third film of an iconic franchise? “As great as JJ’s films were, there’s still a lot to be mined from these characters,” Lin said. “They haven’t really gone on their five-year mission, so what we experienced in the TV show hasn’t been touched on yet. That sets up an opportunity for exploration and the deeper you go, the more you are examining humanity. Those are the things that I absorbed as a kid and hope to tap into and embrace and celebrate. By the time this movie comes out, Star Trek will have been around for 50 years.” Lin wouldn’t say much about the script written by cast member Simon Pegg and Doug Jung, but he said a couple things. First, Pegg isn’t in every scene as one might imagine when the script is by a member of the ensemble cast. And the plot isn’t borrowed from old Trek episodes the way the last film was. “It’s all new and fresh,” Lin said. “The Klingons, Romulans and other species are great, but it’s time to go further. It has been fun to focus on creating whole new worlds and species.”
As for leaving the Fast & Furious franchise, Lin sounds bittersweet, and not because the James Wan-directed Furious 7 grossed an outsized $1.4 billion. He liked the work, but it was time for a new challenge. “Before I did my first one with Tokyo Drift, I was coming off my maxing my credit card movie and then it was eight fantastic years of Fast where we became a family and made four movies that felt very different,” Lin said. “I will always cherish that, but after the last one I got to the point there wasn’t enough reason to stay. I couldn’t justify my growth as a filmmaker. I needed more, creatively, and am fortunate that I was able to move on to True Detective, with these scripts by Nic Pizzolato that read like novels, Star Trek, and this Chinese film Hollywood Adventures.”
The latter is a comedy shot in Mandarin headlined by those Chinese stars who also wiped cement off their hands today at the Chinese Theater. Lin got the idea to make the film after tagging along with Peter Guber when the Golden State Warriors owner took the team to China. Lin got a different look at the Chinese moviegoer than is usually the case in Hollywood when China is discussed for films.
“I’ve sat in so many meetings where they talk about converting movies to 3D just for the China market and just to make more money,” Lin said. “I saw that people in China work long, long hours and that it’s expensive to go to the movies, and you want to rip them off for even more money? I don’t think that’s right.” He hatched Hollywood Adventures and got two of China’s biggest stars to shoot it. “We had fun making what I’d call a throwback to ’80s movies, and it was on my mind that I wanted to give quality to the people who are working their asses off over there and looking to escape in the movie theaters.”
Even though he gets paid like a filmmaker whose resume consists of films that grossed north of $2 billion, Lin tries to hang on to his indie origins and romanticizes the days when he drove crazy the Chinese parents who emigrated with Lin and his two siblings to California. After sinking all their money in the fish and chips eatery and working endlessly, they watched their son finish school at UCLA and promptly max every credit card he could, to make his first film.
“My parents were unconventional for Asian parents,” Lin said. “They really pushed us to find our passion but I knew they were scared sh*tless by what I did but I knew they would be there if I fell.” What Lin did was use 10 cards to borrow $100,000 of the $250,000 budget needed to shoot Better Luck Tomorrow, which he co-wrote and directed.
“I worked on that script and when I was ready, I put my life savings, $18,000, and borrowed on the credit cards, and all my friends all quit our jobs and went for it,” Lin said. They came up short but found an unlikely benefactor in rapper MC Hammer. “I met him while I was working at a museum,” Lin said. “He happened to be walking in and we spoke, he asked me what I wanted to be and I said, a filmmaker. He gave me his phone number and said, if you ever need anything…I was excited just to have his number, but cut to later, when I ran out of money and couldn’t get another credit card. I started this LLC but didn’t know anybody with capital and raised it in dribs and drabs. There was a deadline and if I didn’t hit it, the investors would get their money back. I had no money. My parents had no money, and so I called him. He didn’t remember me, but we clicked again on the phone and he wired me the money I needed by the next morning. He saved the project. I would have had to start raising money all over again while the interest on those cards accrued exponentially.”
The film was a Sundance hit, grossed $3.8 million, and put Lin on a studio track that has made credit card debt a distant memory.