Nicholas Meyer [Interview]

Oh do we have a hell of an interview for you fine folks today! We’ve featured several writers on these digital pages that have been in a class all of their own to say the least. And today is no exception. Today we have a lovely collection of answers from Academy Award nominated, and 3 time Emmy Award nominated, writer and director Nicholas Meyer.

I first fell in love with Meyer’s work on the 2003 film starring Anthony Hopkins and Nicole Kidman known as The Human Stain. So I reached out. Unfortunately, I would learn a thing or two about the film business when asking him about this film that I have long since admired. Which happens, quite frequently really. When you take everything at face value, your naive ways are eventually going to be exposed. Nonetheless, I am very happy that he was willing to go a bit more in detail on his dealings with a film I so enjoyed.

Of course, the reason I may have some new readers here today would be because Nicholas Meyer has been heavily engrossed in the world of Star Trek. We have featured several writers, producers, and directors from the Trek world in the past, but this is a big get, guys. Meyer penned what is widely considered to be the best story in the Star Trek franchise, by the people who truly know/care about the franchise, known as Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. He would continue to work steadily in the film franchise, but his work on Khan has given this man royalty status in the legion of Trekkies out there.

So, ladies and gentlemen, lest we continue the babbling, and get right into some amazing words from legendary writer and director Nicholas Meyer!

When did you first discover that you had a talent for the written word? Was it a passion that was always there, or did you just sort of fall into the idea of writing for a living?

I began writing – or rather dictating – stories to my father, who wrote them down, when I was five.  How our dog, Lempi, carried the newspaper in her mouth home from the grocery store; that sort of thing.  I was read or told bedtimes stories as a child and I expect this prompted my imitations.  After a year or so (I’m guessing here), my father claimed to be tired of being my stenographer (already he knew my affection for big words, thanks to Kipling’s Just So Stories), and told me I must write my own stories from then on.  And so I did.
It was never my conscious intention to become a writer; writing was simply a reflexive action I performed. I think, among other things, writing was a palliative for my intermittent bouts of anxiety.  Words became my familiars.  When confused, I reached for a pencil.  Later, a typewriter… then an electric typewriter… now a computer.  Ultimately, a camera.

My conscious goal was to be an actor, but I learned – with some surprise – that I had not the gift.  It was around this time that I discovered directing as a job and changed my ambition to that.  The writing, as I’ve indicated, just sort of tagged along.  One day I looked up and found I’d written quite a bit and was making a living at it.  Quelle Suprise.

Your legendary novel The Seven-Per-Cent Solution is hands down the greatest Sherlock Holmes story every told, in my opinion. A damn fine clever one! So, where did the idea of a cocaine addicted Sherlock Holmes meeting Freud come from in your mind? How did you manage to rationalize this idea to be something that could work in the Holmes universe?
When one runs out of Doyle’s Holmes stories, the impulse to write more has inspired many before me.  As my father was a psychoanalyst, it wasn’t long before I found myself wondering how much Doyle knew of the life and work of Sigmund Freud, whose methods, to my impressionable mind, were so reminiscent of Holmes’s.  I was startled to learn they were both doctors, had died in the same city, within nine years of one another.  Holmes was a cocaine user; so was Freud.  From there, plot ideas began to occur to me.  The thing gestated for years but took off during a Writers Guild strike during the early 1970’s. My screenwriting-filmmaking career was just getting underway and suddenly we weren’t allowed to write scripts.  My girlfriend pointed out that now was the perfect time to write that Holmes-Freud novel I’d always been on about. And with nothing better to do, she was right.  Incidentally, I wasn’t the first person to perceive a resemblance between Holmes and Freud (even Freud reluctantly conceded it!); I was merely the first person to attempt a novel derived from the idea.

I absolutely loved 2003’s The Human Stain. A film you adapted from a Philip Roth novel. That feels like such a difficult world to have to live in for any amount of time. Can you tell us a bit about what it was like to attempt (and ultimately succeed) in bringing this story to the screen?

The Human Stain was a bittersweet experience for me.  Robert Benton is a wonderful director and a marvelous human being, but ultimately we disagreed on how to interpret Philip Roth. Ultimately I was “locked” out of the film and Benton re-wrote, simplified and toned down my script, which had been much more faithful to Roth’s novel.  I didn’t think the actors were miscast (as many alleged), so much as misdirected.  Why did Hopkins have to play Coleman Silk as an Englishman? (For that matter why is David Kepesh in Elegy – aka The Dying Animal, also by Roth – played as and by another Englishman, the very gifted Ben Kingsley?)  Why didn’t Nicole Kidman have Faunia’s blue collar Boston accent?  She could certainly have done it.   So much of Roth’s specificity was flattened, as was the entire socio-cultural critique of the Clinton’s impeachment proceedings leeched out of the story, which was meant to reflect those peculiar times.  Some folks – such as yourself – are fond of the film, but to me it feels an unsuccessful translation of Roth.  I find Elegy, directed (and photographed!) by Isabel Coixet far superior.
I have no doubt in my mind that many people may be tuning into this interview because you are one of the creators of arguably the most beloved addition to the Star Trek world, the great Wrath of Khan. After 35 years, Trekkies are still gushing over this film, for good reason. I am curious to know when this sort of fandom started? Was there a certain hysteria around the films from the very beginning? In those pre-internet days, what was the buzz like when people found out there was going to be a second Star Trek movie?

I never knew where the fans came from as I was not a watcher of the original show, which – at the time – meant nothing to me.  While working on the film, I was astonished, as you may conceive, to receive a letter, “If Spock dies, you die…” It did not give me a very positive view of the fans.  Notwithstanding this, I understand clearly that without the presence and persistent enthusiasm of the fans, there would have been no films, no resurrection of the show, no sequels and spinoffs.  I’ve no idea how they learned what’s happening before the internet.  I was flabbergasted on the opening day of Wrath of Khan when they showed up in the newly designed uniforms, specifically created for this (as yet) unreleased movie.   Fans may not know what they want – or like – until they get it, but there’s no denying that absent their passion, the show, its spinoffs and cinematic variants, would never have occurred.

And what is it about Khan specifically that you think makes it the classic that it is considered today?
This is one of the questions I’m most often asked and am least able to answer.  Artists are far from being the most objective judges or evaluators of their own work.  When Georges Bizet wrote the Toreador song for Carmen, the most popular baritone aria in all opera, his comment was, “Ah, well, the public want shit. There it is.”  I cannot explain the enduring popularity of The Wrath of Khan; I can merely observe and recount with wonder – and gratitude! – the fact that after thirty-five years, the film continues to exert its mysterious, alchemical, appeal.  I note with curiosity that the film seems to have special meaning for fathers and sons and also for those celebrating birthdays.  Among other things, it is, after all, a story of aging and coming to terms with aging…
And when you went on to work on further installments like The Voyage Home and The Undiscovered Country, was there still an immense amount of pressure to please the audiences? Or was there a generally feeling of trust after your success with Khan?

On the Star Trek movies I worked on, I was never aware of “pressure” to please audiences. I have always distrusted work that attempts to second guess what people want when I don’t believe they know themselves.  I work from a different assumption, namely, if I like it, I think I’ve a reasonable expectation others will, too.  This has not always proved to be the case, but it’s the only way I know how to work. I would never dream of telling you a joke I myself didn’t find funny.  On the off chance you might like it? No way.  If I’m not laughing, no one else will laugh either.  For these reasons, when I write (or direct, for that matter), I’m working to please myself.  And to be as truthful as my memory permits, it is not my recollection that on any of my Star Trek movies, anybody ever mentioned the preferences of the fans.

What are your thoughts on the modern world of film, considering all the technological advancements that have been made you since you first found your way into this business?
This is a complex question and merits a thoughtful – if lengthy – response.   Certainly the technological advances achieved by film border on the miraculous.  We can now depict ANYTHING.   Is that a good thing?   It is my belief that art thrives on restrictions.  It is when we choose or find ourselves unable to show things, either because of censorship (where would we be without censorship?) or (previous) technological limitations, that we employ imaginative, creative solutions to artistic problems.   Paintings do not move.   Music – certainly symphonic music – has no intellectual content.  Words are just code on the page, waiting to be deciphered by the brain.  In each case, it is the contribution of the viewer, auditor, audience, that completes the work of art.  The painting moves when it meets your eye.  Beethoven’s 5th becomes profound when it enters your ear.  Minus that interaction, it is merely catgut and tubing.  Art with limitations imposed upon it, resorts to symbols.  Analogies.   Allegories.  Metaphors.
But art with NO LIMITATIONS?
Movies with their capacious bag of special FX tricks now have the hideous capacity to do everything for one.  The result of all this technological progress, is the proliferation of what we term “eye candy”.  Candy, it is well to remember, is not good for you.  Movies increasingly employing all these alleged advances, increasingly render audiences passive.  Where Shakespeare once urged audiences, “On your imaginary forces, work!” now we don’t have to.   We sit in plush theatre seats or on our own couches and CGI makes literally anything at all.  The result in many cases, is a stultifying boredom, to counter or compete with which (along with the temptations of our ubiquitous smart phones), theatres endlessly pump up the volume.
The end result I find not particularly edifying.  Naturally, we want special FX in film to be as good as we can get them.  No one wants to be bounced out of the story when distracted by a Roman centurion wearing sneakers or a wrist watch.  FX can enhance a story, make the narrative more believable.   But total reliance on those FX in the end, I believe, proves destructive.  No, not destructive – perhaps distracting is the more precise word.
When you look back on your illustriously successful career as a writer, director, and more…what would you say you are most proud of?
I am arguably most proud of three accomplishments in my professional life.  First, my novel, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, in which I may claim to having revived interest in and enthusiasm for Sherlock Holmes, the deathless creation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, bringing the Great Detective back to the best-seller list for forty weeks in the New York Times – the first time he appeared there since Doyle invented him.  I’m relatively pleased with the film version, as well, for which I received my sole (to date!) Oscar nomination.
Secondly, I am proud of my contributions to the Star Trek series, having written and/or directed feature films, II (The Wrath of Khan), IV (The Voyage Home) and VI (The Undiscovered Country).  I’m particularly tickled by the enduring favor The Wrath of Khan has found over more than 35 years with audiences young and old, around the world.
But I think I am most proud of having directed the television movie dealing with nuclear war between The United States and the (then) Soviet Union.  The Day After remains the most watched film ever made for television with one hundred million viewers in a single night.  More importantly, the film changed the mind of President Ronald Reagan who came to power believing in the notion of a “winnable” nuclear war.  After seeing and being shaken by the film, (an event he documented in his diary and memoir), he wound up going to Iceland, meeting Premier Gorbachev, and signing the intermediate range missile treaty – an event, incidentally, the formed the core of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.  Of all the things I’ve done to date, I’d have to count The Day After as the most worthwhile use of my life.

What does the future hold for you? Anything you would like to plug to our readers?

I’m not good at plugging things that a not yet realities.  That said, I’m pleased that my series,  MEDICI – Masters of Florence, is going into its second season.   Waiting to hear if my other series, Star Trek: Discovery will do the same.  I also am happy to recommend my memoir, The View From The Bridge: Memories of Star Trek and a Life in Hollywood, published in hardcover by the Viking Press and in paper by Penguin.
What was the last thing that made you smile?
When Donald Trump was impeached.  Oh, wait – that hasn’t happened yet.

About rontrembathiii
write. write. write.

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