In 1981, the Star Trek franchise was at a crossroads. Two years prior, Star Trek: The Motion Picture had come out to tepid reviews from both fans and critics. Despite a decent box office intake, the series’ future was filled with doubt. Unsure that fans would even want a sequel after being bored to death by the previous film, Paramount decided to go ahead with a a drastically different kind of follow-up feature, and at a much lower budget.
Producer Harve Bennett hired a young director named Nicholas Meyer, who had recently directed the time travel thriller Time After Time, and he pulled off a minor miracle. Meyer took all the best elements of the various scripts Paramount had commissioned–one about the return of TV series villain Khan, another about a device that creates planets, one about Captain Kirk’s adult son–and put them together as one incredible storyline. And he did it all in 12 days.
Thirty-five years later, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan remains the best Trek film of all time, and one of the greatest sci-fi films ever made, period. To celebrate the film’s anniversary, Paramount Pictures and Fathom Events are bringing the director’s cut of Nicholas Meyer’s film, with additional footage not included in the 1982 theatrical release, back to the big screen on Sept. 10th and 13th at select theaters.
We recently got the chance to talk to Nicholas Meyer about the making of Khan, and his feelings about the franchise as a whole. Apparently, when Meyer first came on board, he was not a fan of the franchise at all. “I used to joke I was the last person to understand anything, but once I did understand, I understood it very, very well,” he said. “With Star Trek, I missed it when it was on TV in the ’60s, and all I could see was the cheesy costumes and whatnot. I missed all its allegorical implications.”
Soon enough, Meyer found his intellectual footing in the seires. “Where I found my way in on Khan was that it reminded me of these books I read about Captain Horatio Hornblower, this English naval captain during the Napoleonic era,” he said. “And so I said, ‘Okay, this is Hornblower in outer space.’ But it wasn’t until I was making the film that I started to grasp that even beyond the convenient Hornblower analogy, that Star Trek was after a bigger game.”
Not only was the film written incredibly quickly, the shooting schedule was very tight as well. These days, a production this size starts filming a year or more in advance of release; Khan started shooting and was released in eight months time. “I don’t think there is any rule,” Meyer said. “I said this more than once, but movies are like soufflés–they either rise or they don’t. It’s often very hard to deconstruct after the fact just what the alchemy was that made it work is, and whether time or pressure had anything to do with it. I do think that movies today take so long to get made, that you run the risk of losing all spontaneity, that certain seat-of-your-pants desperation that energized the entire, if you pardon the expression, enterprise.”
Another thing that separates The Wrath of Khan from your typical contemporary studio film was how much creative freedom Meyer was given in shaping the project. “They basically left me alone … I really enjoyed that relative lack of oversight,” he said “They didn’t give me any notes until I showed them the cut of the film, and their notes were reasonable. I lost a couple of battles, which is why there is a director’s edition on DVD… The only big kerfuffle was when they wanted to film the tag, which hints at Spock’s return. At the time I felt it was a terrible betrayal of the audience. But it retrospect, they were probably right, and I was probably wrong.”
Of course, one of the most memorable aspects of this film is Ricardo Montalban, who gives a performance for the ages as the titular villain. But according to Meyer, his first day shooting the film didn’t go exactly as planned. “Ricardo came in, he looked incredible–and yes, that’s his real chest, for the umpteenth time–and he was letter perfect; he knew every line and hit every mark I gave him,” Meyer said. “But…he screamed the whole scene at the top of his lungs. I remember thinking, ‘Well, now what do I do?’ This [was] only the second film I’d ever directed. Do I dare tell him anything? I gotta tell him something, right?”
Meyer continued, “So we went to his trailer and chatted for a bit. I wasn’t sure what he was going to say or do if I presumed to give him any notes. So I said to him, ‘You know, Laurence Olivier once said you should never show an audience your top, because once you show them their top, they know you’ve got no place else to go. And he said, ‘Oh, so you’re going to direct me? That’s good. I need direction. I don’t know what I’m doing up there.’ And that was the start of a very intimate and satisfying collaboration that was meaningful and satisfying for both of us. I told him I’d watch him like a hawk.”
Aside from Khan’s memorable onscreen villainy, the film is known best for the death of Leonard Nimoy’s character Spock. Most fans consider the death of the ever-logical science officer to be one of the best scenes in any Trek film, though Meyer seems to think that the best Spock scene comes much earlier in the film. “The scene I like best in the movie is the scene between Spock and Kirk in Spock’s quarters, where they discuss Kirk’s future,” he said. “I find it the most touching, and the best acted, and it felt the most genuine and the most authentic. I think I screwed it up the least.”
Wrapping up, Meyer recalled the earliest signs that The Wrath of Khan was the Star Trek movie fans had been waiting for. “By the time we had our first previews on the Paramount lot, once it played for an audience, I pretty much knew it would always play,” he said. “I was very relieved when it was well received. I was thunderstruck when Janet Maslin of The New York Times said, ‘Well, this is more like it.’ And since then, I’ve just continued to be be pleasantly bewildered by its enduring popularity.”
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan returns to theaters on Sept. 10 and 13. You can purchase your tickets at fathomevents.com.
Do you still think Wrath of Khan is still the greatest Trek film of all time? Chime in with your thoughts in the comments down below.
Images: Paramount Pictures