Rick Berman Looks Back at 18 Years of Trek - Part 3
And today, we conclude our extensive interview with former Star Trek producer Rick Berman. In part three of the conversation, Berman shares anecdotes about each of the four Next Generation features, considers whether or not he stuck around too long, shares his thoughts on Star Trek (2009) and offers a glimpse of what readers can expect from his in-the-works memoir.
You produced the four TNG features. We’ll throw the titles your way. Please give us your thoughts and/or memories of the concepts behind them, the individual productions and the end results. First up is Generations…
Berman: It was kind of naïve for myself and Brannon (Braga) and Ron (Moore) to jump into the movie business with really very little experience on how it worked. We had a bit of a falling out with (potential Generations director) Leonard Nimoy, in retrospect, over the procedural elements of how the development, writing, production, and direction of a feature film are different from television. As a result, we selected David Carson to direct Generations. We got a lot of criticism for the way Kirk was handled, which I felt was unfortunate. As far as fans of TNG were concerned, Kirk had been dead for years. It was a century later. We thought, “Wouldn’t it be great to somehow pass the torch, in a way? To somehow bring Kirk and Spock and the others into this, to find some way to marry the two together?”
And from that came the idea of the Nexus and the ribbon and all of that, and that Kirk had, in fact, not died and that he comes back for one last, grand adventure with Picard. That was something that was our way of paying respect and honor to the original series. But it was taken by a lot of people as going against canon of the show, and about our killing Kirk, when in fact Kirk had been dead for decades, most likely, as far as anybody knew. Scenes that were written for his death were somewhat pitiful and weak, and we ended up going back and doing the best we could to make it more dramatic. It was a first for a lot of us, and it made money and it ended up being, for the first time out of the wheelhouse, not such a bad picture.
Berman: Everything that perhaps went wrong on the first movie went right on the second movie. It was mostly the exact same people. Instead of bringing David Carson back, we hired Jonathan Frakes to direct the film. It was kind of a risky choice. He was someone who’d never done a feature film before, someone who’d basically spent four or five years directing television episodes, along with acting on TNG. The story was developed by the same three people – Ron Moore and Brannon and myself – and the script was written by the same two people (Moore and Braga). But it just worked on a huge number of levels. It was exciting. It had some very memorable stuff. People like James Cromwell brought a whole element to the history of Trek that I found fascinating. Alice Krige did an incredible job as the Borg Queen. It was time travel and dealt with going back and saving the Earth, but it worked and it made a sh-tload of money for the studio, so they were very happy.
Insurrection didn’t do as well, but there’s been a growing sentiment among fans that it’s underrated and that it was the TNG film closest in spirit to the series. Your thoughts?
Berman: I had an interesting situation. Ron and Brannon were very involved in Voyager and DS9 and not really interested in writing another movie. I went to Michael Piller, who’d been away from Trek, but was a very close friend and someone who I’d felt had been in the trenches with me for many years. Michael agreed to write the next movie. He developed a story that was the darkest thing I have ever read. It was the kind of thing where you wanted to find a pistol and shoot yourself after you read it. He envisioned something like Apocalypse Now or the book that it’s based on, Heart of Darkness. He wanted to tell a story of Picard ending up being stripped of everything, losing his ship, his crew, his commission in Starfleet, losing everything but his sense of what was right and his integrity, and being left with nothing but that. When the studio read the story, they had the same reaction I had, which was that it was just nothing close to what a Star Trek movie should be, that it was very dark and very depressing. This was Michael’s ilk, in a way. He wanted to tell a deeply dramatic and dark story.
So what happened was we started fixing it. The script ended up having input from Patrick Stewart, from the studio, from me, and slowly the story started changing. I think maybe it’s a little like that old story about a camel being a horse made by committee. Instead of setting it aside and coming up with another story, we took that story and started bending it and twisting it and changing it and making it more upbeat, and I don’t think the script ever quite solidified. Jonathan was brought in again to direct it. He did a lovely job. We got F. Murray Abraham, who was pretty big stuff at the time, and some other wonderful actors. But it was a less-than-stellar follow-up to First Contact, which had been so up and so exciting.
Berman: Nemesis will always be baffling to me. Patrick and Brent came into my office one day. This is something I’ve never really discussed before… The head of the studio had really tried to convince me to do a movie without the TNG cast. The feeling was “These guys have all gotten kind of older. It’s time to introduce some new, fresh blood.” There was an attitude that I should go out and find a new Tom Cruise. I felt strongly against that for two reasons. One reason was that when we were developing this movie, the Enterprise series was coming out. So the Star Trek audience was about to get introduced to a whole new cast of young characters on television. For us to simultaneously introduce them to a whole new cast of young characters in a movie seemed to be insane to me. The other reason was I felt that after a four-year absence from the screen, the fans really wanted to see Patrick, Brent, Jonathan and company again. I could have been wrong on one or both of those beliefs, but I felt strongly it should be another TNG movie.
Patrick and Brent arrived in my office one day with a young man named John Logan, who has since become a very close friend. John was a big-time writer. He’d written some major movies. He’d been nominated the year before for Gladiator. He was contracted to write more big stuff over the following year. Brent, Patrick and Logan came in with some ideas that we worked on and changed. I thought this was exciting. Rather than going with someone like Ron or Brannon or Michael, people who’d been involved with Trek television for so many years, here we had a fresh, A-list, Hollywood writer who happened to be a gigantic fan of TNG. The studio came to me and they… didn’t demand I use Stuart Baird (to direct Nemesis), but they were quite persuasive about me using Stuart Baird. Stuart was an English director. He’d made two good movies. He was a world-class film editor.
So the thought was, “This is great. We’re going to do a movie with an outside director, with an outside, top, A-list writer, one who really knows and loves Star Trek.” So it was the writer who knows Trek and the director who doesn’t know much about Trek, but knows a lot about action. A script was written and it was too long and way too wordy. It was always a bit too Shakespearean. The whole idea of a Picard clone… it went from Picard’s son to a Picard clone that was the same age as Picard, where Patrick would play both characters. Finally, it ended up being the Tom Hardy character that was a clone of Picard, but not a look-alike. There was a lot of suspension of disbelief in the choice of actor. Obviously, Tom didn’t look exactly like Patrick, so that was kind of hard to buy. But we worked very hard. There were some problems with Stuart and the cast. There was some tension and a little bit of stress involved in the production. It was way too long, and it got brought down. It was a bit too wordy, and that got thinned out.
But everyone from the studio to me thought we’d crafted a really good movie. And nobody came to see it. It wasn’t even a question of not getting good reviews. Any Star Trek movie opened and it’d have a huge opening weekend, but this one didn’t. Now, why? I understand and appreciate the criticisms of the production or script, but I, to this day, have some difficulty understanding why it met with such a poor reception. John has gone on to write huge movies. He’s writing the new James Bond film. He just finished production on another Martin Scorsese movie he wrote. He’s as hot as can be. But the movie backfired and there’s certainly a lot of room for discussion of why. It was sad and a little baffling to me.
A lot of people appreciate the work that you, Piller and Braga did, but there’s a feeling among a section of the fan base that you guys stayed on too long and/or waited too long to let Ira Behr and Manny Coto, etc., run the shows. What do you say to that contingent of fans?
Berman: That’s a lot of different things that are being thrown out there. As far as DS9 was concerned, Ira did run the show. There were times, as we talked about before, where my opinion and involvement with the show allowed me to make some changes that perhaps Ira and his writing staff didn’t agree with, but they were very few and far between. Ira was the prince of DS9 from the third year onward, when Michael kind of unlatched himself from it. Enterprise… the writing staff was run by Brannon. Certainly in both of the last two years of it, Manny was very, very involved. Brannon and I got involved with developing another show, and for part of the fourth season, Manny had a greater hand in developing the storylines. But Manny always worked in concert with Brannon and myself. This whole idea of “Once Manny took over the show…” That never happened. Manny never took over the show. Manny started running story meetings when Brannon and I were involved with other things, but there was nothing Brannon and I didn’t get our input into. So those are just easy potshots, I think, for people to take.
As to whether we stayed at the fair too long? It’s possible. It’s very possible. I did it for 18 years and of those 18 years, seven of them we had two shows on the air. DS9 was never on the air by itself. Its first years were with TNG and its last years were with Voyager. As soon as Voyager went on the air, for the next seven years we were making movies, one after another. So there was a lot of involvement. Did we stay on too long? Perhaps. There has also been a lot of criticism about the fact that Brannon and I did not have respect for the original series, which is absolute nonsense. I don’t know where it came from. I certainly was quoted as saying that I wasn’t a fan of the original show at the time. That didn’t mean I didn’t like it. It meant I didn’t watch it. As I told you, the fact that I was not involved with the original show as a kid, as a viewer, was one of the things that attracted Gene to me and me to Gene. That feeling that Brannon and/or I didn’t have respect for the original series, didn’t care about the canon, the rules, the transitions from the original series, that we had contempt or ridicule for the original series, is all, to me, hurtful gossip and none of it was in any way true.
Now that time has passed, are you finding that older fans are revisiting the Trek shows and movies you produced and viewing them in a fresh light? And are you finding that newer fans whose starting point is the J.J. Abrams film are discovering TNG, DS9, Voyager and Enterprise?
Berman: I don’t know. Although I’d love to say I don’t read the websites, that’d be a lie. I have found that over the last couple of years the feedback toward all four of the series I was involved with has gotten kinder. I’d like to think that when people revisit DS9 and Voyager and even Enterprise they’ll start to see some things with fresh eyes. When I start seeing feedback that is more positive about these shows, it’s a good feeling.
Speaking of the Abrams film, did you see it and what did you think of it?
Berman: I thought it was a wonderful movie. It was very, very big. You have to remember, I did four movies with incredibly restrictive budgets. The philosophy when I made movies was, “We know we can make X number of dollars off a Star Trek movie, so don’t spend more than Y number of dollars.” The lengths that (Abrams’) film went with its visual effects and production values were so astonishing to me. I thought the story was wonderful and a lot of the acting was terrific. I’ve just gotten to a point where these big action films filled with computer-generated stuff from beginning to end are starting to wear on me a little bit. To me, the movie, like Iron Man or any of these big, incredibly expensive films dealing with tens upon tens of millions of dollars worth of visual effects… it was a very, very exciting movie. In terms of it having the heart of Star Trek, I think it could have perhaps had a little bit more of that. But I liked it very much.
You mentioned that you are working on a memoir about your 18 years producing Star Trek. How far along are you and how deep will it delve into your experience?
Berman: It’s no-holds-barred! No, I’m kidding. It’s my attempt to communicate my recollections of a whole lot of stuff that went on during those 18 years -- relationships, anecdotes, some very bizarre people, some very wonderful people, and also battling the whole idea that a memoir is what you recollect as opposed to what necessarily happened. Sometimes I’ll remember something and then I’ll sit down with Patrick or Brent or Jonathan to discuss it and they’ll say, “No, no, that’s not what happened. This is what happened…” When I hear their memories or their remembering of a specific event that took place on a specific day years ago, I think to myself, “Holy sh-t, you’re right! It wasn’t the way I remember it. It’s the way you remember it.” That happens to all of us. So I’m trying to be as honest as I can in terms of telling the stories as best as I can remember them. There are a lot of things that haven’t been told. There’s nothing in this that’s going to be mean-spirited. I have no interest in ratting out anybody or divulging secrets, and I have no interest in writing something with a ghostwriter. So I’m working at this and each year a bunch more pages get written. Hopefully at one point it’ll be turned into a book that’ll be a lot of fun to read for people who are interested in this period.
Even after devoting three days and nearly 9,000 words to this interview with Rick Berman, we could really only scratch the surface. As a result, Berman has graciously agreed to answer questions from StarTrek.com readers. You can post your questions here now or keep an eye on the Star Trek Facebook page for another opportunity to ask them.