Even in today’s youthful Hollywood, writer-director Nicholas Meyer is still, at age 36, young enough to qualify as a Wunderkind. Star Trek II: the Wrath of Khan is only his second movie-directing job, yet it’s proved to be a career milestone, grossing over $42 million in its first 17 days and reassuring fans of the series that the Star Trek spirit survived the impersonal first Star Trek motion picture. Star Trek II connects directly with Meyer’s most familiar work: his best-selling 1974 Sherlock Holmes pastiche, The Seven Per Cent Solution (later filmed by Herbert Ross from Meyer’s script) and his 1979 directing debut, the Jack the Ripper-H.G. Wells pastiche Time after Time. When I spoke to Meyer in his office at ABC Circle Films, this emphatic but witty man agreed to discuss Star Trek II as a Nicholas Meyer movie, albeit with one caveat: “An artist is seldom likely to be the best, or even the most interesting, judge of his own work.”
What did you set out consciously to do when you took on Star Trek II?
I wanted to make, on a kind of external level, the adventures of Captain Horatio Hornblower [C.S. Forester’s fictional English sea hero of the Napoleonic era, played on film by Gregory Peck] in outer space. We tried to make it navy-–galleons in space.
Both the Star Trek series mythology and your own previous work share the belief that 19th-century humanism serves as a kind of touchstone for human experience.
Now that you mention it, I see that that’s absolutely true. I was not a big Star Trek fanatic; I guess that’s generally known by now. I watched some of the episodes. I saw it as common, sometimes tragic human dilemmas served up in a pop allegorical format, but underlying it all was a kind of optimism that I do not share. The one question nobody’s ever asked me is, “What do you think life will be like in the 23rd century?” And the answer is, I don’t think we’re going to get out of the 20th… I don’t think we’ll get out of the Eighties.
Were you in conflict working on such an optimistic movie?
Romeo says to Juliet, “Shall I live in hope?” and Juliet says to Romeo, “All men, I hope, live so.” …I think that all art should give people the courage to face life. If you accept this definition, then art becomes a moral act. Now art is inextricably linked with commerce; it becomes a financial act, it becomes a goddamn balancing act. I wanted to do this movie because I wanted to pour new wine into old bottles, wine of my vintage, my brewing. And yes, I think I was saved from suicide as an adolescent by the movies, by books, by my phonograph. I wish I could do that for somebody else. The kind of art that I despise is art without hope.
Your earlier movies condemned violence; I think Star Trek II is richer because it suggests that Kirk is revitalized through violent action.
Joseph Conrad said, “Action is the enemy of thought.” A number of people in our society, those eager achievers struggling up the ladder of fame and success, really push aside a lot of personal problems and introspection in the name of certain objectified goals. And then they go nuts, because they become terribly successful, and suddenly –– there’s a line from Children of Paradise, “Don’t turn around and look at your past ’cause it will leap in your face like a wildcat.” There’s a line I once had in this movie: “…or it will leap in your face like a Tiberian bat” or something. That’s why people are such compulsive workers; they’re terrified of the thoughts that might go whizzing through their heads if they were idle. If I’m making a movie, and I’m having terrible fights with the studio, and I’m whirling my arms about and shouting orders –– that keeps away the noise in my inner ear that says all glory is fleeting and the missiles are in the silos and what are you going to do about it?
Speaking of the missiles in the silos –– let’s talk about your next project, The Day After. You’ve talked a lot in interviews about how TV should be abolished. What’s persuaded you to do this movie for television?
The idea that with this movie I can reach 20 million people in one night. The message is very simple: We cannot survive a nuclear war. The title The Day After is ironic, because there’s no day after. I view it as a gigantic public-service announcement.