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FREE ENTERPRISE: Love Long and Party
Two Trekkers describe working with William Shatner on their debut film, beaming onto video shelves November 2.
By Anna L. Kaplan
October 28, 1999
If you followed the original STAR TREK series, loved STAR WARS, collected comics, or action figures, if you play computer games, and maybe have been to a science fiction convention or two, you will understand FREE ENTERPRISE and enjoy it. The independent film, written by Mark A. Altman and Robert Meyer Burnett, was their first feature film, which Altman produced and Meyer directed and edited. Altman, the former editor of Sci-Fi Universe, and his collaborator Burnett, a film editor, were struggling with another script when they decided to write about, well, themselves, more or less, and their fictional interaction with Captain Kirk, as played by William Shatner.
From the beginning, Altman imagined actually getting William Shatner to appear in the film. He recalled, 'The original idea was that Shatner would be like Humphrey Bogart in PLAY IT AGAIN, SAM, this idol who they worship dispensing pearls of wisdom and putting their life on the right trek. But Shatner didn't want to play a guru who had all the answers. He wanted us to take it in the other direction. He wanted to be a flesh and blood man who had none of the answers and was a totally screwed up guy. He wanted to do some really wacky comedy. It wasn't until we talked with him and he suggested that we change it to make him a real screw up with foibles that he warmed to the project.'
Added Burnett, 'Originally, his character only appeared as an apparition to the main characters, a fantasy figure always having the answers. However, after finally getting in touch with Shatner, he told us he found the script totally embarrassing and had no interest playing such a deified character. Then Mark and I rewrote the script, turning the character of Shatner into a real person, but not at all like the character of Captain Kirk. After reading what we'd come up with, and giving us some great input, he agreed to play the part.'
The main characters in the film are actually two guys named Mark and Robert. Robert, played by Rafer Weigel, is a B movie editor, who has trouble getting into the real world of relationships until he meets a kindred spirit named Claire (Audie England). Mark, played by GRACE AND WILL's Eric McCormack, is a sci-fi magazine editor, facing the age of thirty without having accomplished anything meaningful. Mark and Robert wind up accidentally meeting William Shatner.
Just how close are these two characters to their namesakes? Said Burnett, 'Mark and I took the worst parts of ourselves and put them in the script. Because we kept Shatner's real name, we didn't bother to change our character's names. At the time, it seemed perfectly natural. Now though, I think it may have been a mistake. But anyone who knows us in real life does seem to really recognize our onscreen counterparts.'
Agreed Altman, 'Robert likes to call this film autobiographical fiction, which is as good a description as any. We used our own characteristics and idiosyncrasies as a jumping off point for the characters in the film, but they certainly aren't us per se. Most writers heed the mantra 'write what you know.' Ironically, it's about two guys who meet their idol and realize he's as screwed up as they are and become friends with him. That's sort of what happened in real life. Shatner is certainly not screwed up, but he's definitely not Captain Kirk, either.'
Burnett had some trepidation about directing Shatner. 'I was terrified going in, having heard all kinds of stories, but he turned out to be great fun to work with. As a first time director, I was scared of working with someone with his forty-plus years in the business. But it worked out great. My one big directorial note to him was the audience should always wonder whether his character in the film is serious, or completely insane. He really understood that note and played it perfectly.'
Both Altman and Burnett were thrilled with the finished project. Said Burnett, 'Although the film changed a great deal, I still think we did capture the essence of what we originally set out to do, which was immortalize not only our love of STAR TREK, motion pictures and pop culture, but also capture what it's like living your life lucky enough to be surrounded by a number of like-minded friends, who are always there to support you.'
FREE ENTERPRISE was first seen in the United States at the AFI Film Festival, where, as Altman said, 'It won Best Film and Best Screenplay. It was one of many film festivals we played which were instrumental for us in getting distribution. We won a lot of awards, but more importantly, we met a lot of interesting people across the world. We were in Cannes with Bill to promote the international release of FREE ENTERPRISE. Rob and I must have done over 500 interviews for the worldwide press. Bill gave the jacket he wore in the movie to Planet Hollywood in Cannes, which was a surreal experience.'
He continued, 'The film was released theatrically in early summer where it played against huge studio blockbusters. We did respectably, but more importantly, got rave reviews. To make your first film about a subject that has consumed your entire life as a calling card in the industry is just a kick. I'm thrilled that like SWINGERS it's going to have a chance to find a much broader audience on video and DVD. The film will be released by Pioneer on VHS, DVD, and a few weeks later on laser. The VHS will only have the film, but the DVD will be full of special edition features, including an hour making-of documentary, commentary from director Robert Burnett and myself, a reference track, the music video, trailers, screen tests and much more. It will also have over a half-hour of deleted scenes making it a real must for fans. The film will be on HBO and Cinemax the middle of next year.'
Altman and Burnett are now on to other projects. Burnett explained, 'I just finished editing DEAN QUIXOTE. Mark and I are writing a political satire called HEARTS AND MINDS with a tone similar to the film NETWORK. Someday, I'd also love to be able to bring some of my favorite genre novels to the screen.'
Altman reported, 'Mindfire, the company that I'm a partner in, just finished a wonderful comedy called THE SPECIALS, a film about a day in the life of dysfunctional superheroes. We're hoping to get into Sundance with it. We have a full slate of films for next year, which include a few genre films. I'm also very involved in setting up FREE ENTERPRISE as a sitcom. We've got some strong interest from a network and a cable station, and I'd love to have this happen for fall of next year. That would really by the culmination of this experience. In the meantime, we'll just continue to love long and party.'