Catching Up With Director James L. Conway, Part 2
Yesterday, in part one of our exclusive interview with James L. Conway, the veteran Star Trek director talked about how he hooked up with the franchise and his memories of helming TNG and DS9. Today, in the second half of our interview, the conversation turns to Voyager and Enterprise, how he came close to directing First Contact, and his current project, the just-released novel Dead And Not So Buried.
You were in the running to direct First Contact. Jonathan Frakes ultimately got the job. How much did that have to do with your decision to join Spelling Entertainment full-time?
Conway: It came down to a decision between me and Jonathan, and it was Patrick (Stewart) who decided. Obviously, Patrick and Jonathan were best friends, and Jonathan is a wonderful director, so Patrick chose Jonathan. So that had just happened and was sort of on my mind. I’d come so close to getting the movie that it was heartbreaking, as you can imagine.
“The Way of the Warrior” was, in some ways, an audition for First Contact, right?
Conway: I knew that I’d be up for the movie and be pitched to (then-Paramount boss) Sherry Lansing. So, for me, that two-hour episode was sort of an audition. It turned out spectacular, and that gave me confidence to go in and give a whole long pitch about how I’d do the movie. It was very intimidating. But in my mind I had to prove to Rick Berman and Sherry that I could do this. So I put everything I possibly could into “Way of the Warrior.” It was a two-hour, 16 days, two eight-day weeks. And it turned out great. So, for me, it was a lot of fun for a lot of reasons.
How did Voyager happen for you?
Conway: I’d gone off to do another show and I was available again. I called Rick, told him I was available again and he said, “Well, great,” and he brought me in to do Voyager. I loved Kate Mulgrew. I thought she was just a joy to work with. I only did two or three of them, and they were very early on, before they brought on Jeri Ryan. I thought, personally, the cast was too big and they weren’t all of equal appeal, if you know what I mean. And it’s great to see what’s happened with Robbie McNeill and Roxann Dawson. They’re two great directors now. Rick made them study for a year, go to the editing room and really prepare before he gave them a shot. Jonathan, Robbie and Roxann, particularly, have gone on to great careers.
Your first Voyager episode was “The 37's,” which remains a very popular episode…
Conway: That was the one with Amelia Earhart. Sharon Lawrence was wonderful. It was a really fun script. I really enjoyed doing Voyager because they had new technology for Star Trek. And, since I wasn’t there every week doing Star Trek it was always a real adventure for me to come and do one, because it was always fresh. Plus, I’d been a fan of Star Trek going back to TOS, so it was a real treat to get into Star Trek like that. I was inspired and like a kid in the candy shop.
We hear that you’re very fond of your other Voyager episode, “Death Wish”…
Conway: I am. It was written by Shawn Piller, Michael Piller’s son. I believe it was his first script, and they wrote it together. Michael and he shared credit. That was my first time with John de Lancie, and he’s a delight. Gerrit Graham was great, too. John is a wonderful raconteur and a wonderful actor, and he had that character down. Q was such a wonderful character. A year or two later I did the video game with John, Star Trek: Borg, which was shot at the same time as the movie Jonathan was directing, which was another irony of that whole thing. Marvin Rush worked with me on the game, too, and he’s a great director of photography.
Your last Voyager episode was “Innocence”…
Conway: That was the one with the kids. It was a very sweet show, but I don’t have a lot of memories from that. Nothing really stands out.
You were at Spelling Entertainment when you did Enterprise. How did you swing that?
Conway: Rick, at one point, had actually called me to ask if I wanted to do the pilot for Voyager, but I wasn’t available. I was doing Burke’s Law at the time. So I had to turn it down. Now I’m at Spelling and I’m executive vice-president and Rick calls to say that they’re going to do Enterprise, would I like to direct the pilot? I read the script and I flipped. It was such a fantastic script. I went to Aaron (Spelling) and Duke (Vincent) and said, “I’ve been offered the chance to direct this pilot. Will you let me go and do it?” They immediately said yes. I’d been at Spelling, I think, for four years, and I took a leave from Spelling to go back and do Enterprise.
Conway: It was the best experience I ever had doing a television show. In fact, sitting in this big Paramount theater as we screened the pilot on the big screen to a whole audience filled with people was a great moment. I had my wife and daughter sitting next to me and it was one of those great moments in your life that you always remember. It was a huge budget for a television pilot. It was a two-hour pilot, but a 32-day schedule, which is huge. The budget was so big because they had to build the sets and create the wardrobe and the props for the show, and everything got lumped into that budget. So it was just a great, great production with people I knew. I knew the crew. Jerry Fleck was my dear friend from back in the Grizzly Adams days, and he was my assistant director. Jerry passed away during the series. Brad (Yacobian) and Merri (Howard) were dear friends. Rick and Brannon Braga wrote the script. It was just a great experience.
12 million people tuned in to the pilot, but the numbers fell precipitously from there. What was your sense of what went wrong with Enterprise?
Conway: I think a couple of things. I think that one thing that went wrong is it just went back to just telling normal Star Trek stories. I think people were hoping, since it was a prequel, that there’d be something new, fresh and different about it. (Between TNG, DS9 and Voyager), the franchise had been around for 14 years and they’d told a lot of stories. When Enterprise came on they just kept telling the same kind of stories and there was nothing fresh for new audience members to grab onto and stay there for. So I think that was part of the problem. I think another problem was we didn’t have any characters who really popped. On TNG, you had Picard and Data and a couple of other characters that were really popular. None of the other shows really had that kind of fan following, cast-wise, even though they had some wonderful cast members. Nobody really popped big from Enterprise to pull people in.
You went out in style, as your final Enterprise episode, your last-ever Trek episode, was “In a Mirror Darkly,” considered by many one of the best, if not the best, Enterprise adventures. What do you remember of that?
Conway: I’d done an episode like that on DS9, where it was the alternate universe. It’s fun to have these actors play the complete opposite of their usual characters. In fact, I was blown away by Linda Park. When she was seducing everybody, she was so wonderful at it. This one guest star came in and he made out with her for three straight days. And he knew it. He was really enjoying it. Linda didn’t hold back at all. She’s a wonderful actress. So, just to see these characters behave in such different ways than what you’d seen them do for four years, it was very exciting. I think every actor loves to play evil, and they really got a chance to do that.
At the end of the day, through all your episodes across the four series, what would you like to think was your contribution to the franchise?
Conway: My contribution… Well, I think by being a fan first and a director second that I really brought a youthful enthusiasm to every episode that I did. To me, they were never work. They were always about trying to capture the Star Trek feeling, trying to do justice to the scripts, which were usually terrific, and trying to make them memorable. That’s what I’d have to say.
If we could magically arrange for you to direct one more episode of one of the Trek shows, which show would you direct and why?
Conway: I’d probably say TNG because I feel like I didn’t do enough of them. I did two the first season and just one the fifth season. I’d have loved the chance to do one of the Borg episodes or one of the episodes later on, which I never got to do. The show hit its stride in years three and four, and I felt like I didn’t get enough of the TNG experience.
Dead And Not So Buried, your first novel, came out earlier this week. Why now for a book?
Conway: It’s something that I’ve always wanted to do. Writing was sort of the thing that got me started. I just got back from the University of Denver, where I went to college, for a distinguished alumni event. I can’t believe it’s 40 years since I graduated. I was there talking to some of the kids and it got me thinking about how I got from Denver to Hollywood. Just as a side note, of my class, of the people who were there when I was there, there are people who are still, like me, here and working in Hollywood. There’s Mel Damski, who’s a producer-director, Joe Pannella, who’s a director of photography, and Jim Parriott, who’s a writer-producer, and a number of other guys who were in my class, 1971/1972, who are still in the business, which is remarkable.
Anyway, I came out of school and I really wasn’t ready to go to Hollywood yet. I worked for a local company doing industrial films and commercials, but I was always writing. Writing is the one thing you can do by yourself, prove yourself with and maybe get a career doing it. I sold some short stories and bounced around a few jobs, and then I wrote a book, which I got to an L.A. agent, who started sending it around. About that same time, I got a job working with (author- screenwriter-producer) Chuck Sellier on the TV show The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams. My book never sold, and I got busy doing movies and television, but writing books was something I actually always wanted to keep doing. As my directing career slowed down a little, I thought, “Now is the time to write a book.” I wrote what I knew, which is Hollywood, and I wrote a genre I love, which is thrillers. The basic idea of the book is it’s an actor who decides to get back at everybody who he thinks he has done him wrong over the years, and the private investigator who’s caught in the middle.
How easily did the writing process and the story itself come to you?
Conway: It all came pretty easily. It took about six months. It was a lot of fun. I was still directing some things in the meantime, so it was done in fits and starts. The story has a lot of humor. And the fun thing about writing is that you constantly surprise yourself. You have an idea where the story is going to go and then the characters take over. There are some really fun characters in there. Besides the detective, his ex-wife is a cop who gives him trouble. She’s having an affair with her partner, which just angers our P.I. even more. There’s the P.I.’s assistant, who’s a beautiful young girl who’s in love with him, but he doesn’t even know it. There’s a movie star he has to protect, who he had an affair with many years before. So, there’s a lot going on, with twists I didn’t even see coming.
Can we assume this will be the first in a series?
Conway: That’s the plan, the hope. It ends on a nice note that ends the story, but leaves room for more. I’m actually writing the next one right now.
If someone in Hollywood options Dead And Not So Buried, would a certain James L. Conway want to direct the film version?
Conway: That would be wonderful, wouldn’t it?
How interested are you in continuing to direct television?
Conway: I’m available. I did a 90210 last fall and just before that I did a Switched at Birth. I did a Supernatural. It’s slowed down a little bit, but hopefully this fall I’ll get back on a couple of shows.