“If I could just get paid to do this, that’d be like getting paid to live at Disneyland,” mused JD Payne as he faced a life-changing decision: continue his studies in applied physics, or dare to do what he loved—write. It was a tough choice between job security versus long nights filled with a writer’s desperation. But it was a choice that paid off for this self-admitted sci-fi geek who will in fact get paid to live his dream after landing the opportunity of a lifetime. He and a team of two other writers took the lead on drafting the third movie in one of the hottest Hollywood franchises: Star Trek Beyond.
So how does a Mormon boy end up writing for Hollywood? “It started when I was in Kindergarten, really,” he explains. “They gave us our first writing assignment, and most people wrote two or three sentences, and I wrote three pages.” Payne’s love of writing followed him through junior high, where he wrote short stories, and through high school, where he met his long-term writing partner, Patrick McKay. The pair began collaborating on short plays until Payne went on a mission to Rome, Italy. But not even an ocean separating them stopped their writing.
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Even during his mission, the two continued to collaborate. Payne recalls one P-day when McKay visited, and they walked through the Roman forum brainstorming. “Our goal was, ‘we know we’re not good now, but let’s get better. Let’s write a screenplay every year. Let’s try a bunch of different genres.’”
Back in the states for school, still studying physics, Payne eventually hit his breaking point. “I was stealing time from my physics problem sets to work on my screenplays,” he realized. “And I asked myself, ‘why am I living someone else’s life? Why am I saying I’ll be an engineer and then write on the side?’ It felt like I was studying for a life where I was only doing what made me happy for a few hours a week. But if I could make a living while doing something that brought me such happiness, it felt like that was the right way to go.”
A major change to English, and many writing courses later, Payne found himself California bound. “When I went out there, I had nothing but my Toyota Prius, a suitcase, and my laptop. Literally no job, no place to live.” He took a job as a private tutor and spent the rest of the time writing.
Payne’s first major breakthrough came while working on a script for a movie called Goliath, which became the first script he optioned to a Hollywood studio, albeit a relatively small one. As time went on, however, he continued writing, and as his skill improved, so did his opportunities.
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“I’ve done a few projects with JJ Abrams’ company Bad Robot now,” he explains. “We’ve developed a really solid working relationship.” So solid, in fact, that he and his writing partner McKay made it on the shortlist, as Payne recalls, “A friend over there came to us and said, ‘So we’ve got a new project to discuss with you guys. It’s very preliminary but. . .’ And we were just sort of waiting for it, and then they said, ‘It’s Star Trek Three.’”
Payne and McKay are now listed on IMDB as non-credited writers for Star Trek Beyond. For Payne, a fan of Star Trek since age 15, it was a dream finally come true.
So what’s in store for Star Trek fans? “I can’t really talk about much of what it is,” laughs Payne, though he did share, “At its core, Star Trek has always been about adventure, exploration, and wonder, with an optimistic sense of the future, and all its possibilities. It’s a massive playground; we’re so excited to be diving in on it.”
As far as his unique perspective as a Latter-day Saint goes, Payne believes it brings a lot to the table. “I’ll read my scriptures in the morning before starting my writing for the day to kind of get in the flow of inspiration.” It’s a habit he’s had for years, and that has shaped his outlook on life and his screenwriting work. “I’m on this earth to get done what the Lord wants me to get done. And some of that is in the personal ministering I do with my Church callings, and some of that is in my life’s calling, being a screenwriter and a Latter-day Saint artist. In 2 Nephi, it talks about ‘asking the Lord to consecrate your performance unto you that it may be for the welfare of thy soul.’ I consider writing to be a certain kind of performance, so I ask for that to be consecrated and to be made something that’s truly special and beautiful.”
The new movie is certainly going to be something special and beautiful if Payne’s hints were any indication. “Star Trek is unique in that it often grapples with complex ethical and moral dilemmas—we’d love to create a situation like that where you really could be a person of any background, and come down on both sides of how you should respond. Where you can walk out and say, ‘You know, I really don’t know what I would do. What would you do? What’s right to do?‘ And get the audience to really engage.”
The movie is set to come out July 22, 2016—just in time for the 50th anniversary of Star Trek’s initial TV release. With a laugh, Payne says, “So no pressure, right?”