This weekend marks the 35th anniversary of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, a film most still consider to be the best in the franchise. TrekMovie had a chance to talk to director (and uncredited screenwriter) Nicholas Meyer about just why it has lasted the test of time, and more, including the latest 4K UHD transfer of the movie.
Why Wrath Of Khan was lightning in a bottle
We actually talked 10 years ago for the 25th anniversary and at the time you said you “have never been able to account for the success” of Star Trek II. So with another decade to reflect, and you have worked on Star Trek again with Discovery. So now do you have a better idea why Wrath of Khan endures and is considered by most to still embody the best of Star Trek?
I am not sure I am very clever about this. It seems to me to be a case of lighting in a bottle, and I’m not sure how it got there. I have said elsewhere that movies are like soufflés, they either rise or they don’t. And it is very hard for an amateur baker such as myself to explain why or why not that should be the case. It is miraculous and amazing to me that the movie has hit some kind of emotional sweet spot.
I can account intellectually up to a certain point. I understand that it was very well put together. It was built to last. I like to think that the things I work on are conceived with an idea that they are going to last and endure – at least over the short term. I am not referring to millennia, but the idea that they were at least well-constructed and well thought out and so forth.
I think that there is a certain balance that appeals to me enormously in certain works of art in which character and plot achieve a kind of balance where they are interlocked and interdependent and where one does not overpower the other. I think you can watch a play by Eugene O’Neill that is all character and very little plot and you can go to certain comic books and find that it is all plot and no character. But somewhere there is a sweet spot.
I was rewatching The Prisoner of Zenda, from 1937, and I thought it was a kind of perfect balance between character and plot. Maybe Hamlet is a perfect balance between character and plot. And maybe, and I don’t claim this was deliberate or intentional on my part, The Wrath of Khan balances character and plot pretty inextricably. And maybe that is part of it, but I don’t really know.
You were brought in somewhat late in the process and you had a short deadline. The studio gave you mostly a free hand except where it came to coming in with a dramatically lower budget than the first Star Trek film. So you took over the script and I think you once described yourself – in a good way – as a dictator in getting it done. Do you feel the combination of fewer cooks and a freer hand is part of the reason it worked? And could you imagine that working today in a franchise studio movie?
Well, I am not a businessman and I don’t know about franchises and studio films and I tend not to patronize them, to be candid. I go to little movies about people who are trying to figure out their shit and that is what interests me. It is not that I wouldn’t like to see those movies with bigger budgets and more bells and whistles, it is just that comic books don’t interest me, the exploding car doesn’t interest me, superheroes don’t interest me. Movies whose last name ends in “man” – that doesn’t interest me. The business part doesn’t interest me.
I think art is a dictatorship. It is maybe government by the consent of the governed in the sense that you don’t have to patronize it. You don’t have to watch it. You don’t have to read it or listen to it, but if you do it is going to have to be on the terms of the artist. So I think things are better that they are not done by committee.
I wasn’t brought in to The Wrath of Khan at the last minute, it should be understood. I was hired to direct the second movie and I was told that draft five of the script was imminent and I sat around waiting for that and then it was deemed to be not worth showing me and they were upset and they were under the gun because – and I didn’t know this either – the movie had already been booked into theaters.
When I was disappointed when they said they couldn’t show me the drafts I said, “Let me read it, let me read draft four, draft three and so forth.” And that is how I evolved into the de facto writer of what became the finished script, which was cobbled together from scraps and bits and pieces oddments of the previous five drafts. And then all the dialog and thematic material added by me. It was only last minute in the sense that things didn’t go the way they were supposed to.
A big budget Wrath of Khan?
I don’t know if you like to talk hypotheticals, but I’m going to try one anyway. Let’s say that Paramount gave you the same budget that Robert Wise had for The Motion Picture and even more time. How different of a film would you have made? Would it have been less of an intimate tale, much of which is set on two stages, which were actually the same stage just redressed?
I think that art thrives on restrictions that is for sure. One of my all-time favorite movies is the [Laurence] Olivier Henry V movie that was made in the midst of World War II with 75 cents. And they took a leaf out of the play in which it was based in which Shakespeare basically says to use your imagination, “On your imaginary forces work.”
And I think that art that leaves things to the imagination of the viewer or the audience or the reader tends to engage them more fully than art that leaves nothing to the imagination. We call that in the movie business “eye candy.” Everything is supplied by the filmmaker so the audience has nothing to do except to sit there and gape at images which are all amazing with no differentiation between an important or an unimportant image.
I think if I had more money on Star Trek II the one thing that would have been better would have been the Genesis planet [cave] which was a cut rate situation. It wouldn’t have taken a lot more money by the way to do what needed to be done. And again you prefaced this by saying this is a hypothetical, I don’t know that I’m that eager to spend money. I am much more eager to figure out ways to get audiences involved without assaulting them either visually or with huge noisy soundtracks. I have no objection to great visuals or a lot of noise, but neither is a steady diet. Nothing is a steady diet. Variety is the spice of life.
The difference between directing Shatner and directing Nimoy
One of your favorite stories to tell about directing the film was how you got William Shatner to give a more natural performance by sort of wearing him down with multiple takes, such as in the “here it comes” scene. Did he ever catch on to this trick during Khan or maybe with The Undiscovered Country?
If he caught on, he did not mention it. He did not allude to it.
Another big difference between the first Trek film and Wrath of Khan was Leonard Nimoy’s Spock. It is more personal, more emotional if you will. Can you talk about how you and Leonard worked together on his performance? Did you have any tricks for him like you did for Shatner?
I didn’t have any tricks for Leonard. Leonard really understood – the most revealing thing he said to me was, “I never played Spock as an unemotional person, I always played him as someone who was intent on keeping his emotions in check. Under wraps.” And I think this was a particularly subtle and telling distinction because it is more interesting to see an actor trying not revealing something than an actor attempting to kind of put it on display. Rather than seeing an actor crying but seen an actor trying not to cry is more interesting and more involving. Again it is about leaving things to the imagination and not laying it all out. And I think Leonard was very good at understanding this from the get-go. I didn’t really have to tell him much.
It is also true that the role as written in Star Trek II – as written by me – was very different in its conception than whatever it was that went on in the previous movie. I saw that movie once over 35 years ago and I don’t believe I have seen it since and I don’t believe I gave it a lot of thought while working on The Wrath of Khan. I don’t believe I gave anything a lot of thought while working on The Wrath of Khan, including the original series. And I am sure I made blunders as a result. I was just writing my submarine movie the way I wanted it to be and occasionally Nichelle Nichols or Walter Koenig or Shatner or someone would say “this isn’t the way my character talks” and I would have to learn a little bit how to backtrack and say what I wanted to say but in a slightly different format. But otherwise I didn’t pay attention to the other Star Trek stuff.
Doing Khan right in 4K
Can you talk about the 4K Ultra HD transfer for Wrath of Khan? Was it an easy process or was there a lot of cleaning up to do?
There is the usual cleaning up. This is a huge topic about film restoration and film transfer and film coloring. I was on the Directors Guild committee against the colorizing of black and white movies and my argument was you are basically rewriting history. And if you start then when do you stop? Do you say “these four bars of Beethoven’s Eroica I find rather boring” or these racial stereotypes from this Shirley Temple movie should be eliminated.
This stuff is very very dangerous stuff. On the other hand, if you can clean up the image, is that a good thing? I will give you a lengthy disposition on Technicolor. Technicolor was a three-strip process running through the camera and printing it was a form of lithography. The question is that found that they could never get those three strips of Technicolor to line up 100%. The good news was that it gave the movies that were made in Technicolor a kind of romantic fuzziness, I guess you could call it. That was great for romances and musical comedies and stuff like that. But when digital came along they found out that they could line up those three strips 100% and what was the result? The result was a lot of times you saw things that you were not meant to see. And that the people were so pleased with themselves – yes you can clean up scratches on film and correct for color and you can do amazing things – but you don’t want to see Judy Garland singing “Over the Rainbow” and notice she has acne. That is not a good transfer. That is not a good use of the capability.
So when you are transferring into digital and 4K and high def and Blu-ray and all of that stuff you have to be very careful that the end result does not exceed the original tolerances under which the film was made. So when I worked on the restoration of The African Queen which was shot in location in Africa, everything real, all that digital match-up of Technicolor worked to our advantage. You saw they were really in Africa. Bogart said to the cinematographer Jack Cardiff, “It’s taken a long time to get this face, don’t you pretty me up.” He wanted every ragged line of Charlie Allnut’s character to be there, and it is.
It is not simply a question of turning on the lights and running the thing through some kind of synthesizer and having it all come out the other way digitally perfect. You have to make judgement calls. For the first version of the DVD of Sunset Boulevard they erased all the shadows from Norma Desmond’s house and that didn’t seem right, because the whole point was it was a spooky place.
So when you work on Star Trek or any of these other movies that were not shot with those tolerances you have to adjust for them. You have to add diffusion. You don’t want to see duct tape sets and you don’t want to see makeup on actors. You have to be careful.
That is a long-winded answer and I can go on a lot longer.
Editor’s Note: For a nice visual walkthrough of film restoration, check out this video from Criteron.
So what you’re saying is there was work to be done with Wrath of Khan to keep it within your artistic vision as opposed to showing us every detail on that set.
Yeah. Progress ought to be that just because you can do something doesn’t mean that ought to do something. Just because we can blow the planet to smithereens doesn’t need to mean that we have to blow it to smithereens. And just because you can show things in excruciating detail doesn’t necessarily mean you should. Take a look at a Renoir and say, “This impressionistic painting is out of focus, let’s bring it into focus.” Is that what Monsieur Renoir had in mind when he painted it out of fucking focus to begin with?
Do you know when Paramount is planning on releasing Wrath of Khan in UltraHD? and if they are doing the other Trek films like your Star Trek VI?
I know they are all on [standard 1080p] Blu-ray now and I did work on a Japanese version of something that was an amazing high-def. But they don’t talk to me about what their plans are. I am sure it is all done by bean counters and computers.
The Log Lady and other unsung heroes of The Wrath of Khan
There is an interesting little Star Trek II connection to something else that is new again which is Twin Peaks. The late Catherine Coulson returned as ‘The Log Lady’ on the new show, and she worked with you and your Wrath of Khan DP Gayne Rescher. Do you have any memories of her on set or her contribution to the film?
My memories are extremely pleasant. She was a lovely women and she very good at her job. She was very much a team player and very encouraging to me. This was the second movie I directed and it was nice to be surrounded by people who weren’t judging you. She was not a judger and she was quite tireless. Making movies is quite long hours and she never lost her extremely good humor or her professionalism. I liked being around her very much and it is a real loss.
You are so personally associated with Wrath of Khan as a sort of auteur film in a way, even though it is a franchise film. And of course Nimoy, Montalban and Shatner and their performances are always highlighted. And Harve Bennett gets talked about. But your talking about Catherine makes we wonder are there any unsung heroes of Star Trek II? Is there one you feel doesn’t get noticed enough? Someone I am not calling to interview that I should be?
What an interesting question. You certainly come up with some interesting questions. I will really have to think about it. There is a whole host of people behind the scenes on any movie – Star Trek certainly included – who make vital and largely unheralded contributions to what the design or the final effect of the movie is.
It is very easy to say people like Joe Jennings or Bob Joseph – the people who design the costumes, the signage, or whatever – but I think you are asking something else and that is the thing I would have to think about. So we will have reconvene at some other point after I have put some thought into it.
Star Trek II 35th Anniversary Screenings In Los Angeles With Nicholas Meyer
In the coming weeks Nicholas Meyer will be attending two screenings of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan in the LA area to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the film. The first is on May 31st a the Ahrya Fine Arts Theatre in Beverly Hills, CA. Meyer will be on hand for a Q&A after the film. And on June 13th at the TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, CA there will be another screening with Meyer, this time joined by Nichelle Nichols, Ike Eisenmann (Peter Preston), and Alan Howarth (sound effects technician TMP-TUC). The Chinese Theatre screening is actually a “Khan” double bill starting off with the Star Trek episode “Space Seed.” The Q&A will be in between.