The day can’t arrive fast enough for many Star Trek fans; on May 13, the documentary What We Left Behind: Looking Back at Star Trek: Deep Space Nine will beam into 800-plus movie theaters nationwide as part of a one-time-only Fathom Event.
Long time Star Trek: Deep Space Nine writer-producer Ira Steven Behr teamed with veteran Trek documentary producer David Zappone to co-direct What We Left Behind. Together, they’ve crafted a riveting feature-length exploration of DS9 that examines the show’s complicated history (it’s too dark!), ambitious production (those huge sets!!) and enduring legacy (everything’s serialized now!!!). The entire DS9 cast – with one massive exception – and much of the show’s crew (including Rick Berman) appears on camera, providing new interviews exclusive to Behr's documentary. Other highlights include freshly remastered HD footage of DS9 scenes, heartfelt fan confessionals, and a cool, partially animated sequence that features former members of the show’s staff breaking the story for a mythical eighth-season premiere.
During a phone call earlier this week, Behr talked to StarTrek.com about everything from what it's like to crowdsource a major documentary, the importance of DS9's fierce fanbase, and the curious absence of Avery Brooks.
StarTrek.com: Why did you want to make a documentary?
Ira Steven Behr: I had gone to my first convention in 13 years to see Avery Brooks. I hadn't talked to Avery, hadn't seen him, so we had quite the reunion. This is in 2012. I was in a really good mood, actually, and it was good seeing a lot of people I hadn't seen for a while. I was standing on the convention floor and Dave Zappone came up behind me and said, "I'm thinking of doing a Deep Space Nine doc. Shatner's not going to do it because he did three Trek docs in a row." He asked, how would I like to 'be' Bill Shatner and do a doc on DS9 and interview all the actors. I was quite surprised. It was nothing I’d thought about in the past, nothing I’d been jones-ing to do. I said, "What's it about?" He said, "Don't worry. We'll find it was we go along."
Is that what happened?
ISB: Ultimately, that is what happened. It took a while, but that is what happened. So, I said yes without really thinking. It's just something I fell into, and it grew and grew over these many years.
Much of the film had been shot already when the creative team raised additional money via crowdsourcing from fans. Take us through that aspect of the process.
ISB: That did not happen for a couple of years. We had filmed the writer's room already. It was still going to be an hour doc. I’d done a whole bunch of interviews. That was all long before the crowdfunding. So, the crowdfunding was another thing that just happened. Dave called me. We hadn't done much for a while. They went off and did the Spock doc. Then, he said, "We need to do a campaign." I said, "Why?" He said, "To finish it off. To do the music and the animation for the writers’ room sequence." I said, "How much are we asking for?" He said, "$150,000." I said, "Are we going to make that?" He said, "I think so." I said, "I don't want to do it unless you can guarantee we'll make it." He goes, "I'm pretty sure we'll make it." We wound up making that in 29 hours. Next thing I knew, it was a feature doc.
The fan confessionals, most of which were grabbed at STLV, are pretty revealing. Given that the fans had such a hand in this, how vital was it to you to get their first person input — and what do you feel their input adds to your film?
ISB: The idea of the documentary being about family is something that just grew over time. So, it started out with the actors, went to the writers, went to the crew, and — after the Indiegogo campaign — [went to] the fans. I’d been pretty vocal back during the show years about a certain sense of disappointment I had with the fan base and their seeming inability to accept new [ideas] when it came to Star Trek. They were always complaining that [DS9] wasn't like the previous shows. So, I was a little disappointed with the fans back in the day, but clearly times have changed. Streaming, binge-ing… there was a whole new fan base coming in. They certainly showed the bona fides with the Indiegogo campaign, and I figured they just had to be a part of the doc, and let's hear what they have to say.
I always knew that the military, even back in the day, was very pro-Deep Space Nine. People who served seemed to really have an affinity for the series. I always found that interesting. Now, it had seemed to have spread. Young fans, old fans, outsider fans. I wanted them all to be a part of the doc. When we were doing the special features, one of the things we talked about was I really wanted to include the fans even in the special features. It just seems like a normal progression.
So much of the film is about Avery Brooks, what he brought to DS9 as a Black man, a father figure, and a director. Yet, he's only represented by archive footage. How involved was he behind the scenes and how tough was it to detail his importance without his direct involvement?
ISB: The fact that he plays a significant role just came along as we were editing it over this period of time. Really, it was part of finding the film. That wasn't a mandate. He was obviously an important part of the film beyond his acting — [he was important in] what he came to represent, especially after 2016 and what's been going on in this country.
When I had that reunion with Avery, if you’d told me that he wasn't going to be in the doc, I would never have believed it because we had such fantastic reunion. We hugged for a long time. We hugged it out like the clock was ticking for that hug. So, I never would’ve thought he wouldn't be involved. But that was his decision. There would not have been a writer's room segment if it wasn't for Avery. As I say in the doc, Avery kept saying, "You know, man, you're going to get caught up in the same old stuff. You're going to get caught up in that talking head thing, and it's just going to be another doc." That little voice was in my head all through the years, and that's why I didn't want to go linear. I kept telling guys, "We're not doing Deep Space Nine 101. This is not a doc for people who've never seen the show or don't care about Trek. We'll never win people over with this."
So, he was involved. Was it disappointing that we couldn't interview him? Of course. What other Trek series would not have the captain involved? Name me one other show. You can't. So, don't even try. But that's what makes Deep Space Nine so unique. It was the perfect obstacle to be thrown in in our path from the get-go, that our number one on the call sheet was not going to be involved. Makes it more interesting.
What did you personally learn about the DS9 experience that you didn't know before making the documentary?
ISB: I discovered a lot of different things. I think from doing the interviews, especially with the cast, with some of the crew, too, I found it amazing how the same trajectory would play out. Before we actually sat down [to interview our subjects, they'd have] all these guidelines: “I don't remember;” “Don't ask me specific questions;” “I don't remember names of episodes or names of characters;” “Don't show me up;” “I haven't thought about this for a long time.”
There was a feeling of they were doing this because I asked them to, and they felt they couldn't say no. Very few of the actors were jonesing to talk about Deep Space Nine on any heavy level. As the conversations went on, I’d see them open up. I’d see them suddenly own the show — literally, own the show as the interview would go on. So, what I learned is that most people, in this case creative people, are more comfortable probably talking about failures than successes; I think they realized how much the show meant to them as they talked about it. A lot of them got very emotional. I thought that was really interesting, that it's okay to embrace something you feel good about, even if it’s 20 years ago.
You led the charge for story serialization with DS9. Star Trek: Discovery is extremely serialized. The Picard show is being billed as a 10-part movie. How much satisfaction do you take in knowing you help set the stage for serialization, not just in Trek, but in general in contemporary TV?
ISB: The fact that Discovery is serialized or that Picard is serialized doesn't mean much to me, because how could they not be serialized in 2019? They get to just stay with the times. It's easy to be serialized now. Thank God they're doing that, but it would only be worthy of discussion if they didn't do it. The serialization [on DS9] was a bold move. I look back at it now and I was really a bit of an asshole, because everyone was saying people can't keep up with it. The show was syndicated and on at different times. I didn't care about any of that. I just wanted to do the best show we could do. I could understand why certain people involved and other producers and studios would feel that that was a little bit of an annoying take, because it did hurt the fan base, but at the time, I wasn't thinking about the future. I just wanted to do the best show we could do.
What's next for you?
ISB: What's next for me? That's a good question. I fired my agent. So, I don't know. This was the worst time to have this happen, with the Writer's Guild and this agent dust up. I don't think it's going to be another documentary! I don't think I have enough years left to do another documentary for six years, seven years.
Tickets for What We Left Behind: Looking Back at Star Trek: Deep Space Nine screenings in England, Scotland, Ireland, Germany, Austria, Australia and New Zealand on Wednesday, June 26th are still available.