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The Remaking of STAR TREK, Part 12: Writing The Motion Picture
By Edward Gross
January 03, 2000
STAR TREK creator Gene Roddenberry often attributed the success of the series to the fact that it showed man transcending his intolerance for his fellow man; it said that we, as a species, would move beyond our petty differences, which have for so long separated us, and would achieve a peace amongst ourselves and the stars. Unfortunately, what was true for a network television series and the motion picture it inspired, was not true for the real-life behind-the-scenes relationships that brought the magic to life. This has never been more true than in the writing of STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE. Although the final film would be plagued by special effects debacles, it is the writing of the script that seems to epitomizes the birthing pains of bringing the series back to life more than anything else.
The film began as a two-hour episode of the abandoned STAR TREK II television series. The plot of 'In Thy Image' had been derived from a Roddenberry-written premise for GENESIS II entitled 'Robot's Return,' in which a NASA space probe returns to Earth seeking its creator. Science fiction writer Alan Dean Foster wrote the treatment for the film. 'After my treatment was handed in,' he says, 'it was decided to open the new series with a two-hour movie for TV, which is fairly standard procedure when they can manage it for dramatic series, and it was decided that my treatment of the ones they had at hand would be the best suited to carry two hours. At least that's what I heard. I went home and developed a 32-page outline.'
That outline, like 'Robot's Return,' dealt with an old space probe that had achieved consciousness and was now returning to Earth to join with its creator. While the story worked quite well as far as the show's production team was concerned, there was no intention of having Foster write the actual teleplay. Harold Livingston, co-producer of the would-be series, says, 'Alan Dean Foster was a protégé of Gene's, and he was brought in to me to write something. So I wanted to see something he had written, and he brought me two screenplays which I thought were terrible, and I didn't want him to write. I just didn't think he was right for the job. This was obviously a very subjective judgment, but that's what they're paying me for. They either rely on my judgment, or they get someone else. I made a deal with Alan's agent that he would write a story and agree not to do the script. So he wrote a story which was this business of the old machine coming back to Earth and assuming a kind of life form. I didn't know that this had also been an episode of the original STAR TREK ['The Changeling'].
'At this point we were starting to come to a production date as well. I then began to look for writers to turn the story into a script. I went through two or three weeks of talking to people, and I couldn't find anybody that I liked. With five weeks to go, I decided I'd write it myself. So I sat down, and for five weeks I wrote this script of 'In Thy Image.' I finished the first draft, delivered it to Gene, and Gene said, 'God, it's good. You've done your job. Now just relax, and I'll write the second draft.' He writes it in a week. Then he brought it in, gave it to us proudly in a bright orange cover, and there it is, 'In Thy Image,' by Gene Roddenberry and Harold Livingston. He took first position. We all read it, and I was appalled, and so was everyone else. There was [story editor] Jon Povill, [producer] Bob Goodwin, myself and Bob Collins, who was the director.'
Adds Collins, 'Harold and I sat there, and we asked each other which one of us was going to tell him that it wasn't quite right. Finally, I said 'Hell, I'm the director,' and walked out of the room.'
Harold Livingston continues the scenario: 'I said, 'I'll tell him.' I went in, and I said, 'Gene, this doesn't work.' Well, his face dropped to his ankles. Then I got myself wound up and I told him why it didn't work, and I said, 'Why'd you do it? When something works, you don't piss in it to make it better!' In any case, he was pretty stubborn about this. He thought it was good and said, 'We'll give it to the front office.' Well, about three days later, we have a meeting in Michael Eisner's gigantic white office. We sat around this huge table. There was Roddenberry, myself, Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg, the head of television, Arthur Fellows; and a couple of other guys. Michael had the two scripts. 'In Thy Image' by me was in a brown cover, and Gene's version was in an orange cover. Michael had one script in one hand and one in the other, balancing them in his palms. And he said, 'Listen, this is the problem. This'Gene's orange script'is television. This'the brown script'is a movie. Frankly, it's a lot better.' Well, holy shit! Everybody was clearing their throats. The great man had had his feathers ruffled. Anyway, after some heated discussion, it was decided to let Collins write a third version using the best elements of both. So Collins did this after two or three weeks, and his was a total disaster.
'Along that time, Roddenberry and I really began to get at each other's throats. December came along, and my contract was coming up. Before they could fire me, I quit. We had too many problems there. I just didn't think that Gene was a good writer. Hefor his part, I'm sureconsidered me a total interloper. Who the hell am I to come in? I understand that; in fact, I understood it, but I wanted to instill some literary value into these science fiction myths. He had his own formula which worked. He was obviously saturated with science fiction. I think he knew a lot about a lot of things, generally, and he had a great following. Here I was getting on his nerves.'
One undeniable contribution to the script that came from the rewrite, however, was Roddenberry's idea of having the probe, eventually called V'Ger (short for Voyager 6) release all its data into Will Decker. Livingston's conclusion, on the other hand, merely had the probe recognizing the positive qualities of man as a species and departing the galaxy. 'Robert Goodwin theorized that I just pissed away the ending because I was so disgusted with the situation,' muses Livingston. 'I think the truth is that I couldn't come up with an ending. I just couldn't do it. The problem was that we had an antagonist so omnipotent that to defeat it, or even communicate with it, or have any kind of relationship with it, made the concept of the story false. How the hell do we deal with this? On what level? Everything pretty much worked in the story until we got to the ending. We tried all kinds of approaches, including aesthetic, theological and philosophical. We didn't know what to do with the ending.'
Jon Povill, on the other hand, did. 'We knew we had to have a big special effects ending,' he says. 'The problem of what was going to happen at the end and why it was going to happen, was one that plagued the script from the very start. Then Gene came up with the idea of the machine dumping its data into Decker, with a light show of all the information it had accumulated. We were going to get all this amazing, incomprehensible stuff that V'Ger had accumulated in its travels across the universe, and, of course, nobody could come up with these images, so that didn't work. It was pretty much my contribution to say that the reason for what was happening was that this thing needed to go on to the next plane of existence; that it was transcending this dimension and going on to the next. It then became logical that the machine would need that human element to combine with. It was the only thing that could have made sense.'
Upon quitting STAR TREK, Livingston went to work at Aaron Spelling Productions, believing he was leaving the 23rd Century behind him. Under the guise of wanting to infuse the production with 'fresh writer blood,' Dennis Clark was hired just as the TV-movie became a theatrical film. From the writer's point of view, it was not a happy experience. Clark explains, 'I try never to bum-rap people. The problem with Gene is that his heart was never in the right place at the right time. It's a good heart, but he puts it aside at the wrong times. I was the subject of a practical joke from him. An awful one, and it was right at the beginning of the relationship and it set things off badly. Gene's a nice man, unless you give him some power.' He elaborates, 'In all the time I've been writing, I've got one person that I work with--and that person is now my wife. At that time, she was my assistant, my editor, and everything else. Everybody had accepted that for years, and one morning I came in to find that according to Gene's dictates, she had been replaced and he had given me a gum-chewing secretary who played rock and roll music. It turned out later that it had been an actress [Grace Lee Whitney] he hired to put me on.
'It wasn't fun for me. I almost killed her,' he admits. 'I have a bad temper. It would have been a great joke for anybody else, but I take my work seriously and the rest of my life with a grain of salt and some whimsy. Of course they hadn't fired my assistant, but they made me believe that Paramount had and there was nothing they could do. I did more damage to myself over a temper tantrum....it was bad taste, but that was Gene. I do have to say that he is the only person who made STAR TREK work over the years, because he had the guts and the balls to hang there with it, but he makes very bad mistakes with the people that work with him. He alienates them. I was always a Trekkie. I would have been very proud to have my name on the first STAR TREK movie. That practical joke was the beginning of the end. I got pissed off; Gene got pissed off, and the only mediator was Bob Wise, who looked at me and said, 'I'm going to have to fire you, aren't I?' And I said, 'Yes.''
Clark's involvement with the film lasted approximately three months, two of which 'I spent hiding from Nimoy and Shatner because they didn't want me to talk to them. I'd have to leave my office when they were on the lot, because actors want to tell you, 'This is how I perceive the character,' and Gene didn't want their input. He didn't want me to have their input. He didn't even like Bob Wise's input....I wish I could tell you more, but my point of view is very biased, and it's a part of my life I don't even like to think about.'
Paramount's Jeffrey Katzenberg, Robert Wise and Gene Roddenberry all asked that Livingston return to the film. Reluctantly, he did so. 'I had an understanding with young Mr. Katzenberg and Mr. Wise and Gene that I would do it as long as Gene didn't write,' explains Livingston. ''I don't want Gene to put pen to paper. You want me to write it, I will write it. I'll do all the rewriting you want, but I will do it.' I had a certain style I wanted to do the script in, and I had directions I wanted the characters to explore. The first thing that happened is that I rewrote 'x' number of pages, and they were to be pouched to Eisner and Katzenberg in Paris. Somehow, Roddenberry got a hold of it, rewrote it and sent that to Paris. Eisner called up from Paris and said, 'What kind of shit is this?' Then Wise and I had to explain what happened. This kind of thing continued, and Gene would be very remorseful and contrite, 'I was just trying to help.' I said, 'Listen, Gene, I'm not going to do this if you're going to keep this up.' Well, I quit three times. I resigned. I'm talking about $10,000 a week.'
Each time he quit, Livingston was cajoled to come back to work by either Robert Wise or Jeffrey Katzenberg. Needless to say, the same problems would begin anew. 'As we began shooting,' recalls Livingston, 'we would get to a point where I would send in pages; then Gene would send in different pages, and Wise would get two different versions. Sometimes I would write it and put my initials on them, and Gene would put 'G.R., 4PM' under mine, as though that's what should count, and my pages should be ignored. This was the way the picture was made. For the third time I quit, I said, 'Screw it, nothing is worth this.' Now we weren't talking to each other. Gene has a brilliant story mind for this kind of thing, but he's a bad writer. He's clumsy. Anyway, the third time they really went behind Gene's back. I said I wouldn't have anything to do with it, and Eisner called me himself from New York and said I had to fix the script. I said I would do it if Gene promised he wouldn't do anymore writing, which of course was broken immediately. Finally, the picture was somehow filmed.'
Which is not to say that the problems were over. The writing credits proposed to the Writer's Guild by Paramount was screenplay by Harold Livingston and story by Alan Dean Foster. 'They left Roddenberry out,' Livingston says, 'so he protested. He's the one who launched the protest. I knew he couldn't win an arbitration, because it wasn't his script. Anything he'd done was tossed out, or most of it. In any case, I blackjacked Foster into splitting the story credit with Gene. He agreed to do it, and Gene wouldn't accept it. On that basis, I said, 'Okay, Gene, screw you. We'll go to arbitration.' When I said that, he withdrew, and he withdrew in a funk; he was mad. I said to him, 'If you felt you deserved credit, then you have a system for determining this. Why didn't you use it?' He said, 'I don't want to lower myself to that.' At that point, I guess, he decided to withdraw and assume this injured pose. But he would have lost this arbitration because he didn't write any script. All he did was rewrite, patch up, fool around and screw up everything.'
Of the situation, Alan Dean Foster recalls, 'The first thing they did was try to deny me screen credit. When the credits came out to be filed with the Guild, the credits read, 'Screenplay by Gene Roddenberry and Harold Livingston, Story by Gene Roddenberry.' I'm a very low-key guy. I'm an old handshake-is-my-bond kind of guy. Once it became a big budget movie, I became the non-existent man as soon as the budget increased, because it became serious money. Trying to keep my blood pressure down, I called my agent and said, 'What's going on?' And she said, 'Oh, that's nothing.' 'What do you mean that's nothing?' 'Nobody's mad at you or anything; that's just the business.' I said, 'Well, it's not my business, and we picked up and moved to Arizona.
'My agent suggested I file for solo credit. I said, 'Sure,' because I did 98% of the writing on the treatment. Then Harold Livingston called me and said, 'Just because Roddenberry is being a son of a bitch, doesn't mean that you have to be one too.' I thought about it, and I said, 'You're right.' So I called and said, 'Look, all I'm interested in here is having it read the way that it read on the script, which is 'Story by Alan Dean Foster and Gene Roddenberry, because it was, as I freely admit, based on his one page idea. I then get this very strange letter back saying that Gene Roddenberry is off in La Costa someplace recuperating; he's very tried, very busy, and he really doesn't have time for this. I just laughed. Is this real life or kindergarten? I just threw up my hands and said, 'Fine, whatever,' and that's why I have sole story credit on the movie.
'I had only worked with people like George Lucas, who is one of the nicest people in the movie business, and Ronald Shusett, who [co-]produced ALIEN. But STAR TREK was my worst experience. Nobody had ever tried to do that to me before. That's just the way it is, apparently. They put you in the shark cage; you learn how to fight with the other sharks, or you go back in the goldfish bowl. I belonged in the goldfish bowl.'
Although not bitter, Foster does recall Roddenberry hugging his shoulder and saying, 'You remind me of me when I was getting started. I'm going to teach you everything I know about the business.'
'He did teach me quite a lot about the business,' Foster laughs without humor, 'although I don't think that's what he originally had in mind.'
Considering the critical scorning that STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE received, it hardly seems to have been worth all the battles, though Harold Livingston remains philosophical. 'I was upset with the film,' he states. 'It just wasn't what I wanted. I can't honestly say this wasn't my fault, because in the end I took the rap for it anyway. But if I do a poor job, I'll tell you it's bad. I know it's bad and I'll welcome help. I'm certainly not infallible. Gene would never admit that he wrote a bad line or couldn't write. He made an industry of STAR TREK, and he's really done nothing else. Gene's values lay in his knowledge, his experience. If he had imparted that and let the professionals do their job, you'd have had a picture.'
In the end, STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE was deemed a disappointment by critics and the audience, who felt it was a special effects-laden, heartless adventure that failed in a couple of areas. Most notably, it proved Paramount wrong in its belief that, in the wake of STAR WARS, all the audience would concern itself with was the number of special effects that could be put up on the screen; and it failed to capture the heart and soul of the original television series that had so endeared itself to a generation. This was particularly uncanny when considering that unlike most features, ST:TMP had nearly a full decade to allow a scenario to gestate and, ultimately, that still wasn't enough time. Nonetheless, what the $44 million pricetag of the film ultimately taught the studio was how NOT to make STAR TREK film, a lesson that would lead to the far superior (and considerably more profitable)THE WRATH OF KHAN, as well as the subsequent features and televisionspin-offs. In that sense, the film's advertising campaign was absolutely right: the human adventure WAS just beginning.