The documentary Woman in Motion about Nichelle Nichols’s post-Star Trek work as a recruiter for NASA to help bring people of color and women into the space program was released earlier this year with a limited run in theaters and via digital on-demand. The film got a very positive review in February here on TrekMovie and the good news for fans is it debuted today on Paramount+, the streaming home of the Star Trek Universe.
With the streaming premiere in mind, TrekMovie spoke to director Todd Thompson about the making of this inspiring documentary and what might be in his Star Trek documentary future at Paramount+.
What initially drew you to this story about Nichelle and NASA?
This was my first documentary that I ever produced and directed. It was introduced to me by my producing partners Tim Franta and David Teek. They, they called me one day and it was sort of a pitch, but it was very direct, ‘No questions asked, we’re going to do this film.’ It took them maybe fifteen minutes to tell me Nichelle’s story and I was immediately hooked. I recognized right away that this is an absolute story we have to tell. It is the classic hero’s journey. I’m a sucker for a great story. And as a filmmaker and as a storyteller, I knew I could just do a great job with this film. I just had admiration for her. I related so much to her character and journey that I knew it was a perfect fit for me.
I understand you were first inspired to get into show business when you saw Star Wars as a kid. So were you also a Star Trek fan?
I’ll be very honest, I was much more a Star Wars fan than a Star Trek fan. But I obviously have an incredible appreciation and deep respect for everything Star Trek these days. My eyes were very much opened by what Star Trek really is and what it represents outside of being a sci-fi series. It’s just so much more than that. And being able to work on a film and get so deep into it really opened my eyes to quite a bit about what Gene Roddenberry’s vision was for this franchise.
Some of the interviews and convention footage look to be from as far back as 2015. Can you talk about the long process of putting the film together?
The original idea was pitched in November of 2014 and we got Nichelle on board around February or March 2015. It took us some time to get the story in place and get the financing lined up. So we really weren’t filming until September and October 2015, and we were full speed ahead from that point on. We must have sat down with about 60-plus people. We only had about 37 of them in the film at the end of the day. But it was quite a journey.
Of course, the documentary has a lot of footage with Nichelle herself, both newly shot for the film and archival. Can you talk about interviewing her?
We were actually at our house a few times. The first time was around September 2015, and that was the longest. It was about a week of shooting. And then we saw her on a few other occasions, both at her home and then also on the road. So, we have a lot of time with her, and off-camera in between. But I would say we sat down and filmed with her three times in total. We got the full story by filming and interviewing her, but then it was during the post-production process that we uncovered other archival material where she’s telling similar stories and related stories to the story we were telling. And she did so consistently. And we thought – and I credit my editor for this – the idea to approach the film from Nichelle’s perspective, where she tells her story, but from different periods of her life. I really loved how it all came together that way. It really kept me engaged. And it was just so fascinating that she was so consistent in telling the story.
Nichelle is now 88 and has essentially retired and has had challenges with her health in recent years. Did that prove to be a challenge in putting this together?
No, it wasn’t. It was easy actually. She did have a stroke in June of 2015. But she was very lucky. I was able to get the shots within a certain time period and she was fully recovered from the stroke. She was a little slow-moving, but certainly sharp as a whip and her long-term memory is phenomenal. She is just extremely witty and fun to be around. And so we didn’t have any problems with her performing or doing her thing at all. And even down the road with her too. She wakes up every day for her fans. It’s so great to see her at that age and so active and so engrossed in what she was doing and who she was. So it was fine. But in the last year or so, I would say time has definitely taken its toll a little bit. She’s not as active as she used to be, obviously. But her health had no bearing whatsoever on the production whatsoever. She was amazing.
Regarding all that archival footage there are some rare gems in there, like a 1977 interview Nichelle did with Gene Roddenberry. How difficult was it to find all of this stuff?
We had a specific archival producer on the project who spends his days scrubbing the internet and searching university archives and whatnot. We had a great relationship with the Smithsonian, and also NASA for that matter. We just had just a ton of content to work with and to choose from as we were piecing this together. That’s the biggest challenge for the documentary, as you’ve got so much to work with – being able to take this big block of ice and chip it down and shape it into what you’re trying to shape it into. But yeah, we were very fortunate to come upon some real gems.
You also have quite a few new interviews with a wide array of high-profile people, Star Trek actors, and other celebrities, politicians, scientists, astronauts, NASA administrators. Was it hard to get these people or were they easier because it was about Nichelle?
A lot of it was they were extremely excited about the story and had a huge love for Nichelle. So it was easy to set up. The biggest challenges were getting on some folks’ schedules. They’re just extremely busy or traveling or unavailable for some reason at the time you want them available. Thankfully these films take a lot of time to produce so later on they sometimes become available. You never give up. I think what’s amazing is – as you point out – what a diverse cast it is, and what a spectrum of backgrounds from politicians to entertainers and scientists. It’s amazing how many people she has touched over the course of her life and career. And also how many people she has influenced with her mission and her effort. It’s pretty amazing.
One person you didn’t have was William Shatner, was that one of those schedule issues?
We were in touch with Mr. Shatner over the course of the last couple of years and it was scheduling. It had nothing to do with him not wanting to be involved. In fact, right before the film was released in theaters back in February, he gave us a really nice Tweet about the project. So it was just really a matter of scheduling and availability.
One of the things I like about the documentary is that you keep it tight to 90 minutes. It must be hard to edit it down with so much material and a whole life to cover. What were the hardest things for you to cut?
There are definitely some segments that luckily for us you can watch those segments in the bonus material if you buy a download from iTunes. There’s definitely content that did end up on the cutting room floor just purely from a timing perspective. There was one gentleman whose story in itself warrants another film. I still wanted to include his story, but it is so in-depth and so impactful and definitely plays into what Nichelle was dealing with at the time when she was on the road, but it was so impactful that we had to spend a good amount of time on it to really get it to come across. Luckily, we still have it in my back pocket for future potential use.
But there’s a lot of stuff we tried to include in the bonus material. There’s a beautiful moment where she’s reminiscing and looking through the pages of this 400-page final report she drafted for NASA. And there is this great moment outside the Chinese Theater with this special Star Trek event and we got to some people that are just friends of hers and things like that. Some of it you get to catch you in the bonus material and other stuff we’ll have to wait for a sequel.
Can you imagine doing any other Star Trek-related documentaries?
We’re actually in the process of developing one. We haven’t really presented it yet to Paramount+, but it’s definitely Star Trek-inspired, let’s put it that way. Yeah, I think the opportunities with Star Trek are endless because it such a rich, incredible storyline. And it’s based on such an incredible thing that I think resonates with everybody at all times. And it’s a very timeless gem for us. And we’re so lucky that Gene Roddenberry had the insight, and the ability to connect with the right people to get that series on the air when it’s what he did. And who would have thought, here we are 50-plus years later, with new storylines and new characters, but still standing on that mission as a message of inclusivity and diversity and just human nature to explore.
Woman in Motion trailer and clips
Find more coverage of Star Trek documentaries at TrekMovie.com.