Friday, September 24, 2010

Fade In: The Making of Star Trek: Insurrection - Michael Piller's personal account on the writing of a feature film

Part One

Continuing from where we left off yesterday, Michael Piller spent a few weeks mulling over ideas for the ninth Star Trek film. He and producer Rick Berman agreed that since the previous film First Contact had been so dark and featured an incredibly formidable villain in the Borg, it would probably be best to go in another direction.

They began with the idea of finding a public domain story to adapt into the Trek universe. Then, one morning Piller was making his daily application of Rogaine when it hit him that a fountain of youth story might be the right way to go. Wedding it to an adaptation of Heart of Darkness, he pitched an idea that had Picard sent on a mission to track down an old friend who has seemingly gone rogue. When he discovers his friend's hiding place, he's shocked to find the man looking as young as he did at the Academy.

It soon becomes evident that this friend is actually defending the natives of that planet, and as the story evolved, it turned into a battle of principles. The planet is to be ceeded to the Romulans via a treaty and Picard learns there's much more to this mission than his superiors have told him. The planet is almost entirely composed a rare mineral that the Federation desperately needs. It also has regenerative qualities that gradually make anyone on the planet younger. Starfleet knows that and struck a deal with the Romulans - we'll give you the planet, you relocate the people, we share the ore.

Picard, recognizing this as an end run around Federation principles and a trick to get the Romulans to do the dirty work for them, resigns in disgust and joins his friend on the planet. Getting younger and younger until he reaches the age of 25 he defends the planet against the Romulans, eventually defeating them and exposing the matter to the public.

Sounds exciting, no?

The problem is that Berman hated it, and he had strong words for Piller: "Picard’s an old man who doesn’t get to buckle his swash until the planet makes him young again. But he’s our hero. When the movie’s over and he’s back to normal again, he needs to be a vital man of action. Patrick will hate this. He’ll never do it... You’re telling our star he’s an old man!”

Back to the drawing board. Piller makes changes. The old Academy friend is replaced by Data, and at one point Picard is forced to kill a malfunctioning Data to stop him, only to later realize that Data was defending the natives from a worse attack. The fountain of youth idea is discarded and we're left with a plot not terribly dissimilar from Avatar, with Picard making a stand to protect natives from those who want to destroy their planet in order to harvest an ore.

Piller's treatment - reprinted in full in the book - reads well. It's exciting and full of political intrigue. It also offers a heavy amount of action and seems to give Picard a compelling moral dilemma and an interesting conflict when he turns his back on Starfleet and the crew. Obviously he's exonerated in the end, but it's a hard-fought victory.

The treatment goes to the Paramount execs. They love it, including Sherry Lansing, then-chairman of Paramount Pictures. Smooth-sailing, right? Wrong.

But there was one more voice at the studio to be heard from and it belonged to Jonathan Dolgen, Chairman of Viacom Entertainment Group, the chief operating officer of the company. As a rule, Dolgen doesn’t involve himself in creative decisions. But he breaks that rule for Star Trek. And it’s not (just) the money. He happens to be a huge fan. Dare I say, a Trekker?
He thought the idea of people being exploited for natural resources was old hat and that Picard needed a bigger challenge. He didn’t feel there was enough action for Picard in space. He complained the story had too much internal Star Trek intellectualism and thought the countervailing argument by the Federation conspirators made a great deal of sense. Picard might be perceived as being on the wrong side of the issue.

Rick and I were discussing how to respond to the Dolgen notes when we received a call from Australia. We’d also sent a copy of the story to Patrick Stewart.

Patrick hated the story even more than Jonathan Dolgen. (p. 95-96)

Stewart's correspondence with the producers is reproduced in full in the book. He hates virtually everything about the idea. Most of all, he feels it retreads a lot of ideas they'd done before on the series. Proving that the job is more than a paycheck to him, he actually cites several specific episodes by name, as deftly as any hard-core Trekkie would.

Piller tries to argue his case and eventually sees that the only way to accommodate Patrick's notes, salvage their hard work and most importantly - get this film in theatres by its predetermined release date - is by going back to the fountain of youth idea. When Berman calls Stewart, he barely gets that pitch out before Patrick enthusiastically approves of the idea.

I think that's where I'll leave this, but there's much more to this story in the book. After Piller completes his first draft we see the notes sent to him by the studio and it's an intriguing look at how they analyze the script. And again, there's a surprising knowledge of Trek lore in their suggestions and concerns. They're not out to make a quick buck, they're looking to protect the integrity of the francise and its mythology. Most interestingly of all, they hit on virtually every failing that eventually makes the final film a less than satisfying experience.

Why don't all those problems get solved if they were identified? Short answer - not enough time, not enough money.

There are also reproductions of memos sent from actor Brent Spiner, whose nitpicking of such details also reads like it could have come from an online Trek fan debate:

- Why do the Ba’ku look twelve?
- Do they procreate?
- Are there any real children?
- Why do our crew’s appearances change “subtly” but their behaviors change “drastically”?

- And if our people act like children, how are the Ba’ku “children” acting like adults?
- The Ba’ku don’t behave like children. Why do our people’s behavior change?
- Does the ore make people younger or just appear younger? Or does it make them behave younger?
- Do the Son’i reproduce?
- How old are they?
- Why are they coming back now? Did they take some ore with them and are just now running out?
- Why don’t they just ask their relatives for some more ore?
- Why doesn’t anyone on the Federation Council say this plan is a violation of the Prime Directive?
- Does the Federation know the Ba’ku and the Son’i are related?
- Why aren’t the Federation leaders punished at the end?

(p. 130-131)

In other words, he gives Piller all the notes he's hoping not to get. But they're all insanely logical questions and reasonable ones under the premise.

How does Piller answer all of these notes? In the words of a Time-Life commercial from my youth: "Read the book." Piller has left not just Trek fans, but aspiring screenwriters everywhere a great legacy in Fade In: The Making of Star Trek: Insurrection.


  1. I'm only about 50 pages in but I'm already really impressed with it. I was actually discussing it with a friend while at a bar last night. I told her how it was a great read, not just for Trek fans but for people interested in writing and screenplays as well. I look forward to eventually finishing the book in the coming days.

  2. I'm too psyched about this to do anything but go back and read more...

  3. Looks like it just got pulled down at the request of Mr. Piller's family.

  4. It's a pity the book was removed. =[

  5. That's unfortunate, though obviously that's their right. Now I'm left to wonder where Trek Core had obtained the book if it wasn't from the family. I've been tweeting, Facebooking and posting about the manuscript since Sunday night so hopefully everyone who REALLY wanted to read it managed to grab it before it disappeared.

  6. Is there anywhere else we can get it. I would really like to read it. Maybe Zuul could email it to me. I love books on writing and Star Trek. So when I caught up on the blog today I nearly wet my pants when I saw it was available.

  7. I retweeted a Gary Whitta tweet that had a new link for it, so those interested in finding it would be well-advised to keep checking my Twitter.

    And just an observation... if you want someone to email it to you, posting from an account that doesn't lead to your email isn't the best way to go about it. :)

  8. Well, I'll feel dumb. I just updated that profile page to include my email.

    I'll keep an eye on the twitter.

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  10. Bitter,

    If you haven't seen "Mr. Plinkett's" Star Trek reviews, you MUST watch his reviews.

    Here's the review for Insurrection (Part one of four)

  11. I've gotta admit, I've dodged Plinkett's reviews since the Attack of the Clones one. I thought his Phantom Menace review was interesting and used the Phantom Meance's mistakes to teach a lot about storytelling. It was more than just a "George Lucas is a HACK who didn't make these films the way I would have!" rant. (His litmus test for character depth gets brought up almost weekly in my writing group.)

    The Attack of the Clones one was significantly less interesting, yet even longer. After what felt 45 minutes or so of nitpicking on the assassination attempt and chase, I found myself saying, "Okay, we get it already... the assassination is absurdly implausible. Can we move on to other things?"

    I'll check out the start of the Insurrection one, but you're talking to someone who's hung out in the Trek BBS for ten years or so and who's followed Trek for at least twice that long, so when the subject of Trek nitpicking comes up, it's rare for me to hear anything new.

    (Though the fact that it's only four parts long gives me some hope. Brevity is an assest to these kinds of reviews.)

  12. Bitter, you also really need to watch Plinkett's brand new Star Trek (JJbrams) review. It's REALLY good. I've watched it THREE times, and it's 70 min. long! But, thankfully, it's split into two parts on his site.

  13. Would love for someone to email Piller's book to me. Thanks!

  14. To Mr. Piller's family,

    I never knew who he was until I found this PDF (not here) and I was hooked and read it cover-to-cover inside a day. I honestly don't remember the last time I was so rapt by a book.

    I got to know something of what it meant for Michael to write this.

    And I'm so grateful for the opportunity to have got to know something of him through his book. And to have suddenly gained an appreciation of who he was and why he mattered.

    And now, when I see the credits roll by on DS9 or TNG or Voyager and I see his name, it means something to me.

    All because I found this PDF Paramount is afraid of.

    Michael Piller deserves better.

  15. Hey TH, my understanding is that it was Mr. Piller's family who asked Paramount to flex their muscle on this and get it taken down. They have their reasons for not wanting it out there, but I'm sure they'd appreciate knowing the impact that the book had on people like you.

  16. I don't suppose there's anyone out there who might be willing to send me a copy? I'd love to read it, though I understand the family's desire is for it not to be officially published. lostp1 at yahoo dot com

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