View From The Bridge: an exclusive interview w/ Star Trek’s Nicholas Meyer

In the realm of science-fiction/fantasy, there is perhaps no better-known name out there than Star Trek. Throughout its 47 year history, the massively popular franchise has spawned six weekly television shows (including two flagship programs and an animated series,) eleven feature films, and countless novels, comics, toys, games, and even entire conventions and documentary films devoted to the immensely devoted fans of the franchise known as “Trekkies.” Among the Star Trek fandom, perhaps one of the most beloved names of all is Nicholas Meyer, director of “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country,” and the screenwriter of “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.”

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In addition to his award-winning work on the Star Trek franchise, Nicholas Meyer is also an Academy Award and Primetime Emmy Award nominated screenwriter and director, as well as an international bestselling author of eight novels, including his latest work: “The View From The Bridge: Memories of Star Trek and a Life in Hollywood.” We had a chance to meet with Mr. Meyer during the official 30th Anniversary Screening of “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” at North Carolina’s Modern Film Fest, as well as follow up a year or so later. Here’s what he had to say…

Dave Ward (Nerd Nation): Starting things off, back with Star Trek II, why Khan? Out of all of the original villains what influenced you to choose Khan over say, The Tholians, or some other prominent bad guys of the time?

Nicholas Meyer: “You’re talking about stuff I know nothing about (laughs), I am not a Star Trek person, and I don’t know a lot about Star Trek. When I met Harv Bennett, who was the producer of the film, he showed me this episode of ‘Space Seed’ and said (Ricardo) Montalban is still alive and I thought it would be fun to bring him back as Khan, because Khan was marooned, and I said fine, and I never thought about anything else. Not being a Star Trek person, I had to really get a feel for the Star Trek cast, and characters, and luckily this cast was very used to working with different directors all the time on the original television series, so they kind of helped me along the way, to the point I even began including some of my own character development, like Scotty’s nephew, which ended up being cut from the final version of the film.”

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DW: As a personal fan, I’ve actually seen the cut you were talking about with Scotty’s nephew, and his conversation with Captain Kirk and the corresponding scene in the sick bay with Dr. McCoy etc.- I’ve only seen that copy once and it seems very difficult to find. Is there some kind of Special Edition Director’s Cut available anywhere?

NM: “I think there is some kind of extended version of ‘Wrath of Khan’ that you can probably find, but I just think it makes a lot more sense uncut, especially in that hospital scene. It was the theatrical version they made me cut down, and when you saw it, it was probably when it first appeared on television and that’s where they let me put things back. I’m not sure what all cuts they’ve released thus far, (but) I’m sure there’s an uncut version out there, I hope there is. That’s how I always wanted the film, with everything in it, and with DVD’s you can kind of do that. That said, I don’t see any reason to put outtakes, or gag reels or anything like that on anything that isn’t a comedy- and extended scenes or deleted scenes should just be cut permanently back into the films to kind of make them whole again.”

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DW: Speaking of the television shows… Did you ever get approached while the series was going on about directing any episodes of any of the different series?

NM: “No. Never. Rick Berman (series/films producer) never approached me, and Gene (Roddenberry; series creator) and I were… not a match. You see… we were very at odds… we had totally different visions of life.”

DW: Really? So you and Gene Roddenberry didn’t get along?

NM: “Yeah, see Gene Roddenberry and his Star trek vision really was based on the idea- it seems to me- that mankind was improving and things were getting better and better and better, and I’ve just always wondered where the evidence for that was. Aside from his own optimism, it doesn’t seem to me like anything’s gotten better except we push buttons now instead of something else. So my vision was a lot more fatalistic and pessimistic, so by the time he saw the script for Star Trek VI, he hit the ceiling, he was so upset. He said you’ve shown this crew as being prejudiced and racist, which I did, saying ‘they all smell alike’ and ‘you can’t tell them apart’ and that just made him crazy. I had a meeting with him about it, and he was already in bad health at the time, and he was greatly troubled. So yeah, never really saw eye to eye.”

 

DW: Very interesting. Moving right along… a question you probably get all the time, but what was it like working with the Star of Star Trek- William Shatner?

NM: “Bill Shatner is an absolute pleasure to work with. He’s a real professional, but at the time when I first worked with Bill, I was still new to the business and I really didn’t know how work with the ‘hero’ if you will. (The Wrath of Khan) was only my 2nd film, so when I first put the script together they sent me in to speak with Bill, saying that he wasn’t happy with the script. So I asked ‘what didn’t he like?’ and they said ‘you should just go meet with him’, so I did. I had never really met with any real stars before, so I was very nervous, and he was just going on and on, and I couldn’t really grasp what he was saying. I was so nervous, I kept having to excuse myself to the restroom, and Bill was like ‘Are you okay? What’s wrong? And I said ‘I’m fine, I’m just trying to make everyone happy.’ Anyway, it wasn’t until I spoke with the producers later that they explained that the real problem was that basically that he wasn’t enough of the ‘hero’ if you will. Now you have to understand Bill Shatner to really understand this. I’ve always said, Bill Shatner is a man of no ego, but an enormous vanity. So it was just a bunch of little things, like he wanted to be the first man to walk through the door, things like that. So I took the script home, made a few little adjustments, and after that he loved it. So essentially I just had to make the star the hero, and that made him happy.”

 

DW: Speaking of making changes… Over the years with all of the Star Trek films, we’ve seen some very drastic changes to the sets and overall look of the Enterprise, why all the set changes, and how much influence did you have on them?

NM: “Well I can’t really talk about why other people changed the sets, but me, I was always using hand-me-down sets, and the sets that I was given for Wrath of Khan were from ‘Star Trek The Motion Picture’. One of the incentives to make the movie was that it was affordable because you could use everything. However, having said that, I had many objections aesthetically to how they did the first movie. I decided this is a movie about the Navy and this is a movie about submarines in space, and submarines are small and enclosed, and it was very important to me to make the set smaller and more confined. To give you another example, I don’t believe the Enterprise ever made a noise inside in any of the other versions and I said ‘no no it’s gotta have engines,’ and Gene Roddenberry said ‘no it doesn’t have engines’ and I said ‘yes it has engines’. We were sitting in a projection room at Paramount when we were having this conversation and I said ‘listen,’ and you could hear this big air conditioning unit, going ‘ba-doom-bum, ba-doom-bum, ba-doom-bum’ and I said, ‘that’s what I want’ so we made a loop of that and it plays all over the ship depending on how far you are away from the engine room, and it gave it a heartbeat. And it’s not exactly redesigning the sets for me, but it certainly makes the sets play a little differently when you’ve got the sound, so that was like a no-brainer for me.”

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DW: Jumping forward in time a bit here, but still on the subject of sets, in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, you did quite a lot of shooting out in the arctic tundra of Northern Alaska. What was it like shooting in a location like that?

NM: “Oh, it was a real adventure. I had always been drawn to the Alaskan Wilderness and it was a lot of fun working out there. Sure, it was cold, but it was also very beautiful. One of my all time favorite places I’ve gotten to shoot at.”

 

DW: A random question from one of our readers- in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan… Ricardo Montalban’s pecs, were they real?

NM: “(laughs) Now THAT is the question I really get all the time, believe it or not. And the answer is yes; they are real. Ricardo was always in phenomenal shape. What a lot of people don’t know, however, is that he was always battling problems with his back; from an accident he suffered in the 40’s. He was just in such great shape that he didn’t encounter any real problems with it until many, many years after that, you know when he finally ended up in the wheelchair. But yes, the body was real, and much more impressive than really anyone knew.”

DW: Another reader question- in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home- the scene in the bus, did you guys just pick a random punk band, or did someone just come up with it?

NM: “The original scene was HG Wells in my film ‘Time After Time’ walking down the street in San Francisco, and the light turns red, and he sees this Chinese kid standing on the sidewalk with a ghetto blaster. And for various reasons I cut it out of the movie. And so, when it came time to do Star Trek IV I still thought it was a funny idea. I did not pick the music, I just described the scene and put it on the bus, and Leonard (Nimoy) shot it, and I don’t know where they got the music from. But you could always ask Leonard, just write him a letter, he’ll tell you.”

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DW: Finally, what is the most bizarre thing a Star Trek fan has ever approached you with?

NM: “Well you know it’s been 30 years of this and I’m sure I can’t remember the most bizarre thing, but I’ve enjoyed it, and I always enjoy meeting the fans. I’m just glad anyone likes my work at all. It is my belief that as long as I’m making the movie it’s mine, but the moment that it’s released I lose any objective claim to anything. It becomes the viewers’ movie and they can make whatever they want out of it, no matter how bizarre or weird that might be. ”

 

For more on Nicholas Meyer, check out his latest book: “The View from the Bridge: Memories of Star Trek and a Life in Hollywood” (ISBN: 9780452296534) available from The Penguin Group at http://www.penguin.com

-Dave Ward
First Ambassador: Nerd Nation Magazine

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