Nicholas Meyer talks writing and directing
This article originally appeared in IF Magazine #139 (Feb-March 2011).
Ask Nicholas Meyer what work he’s most proud of in his long and successful career in Hollywood and he won’t start talking about reviving the Star Trek franchise. He won’t mention Oscar or Emmy nominations or even his best-selling novel The Seven Per Cent Solution. Meyer will tell you about a TV movie he directed which inspired a US President not to go to nuclear war.
When it aired in the US, The Day After was the most watched TV film in history and went on to score 12 Emmy nominations. The movie reveals the potential impact of a nuclear strike on a small American town. Meyer doesn’t think it was a great film but he finds its influence rewarding.
“Sources… confirm that Ronald Reagan came to power believing in the idea of a winnable nuclear war, and it was watching The Day After that made him re-think that proposition and sent him to negotiate with Gorbachev,” Meyer explains. “I think art can affect the way people think and feel and live. I never really thought of The Day After as art… it was sort of soft core propaganda, but I certainly never imagined that result.”
Meyer’s Hollywood career kicked off in the 1970s. He started as a screenwriter but later segued into directing – which is what he always wanted to do – with the film Time After Time by only agreeing to sell the script if he was allowed to direct it. “People who wanted that script badly enough were willing to take a chance on me,” he says.
Switching between writing and directing gives Meyer the best of both worlds. He fulfils his desire for total control over the creative process with writing and the benefits of collaboration with directing.
“They are different satisfactions and in a way mutually exclusive. Writing is a lonely business and being alone can be boring, it can be terrifying, it can be a lot of things but you do, for better or for worse, have complete control over what you’re doing. Directing is a collaborative business… you’re a part of a group or a part of a family.
“When I’m finished writing a screenplay I have cabin fever, I can’t wait to do something that involves other people. But by the time I’ve finished directing a movie I’ve [overdosed] on the party and I’m ready to go back into my little cave.”
For a man credited with Star Trek’s 1980s revival, Meyer is modest when he talks about working on the sci-fi phenomenon. The writer and director of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country and co-writer of Star Trek IV – The Voyage Home, he describes the process and the success of the films as a nice surprise. It started out as something he had no knowledge of but later connected with because it reminded him of books he loved as a child.
“One of the things that occurred to me as I was watching Star Trek episodes and looking at the first movie was it reminded me strongly of… the Hornblower novels by C.S. Forester which was about an English sea captain during the Napoleonic wars. I thought well, Star Trek is nothing more than Hornblower in space and armed with this insight I was off and running.
“All I looked at was how do I do the job? It was not posed to me as saving the franchise, it was just about making one movie and making the best movie that I knew how."
The 65-year old remains a solid presence in Hollywood after four decades in the film industry. In recent years, Meyer has written a film adaptation of the Phillip Roth novel The Human Stain, which went on to star Australia’s Nicole Kidman, and a screenplay based on Edmund Morris’s Theodore Roosevelt biography. He’s also put the finishing touches on a script for Johnny Depp called The Crook Factory and will soon work on a film for HBO with Oliver Stone. Even though he admits screenwriters in the US are treated as a “necessary evil to be dispensed with as soon as possible”, it’s clear that Meyer still loves his job.
“It’s like life, there are good experiences as a screenwriter and there are bad. Most of my best screenplays have never been filmed. On the other hand there have been times, rather magical times, when a film does get made and you go ‘Wow, this is why I do this, this is why I went through all the meetings and listening to all the nonsense for two hours of hitting the nail right on the head and being understood.”
Meyer isn’t just passionate about his work, he’s passionate about film as an art form. He has deep respect for Australian directors (he even worked on a CBS pilot with Bruce Beresford) but refuses to draw a distinction between the country a film comes from and the overall product.
“To me there are only two kinds of art: good and bad. And in a way there are only two kinds of movies: good and bad. I’ve seen Australian movies that I’ve loved and I’ve seen a lot of Australian movies that I have no use for whatever. It just depends on the individual film. You go to see a movie because you hear it’s wonderful, not because it’s Australian.”
And it’s this wisdom that makes Meyer a perfect mentor for emerging screenwriters.
“I don’t think it’s possible to teach talent. I think if you’ve got enough talent you don’t need to be taught anything else. But I do think it is possible to teach technique. There are a lot of things I have learnt over the years. So what I know, which may be useful, is how to think about what you’re doing in a way that lets you use technique as opposed to just talent, because if you’re not a genius, technique is going to help.”
But as for the process of writing, it’s all up to you.
“I have to say you’re going to find your own way and you’re in trouble if you think there’s [only] one way of doing it. Everybody sooner or later has to develop their own method.”