Marvin Rush’s ride through the Star Trek universe cut across parts of three decades, as, from 1989 to 2005, he served as the director of photographer for The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise. Rush also directed five episodes of Trek, spanning three series. He helmed “The Host” for TNG, “The Thaw” and “Favorite Son” for Voyager and “In a Mirror Darkly, Part II” and “Terra Prime” for Enterprise. Since the demise of Enterprise in 2005, Rush has worked as a cinematographer on the series E-Ring, Close to Home, Moonlight, Glee and the current Hell on Wheels, as well as the indie features S. Darko, Cherry and Meeting Evil. StarTrek.com caught up with Rush recently for an extensive interview in which he discussed his work as a D.P. and director on Trek, and chatted about his latest projects. Below is part two of our conversation; click HERE to read part one if you’ve not read it yet.
A lot of people assume you were asked to direct “The Thaw” and “Favorite Son” because of your expertise with visuals. But that’s not the case, right?
Rush: I think it’s a misconception among a lot of people about directing episodes. Keep in mind, they hire directors for shows, and certainly this was true on Star Trek, before the episodes are written. And they don’t write the script to the director, ever. It was blind, dumb luck that I got “The Thaw” and “Favorite Son.”
OK, but your first TNG experience turned you off to directing to the point that you declined invitations to direct more TNG and you didn’t do DS9, either. So, why say yes to directing Voyager?
Rush: I felt like I’d sold myself short. I felt, “I could do this. I want to go out again.” After a little time and reflection, I realized that “The Host” was a good episode. It wasn’t blindingly brilliant and it wasn’t awful. It was just a pretty good episode. I don’t think it was hated by the fans. I wanted it to be exceptionally good. I wanted to be at the upper reaches of this craft, or I didn’t want to do it at all. So it took me a little while to feel like I deserved another try at it, that I could pull it off and do a good job. I read the script for “The Thaw” and I knew for sure that I could pull that off, because it was a subject matter and a notion that really resonated with me.
“The Thaw” is well regarded by fans, especially the performance you elicited from Michael McKean. “Favorite Son” is not as well regarded. Take us through your thoughts on both…
Rush: “The Thaw” was, like I say, a very personal episode. I got it. I was on a mission and felt like I wanted to tell that story. I even had a chance to write a little bit of the dialogue in it. I felt it was an essay on the nature of fear. And, some version of this thought is in the script, that fear is important because it helps warn of us of danger and it protects us, but if fear is allowed to control you and rule you, it will destroy you. That was the message of the show and that’s the whole point of the episode, to get that across, and to do it in a fun way. Michael was wonderful and he really got the character. The notion of this carnival videogame alternate reality was something that I really enjoyed playing in. All of the actors and performers we had helped give us this crazy world, and our regular cast really rose to the occasion, too, because I think they all understood that it was a chance to tell a story in a different way. For me, visually, I wanted to do my version of Federico Fellini’s 8 ½. If you look at that film, you’ll see visual cues that I borrowed from the great master.
And… “Favorite Son”?
Rush: “Favorite Son” is an example of a script that I didn’t get at all. I didn’t have a clue how to tell that story. I read it over and over, and nothing resonated. It didn’t mean anything to me. I couldn’t figure out what was important to that story and how to tell it well. In the hands of someone else, it probably would have been much better. But that’s what I was talking about when I said you don’t pick your scripts and they don’t pick you. The other thing about that show that was really unfair is that half of that was shot before Christmas and half after Christmas. If you’ve been on a set during Christmas, the crew’s focus is not on work. It’s on Secret Santa and cards and shopping. Then, after Christmas, it’s, “What did you do on the two weeks off?” So it’s like herding cats. You can’t get anybody to focus because nobody wants to. So I was handed – my opinion – a weak script. I think the lead actor for the episode was not the strongest character in the series. And I was certainly not the most inspired director for that because I didn’t get it. I just didn’t get it. I tried. I did everything I could, but I just wasn’t able to deliver anything like I wanted to do. I was depressed about it. I was disappointed in myself. So I thought, “I don’t have to direct things. I can shoot things, and I get plenty of pleasure out of being a cinematographer.” So, again, there was another fairly long hiatus. I didn’t ask for another episode, not that they would have given one to me. Probably not. I felt like I failed to deliver a good episode. I’ve mentioned other things I felt were causes of it being weak, but the real fault lies with the director, and I directed it.
Let’s move on to Enterprise. How did you enjoy that show?
Rush: I enjoyed Enterprise a lot and I liked Scott Bakula and the cast a lot. It was fun. The last season was probably the very best work, and it’s because Manny Coto was writing the scripts. Manny is a Star Trek fan and he had a great vision for how to tell a Star Trek story that I think was lacking in the earlier seasons. I don’t think we had the best stories to tell. The script is, I’d say, of all the components, the most important one. The cast and script are neck and neck for most important, and everything else is down the list. Had the last season been the first season or second season, the show would have been a hit.
How was shooting in HD?
Rush: I loved it. I’d come, in a very early part of my career, from shooting electronically. I started in the live television field before I got into film work. So, for me, it was kind of old home week. I was familiar with the equipment. It was different because it was HD, but it was essentially the same. I loved working in the medium and felt it was the way to go. We were a precursor. Look at today’s world. Look at how much in today’s world is shot with digital cameras.
Season four was great, but it was too little, too late. What was the mood like on set during season four, especially at the end, when the writing was on the wall?
Rush: It would be wrong to say everyone was glum. For the crew, we all had a job to do. We all had call times and scenes to shoot. The ratings are important, but they’re not what you spend all your day thinking about because you have so many other things to worry about. I suspect the cast knew they were on the razor’s edge, but we kept doing better episodes. I thought, “We’re going to pull this off.” I was optimistic, right up until they canceled us, that we were going to make it. We’re clicking now and we’re running on all eight cylinders.” So I wasn’t devastated, but I was really disappointed because I thought, “Well, finally, we’re doing it, but we’ve killed our audience.” But there was definitely sadness.
Ironically, you directed two of the best episodes of Enterprise. What do you remember of “In a Mirror, Darkly, Part II” and “Terra Prime”?
Rush: Doing a two-parter, you have to look at the work being done, photographically, and you have to at least have it so that it doesn’t look like completely different people shot it. Keep in mind that while that show was being shot I was prepping the second episode. So I wasn’t on the set for the first one (as director of photographer), but I came down a couple of times and I also watched all the dailies from the first one. That gave me the chance to see what was being done. The lighting was very different. It was a different looking episode, because of the alternate universe. Also, Jim Conway directed part one, and I’d done dozens and dozens of episodes with him. We did the pilot of Enterprise together. So I was pretty familiar with his directing style. But I had my own episode to do, and I read the script and I tried my best to interpret it in an exciting way. The stakes are so high for everybody in that episode and there’s so much duplicitous behavior going on in it that it’s packed with jeopardy and threat and intrigue and action. It was just nonstop filled with turns and twists. It was a great piece of writing. I think I understood and I think I had a vision for how to tell that story.
And how about “Terra Prime”?
Rush: I have fewer memories of “Terra Prime” than of “Darkly.” That came up, interestingly enough, because we had a director who backed out at the last second. I’d already started shooting the episode before it. Merri Howard, our producer, came down to the set and she called me aside. And she called LeVar Burton, who was directing the episode I was working on, aside as well. She said, “We’ve had a director drop out of the next episode and we’d like Marvin to direct it.” LeVar said, “Well, OK.” I was in the middle of the second day of shooting his episode, but I walked up to the office to start prepping to direct this next episode. So it came as a big surprise. I took it as a compliment for the work on “Darkly,” that they had confidence in me to do this. And I think it was the next to the last episode of the series. So I was still on a high from the experience of doing “Darkly,” and I was just really ready for it. It was, again, a great script, lots of stakes and lots of turns. I guess all I can say is as much as “Favorite Son” didn’t resonate, “Darkly II” and “Terra Prime” did resonate. I got them. I understood what the point was and how best to tell them, and that makes a lot of difference, for me anyway, to direct an episode.
One last question about directing for Trek. Given your technical background, how easily did working with actors and finding emotional beats come to you?
Rush: I loved that part of it because I love watching actors bring something to life. First of all, if they happen to be doing what you want them to do, do nothing. If they’re in harmony with where you think they should be with the story, or close to it, better to give them nothing but praise. Let them know you love them and that you admire what they’re doing and they’re supported. If you need something different, if they’re going in a direction you don’t think is right – which happened a couple of times on “Terra Prime” – what I try to do is share with the actor what it is I’m trying to accomplish and what I want the audience to feel. It’s not so much what I want the actors to say, but what I want the audience to feel, what emotional state I’d like to put the audience in. We might debate that, but if I can convey that “I want you to break the audience’s heart” or “I want you to make the audience really hate you in the moment,” the emotion I want them to get to, if the (actor) agrees to that, then it’s their instrument. I’m asking for a response in the audience. It’s their job to the audience to that place.
You’ve worked steadily since Enterprise. What have been a couple of the jobs you’ve liked most since then, leading up to Hell on Wheels?
Rush: I did E-Ring. It was on NBC and it was in the same vein as The Unit on CBS. It was a lot to do with the planning and execution of Special Forces kinds of commando raids. It covered the gamut and we did a lot of interesting things. We were in a submarine on one episode, intercepting some North Korean spies. One time we were in the jungles of the Amazon extracting a crew that had gone down. It was very heavy combat stuff, lots of machine guns. It was really exciting work, very grueling, but very fun. Unfortunately, the show didn’t make it. It went all 13 episodes of its first season, but NBC didn’t pick it up for a second season. I think they made a mistake. It was at a time when NBC was not very strong as a network. The show was doing OK, but not great, and they just cut it. That was heartbreaking. Ken Biller was one of the head writers on that show and Ken was a writer alum from Star Trek. I liked him a lot. He directed some episodes of Trek and we’d worked together a lot. So it was a nice opportunity, but it didn’t go.
Then I did Moonlight, which was also a genre show, about vampires. I call that estrogen-rich. It was a show aimed at a female audience. I’d say Star Trek is a little more masculine-biased, although there are lots of women who like Star Trek. So it was interesting, because E-Ring was very testosterone-driven and Moonlight was very estrogen-driven. It was Film Noir and romance, and a night show, which made it interesting to shoot. Also, for the first two seasons of Glee, I was the second-unit D.P. So I was doing musical numbers and dialogue scenes. I worked probably 8 or 9 days a month on the show, and I had a blast. It was very demanding and different. A musical is nothing at all like Star Trek. And I’ve done a couple of little features in there. So there’s been a lot of variety.
Your latest project is Hell on Wheels, much of which is shot outdoors…
Rush: It’s a great show. We have a third season coming up, and I’m looking forward to going back. Star Trek was a genre show and Hell on Wheels is a western, which is also a genre show. I’ve come to find over the years when there’s a fairly defined genre, I think I have the most fun and enjoy them the most. So, Hell on Wheels is a good example of that. It’s a great show to work on. Physically, it’s very demanding, but I like that. Interestingly enough, if you look at Star Trek, we went on location very rarely, because you can’t do outer space in a 30-mile zone (of the studio). So we were indoors a lot, on a stage. This show, I’m outside almost 100 percent of the time. It’s interesting and fun to have a different set of problems.
You’ve got at least two Trek alums on Hell on Wheels: Colm Meaney and Virginia Madsen, who’s on board as his wife. Did you work on her episode of Voyager? And have you chatted about the old days with either of them?
Rush: I did work on Virginia’s episode and we talked about it. I remember her episode only slightly. I’m not a good B.S.-er, so I told her the same thing when I talked to her about it. We had a lot of guest stars on Star Trek, and she was one. I remember that it was a Chakotay episode and she had a romantic relationship with him in it. And I remembered working with her and that we had a good time. Colm, of course, we have a much longer history. We worked together on TNG and DS9, and after that I’d bumped into him on numerous occasions. But I hadn’t seen him for probably eight or nine years when we saw each other again for Hell on Wheels. So, now we’ve had a few occasions to chat about those days, though the focus is on the new show, on the new challenges. But he’s a great guy, a very good actor and fun to be around, plus he’s a real asset to the show. His character is the only one on the show that’s an actual person that lived, an actual historical person, someone who had a lot to do with the making of the railroad. He works a lot, Colm, on the show and in general. He doesn’t have any trouble getting a job.
Click HERE to read part one of our interview with Marvin Rush.