Recalling "Yesterday's Enterprise" with Eric Stillwell - Part 2
Eric Stillwell may be best known in Star Trek circles for his contribution to the landmark TNG episode “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” but his Trek experiences continued on long after that. Here, in the second half of our exclusive conversation, Stillwell talks about his role as a Klingon in Star Trek VI, co-writing the Voyager hour “Prime Factors,” running a British Trek convention attended by more than 10,000 people, learning from the late Trek writer-producer Michael Piller, and what he’s doing now.
You were in Trek VI. How’d that come about?
Stillwell: Trent (Christopher Ganino) and I were both in Star Trek VI. TNG was on hiatus from production at the time, so there were always a few weeks when we were laid off during the summer and the filming of The Undiscovered Country just happened to fall during this hiatus and I knew some of the crew who also worked on the series, so we signed up to be extras. The work Trent and I did during the Klingon courtroom scenes on Kronos, during the trial of Kirk and McCoy, took two days. Trent got to be one of the three Klingon judges and I was one of the non-descript Klingons in the rafters. Honestly, the memory is more fun than the experience. Wearing heavy costumes and rubber masks under bright hot camera lights isn’t has glamorous as you might imagine. But it was fun to be directed by Nicholas Meyer. And we got to have lunch with Mark Lenard when he was on set for a costume fitting during one of our breaks. Mark was convinced that my Klingon costume was recycled from his General Urko costume from the Planet of the Apes television series. De Kelley, of course, was one of the class acts of Hollywood. It’s was a dream to be able to say that I was in a movie with him.
You co-wrote the Voyager episode “Prime Factors.” What were you aiming for, and how satisfied were you with the results?
Stillwell: David George and I co-wrote the story. Being true to our Trekkie origins, the pitch for “Prime Factors” sprang from a TOS reference in the episode “Assignment Earth,” when Gary Seven is sent by aliens from the other side of the universe to intervene in the course of human events. Scotty makes some reference to a transporter beam coming from some far away part of the galaxy so distant that the Enterprise sensors couldn’t reach that far. So David and I speculated what might happen if the Voyager crew happened upon that civilization. What if they had the ability to transport our crew back to Earth, but because of some terrible failure caused by their intervention on another world in the past, they’d adopted their own kind of Prime Directive to avoid any such disasters in the future? This was the essence of our pitch. Again, Michael Piller didn’t like the so-called gimmicks from TOS, but he liked what he considered the fool’s gold nature of the story. He likened it to the film The Treasure of Sierra Madre and hired us to go write the story. Even though David and I didn’t get to write the screenplay, I think the final version of the episode was true to our original vision. And it was a defining moment in the relationship between Janeway and Tuvok in the early days of the series, so I was very pleased with it. The writing of the episode was also nominated for a Sci-Fi Universe Award.
Let’s clarify the timeline. How long were you with Trek overall, how did your jobs change as the years passed, and were your writing efforts "side" work?
Stillwell: I started working on TNG as a production assistant in October 1987, during the first season. At the beginning of the third season I became the script coordinator just before Michael Piller came on board as the head writer. I continued as script coordinator until the end of the fifth season, at which point I accepted an opportunity to travel and run Star Trek conventions for Creation Entertainment for a couple of years. I also ran some of my own conventions for a couple years after that, including the original Generations convention at the Royal Albert Hall in London, England, which featured the entire TNG cast. That was a fantastic experience and the biggest Trek event in the history of the U.K. The event sold out more than 10,000 tickets three months in advance. The U.K. film premiere was held at the Empire Theatre in Leister Square the night before the convention opened and there were thousands of Trek fans in the square. I flew my parents, sister and brother-in-law to London for the event and it was just the most amazing culmination of my years as a Trek fan.
As for my writing efforts, yes, they were side work. I was never a staff writer. But after the convention market dropped off when TNG ended, I returned to Paramount in 1996 and became Michael Piller’s executive assistant and script coordinator on all of his projects, including Insurrection. When Michael started his own production company in 1999, I left the studio to be operations manager for Piller Squared, the production company Michael started with his son Shawn. I also became an associate producer on two Piller shows, The Dead Zone and Wildfire.
You had a hand in The 34th Rule, a DS9 book that Armin Shimerman co-wrote. How did that come about?
Stillwell: David George and I were recycling some DS9 pitches which didn’t sell and originally we’d been approached to do a couple of comic book stories for a celebrity series that was intended to be stories written by Trek actors. That’s when we approached Armin because we knew he was interested in writing and he agreed to join us. As things evolved, The 34th Rule was a story we developed for Pocket Books based on a premise I’d germinated from hearing George Takei talk at conventions about his childhood in internment camps. I worked with David and Armin to develop the story, but David did all the heavy lifting in writing the book with assistance from Armin. David is a fantastic writer.
You mentioned Insurrection, which also went through many hands in advance of production. You, in your capacity on that, must've been a busy, frazzled guy…
Stillwell: Well, the story and script for Insurrection were Michael Piller’s baby from beginning to end, but as his assistant and script coordinator on the film, I did keep busy with all the various drafts and revisions. It wasn’t much different than working on TNG, when we could have multiple scripts and revisions happening on any given day. I think the most memorable thing about working on that film with Michael was that he was hired by Pocket Books to write a book on the writing of Insurrection. I was hired by Pocket to be Michael’s typist and research assistant on it. I think that was more work than the movie itself. In the end, Michael wrote a wonderful book, from the heart, something he considered a gift to young, aspiring writers. Unfortunately the book was never published.
You spent a lot of time with Piller. He passed away before many of our readers probably even discovered Trek. So, what was your sense of the man? What was he proudest of when it came to Trek?
Stillwell: Michael was one of the most honest, genuine people I’ve ever had the good fortune to work with in Hollywood. Maybe too honest and brutally forthcoming at times, but with Michael you were always getting the real thing, no pretense. He was what you saw, he never pretended to be something he wasn’t and he was always true to himself, regardless of studio or network politics. His Trek success made it possible for him to pursue the things he was passionate about, without compromise. Most of all, he was an excellent writer. He loved the profession of writing and wanted to give other young writers the same opportunities. Because of Michael, Trek was the only show in Hollywood with an open submission policy. Anybody could submit speculative scripts, not just writers with agents or members of the Writers Guild.
He always had writing interns on staff and was a huge supporter of the WGA and Academy of Television Arts and Sciences internship programs. Brannon Braga was an intern from ATAS. He effectively hired writers off the street, like Ronald D. Moore. Dozens of writers were mentored by Michael over the years and almost all of them have gone on to be successful writers and producers throughout the television industry today. That is Michael’s true legacy to the entertainment business and I think the thing that made him most proud. He also loved his alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and helped establish a screenwriting program there with a very generous financial gift. He also donated all of his Trek script files to their film library.
You worked with Piller Squared through to the end of Wildfire. For an encore, you went into children's programming. How and why?
When Michael passed away, my wife Debra and I moved to my hometown of Eugene, Oregon, where we thought we’d try our hand at semi-retirement. Can you hear me laughing? One day I read in the local newspaper that another Hollywood producer had moved his family up to Oregon and was preparing a children’s production called Nanna’s Cottage that was going to film in Eugene. The article said they were looking for local writers, so I sent my resume to the producer and he hired me to be the head writer. Unfortunately the production lasted less than a year because they ran out of funding and the series never found a home with a major distributor. After that, I returned to my roots at the University of Oregon, where I graduated with a political science degree in 1981, and landed a job as a government and community relations associate. I loved working at the university and spent three years there before moving back to Los Angeles to follow Deb’s career.
What are you working on now?
Stillwell: Debra and I recently returned to California when she was offered a fantastic opportunity to be the nursing supervisor at the brand-new, state-of-the-art Disney Family Cancer Center in Burbank. We’d lived in Burbank when we were first married, and we love Burbank, so we jumped at the opportunity to return to a sunnier climate. In December we bought a house in Burbank and closed escrow January 4. I’ve been overseeing a major renovation of the house in preparation of moving in later this month. I’m still looking for the right job outside being a “homemaker” – ha-ha – and I hope to find something in the Burbank area, maybe at Disney, Warner Bros., NBC or with the City of Burbank. Deb and I have made a commitment to trying to live a more green, sustainable lifestyle, so our goal is to live and work in the same community and avoid the crazy commuting we had when we lived in Los Angeles previously.
Lastly, returning to Trek, how proud are you to have been so involved in something so beloved by as many people who love Trek in general and “Yesterday's Enterprise” specifically?
Stillwell: Being a Trek fan and having had the opportunity to be a part of something that means so much to millions of people around the world, I can’t even express what a wonderful feeling of accomplishment that is. It was literally a dream come true for a kid who grew up playing Starfleet versus Klingons – rather than Cowboys and Indians -- with neighborhood kids, and running around the back forty with our model starships and staying out late in the evening to gaze up at the stars and dream about adventures in the final frontier. Having the opportunity to work with Gene Roddenberry and Michael Piller and to make a contribution to the franchise, however small, was a huge thing for me. I’m very proud of my work on Trek and very appreciative to have had the opportunity.
The greatest gift from working on Trek has been the opportunity to travel around the world and do conventions and meet fellow fans. That’s what I love the most, interacting with other fans, visiting new places and exploring other cultures. Thanks to Trek, Debra and I have had the opportunity to see and visit places we probably would’ve never gone to. Just this past October, for example, we participated in our tenth Cruise Trek adventure, which took us to Italy, Spain, Portugal and Morocco. Overall, Deb and I have been to more than 40 different countries because of Trek and have friends all over the world. When I say Trek changed my life, it’s not just something to say in an interview. It is literally true.
To read part 1 of this interview, click here.