ON THE TREKKIE TRIAL
Earth Date: Tuesday, May 18, 1999, Los Angeles
After three years of what seemed like an intergalactic struggle, only three days remain until the nationwide release of my first documentary. When this magazine’s editors learned that I had kept a diary of the Herculean efforts to make “Trekkies,” a film about the legions of obsessive “Star Trek” fans, they asked if they could publish it. What follows is an edited and updated version.
Wednesday, May 19, 1999, North America
At midnight, George Lucas opened his “Star Wars” prequel, “Episode I: The Phantom Menace.” I’m convinced that George and his minions have been watching our moves closely. “Menace” was supposed to open on the same day as “Trekkies,” but apparently George panicked and moved up his release to get out of our way. Let the battle begin, phaser vs. light saber, 5,000 screens vs. 339 screens. Which legion of cultish fans will triumph?
But first we must return to another time, long, long ago . . . .
Monday, Sept. 12, 1994, Los Angeles
Denise Crosby pitched me an idea for a documentary today. In 1991, I cast Denise (security agent Tasha Yar on the spinoff series “Star Trek: The Next Generation”) as one of the leads in my first film, “High Strung.” Denise described her concept for a “Star Trek” fan documentary. I’m not a Trekker or Trekkie or Trek anything. Still, I said, “What a great idea.” But without financial backing, we’re stuck. Funding a documentary is like trying to get from Earth to Tau Alpha C without a warp drive.
Monday, June 10, 1996, Los Angeles:
Today I brainstormed with Denise and producer Keith Border at Neo Motion Pictures. “Why did this of all shows spawn the largest pop-culture fan phenomenon of all time?”
“Star Trek” is shown in more than 100 countries in 50 languages, is published in about 40 books a year, has more than 63 million books in print, has more than 125 different licensees for everything from Tribbles (a tiny, furry animal that eats and multiplies) to handkerchiefs with Worf’s face. The series has more than 500 fan clubs, with hundreds of “Star Trek” conventions a year around the world.
To begin our homework, we called Richard Arnold, researcher for the late Gene Roddenberry. He gave us the beginnings of an answer: “Star Trek” was not a science-fiction show. It was sold as sci-fi to get around the network’s aversion to controversial subject matter, like race and politics. It was really about the human condition.
Friday, Aug. 2, 1996, Los Angeles
Denise has been invited to “Fantasticon,” a benefit “Star Trek” convention for the Motion Picture and Television Fund. We’ve assembled a free crew and free equipment--free is about the only way documentaries get made. At the LAX Hilton, we commandeered a room and set up for interviews. We want the set to look like a living room, so we “borrowed” huge plants from the lobby, framed art from the elevator and a lamp from the hallway. We were bashful at first as we began interviewing fans, merchandise dealers, actor look-alikes and the “Star Trek” actors themselves. But Denise is the perfect interviewer; people readily open up to her. She went to the convention Green Room and returned five minutes later with Walter Koenig, Chekov from the original “Star Trek” series. Next she nabbed DeForest Kelley, Dr. McCoy; Grace Lee Whitney, Yeoman Rand; Nichelle Nichols, Lt. Uhura; and Majel Barrett Roddenberry, who played Nurse Chapel and is the widow of the “Star Trek” creator. At the end of our first day we’re ecstatic. We’ve already interviewed four of the nine original cast members.
Saturday, Aug. 3, 1996, Los Angeles
While signing autographs, Denise met Gabriel Korner, a uniformed fan who, at age 14, has already attended 28 conventions. A Klingon headpiece worn by John Calicos in the “Blood Oath” episode was auctioned by Robert O’Reilly (“Gowrom” from “The Next Generation”). The audience gasped at the opening bid: $500. A Klingon fan in full makeup won the right to take the piece of foam rubber back to Detroit. Price: $1,400. Later we filmed a group of Klingons in full makeup as they ordered and ate lunch at Carl’s Jr. Denise asked a cashier if he had ever served a Klingon before. He said, “Yes,” like it happens all the time.
After lunch, Denise found James Doohan (“Scotty,” the engineer of the Enterprise) relaxing in the Green Room, drinking a glass of scotch, waiting to go onstage. Pleased to be invited for an interview, he grabbed his glass and followed Denise. She asked him about fan mail. Tears welled in his eyes as he related how he once received a sad note from a young woman who was threatening suicide. He tracked her down and, through his encouragement, the woman went on to finish college and get her master’s degree in engineering. It was an amazing moment. I realized that there’s much more going on here than just a bunch of people goofing off in “Star Trek” costumes.
Sunday, Aug. 4, 1996, Los Angeles
William Shatner, the renowned Captain Kirk, was scheduled for the weekend, but the convention promoter, Ruthanne Devlin, told us he had opted for other (paying) gigs at conventions in Minneapolis and San Francisco. I was disappointed. I was hoping we would meet the Enterprise’s first captain. (Actually, the original pilot featured a female captain.) Still, we finished the weekend on a high note, having filmed six of the nine original cast members. Excited by our success, we planned to hit more conventions, all courtesy of Denise’s celebrity. Convention promoters usually provide her a first-class ticket, which she’s offered to trade in for coach fares so she can take me and the crew.
Saturday, Sept. 14, 1996, Las Vegas
We spotted William Shatner. The promoter said he was paying the great toupeed one $50,000 for two appearances (a figure Shatner’s secretary would neither confirm nor deny). After Shatner traversed the stage for an hour and signed autographs, Denise asked him for an interview, but he begged off: “I’m too tired and I’m not prepared to go on camera.” Another disappointment from the ex-starship commander.
Thursday, Oct. 10, 1996, Red Lake Falls, Minn.
Today we filmed Glen Proechel, a Lutheran minister, at his Interstellar Language School, where he teaches Beginning, Intermediate and Advanced Klingon. Glen is also in the middle of translating the Old and New Testaments into Klingon. In church, Glen occasionally preaches in this made-up language and has led a Klingon choir. Glen says that in Pennsylvania there’s a rival Klingon Language Institute and hints that its proprietors are jealous because he beat them with his Klingon translation of “Hamlet.”
Saturday, Oct. 19, 1996, Vulcan, Alberta, Canada
In this town that shares a name with Spock’s home world, a 31-foot replica of the Starship Enterprise greets visitors. The town also boasts a Vulcan Bakery, a Vulcan Lodge Hall and a Vulcan Funeral Home.
Thursday, Oct. 31, 1996, Woodland Hills
The Greensteins, David, Laurel and their poodle, Tammi, dressed for our interview in their “Star Trek” uniforms. Tammi looked especially official in her Star Fleet doggy uniform. David, who prefers to be called Spock, revealed for the first time that he is considering having his ears surgically altered to resemble Vulcan points. His wife’s reaction to hearing this admission for the first time was priceless. That moment’s going to be in the film. You shoot hours of footage waiting for nuggets like that.
Sunday, Nov. 15, 1996, Bakersfield
I drove the crew to Bakersfield to film teenage “Trek” fan Gabriel Korner in his natural habitat. We shot him picking up his new uniform from a tailor. Gabriel was pleased with the pleats but quibbled over the incorrect width of the red strip on the sleeves. I asked Gabriel about his rank pips. “Two pips signify that I’m a lieutenant. I would be a captain right now, but, unfortunately, one of the members of our station has borrowed the remaining two pips, so I’ll be getting a promotion this evening.”
Sunday Nov. 17, 1996, Pasadena
Today at the Pasadena convention we interviewed Anne Murphy, a fan extraordinaire of Brent Spiner, the android Data on “The Next Generation.” She calls herself a “Spiner femme.” She brought out all her memorabilia, the most staggering of which were her photo albums. Cover to cover, they contain hundreds of shots of Spiner onstage, from every angle. I started to think, “This is pretty extreme,” then I remembered the volumes of photos I had collected during high school of Joe Perry, Aerosmith’s guitarist.
Monday, Nov. 18, 1996, Beverly Hills
What a pleasure. Our most gracious interviewee to date has been the real Spock, Leonard Nimoy. He welcomed us into his office today and gave us unlimited time. Denise asked him why “Star Trek” was so popular. “It was a new way of seeing science fiction,” he said. “If you go over the list of favorite episodes, I think you’d be surprised to find a large percentage are not about adversarial relationships with the Klingons or anybody else. They’re about interesting problems that have to do with the internal workings of society, about the human condition being explored, and not about bad people doing bad things. . . . “
Monday and Tuesday, Jan. 6 and 7, 1997, Little Rock, Ark.
We spent the past two days with Barbara Adams, commander of the USS Artemis, the Little Rock unit of the Federation Alliance, a “Trek” fan organization. Last March, Adams stirred up a national media frenzy by wearing her “Star Trek” uniform while doing jury service at the original Whitewater trial. (Ultimately, President Clinton’s successor as governor of Arkansas, Jim Guy Tucker, was convicted of fraud and conspiracy.)
Because she wants people to recognize that she is a “Trek” fan who embraces the philosophies embodied in the show, Barbara wears her rank pips, phaser, tri-corder, and communicator badge every day to work at a Sir Speedy Printing. At Barbara’s request, her co-workers have taken to calling her “Commander.”
Monday, Jan. 13, 1997, Orlando, Fla.
We spent a couple of days with dentist Denis Bourguignon at “Starbase Dental.” He and his staff wear their “Trek” uniforms while drilling and filling. Dr. Bourguignon’s wife, Shelley, told Denise that she and her husband don different “Star Trek” costumes in the bedroom--her husband sometimes dressing as Denise.
Saturday, March 22, 1997, Pasadena
Today we interviewed two writers of underground, homoerotic Kirk/Spock stories at the Pasadena Convention Center. These stories are typically written by and for heterosexual women--women who want to read sexual stories about Kirk and Spock but don’t want to imagine them with other women.
Sunday, March 23, 1997, Pasadena
Finally! We got clearance for the Big One from Shatner’s fan club president, Joyce Mason, who hosts a live radio call-in show, “Talk Trek and Beyond.” Shatner was scheduled to meet privately with his club’s 50 members to promote his Hollywood Charity Horse Show, an event to raise funds for disabled children. The Enterprise captain noticed us immediately and shouted, “What are those cameras doing here?” He said that he wanted to be paid to take part in our film. I explained that we hadn’t paid anybody in the documentary, and if we had to pay everybody, documentaries would never get made. “This is about the fans. We’re not interested in the show or the merchandising. It’s the fans’ yearbook.”
“OK,” he said. “You can film me with the kids. Roll the cameras!” Shatner spoke a few minutes about his charity, answered a few questions, then beamed out. We couldn’t get him into the interview chair. Patrick Stewart, the captain on “The Next Generation,” has been unavailable too--he’s out of the country and unable to schedule an interview. But we did get Kate Mulgrew, the captain on “Star Trek: Voyager,” and she was terrific.
Monday, March 24, 1997, Los Angeles
Our final shoot was with Mark and Brian, a nationally syndicated morning radio team in Los Angeles. Brian Phelps is an avowed Trekkie, and Mark Thompson goes along with it. They concluded their interview by performing a horrendous rendition of the “Star Trek” theme on trumpets.
Friday, April 4, 1997, Los Angeles
From 35 hours of footage I’ve finished an 88-minute cut. We screened it for test audiences tonight. I had jitters about the die-hard Trekkies’ and Trekkers’ reactions. But they laughed and applauded twice as enthusiastically as non-fans. I asked why. Several explained. First, they got all the in jokes. Second, they recognized everybody in the film--or know people just like them. Third, they have a great sense of humor about themselves. Trek fans, in general, tend to be an intelligent group. I think if you plotted intelligence and sense of humor on the same graph, the axes would correlate.
Trekkers have a term for people who don’t get what they do: “mundanes.”
April 12 to June 29, 1997
Our first studio screening generated more than 50 others in a six-month tour of studios. We also began submitting “Trekkies” to the high-profile festivals. Telluride sent a form-letter rejection. Toronto passed. New York said we were not chosen as one of their 35 films (out of 900 submitted). Sundance wished us the best of luck. But we got good news from festivals in Mill Valley, the Hamptons, Sa Paulo, San Jose, Santa Barbara, Dallas, Sedona, Austin and the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. We also began negotiating with several studios for distribution.
Friday, July 10, 1998
Paramount won the bidding, and after months of legal wrangling, today we signed our names--42 times each--to a stack of contracts a foot high; eight copies of a 70-page distribution deal, 600 pages of legalese.
Thursday, Oct. 8, 1998, Los Angeles
Twenty five and a half months after we began filming, nine months after shaking hands on the deal, the lawyers wrapped things up and we finally received a seven-figure wire transfer payable to Denise Crosby, Keith Border and Roger Nygard. We can finally pay off our crew and credit cards. It’s an amazing feeling to go from debtor to creditor overnight. I’ll put my share into high-tech stocks and a BMW convertible like the ones I hear Hollywood directors drive.
Friday, May 21, 1999, Hollywood
“Trekkies” debuted tonight on movie screens across the country. “Star Wars,” in just two days, is already up to $40.8 million at the box office. We’ve got some catching up to do.
Monday, May 24, 1999, Hollywood
The reviews for “Trekkies” have been stellar. “Thumbs up” from Roger Ebert. An “A-" from Entertainment Weekly. Praise from the Los Angeles Times to the New York Times. More than two dozen papers used the word “hilarious.” And half of those added “loving” or “affectionate” or “good-natured” to the mix. I like the contrarians, too, such as the Chicago weekly that called the film “vandalism against the Trek franchise.”
No doubt because of its head start, however, Lucas’ “Menace” has already grossed more than $105.7 million, compared to $125,636 for “Trekkies.” I guess you can’t fight the Force. But we’ll meet again on home video, George.
Director’s Log, Supplemental
Tuesday, June 15, 1999
I get occasional updates. Dr. Bourguignon’s “Starbase Dental” is thriving. “The patients are always coming in with their ‘Star Trek’ memorabilia to show us,” Shelley Bourguignon says. “One man came in last week with his phaser. He didn’t use it on anybody. Just to be safe, I put it on stun.”
David Greenstein, our Spock from Woodland Hills, reported that he had met with a plastic surgeon to price his ear operation. It would be about $2,500 per ear. “It’s easy, they just have to move a little cartilage around.”
Looking back on this whole experience, I think it was the most fun I’ve had in the film business so far. Documentaries are adrenaline and tennis shoes. You go where they take you. There’s not the straitjacket of a shooting script. It’s exciting when you don’t know where the road leads.
The process also enlightened me about a group of people that I only knew through the cliche of Shatner’s infamous sketch on “Saturday Night Live"--you know, where he confronts the obsessed fan living in his parents’ basement and shouts: “Get a life!”
There are, it seems to me, worse things to be obsessed with than a TV show that has an underlying message of tolerance and acceptance.
I’m reminded of our interview with Brent Spiner, as he sat in his back yard at the base of a hill that his “Spiner femme” fan told us that she can see from her own balcony.
“There’s a preconceived notion that [‘Star Trek’ fans] are peculiar,” Spiner said. “I don’t think I’ve ever met anybody, ‘Star Trek’ fan or otherwise, who wasn’t peculiar. We’re all peculiar, aren’t we?”