Director Nicholas Meyer Talks Wrath of Khan And Star Trek: Discovery
When Star Trek fans look back on the franchise, there’s no shortage of highlights, but Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is commonly cited as the best of the best. It’s hard to believe, then, that director Nicholas Meyer—who also had a hand in piecing together a script from several old drafts—came on board with virtually no knowledge of the series. Fortunately, he had already developed his genre storytelling skills as a novelist (The Seven Per-Cent Solution), a screenwriter (Invasion of the Bee Girls), and a director (Time After Time)—and he was quick to adapt. In fact, he was so comfortable with the franchise that he later co-wrote Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, also directing the latter.
Next week, Meyer will be in Toronto for TIFF’s 50 Years of Star Trek, participating in a Trek Talk and introducing a screening of The Wrath of Khan. In anticipation of that screening, we talked to Meyer about his first Trek triumph, his interaction with series creator Gene Rodenberry, and his contribution to Space’s upcoming Star Trek: Discovery.
Space: When you were brought in to work on Star Trek II, you had never seen an episode of the series. How did you brush up and what were your impressions once you did?
Nicholas Meyer: When I was finally asked to watch it, what I was shown was Star Trek: The Motion Picture and then they screened some episodes for me. For a lot of it, it took me a while to understand what I was seeing. I couldn’t understand the world that was being presented to me. It just looked silly. The outfits looked silly. The science appeared ridiculous. I was not necessarily a fan of the performances. It was all, you should pardon the expression, alien. Another way of saying it is that I missed the whole point—that it wasn’t about the costumes or the acting or the science, but it was about the metaphor. Once I started to wrap my head around that aspect of it, things started to click into place and I became more absorbed by it.
Once you reached that point, what were your ideas for taking it in a new direction?
It was just about trying to improve the trappings and keep the rest. I was saying to myself, “Okay, you don’t like the look. You don’t like the costumes. What do you like?” What I did like was what it reminded me of. It reminded me of these books about Captain Horatio Hornblower that I used to read as a kid, so that’s what I sort of made it into.
Many fans viewed the first film as a disappointment. Was there a sense that a lot was riding on Star Trek II?
I don’t really remember. I learned not so long ago that my memory is very good for some things—facts, things I’ve read, movies I’ve seen 50 times, and so forth—but not for others. For example, I’ve been asked on more than one occasion what sort of interaction I had with Gene Rodenberry on The Wrath of Khan. For years, my answer was, “I know I met him, I know I was introduced to him, but I think our interactions were extremely slight after that.” Then I went to the University to Iowa—I’m a graduate of that institution—and my papers are collected at the University of Iowa library. During a visit there, I was shown a very lengthy correspondence between myself and Gene Rodenberry regarding the screenplay of The Wrath of Khan. I had absolutely no memory of any of this. Anyway, my recollection is that I was not so much indifferent to the expectations as ignorant of them. I just didn’t know what people were thinking.
In the script, Spock was definitively dead at the end. Did you get a lot of resistance from the studio?
I had people tell me, “You can’t kill Spock.” I said, “Yeah, you can kill him. It just depends on whether you kill him well.” If you kill him and it is seen as some arbitrary working out of a clause in so-and-so’s contract, people are going to throw things at the screen and they’ll be right to throw them. But if the events proceed organically from the material then no one is going to object and indeed no one did once they saw the movie. It wasn’t until we were really finished with principal photography and showed the studio a rough cut of the film that people started thinking—certainly Leonard [Nimoy] started thinking—beyond the film.
How was the decision made to add the epilogue that gives us hope for Spock?
My recollection—and again it is arguably a flawed recollection—is that it wasn’t until very late in the process when Leonard, who had agreed to do the movie in exchange for a memorable death scene, saw the movie and started wondering whether it was really such a good idea for him to die. That was the point when people started looking forward to where this would go or where it could go. That’s when we did out little re-shoot and put the coffin on the Genesis planet.
When William Shatner read the script, he called it a disaster. After you spent 24 hours making revisions, he called you a genius. What changed during that time?
That’s about writing for a star and making sure that Captain Kirk was not bringing up the rear. Literally or figuratively, he had to be the first man through the door.
You’ve said you only had one fourth the budget of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. How would the film would be different if you had a bigger budget?
I would like to think that I would have had more leeway to fiddle with the look of the interiors of the Enterprise. It always looked sort of antiseptic and sterile to me, and I kept trying to add blinking lights. When I saw the Nostromo in Ridley Scott’s Alien, I thought, “Okay, this is much more how I would have seen a destroyer or whatever.” The other thing is that I think the Genesis planet or the Genesis cave was very much short-changed. It should have been much more spectacular.
Star Trek II was released in June of 1982, which is now seen as one of the greatest months for science fiction and fantasy cinema of all time. In addition to Khan, films like E.T., Blade Runner, The Thing, and Poltergeist were all released that month. Did it feel like a rich period for science fiction at the time?
Not only did it, but I think that’s one of the reasons why the film got made. It was the success of Star Wars that inspired a competitive urge from Paramount. The business is all about trying to make money. You find something that makes money for studio A then studio B will try to find a way to piggyback on the trend. If the Star Wars movies showed that some kind of Flash Gordon sci-fi was back in and Paramount had this potential competitive franchise, they were certainly going to sink money into it—and indeed they did.
You’re attending a screening of the director’s cut at TIFF on Wednesday. How does this version differ from the theatrical cut?
I’m annoyed that they called it the director’s cut because a few minor tweaks, which is all there are, cannot be properly said to constitute a substantively different version of the movie. I lost a couple of small battles with the studio at the time that I subsequently was able to put right when the film went to television and other places and that’s all I did. I’m suspicious of the whole term director’s cut anyway. It’s just about the director—and I may be one of them—having some kind of last word and saying, “Well, you know, now that the producer is dead or the studio isn’t interested, I can put in this shot that I wanted all along and somebody made me take out.” I’d like to think that the so-called director’s cut of The Wrath of Khan doesn’t represent that kind of self-indulgence. I’d like to think I was more disciplined than that.
You’re also participating in a Trek Talk about politics and diplomacy in Star Trek. Can you give us some sense of the ground you intend to cover?
As I was saying earlier, Star Trek is a metaphor. It’s about problems on Earth that fit in with outer space trappings and nomenclature. I don’t think Khan is about diplomacy at all. It’s a mano a mano story. Star Trek VI definitely involves diplomacy and was always intended—whether the intention was recognized or not—to be about the collapse of the Soviet Union.
How closely have you followed the Star Trek movies and series over the years? Do you have any favourites? Do you consider yourself a fan at this point?
Only in a very haphazard way. Someone recently started to show me episodes of the Star Trek series where Kate Mulgrew is the captain (Star Trek: Voyager). I really liked her a lot as the captain. I thought she was swell, but I haven’t systematically looked at them.
What about Star Trek: Discovery? What’s your involvement in this new series and how should we expect it to differ from earlier series?
I’m not allowed to discuss it, beyond what’s already known. It’s not my show. It’s Bryan Fuller who’s the showrunner and it’s his conception. I’ve written an episode for it and I try to help out with it. Beyond that, I think it’s known that it’s not episodic. It’s not centered around a captain. It’s centered around something else, a different officer.
Outside of your contributions to Star Trek, are there films you’ve written or directed that you would encourage people to seek out?
I think they should definitely read or see the movie The Seven-Per-Cent Solution because that’s the best Sherlock Holmes movie. They should definitely look at The Day After because that’s the most watched movie ever made for television. They should definitely look at the movie that I wrote Elegy with Ben Kingsley and Penelope Cruz. I think that’s a beautiful film based on a Philip Roth novella. Those would be the ones I would recommend, but there’s a lot of stuff.
34 years later, how do you feel about the influence The Wrath of Khan has had on subsequent films and TV series?
I’m very proud of it. It’s not something I can say that I planned because I didn’t know there were going to be any subsequent series. I didn’t think in those terms. I just thought in terms of the one film that I was doing.
Nicholas Meyer will be at TIFF Bell Lightbox on Wednesday at 8:45pm to introduce Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The following night at 6:30pm, he will return for the Trek Talk entitled Space, Diplomacy and the United Federation of Planets, appearing alongside astronaut Jeremy Hansen and curator Margaret Weitekamp. While you wait to see Meyer in person, be sure watch the trailer for his most celebrated film below.