Friday, 30 May 2008


Nicholas Meyer is without any doubt one of the most important artists of the american cinema: novelist, writer, director, producer. He has revisited with great intelligence the myth of Sherlock Holmes and left his mark on the Star Trek franchise and on the History of Television with The Day After - his vision of nuclear Armageddon. Adapter of Philip Roth, this man of art and culture discussed his career and his work with us.

Nicholas Meyer, you are definitely a master in the art of story telling. When did you decide to imagine stories of your own? Which books gave you the desire and the taste to do so?

Nicholas Meyer : I became interested in story telling from listening to the bedtime stories my father read to be at night, everything from Winnie the Pooh, to Grimm Fairy Tales, Kipling's Just So stories and later the Greek myths. I started dictating my own stories to my father when I was around five and after a year or two of acting as my amuensis, he told me I must do my own writing and I've been doing it ever since.

Which movies have influenced you the most?

Nicholas Meyer : The films which have influenced me were Peter Brook's The Beggars Opera, Henry V (both significantly with Laurence Olivier), plus the Marx Brothers, WB gangster movies, Around the world in 80 days and an endless list, comprising Woody Allen, Francis Coppola, Hitchcock, Ford, John Huston (my favorite American director), Louis Malle, etc.

Usually, a story teller loves to hear, read and watch good stories...

Nicholas Meyer : My story telling tastes are Catholic and ecclectic as is the case with these film-makers. I never cared if the stories were funny or serious, present day, historical or science fiction. I cared only that they were good stories.

My definition of a good story is that once you hear it, you understand why someone wanted to tell it to you. Henry James said the least demand you can make of a work of art is that it be interesting; the greatest demand is that it be moving.

How did your father and his profession, and later your teachers at the University of Iowa contribute to the edification of your cultural background?

Nicholas Meyer : My father was a psychoanalyst, whose chief preoccupation, therefore, was human behavior. Why and how people do the things they do. When I listened to him speak about searching for clues from people as to why they behaved as they did, I was irresistibly reminded of Sherlock Holmes, an association that eventually led to my writing the novel, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, as well as a general preoccupation with motivation that helps my writing.

The University of Iowa taught me technique and craft. While genius may need no instruction, chances are the rest of us could use some help. Before Iowa, I was doing things right through intuition and inspiration, but if either failed me, I didn't know how to analyze (that word again!) what went wrong and how to fix it. The writing courses that I took - also the theatre and directing classes - helped to organize my thinking and codify the process.

Your first script for television was for Judge Dee and the Monastery murders (1974), the pilot of a tv series that unfortunately never materialized. Did this first confrontation with the realities of the Hollywood system help you in some manner?

Nicholas Meyer : Judge Dee didn't become a series because the actor who played the role in the pilot died, not because of the realities of the tv system. Nevertheless, the “system” IS dysfunctional at best and not a help to taking creative chances, which was and remains a pity. It is not for the thin-skinned and humiliations come in all shapes and sizes.

Was the adaptation of The Seven-Per-Cent Solution to the big screen a kind of poetic justice for the artist you are?

Nicholas Meyer : The Seven-Per-Cent Solution was a fluke. If the book hadn't been a best-seller the movie would not have been made. Recently Universal said they didn't want to consider remaking the film because Holmes is a drug addict and that is (presently) too dark for them. Can you imagine?

Time after Time is a remarkable romantic thriller. A fight between two visions of the world: a vision of what the world should be (Wells) and a vision of what the world really is (Stevenson). Would you write the scene of the Hyatt regency room where Stevenson illustrates his vision of the world with a television set the same way today?

Nicholas Meyer : I would probably write the tv/hotel scene in Time After Time in much the same way, that is to say, I'd simply show what's on TV and let the audience - like Stevenson - draw their own, inevitable conclusions. There would be more “reality” tv, of course, but I think the same point I made then is just as true - if not more so - now.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . . it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness” , wrote Dickens. The transition between two eras seems to be a recurring theme in your work from Time after Time to Company business and, of course, Star Trek II and Star Trek VI. Is it important to understand History in order to live well one's personal history?

Nicholas Meyer : It shocks me that people are so ignorant of their own history. If we don't know where we've been, how will we be able to figure out where we ought to be going and how best to get there? In my work, wherever I get the chance to tell people something, usually (but not always) about their pasts, I will try and work it in.

The Wrath of Khan and The Undiscovered country are two major Shakespearian tragedies in outer-space, served by flamboyant actors (Ricardo Montalban, David Warner, Christopher Plummer...) with magnificent soundtracks and an epic direction. How did you manage to transform these installments of the Star Trek franchise from space-operas to “Operas in space”?

Nicholas Meyer : I am not sure how I made “operas in space”. I do know that I am a big opera fan to begin with - verismo, not bel canto - so the idea of larger than life exaggeration in this material came naturally to me, as it did to George Lucas before me on Star Wars. Also, if you want things to feel “Shakespearean”, why not use Shakespeare's words? No one wrote better dialogue.

The fact that I have a musical background is enormously helpful in communicating my ideas to the composers with whom I work on my films. I always enjoy this part of the process a lot. Sound will always dominate picture so it's a fascinating business to tease out the sounds you need to complete your vision of the film from the composer.

Music is almost an actor in itself in your movies. You worked with Mikos Rosza, James Horner, Michael Kamen or Cliff Eidelman (for Star Trek VI). How do you choose your composers and how do you collaborate with them?

Nicholas Meyer : Ideally, the music is going to be the VOICE of your movie. I use temp tracks when talking with my composers, but I also engage in free-wheeling discussions with them. What I want in all aspects of directing is to work with people who will take my ideas and make them BETTER.

On Star Trek VI, for example, I grew tired of the marches that have accompanied all main title sequences since the first Star Wars. I wanted something mysterious and brooding - our film was about the Klingons, after all! - and spoke with Cliff Eidelman about the opening music for Stravinsky's Firebird, which Cliff then went out and did his own riffs on. When it came back it was pure Klingon.

Your words as an author have been illustrated by others (The Seven-Per-Cent Solution) or by yourself (Time after Time). You started your career in Hollywood as a publicist for a major company and you are also a producer. Does your knowledge of these different aspects of the industry make you more indulgent towards how the studio and the director usually treats the work of the screenwriter?

Nicholas Meyer : I have been lucky to have had my scripts directed by some very talented directors. Notwithstanding this, I find it very frustrating to see my stuff directed by others. Inevitably it gets changed and while sometimes it is changed for the better, on a great number of occasions it is merely different and that difference divurges from my original intentions in ways that are typically not improvements.

Through your different jobs (novelist, screenwriter, director, producer...) you enjoy to explore varying genres sometimes simultaneously. For instance, Star Trek VI is an opera in space but also a clever whodunnit and a geopolitical thriller. Is a situation easily transposable from a genre to another and are there timeless and universal situations or a “construction pattern” common to every genre?

Nicholas Meyer : Usually, a work of art that is successful in a given medium will resist if not defy successful transposition to another medium. There's a reason why some stories make good novels, others make good plays and still others are perfectly suited to the screen. Adaptation is a tricky process because you want the end result to be comprehensible by people who've never read or seen the original, the “source” material. But how do you make a film out of The Brothers Karamazov without coming out hopelessly inferior to the novel?

Each job of transposition presents its own set of problems. Plays tend to be wordy and there's less action than in films; novels tend to be longer than most films and require extensive pruning; also interior thoughts and feelings are difficult (not impossible) to externalize. And so on.

While certain situations may be common to the varying venues (eg: husband discovers wife having an affair), it's what comes before and after such “scenes” that make up the UNcommon construction pattern of each genre.

One of your books, Confessions of a homing pigeon, is not well-known in France, even by those who admire your work. Could you tell us a few words about it?

Nicholas Meyer : Confessions of a homing pigeon is an autobiographical novel, which tells much of my own story in a fictitious setting and with fictional changes and disguises. It is the most personal book I have written (in my opinion) and I knew it was not going to be a block-buster but didn't care; it was an important book for me to create for myself as a writer. I couldn't keep hiding behind Holmes and Captain Kirk forever.

I believe in French it was called Confession d'un Pigeon Voyageur, which sounds pretty similar to me. It's about a small boy, orphaned young and his life and loves in the company of a charismatic expatriate uncle who lives in Paris.

In your filmography there is an unexpected entry: Collateral Damage (2002). How did you get involved on this film? What was your task as an executive producer?

Nicholas Meyer : Collateral Damage was originally written by my best friend, Ronald Roose, when it was called Prey. It was about a high school teacher who goes to Libya to avenge the deaths of his wife and daughter, who died in the Lockerbie bombing.

I was the exec and helped set up the project at Warner Brothers, where we said, joking, “Now remember, this guy ain't Arnold Schwarzenegger, he's Tom Hanks”, which we thought was the whole point. Five years later, they'd wrecked the whole thing but I left my name on just to piss them off.

Talking about more personal projects, you are able to entertain audiences with intelligence, elegance and style. Are Art and Industry reconcilable?

Nicholas Meyer : It is important to remember that the Globe Theatre was a money-making operation and yet that's where Hamlet, Lear, Romeo & Juliet, etc. were first performed. Art and commerce are not irreconcilable, they are inextricably intertwined.

Movies cost too much to produce (though they needn't cost as much as they do), for them not to make a profit at the end of the day. The trick is to make art that makes money, or as Robert Bresson said, “My job is not to find out what the public wants and give it to them; my job is to make the public want what I want.”

Could you please describe us a typical day of work in the life of Nicholas Meyer?

Nicholas Meyer : My days vary. During the school year I am up, taking a daughter (any one of three) off to school, then I try to do the bulk of my writing in the morning, when I find I am fresh. I don't write when I'm not working on something but when I am, I try to write every day - no weekends or holidays allowed! Later in the morning, when I get stuck or stiff, (whichever happens first) I do a half hour on my exercycle and read something unrelated while I pedal.

Sometimes I'll swim laps afterwards, which also helps me to think about my writing and where I'm going next. If it's really going well, I'll go back to it; otherwise I use the rest of the day for business meetings, pitching projects, etc. I try to be home so as to have dinner with my family and if I'm lucky, my wife and I get to take in a movie afterwards.

In June 2000, you have donated most of your personal documents (books, screenplays, treatments, etc...) to the University of Iowa, giving researchers a unique instrument of comprehension of the art of telling stories with words or pictures. Could you explain us what brought you to make this donation?

Nicholas Meyer : The University of Iowa was the first place in my life where I was truly happy. I think I largely invented myself there, thanks to their support and their teaching, as I have endeavored to explain earlier. Since there was no undergraduate playwriting scholarship when I was there, I founded one and giving my papers simply made sense.

I try to get back to the university when I can (I'll be doing some workshops there in the fall) and I was on the board of the University of Iowa Foundation, a fact about which I have always been very proud, since artists aren't typically asked to join.

You have written the screenplay of Sommersby (1993), an US adaptation of a French movie The Return of Martin Guerre. Are there directors, screenwriters or actors from France or Quebec you admire?

Nicholas Meyer : I am a big fan of French cinema - my favorite film is Regle du Jeu by Renoir. There's a million French flicks that I love, everyone from Marcel Carne to Truffaut and especially Louis Malle. I loved Barbarian Invasions last year, as well.

In 2003 you wrote the script of The Human Stain. On what are you working currently and after Holmes and Star Trek will you explore pop culture again someday as a novelist, a writer or a director?

Nicholas Meyer : I have been adapting The Crimson Petal & The White for film, working on a new television pilot and some other Philip Roth and Richard Russo novels. I have no way of knowing when or if I'll get back to “pop” culture, since I don't really plan my career. I do what I think is interesting that comes my way and try (it's very hard!) to interest the financiers in the things that interest ME.

(Interview done in 2005)

No comments: