Sunday, July 26, 2009

Review - “The View from the Bridge” by Nicholas Meyer

From the Book Jacket:
The View from the Bridge is Nicholas Meyer's enormously entertaining account of his involvement with the Star Trek films: Star Trek II The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, as well as his illustrious career in the movie business. The man best known for bringing together Sherlock Holmes and Sigmund Freud in The-Seven Per-Cent Solution had ironically never been interested in Star Trek until he was brought on board to save the film series.

Meyer shares how he created the script for The Wrath of Khan, the most revered Star Trek film of all, in twelve days only to have William Shatner proclaim he hated it. He reveals the death threats he received when word got out that Spock would be killed and finally answers the long-pondered question of whether Khan's chiseled chest is truly that of Ricardo Montalban. Meyer's reminiscences on everyone from Gene Roddenberry to Laurence Olivier will appeal not only to the countless legions of Trekkies, but to anyone fascinated by the inner workings of Hollywood.
The full title of this book by Nicholas Meyer is The View from the Bridge: Memories of Star Trek and a Life in Hollywood. The obvious hook here for many readers are the revelations that the director/writer of three of the most popular Star Trek movies has to share. The memoir encompasses so much more than the Star Trek years though and is a fun and imminently readable stroll through the highs and lows of the varied career of Nicholas Meyer. Meyer’s narrative voice comes across as conversational and I felt as if I were sitting on sofa listening to an evening’s reminiscences of a friend’s war stories.

The memoir stays mostly focused on Meyer’s life as a director and writer and rarely veers into personal territory. While there are a few small digressions involving his parents, siblings and his own family, the main thrust is his work life in Hollywood and the film industry. At times he paints a very damning picture of the insularity of the industry, but he is rarely judgmental. You won’t find personal attacks or dirty laundry, but you do get an insider’s view of some of the venality, ego and hubris that permeates the industry. You also see the hard work, dedication and passion that goes into the work.

There are many, many quotable passages and observations from the memoir and more than a few Trek anecdotes of interest. I present a few here that I found of interest.

Early in his career Meyer worked for the publicity department in New York City. This little tidbit makes you wonder to what degree similar shenanigans may still be going on to manipulate best seller lists.
Another trick we had was getting books Paramount owned onto the bestseller lists. In those good old days all the people who worked in the building were presented with fifty dollars cash to take with them to various bookstores on their lunch hour. We were to purchase ten copies each of The Godfather, or whatever else we were pushing that week, at these emporia. As to what we did with the books themselves, that was our business. Chuck 'em in the garbage, if we wanted. (Paramount was not unique in this activity; later, working at Warner Brothers, I can recall everyone being sent out to purchase copies of Summer of '42, with similar results.)

Nowadays, of course, such a dreadful piece of manipulation could never occur.
I am pretty sure that last line from the quote was tongue firmly in cheek. If you view Meyer’s filmography you will find that he has a quite distinguished list of popular films to his credit, but like all director/writers he had to start somewhere and one of his earliest efforts was a script for a scifi “B” movie that is definitely not a classic.
People who see it on my resume keep telling me it is a camp classic but I never know what this means or if it's a good thing. Meantime it was back to the drawing board. The Invasion of the Bee Girls was not going to be my passport to immortality.



I particularly enjoyed his observation about the Oscars and the nature of awards -
To top off my heady year, I found myself nominated for an Academy Award for the screenplay of The Seven-Per-Cent Solution. I don't much hold with prizes for art, and Oscars seem especially spurious. If you want to know who the best actor is, let them all play Hamlet. Otherwise it doesn't make any sense.
Nicholas Meyer was recruited to direct Star Trek II with absolutely no familiarity with the franchise. In the memoir he recollects watching a couple of episodes in college but that’s all. Trying to make sense of the many early unusable drafts of the script, he fell back on his literary leanings, thinking of the sea-faring works of C.S. Forrester and Alexander Kent.
Once I was possessed of this epiphany, a great many things fell readily into place. I suddenly knew what Star Trek wanted to be and how I could relate to it. The look of the film and the natures of the characters—even their language—suddenly became clear. And doable. I would write a Hornblower script, simply relocating in outer space.
Meyer’s lack of reverence for the series is likely the asset that resulted in his success as the producer of three of the most popular of all of the Star Trek pictures. It has been said that the even numbered movies are perceived as the best, i.e. 2, 4 and 6. Throughout the memoir I observed that Meyer considers himself a story-teller first and director second and I think it is that innate desire to tell a great tale, unencumbered by rules or expectations, that allowed him to put his stamp on the franchise.
I was not burdened by "reverence" for the series, as people have often wondered. Indeed, reverence was not an emotion that ever crossed my mind. Far from being sacrosanct, I was of the opinion that Star Trek could stand some fixing. I made up rules as I needed them and wrote my own dialogue.

Around this time, word leaked that the film would involve the death of Spock, a leak that I later learned some people had attributed to a disgruntled Roddenberry. Amid all the discussions that followed, I off-handedly suggested that we put Spock in the simulator sequence that would now open the film, and kill him off from the get-go. I thought I was being funny, but Bennett jumped on the idea, so I threw Spock into the sequence, killing him in scene (In, as a way of disarming the audience's expectations.

I was writing the movie I wanted to see, my own adventures of Captain Hornblower.

Later, reflecting on my Star Trek experiences at various panel discussions, I found myself likening the series to the Catholic mass. That is to say, like the Mass, there are certain elements of Star Trek that are immutable, unchangeable. The mass has its Kyrie, its Sanctus, Agnus Dei, Dies Irae, and so on.... Star Trek has Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Klingons, Romulans, etc., and the rest of the universe Roddenbery bequeathed us.
Of course I have wondered about Ricardo Montalban’s physique as Khan, a role he reprized at the age of 62 and of course Meyer raises the issue -
The question I am most often asked about the movie is whether that chiseled sculpture was indeed Ricardo Montalban's actual torso.
He does in fact answer the question, but I am going to be a meany and not provide a spoiler. You’ll have to read the memoir to find out (or leave a comment asking). An additional trivia item about the making of Wrath of Khan does not surprise.
Throughout the making of the film, rumors of Spock's demise fueled the rage of fans. I received a helpful letter that ran: "If Spock dies, you die."
One of the most revealing moments about the author is found in this personal self-assessment as he recollects having observed a moment of creative brilliance from a much-beloved film director and realizes his place and worth in his chosen field.
In years to come I had another insight that was somewhat comforting: While it was true that I would never been capable of that sort of act, I had, on the other hand, recognized it when it had occurred. I did understand its significance at the time and preserved it in my memory; I am relating it to you now. That is the sort of artist I am; not of the first rank, perhaps not even of the second, but I do recognize something original when I see it; I can preserve it for others to savor, even if the originator of the act is unaware or unappreciative of just what it is he or she has done. I could never write The Odyssey, but I can probably make it into a very good screenplay. That is the other thing I am besides being a teacher. A storyteller. Not the creator of stories, but rather the re-creator. I would never have imagined anything as original as Sherlock Holmes—but I might, with some success, imagine him meeting Sigmund Freud. If someone had said their two names together first.
Of course being a life time reader and lover of film, I found this declaration had tremendous resonance for me -
Tolstoy (who later disowned the statement) famously said that the purpose of art is to teach us to love life and that to love life is to love God. I don't know about the second part but I'm pretty sure about the first. Books and movies have gotten me through some pretty tough times, and I’m fairly certain that this is the service they perform for most people, who could use a breather from reality and some inspiration every now and again, a time out before returning to the battle.
And a final passage that I believe ultimately sums up Nicholas Meyer, his philosophy and love of movies and the act of creativity -
Watching movies at home, on a screen however large and a sound system however noisy, is simply not the same thing as seeing them in a theater. My dad used to say that watching movies on TV was like getting kissed over the telephone. What's missing in seeing a film on television is a central component of what it means to be human—the assembly. Whether it's at a church, at a play, or at the movies, the idea of losing your identity at a gathering of others—known or unknown to you—while sharing a common experience, a journey, an event, is uniquely human, and in my opinion we abandon such practices at our peril. Gatherings are important, and certainly better than going through life with ear buds. Never mind the theology or medium in question, concentrate on the part where you rub shoulders with strangers. Cities are places you walk or ride the subway, places where you look at people, they look at you; you don't pass them on the freeway at seventy miles an hour. At the end of a performance of Beethoven's Third, you and the audience have shared an adventure, at once individual and collective. The experience makes you a better person. Don't ask me how or why, but it does. There isn't any movie shown on television that wouldn't be better in a movie theater. Art is fragile—it can be interrupted by crying kids, the telephone, the neighbors, what have you. Gatherings, whether for music, church, plays, films, or ballets, are experiences to which you must make a commitment and in making that commitment, in leaving your home to devote yourself to that communal experience, you reaffirm your humanity.
I highly recommend The View from the Bridge for any student of film, science fiction fan, Star Trek aficionado or Trekker, or anyone that simply wants a glimpse into the magic behind the magic of movie making. Engaging and thoughtful and well worth the investment of a few hours with one man’s journey down memory lane.

Nicholas Meyer Profile

Nicholas Meyer is a noted author, screenwriter, and director. In addition to the Star Trek films, his many credits include an Oscar nomination for the screenplay of The Seven Per-Cent Solution (adapted from his New York Times bestselling novel); writing and directing the classic science fiction thriller Time After Time; and directing The Day After, the controversial film about nuclear war that became the most watched television movie. Most recently, he adapted Philip Roth's novella The Dying Animal for the screen as Elegy. He lives in Pacific Palisades, California.

The View from the Bridge: Memories of Star Trek and a Life in Hollywood
Penguin Group (USA)/Viking
Published: August 20, 2009
ISBN #: 9780670021307
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 256

Writer:

  • The Hessen Affair (2009) (writer)
  • Elegy (2008/I) (screenplay)
  • Orpheus (2006) (TV) (writer)
  • The Human Stain (2003) (screenplay)
  • Fall from the Sky (2002) (TV) (writer)
  • The Prince of Egypt (1998) (additional screenplay material)
  • The Informant (1997) (screenplay)
  • Voices (1995) (written by)
  • Sommersby (1993) (screenplay) (story)
  • Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991) (screenplay)
  • Company Business (1991) (written by)
  • Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) (screenplay)
  • Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan (1982) (screenplay) (uncredited)
  • Time After Time (1979) (writer)
  • The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976) (novel)
  • The Night That Panicked America (1975) (TV) (screenplay) (story)
  • Judge Dee and the Monastery Murders (1974) (TV) (writer)
  • Invasion of the Bee Girls (1973) (written by)

Director:

  • Don Quixote (2009) (in production)
  • Vendetta (1999) (TV)
  • Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)
  • Company Business (1991)
  • The Deceivers (1988)
  • Volunteers (1985)
  • "Faerie Tale Theatre" (1 episode, 1985)
  • The Day After (1983) (TV)
  • Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

5 comments:

  1. Wow, thanks for taking the time to write this lengthy piece. Usually I don't like lengthy pieces about books, but this was absolutely riveting! (Though I can't believe you're withholding the Khan/Montalban info!)

    I really really love that Meyer redid the Khan screenplay as Horatio Hornblower in space. And the thing about Best Actor and Hamlet. So true.

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  2. I can't wait for Meyer's book! I really hope my library buys it. (Or Borders has a really good coupon! LOL!)

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  3. Reading through this has made me want to watch the movies. It's been so long since I've seen one. I saw two, three and four at the theater :). Love those movies. I need to add them to my DVD collection!

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  4. Hi Doug!

    Okay, I'll ask is that Ricardo Montalban's sexy chest or was he wearing a plate? Everything I've ever read says it was the real thing. I just watched the Wrath of Khan a couple of days ago, and I still love this great movie, I loved them all. I cried when Spock died, and every time I watch, I still cry, heart broken, true fan. I thought it was unique how he was resurrected. I own all the movies, so this book is a must have.

    The set of Khan did resemble an ocean going vessel now that I think about, I really loved the interior scene when Chekov realizes that they're on the wrong planet, and have ended up on the stranded ship, The Botany Bay. It was like a pirate show, excellent.

    Dottie :)

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  5. I really liked this book too. My book True Love Is Not Common; www.eloquentbooks.com/TrueLoveIsNotCommon.html, has similar main characters like this book. I grew up reading this author. Hope my book will one day reach many readers as this author.

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For bloggers comments are like water to a man (or woman) wandering in the desert. A precious commodity. I love to hear from everyone and do my best to respond to every post.

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