by Heath Holland
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.
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.
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.
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.