Star Trek: the battle to make The Motion Picture

Feature Ryan Lambie
17 Mar 2016 - 06:12

Massive cost overruns, script rewrites and an angry Leonard Nimoy. Ryan charts the battle to make the original Star Trek movie...

After years in limbo, the rush to make a Star Trek movie suddely began in earnest on the 28th of March 1978. That day saw a lavish press conference arranged by Paramount president Michael Eisner, chairman Barry Diller and the entire cast of the original Star Trek series. Eisner announced to an assembled group of reporters that a film spin-off from the cult Trek TV show was finally going to be made. Its appropriately grand title - Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

The director, Eisner continued, would be Robert Wise - an industry veteran who was not only a safe pair of hands (he’d directed such hits as West Side Story and The Sound Of Music), but also had a proven track record with science fiction. Among Wise’s other classic films were The Day The Earth Stood Still and a magnificently sober adaptation of Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain.

Eisner’s next announcement should have been enough to elicit a few gasps from the room, at least if they had any behind-the-scenes knowledge of recent Trek history. The Motion Picture would, Eisner said, be out in American cinemas for June 1979. Given that almost three years had been spent on a string of rejected screenplays, giving Wise little more than a year to make The Motion Picture seemed decidedly unrealistic.

Then came news of its budget. Paramount, Eisner said, had set aside $15m for the movie - a third more than the $10m earmarked a couple of years earlier, and vastly more than the $3m ‘cheapie’ Paramount had originally planned to make at the project’s inception in 1975.

For better or worse, Eisner had fired the starting pistol on The Motion Picture. It was as though, after all the back-and-forth between writers, producers and series creator Gene Roddenberry, the powers that be at Paramount thought that publically announcing the Star Trek movie would force it into being.

A private little war

That March press conference signalled the beginning of The Motion Picture, but also the abrupt death of Star Trek: Phase II. Phase II was the proposed second Trek TV series - itself born, ironically enough, from the ashes of the aborted movie project Planet Of The Titans.

Announced by Roddenberry in June 1977, Phase II would have provided a fusion of the old and new, with returning stars from the original series being joined by a gallery of new faces. It would also have been incredibly expensive - with a budget of around $3.2m, the most costly show in TV history. A considerable amount of progress had been made during Phase II’s short life; 13 scripts had been written, casting had begun, as had the construction of several sets.

The key script in that series was, inevitably, the pilot, called In Thy Image. Its story began as a two-page outline written by Roddenberry, about a returning NASA probe which, on the course of its journey through the stars, had somehow acquired sentience. That outline was initially given to author Alan Dean Foster to work up into a pilot-length (two-hour) script, but series co-producer Harold Livingston soon decided to take the job of writing it himself. According to David Hughes’ book The Greatest Sci-Fi Stories Never Made, Gene Roddenberry had also written a screenplay based on that same story.

Ultimately, it was the existence of these two screenplays that proved pivotal to Star Trek’s future. Although accounts differ somewhat over what exactly happened, the fate of Phase II was decided in a single meeting between Eisner, Livingston and producer Robert Goodwin. Livingstone recalls that Eisner described Roddenberry’s script as “television” and Livingstone’s as “a movie.” Goodwin doesn’t quite remember it that way, but agrees that Eisner was inspired enough to pronounce that, after a search worthy of the Enterprise itself, a script worthy of a Star Trek film had finally been discovered.

On Friday the 11th November 1977, Phase II’s life was coldly snuffed out. Production was halted less than three weeks before production was due to begin; indeed, Susan Sackett and Gene Roddenberry’s book The Making Of Star Trek: The Motion Picture recalls that the decision came so suddenly that crew were still being hired on that very cancellation date.

The switch-over from television to film also created new problems. While numerous sets had been built, at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars, they were intended to be viewed on the kind of small, grainy televisions which sat in America’s living rooms in the late 1970s - not blown up on a huge cinema screen. As a result, such elements as the Enterprise’s bridge, the ship’s network of corridors and transporter room would all had to be redesigned to look convincing enough on 70mm film - and all before production on the film began in earnest in April 1978.

The race to make The Motion Picture was on.

The search for Spock

During the Motion Picture press conference in 1978, one reporter asked why Leonard Nimoy had been the last member of the cast to sign up for the movie. Nimoy, in his inimitably deadpan style, replied that “The mail service between here and Vulcan is still pretty slow.”

The joke both lit up the room and did much to gloss over the tensions that had only just been resolved a few weeks before. For one thing, Nimoy was in the process of  taking Paramount to court over the use of his image in merchandising - in 1975, his normally placid demeanour switched to anger when he spotted a Heineken advert which mockingly used the face of Spock to sell lager.

Nimoy’s antipathy towards Paramount - and creator Gene Roddenberry - was such that he’d reportedly threatened to fire his agent if he brought up the topic of Star Trek ever again. Clearly intent on severing his association with Mr Spock, Nimoy had appeared as a suave self-help writer in director Philip Kaufman’s remake of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (a movie made in the wake of Planet Of The Titans’ cancellation). Following that, Nimoy turned  to the New York theatre to appear in the play Equus.

It was here that Jeffrey Katzenberg, then Barry Diller’s assistant, managed to convince Nimoy into joining him for a cup of coffee. Katzenberg’s mission was obvious: find Spock and get him back into the fold. Nimoy, meanwhile, dug his heels in, flatly refusing to appear in a Star Trek movie while at the same time suing Paramount for the use of his likeness.

According to the author Kim Masters, writing in The Hollywood Reporter, Paramount came up with a simple solution: give Nimoy the money he wanted for the use of his image. A cheque was despatched to Nimoy two weeks after that initial meeting with Katzenberg. A script followed, followed by a cautious phone call from Paramount.

Nimoy had read the script and thoroughly disliked it, but still he found his attitude towards Star Trek soften just a little - not least because he thought of what it would look like if he remained the only member of the original Trek cast who refused to return. How would he answer those repeated questions from reporters and fans: why didn’t you come back? Was playing Spock so bad?

Nimoy therefore made a deal: he would return as Spock, but only on the condition that he had final approval over the script.

To boldly go

The screenplay continued to be a bone of contention even when filming began in August 1978. In fact, as Robert Wise called “action” on the bridge set of the Enterprise on the 9th that month, the script was still being rewritten. Once again, storytelling was proving to be a thorn in Star Trek’s side.

Screenwriter Dennis Clark had been brought into make changes to the story - ones that would better accommodate Spock, at Nimoy’s request - but he clashed with Roddenberry and soon left. Harold Livingston, who’d written the In Thy Name script that had excited Eisenberg, was therefore brought back in to perform more rewrites, but he too butted heads with Roddenberry, who had strongly-held ideas as to what a Star Trek story should contain.

"I resented his interference," Livingston told writer Edward Gross in his book The Remaking Of Star Trek, "and he, apparently, wanted someone to carry his lunch around, and that wasn't me."

Indeed, tensions were so high on the production of The Motion Picture that Livingston left three times, only to be coaxed back again. Katzenberg also left at one point, before Eisner managed to encourage him to return.

While the cameras were rolling in August, Nimoy, William Shatner and Roddenberry were also busy coming up with a final act.

“As the story developed, everything worked until the very end,” Livingston recalled in The Making Of Star Trek: The Motion Picture. “How do you resolve this thing? If humans can defeat this marvelous machine, it's really not so great, is it? Or if it really is great, will we like those humans who do defeat it? Should they defeat it? Who is the story's hero anyway? That was the problem. We experimented with all kinds of approaches...we didn't know what to do with the ending. We always ended up against a blank wall.”

According to writer David Hughes, script changes were happening so rapidly that times were being written on revisions as well as signatures and dates. Ideas were being typed and then struck out, conceived and then aborted, on an hourly basis.

The deadly years

Inevitably, something had to give, and The Motion Picture’s release date was pushed back from the summer of 1979 to the 7th December that same year. Even so, that gave Wise and his crew little more than a year to complete principal photography and into post-production - and it was in post that Star Trek’s success would be defined. This was, after all, the post-Star Wars, post-Close Encounters era, when audiences had thrilled to the stunning effects work of ILM and Douglas Trumbull.

Roddenberry had said in the past that he wanted to make a movie akin to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Audience expectations meant that The Motion Picture would have to at least approach that film’s visual quality if it was to impress audiences outside Star Trek’s devoutly faithful core.

The problem was that neither Douglas Trumbull nor John Dykstra, who’d worked on Star Wars, were available to help conjure up The Motion Picture’s visual effects. As a result, the task was handed to a company called Robert Abel and Associates, which had previously worked with Wise on The Andromeda Strain. All told, the production company’s asking price for the effects amounted to just under $5m - a third of The Motion Picture’s projected budget.

For that money, Paramount might have assumed that Abel would be able to rush the considerable number of effects shots through to completion before the end of 1979, particularly with effects artist Richard Yuricich - who’d worked on 2001: A Space Odyssey - serving as a consultant. Yet as 1979 dawned, it became clear that Abel, a relative newcomer to creating effects shots for movies, simply wasn’t up to the task - in large part because it was using such bleeding-edge CG technology, as Trumbull explained in 2014.

“They made some really big, fundamental mistakes in trying to pre-vis on computers that weren’t ready for primetime,” Trumbull told The Hollywood Reporter. “They spent a year and nothing was finished, and nothing worked.”

As a result, Trumbull found himself at the centre of a massive panic at Paramount. Theatres had paid advances amounting to $30m with the understanding that Star Trek would open on the 7th December. Yet here they were, with the movie just months away, and not a single effects shot had been completed. The size of the situation was such that, if Paramount couldn’t deliver the movie, they’d almost certainly be sued into oblivion by angry cinema owners.

According to Trumbull, Barry Diller told an assembled meeting of executives and lawyers: “Gentlemen, I don’t care if the story doesn’t make sense, I don’t care if it cuts together. We’re delivering this movie. Period.”

Trumbull was therefore faced with the unenviable task of coming up with dozens of effects shots for The Motion Picture in a a mere six months - more effects shots than Star Wars and Close Encounters combined, by his reckoning. Sensing the anxiety in the air, Trumbull said, “Okay. I’ll do the special effects, and I’ll deliver them on time. But it’s going to cost you.”

Balance of terror

If you want a true flavour of how troubled the production on The Motion Picture was, turn back to issue 30 of the American magazine, Starlog. Although published in January 1980, it had been written many weeks before the Star Trek movie’s release. The issue’s lead feature, a report from the set of The Motion Picture, had taken place in September 1979.

Writer David Houston found director Robert Wise sitting in his office, evidently tired from the experience of shepherding Star Trek to the big screen. Wise quietly listed off the problems he’d faced so far: the script rewrites during filming, the expensive break-up with the company originally charged with delivering the effects.

At that stage, with the release date three months away, Wise suggested that delivering the film on time still hung in the balance. “We are so tight, even now,” Wise said, “That if a strike by the stage hands - which has been threatened - lasts more than a couple of days, we won’t make it.”

Filming on the set of V’Ger - the sentient space probe at the story’s centre - had also caused some potentially fatal set-backs.

“We had a number of injuries,” Wise recalled. “A gigantic set at the climax was made out of lights, panels and plastic forms. Any number of our people fell through it. Finally put up a board to keep score: which departments fell through the most - electricians, actors, artists? One electrician, Tiny, fell and sustained a very serious shock. A grip launched himself to knock Tiny loose from the cable he was holding.”

The candour continued in a separate piece, a column written by former Star Trek TV writer David Gerrold. Better placed than most to offer his observations on what was going on behind the scenes on The Motion Picture, he first shared the rumours that up to $6m had been spent on unusable special effects, and that the company responsible for them, Abel, had promptly blown that money on fancy new equipment for its studios.

Abel had been replaced by Trumbull, a genius with a proven track record in producing stunning effects, but also a reputation for allowing his perfectionism to cause delays. Could the executive assigned to keeping an eye on his progress really keep the film on schedule?

Gerrold then got to the rumours surrounding cost: that the price of script rewrites, special effects and other cost overruns had caused The Motion Picture’s budget to swell to an alarming $42m - almost three times its original estimate - making it one of the most expensive films in film history.

Worse still were the rumours from Hollywood circles that The Motion Picture was a long, confused mess. With such a colossal budget, would the attention from Star Trek’s legion fans be enough to save it?

“...at $42,000,000, Star Trek may have grown too big for its audience,” Gerrold wrote. “It may be too expensive now to show a profit. The studio is going to have to run like hell just to break even.”

If Gerrold’s worst fears were proved correct, Paramount would have one of the worst flops of the entire decade on its hands - and worse, the very first Star Trek movie would almost certainly be the last.

In fact, Gerrold’s estimate of the budget may have been too cautious, since some estimates put the final cost of The Motion Picture at $46m. For Jeffrey Katzenberg, who was tasked with the seemingly hopeless job of keeping the expenditure down proved exhausting - and very nearly career-ending.

“On a scale of one to ten,” Katzenberg said, “the anxiety level on that film fluctuated somewhere between eleven and thirteen. Never in the history of motion pictures has there been a film that came closer to not making it to the theatres on its release date.”

The pressure of creating all those effects shots had a similarly drastic effect on Douglas Trumbull: “I ended up in hospital for two weeks,” he said, “With everything wrong with me.”

The omega glory

Given all that had transpired in the years leading up to Star Trek: The Motion Picture’s release in December 1979, it’s perhaps a miracle that the film was coherent at all. Yet after all the effort that went into making it, the decidedly middling critical reception the film received must have stung its makers at least a little. Vincent Canby, never a critic to mince his words, wrote in The New York Times, “Because most of the drama in such a movie is created in the laboratories, the actors are limited to the exchanging of meaningful glances or staring intently at television monitors, usually in disbelief.”

Even some of those who’d been involved with its making at one point or another were critical. Harold Livingston, whose script had done much to get Star Trek into cinemas, complained about the film’s stately pace and lack of drama. Harlan Ellison, who’d walked away from Paramount and Star Trek history in a sweary rant years earlier, wrote in Starlog, “The saddening reality is that it is a dull film: an often boring film, a stultifyingly predictable film, a tragically average film.”

Given Ellison’s connections with Star Trek, you might think he’d have laced his verdict with a degree of smugness. Instead, he writes with the seemingly genuine tone of a movie-goer wanting to see something inventive and bold, but instead got a tentative sci-fi film that seemed to revel in its (admittedly beautiful) cruising spaceships.

A single line from Ellison’s essay seems to sum up the general reaction the best:

“One young person was heard to say, ‘I waited 10 years for this?’”

The collective headache caused by Star Trek: The Motion picture was such that Paramount had, according to George Takei, initially sworn off the idea of making another one. But, just as the film’s makers hoped, Star Trek’s fans remained loyal, and the clamour of interest surrounding the movie led to a $139m take at the box-office - far less than Close Encounters or Star Wars, sure, but enough to chalk The Motion Picture up as a success.

To this day, debate rages over Star Trek: The Motion Picture’s merits. Is it a muted, obscure plod, or a cerebral piece of sci-fi deserving of re-evaluation? Whatever your thoughts on the resulting film, The Motion Picture finally brought the long quest to make a Star Trek movie to an end - thus launching a franchise that is still boldly going more than a quarter of a century later.

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