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STAR TREK: Directing The Motion Picture
Oscar-winner Robert Wise on bringing the Enterprise to the big screen.
By Frederick C. Szebin
January 12, 2000
STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE has to be one of the most frustrating near-misses in the history of SF cinema. At one time only dreamt of by the original TV show's fan base, then reviled, ST:TMP actually isn't the grand mess it was once thought to be. Indeed, if you were to sit with it after all this time, you might agree that all it really needs is another run through the editing machine. Although the picture led to the rebirth of STAR TREK as a creative and marketing entity, including film sequels, new television series, comic books, novelizations, action figures, and anything else Trek that you can name over the past 20 years, ST:TMP remains a work in progress, snatched from the artist's hands (literally) before the print was dry.
'It's not one of my favorites,' director Robert Wise admits. 'I've had a lot of people tell me over the years, 'I think that film is very underrated. It's one of the best STAR TREK films ever made.' It certainly wasn't thought of that way at the time.'
Throughout the 1970sto everyone's surprisethe three seasons of the original STAR TREK series blossomed into near-legend after being sold into syndication. The clamor for TREK was kept alive by conventions, books, a Saturday morning cartoon show and, finally, the dubbing of the first space shuttle Enterprise. Even Paramount executives couldn't miss the commotion caused by the little science fiction show everyone thought dead and buried by 1969. Series creator and producer Gene Roddenberry, ensconced on the Paramount lot to create new episodes for a rebirthed STAR TREK series, had commissioned several scripts and was signing cast members when even this plan was laid waste in favor of a big screen epic.
To find a story big enough to be a STAR TREK motion picture, Roddenberry turned to 'In Thy Image', a Harold Livingstone teleplay based on a story by SF author Alan Dean Foster. In the final story, the USS Enterprise has been refitted for a new crew, but James T. Kirk takes control of it as a mysterious and deadly cloud of pure energy makes its way to Earth, destroying everything in its path. The original cast reunites to take on V'jer, actually the NASA Voyager craft enhanced with alien technology and on a search for its creator, not realizing that what it considers to be a carbon-based infestationhuman beingsis actually responsible for its own existence.
The myriad details of STAR TREK's tortuous route from TV to screen have been detailed by Edward Gross in 'The Remaking of STAR TREK,' a virtual text on how not to make a big budget SF movie. Robert Wise (THE HAUNTING) became available after such names as George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, William Friedkin and George Roy Hill were unavailable, and after Phillip Kaufman (who helmed the remake of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS) bowed out. Wise was of course best known for his Oscar-winning musicals, THE SOUND OF MUSIC and WEST SIDE STORY, but he had also directed two impressive science fiction films, THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL and THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN; the former, in particular, is considered a classic of the genre. The director was originally number four on Roddenberry's wish list, but was involved with the reincarnation chiller AUDREY ROSE when first considered. But ST: TMP's long and winding road to a theater near you took sooooo long that Wise was eventually available and accepted the assignment, though with a few reservations.
'My problem with the film was two-fold,' Wise says. 'We had to start shooting before we were ready with the script, and the actors were on payroll even before I came on because the original script was intended to be a major TV movie. Somewhere along the line, they decided to make it a feature film.
'It wasn't my best science fiction,' Wise continues. 'I was not a trekkie. I had not been caught up in the series. I knew of its popularity, but that was it. When it came time to do the film, I was intrigued by it because I thought that I had done two SF films that were earthbound, maybe it was time I got up into the heavens!'
To prepare himself for entering the Star Trek mythos, Wise watched several of what Roddenberry and then-Paramount chief Michael Eisner thought were among the series' best episodes. Impressed by some and leery of others, Wise was interested in the challenge of turning a TV concept into a silver screen production, and accepted the assignment. 'We had to add the Spock character, who hadn't been in the first script I read that was going to be done for TV,' says Wise. 'Leonard Nimoy said he didn't wasn't to do Spock anymore. One of the first things Roddenberry and I had to do was convince Leonard that the show was going to be a big screen movie, and to come back to the character. We also had to get the script in shape. While the actors were still getting paid. Finally, Paramount said, 'We can't just keep paying these actors for just sitting around. You've got to start shooting,' and they gave us a start date. So, we had to start shooting with only the first act of the script complete. We were rewriting all the way through production, to the very last day. We were getting three sets of changes a day for the next day's work. It got so bad that they had to put the time of day along with the date on the new script changes. That's no way to work.'
The other problem Wise had to face on the production was with the special effects. At that time, Robert Abel's company had specialized in commercials, accepting the task of ST:TMP as their first foray into big budget picture making. 'Working with them was trying,' Wise recalls. 'Finally, we were almost finished shooting, and I was getting worried, having worked along with them on the set, about what they might produce. They had very talented people with them, but they were very, very slow. So I finally managed to see some tests on what they had done. When I saw the tests I knew immediately that we were never going to get the picture done with them. We had a locked-in release date of Christmas, 1979. I had to go to the brass and say, 'Look, these people could probably finish it if we had two or three more years, but we don't have it.' They learned from that, of course, and some of their subsequent films were quite good, made much more economically. I was their guinea pig somehow.
'We had to let them go,' Wise continues, regarding the film's original special effects crew. 'Fortunately, we got Doug Trumbull and John Dykstra to come on and split the work between them, but we were so far behind by then that they had to work their crews practically around the clock to meet our deadlines. That ran the budget up untold millions. I resented so much money being spent on making a movie based on a TV show. That's why it was not one of my favorite experiences.'
If they had been unable to meet the studio-imposed deadline, Paramount could have been sued by the 500 theater owners who were expecting Trek for Christmas. Even with this pressure on, Wise tried to placate Paramount brass and beg for more time, but to no avail. 'At one point, I was in a meeting with Eisner, Katzenberg and Barry Diller, who wanted the picture done. I said, 'Well guys, Ok. We open in December. What are you going to call itThree Quarters of Star Trek: The Motion Picture? Come on!' We finally did it, but only because everyone was working day and night.
'Right at the very end,' Wise adds, 'we got our answer print. I would get up at 2:00 in the morning to check a print, or just a reel. They were doing a reel at a time. I literally took the Washington, DC premiere print with me on the plane and had it under the bed in my hotel room the night of the premiere! There was literally no time to have a sneak preview. We just barely made the opening.'
With 39 films under his belt, ST:TMP was the only film he'd made that didn't have a sneak preview. Twelve minutes had been trimmed early on, but when the picture was sold to TV that footage was reinstated, a move the director felt was 'a terrible thing to do.' Trade papers had seen the film a day or two earlier and gave it favorable reviews. But after the official premiere, other critics were not so kind, and word spread quickly that the long-awaited Trek movie was a dog.
'I was disappointed,' Wise says of the critical reaction. 'I always regretted not having a sneak preview so we could do more editing on it. I think it could have stood a little cutting for pace. Still, I think we had a better picture than we were given credit for.'
This is certainly true. ST:TMP is a good movie made under terrible circumstances. A bit lengthy, it is still a fun space adventure. The Enterprise's journey through V'jer's cloud structure is reminiscent of 2001: A SPACE Odyssey's stargate sequence; geometric designs and colorful streams of pure energy glide to the eye in much the same way Dave Bowman's journey to Grand Consciousness intrigued young audiences a decade earlier. Nevertheless, excising 20 minutes would help the film immeasurably.
Although not the best of the STAR TREK filmography, STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE stands as the war horse that revived an SF legend. It was only traditional Hollywood financial excess that nearly did it in, but for what was unleashed, the initial cinematic Trek foray deserves reconsideration, even if that be done with a less-critical eye than would be otherwise given.