Ralph Winter is a respected and prolific film producer with credits that include Mighty Joe Young, the X-Men and Fantastic Four features, Planet of the Apes and the recent documentary Cool It. But he cut his teeth in the business on Star Trek, first working for producer Harve Bennett on The Wrath of Khan and then alongside Bennett as an associate producer on The Search for Spock and executive producer on The Voyage Home and The Final Frontier, and finally, without Bennett, as producer of The Undiscovered Country. To celebrate the 24th anniversary of The Voyage Home – which opened in theaters on November 26, 1986, StarTrek.com engaged Winter in a conversation about that film, his other Trek productions, and his output since his last Enterprise adventure.
Trek IV was the most successful and arguably the most popular of the TOS-cast features. While making it, what sense did you have of how it was coming together? Did you feel it had a chance to cross over into the mainstream?
Winter: We had a great feeling making the movie. The script was well developed and we were having fun shooting it. I finally got to go on location for a couple of weeks, and we used the back lot extensively, using the tank for the first time in many years for the museum and some underwater work. We designed the picture to cross over. We developed a story that would connect with an audience that was not steeped in Star Trek. So that was part of our plan, specifically the fish-out-of-water idea of characters from the future visiting San Francisco. What better place to hide? Even Spock, with the headband to hide his ears – and it reduced Leonard’s makeup time -- was brilliant for the Bay Area. And I went to Berkeley.
A lot of people when they talk about Trek IV, as you just did, speak with awe about that scene in the tank, which was actually a section of the parking lot at Paramount that had been used numerous times for water and beach scenes. The key Trek IV scene featuring the tank was the one with Kirk, Spock, Gillian, etc. exiting the Klingon Bird of Prey after it landed in the bay. What was it like – with the wind machines and water jets and lightning machines -- to see that bit of old-school Hollywood magic in action?
Winter: I was on set every day, start to finish. We planned it the old-fashioned way and enjoyed making it happen. That was the plan. We embraced some old ideas because we had limited resources. It made no sense to actually film in the Bay. I did go on a 2nd unit shoot in the San Francisco Bay, with a whale tail, dragging behind our power boat on a 1,000-foot line, and it was incredibly dangerous. What looks relatively calm is completely different when you are out there. It is busy, volatile, and conditions can change rapidly. So we were happy to be filming mostly in three feet of water. That back lot set also became the Paramount swimming pool in April of 1986. The million gallons of water, heated, filtered, sanitized, was perfect for sunbathing and swimming during our lunch breaks. It was the place to be for employees of Paramount.
Catherine Hicks was winsome, but the rumor was always that Eddie Murphy was first choice to play the character that became Gillian Taylor. Was this just talk or was it on the table?
Winter: Eddie really wanted to be in the movie, but we passed. It would have made it an Eddie Murphy movie, not a Star Trek movie.
What was your personal favorite scene in the movie?
Winter: There were so many fun scenes. I think our work in San Francisco was the most rewarding and fun, being on the street with our characters, hidden cameras as Checkov asks about “wessels.” I got to write the joke for Scotty knowing how to use the computer mouse. There are just a lot of warm scenes and our actors were right at home delivering a fun ride. I got to shoot some second unit on the USS Ranger, which doubled for Enterprise, with some Marines. That was fun on the ship, during the chase. And later, Harve and I got to know the rear admiral of the ship, and he flew us out to ship for some night ops, and we got shot back to San Diego. It was unforgettable.
You also worked on III, V and VI. We don't have enough room to go into detail about each of those films here and now -- though we hope you'll revisit them later for us -- but on each film, what's a memory that jumps out?
Winter: III was also fun, but lots of pressure as it was my first film out of the studio. I had worked on II as an executive and gotten to know all the players, but it ended up being easier than I thought. We made a good movie and did it quickly. V was fun to make. I laughed a lot with Bill (Shatner). I can remember dinners after shooting in the desert, laughing so hard I fell out of my chair..., but ultimately we reached too far with the story. I think we were feeling so proud after IV that we felt we could do anything, and we lost our focus a bit. VI was enjoyable but pressured. V had not performed as well as the others, the management group was different, and the pressure was on to perform and not spend as much. Harve was gone, so it felt different. And we kind of knew it was the last one. So it was emotional in a lot of ways.
Were you still working with Harve when the Starfleet Academy concept got nixed? What do you recall of the disappointment about that not happening?
Winter: We developed that idea. I pitched it to Harve at his daughter’s bat mitzvah. We got excited about it as reinvigorating the franchise. But ultimately Paramount wanted to market the 25th anniversary, so Harve walked. It was a terrific script.
You've worked nonstop since Trek VI. Of your other work, which are you most satisfied to have listed on your filmography, and why?
Winter: I’d say the Star Trek films, the X-Men films and Mighty Joe Young. All of them were enjoyable for different reasons, but all (were) well made, hard work, and great people.
You just produced Cool It. Why was that documentary important to make?
Winter: We felt motivated to address some critical issues in our culture. It is very different making a documentary. What you say actually matters in the culture immediately. Narrative stories have a longer range impact in the cultural mindset, but climate change is a present issue. We wish the response was greater, but we’re proud of the movie. We’d met Bjorn Lomborg, liked his story and wanted to help. So we created a documentary, raised the money, made the film and got it out there; it was very satisfying to do that.
You have Broken and The Surrogate on the way. What can you tell us about those films, and what else do you have in the works?
Winter: We have 20 some projects in the works at various stages and studios. Next up is the Ashley Smith story, about a woman who was kidnapped by a prisoner who’d just shot his way out of a courtroom in Atlanta. She ends reading him a portion of the Purpose Driven Life, and he lets her go and gives himself up. We’re just now delivering the script and hopefully will be making it for Fox Searchlight. We’ve not begun casting, but want to shoot in the spring. The Surrogate is a Hand That Rocks the Cradle-type story, a thriller using a UK director. It’s got a very exciting and fast-paced script. And I’m looking for my next big action picture; they’re hard to find. We have lots of other films working their way to the screen: a documentary on Ronald Reagan in the 40’s; we’re still pushing on C.S.Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, and we’re working on a huge historical epic with the writer of Gladiator.