Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan–a member of that fabled Class of 1982’s “best summer of movies”–turned 35 this year, and to celebrate, the film is returning to theaters as part of the Fathom Events series. It has been said the film’s director and screenplay writer Nicholas Meyer saved Star Trek. Meyer was well-known as the author of the New York Times bestselling novel The Seven-Per-Cent Solution and its screenplay, which earned him an Oscar nomination, and for directing and writing the screenplay for the fan-favorite, time travel thriller, Time After Time. After the lukewarm response at the box office to Star Trek: The Motion Picture, executive producer Harve Bennett tapped Meyer to take the franchise in a bold, new direction, and the result, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, became the best reviewed film of the franchise and a classic among all science fiction. Many details about Meyer’s work have been recounted in Allan Asherman’s The Making of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Meyer’s own memoir, The View from the Bridge. Meyer has also shared a trove of his thoughts and work on the film in director commentaries accompanying the film’s various home releases. He’s not quite finished with Star Trek yet–he’s back again as a writer and producer on the new series, Star Trek: Discovery, premiering next month.
I was ecstatic to interview Nicholas Meyer this past week and listen to him reminisce as director and screenwriter of The Wrath of Khan for the approaching anniversary theatrical release, and ask him questions I’ve had for years about his long writing career. Meyer sees himself first as a storyteller. In addition to The Wrath of Khan, he wrote the screenplay for Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and he directed and wrote the screenplay for Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. I think you’ll discover—or rediscover—that in Meyer’s selections of leading stage and screen actors like Christopher Plummer, Meyer provided gravitas to the Star Trek universe, and by infusing classical literature into the voices of characters from the likes of Shakespeare, Doyle, and Melville, he elevated Star Trek’s story beyond mere popular science fiction. Everything that would come after The Wrath of Khan in the Star Trek franchise exists as a direct result of Meyer’s success on that film.
CB: Welcome to borg.com. Thanks for chatting with me and borg.com readers today and congratulations on the 35th anniversary of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
NM: Thank you so much. It’s a real pleasant surprise—As Kirk said to Scotty, “That’ll be a pleasant surprise.”
CB: Let’s talk about Ricardo Montalban as Khan. I have always loved this line: “I’ll chase him ‘round the Moons of Nibia and ‘round the Antares Maelstrom and ‘round Perdition’s flames.” When you write something like that, do you know that you’ve got it, and when you see Montalban saying it and it appears on the screen, do you get any satisfaction of seeing that all come together?
NM: Absolutely! I have to say, first of all, I didn’t write it. Herman Melville wrote it. I substituted a few planets or something. This is all Ahab. I just cribbed it. I remember with some satisfaction what I took to be at the time my cleverness (which turns out to be the curse of Kirk: “I patted myself on the back for my cleverness”). It wasn’t until I saw Ricardo actually do it that I got goosebumps, and thought, “Holy cow. This is wonderful!” And I said to him actually at some point during the movie, “You really should be playing Lear.” He sort of looks like Lear–with a big set of pecs. Because he has been on stage, he was on Broadway, he did legit plays. He was very touched, I think, that I had told him this, and he made some disparaging remark about his Hispanic accent. I said, “That’s all bullshit. You enunciate perfectly. You could do this.” I think Khan was as close as he ever got to doing it.
CB: I can’t tell you how many times I have watched him deliver that line. He’s just got it. I’m glad you got the goosebumps. I certainly did, too.
NM: Oh, yeah, absolutely! You know a director in one sense is supposed to be, in a way, the perfect or ideal audience. That’s what I’m doing. I’m sitting behind the camera–or near it–and looking, with my jaw hanging open at the amazing things that actors can do to bring to life things that were just words on a page. It is incomplete without them. Without them it’s just a blueprint. With them, when it’s really good, you forget to say “cut.” You’re just sitting there with your mouth hanging open, with tears running down your face, or whatever. Also, in the confusion of making a movie, you may forget–and directors do forget or are utterly indifferent–to go up to the actor and say, “That was great” or “That was wonderful.” There are stories of Olivia de Havilland saying to William Wyler on The Heiress, “You haven’t said a word to me.” And he said, “I’m sorry, everything you were doing was great.” He didn’t think to say it. I’m sure that several times watching Montalban I simply forgot to say “cut.”
CB: You’ve written several mash-ups, Sherlock Holmes meeting Sigmund Freud in The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, even more in your sequel, The West End Horror, and then H.G. Wells meeting Jack the Ripper in Time After Time. What do you like about writing mash-ups and the further adventures of existing characters?
NM: First of all, when I wrote The Seven-Per-Cent Solution I don’t think there was such a term as mash-up! When I put Holmes together with Freud, it was very logical, because my father was a shrink. We would have conversations at the dinner table and he would say, “What do you think about a man who always shows up five minutes late?” or “What do you think about a man who forgets to tie his shoe?” We would all speculate. And he was actually, indirectly, I suppose, referring to some of his patients. When I listened to my father talk, I realized that he reminded me of Sherlock Holmes. I grew up ten or eleven years old reading all the Sherlock Holmes stories. I found myself wondering how much Arthur Conan Doyle knew or was aware of the life and writings of Sigmund Freud. This was another ten years later–I thought, “They’re both doctors, and they both died in London within nine years of each other. And Holmes was a cocaine user. So was Freud, who first wrote about cocaine as an anesthetic in eye surgery. Arthur Conan Doyle studied opthalmology, in Vienna no less.” I thought, “Wow, this is a lot of coincidences.”
So the mash-up came in sort of slow motion over 15 years. I was about twenty-seven years old when I finally sat down to write The Seven-Per-Cent Solution. Then that was compared with Ragtime, which came out more or less at the same time, as if it was a big innovation–putting fictional and historical people together. But Walter Scott had surely done this a hundred years earlier. That’s what historical novels do. I can’t talk about The West End Horror and all the people running around. I just thought it would be fun to put Holmes in the world of the theater in March of 1895 and see if I could make a mystery about what everyone was doing at that time. And I guess that is a mash-up of sorts, although they all were doing the things they were doing at the time.
Time After Time was not my idea. My friend Karl Alexander, who was at the University of Iowa with me–he was in grad school when I was undergrad–came to me and said he was writing this book and he had 65 pages and an outline, and would I read it and give him my thoughts. The short version is that I read it and gave him my thoughts and then I had a thought of my own, which was, “Jesus Christ, option his book and make a movie!” So I basically optioned an unfinished novel and then wrote the screenplay to suit myself. He was the one to put Holmes together with the Ripper.
I think there’s a big difference if we’re talking mash-up distinctions between Holmes and Freud, which is a mash-up of actual individuals with specific traits, whereas Wells and the Ripper is a mash-up of types. Ripper is simply a stand-in for every form of malevolent humanity. And Wells represents enlightened, liberal, scientific progress.
CB: You’ve mentioned in your book and commentaries about the influence of nautical tales like Horatio Hornblower and Captain Blood on your take on the crew, the bridge, and the uniforms for The Wrath of Khan, and you’ve compared the Khan vs. Kirk battle to that of two U-boat captains. Have you ever considered writing an original novel of the C.S. Forester or Patrick O’Brian variety?
NM: When you read O’Brian–and once you read him you can’t quite get it out of your head–you realize this is a guy who really knows his stuff. Unless you are a complete master of square riggers, and…
CB: …or knot tying…
NM: That’s right …I don’t think I would dare to do it. I can write science fiction because you’re just making shit up. It’s tougher, I think, to do that. I am at home in the Victorian world of London and environs. Don’t ask me why. Just a lifetime of reading that stuff. But… I think not.
CB: Speaking of British novels, in The View from the Bridge you identified the search for the assassins in The Undiscovered Country as an Agatha Christie locked room mystery. Spock is so very Holmesian. Do you recall crafting Spock—was he Holmes or Poirot, or a bit of both?
NM: He says in Star Trek VI, “An ancestor of mine once maintained that if you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” That’s Holmes. He’s claiming descent from Holmes.
There’s much more to my interview with Nicholas Meyer, including his thoughts on working with Shakespearean actors Christopher Plummer, David Warner, and Malcolm McDowell, and he delves deeper into his writing process. Come back tomorrow here at borg.com for part 2. And get your tickets now from Fathom Events for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan’s return to theaters here.