Q & A with Writer-Director Nicholas Meyer
“Bridge” Author Nicholas Meyer
ZAMM.com’s Martin Grove spoke recently to writer-director Nicholas Meyer about his new book “The View From the Bridge: Memories of Star Trek and a Life in Hollywood”, published Aug. 24 by Viking.
In “The View From the Bridge” Nicholas Meyer, who directed “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” (1982, domestic gross: $78.9 million) and “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” (1991, domestic gross: $109.7 million) and co-wrote “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” (1986, domestic gross: $74.9 million), focuses on the making of those films as well as his career in the film business.
Raised in New York City and educated at the University of Iowa, Meyer never expected to find himself being offered in 1981 the chance to direct the second episode in what’s since become Paramount Pictures’ enormously successful “Star Trek” franchise. But fresh from the success of adapting to the screen his own best-selling novel “The Seven-Per-Cent Solution”, for which he was Oscar nominated in 1977, and “Time After Time”, with which he made his directorial debut in 1977, Meyer accepted the challenge.
In his new book Meyer shares how he wrote the script for “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” in 12 days — only to have William Shatner unexpectedly proclaim that he hated it. And Meyer reveals the death threats he received when word got out that Spock would be killed in the film.
In addition to his “Star Trek” films, Meyer’s credits include writing the screenplay for “The Seven-Per-Cent Solution”, writing and directing the classic sci-fi thriller “Time After Time” and directing “The Day After”, the controversial highly realistic film about the aftermath of a nuclear attack on Kansas. When it aired on ABC-TV Nov. 20, 1983, “Day” became the most watched movie ever televised. It brought Meyer a 1984 Emmy nomination for Outstanding Directing in a Limited Series or Special. Most recently, he adapted Philip Roth’s novella “The Dying Animal” for the screen as “Elegy” (2008), starring Ben Kingsley and Penelope Cruz.
- Q: The 11th film in Paramount’s “Star Trek” franchise has grossed about $256 million and is one of this year’s biggest boxoffice hits. The franchise has grossed over $1 billion domestically over the years. I have the feeling that without what you did with “Star Trek II” there might never have been a franchise at all.
- A: I would like to think so. I am, as I concede in the book, vain enough to want to think so. But I’m not a hundred percent certain. As I said in the book, how many more scripts were they prepared to lay out money for to try to get a second “Star Trek” movie if what I had done hadn’t worked? I don’t know. It might have been a very different franchise, let’s say. But if they were determined enough they probably would have eventually done something. But I like to think I was an essential cog in the wheel.
- Q: How did you get to direct “Star Trek II?”
- A: I was hired to direct it before there was actually a script. I had my friend Karen Moore, who was a childhood friend of mine, tell me when she was an executive at Paramount that I should go and meet with Harve Bennett (who was in charge of producing the next “Star Trek” movie), which I did. That was really sort of love at first sight. I just thought he was sensational. I didn’t really know what “Star Trek” was. I might not have hung around to find out, I suppose, if I hadn’t liked him so much.
Then when we started talking about it back and forth and he showed me some of the episodes (from the TV series created by Gene Roddenberry) and the first movie (directed by Robert Wise) and, particularly, I think when I landed on my Hornblower analogy, which Gene Roddenberry, I think, arguably had landed on before me, then I got really stoked on the idea so they were making my directing deal predicated on this incoming script. I was in place to do that, I think, before there was what they considered a finished script — and, in reality, what they had in five different scripts.
(Meyer’s reference to the “Hornblower analogy” is to C.S. Forrester’s novels about an English sea captain, Horatio Hornblower, and his adventures during the Napoleonic wars, which Meyer had read and enjoyed as a teenager. Meyer saw “Star Trek” as a Hornblower adventure in space rather than on the high seas.)
- Q: When you came to work on the second “Star Trek” the first episode, 1979’s “Star Trek: The Motion Picture”, was considered by some to have been a disappointment.
- A: Well, you have to qualify that almost as fast as you say it because it made a tremendous amount of money (grossing $82.3 million domestically). It made enough money to make making another one something that was very desirable in the eyes of the studio not withstanding whatever aesthetics or critical reception it received. And, as I say in the book, I’m not one to knock that first movie. I think it boldly went where no one had gone before. I think it was plagued by all kinds of problems.
People forget that up until “Star Wars” and the creation of ILM, all these sophisticated outer space special effects had yet to be really devised. There were competing methods and a lot of trial and error and a lot of money got spent. And a lot of that experimentation had already taken place by the time I came around. So I was the beneficiary of (that). I stood on the shoulders of giants. I stood on the shoulders of Robert Wise.
- Q: What was it like coming into a studio like Paramount with lots of management layers?
- A: They were nowhere near as dense or labyrinthine or Borgia-like as I think they were subsequently. Once they signed off on the script and key elements were in place, they left you alone to make the movie and then would look at your cut and say, “Well, this, not that” and so forth, assuming, of course, that they were pleased with the dailies. In that sense, I had a relatively free hand because I think it’s fair to say they didn’t know what to do with it. So for better or worse, my vision was clear and emphatic. I knew this was going to be Hornblower in space. This was going to be the navy. This was going to be nautical.
That vision swept everything before it and when I mentioned the Hornblower idea to Bill Shatner he sparked. He said,“Oh, well that’s what Gene always said it was.” And also, by the way, I didn’t deal with Gene. I met him. It’s funny because later I saw a whole bunch of memos that were displayed in an exhibit, including memos from me where I was sort of defending my script and my vision against, I guess, (Roddenberry’s). I must have had more dealings with his camp than I chose to recollect. I was sort of surprised when I read these memos. But the very fact that I’d forgotten as much of it suggests to me that it didn’t really constitute a sort of serious impingement on my activities making the movie.
I think the most bizarre part for me was learning — it was only my second movie — that the movie had already been booked into theaters before we’d shot it. We had dithered so long because they didn’t have a script and so forth that I would go shooting the movie all day and editing the movie all night. You know, when you’re young and charged up you can do that stuff.
- Q: In the book you mention that Shatner was not happy with the “Star Trek II” screenplay (for which Jack B. Sowards is credited but Meyer is uncredited) and, in fact, said it was a disaster. But you were able to accommodate his concerns very easily.
- A: Well, I do not have — and I think I say this several times in the book — an analytic sort of brain. I don’t look at things and then take it apart and parse it other than on a kind of intuitive level. But that was Harve Bennett’s particular strength. He’d been making television shows for longer than I’d been alive practically so he was sort of used to temperament and exaggeration. And his instinct, which as usual was correct, was to break down into bite sized pieces what Shatner was really saying.
I hadn’t at least knowingly written (before) for a movie star or a guy who was very identified with a given character and was very protective of his portrayal and relationship with that character. So it turned out when you actually broke it up into manageable pieces that what he was asking for was not that difficult or that extraordinary. In fact, it was probably 36 hours or something for me to turn it around. This was before computers, by the way.
- Q: You write that Shatner was mostly concerned with how his character, Captain Kirk, was treated in the script.
- A: Yes — that he should initiate action and not always be in a reactive mode. That he should be given opportunities to display his leadership capabilities and shouldn’t always be behind the curve of the action. And he was right, by the way. I think he was absolutely right. I think the movie was much better once I understood what he was actually talking about. One of the curious things about getting notes on screenplays from anybody — studio executives, friends, stars — is that a lot of times people can’t fully express what’s really on their mind, what the critique really is.
Unless you have an analytic ability like Harve Bennett, you may sort of dance around the real problem. You know, somebody said you look at a movie and you see something wrong in the sixth reel, but it actually would be alright if you fixed something that was in the second reel. So you have to have that ability and the writer or the director has to be able to listen to these comments and critiques and translate them into what is really the topic. The topic at the time was, “Oh, the script is a disaster.” But, actually, in looking at it in more detail the topic was really, in a way, letting Kirk be Kirk.
- Q: You mentioned Harve Bennett and his background in television. In the book you point out that his understanding of the importance of the executive producer title in television was not accurate in terms of what it means in the movie business.
- A: Yeah. It tripped him up. Believing that the executive producer title, as it was in television, was the desired title in movies, he offered the producing title to his friend Robert Sallin. And then when he realized that in the movie world the titles were reversed, he asked me what I thought he should do.
This was only my second movie, so I was taking a shot in the dark. I said, “Well, I think you have to stick with what you said.” And I said, “By the way, at the end of the day if you do the job right everybody’s going to know it’s your movie,” which, indeed, they did.
- Q: Another interesting thing you bring out in the book is the battle behind the scenes over what the full name of this episode would be.
- A: It was originally, “Star Trek II: The Undiscovered Country”. Since the movie did deal ultimately with the death of one of its characters and since Hamlet refers to “the undiscovered country” as where you go after you die, I thought this was a rather elegant idea. Elegance was not on the mind of Frank Mancuso in New York (then heading distribution for Paramount). I learned through my assistant, because nobody troubled to tell me, that the title of my movie had been changed to “The Vengeance of Khan”, after which followed a rather surreal phone conversation between Mr. Meyer and Mr. Mancuso, neither or whom had met.
I inquired whether he was responsible for the title change. He said he was. I asked him if he’d seen any of the movie or read the screenplay. He said he had not. I said, “Don’t you think it would have been a little politic to touch base with the writer-director?” And he, without dealing with that, said he was only trying to do what was best for the movie, at which point I wondered if George Lucas, who was then making a movie called “Revenge of the Jedi”, would be entirely pleased with this title. I was assured that that would not be a problem.
Well, at the end of the day, it was a problem because Lucas, who was in business with Paramount over the “Indiana Jones” franchise, was not happy. So the title was then changed again to “The Wrath of Khan”. I had Barry Diller (then chairman of Paramount) yelling at me, “Who the heck knows what ‘wrath’ means?” Then George Lucas started thinking hard about the Jedi and realized that they weren’t vengeance seekers anyway, so it became the “Return of the Jedi” and the dust settled.
- Q: Let’s flash forward about two years to your movie for television “The Day After”, which as you point out was a subject (nuclear war) that no one other than you wanted to be associated with telling.
- A: There was no global warming (issue to worry about) back then. The biggest dilemma that ever confronted the human race — namely, the possibility of self-extinction — had only existed since 1945. While everybody seems to go around implicitly understanding that (a) there are nuclear bombs and (b) they could go off and destroy all life, we basically dial that out. We’ve lived with this absent-minded knowledge that there is a Damoclean sword dangling over our collective necks. And certainly I include myself in that number. So the question then was, “Is that really a good thing? And if it isn’t, what can or ought to be done about it?”
The fact that there were at least three other directors who’d been offered this thing suggested to me that no one was very eager to tackle it. I was in psychoanalysis at the time. My analyst, the great Lewis J. Fielding (Fielding was Daniel Elsberg’s psychiatrist years earlier and it was his office in Los Angeles that the so-called White House Plumbers broke into in September 1971 looking for information to discredit Elsberg after the publication of “The Pentagon Papers”), never to my knowledge spoke other than to sort of sum up what I’d been saying at the end of every hour. But on this occasion, as I was lying on his couch trying to wangle my way out of doing this movie, he offered up one sentence. He said, “I think this is where we find out who you really are.” And that was devastating. Then I knew I had to do it. So I went forward kicking and screaming.
Making the movie was a very curious counter-intuitive exercise for someone who thinks of himself as an artist because I realized that the movie shouldn’t be very good because if it would be very good people would talk about the movie and not the topic. Given the intensity of psychological resistance to this subject, it would be easier to talk about the performances, the cinematography, the music, the editing, the special effects or, as the press finally settled on it, “who started it.” Anything other than “a nuclear war and this is what will happen.” So you were constantly realizing that you were essentially making a sort of Smokey the Bear “only you can prevent forest fires” type of two dimensional thing in order to enable people not to escape into the aesthetics of it.
“The View from the Bridge: Memories of Star Trek and a Life in Hollywood”
- Q: And it went on to be enormously successful in the ratings.
- A: Well, to date I think it’s the most successful. Maybe more people watched the final episode of “M*A*S*H”, but I think as a movie made for television or a movie broadcast on television its audience size has yet to be exceeded, which I think was over a hundred million people. That was a big surprise to me because I watched it with everyone else that night and asked myself, “If this wasn’t your movie, would you be sitting through this?” I wasn’t sure what the answer to that was.
- Q: Your next success was “Star Trek IV”, which you wrote but didn’t direct. (Leonard Nimoy directed. Meyer was one of four credited screenwriters.)
- A: “IV” was from a story that Leonard Nimoy and Harve Bennett concocted and that Leonard was going to direct. They weren’t happy with their script so I got called in to write a different draft along with Harve Bennett, who wrote the outer space sections at the beginning and end and I wrote the parts that (laughs) ripped off “Time After Time”. In fact, there was actually stuff from “Time After Time” that got cut out of the movie that found a home in “Star Trek IV”. I remember saying, “Do they have to go to San Francisco? I’ve really done this. Can’t we go to Paris?” I was told, “No.” It makes sense. There’s more likely to be whales outside San Francisco (a plot point in the film) than in the Seine.
- Q: Do you write any differently when you know you’re not going to be directing a film yourself?
- A: No. The real question is, if I’m writing and I know I am going to be directing do I simplify things for me? I found out the answer to that on “VI” because I went through this whole long thing about how do you fascinate someone in space in an interesting way? I began thinking about space movies and space photographs that I’d seen. When you look at the astronauts and the Shuttle, they’re always floating. I thought, well how come they’re not floating in “Star Wars” or “Flash Gordon”? They’re never floating. Well, they’re never floating because there’s obviously some kind of gravity or simulated gravity aboard these ships.
And I thought, well, how come that never breaks? They’re always shooting at each other. And what would happen if it did break? Then everything would start floating and, my God, the blood would start floating. And I’m totally getting stoked as I’m dreaming this up. And then the other part of me, the director part, is sort of tapping me on the shoulder and saying, “How’re you going to do that, pal?” At the time I was writing, I didn’t know how to do it. I just remembered saying to myself, “Fuck off! It’s movies. We’ll figure it out and we’ll do it.”
So that’s how I can say with some assurance that you don’t write any different. You just write the best damn thing you know how to write. And in a way that also goes for budgets. I’ll keep in mind the budget, but at the end of the day you write the best you can and then you can always cut it back, simplify it if you have to, but put your best foot forward.
- Q: Let’s talk about “Star Trek VI”, the second episode that you directed. Now you were a successful director with a great track record at that point.
- A: Well, I came off a terrific flop, just to set the record straight. I came off a picture called “Company Business” (the 1991 thriller starring Gene Hackman and Mikhail Baryshnikov) where I screwed up royally. It was at that point that Frank Mancuso (then chairman of Paramount) and Martin Davis (then heading Gulf + Western Industries, which owned Paramount at the time) took me to lunch in London and said they were unhappy with “V” as the final film in the series and would I consider becoming (the director) with Leonard as the executive producer on a sixth movie.
At that point, given what I’d just been through, it sounded awfully appealing. I didn’t have an idea, but just the idea of working with that studio, those people, those actors, all sounded real cozy and comfy. So I said, “Sure.” And then Leonard and I got together. He had this idea for a theme without a narrative to go with it — What if the Wall came down in outer space? The Klingons were always the stand-in for the Russians. Who am I if I have no enemy to define me? And out of that we cobbled together a script, which I eventually wrote with Denny Martin Flinn, who had at the time been working as my assistant, but he was such a gifted guy. But that’s how I came to “VI”.
- Q: What was the difference working on “VI” compared to working on “II”?
- A: There were advantages and disadvantages. With “II” I worked for a studio whose hierarchy was in place and because they were secure there was a way of doing things which left me a fair amount of freedom. And even though the budget was 25 percent of the first movie, it still was almost enough to make the movie. By the time we got around to “VI” two things had changed. One was I sort of had more clout as the director and if I wanted to call my movie “The Undiscovered Country” by God that’s what it was going to be called. I had more knowledge and more authority and maybe was more daring.
On the other hand, the studio was undergoing a seismic hierarchical convulsion so different executives were coming in and out. In the feature division they hadn’t been doing well. They’d had a run of bad luck. So they kept chopping away at the budget of this movie until it really wasn’t possible to make the movie and I had to tell them that. And then they told me I wasn’t being a team player and there was a lot of huggermugger at the end of which, thanks to another studio executive round of musical chairs I suddenly got back a certain amount of money (in the budget) because Stanley Jaffe and Sherry Lansing came in (to run Paramount) and they gave me the money to make the movie.
- Q: And so you made “VI” and that was a success and kept the franchise going, which might otherwise have died out after “V”.
- A: Yes, I suppose, is the short answer to that.
- Q: So my thesis that you’re responsible for the franchise surviving may be valid.
- A: Listen, as I say, I would love to agree with you. But I also feel that artists are not necessarily capable of being the best or the most objective or — God forbid, that word I hate — definitive judges of what they’ve done. You lose all proprietary authority over your creations when they’re finished. Your opinion as to what they mean or what they’re about — all of that has to be taken with sort of a ton of salt.
It’s not like Kenneth Mars in “The Producers” where you can go up to someone saying, “I am the author. I outrank you!” So it’s really what other people have made of my contribution or make of it rather than for me to do more than speculate and listen with a smile on my face when somebody says, “Ah ha, you saved the franchise.”