Mark A. Altman (Nov. 19th, 1999)
Please Note: This is not to be confused with the interview the effort's representatives had in March 2000, which was first printed in the BBKN.
The interview was done by Jason Turner, our UK representative, and is available on the UK website.
The Bring Back Kirk campaign is honored to bring you an exclusive interview with popular Trek commentator, Mark Altman. Co-writer of independent movie Free Enterprise, Mark needs no introduction to Star Trek fans. His reputation for knowledge, along with his factual and behind-the-scenes books, have earned him the fond nickname of Star Trek expert. In this interview, Mark expands on some of his recent comments, and hints on how he would script the return of Kirk, making this essential reading for all fans of Star Trek.
BBK: For the benefit of those in the UK, could you tell us about your movie Free Enterprise, and particularly, Shatner's role in the film?
MA: Sure. Free Enterprise is a film I wrote (with Robert Meyer Burnett) and co-produced starring William Shatner. He plays a character named, of all things, William Shatner. It's about two big science fiction fans who meet their idol and find out that he's more screwed up than they are. It's won a number of awards and gotten some great reviews in America. We're looking forward to the UK release next year. What you'll see is not only what a talented actor Bill is, but what a truly brilliant comedian he is as well. The films a very respectful look at science fiction fandom and two fans, in particular, lives and loves.
BBK: What was Paramount's reaction to the film, if any? Did it make them take note of the popularity of Kirk and Shatner?
MA: Honestly, I don't think they had much of a reaction. It opened, by total coincidence, about the same time as their film Trekkies so I guess there was some concern that we were stealing their thunder, but I don't really think they've lost much sleep over our film. It's sort of a small fish in a rather big pond when you're talking about $80 million, $100 million dollar movies. I know there are a lot of people on the lot who've seen it and love it, but it hasn't been a factor in Trek-making policy. We're looking forward to its HBO premiere next year when it'll reach even more of an audience. The VHS/DVD just came out in America and already we've gotten an amazing response and the sales figures are through the roof.
BBK: The recent article in Salon magazine states that you have your own ideas on how you'd like Captain Kirk to return. William Shatner is apparently very keen on the idea. Did you discuss this at any length during the production of Free Enterprise? (Believe it or not, there are still fans who think that Shatner wants to shed the Kirk-image)
MA: Yeah, to be honest, we did talk about it. We talked about a lot of things. Bill is a wonderful man; funny, thoughtful, creative. Obviously, Rob and I were very interested in his thoughts on the future of Kirk and I think we were surprised by the passion he still has for Star Trek and the Kirk character, in particular. I can see, without any hesitation, that Bill wants to play Captain Kirk again. He's put a lot of himself into that character and he would like to play him again. You'd be surprised how proud he is of the recent novels he wrote with the Reeves-Stevens and how this really came out of his ideas about how to bring Kirk back in the movie series. Frankly, I don't want to see Kirk in the 24th century with the Next Gen cast. He's a 23rd century guy. That's where he belongs.
BBK: Generally, fans seem to prefer the even-numbered Star Trek films. Something with a darkish quality like movie's two and six, combined with the sense of humour of four, and some defining emotional punches would seem perfect for the return of Kirk. Would this be the sort of thing you had in mind? And, would you prefer to write the movie on your own, or would you be willing to collaborate with fan-favourites such as Nimoy, Bennett and Meyer?
MA: Rob and I have always said we'd love to write a Star Trek film because we have a passion for it. We have a really great idea that we've discussed with Bill and I think it would be fun. Quite honestly, I don't think it's realistic of us to expect Paramount to let us make a $30 - $50 million film after we made a small, indie romantic comedy. But then again, if you look at the Wachiowski brothers going from "Bound" to "Matrix," it's not like there isn't a precedent for it. We have a very good working relationship with Shatner and I'd like to think there's some mutual respect between Leonard and us. But I don't sit around the phone waiting for a call from Sherry Lansing if that's what you mean. I think there really needs to be a decision at Paramount that something needs to be done differently. Frankly, I'd like to see Berman continue to go on making Next Gen and Voyager series and movies as long as anything relating to the original legacy is put in the hands of people who respect it. Whether that's Rob and I or Nick Meyer or Leonard Nimoy or Ben Stiller, that's fine too.
BBK: The chemistry between Kirk and Spock, was described by the Great Bird of the Galaxy, as being the "essence of Star Trek." The chemistry between the two characters has certainly continued to be the high point in many of the films, particularly Star Trek II. After Kirk's sacrifices in The Search for Spock, and his line "You would have done the same for me!", do you agree that Trek mythology demands that Spock saves his Captain from the jaws of death, and that their relationship once again becomes central to Star Trek for one last movie?
MA: Clearly, to do a new Trek movie without De Kelley will require a serious rethinking of the mythology. Our idea, without going into much detail, is really a "Wild Bunch" kind of story in which Kirk and Spock really represent the end of an era as the hard edged, wild frontier of the 23rd century segues into the kindler, gentler 24th. They're like Holden and Borgnine in the "Wild Bunch." It's very much the story of two friends who must face their destiny as the age they live in passes them by. So in that sense the Kirk/Spock relationship is, no pun intended, paramount, but the backdrop is this vast intersellar conflict that involves several of the major star empires and classic characters. It's a sprawling epic that can still be done at a price, which is what Paramount wants. They want Trek to be done at a budget since they can pretty much project their profit by backing into certain numbers. Obviously, if a Trek film, ends up being a better film than others it makes it that much more profitable. I think our idea is pretty great. It's a human story against an epic sci-fi tapestry.
I also want to dispel any illusions about Bill. Our working experience with him was fantastic. I can't say a bad thing about the man. If anything, he's shy and self-deprecating so when he's in a convention situation he has to put on this false bravado to deal with the throng of admirers. It's something that's tough to deal with. He once said to us that he's embarassed to sign autographs. He doesn't understand why anyone would want his signature. I really think he's a great man; an icon of the cinema like Clint Eastwood and John Wayne and that's why I believe it's important to get him back up on the big screen where he belongs.
BBK: Star Trek is undeniably decaying in popularity. Many would attribute this to over-saturation. Some fans think it goes deeper than that, and can be traced back to the death of Kirk - an event that metaphorically alienated TOS from the picture, and effectively, a significant fan base. How much would you say Generations damaged the franchise? Was Kirk's death a significant factor? And what do you think of the way Kirk's death was handled?
MA: I don't know if it was so much the death of Kirk, but the fact that the movie didn't represent what fans, or the general audience wanted to see. Even Kirk's fantasy wasn't true to the character, it was Bill Shatner's fantasy. We've never known Kirk as a man who has an affinity for horses. And not making the love of his life Edith Keeler was just a terrible missed opportunity. Had Joan Collins been in Generations and the love story been more developed, I predict you would have added $10 million to the gross. I also sense the audience realized there was apathy among the cast who sort of walked through this film after doing the final season of TNG and the TOS cast realized they were being exploited for box-office and really didn't have a reason to be there. Bottom line: it's not a good film and of course that's going to hurt the franchise. A lot of people didn't like Trek 5 and thought the franchise was doomed. They were wrong. Trek is like a phoenix, it always seems to emerge from the ashes, often better than before. I'd like to think that'll happen again.
BBK: Some would ague that Shatner has never been in a better position to return as Kirk. His recent nomination for an Emmy award, the enormous popularity of his Kirk novels, the recent successful run of TOS on the Sci-Fi Channel, and his critically acclaimed role in Free Enterprise would definitely support this. The fans want him back. Shatner would seem to want back in. Now is a perfect opportunity. So what's preventing his return, and how can we circumvent that?
MA: Clearly, Shatner is very much a figure well known in the popular culture. I think as we reach the end of the millennia and all these magazines do these lists of popular characters and popular TV shows, popular icons, they're all talking about Kirk and Spock and the original Trek. You don't really hear people talking about Picard or TNG. Not that it wasn't a good show, it just wasn't a great show, it wasn't a part of the modern mythology like the original Star Trek was. TNG was just television; albeit good, well made, well produced television whereas the original Trek was really something special in the annals of entertainment and I think that's why it's being singled out and why Shatner is sort of the John Wayne of Star Trek; a figure that people who don't know or like Star Trek associate with as opposed to Picard who's really only known among people who are Trek fans.
BBK: Although it's been five years since Kirk was killed, many say that the demand for his return has never been greater. The time is perfect for the event (especially with the 35th anniversary getting nearer). It would appear that we need to get as many people aware of the campaign and writing letters before the content of the next film is finalised. Do you have any advice on how we could intensify the campaign?
MA: Obviously Paramount is going to try and inject some new life into Trek using the arbitary 35th anniversary as a milestone. They always do. That means looking back to Trek's past. I think there's a better chance of a TV movie or miniseries with the original cast than a movie right now which means fans of Kirk need to not only target Sherry Lansing and Jonathan Dolgen, but also Kerry McCluggage at Paramount Television and Dean Valentine at UPN. I think with the films they're really going to go in a new direction with new cast and maybe some reprises by popular TNG or DS9 cast members. It's an uphill battle, but it's not unwinnable and I would encourage fans to express their views. I remember back in the 70's how hopeless it seemed there would ever be more Trek. Certainly after ST: TMP, we all believed it was over. Now look at it, we're all sick of it. So is it possible? Yes. Is it likely? No. Could I be wrong? Absolutely.
BBK: As far as you're aware, do Paramount discuss what we're doing, or even take notice of our letters?
MA: I'd have to say that individually no. But if you can mobilize enough people, they will take note. It's a numbers game. But you have to be respectful and intelligent; threats and little drawings of IDIC on the envelope won't help your cause.
BBK: The recent Salon article, combined with some very negative and honest press about the decline of the franchise, apparently had repercussions at Paramount. Bearing all this in mind, how likely are TPTB going to consider Kirk's return? And do you think that Rick Berman's reign is coming to an end? (someone who appears to be the major obstacle for Kirk's revival)
MA: I don't really know. I'll say this: Berman does not want Kirk back. Shatner erodes his power base if he's involved and he's already gotten enough heartache from Stewart. But that's all I'm going to say. I don't dislike Berman. I think he's done a lot well. I think he's been a good steward for TNG and he was smart enough to let Ira Behr do his thing on DS9. I just resent when he tries to get involved with anything to do with Classic Trek. Look at the tribbles episode, he wouldn't let Dennis McCarthy use the old music because he thought it was hokey. Well, did you see "Masks?" Berman's a good producer. I think he has a bright future in Hollywood but he needs to find something he's passionate about that he can call his own. I think he resents being in Roddenberry's shadow as Harve Bennett did before him. Everyone whoever works on Star Trek will always be in Gene's shadow and it's something they just have to live with. If I ever was involved with a Trek movie, I'd have to live with that too. Berman's given over ten years of service to the franchise. He's done a lot of things well, really well. But even the President only gets two four year terms in America. Time to move on.
As for the Salon piece, they were too harsh on Brannon. I like Brannon. I think he's a good writer, maybe a great writer. I'm one of the few people that seems to like him as a person. I'm proud that a guy who started as an intern made it to Executive Produce one of the biggest shows on TV. That's quite an accomplishment. I also think Brannon has a bright future in television. In Star Trek? No. He's done some great, great shows like "Deadlock" and "Cause & Effect." But I don't get the sense his heart is in it anymore. I'll say something controversial, I'd start watching The X-Files again if Brannon were running it instead of Chris Carter. In a heartbeat. Brannon needs to follow his muse and do something he loves. I just don't think it's Star Trek. But that's just my opinion. I don't think there's room for cynicism in Trek anymore. Star Trek grabbed us because of its optimism and that's what it needs to get back. Those are the fundamentals.
BBK: Finally, judging Paramount's lack of celebration over the 20th anniversary of The Motion Picture, what do you think fans should expect for the 35th anniversary of Trek? Should we expect yet more Flashback episodes? Or do you think they'll consider a re-union in the form of TV movies with the rumoured CBS interest?
MA: Where do the English get these rumors from. CBS interest? It cracks me up. I read a piece in the Daily Express the other day saying that Rob and I were in negotiations with Paramount to do Trek X. It's just nuts. Anyway, let me just say this. It's obscene that Paramount Home Video hasn't done anything for the 20th anniversary of ST: TMP. Robert Wise, unfortunately, won't be with us much longer and he deserves a chance to do a true cut of the film. Commentary, absolutely. The discarded F/X footage. There's so much there, including the coverage of the film at the time which was remarkable. This could be one of the great DVD's of all time. But that's not happening. Why? Who knows? Apathy. Should Nick Meyer do commentary of Trek II? Yes! Nimoy and Shatner should be doing commentary on their movies. Home Video is missing the boat here. Look at what MGM did with the James Bond series. It's beautiful. Paramount Home Video could take a page from their book, don't you think? Anyway, I don't mean to sound like a spoilsport. I love Star Trek. I'll go back and watch some of the episodes on DVD, which look and sound beautiful, and bemoan the current stage of franchise, but if the series taught us anything it's that there's always hope for the future. So it's up to you and the people in BBK and people like you to make a difference. To just accept mediocrity is foolish. You must aspire for greatness. You won't always achieve it, but it's possible so why not try, right? Good luck.
By the way, you asked me who should direct the next Trek movie. My answer: William Friedkin.