TrekMovie recently had an exclusive chat with Nicholas Meyer about the release of the audio version of Meyer’s memoir The View from the Bridge. We have already released a couple of excerpts covering the news that Meyer recently pitched a new Star Trek movie to Paramount and his update on the status of his Ceti Alpha V television mini-series.
We now present the rest of our wide-ranging interview, in which Meyer talks about writing and directing Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country as well as writing Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.
Let’s start with the release of your new audiobook. After 11 years, why now record the audio version of your memoir?
The truthful answer is that Viking/Penguin didn’t see fit to record it at the time. And Steve Seibert of Oasis Audio turns out to have been a fan of mine. My sister-in-law narrates a lot of books and is friends with Steven and when she mentioned it, he perked up saying he would love to do the audiobook and I said, “Sure, great.”
Did you make any additions or edits to it as you went along?
There are minor tweaks or corrections. Occasionally I saw typos which scandalized me, but substantively it’s identical.
But it has been 11 years, so as you return to this material, had your views on any of the topics changed or evolved?
That’s a terrific question. But it also poses some—I don’t know whether to call them ethical or aesthetic dilemmas. There is an enormous tendency—particularly now in our new puritanical age—to revise everything to make them make it politically correct. Let’s cut out those happy slaves from Gone with the Wind; let’s get rid of Shakespeare because of Petruchio; let’s forget about Dr. Seuss; Huckleberry Finn, let’s get rid of that. I don’t believe in any of that.
George Santayana said that those who do not learn the lessons that history teaches are condemned to repeat those lessons. And in my opinion, I would rather let works of art more or less stand as they were, or books as they were written, than try to correct them. If I said something that doesn’t wear well with the passage of time, tough on me. But I’m not going to pretend that I didn’t say it or write it.
That leads me to think about crafting a film, and deciding what stays in or has to go. I recently saw the deleted scene in Star Trek II discussing how Saavik was Romulan. I’m not sure if you want to talk about that decision in particular, but can you talk about how you make those kinds of decisions?
Well, a screenplay is a blueprint for a building that hasn’t yet been built. When you start building a building, you may find out that things that were or were not anticipated in the blueprints either seem relevant or are getting in the way. There’s not enough light sockets in the kitchen, and these windows would do better if they opened out instead of opening in, et cetera. The film becomes a living thing when you shoot it and when you start putting the pieces together. First of all—just talking about dialogue—in my experience, and maybe I’m better at this now than when I started, but in my experience, the attrition rate for dialogue in a movie of mine between the first draft and the finished film is 50%. Half of the words are going to go.
And what happens when you are editing the film, you look at the first cut of the film the editor has strung together of what you’ve shot and you want to kill yourself. That’s the first reaction and you go, “Oh, my god, this is so wrong!” This is boring, and we don’t need that, and the audience is ahead of us at this point. So you start planing away. Imagine you’re planing a piece of wood that’s got a lot of knots and bumps in it. And you look at it again. And you still want to kill yourself but maybe not quite so urgently. Because now that you’ve planed off the bigger mistakes, you see littler things. Instead of mountains, they’re hills. Get rid of those hills and make this thing smooth. And pretty soon you’re looking at just frames, tiny little moments. And somewhere along the line this thing now has assumed a life and a shape of its own.
So, I’m not prepared to answer your specific question. But I am prepared to answer what I just did—the implications of your question, and how those decisions are arrived at… Somebody once said you should throw away your darlings. There may be things to which you are wildly attached. It took me six hours to get the shot of this sunrise. Six hours to be there in the middle of the night and set up the camera and everything is right. It’s an amazing shot, but it no longer belongs in the movie. Painful. You have to be ruthless. You have to be able to be as objective as possible. And when it is something that you’re in love with, it’s very hard to let go of it.
In fact—just to free-associate for a minute—we have such things now, they’re called “director’s cuts,” the director’s edition. Besides being a gimmick to sell more copies of the movie, in my opinion—with some exceptions—director’s cuts are rarely better than the original release print of the film. They’re always longer. They always contain a lot of those darlings that had to be thrown away. And you go, “Oh God, really, he thought that was essential? She thought that was essential?”
When they re-released Star Trek II, didn’t they call it a director’s edition?
They may have called a director’s edition because I wouldn’t let them call it the director’s cut.
Is that because of the scene at the end with Spock’s coffin on the Genesis Planet, which you didn’t shoot yourself?
No, it wasn’t that. That scene was always in the movie. It was in it over my objections from the beginning. But rightly or wrongly, this is the movie business and that’s how it worked. I lost a couple of smaller battles with Paramount about stuff where they felt bound to lift a leg and pee on it a little bit. And once the movie was released and we were doing the television version they basically said, “Well, we don’t care, what is it that you feel so strongly about?” And what I felt strongly about was that the midshipman who gets killed is Scotty’s nephew. Otherwise, I don’t understand why he’s so freaked out over the death of one particular crewman. And just little tiny tweaks that you couldn’t seriously call this [mockingly] “the director’s cut,” it is a little ridiculous.
That brings me to another question I am not sure you will want to answer in specifics, but I did send you a link to where some people are still discovering things in Star Trek II, and specifically thinking they may be seeing these skulls in the Genesis Cave. The question being: are these intentional or optical illusions?
I didn’t, I’m very bad at clicking on links, but let me answer your question with a sort of digression. It is my opinion that artists lose all proprietary authority over their creations when they’re finished. Artists are people who put messages in bottles. We throw it out into the wide world and hope that somebody will find the bottle and pop the cork and be able to decipher what was inside. But the chances are, we’re not going to be there looking over their shoulder when that happens. And people will make a work of art what they will. We live in a sort of a talk show mentality where the artist is sitting on the couch next to the host and answering questions as if his work of art was a book of math equations, and he’s the answers at the back of the book. In my opinion, anything I offer up is just another opinion. It’s not authoritative. And I can’t tell people what to make of what’s in my work. When people say to me, for example, as they have for 40 years, “Why does Khan wear one glove?” And I go, “Why do you think he wears one glove?” So I can’t answer your question.
I recently interviewed Ron Moore and he started lamenting about how with writing Star Trek movies you are expected to include certain things like action sequences, but he pointed to Star Trek IV as an exception. So when you were writing it, was there any pushback from Paramount? Did they want you to throw in a battle with the Klingons or anything like that?
The only argument I ever had with my friend Dawn Steele—who’s no longer alive, tragically—when she was running Paramount. And the big argument that we had—and it was hilarious—was she kept wanting to know what the probe was asking. And I had I kept saying, the gas will go out of the balloon if you find out what the probe is asking. She’s very literal-minded about this and we had a lot of screaming phone conversations, sort of laughing at the same time. And she was saying, “You’re wrong, Nicky Meyer!” It was like being in the kitchen with your mother. But that was the only time that she ever did and that was before we ever rolled. And once we rolled it was very smooth on that film.
With the recent passing of Christopher Plummer, could you talk a little bit about how you came to cast him in Star Trek VI?
Well, as you may or may not have intuited, I am a Shakespeare fool. One of the big, transformative moments in my life occurred when I was about 13 years old and I snuck out of school to see a movie that I thought was called “Henry Vee,” I didn’t know it was Shakespeare because it didn’t say on the poster, it just said Henry V and there was pictures of guys with swords and horses. So I snuck out of school and had a religious experience. I was like Saul of Tarsus, on the road to Damascus. I had a vision… And [Laurence] Olivier made a recording of excerpts of Henry V, and it was all done to the music from the film and I love this recording, but the sound was quite inferior as it was made in the late ’40s. But in the 1980s Chandos Records produced a brand new CD with Chris Plummer doing the same excerpts. You can still get it.
I would go into a kind of alpha state sitting in the dark and listening to Chris do this. And when it came time to figure out a villain for Star Trek VI I was in the midst of listening to this and I thought, ‘God, wouldn’t it be great to have a Shakespeare spouting villain.’ There is this very famous line during World War II the Germans said, “You have never heard Shakespeare until you have heard him in the original German.” And I just borrowed that and started writing General Chang for Chris, who I didn’t know from Adam. This is the only business where you get to shake hands with your dreams. And we didn’t have a lot of money. They weren’t taking us very seriously. A lot of people just thought after Star Trek V, this is all played out. But my casting director, Mary Jo Slater was not of that opinion. She loved this script. And I said to her, “Listen, Mary Jo, if we don’t have Chris Plummer, we don’t have a movie. No pressure, but don’t come back without him.” Now, why he ultimately accepted? I hear bits and pieces of stories. He obviously liked the role.
Any other memories to share about working with him?
He and I got along like a house on fire. Among other things, we’re both music fools. So I remember over dinner, just talking a lot about Szymanowski and Mussorgsky. He was very knowledgeable. And it was common ground, as was Shakespeare. And he thought the script was quite witty where Chang was concerned. And the only issue I ever remember having one day we had a very, very long day and he had been in this makeup for hours. And he said to me, “Hey, boss, this is getting…” and I said, “Fine, we’re stopping.”
We just talked about those three Trek movies you worked on, II, IV, and VI, which set up the cliché of the good movies are the even-numbered ones.
My blushes, Watson.
So, as an expert witness, what do think is quintessential in making a good Star Trek movie?
I should preface my answer by saying I don’t have a very analytical mind. I think movies are like soufflés. They either rise or they don’t. And speaking for myself as a sometimes chef, I don’t know why some of them rise and some of them don’t. I don’t know why mine are the best, if that’s the consensus. This is just an opinion—it’s certainly not an answer—but I think perhaps it was an advantage for me to have had no history with Star Trek. I really didn’t know anything. The only thing I got was that Star Trek reminded me of these books I loved as a kid, the Horatio Hornblower books. I thought this is Horatio Hornblower in outer space. And I love those books and I love movies about submarines, whether it’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or perhaps more particularly regarding Star Trek, to The Enemy Below.
The thing that for me, is that I am interested in people. And I’m interested in the characters. I don’t care if they’re sympathetic or their whatever that studio says. I don’t give a fuck. My only issue is: are they understandable? Do I understand who they are and what they want, what they don’t want. And if I can figure out how to put in action, I’ll do it. If I can figure out how to put in a love interest, I’ll do it. Because all those things are fun and why we go to the movies.
What is the purpose of art? Tolstoy said the purpose of art is to teach you to love life. Maybe other people would say that purpose of art is to teach you to endure life to escape life. And certainly part of going to the movies is to escape life. And to be on the high seas or outer space with Captain Hornblower or Captain Kirk and have adventures to strange new worlds. But I want to be able to be interested in the people. And I don’t care if the people are aliens or not. As Kirk says in VI, “Everybody’s human.” And Henry James said that the least demand that you can make of a work of art is that it be interesting. And the most demand is that it’d be moving. My job is to make people laugh or cry. And if later on, they think about the things that made them laugh or cry, so much the better. As Robert Bresson said, “My job is not to find out what the public wants and give it to them. My job is to make the public want what I want.” I would never tell you a joke that I didn’t think was funny. Because I wouldn’t get the laugh otherwise. I have to like it. I have to be involved, engaged by it. So I’m writing or directing first and foremost, to please myself. And I make the assumption that if I like it, other people will like it. It’s the best I can do. I can’t second guess 60 million people I never met.
Is there anything you would have done differently? Any regrets from your time with the franchise?
You know, directors looking at movies is like looking at home movies of your life. Why didn’t you get that shot? Why didn’t you go closer? There’s all those kind of things. But am I going to argue with the fact that people love these movies? Am I going to say, “No, you’re miss-reading what’s in the bottle?” I don’t know. I feel very fortunate to have been involved with Star Trek. I certainly have never fully understood it. But over 40 years I’ve understood it more than I did at the beginning when it was on TV and I didn’t even stick around to watch. I just saw these people in Dr. Dentons and cheesy sets. And I managed to miss every single thing that was important about this show. Every single thing. I was a dummy. Then later I thought, ‘Oh, this is Hornblower.’ Well, that’s an improvement. That’s something that’s better. But it still wasn’t really what the show was about. It was just the way it went about it. In my life, I seldom regret the things I did. I only regret the things I didn’t do.
Between your time on Star Trek VI and when you were brought in as a consulting producer for Discovery, were they any other times you were—possibly informally—brought in for Star Trek?
Not that I recall. I was on the Paramount lot when J.J. [Abrams] was filming something and I’ve known J.J. since I used to read him bedtime stories. And I met the guys who were writing the screenplay for that movie. I can’t remember which one it was, but they were really enthusiastic and so pleased to say hi. Besides that I don’t recall any other interactions.
So nothing during the ’90s when Rick Berman was in charge?
Rick Berman was not interested. A very nice person, but for whatever reason, had no use for me.
Can we talk about your time on Discovery?
I was on it for a year. It was a very shaky year for the show. There was a lot of comings and goings. And I think it would be probably indiscreet to say a lot more than that. I served out my time.
Are there any other projects you can talk about that are keeping you busy now?
So I had a novel out last year called The Adventure of the Peculiar Protocols. I have another novel coming out this year, called The Return of the Pharaoh, which I’m really jazzed about. I have an idea which I’m researching now for another Holmes novel and I’m very excited because I thought it up all by myself. And you know about Medici, well my partner on that, Frank Spotnitz and I are working on something else at the moment, which has the name Jet Set attached to it. And we’ll see where that goes if it goes anywhere.
It’s been 11 years since you wrote the memoir that is now on audio. Do you expect to do another?
The memoir that I wrote is largely a professional memoir. And it’s only intermittently and glancingly a personal memoir. But I think that if I were ever to write another autobiographical fragment, it would be less professional and more personal. I don’t know that anybody would be interested in that. But there you go.
New audio version of Meyer’s Trek memoir
Earlier this month Oasis Audio released audio version of Meyer’s memoir The View from the Bridge, which is narrated by the author.
Find more exclusive interviews at TrekMovie.com.