Treknobabble #32: How to Keep a Secret

Treknobabble is a continuing series of columns written by uber-Trekkie Reed Farrington in anticipation of the upcoming J.J. Abrams Star Trek movie.

With the tidbits of information that Kevin Smith has been revealing in interviews since having seen a working print of the next Star Trek film, I got to thinking about how film companies are able to keep secrecy around their productions and especially how J.J Abrams manages to prevent spoilers on his projects from being disseminated on the fan network.

J.J. Abrams is notorious for maintaining secrecy to the point where the speculation becomes a source of advertising, and viral marketing becomes an inexpensive way to generate publicity. He has expressed a high-minded rationale for his viewpoint: “Learning raw detail and experiencing that detail as it was intended are two totally different things. I would argue that not knowing those details in advance is a more refreshing way to live when it comes to entertainment.”

I wonder how many people out there actively seek out spoilers. I wonder if these are the same people who read a chapter of a book, and then jump to the last page to find out what happens. I imagine that these people would be few in number, because I think the majority of fans just want a glimpse of things that won’t ruin the enjoyment of experiencing the whole movie. People often complain when movie trailers reveal too much. Sometimes watching a two-minute trailer can ruin a movie, especially when all the good scenes or laughs are in the two minutes.

I’ve read about how some productions don’t give full scripts to all the actors except for the major stars. And how scripts are marked in such a way to allow film companies to track down the source of copies that get circulated. I’ve heard of digital script files with an embedded encryption code identifying the source. I guess this is necessary when writers are communicating across the Internet. Physical script copies have words strategically altered to identify the source as well. (I assume the altered words aren’t in the dialogue.)

I wonder what penalties can legally be applied to someone who breaks the secrecy. Has anyone ever been falsely charged for leaking information and gone to court to deny the accusation? I’ve signed some non-disclosure agreements myself, but I never thought it was appropriate to ask what would happen if I happened to blab about what I was being shown. I mean, I would think the people would have second thoughts about showing you anything if you asked that.

I’m a computer programmer, not a lawyer, but I would think that a person is liable even if he accidentally leaks some “important” information. I guess lawyers have a way of calculating damages based on past precedent as a result of leaked information.

Beyond the legal aspects, I suppose there’s an honor system in effect among filmmakers. The reported celebrities who visited the set include Michelle Monaghan, Ben Stiller, Harrison Ford, and Steven Spielberg! (Supposedly, Spielberg helped Abrams with an action scene while he was there.) If you blab about someone’s film, don’t expect that someone to ever share any confidences with you again.

David Gerrold, the writer who wrote the OS Tribble episode and who was initially involved with TNG, mentioned in an interview how he got to meet J.J. Abrams and how he got to be on the shooting set of the new Star Trek movie. Seems he was on the studio lot doing some interviews for some future Blu-ray disc special features. And he was with Chris Doohan, the son of the OS Scotty. Chris had a small cameo in the new Star Trek movie. J.J. Abrams happened to spot Chris and went over to say hello. Chris then introduced David to J.J. And then J.J. invited them to the set! David signed a non-disclosure agreement, attached a bright coloured band to his wrist, and got to see future in the making!

I’ll give you specific examples of what some major productions have done to maintain secrecy. On Spider-Man 2, scripts were personalized with a cast member’s name emblazoned on each page. Cast members were “urged” to shred pages they were done with. On X-Files: I want to Believe, Chris Carter went to extra lengths to maintain secrecy. Only key crew members were allowed to read the script, and they had to read the script in a room with video cameras trained on them. On Woody Allen movies, actors are only given script pages in which they have spoken lines. On J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek, Jennifer Morrison, who is portraying the pregnant Winona Kirk, experienced this. And many of these actors have often said that they had not known what the movie was about while shooting the movie!

I remember when the Star Trek: Generations script was leaked to the Internet. I read the script, not caring if it was real or not. (It was.) The script was actually good; however, the execution of the script lacked something which I can’t to this day put my finger on.

While filming on locations, movies are given made-up titles so as to not attract attention. J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek was known within the industry by the code-name, “Corporate Headquarters.” During filming, a local television news helicopter managed to get some aerial footage that was broadcast on television. Supposedly, there was heavily enforced security, but I guess that didn’t include anti-aircraft artillery.

Apparently for many productions, it’s not unusual for multiple endings to be shot with only the director and editor aware of the chosen ending on opening day. The altering of a movie based on preview screenings is a whole other issue.

With digital cameras being ubiquitous and on cell phones, I’m surprised there aren’t more photos of the Star Trek production circulating on the Internet. Concerning this point, Simon Pegg, who plays Scotty, had this to say: “It was great, it was wonderful. I just wanted to keep everything. ‘Can I please take my this home, and my that home?’ ‘No you can’t.’ I think I took one picture of myself in my trailer, in the mirror and then felt guilty and erased it in case they checked my cell phone.”

Concerning the Star Trek script, Simon Pegg said, “(the script is) very hush-hush; when I read it, I read it with a security guard near me – it’s that secretive.” He also said that everyone has promised not to say anything. (He didn’t mention a non-disclosure agreement.) “JJ Wants (the Star Trek movie) to be a surprise, and people out there are so clever, if you get enough tidbits out of everybody, you’ll be able to start piecing something of the plot together,” he explained. “If Anton gives something away, then Zach or Chris gives something away, then suddenly you start to see patterns, and so the blanket idea is to say nothing.”

Anton Yelchin, who is playing Chekov, has said that he only got to read the script a month before filming. He did read sides at his audition, but he didn’t mention if the sides were actual script pages that made it to the filming stage.

Karl Urban revealed, “[There is a] level of security and secrecy that we have all been forced to adopt. I mean, it’s really kind of paranoid crazy, but sort of justified. We’re not allowed to walk around in public in our costumes and we have to be herded around everywhere in these golf carts that are completely concealed and covered in black canvas. The security of it is immense. You feel your freedom is a big challenge.” Urban probably said these words after leaked photos of Zachary Quinto as Spock made it to the Internet. Security was increased after this, leading to the imposition of forbidding anyone from leaving the set for cigarette breaks. This led to the story of how Winona Ryder was irritated by this demand.

With the Star Trek movie still set for a May 2009 release, you have to wonder if J.J. Abrams will be able to prevent details from leaking out. Would advance spoilers affect the box-office take? I guess as long as the spoilers generate a positive buzz, we can remain optimistic about the future.

  • SolesGirlRachel

    Personally, I’m of the mind that I like being surprised. When Enterprise did the two-part Mirror Universe episodes, I had no knowledge whatsoever that they were doing that. I tuned in, expecting just Enterprise and was completely blown away. And I loved that feeling. :)

    Looking back, I suppose that if I had been so inclined, I might have been able to look up Enterprise spoilers at the time, and find a bunch of them online, not only revealing the secret, but the specifics (a.k.a. the alternate opening credits, etc). I’m glad that this never occurred to me back then. People like to be surprised.

    Yes, I’ve looked at a few photos regarding the new Trek film, borne out of an insatiable curiosity regarding the new film, because it’s probably even more ambitious a project than TMP was….it’s natural to be curious. These last seven years have also been the longest period we’ve ever had between Trek films since TMP came out.

    But generally speaking, I don’t want to know. In fact I make a point of not seeking any info about the new movie save from, the official site, lest at some point I accidentally stumble across some huge spoiler that really ruins the surprise.

    I had a neighbour who liked to borrow Trek books from me. It drove me absolutely nuts that they wanted to borrow titles completely out of sequence from the new ‘relaunched’ DS9 series. How can someone want to read Book 3 of 3 first, for example? It’s bound to completely drain all the surprise out of the Books 1 & 2. This person was an idiot though, and moved away (whew) so no worries.

    I applaud JJ therefore for all that’s he’s done security-wise, and for wanting the new movie to be a surprise for us. In light of all that, I think most fans will be willing to sit tight & wait this time around. This movie is on a different level.

    Yes, we all have that little kid inside of us, the one that shakes the presents under the tree to try & guess what’s inside. I guess the grown-up in me has finally taken enough control to leave them be and sleep in an hour or two. The family & the presents will be there in the morning. :)


    Rachel :)

  • ProjectGenesis

    What year did the Generations script leak online? Like 1993? I didn’t think Vice President Gore had invented the Internet then. Were you using a Commodore 64?

    My ultimate Star Trek Movie experience, as blasphemous as it may sound now, was Star Trek V: Final Frontier. It was the summer of ’89…no studio could do wrong! Batman, Last Crusade, Ghostbusters 2, Back To The Future 3, Lethal Weapon 2, Honey I Shrunk The Kids, UHF, Road House…I saw all of those flicks but what stands out is the end of Star Trek V. I’m not trying to be funny either. “What does God need with a star ship?” blew my mind. Shatner was screwed by Paramount when they wouldn’t let him release his director’s cut.

  • ProjectGenesis, I love it when someone says something good about Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. I felt so bad for Shatner after the movie got nominated for a Razzie that I actually sent a fan letter to him in order to console him (as if he needed consoling from me!). That was the only letter that I’ve ever written to a Star Trek actor.

    Not sure when the WWW started, but I remember that I subscribed to Star Trek news groups on the Internet in 1993, so that’s where I probably got the script from. I don’t remember how the script described how Kirk got killed.

    Funny you should mention a Commodore 64, because that was my first computer that I got in 1984 or thereabouts when it first came out.

    Rachel, I’ll try not to spoil anything too major about the next Star Trek movie in any of my Treknobabbles, not that I have any insider information. But I’ve gotten to the point in my life where I want my surprises ASAP. So I don’t care if someone spoils anything for me. BTW, I liked your Christmas presents analogy.

    Would it ruin the movie for you if I told you that the last scene of the movie is on the bridge of the Enterprise? Haha. (I’m only speculating.)

  • SolesGirlRachel

    I too really love Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, and it’s very refreshing to find that I’m not alone in this. To me it remains quintessential Trek. It helped that it was the first Trek film I’d ever seen anywhere, let alone on the big screen. I was 11 I think, had just been released from the hospital after a couple of weeks…we had Pizza Hut pizza that was perfect that night…my grandparents from my Dad’s side had made one of the only three or four visits ever down to come & see us (we always went to see them), and after the pizza my Dad, Grandpa, younger brother and I all went downtown to the theatre and traveled forward in time to the Enterprise’s fantastic journey to find God. Yeah, I have fond memories of ST V. :p

    But if the film had sucked, I wouldn’t hesitate to say so. It doesn’t suck at all. For me, it was the movie that was the most like the Original TV series, more than any other of the films. There was so much introduced in the film too, essential to the relationships & histories of our beloved Kirk/Spock/McCoy triad that I find it strange people aren’t fonder of the film. Especially when it’s counter-balanced by great classic-Trek style humour.

    From the camping trip at Yosemite, to the relationships, to the deeply-felt emotions and soul-searching, to the humourous moments aplenty, to the grandiose dreams and pretty damn exciting adventure, to even really sweet special effects (Sulu’s phaser on Nimbus III is awesome!), Trek doesn’t come much better than The Final Frontier.

    I really had thought for years that I was the only person who felt this way! *hugs ya both* That’s all. I just wanted to praise the fifth film. :)


    Rachel :)

    P.S. Trek XI Spoiler: There will be outer space at some point in it! Unconfirmed…but we have it on good authority. ;) Thanks for your consideration in advance, Reed!

  • Sean! Jay! I think I’m in love! (Just kidding, Rachel.) I’d swear someone was yanking my chain, because Rachel keeps on saying she likes the same stuff I like, and she seems really knowledgeable about the stuff I like. And she shares some of the traits I have like being picky about spelling.

    Rachel is the only person I know of who has praised the special effects in ST V. Sulu’s phaser had the 3 parallel beams? Or am I thinking of the phaser effect in ST II when the Ceti eel was zapped after coming out of Chekov’s ear?

    Shatner must no doubt be jealous of J.J.Abrams’ 200 million dollar budget.

  • SolesGirlRachel

    Ooo Reed! :) (cue the Rutles “I Must Be In Love”) I promise you, no one is yanking your chain. I’m real. :)

    The multiple beams you’re thinking of (I believe) are actually seen in the original series’ episode “The Enemy Within”, Reed, when Sulu heats the rocks.

    I was referring to the updated phaser seen during the attempt by Kirk and crew to rescue the Nimbus III hostages. Before the hostages are revealed to be on Sybok’s side now.

    Typical…I loaned my copy of Star Trek V to a neighbour some time ago, holding onto the box for some kind of safety measure to ensure its return. The box is empty, and the neighbour long gone. Grr. :P

    So I had to resort to YouTube to get this, and some creative use of Blur to reduce pixelation, but here’s a crappy screencap of Sulu’s awesome phaser beam I was referring to originally:

    b dot imagehost dot org /0656/sulubeam.jpg

    (If Sean can edit this to make the link functional, that would be great sweetie – posts won’t go through if I put the link in normally myself.)

    I just thought the new phaser-beam effect was really well-done, cool, and realistic. When you see Sulu stumble, drop his cloak and reach for his phaser in a “holy crap” panic-mode situation, he starts to fire it before even taking proper aim. And the beam reflects that! Very neat. I also liked the sound & the blossoming after-effect seen when the beam strikes someone or something.

    But it wasn’t just the phasers that were great in this movie. Who could fail to be impressed by the young Sarek during Spock’s confrontation of his inner pain with Sybok? Goodness, that whole sequence gives me chills. McCoy’s pain…and I think Sybok is one of the most interesting & unique characters to be seen in Trek’s history, ever. I could go on forever. Suffice to say it’s a favourite film with moi for sure, and people who don’t like it baffle me. :)

    200 million dollar budget, Reed? Holy hell…the budget for The Final Frontier was just under 28 million. An entire *season* of Enterprise was budgeted at 36 million. Maybe they won’t spend it all?

    I’ll say this: I’ve never been of the opinion that the more money you pile into a film, the better it will be. I don’t think JJ will make that mistake either (I sincerely hope not, anyway). It’s the characters that make the thing. The humanity of a film…it’s why low-budget plays and films can often truly move you, and garner awards to this day. [Example: I just saw “Once” and…wow. My words wouldn’t do it justice, it’s simply…wow. I love it! And they only had a budget of 130,000 euros.] Though granted, especially in the case of something like Star Trek, it’s nice when you don’t have to worry about whether or not you’re able to afford a special effect. :)

    Ramblingly, fondly yours,

    Rachel :)

  • Rachel, I don’t want to turn this into the Reed and Rachel Forum, but I just had to say that I have that Rutles LP, and I dig, “I Must Be In Love.”

    I know we’re generations apart, and it’s refreshing to find someone who appreciates art that is outside his or her peers’ tastes. The Village Voice film critic, J. Hoberman, once wrote, “The French call adolescence the ‘age of film-going.’ And it may be that the movies you discover then set your taste forever.” I think this statement would apply equally to music and books.