Exclusive: Nicholas Meyer on Wrath of Khan memories, influences, reboots

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Aug 23, 2017

We're not quite done with that old bloodsucker Khan just yet.

Thirty-five years after the release of the Star Trek franchise's cinematic high point, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, fans will get a chance to see the iconic film in theaters once again. Fathom Events is screening a Director's Cut of the 1982 classic in 600 theaters nationwide for two nights, Sunday, Sept. 10, and Wednesday, Sept. 13. One nice bonus is a new, in-depth interview with William Shatner that will run right before the film.

Director Nicholas Meyer is indelibly linked to the film. Aside from helming the picture, he's also the uncredited screenwriter, who stepped in after numerous drafts and assembled the elements for the movie that would turn out to be what many consider the salvation of the Trek property. All these years later, with countless questions asked of him, one would think Meyer would be sick of Trek. Instead, his ties to the franchise are as strong as ever.

Nicholas Meyer with William Shatner on the set of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

Meyer, the writer of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and director of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, is also a writer and consulting producer on the upcoming CBS All-Access series Star Trek Discovery. Furthermore, he's rumored to be crafting a Khan prequel series, set during the time after the TOS episode "Space Seed," in which Khan and his group were left on Ceti Alpha V. (It's okay to go ahead and say it the way Khan did in TWOK. We did.)

SYFY WIRE recently had the opportunity to talk with Meyer. While he couldn't confirm or deny any of those Khan TV series rumors, he was happy to reflect back on the movie that began his decades-long relationship with the Federation. In the interview below, we cover a lot of ground, including his relationship with Ricardo Montalban, which pairing in the film he would like to have been able to develop more, and which question he hopes never to be asked again!

Oh, and at one point during the interview, Meyer reveals for the first time that he can recall which classic war picture turned out to be a major influence on The Wrath of Khan. Read on to hear more of his recollection on the ultimate Trek film.

This movie came out 35 years ago, when the Trek franchise was kind of on the ropes. The first movie wasn’t quite the success the studio was looking for, and then your movie comes and, in a lot of fans’ minds, saved the franchise. When did you know you had nailed it with Wrath of Khan?

We knew we had put together a really good movie the first time we screened it for anybody. What I’ve found in my experience is that what one audience reacts to, most audiences will react to. So when the first audience that saw it on the Paramount lot really got jazzed by it, then I thought, "Okay. The movie’s going to play well."
Did I know it would then play well for the next 35 years? Of course not. I didn’t have a clue. I think time is the ultimate judge of art. And that includes movies, paintings, poetry, you name it. The critics will have their say. But at the end of the day, the art itself, or lack of same, will endure or it won’t.

In the past, you’ve described the film as a submarine movie set in space. When you watch the film and see the back and forth between the Reliant and the Enterprise, the claustrophobia the movie projects, it all makes sense. As the uncredited screenwriter on the movie, is that specifically what you were going for?

It was a very tight deadline, but the idea of a naval or nautical experience was in it from the very beginning. As I was trying to figure out my own relationship with Star Trek – which up to that point had been zip, I didn’t know anything about it – and they were showing me the episodes [of the TV series] and the first movie, and I thought, "Gee, this keeps reminding me of something I really like." And not being the sharpest knife in the drawer, it took me a while to realize that what I really loved was the resemblance to a series of books that I loved as a teenager about an English sea captain during the Napoleonic Wars, named Captain Horatio Hornblower. So I figured out this was like Hornblower in outer space. Once I got into the sort of naval/nautical idea, then it wasn’t that much of a leap into submarines.

There was a movie I loved – actually, I’ve never mentioned this before in an interview – called The Enemy Below. Have you ever seen it?

"The Enemy Below"

I don’t think I have. Who’s in that?

Robert Mitchum and Curt Jurgens. He had a long career and he played a Bond villain, the one who controls the oceans [Karl Stromberg in The Spy Who Loved Me]. In The Enemy Below, Jurgens plays the German sub captain and Mitchum the destroyer captain. It was directed by Dick Powell, if you can believe it. He started off in those Busby Berkeley musicals with that high-tenor voice. Then he lowered his voice to do Philip Marlowe. Funny enough, Robert Mitchum also played Marlowe. But yeah, Dick Powell directed it. And It’s a f**king great movie. Real kick-ass story of this duel between the two captains, the one in the submarine and the one on the destroyer. I think that as I now ... this is interesting. It’s the first real original thought I’ve had about this film in 35 years ... I now realize The Enemy Below was a big influence [on Wrath of Khan].

It’s remarkable that the influence of that movie just struck you, after all this time.

Well, it’s absolutely true.

Obviously Khan is an iconic villain, but he’s a villain with a purpose. He had his reasons for going after Kirk, justifiable reasons in his mind, for why his cause was just. That is one of the reasons why this film still resonates, isn’t it? It has a worthy adversary that you’re really invested in.

One of the things I find interesting – and I’m still in the business, I’m still making movies – is that I get into conversations with executives who want to know if a character is sympathetic. And I answer back, "I don’t give a rat’s ass if they’re sympathetic or not." What I do care about, passionately, is that they’re understandable. Because if you understand them, then you’ll go with them.

Very interesting. Because there is a difference between a sympathetic and an understandable character.

Absolutely. One of them gives you much, much more latitude. I can’t make Khan into some kind of goody two-shoes. He’s not. But he is a guy who, with perhaps some justification, finds himself wronged. "You never checked on us to see how we were. You put us down on this planet, which was gorgeous, and then you left. And in no time at all, all hell broke loose. The planet was laid waste, and my wife died." That’s understandable.

Can you recall your first discussion with Ricardo Montalban about the character of Khan?

Yeah. I like to rehearse with movies. I don’t like to over-rehearse, because the camera will find that out and see the lack of spontaneity. But I want my actors to know, I want to know them, I want us all somewhat familiar with the script, so when we get on set and the meter is running, that people have, you know, an overall sense of what they’re supposed to do. The one actor that I didn’t get to rehearse with and I did not get to do more with than have lunch, because he was shooting his television show, was Montalban. As someone once said, all actors want to know one thing about the director. Is he crazy? Will I live? Will I have to pull the boat over the mountain?

Ricardo was a beautifully mannered guy. He was reserved, courtly, and I was like, exploding firecrackers all over the place. I was all over the place [that day]. I have no idea what he thought of me at that lunch. But he had said at first, "I’m not in the movie that much."

Then he read it again and said, "Well, you know what? When I’m not there, everyone’s talking about me, so that’s not bad." So we had lunch and I gave him a copy of Moby Dick and I said, "Here’s the character."

So in terms of understanding the character, what he understood was Ahab’s blasphemous rage. What was later to be shaped, and we shaped it on his first day of shooting, was the actual performance. Which was a very different undertaking.

Were you shooting out of sequence?

His first day of shooting was the scene in the cargo base of the Botany Bay. And he has six pages of why he’s still angry at Kirk. When he first did them and rehearsed them, he was sort of screaming them and everyone was just standing around. He was letter-perfect, he hit every mark, but whoa, the roof was about to come down.

I was thinking, this man has many more credits than I have inches to my height. This is the second movie I’ve ever directed. What am I going to say? But I knew I had to say something. So okay, I told him the lighting guys need some time, so let’s go back and chat some more about the character. He says, “Okay.” Always very courtly, very polite. We went back into his trailer and I said, “You know, Laurence Olivier once said that an actor should never show an audience his top, because once you show them your top, they know you’ve got no place else to go." And he looked at me, and he said, "Oh, you’re going to direct me. That’s good. I need direction. I don’t have a clue what I’m doing up there. [laughs]" And that was the beginning of one of the most lovely collaborations I’ve ever had.

Here’s the other thing I got him to think about. A crazy person probably never has to raise his voice. Because you never know what the f**k they’re gonna do next. And when I said the word "next," I leapt at him, and he flinched. And, we went from there. Once he ... once you put those ideas in his head, he ran with them. He would never, you know ... he would make a move and look over at me and ask, "Nick, what do you think about raising the eyebrow here?" He was a very subtle actor.

There are so many iconic moments in Wrath of Khan, but perhaps none as big as Kirk screaming "KHAAAAANNNNN!" Do you remember at what point that scene had outgrown the movie and become its own cultural thing?

To be honest with you, I can’t. I know it’s become something else, but I can’t tell you the moment when I realized, this is Meyer’s opus ... [laughs]

The Trek Trinity: Bones, Kirk and Spock, from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

If you had the chance to expand and go further in depth into any of the pairings in the movie, be it the trinity of Kirk, Spock and Bones, Spock and Saavik, or Kirk, Carol and David, which one would interest you?

That is a very interesting question. Answering off the top of my head, I would say since the Kirk, Spock, and Bones thing is already, has already been there longest and featured the most times -- so that and the Spock/Kirk relationship too, which I think I pretty much nailed in that scene in Spock’s cabin ...

Now Carol Marcus and her son, I don’t know how much you need of that, but if there were things to be explored longer, it would be Kirk and his son. The interesting story about that is, when we showed the movie to the head of the studio, which for the purposes of this interview I shall not name [**Editor’s Note: Barry Diller ran Paramount at the time**], he took exception to the scene between Kirk and his son. He said, "Gee, that’s not the way I’d react. I’d wanna know where the hell my father’s been all my life," and stuff like that. And I said, "I really don’t agree, Barry. [Laughs] It’s very obvious David is an angry guy and not a fan of his father, even from before he knew he was his dad. He considered him an overgrown boy scout or whatever he says. Then later, he assumes he killed a whole bunch of people, and on and on and on. Then they have their nice reconciliation scene." And the head of the studio said, "Well, I can say it to you politely or I can say it the other way, but it just doesn’t work."

Okay, so then we have that first screening [on the Paramount lot], and people applauded that scene. I thought, "Yeah!" Kirk and Spock are the people we have the most emotional investment and interest and the idea of whether we’re talking about Spock and his family or his mother or father, or Kirk and his child, it’s a very fruitful thing that could have and perhaps should have been explored, maybe more so in subsequent movies.

I imagine you’ve seen this film countless times over the years for restoration, DVD commentaries, and other situations. Is there a particular scene that remains particularly moving to you?

I think my favorite scene in the movie is – and let me digress long enough to say that, the opinion of the artist may be interesting, but it is irrevelant and certainly not definitive. Whatever I say is just another opinion at this point. If you think of artists as people who put messages in a bottle and once the message is finished and the bottle is corked, they throw it out into the world, and people are going to make of it what they will. At that point, the artist has lost all proprietary connection and authority over the work. So if I tell you now which scene resonates the most with me, it shouldn’t be extrapolated into any kind of answer to a book of math equations. It’s just my little notion.

Anyway, I think the scene I cherish the most for the writing, directing, the performances, and the effect it has on me, is the scene between Kirk and Spock in Spock’s quarters. I’m not wild about the set, which I think I sort of screwed up. But otherwise, and interestingly enough, I think in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, I think my favorite scene is also in Spock’s quarters, in a vastly improved set, between Spock and Valeris. Those one-on-one character moments are the ones that mean the most to me.

You talk about not being happy with Spock’s cabin set during Wrath of Khan, and it got me wondering. Your film had a much smaller budget, less than $12 million, compared to the $46 million bill that Star Trek: The Motion Picture ran up. Was money the reason why Montalban’s scenes were done completely separate from the main cast?

I don’t think it was budgetary, no. Schedules are based on availability, and as you mentioned earlier, some movies are shot out of sequence, and that’s often for economic reasons. But that wasn’t a factor with us. But a lot of people ask me why there’s no direct encounter between Khan and Kirk, whose names curiously begin with the letter K. Going back to The Enemy Below, those two captains never meet. The only time captains might ever fight each other is in pirate movies, like Captain Blood or The Seahawk maybe. So we weren’t going to bend ourselves out of shape to do that.

What is the one question related to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan you hope to never be asked again?

That’s easy. I’m sick and tired of people wondering if that’s his chest! [laughs]
It’s the most bewildering question I’ve ever been asked. And it came from the very beginning. "Is that his chest? Yes, it’s his goddamned chest!"

yes, that's Ricardo Montalban's real chest!

Duly noted. It’s his goddamned chest. I did want to ask your thoughts on Star Trek: Into Darkness, and specifically, how it reworked your ending. Did you appreciate it?

To be totally honest, I didn’t understand it.

Did you feel they didn’t convey the purpose of it, or the message ...

I didn’t get that there was a message. When I saw the first of the new Star Trek movies, someone asked me what I thought of them re-ordering the whole timeline. And I said, "They did?" So you’re talking to a real dummy!

Can you sum up your feelings about your place in the Star Trek universe, and your contributions to the canon?

This has all been what they call in Yiddish a real mitzvah. It’s this surprisingly lovely thing that happened to me, that I understood nothing about. I came to this as a stranger in a strange land, and by luck and by chance, I’ve managed to make a contribution to something that is important to people. For this, I can truly feel humbly – and I’m not a humble guy by nature – I can feel humbly grateful to be a part of that. There are certain things in my life that I’ve gotten to do, The Day After being one of them, they are worthwhile things that I’ve gotten the chance to do. I’m just grateful, and genuinely, with no sarcasm, to have been a part of it.