For the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the release of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country this week, TrekMovie had the pleasure and honor of speaking with writer/director Nicholas Meyer about the film’s legacy, what he would have changed about the film, the possibility of a director’s cut, and the film’s position in the Star Trek franchise.
This interview was conducted in mid-September 2016. As per our agreement with CBS to interview Meyer, we were not allowed to ask any questions about Star Trek: Discovery.
Looking Back on Star Trek VI
TrekMovie: When is the last time you saw the film?
Nicholas Meyer: I think within the past five years. My memory of it is pretty vivid. It’s also true that one’s experience of a film is inevitably colored by the audience with whom you watch it, and when you are watching a film with an audience who is loving it, the film plays great. When you are watching a film, maybe a comedy, and there’s only three people there and suddenly it isn’t as funny. I’ve been fortunate to see The Undiscovered Country with an audience, and I remember once the Air Force showed it and I watched it with a whole bunch of [Airmen] and it played like gangbusters.
TM: Was that a USO event?
Meyer: I can’t remember. That was almost ten years ago. I think in a way The Undiscovered Country is a very odd film in the context of what you call “the franchise.” It is without a doubt, it is the grittiest and most realistic, and most realistically bound. This is just my opinion. It was inspired by the headlines, and it was inspired by a changing world that we were trying to keep up with it, and in some cases we not only kept up with it, but we were ahead of it. And in other cases, as time has passed, we were behind. We were wrong about things. We were absolutely right about the Soviet coup, in fact, when former Soviet Union leader [Mikhail] Gorbachev was abducted and no one knew whether he was dead or alive we were already in the cutting room. We’d already killed him in the movie. In that sense, we predicted the Soviet coup and we were ahead. But in terms of what happened afterwards, and the notion that we were all destined for a much better world than it was, as Francis Fukuyama suggested “the end of history,” and that people who tried to prevent that—the conspirators—were in a sense just scaredy-cats. As Kirk says, “people can be very frightened of change.” But, in fact, the change that came is a lot more awful than what was before, so in that sense the film has dated in a weird way. There are other things about it…I find the mind meld is kind of like waterboarding to me and it’s uncomfortable to watch.
TM: I remember that being described almost as an “erotic” scene in commentaries.
Meyer: Well never mind what it’s described as, when you watch it…is she in distress? Is this a form of enhanced interrogation? The two, by the way, are not mutually exclusive. It’s erotic, but also he’s trying to pry information out of her.
The Undiscovered Country – After the Cold War on Earth and in Space
TM: When you say that we’ve gone to a world that’s not better, I absolutely agree with you. Sometimes things seemed simpler with the Soviet Union compared to now with the different threats that we face.
Meyer: Yeah you had the illusion that there was an ability to control actors, by which I mean what we call good actors and bad actors, not as in performers but as in…
TM: Like state and non-state actors. I think what makes this particular anniversary really interesting is that, Star Trek VI when it was released in 1991, came at nearly the midpoint of the 50th anniversary. Looking back on the film yourself, is there anything you would like to have changed?
Meyer: Well, I’m not sure how to answer that question, or perhaps I’ve already answered it. In Hillary Clinton’s famous formulation, “knowing then what I know now,” I guess I wouldn’t have done the mind meld the way I did it. I would have tried to find another solution to that. I should insert here somewhere along the way that the artist, in this case me, is not the answer to a book of math equations at the back. I am merely another person speculating, and I have no authority. I have no definitive rights. The author loses all proprietary control over his work when it’s finished and out there. And so whatever I say now has to be understood as being just one other opinion, and maybe not the right one or the only one. I think when I look at the movie, and I listen to Kirk say “people can be very frightened of change,” I think there is, for my money, a kind of implicit smugness about those sentiments. We were so sure that it was all going to be a bed of roses. And looking back, the film is an interesting artifact of the time and circumstances surrounding its creation.
Art and Hollywood
Meyer: All art inevitably is a product of the time in which it was done. If I were to show you four movies that took place in 1776, and the first movie was made in 1923, and the second one was made in 1947, and the third was made in 1972, and so on, you would know within five years of watching a clip from any of these movies when they were made.
TM: Right. It’s sort of like looking at the original Manchurian Candidate versus the terrible remake that they did with Denzel Washington…
Meyer: I don’t even discuss any Manchurian Candidate but one. I will not discuss any Robin Hood but one. There are no others. I don’t even go there.
TM: Yeah I feel that Hollywood has really overdone themselves on remakes, and the lack of original content out there is really troubling.
Meyer: Well, if you think of movies as tubes of toothpaste, would it be easier to introduce a product called Crest, which people know…and you can say new, improved Crest, Crest 2, Crest 3, Crest 4, or…remember it all hinges now on an opening day…do you want to start with a new toothpaste called Max and take your chances? When a new tube of toothpaste costs $150 million to put out there, you might be real tempted to just go with Crest 3. It’s the death of the studio system, is what it is, and it just means that we’ll all be going to smaller, independent films…which is where I end up on the weekend.
Art Thrives on Restriction
TM: Right, and those tend to be the better films I think, by and large. They’re more original. They’re made on smaller budgets. They can be more successful to those independent studios because they’re made on smaller budgets if they do become breakout hits. That doesn’t mean they’re making half a billion dollars, but say the same amount as Star Trek II when it’s budget was so low. Related to that, you’ve mentioned a number of times in the past that art can really thrive on restriction, whether that be time or money. Can you point to any instances in the production of The Undiscovered Country where the film really throve due to the restrictions that were put on it, whether budgetary or time?
Meyer: The way that film made its way to the screen was such a hairy proposition. Everybody in terms of salary, and resources…we all had to take haircuts in order to get the movie made. The feature division had been having a string of flops, so they were tightening the screws all over the place. I think a lot of times when you would’ve said “let’s all go on location to Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico to shoot the mines where Kirk and Bones were on Rura Penthe.” Instead we said “let’s just go to Bronson Canyon.” And I think when we did the initial Starfleet meeting scene where Spock briefs the general staff about the Klingons wanting to make peace and all that, you may or may not notice that the room has no walls.
TM: Right. That was filmed in a church if I’m not mistaken. Is that correct?
Meyer: Yeah, something like that with a bunch of curtains. And, you know, Bronson Canyon is used for everything and it looked pretty spooky to me by the time we’d finished. And there are times when it backfired on us. I remember when the executives…I had wanted the pants of the officers to have pockets so the actors could have something to do with their hands.
Giving Star Trek VI The Wrath of Khan Treatment
TM: I remember you talking about that on the Star Trek II commentary from the director’s cut you just put out and I am just baffled at how much money that could possibly cost a production. You would know better than I.
Meyer: What I find in terms of dealing with people who are paying for things is that they tend to be pennywise and pound-foolish. My partner, Steve Jaffe, who produced The Undiscovered Country, also produced K-19 The Widowmaker for Kathryn Bigelow and when they made that movie, Steve looked around for a submarine. He went online: Russian submarines for sale and he found one and it was very reasonably priced, and he went back to whoever was financing the film and he said “look, we can do this,” and they said “Oh no no no,” and the end result is what they ended up paying for was exorbitantly more expensive. I think creative people, we’re not always the most responsible people in the world, but I am fascinated by, and it’s very important to me, to find ways to skin the cat. To be able to make limitations work for you. The movie that really inspired me and taught me this lesson was the Lawrence Olivier Henry V movie made during the middle of World War II. It cost about a buck seventy-five, but it looks like a gazillion dollars. By deciding to take the Book of Hours by the Duke de Berry as their inspiration and have these sets be all two-dimensional, medieval, and without perspective. They’re all sort of very flat. And then as the movie becomes more and more real, you go farther and farther into it, as the chorus has instructed you on your imaginary forces’ work. By the time you get to the Battle of Agincourt, it’s a full-fledged battle, and then the second half of the movie was gosh, just wonderful.
The Unfilmed “Roundup”
TM: Following up on that, I know that yourself and Denny Martin Flinn, my condolences on his loss.
Meyer: A terrible loss. A terrible loss. What a guy.
TM: Definitely before his time. It’s hard for me to speak about it because I didn’t know the man, but I would love to talk to him about this film and his experience on it and as a filmmaker and storyteller.
Meyer: He was an under-appreciated and underutilized talent who had tremendous gifts and tremendous abilities.
TM: A new book just came out that I’m reading, it’s actually a two-volume history of Star Trek, and in the Star Trek VI section it really talks about how you got the powers that be to include Flinn in the production. You said he had to be your writing partner and I think that was when he was diagnosed and you went out of your way to make sure, at least that’s the way it’s portrayed…
Meyer: I haven’t read the book, but that’s my recollection. He had been diagnosed and was having these treatments and I admired him so much as a writer and as an ideas-man, so I wasn’t doing him any favors. Maybe I was killing two birds with one stone by giving him a reason to get up every morning, but god damn I mean, his contributions to that script are enormous.
TM: They have many quotes from him in the book, and it really is clear how integral of a role he played in the film, and one of the things I wanted to ask you about is, and I think it was more his idea, but he put together this un-shot “roundup” at the beginning of the film that was supposed to bring the crew back together…
Meyer: It was a mutual idea, but I think he was the one who wrote it.
TM: Reflecting back on the film from 25 years ago, do you think that would have helped or hurt the flow of the film in the beginning had it been included?
Meyer: That’s almost asking someone to prove a negative. I have no idea whether it would’ve made it a better film, or a worse film. It inarguably would’ve made it a different film. It would’ve added a layer to it. But, you know, sometimes things, in that sense, work out for the best. I have opera recordings which boast of including material that [Giuseppi] Verdi or George Bizet cut out of the final score of the opera, and people say what they have uncovered were more pieces of the true cross. But it does not seem to occur to these people that whoever wrote it was always first-rate, and the reason they may have dispensed with it has to do with composer dissatisfaction. You know, not always…sometimes maybe it’s cut for other reasons, budget or whatever. But the end result may be simply better than every last note that Verdi wrote.
Meyer: It’s like when you go into director’s cuts of movies…I’m not sure, with the possible exception of Touch of Evil as reconstituted by Walter Murch. Touch of Evil is just better put back the way Wells intended it, but most of the time director’s cuts are longer…they’re certainly longer. That doesn’t mean that they’re typically better…
TM: Even in the case of The Wrath of Khan?
Meyer: Well The Wrath of Khan, I don’t think there is much of a director’s cut. You know, I lost a couple of moments, but calling it a director’s cut…
TM: Yeah, it’s not like Lord of the Rings when you’ve added a half an hour of cut footage…
Meyer: That’s exactly my point. I didn’t want them to call it “The Director’s Cut” anyway, because I didn’t really change much. I lost a couple of battles that I thought detracted from the coherence of the story in conversations with Paramount before the film was released, but to call it a director’s cut is really cynical, I think.
Will Future Releases Restore Additional Scenes?
TM: That leads me to a trivial question, but I remember when I first got the film on VHS when it came out and it included some scenes, namely the plan for Operation Retrieve, a scene with Scotty in the torpedo bay, and the revelation that it’s actually Colonel West who’s the assassin. In the latest release of the film in 2009, those scenes were all gone. The DVD in the early 2000s had them, and also the film was restored back to its theatrical aspect ratio of 2.39:1. I’m wondering is the 2009 cut what you’d consider your version of the film?
Meyer: Gee I can’t remember the different cuts. I bet if I looked at it now, I’d have a whole different series of ideas. And some things just work better than others and somethings…you know…it was always important to me that the conspirators came from the both sides of the galaxy, if you like. That the Klingons and the Federation had teamed up, and the one serious cut that I really kicked myself for not including in the original version, and there was nobody stopping me…it just hadn’t occurred to me, was that when Valeris names the conspirators…
TM: Their images flash on the screen.
Meyer: Yeah! So we know who the hell she’s talking about. That I thought was important. I don’t know how I feel about the Operation Retrieve thing now…
TM: I tend to like it because Colonel West, being one of the conspirators, he puts this military plan in front of the Federation President. It basically implies that, should the assassination not go ahead, we can start a war with the Klingons, and you see the same exact thing happen with Azetbur and her generals….
Meyer: So is that in the 2009 version?
TM: The scene with Azetbur is, where they talk about going ahead and attacking the Federation immediately, which was always an undercurrent of the film, whether the Klingons would just come after the Federation because of their crisis. On the Federation side, the Operation Retrieve briefing is not in there.
Meyer: What do you know?
TM: That leads me to the question: you revisited Star Trek II for a few scenes that certainly added additional character to the film that had been taken out, would you consider revisiting Star Trek VI and doing a new scan—4K—, something like that?
Meyer: Sure. Never say never. At the same time, I think one has to be wary, I’m not sure why but, I think one has to be wary of constantly revisiting and revising things that are…I think that, if they’re successful…if they’re unsuccessful, I guess you can revisit things forever trying to make the plane take off. But if they were successful, then I’m wondering about the wisdom of continuing to monkey with them. Yes, if you can improve the picture and sound quality, but when you actually start rewriting them, I’m not sure you’re not, in a way, rewriting history.
TM: That’s a good point.
Meyer: Suppose you go back and you look at some movie where Stepin Fetchit is rolling his eyes, and you go “this is a pretty good movie, but it’s very awkward and has a disgusting treatment of African-Americans and maybe we should just cut this out.” Then you’re monkeying with the past. You’re censoring people’s minds, in a way, and their knowledge, and I’m not persuaded that that is a good idea. I think the mind meld may be troubling in the wake of waterboarding, but there it is.
TM: Yeah. You can’t exactly go back and shoot that scene again with all the same actors. It is what it is.
Meyer: What I’m saying is the temptation now is to say “oh gee, I don’t like the feelings that this produces and, therefore, I’m going to change it to a voiceover, or we’re not going to see it, or I’m going to find another way.” Well…it nonetheless reflects attitudes and beliefs of what was acceptable, what was virtuous, what was whatever at the time. And I think you change that stuff at some kind of cultural, psychological, or emotional peril.
Meyer’s Continuing Legacy in Star Trek
TM: That makes sense to me. I would be perfectly fine if it just was a rescan with better sound and better visuals, but it is the same film I saw in theatres. Moving on, I know that you have a special place in your heart for Sherlock Holmes. There are many great mythologies who have been crafted by just one man, whereas Star Trek has developed and flourished under numerous creative minds. You are famous for saying that there is something like a wine bottle that is the frame of Star Trek.
TM: And you can put a red in there, or a white, or something with a different flavor. Star Trek can be so many different things, but it still has to fit into that wine bottle. How do you view your legacy, and I realize and am happy about the fact that your legacy with Star Trek is not over…it’s continuing, but in terms of The Undiscovered Country, The Voyage Home, and The Wrath of Khan…how do you view your legacy within Star Trek? You’ve often called it a nice place to come home to when some of your other films perhaps don’t do as well.
Meyer: Well after Company Business, which was a big flop, it was very much a relief to come back to it even more so as Star Trek VI had revisited some of the material that I had failed to do justice to with the other movie. They both dealt with the collapse of the Soviet Union. I’m not in the best position to judge the legacy…even the term legacy has a sort of portentous, if not a pretentious sound to it. I’m somewhat reminded of an exchange that apparently took place between former U.S. National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger and former Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai when former U.S. President Richard Nixon went to China [in 1972]. Apparently, Kissinger said to Zhou “What do you think of the French revolution?” And Zhou said, “It’s too early to tell.”
TM: That’s a brilliant analogy. It might be something we have to revisit in 100 or 200 years.
Meyer: It’s an open question. Star Trek has endured for 50 years and that seems pretty remarkable in a culture where things tend to flash and burn. Andy Warhol said “we’ll all be famous for fifteen minutes.” Now it’s more like 45 seconds. There’s always something on YouTube that you watch that goes viral for two seconds, and then disappears. The idea that Star Trek has been around for as long as it has is not unimpressive, not unsuggestive, not unmeaningful. Having said all that, what my place is in it…What it means for me to speculate seems a) premature, and b) arguably presumptuous. I think it’s for other people to ask themselves, or ask each other, or debate what it is about the films I have made or [Discovery] that is or is not meaningful, good, helpful, terrible, whatever. I know the one thing I can say is that Bryan Fuller, who’s the mastermind of the television series, talks about Star Trek VI a lot. That’s a movie that seems to be important to him and his thinking and obviously, being as vain as the next man…maybe vainer…that pleases me enormously.
TM: I would say that with Star Trek II…yourself, Harve Bennett…you guys really saved the Trek franchise because we were at a precipice where if the film didn’t do well, I think that was going to be it, and you turned in a brilliant script and a wonderful film. So bravo.
Meyer: Well thank you.
TM: I’m a big fan of Bryan Fuller from his work on Hannibal, so when they announced him as the showrunner of the new series I had a sense of “okay, this is in the right hands.” And then they announced your involvement and I said, “okay, this is REALLY in the right hands.” I can go ahead and say with confidence that my feeling is that this is going to be good. I have the sense that the franchise is in the right hands.
Meyer: Well cross your fingers on those hands.
TM: They certainly are. Mr. Meyer, I thank you so much for your time. I wish you the best of luck on Discovery, and all I can say is that I trust that you’ll do your best and I look forward to it. Take care.
Meyer: I look forward to it as well. Thank you for your time and be well.