Robert Justman is one of the true founding fathers of Star Trek. He was a producer on Star Trek: The Original Series as well as the early years of Star Trek: The Next Generation. TrekMovie.com visited with him to talk about Trek’s beginning (as well as its current remastering). Justman’s journey with Trek began as the associate producer on thesecond Trek pilot “Where No Man Had Gone Before,” and that almost became the end of his tenure with Star Trek.
TrekMovie.com: You worked on both the Mission: Impossible and Star Trek pilots, both of which got picked up. How did you decide which show to go with?
Robert Justman: Both Gene [Roddenberry] and [M:I producer] Bruce Geller wanted me to work on their productions if they were sold. We never envisioned that [Desilu executive] Herb [Solow] would come back from New York with both pilots sold and only one Bob Justman. Herb made the decision. His reasoning was thus: “Gene Roddenberry had done two pictures with him and Bruce Gellar had done one with him, therefore Gene Roddenberry had more gimmies.” But Bruce was pissed.
TM: So as associate producer on Trek, what were your responsibilities?
RJ: You know how today there are twenty or thirty producers on a show. On Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry was the executive producer and there were two associate producers: John D.F. Black, who was for the stories, and Bob Justman, who did everything else. If anything needed handling and there wasn’t anyone to do it, I would make it mine. That meant that I had input into story and script, casting, set design, set cost, set dressing, props, cutting…every function that has to be handled by someone, I would do. There were no other executives, everyone else had dirt under their fingernails. When Gene started petering out because of the tremendous strain on him, he brought in Gene Coon…who was a godsend.
TM: Do you think the show would have survived without Gene Coon?
RJ: It would not have gone as well, no. Coon saved our ass. Gene Roddenberry was the best rewrite person I ever saw and I have been around a long time. He was fantastic; the only problem was that he was so busy that you had to drag him tooth and nail out of his office to go rewrite the various shows. Coon could write shootable scripts sitting in his office typing away in no time at all. He could write an hour episode and hand it in after a long weekend; not only was it terrific but it was so long we had to chop parts away. He caught the Star Trek essence. He could think ‘Star Trekian.’
TM: You used both traditional Hollywood TV writers along with some serious sci-fi authors. In the end, which do you feel worked out better?
RJ: It wasn’t an issue of working better, but sci-fi writers didn’t necessarily follow the precepts of drama as we understand it. Hollywood writers understood that, and that is a big thing. We had some very famous sci-fi writers work on the show, and some were fine and some were in never-never land. They were all talented. They were on their internal trip. With some of them you could work, but some of them didn’t quite get the hang of it. It’s all well and good to imagine a canyon on a planet filled with brontosauruses… Christ! Do we have any brontosauruses left over? They just didn’t understand budgets and the precepts of dramatic four-act plays.
TM: When you joined the show for the second pilot, Jeffrey Hunter decided not to do come back and so William Shatner came aboard. Do you think that the show was better for it?
RJ: Absolutely. Jeffrey Hunter would have had to have done the show if the first pilot was picked up, but the terms of his contract never allowed for a second pilot and he wanted to be a motion picture star. I had worked before on The Outer Limits and Bill was the guest star on an episode. I liked him immediately and admired his work… he was full of zest. I felt after working on the second pilot he had what we needed. Like him or not, and some of the cast didn’t like him at all. He didn’t mean anything by it; he was just being Bill and having a great time living his life. God knows he really gave it what we needed. A sense of adventure, of full energy, good sense of humor, he had it all.
TM: In your book Inside Star Trek: The Real Story, you talked about how you struggled with NBC to keep the Spock character the same. Did you know at the time he would become such a breakout star on the show?
RJ: I thought, and I made the point of it to Gene, that he was going to be hot stuff. I said, “It is like the French fleet is in town and the sailors are ashore and cutting wide swaths in the feminine population.” Everyone got this feeling that this person seems expressionless and doesn’t allow his himself to reveal anyone his emotions. But dammit down underneath he was something else. What that something else was is a mystery. And that mystery intrigued women. We had a full-sized female contingent who liked Mr. Spock, he was just mysterious.
TM: What were some of the other challenges you dealt with at the beginning?
RJ: I really didn’t know how to make the shows. Desilu was staffed with people attuned to half-hour comedies and didn’t really have people with good technical talent. Once they sold the shows I began setting up for the crew we would need and I brought people in. Star Trek was really a monster…we really had to blaze new ways of doing things.
TM: For example?
RJ: After doing the pilot, we had to shoot a planet with a sky with the same dark green backing that we had in the first pilot and I thought, ‘We can’t do that.’ I realized we had to have a neutral sky and we would project colored light on to the tarp that covered three sides of the stage to depict the sky. So, evenings before production began on a new episode and the guys knew to phone me and I would come down and I would say, “This one calls for a red orange sky” or sometimes fuchsia or what have you. I tried to make the environment match for each episode.
TM: It wasn’t that easy making new space shots each week though was it?
RJ: If you want to see a shot of the Enterprise entering and going into orbit around a planet there were various elements that have to be shot separately and then put together. So you had a shot of the orb or planet, and then a shot of the enterprise turning and then a star background and all of these things had to be done by matting all this stuff together. Every time you did it you lost a certain amount of the image. It just got grainier and grainier. I could always spot when a fade-out was coming on a show because the last cut would look different because it had more stuff messed with and would looked even grainier. When we went to Star Trek: The Next Generation, we no longer had that dragging us down. We had the ability to combine many different elements in one final piece of film. It would be fresh and perfect and fantastic. Nowadays they generate everything they want with computers.
TM: Speaking of computers, have you had a chance to see the new remastered Star Trek?
RJ: I have seen it and I’m thrilled. Because for the first time since its first release, the film, the individual cells look the way we envisioned them when we first shot the show. It is the closest thing to the original dailies, because they are fresh and pristine. I had this discussion with Jerry Finnerman that I wanted a strong key light. I said, “Jerry, ever been to any of these planets and who knows what it is like? I don’t want to be like it is in this room… I want to see color where you least expect it.”
TM: How do you feel about the new CGI shots, some of which are different from the originals, are you concerned they are making changes?
RJ: No, as long as it makes the show better I would be happy. It is like it was with Next Gen. We were able to do things we couldn’t do before and I was all for it. It is like being in a candy store. So if you are not harming the show it is okay. I guess some might say, “You are harming the show for me.” Well I can’t help that. Anything that makes the show better is better for the show and is better for the viewer.