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Directing is all about making good choices — script rewrites, casting, best takes, editing.
Actually, “to do or not to do?” is a director’s first question. In “The View From the Bridge: Memories of Star Trek and a Life in Hollywood” (Viking), Nicholas Meyer reflects on his filmmaking choices over the years.
His 1983 ABC movie “The Day After” dealt with a nuclear attack on Kansas. It was, Meyer observed, “the biggest dilemma that ever confronted the human race — namely, the possibility of self-extinction.”
Since everyone knew life on Earth could be destroyed in a split-second, “we lived with this absent-minded knowledge that there is a Damoclean sword dangling over our collective necks.”
What can or ought to be done about it? Well, the idea behind “Day After” was to get people thinking about possible solutions.
“The fact that there were at least three other directors who’d been offered this thing suggested to me that no one was very eager to tackle it,” Meyer pointed out.
While considering whether to direct “Day After,” Meyer was in psychoanalysis with Lewis Fielding. (Years earlier, Fielding had been Daniel Elsberg’s shrink prior to “The Pentagon Papers.”)
During his sessions, Meyer recalled, Fielding “never spoke other than to sum up what I’d been saying at the end of every hour. But on this occasion, as I was lying on his couch trying to wrangle my way out of doing this movie, he offered up one sentence.”
Fielding (to Meyer): “I think this is where we find out who you really are.”
Meyer (remembering): “That was devastating. I knew I had to do it. So I went forward kicking and screaming.”
Part of Meyer’s challenge was that he realized the film shouldn’t be too good because then “people would talk about the movie and not the topic.”
Given the intensity of psychological resistance to the subject, viewers would find it easier to talk about the performances or cinematography. In the end, he added, the media focused on “Who started it?”
“Day After” was no bomb: “Maybe more people watched the final episode of “M*A*S*H,” but as a made-for its audience size has yet to be exceeded — which I think was over a hundred million people.”
Its great success despite the grim topic surprised Meyer: “I watched it with everyone else that night and asked myself, ‘If this wasn’t your movie, would you be sitting through this?’ I wasn’t sure what the answer to that was.”
“Star Trek” continued to provide Meyer with career milestones. After co-writing 1986’s “Star Trek IV,” directed by Leonard Nimoy, Meyer directed and co-wrote the 1991 installment “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.”
He was coming off what he calls “a terrific flop,” the 1991 thriller “Company Business.” So it was good timing when Frank Mancuso, then Paramount’s chairman, and Martin Davis, who headed Par’s corporate parent Gulf + Western, took him to lunch in London. They were unhappy ending the series with “V” and wanted him to direct “VI” with Nimoy executive producing.
“Given what I’d just been through, it sounded awfully appealing,” Meyer acknowledged. “Just the idea of working with that studio, those people, those actors, all sounded real comfy. So I said, sure.”
Nimoy had an idea for a theme, but no narrative to go with it. “What if the Wall came down in outer space? The Klingons were always the stand-in for the Russians.”
Out of that, Meyer said, “we cobbled together a script, which I eventually wrote with Denny Martin Flinn, who had at the time been working as my assistant, but was such a gifted guy.”
Asked about the differences between directing “VI” vs. “II” in 1982, Meyer noted that two key things had changed.
One: “I had more clout as the director and if I wanted to call my movie ‘The Undiscovered Country,’ by God that’s what it was going to be called. I had more knowledge and more authority and maybe more daring.”
Two: “The studio was undergoing a hierarchical convulsion so different executives were coming in and out. In the feature division they hadn’t been doing well.”
That translated into budget cuts “until it really wasn’t possible to make the movie and I had to tell them that. And then they told me I wasn’t being a team player.”
Then what? “There was a lot of hugger-mugger at the end of which thanks to another round of executive musical chairs, I suddenly got back a certain amount of money because Stanley Jaffe and Sherry Lansing came in to run Par and they gave me the money to make the movie.”
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