Chip Chalmers directed six episodes of Star Trek, four hours of The Next Generation and two installments of Deep Space Nine. Say this for the guy: he made the most of his opportunities, graduating from the 1st assistant director slot on TNG to the director’s chair, and getting to call the shots on “Captain’s Holiday,” “The Loss,” “The Wounded” and “Ethics,” as well as “The Magnificent Ferengi” and “Take Me Out to the Holosuite.” StarTrek.com caught up with Chalmers for an in-depth interview in which he recounted how his Trek directing opportunity arose and then discussed each episode in detail. Below is part one of our exclusive interview, and be sure to check back tomorrow for part two.
First, how on your radar was Star Trek in general when you first hooked up with the franchise?
Chalmers: You know, actually very little. I was aware of the original and had seen a number of the classic episodes, if not clips. I was also aware of the fandom more than I was the actual show.
How did you land your job as a 1st AD on TNG and what did it entail?
Chalmers: Well, I had just come back from Miami having done Miami Vice as both a 1st AD and a director of an episode when I got a call from the production manager. She had been the 1st AD until very recently, when a tragedy happened and they moved her up to UPM. This left a slot open for a 1st AD and I had been recommended. Having directed pick-up scenes and one episode of Miami Vice was a far cry from being considered a full-time director, so I went down to Paramount Studios and interviewed and started working right away.
It's every 1st AD's dream to graduate to the director's chair. How did you pull that off? Who said "Yes" to you directing an episode? Who were either your mentors on TNG or the directors you watched most closely as they worked?
Chalmers: You're absolutely right. It's extremely unlikely that a 1st AD will become a successful director. More likely, as in my case, (you’ll get to do) an episode or two of the same series on which you are the 1st AD. It had just happened on Miami Vice, so about six months into the job, I sent Rick Berman a copy of the episode of Vice that I directed and he watched it. Rick was the person who said "yes" to me directing my first episode of Star Trek: The Next generation.
Which directors did I watch most closely as a 1st AD? Now this was the beginning of the end of my career as a 1st AD, so I only worked with a handful of directors on TNG. But to answer the question, Bob Scheerer was the director I watched the closest. First of all, he's a gentleman and a pleasure to be around. This is a great trait for a director for just the comfort factor of the actors and crew. You always knew he was in control and made you feel good about it. He understands actors. Along the way I found that some of the best directors understand acting and how to make it invisible. So you take a first-rate cast as in TNG and add a director who communicates with them in a language they understand, they appreciate it and you get some pretty amazing performances. Bob was one of those directors and I truly enjoyed working with and studying him.
So you get assigned your first episode. What did you want to bring to the set? How did you hope to shoot it that maybe varied from what anything anyone else had done?
Chalmers: A very good question. The reason I say it's a good question is that in television, you can bring a part of what you do to the set and to the television screen, but you must also do and episode of TNG. In other words, you are expected, as a director, to follow the guidelines of what makes the franchise work. Why do people tune in all the time? Because they know what to expect. The executive producers make it clear what is expected. There was a director's guide that was incredibly helpful. Usually I would ask for a few copies of the producers’ favorite episodes and study them. In the case of TNG, it was all right there. It was wonderful to read all about the characters and their backgrounds, the rules of "space," the ethics of Star Trek, from the people who built the franchise, etc. Everyone reading this knows who Gene Roddenberry was. Not everyone knows he was still quite active with TNG. And you've probably heard his vision of what the future should look like as well. So directors don't come in and think to themselves, "I'll show them how a real episode of TNG is done." That would be their last episode.
The creative freedom comes in the direction of actors and the choice of framing. If you go off the tracks, the director of photography is there to say it isn't a good idea to shoot that particular shot. For instance, I had imagined a shot that involved Riker and Troi in Ten Forward kissing and the camera pulling out from a very tight two shot to outside the ship as the Enterprise went into warp drive and shot past the camera. There are post-production elements to it, of course, but I wanted to shoot it as the last shot of an episode. The fact is that we don't break the "fourth wall" and go through windows into space. Even thought the shot was assembled, it never appeared in any cut, nor certainly in the final episode.
You asked what I wanted to bring to the set? An episode the producers would be happy with and an episode the fans would enjoy. This is true for almost all television. The director is a chameleon. If you are hired on Homeland, you deliver an episode that looks and feels like Homeland. You don't reinvent the wheel.
Your first episode was “Captain's Holiday.” What did you make of the script and what were the challenges in realizing the show?
We also hadn't seen Picard begin to fall in love before. I think Patrick (Stewart) and Jennifer (Hetrick) really liked the idea of this departure from a more conventional script. Ira is wickedly clever -- as I found out doing DS9 -- and wrote a lot of humor into the script. Not laugh-out-loud humor, but a wry humor that worked perfectly for this episode. So as a director, I didn't want to make things intentionally funny. I also wanted to treat the relationship between Picard and Vash with caution. At the time, I didn't know that Vash would be recurring from time to time, so I wanted this episode to be wistful with a hopeful ending. It was all there. I just had to be true to it.
How supportive was the cast and crew as you did this first ep? Especially since you were sick?
Chalmers: How did you know I was sick? Wow. The cast and crew were nothing short of wonderful. Remember that they all knew me, so I wasn't some strange guy walking onto the soundstage. At one point, I was running a temperature of 103. They made a quiet place for me to lie down between set-ups and I got through it just fine. And happily, I didn't get anyone else sick.
How satisfied were you with it?
Chalmers: I think that episode was my favorite TNG. I wasn't sick the whole show, just a couple of days. So I remember the fun we had with the cave scenes and the scenes with Max Grodenchik (as Sovak). I'm very fond of that episode.
At what point did someone say, "Hey, that was good, Chip. We'd like you to do another one?"
Chalmers: Day four of “Captain's Holiday” shooting. I don't know if someone dropped out of the schedule or what, but I got a call on the set from Rick Berman and he asked me to direct the next one.
“The Loss” was your second episode. What were the challenges on that one?
Chalmers: Challenges…? I guess I don't consider challenges. It's cliche, but I only consider opportunities. This was a very strong episode for Marina, and she and I were right on the same page with it. Having the entire cast be the central story is what the series is all about. Their interactions are always civil and kind unless there is some outside influence. So along comes “The Loss” and we have Marina being affected by an outside source and the crew is trying to help, but they don't have the experience with her talents that have been taken away, so it's difficult to understand. It could have been all about that, but so much of it was Marina's struggle. So we got to concentrate on her. I think one of the most poignant moments for Marina was returning to her quarters after an argument with Gates (McFadden), dropping to her knees and letting the emotions take over. Marina (Sirtis) was particularly beautiful in that episode.
Up next was “The Wounded.” What were you aiming for on that?
Chalmers: Oh, I really like that one, too. Okay, okay. I got hooked on the series and started watching as many as I could. But back to the episode. Jeri Taylor wrote that episode and it holds up extremely well. I was looking at that episode as a common theme throughout history. And it certainly was timely back in the early 90s. Two themes, really. Trust and betrayal. And how lucky we were to get that guest cast. I think it's long enough since filming that I can tell this story. The scene with Bob Gunton and Colm Meaney onboard Gunton's ship involved a song that was done in one take. I liked it. Not everyone did.
How excited were you to introduce the Cardassians?
“Ethics” is still controversial. Did you realize it would be?
Chalmers: I did realize that. I actually debated both sides with friends outside of production to gauge the passions on each side of the issue. Respect for the choice of someone who feels there is no hope, the respect of how other cultures handle the same issue and the point of view of loved ones regarding ending a life. Especially children.
What else do you remember of it? Dorn's performance?
Chalmers: Michael Dorn rarely got a script with Worf as a tender character, so this was a great opportunity for him. As with Marina in “The Loss,” Michael and I got to work together more closely than the rest of the cast, and I was so proud of what he did with the character, (things) we rarely see. Especially the scenes with his son when he absolutely needed, as a Klingon, to teach the lessons of his people. I've always had a few stings in this business. One is "It's not easy acting on your back" and two, "The biggest secret to acting is not acting." Michael was not only perfectly sympathetic, but he was being honest about it.
Which of the four TNG hours do you think worked best and why?
Chalmers: I really shouldn't answer this question, but I will. “Captain's Holiday.” So much fun, so unique, and so many interesting characters. We all truly had a great time.
Visit StarTrek.com again tomorrow to read part two of our exclusive interview with Chip Chalmers.