Nicholas Meyer talks Star Trek II and how he tricked Shatner into giving him a great performance

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Sep 5, 2016, 9:32 AM EDT

As fans of Star Trek know, Admiral James T. Kirk and Khan Noonien Singh were locked in mortal combat for the length of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. But something fans might not have realized — myself included, not in 34 years — until director Nicholas Meyer pointed it out at Star Trek: Mission NY convention in New York City: In the entire 112-minute movie, Kirk and Khan never shared a scene together. 

That was only one of Meyer's many anecdotes about the making of Star Trek II, a film considered by most fans to be the best of the Star Trek movies. Another was the fact that he wrote the final screenplay in 12 days and did not accept a writing credit — something he acknowledged in his DVD commentary. Paramount, afraid of trouble with the Screenwriter’s Guild, didn’t want him to include that particular comment. 

“The result is a clause that I’m almost as proud of as I am the film,” said Meyers. “‘The opinions expressed on this DVD are not the opinions of Paramount.’ Every DVD now has that clause.”

But although Meyer insisted on preserving his oral history of the film on the DVD extras, he stresses he does not possess the film itself. “[The film] belongs to you. Artists lose possession when [the work] is finished. I don’t know why Khan has one glove. I can’t answer it. I’m more interested in what you think about it.”

Meyer also spoke about his working relationship with William Shatner, an actor known for his highly imitable style. He said, “What I found is [Shatner] got better the more takes you did, because he would get bored, and he would stop striking attitudes, and it became more about behavior and less about acting. ... I found that if I could get him to repeat things -- 'Gee, it was no good for sound' -- then he would drop away a lot of mannerisms. I think this and Star Trek VI are his two great performances because I was willing to wait around.”

Shatner is equally well known for his ego. However, Meyer recalled only one comment that Shatner made about the script. “He didn’t want to have [Kirk’s] age specified, how old he was supposed to be.” Meyer said he understood Shatner’s motivations “from a professional standpoint,” that is, an actor who played an older character in one film may find himself ineligible for a younger role in another.

Meyer also spoke about his time with Ricardo Montalban, “a lovely man ... we had a good working relationship.” But for one heart-stopping moment in time, he was afraid the relationship might sour: 

“[Montalban] had 23 marks to hit. ... He hit every mark, and everything was perfect. Except that he was screaming at the top of his lungs the whole time. ... I said, ‘Lets talk about interpretation while they’re doing the lighting.’” Meyer stressed to the audience, “We didn’t know each other, just a lunch and a handshake.”

Meyer, who at the time had directed only one movie prior to Star Trek II (Time After Time), took Montalban aside and said, “‘[Lawrence] Olivier said an actor should never show an audience your top. Once you do, they know you got no place to go.’ And [Montalban] says, ‘Oh, you’re going to direct me.’”

It turns out this wasn’t a challenge. As Montalban told Meyers, “That is good, because I need direction. I don’t know what I’m doing out there.” In the past, when working with acclaimed director Mervyn LeRoy and actress Lana Turner, LeRoy’s only direction was, “Ricardo, Lana, make it a good scene. Ricardo, give it balls.”

As for the ongoing fan devotion to Star Trek II, Meyer said, “I’m humbled. I’m not by nature a humble guy. And I'm gratified and so touched by the response to this film.”

Just as Spock’s death was not the end of Spock, Meyer’s involvement with Star Trek did not end with Star Trek II. Or Star Trek IV. Or Star Trek VI. He’ll be writing for the upcoming TV series, Star Trek: Discovery. However, he won’t be taking the helm. “It’s Bryan [Fuller]’s show, not mine, I’m just a cog in the wheel.”