Sherlock, Shakespeare, and Star Trek–An interview with The Wrath of Khan director and writer Nicholas Meyer, Part 2

We’re back today with the second part of my interview with Nicholas Meyer, director, screenwriter, and storyteller, as we celebrate the 35th anniversary of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and its return to theaters next month as part of the Fathom Events series.  Meyer directed Star Trek II and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, and he was a screenwriter on both movies as well as Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.  He chatted with me about his films and more this past week.  If you missed part one of the interview, check it out here.

CB:  You’ve written words spoken on-screen by Lawrence Olivier (The Seven-Per-Cent Solution), David Warner (Time After Time, Star Trek VI), and Christopher Plummer (Star Trek VI).  Are there any other great actors you maybe fantasize, or would like to write, dialogue for?

NM:  I’ve also worked with Jason Robards and John Lithgow (both in The Day After).  I’ve worked with some really wonderful actors.  Fantasizing about working with actors is interesting.  When I listened to the Chandos recording of the music from Henry V–the Olivier film with Christopher Plummer reciting or acting out the various Shakespeare vocal parts–I thought, “Wow, I’d really love to work with this man.”  And I wrote the part of Chang in Star Trek VI specifically for him.  That’s the first time I’ve ever written for an actor other than the Star Trek cast.  I said to my casting director Mary Jo Slater, “Whatever you do, don’t come back without him.  Because there’s no movie unless it’s him.”  It would take me longer than this conversation to rustle around in my brain other actors I’d love to work with–Benedict Cumberbatch–sure, of course.

Nicholas Meyer directing the production crew, with Christopher Plummer as General Chang, on the Klingon courtroom set of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.

CB:  Your Time After Time co-star Malcolm McDowell joined Star Trek in the seventh movie in the series, Star Trek Generations, after you were no longer with the franchise, and it always seemed to me to be an obvious choice to get him into the Star Trek universe.  Did he ever contact you about taking on a Star Trek role?

NM:  No… we never discussed it.  David Warner, who actually has been in two Star Trek movies (as Chancellor Gorkon in The Undiscovered Country and St. John Talbot in Star Trek V: The Final Fronter), was the great post-war Hamlet with the RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company), and I think Malcolm at one point was a spear carrier in that company at the time when David was this huge star.  In Time After Time they used to kid each other about those times.  Something about carrying a pack of cigarettes under your costume.

CB:  You have said you see yourself first as a writer and have been writing and telling stories since you were five years old.  Are you as excited today to sit down and craft a story as you were in 1982?

NM:  I think when I get going the answer is yes, and if it’s going well the answer is yes, and the hours can go by and I look up and it’s a week later.  But as I’ve gotten older, the process of actually starting, of facing what used to be a blank page, which is now a blank screen, having done it again and again and again…  Most of the stuff I’ve written has never been produced.  Most of the stuff I’ve written for books I’m happy to say has been published, but I haven’t written that many books.  But most of my screenplays–including probably my best screenplays–have never been done.  So as you get older and you embark on this again and again and again there is a kind of a weariness of picking up the yoke and putting it on your shoulders.  That said, getting paid for telling stories beats work any day.

On the Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan Engineering set, that’s Catherine E. Coulson (later Twin Peaks’ Log Lady) with the camera, director Nicholas Meyer (in Starfleet captain’s jacket) and James Doohan as Scotty, filming the emotional finale.

CB:  In your memoir The View From the Bridge, you mentioned some of your best ideas or solutions when writing come while doing laundry, while in the tub, or even building a model boat.  What was your biggest revelation and strangest place you found it?

NM:  The one I remember off the top of my head was figuring out how to make a screenplay out of (Philip Roth’s) The Human Stain, which, as peculiar as it may seem, came while I was sitting in a bathtub, watching my toes begin to curdle and wondering why that happens.  This was California before the drought, so there was a bath!  Suddenly, like tumblers clicking into place, this project, which had totally eluded me in the six weeks since I had agreed to tackle it, and I just couldn’t figure it out–and I was supposed to meet the studio heads and the producers in the next two or three days–I was really at my wit’s end… and suddenly just sitting there in this cooling water I got it.  And I don’t know why or where it came from.

CB:  I have this vision of the fellow in Otto Preminger’s Laura sitting there typing away in his tub…

NM:  Waldo Lydecker, played by Clifton Webb.  

Clifton Webb and Dana Andrews in Otto Preminger’s Laura (NOT me interviewing Nicholas Meyer).

CB:  Are you a fan of the film?

NM:  Mmm… some of it.  My late friend wrote the music for it.  David Raksin.  And I love the music.  I find the film a bit heavy-handed, which is some of my complaint with Otto Preminger generally.  He lays it on a bit thick.  I think Anatomy of a Murder has got to be his best movie, and even there, there’s one subsidiary character who’s got a black moustache painted on him so heavy you can’t miss who he’s supposed to be, and I’m thinking, “really?”  That doesn’t wear so well.  But, yeah, if I see it playing on TCM I’ll probably stop and watch for a while.  Just to look at Gene Tierney! 

Star Trek fandom has plenty of chatroom disputes over interpretation.  I asked Mr. Meyer about the concept of filmmakers resolving conflicts about the meaning of scenes in disagreements among fans.

NM:  The artist is not the answer to a book of math equations at the end of the book.  The artist loses all proprietary authority over the material once it’s out there.  I can’t say what it is.  I could speculate on what I intended, if I even remembered.

Nicholas Meyer, Leonard Nimoy, and William Shatner discuss a scene on the Enterprise bridge set in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.

CB:  Looking back to your writing the screenplays for The Voyage Home and The Undiscovered Country, do you recall if you were happy for any particular decisions or directions you’d locked-in with The Wrath of Khan?  “I’m glad I did that” or “I’m glad I didn’t do that in Star Trek II”?

NM:  Movies are like souffles.  They either rise or they don’t.  I think it would be churlish of me to rethink or argue about the fact that so many people are fond of this film.  I did tweak it a little for what they call a Director’s Cut.  I don’t really see how you can call it a Director’s Cut.  But I clarified a few things and restored some stuff that the studio had told me I couldn’t have in the original release and I thought they were wrong.  Having said that, I think I have to be content with the movie as it is and I don’t spend a lot of time second-guessing it.  There are things, for example, in The Seven-Per-Cent Solution–in the movie, which I did not direct, I wrote–where I wish I had the scissors.

CB:  The Summer of 1982 has been called the best summer for movies, with releases that year including Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Poltergeist, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, John Carpenter’s The Thing, Disney’s Tron, Stallone in Rocky III, Ron Howard’s Night Shift, and The Wrath of Khan.  Did you personally see a big year happening from behind the camera in 1982?

NM:  I don’t remember what happened in 1982 as I was so busy making that movie.  I never came up for air.  I never saw daylight.  I was working all day and all night…  I thought the best year for movies was supposed to be 1939!  Wasn’t that Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz…

CB:  Yes, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stagecoach, and Young Mr. Lincoln.

William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy in a memorable comedic scene from Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, written by Nicholas Meyer.

Among the seriousness of battle and death in The Wrath of Khan, the script includes plenty of humor.  When Kirk emerges after the Kobayashi Maru sequence, which has its own humor, he asks Spock, “Aren’t you dead?”  Kirk and McCoy have an almost Marx Brothers-inspired comedy bit commenting about Lt. Saavik’s hair at the turbolift.  In The Voyage Home the crewmembers of the Enterprise share many fish-out-of-water moments.

CB:  Does infusing humor in your writing, especially in the screenplay for The Voyage Home, but also in the screenplay for The Wrath of Khan, come naturally for you?

NM:  Yes. [stops] Was that funny?

CB:  Moving along…

NM:  Tom Stoppard (Brazil, Empire of the Sun, Shakespeare in Love) said that the first thing he looks for when he goes to work on a script are the jokes.  Tom Stoppard–who is one of my idols.  I do that, so I get very excited.

James Doohan and Nicholas Meyer looking for the pink Klingon blood stain on an assassin’s radiological suit, on the set of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.

CB:  In 1982 I watched Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan with my brother at the S.E. 14th Street Drive-in Theater in Des Moines.  In college I watched Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home nearly every night for a year to wind down.  My wife and I saw Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country on opening weekend on a date 26 years ago…  I want to say thank you on behalf of my family and all your fans for all these great stories.  We all hope to see you back in the Star Trek universe and look forward to your work on Star Trek: Discovery and seeing Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan in theaters again.

NM:  Thank you so much.  You more than made my day.

Writer, director, storyteller Nicholas Meyer.

Find more about the September return to theaters of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, part of the Fathom Events series, and get your tickets now at the Fathom website here.  You know we love dogs here at—and you can follow Nicholas Meyer’s dog Stella from the Star Trek: Discovery Writer’s Room at the Twitter account StarTrekDog hereStar Trek: Discovery premieres Sunday, September 24, 2017, on CBS with subsequent airings on CBS All Access.

For more insight into Mr. Meyer, check out his memoir The View from the Bridge, available here from Amazon, and the commentary track to his Director’s Cut Blu-ray of The Wrath of Khan, available here.  Contemporary interviews can be found in Allan Asherman’s 1982 behind the scenes book The Making of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, available here.  All are great resources.

C.J. Bunce

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