Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Heath Holland On...Hollywood's Heroes: Nicholas Meyer

by Heath Holland
Why is this writer/producer/director not the most sought-after man in Hollywood?

Until recently, my main exposure to the work of Nicholas Meyer was based primarily on his contributions to the Star Trek movie franchise, particularly the ones he directed (chapters II and VI). It was the desire to hear the stories behind those movies that led me to his book, The View from the Bridge, in which he dishes on more than any film fan could possibly hope for.

As I read the book, though, I was immediately impressed with the sort of human being that Nicholas Meyer is and what drives him to create his art. Here’s a guy who is fiercely intelligent; though he never says this about himself, I’ll say it about him. His influences and interests are movies, books, live theater, music, et al., or in other words, art. He’s a smart, well-rounded, creative cookie. Meyer didn’t get into the film business because he wanted to be rich and drive a Benz, nor did he get into filmmaking for the power or the fame. As the book unfolds, it becomes crystal clear that Nicholas Meyer loves stories, and was born to tell them. In fact, he couldn’t help it.

I came to the book for Star Trek dirt, but the stuff about Star Trek took a backseat when I started to learn about all the pies Meyer has had his finger in over the years, starting with an original Sherlock Holmes novel in which the titular (tee hee) detective meets and influences Sigmund Freud. The novel was published while Meyer was still in his twenties; two years later, he was the screenwriter of the film adaptation, The Seven Per-Cent Solution, starring Nicol Williamson as Sherlock Holmes, Robert Duvall as Watson, Alan Arkin as Freud, and Laurence Olivier as Moriarty. Herbert Ross (who I mostly know from directing Footloose) was behind the camera.

The Seven Per-Cent Solution is one of those movies that doesn’t get made anymore (I miss the seventies) and establishes something that Meyer did in just about every single movie he made that almost no one does anymore: he gives his audience credit to understand what is happening in the story without hitting them over the head or holding their hand. Meyer had the audacity to believe that if the screenplay stayed true to his vision and to the characters in his story, audiences would be able to invest and follow that story. What a guy.
The film was a success and ended up on Gene Siskel’s top 10 films of 1976. A few years later, in 1979, Meyer wrote the screenplay for a similar story that he would also direct. Time After Time was a smart time travel story starring Malcolm McDowell, David Warner, and Mary Steenburgen, in which H.G. Wells uses his time machine and chases Jack the Ripper into the 20th Century. This time, Meyer got to direct the film himself; in his book, he freely admits that he probably wasn’t the most skilled or technical director when it came to shot composition, but the film works, and it was (and still is) a success because, once again, Meyer told an intelligent story and asked that the audience have faith that if they followed him for the duration of the story, he would make it worth their while. This meant not relying on cheap tricks or well worn, hacky plot contrivances. It also meant a lack of action for action’s sake, or simply because characters had been talking for more than five minutes (not that there isn’t action; it just isn’t forced, and serves a purpose). Two theatrical screenplays in and Meyer was already establishing himself as an artistic force to pay attention to.

It was probably his commitment to telling human stories that everyone could relate to that landed him the gig as the director of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Though others received credit for the script, it’s now come to light that Meyer wrote the screenplay (based on elements of previous scripts) himself without credit so that Paramount would actually have a film to rush into theaters on the date they had decided upon for the film’s release. See, it’s not just a modern business practice of setting release dates for films before a pen has ever been put to paper; it was happening at least three decades ago.

Now, look. I really love Star Trek, but I don’t want you to think I’m being hyperbolic when I say that I honestly believe that Nicholas Meyer saved Star Trek. It might have carried on for another movie or two, but the future or direction of the property after the tepid response (critically, if not financially) to Robert Wise’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979 was not clear in any way, shape, or form. It seems doubtful that mainstream film viewers would have wanted to see the series continue in that same deliberate (read: boring) vein that the first movie had mined, and for the masses who didn’t feel the same connection to the characters that fans of the original show felt, the series needed to evolve…or die. And die is exactly what I suspect would have happened to it if it hadn’t found a way to ditch the pastel jumpsuits and reach a new audience.

Nicholas Meyer’s script succeeds at the same thing his previous two screenplays succeeded at, which is telling a very human story that just about anyone can invest in and, thus, be rewarded. Chances are, you’ve seen the movie, but bear with me: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan finds William Shatner’s James T. Kirk struggling with growing older and fearing obsolescence. He’s no longer the captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise, having been promoted to rank of admiral, and feels like the best of life has passed him by. The film is absolutely dripping with humanity and deals with hopes, fears, the inevitability of death, and the hope of a meaning at the end of it all. This stuff is firmly within the realm of Star Trek, but it strikes such a balance between the metaphysical elements and the gee-whiz space opera of Star Wars that it propelled the franchise into the stratosphere. It’s a new, literate world where people wear reading glasses and read Dickens, but also have space battles and blow things up. The story is in service of character. Character drives EVERYTHING.
I will now fail to tactfully refrain from mentioning that Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, and Damon Lindelof seem to have understood absolutely nothing about what Meyer’s screenplay has to say about any of these weighty issues when they lifted elements from it and inserted them into their own screenplay for Star Trek: Into Darkness. It’s interesting that Meyer’s book reveals he was firmly against the carrot that Wrath of Khan dangled at the end of the film about a certain character potentially returning from their very clear demise. He felt that it was unfair to the audience to ask them to follow your film into the upsetting reality of death only to pull the rug out from under them and essentially say “never mind, it’s all going to be okay!” Though he lost this argument to the studio, it’s worth nothing that he did fight the battle. How many screenwriters (including the three mentioned above) and directors seem to have absolutely no problem playing fast and loose with audiences emotions and killing characters off only to bring them back not a film later, but mere minutes later, effectively rendering the loss pointless?

Over the next few years, Meyer would helm the Tom Hanks/John Candy comedy Volunteers, contribute to the screenplay of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, direct Pierce Brosnan in a Merchant Ivory project about murders in India being committed by the Thuggee cult (see Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom for more on those guys), and write and direct a Gene Hackman political thriller set in Russia called Company Business. What do these films have in common with each other? Absolutely nothing. Here’s a guy who is bound and determined not to be boxed in by success and who refuses to do the same thing over and over just because it leads to a paycheck. I’ll say it again: what a guy.

Perhaps it’s telling that the one thing he revisited was Star Trek. In 1991, with the original series cast growing just a bit too long in the tooth to convincingly play what Gene Rodenberry had reportedly conceived as a space-version of the Coast Guard, Meyer was tapped to send the original cast into the good night, making way for the Next Generation of actors to boldly go where no one has gone before. I wrote about Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country a while back and will spare you by not waxing philosophical. Suffice it to say, since I’ve developed an even deeper relationship with that movie since I first wrote about it, and my thoughts and feelings on it are now more warm, nostalgic, yet complicated then they ever were.

Nicholas Meyer was the man who gave Star Trek new life (still not hyperbole!) and it was fitting that he was the man to send the original crew into the Undiscovered Country. His screenplay was timely (dealing with the Cold War at a time when tensions with Russia were in the news every day. Boy, glad that’s all over…) smartly political (The Manchurian Candidate in space), and full of action, humor, and…here we go again, humanity that you can’t help but latch onto. Surprising (or not) that Meyer apparently fought battle after battle with Paramount over the film concerning everything from budget to casting to the title to, once again, the ending of the film. But fight he did, and the film is better for it.
Since 1991, Meyer’s career seems to be characterized more by his contributions to film rather than films themselves. The only thing he’s directed between then and now is the 1999 HBO TV movie Vendetta, starring Christopher Walken, about a 19th century mass lynching in New Orleans. He has writing credits on projects as varied as the Dreamworks animated Old Testament film The Prince of Egypt and The Human Stain, the 2003 dramatic thriller starring Nicole Kidman/Anthony Hopkins. His most recent work was the mini-series Houdini, starring the object of my affection, Adrian Brody.

The point of all of this is not to say that Nicholas Meyer is always a great filmmaker or a writer, or that everything that he touches is fantastic. I don’t think I would be very successful in convincing you of that, and I think that his work, just like everyone else’s, has its ups and downs. Instead, my point is to hopefully show what a remarkable and varied career the man has had, and is still having, and to celebrate an artist who takes chances and stuck to his guns about what is best for this form of media that we all love so much, even when the studios responsible for making that art are more concerned with mass appeal and the highest returns than with making a good film that will stand for decades, if not centuries. I’ve mentioned some of his battles and pet projects here, but I do encourage you to seek out his book. It’s far less focused on Star Trek than it is on Hollywood and filmmaking in general. Nicholas Meyer is one of us.

We live in a world where films have budgets that could end world hunger and where production studios, writers, and directors endlessly crank out the same tired dreck, creating a cacophony of noise and imagery that contains virtually nothing of the human condition. And sometimes that’s okay; sometimes I want a candy bar to tide me over to the next meal. I can’t eat only candy instead of meals, though, or I’d end up malnourished and empty. Thankfully, there are still creators and artists in the system that care about story and art, who want to make that one movie (or three or four of them) that will touch someone in a certain way and will never be forgotten. Nicholas Meyer is one of those artists. Hollywood needs more heroes like him, who want to keep telling stories to people, about people, and who want to find new ways to do it, never satisfied to repeat themselves. What a guy.


  1. What a great column! I've found myself checking out Meyer's IMDB page a couple times over the years, mostly due to the fact that Undiscovered Country is so damn good that I've found myself trying to figure out it's secrets. Reading your column reminds me that I've still seen very little of his work. Thanks for highlighting Mr. Meyer, and I will be on the lookout for his book.
    I also wanted to mention Christian Slater's cameo in undiscovered country just to make sure his name shows up on every Fthis post in September :-)

    1. Just noticed that Mr. Meyers first writing credit was Invasion Of The Bee Girls. This movie is a part of a drive-in 50 pack I bought a couple years ago. It's a precursor to Liquid Sky where aliens prey on men by having sex with them. Bravo Mr. Meyer!

    2. I gather that he wasn't happy about Invasion of the Bee Girls. He says his script was meant to be something else and was rewritten, and that he's never seen it. BUT, I think it sounds really cool. I'll have to keep an eye out for that Drive In collection. It looks like I'll be watching a ton of AIP movies next month.

    3. It's one of those crappy mill creek sets, so you'd be better off watching it on Amazon.

    4. I had no idea it was streaming on Amazon. I just added it to my queue. Thanks, Charles!

  2. Fantastic column, sir. Enjoyed it immensely.

    The Wrath of Khan is still the yardstick for my own writing. Like you, I don't get why the modern adventure film is so infrequently allowed to be thrilling and intelligent, or crowd-pleasing while still having a clear point of view about something. Star Trek VI, in particular, would never get made today - and I find that incredibly disheartening.

    I could say more, but then I'd get all gushy about one of my favorite filmmakers. Thanks for writing this one, Mr. Holland.

    1. We've come so far from the way movies used to be made. It's not just Star Trek VI that couldn't get made now, it's most of the movies from the '80s and '90s. Star Trek VI, by the way, was a 30 million dollar movie. Wrath of Khan was only 11. Crazy, right? They accomplished those sweeping, epic stories for what they pay one actor now. Madness.

  3. As someone who grew up with TNG rather than TOS, I respect The Wrath of Khan more than I love it (and I respect it a lot), but Meyer is primarily a hero of mine due to his three Sherlock Holmes novels, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution and its two sequels: The West End Horror, a mystery set in London's theatre scene, and The Canary Trainer, a direct sequel to 7PCS in which Holmes goes to Paris alone and winds up fighting the Phantom of the Opera mano a mano. That last one is actually my favorite; it takes the absurd mashup premise completely seriously, and wrings real nuance and heartfelt emotion out of it. One great aspect is that Holmes tries to make a young Parisian into his French Watson, but while the guy is smart and helpful, he just doesn't have Watson's courage, and therefore falls short. Meyer never belabors the point, but you can tell how much Holmes misses Watson nevertheless. Just beautiful storytelling, as you say.

    All three of his Holmes books are, in my opinion, complete masterpieces. Meyer tossed out the character of Moriarty as fans know him and invented a back story explnation for Holmes' personality, which sounds iffy but which I think works beautifully. I don't want to spoil it, but he essentially re-conceives Holmes as a permanently damaged and broken man, a brilliant one in many ways, of course, but someone fundamentally incapable of growth. Again, it sounds as though it could be reductive, but I instead find this fatal flaw of a sort instead elevates Holmes to a near-mythic level, and consider it absolutely perfect. (Of course, Meyer was the one who had Spock imply in The Undiscovered Country that Holmes was an ancestor of his.)

    I actually attended a book signing of View from the Bridge. During a Q&A, I asked Meyer if he was annoyed at the severe plot changes made from his The Seven-Per-Cent Solution novel to the movie adaptation (on which he also had sole screenwriting credit). To my mind, the movie plot was so obviously inferior that it could only have resulted from producers making him dumb his own book down; to my surprise, however, he said he'd made the changes voluntarily, due to his being dissatisfied with the book, thus putting me in the awkward position of having criticized his work while attempting to praise it. Though not without strengths - Alan Arkis is great, Robert Duvall makes an outstanding Watson, and Niccol Williamson is as good in the Holmes part as any redhead can be - I remain unsatisfied with the movie adaptation, and hope to see a more faithful adaptation of the book itself some day.

    In short: cool column, bro. :P

    1. I think the film version The Seven Per-Cent Solution is absolutely brilliant, but I haven't read his novels yet. I'm really keen to, though. It's interesting that every time I read a book based on a movie, I almost exclusively prefer the book. Films can't compare to the total immersion of a novel and have different strengths, so knowing you came to the book first and prefer that over the movie makes total sense. That's how I feel about The Prestige. Funny story about your meeting him; thanks for sharing it.

    2. EDIT: I mean to say that every time I see a movie based on a book, it's the book I prefer. The way I worded my previous sentence makes it sound like I'm preferring novelizations to the actual movie. Although the novelization of Rambo: First Blood Part II is pretty great...

    3. I may be being too hard on the movie; I only saw it once, and was disappointed that it didn't exactly match the movie I vividly see and love in my head. I remember a bunch of scenes just feeling rushed, and much of the direction stilted and uninvolving (though the detox scenes were great). As for the plot changes, I guess they're more tweaks to the second half of the story than huge shifts, but all the tweaks inevitably struck me as glaring errors, and that final scene of Holmes being comfortably flirty definitely flies in the face of the character from all three of Meyer's novels, not to mention Doyle's.

  4. Nicholas Meyer deserves a ton of credit for turning the Star Trek film franchise around, but I want to give a shout out also to Harve Bennett, the guy Paramount brought in to replace Roddenberry as executive producer after Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The contrast between what Bennett did, and what Abrams et al did, is very instructive. I get the sense that Abrams, Orci, and so on watched some early Trek and jotted down some notes, like "tribbles; Klingons; green-skinned babes" etc. Into Darkness is filled with signifiers that have no real meaning. Bennett went back and watched all the original series episodes, because he wanted to know what made Trek special. His realization? It's the characters, stupid. So he started a story idea based on the original series episode "Space Seed" that focused on the characters of Kirk and Spock. Jack Sowards and Meyer himself later rewrote Bennett's original draft, but (if you'll forgive me) the "seed" of the idea was his. Oh, and Bennett had a hand in hiring on Meyer as well. Let's keep in mind that when Bennett was originally brought on board he didn't know much of anything about Star Trek - he was hired because Paramount knew he could tell stories on a budget. But he cared enough about the show to really figure it out, and put the right people in place.

    1. That's a very accurate point. Harve Bennett was the key player that led to all the pieces falling into place. It was Harve Bennett who took Meyer (who didn't like Star Trek) into a room and showed him several episodes of the show, asking him if anything stuck. Space Seed did, as did the nautical, "Horatio Hornblower in space" idea. The rest is history. Harve started the ball rolling.

      Roberto Orci CLAIMS to be a die-hard Star Trek fan from back in the day, but the evidence doesn't seem to support his claim. That's just my opinion, though. Typically when someone loves the source material, you can see loving fingerprints on their stories. I don't see any loving fingerprints in his Star Trek contributions. Or his Transformers contributions, for that matter. Look at Guardians of the Galaxy and there's no denying James Gunn has a ton of love for Marvel comics because those fingerprints are all over the movie. Same with Joss Whedon. You can fake it, but the truth will come out in the wash.