On September 10th and 13th Fathom Events is holding 35th anniversary screenings of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan Director’s Cut in theaters across the USA. TrekMovie took the opportunity to chat with Wrath of Khan director and (uncredited) screenwriter Nicholas Meyer about the event and his experiences making the film.
Writing for Star Trek’s troika
Let’s start talking about this upcoming Star Trek II event in theaters. Obviously, a lot of fans have Wrath of Khan on home video or streaming, so what is special about seeing it on the big screen?
I am happy to answer that by quoting my father, who said to me many years ago that watching a movie on TV is like kissing over the telephone.
Much has been said about classical influences on the two main characters, with Kirk as Horatio Horn blower and Khan as Ahab. Were there classical archetypes or characters that were part of your inspiration for the other major characters, in writing and directing for Leonard Nimoy’s Spock and DeForest Kelley’s McCoy?
Not really. I think that the troika of Kirk, Spock and McCoy had been identified pretty much by Harve and their characters were fairly established – and this is painting with a broad brush – but McCoy was the bleeding heart liberal and Spock was the logician, perhaps to the point of being somewhere on the spectrum, and Kirk was the mediator between the two of them. In that sense, they were all very easy to write for. I simply put my own stamp on the dialog, or at least I like to think I did. Spock definitely was reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes in my way of thinking and in fact in Star Trek VI I had him claim descent from Holmes.
Dealing with Gene’s objections
One of the big changes between Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Wrath of Khan was that Gene Roddenberry was no longer in charge. Harve Bennett was the executive producer, but Gene was still a consultant. Can you talk about what your interactions with Gene were like?
This is an interesting question for me because it reveals the fallibility of memory. When asked this question before about Gene Roddenberry, my recollection was that we didn’t have much interaction. I was introduced to him and met him and that was it. He certainly had nothing to do with the actual filming or editing of the movie. However, some years ago I was back at my alma matter, the University of Iowa, which is the repository of my papers, and an exhibition was set up in which, to my astonishment, were displayed a series memoranda between myself and Gene Roddenberry that went on and on about the script and his many issues with it.
This exchange, which in candor was not always entirely pleasant, had been completely erased from my memory until the material fact of it was brought to my attention. I was very, very surprised. The Star Trek that Gene created became, I think, ultimately a bottle into which many people subsequently poured their own vintages. The bottle never changed, but the various writers and directors and so forth who contributed to what people call “the franchise” – word I am leery of – they did their own thing with it. And I was perhaps the first person in that long line. And Gene was understandably – but not always correctly – distressed at a new and different vintage going into that bottle. And I think the tenor of those memoranda between us was focused on his objections to what I was doing differently.
I was not at all averse to conflict. I did not, and do not, believe in the perfectibility of man. And although I think the Star Trek aspiration and inter-ethnicity are all for the good, I was still interested in people that to me were recognizably human, and that included being either petty or vain or having different kinds of emotional agendas as we have since the beginning of time. I think that Gene took very grave exception to that notion. The 23rd century is a place where everybody is going to get along and Starfleet was not a militaristic organization. Maybe it was like the Coast Guard and I had a darker view.
At a recent event in Hollywood you told a story about how early on you got a call from Harve about how Shatner hated the script and you had this real intimidating meeting, but eventually you and Harve sorted it out. I am curious – what were these issues that at the time seemed like such a big deal for Bill?
What I remember is my bladder kept filling up and I had to keep excusing myself and Bill was saying “Are you alright, what’s wrong?” I had to make something up about indigestion, but it was rage and humiliation transmuted into urine. Basically, this comes from this being the second movie I ever directed and my first real experience writing for a star, and it was coupled with what is not a native analytic ability to break things down into bite-sized components. Simply put, as translated by Harve – Bill wanted to be the first man through the door. He was Captain Kirk. He is the hero. He shouldn’t appear to be at a loss unless it is for a meaningful dramatic purpose. And I am not sure I think of Bill as a particularly vain person personally, but he was very, very protective of that character as embodied by himself. And he didn’t want Kirk looking or being less than Kirk.
One of the notes was that I had specified in the screenplay how old Kirk was and this was a movie that put Bill in an uncomfortable place because the story is about age and Kirk being depressed and Kirk not being at the top of his game and having to recover all of that. That is the arc of the character. And I remember Bill asking, “Do we have to specify Kirk as this age?” And I thought no you don’t and there was a double point in that once an actor plays a role that confesses that his age is x, then it is hard for him to audition for a role that is younger than x, because people see you as what you committed to. I understood this. And once I understood what his objections were, it was not very hard to rewrite his scenes in such a way that accommodate everything that he was upset or frantic about. And I guess because he is not a particularly analytic person, he came in very strong and very dramatic but as Harve pointed out afterwards, his issues were very small and mainly related to himself and not the script and were easily addressed. In fact, I think I addressed it in about 12 hours.
So, the specific age bugged him, but he didn’t mind the arc you introduced of Kirk going through a mid-life crisis?
Well, he had to get his head around that. I think at the end of the day what he bought into were the dramatic possibilities of the role that were on offer and that I think ultimately was the catnip that allowed him to swallow the whole concept.
You talk about this intimidating meeting, but you have also talked about how you would wear Shatner down on set with multiple takes to get him to act naturally. So, I am wondering: how did you go from the guy who had the pee scared out of him to having the chutzpah to drag Bill through take after take? Did you have any issues as a young guy in his thirties to get the authority needed to direct these veterans?
I think the tradition of movies is that a lot of directors start when they are very young. Steven Spielberg began by directing Joan Crawford, if you can get your head around that one. Yes, it does take a certain amount of chutzpah to make your ideas or your wishes known to actors who have more seniority and arguably more experience over yours. I think by the time I was getting into scenes with Bill, his own intelligence and talent were making increasing sense of the role. And as our shooting progressed more or less smoothly apace, there was a sort of unspoken trust in each other, and certainly with me in myself, that gathered.
And when I was doing a lot of takes with him, I didn’t announce what I was doing. I had help from the cameraman who would say, “Oh the focus is off,” or the sound man who would say, “The sound wasn’t good.” And I would say, “OK, let’s go again.” So, I think he was not attributing – at least not in the beginning – what I was doing. I would occasionally give direction, “Bill, make it smaller.” I was always about making things smaller. I think it was one of his most subtle and nuanced performances. Like when he tells Khan the code for the vessels and he says “Here it comes” and there was a kind of sneer and a warning in the tone and I was “Let’s take that out, he is smart, he is going to know you are up to something.” It took a while to get there.
Funnily enough, Ricardo Mantalban as Khan also started out very, very big. Huge! I kept tamping it down and tamping it down. We were talking before about the difference between television and a movie. Well with a movie those faces are really large. One reason to go see the movie is that watching it on TV is like looking at a painting with the wrong frame around it. And the smallest twitch, the most subtle flicker of an eyelid conveys so much. If you watch it on TV you may not catch it. So, Bill had been doing things mainly on television and I was thinking movies.
The limits of the bridge
One of the notable things about Star Trek II is how much of It takes place on these two bridge sets, but I understand you were not a fan of shooting on the bridge. Patrick Stewart said when he first saw the bridge of the Enterprise he immediately understood it, seeing it as Shakespearean stage. Would you really have wanted to do more off the bridge? Aren’t those intimate settings part of what makes the film work?
First let me say that I do believe that a lot of really good film acting takes place in intimate spaces. There are obvious exceptions, like Lawrence of Arabia for example. But closed-in spaces are very friendly to actors. I totally get what Patrick is talking about when he likens the bridge to an Elizabethan apron. I get that. On the other hand, from a purely cinematic point of view, and I was always approaching as film and not television, the bridge always limited. I always wondered about the other parts of the ship, which I think in Star Trek VI you get to see other parts of the ship – where the crew sleeps, where the galley is and so forth. And as a filmmaker committing coverage in 360 degrees is very tedious.
So, I don’t think what I am saying is in particular or total disagreement with Patrick’s observation. I just think he is looking at it as an actor and moreover as a stage actor and I was looking more of it as a filmmaker and as a film director.
So why didn’t you write in more scenes off the bridge?
Take a look at the budget.
So, this is one of your examples of how limitations make art?
Yeah. You have to turn your weaknesses into strengths. You have to make what you don’t have do – you have to turn things inside out. My model for this was always the Lawrence Olivier Henry V movie, which was made for about fifty cents during World War II and largely set in an Elizabethan theater.
Robert Sallin – unsung hero of Star Trek II
Last time we chatted I asked you about unsung heroes for Wrath of Khan and you said you would have to get back to me. I actually have a specific person I have in mind which is producer Robert Sallin, someone who many fans may not know because he was only involved with this movie. Is he one of these unsung heroes and what can you tell us about his contribution?
I can tell you a fair amount. Bob Sallin is an enormously intelligent and tasteful guy who for many years had his own company and made commercials. He was a friend and classmate of Harve Bennett’s at UCLA and they took this opportunity to work together. It was Bob Salin who suggested the cinematographer Gayne Rescher to me and Gayne Rescher was absolutely brilliant. He was the cinematographer on A Face in the Crowd, which is probably the greatest movie people have never seen, starring Andy Griffith of all people and directed by Elia Kazan. And I think he also recommended the editor, Bill Dornish.
He also had a more sophisticated visual sense than I did after having only made one movie. I remember that Kirk’s entrance was reshot. He was backlit like a rock star when he comes out. This was at Bob’s instigation. And throughout the movie he made many contributions along similar lines. And then at the end when I – for reasons which may or may not have been proved sound – was very upset at the notion of filming the coffin on the planet, Bob went up to San Francisco at the Botanical Gardens and he shot it. So, his contributions are significant.
Wrath of Khan back in theaters September 10th & 13th
The 35th anniversary screenings of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan Director’s Cut with an exclusive introduction by William Shatner will be held at theaters across the country on September 10th and 13th. Get your tickets now before they sell out by visiting fathomevents.com.
Here is the official trailer for the event:
We were asked by Carusele to promote The Wrath of Khan 35th Anniversary screenings, sponsored by Fathom Events. Although we have been compensated, all opinions are our own.