“I guess the way I work as an actor -- I say ‘I guess’ because I don’t consciously have a methodology -- is to ask, ‘How entertaining can this be?’ How many levels of expression are there in a ‘Hello,’ for example? What is really being said in this ‘hello’? The person the character is saying ‘hello’ to -- how well does the character really know him? Does he really mean ‘hello’? What has gone before that he is saying ‘hello’ in his own life? So that ‘hello’ can have many variations. And you can play more than one variation in the very ‘hello.’ And so, in the interests of not only my character, but in the pure idea of entertainment value, I have tried to keep as many balls in the air as possible when saying a line. That’s how I approached playing Kirk.”
"Captain’s Log: William Shatner’s Personal Account of the Making of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier As Told by Lisabeth Shatner" is a fascinating look behind the scenes of the train wreck that was one of the 3 worst Star Trek movies in the franchise (Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Star Trek: Nemesis being the other two that vie for the title, depending on the day of the week). In this book, Lis Shatner spends time on the set chronicling the project from the initial development to the filming to the post production. She interviews here farther extensively, interviews the cast and crew about their experiences, and relates some of her own personal anecdotes about her complicated relationship with Star Trek.
This is a great book to read. It’s a look at just how this movie got made, and about how it could have been so much worse. If you've read a bunch of the other Star Trek cast memoirs and William Shatner’s earlier books, you are likely already familiar with some of the stories. For example, we hear about William Shatner stealing Leonard Nimoy’s bike again. Still, there is new material, and some additional perspective in this book that are worth the read.
If you haven’t read many other books about the franchise, this one is a great introduction and place to start. It covers some of the basic history of Star Trek production and how the franchise got to this point. If you find the material in this book interesting, then there are lots more Star Trek histories and memoirs to read for more details.
Lis Shatner starts discussing the challenges of growing up as Captain Kirk’s daughter. She talks about trying to avoid the connection and distance herself from her life as a “Shatner” as you might expect from a teenager or college student. As a kid, though, it was always part of her life.
When we got off, my father finally had had enough. “If I give you my autograph, will you promise to leave us alone?”he asked. “Yes, yes!” they cried, still jumping up and down. He hastily scribbled his signature on an eagerly proffered sheet of paper, and the girls magically disappeared. We were finally left as before, still trying to convince my mother to let us ride the Matterhorn.
At this point in my life, I felt a strange ambivalence towards “Star Trek.” I knew much of my father’s success as an actor was because of the series, and for that I was grateful and proud. “Star Trek” had also made him the magical, famous father who could sweep me out of my misery. But it was also “Star Trek” that had set me apart in the first place, making me an outcast and the target for so much criticism. I often felt that I had no identity other that “Captain Kirk’s Daughter,” and even joked that those words would be engraved on my tombstone.
A career in Star Trek often posed challenges for William Shatner’s family. He travelled extensively. It was hard to avoid fans. And his drive to always be working would sometimes distract him from personal concerns.
"It all became very apparent to me one day as I visited the special effects make-up artist, Kenny Myers, to check on the Vulcan ear molds. He showed me a pair of baby Vulcan ears, which we were going to use for the infant Spock. Then he said, ‘I heard the baby was sick.’ My immediate reaction was, ‘What—now one of the twins we’re using to play the infant Spock is sick? What else is going to go wrong?’ And Kenny said, ‘No, your daughter Leslie’s son.’ I felt an immediate, momentary relief that it was only my grandson that was sick! That’s when I knew the stress was beginning to get to me.”
The network almost didn’t air the original series in the sixties. The pilot’s plot was just not great. To here William Shatner tell it, his interpretation of the Captain Kirk saved the series and was responsible for it’s tone and direction.
So I went back to Hollywood and saw this pilot. I saw a lot of wonderful things in it. But I also saw that the people in it were playing it as though ‘We’re out in space, isn’t this serious?” I thought if it was a naval vessel at sea, they’d be relaxed and familiar, not somewhat pedantic and self-important about being out in space. It seemed to me they wouldn’t be so serious about it. And the fact that I had come off all these years in comedy -- I wanted it to be lighter rather than heavier. So I consciously thought of playing good-pal-the-Captain who, in time of need, would snap to and become the warrior. I broached this idea to Gene, and it seemed to strike a note. So the story was written, the pilot made, and ultimately it sold. The next thing I knew, I was to play Captain Kirk on a weekly basis.
It’s sort of a light-hearted version of Heath Ledger’s Joker saying, “Why so serious?”
Of course Shatner is making this movie more than 20 years after he created Kirk and he sought to portray the characters in a more serious manner and with greater symbolism. Of course, Kirk is always the most important one.
“Next, I introduced our three leading characters -- Kirk, Spock, and McCoy -- at Yosemite. It was only much later that I realized this rock climbing sequences was a mythological symbol of man’s trying to achieve greater heights, which is, of course, what the whole story is about. In any case, Spock flies up to visit Kirk while he’s climbing, then saves him as he slips and falls. McCoy watches the whole scene, and when Spock later brings Kirk back to the campfire from where McCoy has been watching, they discuss life and death, aging, whether Kirk was afraid, and so on as we introduce the themes of the movie.”
Perhaps it’s by focusing on these themes that the movie gets lost. Shatner unironically describes the movie this way:
“When they arrive on the planet the holy man has conquered, they try to reason with him. The reasoning escalates into fighting, and before it is over, the Enterprise is boarded by these primitives.
No one can argue that William Shatner is not committed to his vision, however. He insists on doing dangerous stunts just so they look perfect.
“Sometimes it’s just not worth it to do something dangerous because special effects can take care of it,” Ralph [Winter] commented as we watched preparations for the scene progress. “I wanted to do this in a matte shot … I don’t think I’ve sweated as much on a movie as I have today.” At this point, Ralph motioned towards the cliff. “I mean, look at this. I’d hate to think of how many people would be out of work if he hurt himself.”
Despite the objections, my father felt that there was simply no replacement for actually hanging off the cliff. “I know what I want to do is dangerous,” he said. “But I also know that if I get what I want, the shot will be spectacular. The audience can always tell if something is fake or not, and a shot of Kirk really hanging off a mountain is irreplaceable. My desire for this shot is overriding my tremendous fear of heights. I just keep reminding myself not to look down!”
Lisabeth Shatner asked Leonard Nimoy to compare his movies to the one Shatner was now directing.
Later in the movie, I asked him what the difference was between a Leonard Nimoy Star Trek movie and a Bill Shatner Star Trek movie. He replied with a laugh, “In a Bill Shatner movie there’s a lot more running and jumping.”
Shatner learned a lot of lessons in his first major on location shoot as a director in the desert. To begin with, he had to learn that the actors weren’t the only people that mattered on a film. His occupation was just a small part of a production.
At that point I thought, ‘I’ve always known directing was communicating to the actor. I never realized directing was also communicating to drivers and to everyone else.’
Because the schedule was so tight and the budget so constrained Shatner did everything he could to get the shots he wanted and get them on budget. No one could accuse him of not working hard. Sometimes he worked a little too hard though and became too much of a control freak. He needed to learn not just how to communicate with non-actors, but to also let them do their jobs.
My father’s distress gradually mounted as he watched several unsuccessful attempts, until finally he exploded and started yelling. In a half-joking gesture of frustration, he even flung himself down on the ground and pounded the cracked earth.
Unfortunately, his dramatic gesture didn’t solve anything.
“Basically what happened was Bill crossed the lines … he was pushing too hard,” Ralph said. “I told him, ‘Your passion for the picture is both a blessing and a curse. The passion is what excites the crew, they like working for you … you make them feel good, you have a good time with them. But the downside is, you create panic. You’re trying to do their jobs. Let them do their jobs. Let Mike Woods decide where the fan is going to go. You tell him the way you want the wind to be in the camera, and let him figure out where to put it. Forget it. You get all worked up about it and it creates problems. Then you’ve got four cameras going; four operators, four lenses. four systems, four different exposures, and it just can’t all happen in a second … if we come back from location and it doesn’t look like location, then what have we accomplished’? Nothing … we have to show the vistas. We have to show that we were here. If it takes longer, if it puts us overschedule by a day or two, let’s do it. Because that’s what makes the movie great.
A Teamster strike complicated the film’s production. They had to use non-union drivers and other staff to get eqipment to location. The interesting aspect of this is that it highlighted the advantages of expereinced people because they lacked them here. Driving a truck and moving a wardrobe is about more than knowing how to drive and move things. Experienced staff develop other skills that don’t pop on a list of key skills. It’s about understanding the process and role better than those without experience. It’s about knowing what questions to ask and knowing all the “obvious” stuff that is only obvious with years of experience.
And there’s value to that.
The Teamsters are saying that it’s things like the expensive actors which are driving up the costs. So there is this dispute going on. But while some people may think the Teamsters are getting paid too much, the advantage is they very familiar with industry proceedings. They know to do certain things automatically, whereas people who haven’t worked in the business don’t.
Another fascinating aspect of the desert filming is that we learn Shatner really had no idea what a unicorn is in popular culture. Granted, he’s Canadian, but I don’t think Canadian and American cultures are that different with regard to unicorns. And Shatner had been living in the US for decades. But in the original interpretation of Sybok (originally named Zar), Shatner sought to come up with a symbol of Zar’s violent and evil nature. And the best beast to represent that was the unicorn. In fact Shatner envisioned a battle scene where the unicorn spears a guy and then continues the battle with the guy’s body still impaled on its horn.
However, in spite of making some of these major changes from the original story, they still kept some of the initial concepts my father had envisioned. The holy man, whom they called Zar, still was a relatively dark and violent character, who rode a unicorn throughout his interplanetary adventures. The unicorn was an extension of Zar’s violent nature, to the point where my father had envisioned a battle scene where the unicorn had speared an unfortunate soldier who lay writhing and screaming in agony upon the unicorn’s horn while Zar rode on in triumph.
This change in Sybok’s personality and methods also spawned another development. “Once we changed his character we also had to get rid of the unicorn, since the unicorn was an extension of his violent nature,” my father explained. “Also, since I don’t go to many movies, I was unaware of how many unicorns had been used in some of these science fiction films.”
No one knew what color a Nimbosian horse (the former Unicom) was supposed to be, or at what height his horn should rest on his forehead. They went through several tests first painting the horses gold and placing the horn high up between their foreheads. After seeing the tests on film, it became apparent the gold color didn’t register well. The horses also balked at seeing the shadow of something strange between their eyes.
Budget and story problems would continue to haunt the film, even up to its climax. It still seems strange that the studios exercise so much control over the budget. As we see blockbusters in the theater today, it often seems like controlling budget is an afterthought, but perhaps that’s how it looks from the outside.
In this movie, the studio significantly reduced the scope of the ending, despite what Shatner wanted.
‘But each of those Rockmen were incredibly expensive. We had to make a latex suit in which a man could fit, and the latex had to look like rock. The estimate for all six was something like $300,000. It was way too extravagant. So the first thing 1 was told was that I could only have one Rockman. One! So here I had gone from this fantastic image of floating cherubim turning into flying gargoyles, then to six, hulking Rockmen, now down to one Rockman. It was one of the first lessons I had in the realization that the movie in my head was going to be different from the one in reality. But I basically had i no choice, so we went with it. And one Rockman was all I got.”
Lisabeth Shatner also interviews other members of the cast. There are some fascinating discussions in there that illustrate the relationships among the actors. Deforrest Kelly seemed the most positive about the film. Since she is interviewing them in the middle of production, it’s a little hard to tell. The film may also have looked great to the actors during the creation of it.
Q: What did you think of the script for Star Trek V?
I think that it is interesting in that it’s entirely different from any of the others, which is refreshing. Four was a wonderful motion picture, and you think, what are you going to do after IV? My feeling about films is that you can never tell about them until they’re strung together and scored and you look at it. Very seldom do you ever hear anyone come back from dailies and say that the dailies look terrible. You don’t know until you see the final product. But in examining the script I thought that it had an awful lot of things going for it, and if it comes together the way we all hope it will, I think it’s going to have a little bit of something for all the Star Trek fans, and hopefully that thirty-five percent of the audience that we picked up in IV will enjoy it. We have a great deal of the humor of IV once again, there’s conflict, adventure, and some powerful drama.
Walter Koenig seems resigned the fact that Chekov remains an under appreciated character. It’s also interesting how he sees it as film about taking control of your own life and destiny.
Q: What do you think this film is saying?
A: That ultimately you have to take responsibility for your life and for what occurs. I think that probably that’s what this picture is about... My feeling is that the principal statement of the movie is: You can’t rely on the supernatural and you can’t rely on forces beyond your control to shape your own life. You have to take it into your own hands. That isn’t to say you can’t have faith, religious faith, etc. But not to throw off responsibility and let some other entity assume it for you. I think this story—and I try to couch it in the most positive way—has to do with the three main characters. The supporting group is really ancillary to the story. … If it’s a story of family, it’s a story about the family of the three top guys. Maybe that’s supposed to be a microcosm of the greater family. Maybe it’s supposed to represent a larger type family, the entire seven crew members that the audience has gotten to know know, the entire Enterprise, the universal family. Maybe that’s part of the design in the screenplay. If indeed that is the case. it’s focused on the three main people, though.
Q: What do you think your character will be remembered for?
A: I don’t have the faintest idea … In several episodes and in three out of the five films, Chekov has suffered some kind of physical trauma [he laughs] and I am frequently asked “Why is Chekov always getting beat up?” I would like to think of Chekov as a character that has some sense of fun, that perhaps is not as institutionalized an officer as some of the others. That there’s some irreverence about him . . . and I don’t know what else to say because ; the opportunities have been limited as to how the character has been developed.
Jimmy Doohan is relatively positive about the experience, or at least appears to be investing little personal energy in it. His answers lack the anger that comes through in his own book. Again that’s possibly because his is talking to Lis Shatner during the making of a William Shatner movie. That may have had a negative impact on his candor. He tries to treat it just like a job and he’s looking forward to his next vacation.
Q: Any challenges in this movie?
A: No, not really. I’m working. I’ve been an actor for forty-three years. At the end of twenty years, you’re supposed to be a complete actor. When I was about eighteen or nineteen. I started to feel that, because I’d been told that by my acting teacher. I said, “How long will it take?” And he said, “Well, depends on the type of work you get. It’s about twenty years.’ And you know what? I started to feel that, a sort of sense comes over you where you think, “Hey, I don’t care what they ask me to do, I can do it.” That’s the thrilling part of it .. And a powerful feeling, knowing full well that at this moment in the scene, even though you still have to rehearse it, they’re either going to be laughing about you making just one face or sound, or they’re going to be crying. Or all the feelings in between. That’s why when people ask me if I want to be a director, I say, “No way!”I’m satisfied being an actor. The rest of the time I’m terribly interested in seeing the country. My wife doesn’t understand why I want another motor home. Within twenty months, I drove 52,000 miles in one. I take trips to places like Phoenix and Portland and Sacramento, etc. and sometimes I’ll bring the whole family. I have six children all together. Four boys, two girls. Two boys are living with me in the San Fernando Valley.
This book covers a lot of ground without being too long. The reader can get an idea of how this movie went off the rails while it was being made. It also has a nice bit of Star Trek history in it. It’s a worthwhile and fun read for anyone who wants to know more about the movie and the franchise in general. Experts in Star Trek may find little new ground, but the perspective is still interesting. “Captain’s Log: William Shatner’s Personal Account of the Making of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier as told by Lisabeth Shatner” is a worthwhile read.