HEAT VISION

"This Is Probably Going to Kill Us:" How First 'Star Trek' Movie Avoided Disaster

Forty years later, William Shatner and visual effects director Douglas Trumbull recall the script woes, production delays and ballooning budget that almost stopped the franchise in its tracks.
'Star Trek: The Motion Picture'   |   Paramount Pictures/Photofest
Forty years later, William Shatner and visual effects director Douglas Trumbull recall the script woes, production delays and ballooning budget that almost stopped the franchise in its tracks.

In the decade following its 1966 series debut on NBC, Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek managed to travel far beyond the final frontier, despite being sent to the spaceship graveyard after only three seasons. Driven by devoted fan fervor, the “wagon train to the stars” had already demonstrated its staying power with a strong second life, thanks to local television syndication, a Saturday morning animated series, Trek conventions, an explosion of merchandising and a finger on the pulse of the pop-culture zeitgeist.

Encouraged by the phenomenon Trek had become and maneuvering to launch its own TV network, Paramount began retooling Roddenberry’s series for a live-action return to television to be known as Star Trek: Phase II after flirting a few times with the concept of a big-screen outing. Then in 1977, the one-two punch of George Lucas’ Star Wars, followed by Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, broke the box-office mold and changed the scope of how audiences demanded their sci-fi escapism.

With these shifting genre appetites growing stronger, and with Paramount struggling with the reality of selling a fourth TV network to a broad enough market, then-president Michael Eisner pulled the plug on Phase II in November of that year, just days before it was set to begin production, in exchange for a big-screen experience. On March 28, 1978, Eisner and chairman Barry Diller held a huge press conference on the lot to announce that Star Trek: The Motion Picture would premiere on the big screen as a $15 million production, complete with the show’s original cast and big-name director. At the helm would be Robert Wise, who directed the sci-fi classic The Day the Earth Stood Still and won Oscars for The Sound of Music and West Side Story.

“Finally, when they settled on making a big movie with a class-A director, Robert Wise, that put it into a whole different category,” Shatner tells The Hollywood Reporter. “They had many opportunities to present it to the public, and they chose the large screen. It provided an opportunity for Paramount to see that Star Trek would translate [for theatrical audiences].”

“Bob Wise was hired because of his expertise in making what you would call an epic spectacle,” says visual effects director Douglas Trumbull, recognizing the inherent pitfalls of adapting Star Trek “from a lazy, quiet little sci-fi television series” into something worthy of the wide screen. “They didn't get it; to turn that television show into a feature film was an idea that really scared them.”

Reassembling the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise (Shatner as Kirk, Leonard Nimoy as Spock, DeForest Kelley as McCoy, George Takei as Sulu, Nichelle Nichols as Uhura and Walter Koenig as Chekov) years after the end of its five-year mission — with added, pivotal Starfleet characters Decker (Stephen Collins) and Ilia (Persis Khambatta) carried over from Phase II —  the plot of Star Trek: The Motion Picture raised the dramatic stakes with a deadly threat in the form of an alien entity called V’ger, a massive space cloud heading on an intercept course with Earth, determined to meet its maker.

The plot originated from an idea Roddenberry had of a NASA probe returning to Earth, now sentient after melding with a superior alien intellect. Star Trek: The Animated Series novelist Alan Dean Foster turned the idea into a story, In Thy Image, meant for the Phase II pilot episode, and Roddenberry wrote a script based on the idea as well. Prolific TV writer Harold Livingston stepped in to turn the concept into a more cinematic screenplay, and that process would be plagued with ongoing rewrites that continued well into production, thanks to constant back-and-forths with Roddenberry, Livingston, studio executives and input from both Shatner and Nimoy in the mix. Livingston would ultimately share screenplay credit with Roddenberry, with story credit going to Foster.

Shatner says that working alongside Wise was a real motivating factor for him, as he was happy to take directing notes alongside a master: “We had this marvelous man who had a reputation that I hovered around. I stayed by his side a lot. And one of the things I learned, that I've carried with me as a director and as an actor, was that I never leave the set — to maintain the emotional through-line, and sustain it from the time you arrive to the time you leave. And you do that by being part of the flow of the construction of a movie, and breaking it down to the construction of a shot. You stay in it by being there.”

After so many false starts in various forms, Star Trek: The Motion Picture commenced principal photography in August 1978, and the reality of standing on the set of the Enterprise bridge once again was not lost on Shatner — even if its big-screen look had been upgraded to a more sterile aesthetic.  

“There was an enormous familiarity,” says Shatner. “On the other hand, it too was new in that we had time. It was a comparatively leisurely pace to the TV routine.”

Much of said pace had to do with the film’s incessant script tinkering, with the cast and crew often waiting around for new pages — sometimes down to time-of-day timestamps on script sides — and having to manage constant change in dialogue and setups. That time afforded Shatner and Nimoy the ability to focus on improving the film’s troubled climax and lack of humanity in the script.

“Two actors came up with what they thought was the solution to the weakness of the film,” says Shatner. “In the past, like we had done on the series, Leonard and I would try and come up with a constructive thought or two that sometimes had merit and sometimes didn’t. So we’d sit in one or the other of our dressing rooms and spitball what we would do for a change. It was really vital to making [the film] more human.”

He adds with a chuckle, “I remember vividly I performed the changes that Leonard and I had written for Robert Wise, and he’s like, ‘Oh my God, that's great. Let's bring it to Gene Roddenberry.’ So later that day, I did another performance, and my performance failed to convince Gene to make the changes. We walked out of Roddenberry's office, [laughing over the fact] that the matinee was good, but the evening performance was not as good.”

Despite the constant changes to accommodate the evolving dramatic story, Shatner recalls that there was plenty of levity on the set: “In front of the camera, the story was going to kill us off, and we had to avoid being bemused at the very least by it,” he recalls. “But offscreen, we did play around a lot.”

As the final shooting day with the full original cast loomed, there seemed to be very little optimism that the crew of the Enterprise would get another shot at a big-screen adventure — a sentiment that would actually stick with Shatner for each Trek film he would ultimately work on.

“Every time we finished the film, they burned the set,” Shatner reports. “That was it. That's the end of it: ‘Thank you very much. It's going to be wonderful. Hope to see you again sometime.’ Nobody ever said, ‘Come back in two years and get ready. We’ll start a script right away.’ Nobody ever said that. Always. Six to seven films. Instead of storing the sets, they thought, ’It’s not cost-effective. We will burn them.’ … Every three, four, or five years Paramount would change management, so they weren't about to invest in long-term. The board room is only interested in the immediate profit; investing in basic expenses doesn't interest a lot of people.”

As the cast and crew were wrapping up acting chores on Star Trek: The Motion Picture, a visual effects nightmare was unfolding elsewhere on the Paramount lot: SFX pioneer Robert Abel and his team, tasked with creating the big-screen spectacle of the Enterprise, the Klingon battlecruisers in action, V’ger in space and more, had failed to produce anything that could be effectively used onscreen. 

“Computer-driven effects were new at the time, and so everybody was struggling,” recalls Shatner. “It took more time than they thought possible.”

According to Trumbull, that’s quite an understatement: “They hadn't completed any shots, and nothing seemed to work, and the studio was terrified that this movie wasn't going to make its release date.”

In fact, the Paramount brass was in a state of panic, having collected a reported $30 million in blind-bidding advances from exhibitors on the guarantee that they’d deliver Star Trek: The Motion Picture for a December release. They had already pushed the film back from a summer release, and theater owners had gotten wind that the film might get pushed back yet again.

Realizing the need to replace Abel and his team and fast, Paramount looked in-house to Trumbull, who had demonstrated his visual effects flair and expertise on such SFX-heavy films as 2001: A Space OdysseyClose Encounters of the Third Kind and Silent Running, which he also directed. 

But Trumbull had no desire to work on Trek. He had bigger fish to fry. 

Already under contract with Paramount to develop advanced forms of cinematic entertainment with his company Future General Corporation, Trumbull was developing high-frame rate technologies, video game concepts, a flight-simulator prototype ride (that he says Disney “copied” for Star Tours) and more. He had no interest in rescuing Trek from its decaying orbit — until the behemoth began to infringe on his productivity and resources.

“Paramount was so obsessed with Star Trek and the problems related to it that they completely dropped the ball on all the things I was doing at Future General,” says Trumbull. “As I was under contract, they kind of had this feeling that they owned me and could force me to do something like that, and I didn't want to.”

According to Trumbull, questionable behavior by certain individuals forced him to take action. “They started poaching my employees from Future General Corporation to go work on Star Trek, and then they started poaching the camera systems and optical printers and stuff that I'd been amassing at Future General Corporation,” he says. “I decided to just try to kibosh that whole idea by taking the cameras apart and putting the critical movements of the cameras in a safe deposit vault in Beverly Hills. So even if they got the cameras and took them from me, they wouldn't work. I've never told this story to anyone publicly.”

Then, Paramount consultant Richard Yuricich, an experienced visual effects supervisor and director of photography who had worked with Trumbull on Close Encounters (and later Blade Runner and Brainstorm), asked his friend to come on board to get Star Trek back on track.

“This big meeting took place,” recalls Trumbull. “Barry Diller made this big speech to the effect that the studio was being threatened by a class-action lawsuit to break the back of blind bidding, and they had to get the movie done no matter what. Then he left the room in a rage.”

Sitting in that room armed with his lawyers, Trumbull took advantage of the leverage he had over Paramount to help rescue Trek and struck a deal to gain control of the assets and patents of the technologies he’d been developing for Future General.

Then, he and Yuricich hatched a strategy that would require going back to the drawing board, literally. They would have to take over five soundstages, implement reshoots and farm out surplus effects chores to get the job done.

“We had to figure out how to get it done under the extremely difficult circumstances of having as many shots as Close Encounters and Star Wars combined in Star Trek — and have to do it all in seven months,” remembers Trumbull. “We realized this is probably going to kill us because we have to try to find fast and effective solutions for all the challenges — and that's how we came to the conclusion that we should split the project up.”

Trumbull enlisted the help of his former Silent Running protégé John Dykstra and his post-ILM team at Apogee, Inc. (where Trumbull’s father was also an employee) to handle such sequences as the opening Klingon battle scene, the destruction of the Epsilon IX space station, and select V’ger effects. And Trumbull started by focusing his attention on rebuilding the U.S.S. Enterprise lighting aesthetic to his more cinematic specifications: “That was the star role in the movie. It had to really look spectacularly beautiful.”

As it stood, the centerpiece of Star Trek was lit flatly with a key light and a fill light like it had been done on the series. That wasn’t going to fly for Trumbull.

“The Enterprise has to be able to travel through interstellar space where there's no sun or no moon to light it up, so what justification could you have to light it up [that way]?” asks Trumbull. “My solution would be to have it light itself up. I'd seen this on a lot of really high-end aircraft. If you go to LAX at night and just watch how the planes are lit up, they have lights on the fuselage that shine up onto the tail fan, for example, where the logo of the airline is, and they also have landing lights that actually shine onto the fuselage. And so I thought, ‘Well, why don't we do something like that?’ And make it so that you could basically turn it on from the inside, similar to what we did with the Mothership [from Close Encounters], which was all lit from inside and didn't have a fill light or key or anything.” 

He continues, “That was one of the first and most fundamental contributions I made to getting the movie back on track. … We had to not only refinish the miniatures differently and relight them, but I had to build all kinds of periscope camera systems and mirrors and things to be able to get the camera in for angles that were previously unachievable. … We had to apply everything that we knew would work very quickly and efficiently because we didn't have time for take two, or another approach, or anything. The order of the day for almost every shot was to figure out some relatively reliable and trustworthy way to do any shot and make it come out okay without any delay. It was all about time.”

Another challenge Trumbull had to solve was the sequence in which the Enterprise crew encounters a wormhole in space, memorably realized onscreen as a Spirograph-like tunnel. 

“I came up with this idea of projecting a laser beam onto a flat surface, and then oscillating it like a laser light show at the planetarium while the camera is moving toward that,” explains Trumbull. “That was probably the riskiest sequence that we undertook because lasers are fraught with instability and unreliability. I was really happy with the way it came out, because it didn't reference anything else that you had ever seen before.”

As Trumbull stepped in, Wise took a back seat for his effects work. “Bob Wise knew I was a director and trusted me to actually take over sequences that weren’t in his comfort zone,” says Trumbull. “One sequence that I really am proud of that is I think is quite terrific is when Kirk and Scotty get into that little shuttlecraft and are leaving one space station to go over to the dry dock, and and he's going to see this ship that he's going to command for the first time. I thought, ‘Well, that's really a great dramatic moment to do a big reveal of the beauty of the Enterprise in its redesigned configuration.”

As he ticked off his to-do list, Trumbull also zeroed in on a previously shot sequence that he felt was “unsalvageable” — the spacewalk in which Spock makes a rogue decision to enter the inner sanctum of V’ger in order to mind meld with it.

“It just looked completely corny and fake and too literal and not majestically lit,” explains Trumbull. “It was obviously astronauts hanging on wires on a set. And I just had to get really blunt and say, ‘I think we just have to abandon this sequence as you've shot it. It doesn't really matter how much you spend or how many days of shooting you spent trying to do it. It's useless. I can't fix it for you.”

Trumbull redesigned the entire sequence with the help of visual designer Robert McCall, “Something that I thought would be more about energy and infinity and abstract, rather than literal physicality. It knows everything and it's been everywhere. And so that's what kind of led to my idea. So I wrote that whole sequence myself and directed it myself with Bob's blessing. … But if it had churned through the normal course of action on the group of Shatner and Nimoy and Gene and everybody having their opinion, it probably would have never gotten made.”

Despite the extreme stress, Trumbull remained true to his word and delivered all of the effects sequences required in time for the Dec. 6 world premiere of Star Trek: The Motion Picture at the McArthur Theater in Washington D.C. The reception was held at the Smithsonian Institute’s National Air and Space Museum, where the original TV series Enterprise model had been donated. The icing on the cake would be a trio of Academy Award nominations for best visual effects, best art direction and best original score.

“It was a big relief that we actually pulled it off,” says Trumbull of the feat that landed him in the hospital right afterwards for exhaustion, ulcers, you name it. “The job was about saving the day against insurmountable odds, and we did that.”

More a talky 2001: A Space Odyssey than the phaser-firing, swashbuckling outer-space adventure that many had hoped for, Star Trek: The Motion Picture opened to strong box-office numbers despite decidedly mixed critical reviews. But less-than-stellar receipts compared to the Star Wars-sized expectations that Paramount execs were anticipating immediately challenged the future of the franchise.

“[Director] Robert Wise was one of the great editors, and did not have a chance to bring his talents fully to that screen — and it suffered a little bit because of that,” says Shatner of his “realization that the movie was not doing so well at the box office.”

Deemed a critical and commercial disappointment, Trekkies/Trekkers (bolstered by the first themed McDonald’s Happy Meals and other commercial tie-ins) still managed to elevate the film’s ultimate performance to approximately $140 million worldwide on a final, production budget of around $46 million that included the aborted Phase II development costs.

“In those years, $100 million was fairly good,” says Shatner. “The studio was making money. Not blockbuster money the way they had hoped with Star Wars, but people were employed, the studio was using their facilities, and the studio was making a profit of some kind with the original cast.”

He adds, “Of course, they hoped they would make more money by using the next cast — The Next Generation — but that didn't happen until J.J. [Abrams] came along and found the answer, which was to essentially give you a ride as well as Star Trek characters.”

In comparison to the more gallivanting, colorful, and humor-infused franchise entries that would come after it, Star Trek: The Motion Picture gained a reputation as a stiff, sleepy exercise interspersed with an extended visual effects spectacle that appeared to be a bit too proud of itself.

Trumbull defends the film’s many long, majestic shots, pointing out, “It’s very rare in movies today that you get to linger on anything in this way. You just take this long, gliding tour over V’ger; you get to look at it, and nobody's talking, nobody’s arguing, nobody's in love, no one's chasing anybody with a gun. Just looking at stuff and being there. And that's kind of my directorial philosophy about making movies, to find these moments in a movie to where the conventional melodrama just has to be sublimated to the visual spectacle.” He adds with a laugh, “Trying to have moments where you have to look at it in awestruck wonder and play music and hope it looks good.”

Still, the Wise-directed Trek debut has stood the test of time, now regarded by fans and critics alike as one of the more appreciated entries of the lot.

“In the years that have gone by, that situation has rectified itself,” Shatner acknowledges. “They’ve gotten to like it better and better and it's done very well at the box office, ultimately.”

“We’ve had 40 years now to digest what has happened, and I've been looking at the movie recently and saying, ‘You know, it’s actually better than I remembered,’” says Trumbull. “That approach by Bob Wise to make this epic spectacle of a television series actually worked, and I think we achieved the goal. I’m more proud of the movie now than I was 10 or 20 or 30 years ago.”

The film’s visual effects director concludes, “I just got back from a Star Trek convention in Las Vegas, which really helped me understand better what [Star Trek is about] … The fact that fans are embracing these thoughtful ideas about man's place in the universe is really great and really important, and not a big enough part of our culture. … I think the whole Star Trek phenomena is about the best aspects of human nature.”

  • David Weiner
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