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The View From The Bridge

November 29th, 2010
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In the introduction to my review of Time After Time, I wrote that the true reason for the supposed Star Trek odd-numbered movie curse (the phenomenon in which the even-numbered classic Star Trek films seem to be of a far higher quality than the odd-numbered ones) is because of the coincidence that Star Treks II, IV, and VI are the three films that benefitted from the involvement of Nicholas Meyer.  Being a long-time Star Trek fan, I have long-held Mr. Meyer in great esteem.  Even years ago, when I first learned of his roles as writer/director of Star Trek II and Star Trek VI (by far my two favorite Star Trek films — and that stands to this day) and as a writer of Star Trek IV (Mr. Meyer wrote all of the 1986-set portions of the film, while Harve Bennett wrote the framing sequences set in the 23rd century), it was clear to me that Mr. Meyer’s was one of the key creative voices behind GOOD Star Trek.

What little I knew of Mr. Meyer himself (mostly from interviews I had seen or read — including his lengthy comments in William Shatner’s much-underrated chronicle of the making of the six classic Star Trek films, Star Trek Movie Memories* — and also from his terrific commentary tracks on the special edition DVDs of Star Trek II and Star Trek VI) supported the conclusions that I had drawn from his work: namely, that Mr. Meyer was a bright, erudite fellow whose ideas about Star Trek, and about quality movie-making as a whole, quite mirrored my own.

That opinion was further supported by Mr. Meyer’s wonderful memoir: The View From The Bridge: Memories of Star Trek and a Life in Hollywood.  This is a fascinating chronicle of Mr. Meyer’s years in the business, and it’s of interest to anyone fascinated by the nuts and bolts of how Hollywood works and how movies do (and don’t) get made, and of course of particular interest to anyone curious for tons of behind-the-scenes info on the making of the Star Trek films.

Mr. Meyer has an honest, hunorous writing style in evidence right from page one.  In these sorts of memoirs, I often find the early chapters (devoted to the subject’s youth) to be deadly boring.  As a reader I’m usually eager to get to “the good stuff” — that is, the subject’s adult work and achievements that were the reasons I picked up the memoir to begin with.  However, in this book, a) Mr. Meyer is bright enough to know what we’re really interested in, and so keeps those early chapters brief, and b) posesses such a wonderful writing style that I found myself completely drawn in to the stories he was telling, quickly finding myself truly interested in those tales of Mr. Meyer’s beginnings and life before Hollywood.

(I loved, for instance, Mr. Meyer’s discussion of his relationship with his parents, and how “in the years that followed, no matter how successful I became, or even how proud they were of my success, my parents never made it their business to master the nomenclature or glossary of terms that would have enabled them to better understand what I had to tell them about my life. ‘Mom, I’m in preproduction.’  ‘Uh huh.  What’s that?’  And so on.”)

But it’s when we get to the story of how Mr. Meyer’s Sherlock Holmes novel The Seven-Per-Cent Solution hit it big and Hollywood came calling that The View From The Bridge really takes off.  Mr. Meyer devotes the largest section of the memoir to descriptions of his involvement with the film adaptation of The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, as well as his work as writer-director of Time After Time, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.  (Those films represent Mr. Meyer’s most successful and best-known works.)  There are also shorter chapters that discuss his other major film endeavors: the nuclear-war project The Day After, the Tom Hanks-John Candy comedy Volunteers, the Gene Hackman Cold War thriller Company Business, and his recent work scripting The Human Stain, Elegy, and other films.

In chapter after chapter, Mr. Meyer describes in often painful detail the struggles and turmoil that go into trying to get a movie made.  Even in his big, successful films, Mr. Meyer depicts countless obstacles and setbacks that he had to combat on a daily basis.  In Time After Time, Mr. Meyer remembers fighting with execs over the number of close-ups in the film, and whether star Mary Steenburgen appeared sufficiently “roughed up” in the finale.  (The execs apparently felt that Ms. Steenburgen didn’t look beat-up enough in the film’s final scenes.)  In Star Trek II, Mr. Meyer recalls having his film’s title changed without his being told (his original title, The Undiscovered Country, was changed by marketing to The Vengeance of Khan.  Later, Paramount decided on The Wrath of Khan, and Mr. Meyer had to settle for eventually getting to use his original title for Trek VI), being frustrated by the chintzy look of the set for Mr. Spock’s quarters on the Enterprise (site of a key scene between Kirk and Spock early in the film), and of, unbeknownst-to-him at the time, almost being fired a few weeks into shooting.  On Star Trek VI, Mr. Meyer describes his tooth-and-nail fights with the studio over the film’s budget (Mr. Meyer wanted 30 million dollars, while the studio was insisting on 25 million — and let me comment here how absolutely insane it is how good Star Trek VI looks considering it was made for such a ludicrously low amount of money, an extraordinary testament to Mr. Meyer’s skill as a director) as well his conflict with Trek creator Gene Roddenberry over the film’s storyline.

These anecdotes are endlessly fascinating, and they only raise Mr. Meyer in my estimation for managing to persevere despite facing such constant soul-sucking obstacles throughout his career.  But the above described films were all completed, and released to general acclaim.  The chapters that are even more heart-breaking are Mr. Meyer’s descriptions of his projects that, despite his years of effort, never saw the light of day.  (I was particularly interested to read about his Don Quixote project that would have starred John Lithgow, and the World War II film Spoils that would have starred Bruce Greenwood and Linda Fiorentino but which fell apart a mere ten days before filming was scheduled to begin.)

Reading these stories, it’s a wonder that ANY decent films are released by Hollywood at all!!  It’s proof of the skill and perseverance of filmmakers like Nicholas Meyer that they are.

Mr. Meyer’s writing-style is concise and fast-moving.  The View From the Bridge is fairly brief (about 250 pages), yet it covers a lot of ground and I never felt that interesting events were being glossed over.  Mr. Meyer comes across as honest and fair-minded.  He avoids overly criticizing the Hollywood folks with whom he came into conflict — he lets his recounting of the events in question stand on its own, and he even says some nice things about some of the execs and actors with whom he butted heads.  He’s also able to be critical of his own behavior at times (as in his description of his handling of Gene Roddenberry during the production of Star Trek VI).  Mr. Meyer shares personal details (including the extraordinarily tragic death of his wife Lauren at the age of thirty-six) that lend resonance to his life-story without ever becoming overly-maudlin or saccharine.

For Star Trek fans, The View From the Bridge is chock-full of wonderfully juicy details behind the making of the Trek films.  Personally, I was particularly fascinated to read about the work behind the terrific scores of Trek II (by James Horner) and VI (by Cliff Eidelman); how the editing of Trek VI corresponded to the aborted coup in the Soviet Union that so frighteningly paralleled the film’s plot (luckily, Mr. Gorbachev emerged unharmed); how Mr. Meyer formed his directorial relationship with Ricardo Montalban (Khan); of the bitter WGA fight over the credits for both Trek films; and so much more.

This is a must-read for Star Trek fans, but I also think it’d be really enjoyable for non-Trek fans as well.  Mr. Meyer proves as solid a writer of non-fictional autobiography as he was at writing (and directing) fiction (science-fiction and otherwise!).  I sincerely hope that this book doesn’t represent the end of Mr. Meyer’s story in Hollywood.  Though it’s been some-time since he’s directed a major film, he’s been involved in writing some decent hits over the last few years (such as Elegy, starring Penelope Cruz, Ben Kingsley, Patricia Clarkson, and Dennis Hopper).  I look forward to seeing what he works on next!

* William Shatner wrote two books that detail his time involved with Star Trek.  The first was Star Trek Memories, which covers the three years making the original TV show, and the second was Star Trek Movie Memories, which covers the making of the six classic Trek films.  One might expect these books to be an exclusively ego-centric, back-patting affair by Mr. Shatner, but that’s not the case at all.  While Mr. Shatner does share his own thoughts and memories of those Trek years, the majority of both books are filled with the comments of the other actors, writers, and directors who were involved with making Star Trek happen, and they get to share their own stories and reminisces.  (Of relevance to this review, Nick Meyer gets a lot of spotlight in the second book.)  The two books are a remarkably interesting, well-rounded history of Trek, and well-worth the time of any Star Trek fan.

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