William Shatner has boldly taken audiences on journeys to far away galaxies playing the iconic role of Captain Kirk in the original “Star Trek” series and appearing in many motion pictures that have thrilled sci-fi fans for a generation.
This year he’s written, directed and produced a new documentary entitled “William Shatner Presents: Chaos on the Bridge” featuring a host of interviews from the original cast of “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” Fans will discover the never-before-told story of the on-set dramas, ego clashes and power struggles that went on during the production of the critically acclaimed series.
“Chaos on the Bridge” includes anecdotes from the likes of Patrick Stewart (Captain Jean-Luc Picard), Jonathan Frakes (Commander William T. Riker), John de Lancie (Q), Denise Crosby (Lieutenant Tasha Yar), Gates McFadden (Dr. Beverly Crusher) and Diana Muldaur (Doctor Pulaski), along with insight from key figures in the production team including the late Maurice Hurley.
Discover exclusively on Film Industry Network William Shatner’s thoughts on Star Trek, the casting, how filmmaking is evolving, his approach to shooting documentary films and what he thinks filmmakers can do to make their mark in the industry. “Chaos on the Bridge” is available to watch on demand and you can also Pre-order the DVD.
Interview with William Shatner
Iain: How did the production for “Chaos on the bridge” come together?
Bill: The gentleman who led the production of “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” his name was, because he died recently, Maurice Hurley, an Irishman, with a fighting sense of humor and a great guy who had become a very dear friend and we worked on several projects together. This was latter day of Next Generation, and he would tell me stories from time to time of the goings on in those first two years of The Next Generation, and I said, “We’ve got to put that on film.”
And so my first interview and most passionate interview was of Maurice Hurley, who kept saying, “Everything was Wacky Doodle,” and I wanted to call the documentary “Wacky Doodle” but when I went to Canada to sell it they said, “We’ll buy it but we want to change the title to Chaos on the Bridge,” and so I gave up “Wacky Doodle” for “Chaos on the Bridge,” which is fine.
It doesn’t have the madness of “Wacky Doodle” but Maurice Hurley kept saying everything was “Wacky Doodle,” and it was, and from that genesis I then interviewed all the production people. And so this documentary is from the point of view mostly from production, from what’s happening back behind the camera: What the production people go through, what the writers go through, what the producers, edicts meant when carried out by the subalterns. Everything was Wacky Doodle because the headman said there is no conflict 400 years from now. Human beings will have worked out all the conflict and the writers said, “Well then how do we get drama?” He said, “That’s your problem!”
Iain: When “Star Trek: The Next Generation” series first came out how did you react to Patrick stewart, a British actor, being cast as the Captain of the Enterprise?
Bill: What was my personal reaction? I don’t quite remember throwing down the newspaper but I probably thought that is strange casting on a archetypal, leading man sort of thing, and it was but what it evolved to was a more intellectual, more dispassionate character.
Iain: What was it like being in the director’s chair instead of the Captain’s chair shooting “Chaos on the Bridge”?
Bill: I’ve done a number of documentaries now, 11 or 12 of them. In fact I’m editing a documentary right now called “The Ride” in which I took a group of people and a new motorcycle from Chicago to Los Angeles, 2400 miles. So I recently completed a 2400 mile motorcycle ride on a new motorcycle that I helped design along with American Legion veterans who ushered us along and helped us with the logistics and I shot a documentary which may be the most interesting documentary that I’ve made up to now. So I become accustomed to following a story and taking it where it leads me and shooting it as I go along.
It’s very much like what you must do but given the exigencies of film, you can’t go back and say, “I just interviewed so and so and he said you said,” so it leads to understanding what you’ve got and you have to understand it very quickly, what the premise of your story is and that can take some doing.
Iain: Do you do a lot of editing at home? What’s your setup for shooting documentaries in general?
Bill: No, I have an editor, and I work with the editor and tell him what I want and I shoot it, not in a particular way but what I’ve discovered is about the 3rd day of shooting it occurs to me what the story is about. I’ve begun to assimilate the evidence if you will, enough to understand that this is where I’m going and now I begin to point in that direction.
Iain: How do you approach a production. Do you start with a storyboard?
Bill: Again, on “This Ride”, the doc on the motorcycle, I went to three places prior to going out saying, “I’m going to take this long ride and I’m going to shoot it with three cameras and a host of GoPros all over the place.” And they said, “Well what’s the story about?” and then I said, “Well I don’t know I haven’t done it yet.” And they said, “Well come back when you’ve got the story.” And everywhere I went they said, “Well what’s the story?” And I kept saying, “It hasn’t occurred yet!”
Well what occurred was extraordinary and I would have never thought it to begin with. For example, when I premiered the bike in front of 150 press, the bike didn’t work, and that’s the beginning of the story! I would have never imagined that a few days earlier when trying to sell it.
Iain: Would you consider producing a Star Trek fan film?
Bill: No I wouldn’t do that but I’ve done a lot of directing of films over the years.
Iain: What do you think about the bad guys in “Star Trek : The Next Generation” such as the Borg?
Bill: It was a brilliant solution to a lot of problems and Maurice Hurley invented the Borg and the Borg is a great villain and an assimilator of humans and almost impenetrable so that your crew (because it was very much a crew that solved the problems), were tacked to their limits to solve the question of the Borg and that makes for good storytelling.
Iain: What values or themes would you want new Star Trek series or films to have?
Bill: I did a Star Trek movie based on a premise that I invented which was Star Trek goes in search of God and the whole effect of that one line and how it ended up as a result of everything that happened. That became a book but my premise was to begin with, we meet the devil and by extension, therefore God. It became so mitigated that it didn’t have anything like that but that was the original premise.
My thought about Star Trek is that we should take large themes like that or when I say we, my understanding of Star Trek is to take large human interest themes and dramatize that in a science fiction way.
Iain: If you were to reprise your role as Kirk today, would you change the way you ‘build’ that character?
Bill: The waistline. About 30lbs! We made 6 movies after the series was cancelled and over a period of maybe 10 years, I’m not sure the exact numbers, but we dealt with the ageing of Captain Kirk and when the movies changed from our cast to the Next Generation cast, there were the books, and I used my own life as some autobiographical material in the books I wrote about Captain Kirk and what would have happened to Captain Kirk had I been allowed to continue as the character and make movies. So there was the ageing of the character and loss of youthful strength and concepts that youth have that evolved into more mature thinking. I was dealing with all that in the books and I would have done that in the films.
Iain: What do you think about the diversity debate in the industry?
Bill: Well apparently there’s room for diversity in movies. But you know the movies, television, the entertainment industry is based on what people are watching. If people will watch this, that’s what’s made. So if they’ll watch diversity, then there’ll be diversity. If they don’t watch diversity there won’t be diversity. The press, perhaps reporters like yourself seem to think that the producers are coming up with original thoughts and leading the audience. That is not the way it works. The audience leads the producers.
Iain: What would be your tips for filmmakers looking to get into the industry?
Bill: On this documentary I made “The Ride,” I had a lot of GoPros as well as three large cameras, and I used the GoPros in various places like people do, but I also, while being filmed, while being on camera (because I was leading the charge), held a GoPro in my hand, so when I was speaking to somebody I would be filming them at the same time with a little tiny camera in my hand. So there will be neon camera in a traditional way of two-shot, over the shoulders, singles kind of thing, and because of the technology that we have today, I have a little camera in my hand shooting closeups of the person I’m talking to, and I will use the conceit that people will forgive me, holding a camera in my hand while I’m talking to somebody, because the result is, a kind of jagged closeup of what I’m looking at.
So filmmaking has changed technically a great deal because of the equipment. The verities are good drama, a good interesting story, interesting people. That hasn’t changed but because you can use a GoPro or a small handheld camera and make a film, that should encourage a lot of people to film stories that are of interest to them, and might be of interest to me.