Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Trademarks of Nicholas Meyer

Nicholas Meyer is one of cinema's truly underrated screenwriter/directors. Frankly, I'm a bit surprised he isn't mentioned in the same breath as George Lucas and Steven Spielberg in terms of pop narratives. Probably because the films that he's most associated with, the Star Trek franchise, are considered solely the work of Gene Roddenberry. That, and none of Meyer's films (at least the ones he's directed) have grossed over $100 million at the box office.1 This is a great travesty. As a result, I'd like to catalogue his cinematic traits, both as screenwriter and director (credited or not):

All of his films place an enormous emphasis on character, regardless of plot or genre, and contain witty, "earthbound" dialogue. Strong female characters are frequently present, whether they are good or evil, main or supporting:
Meyer frequently adapts novels or directs films based on books:
He likes to work on mystery stories or incorporates mystery elements and plots into other genres (The Seven-Per-Cent SolutionTime After TimeThe DeceiversStar Trek II, Star Trek VI). 

Outside of The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, Sherlock Holmes is frequently referenced (Star Trek II, IV and VI) as is Shakespeare:
  • The Seven-Per-Cent Solution: Holmes deduces that Freud is a great admirer of Shakespeare and at the end Freud quotes Shakespeare after discovering Holmes secret: "We are such stuff as dreams are made of".
  • Star Trek II: The film was originally to be subtitled The Undiscovered Country before executives changed to it to Wrath of Khan due to George Lucas's then-titling of the third Star Wars film Revenge of the JediKhan himself was played in the film in a manner similar to King Lear; 
  • Star Trek IV: When Kirk and McCoy are concerned about Spock's mental facilities, McCoy quotes Shakespeare, "Angels and Ministers of grace/Defend us," to which Spock immediately cites, "Hamlet Act I, Scene 4".
  • Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country: Meyer recycles the subtitle The Undiscovered Country from Star Trek II, this time not referring to death, which was Shakespeare original meaning, but the optimistic future that Gorkon proposes for the Klingons and the Federation; The villain General Chang constantly quotes Shakespeare, even quoting him in Klingon-ese!
The Navy/Military appears thematically and literally in his films, inflected with style similar to Horatio Hornblower:
  • Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan: The costumes and sets, especially the torpedo deck, are intentionally nautical in nature. In particular, the Battle in the Mutura Nebula is made to feel like a submarine battle. Hornblower, Meyer has said, was the inspiration for getting involved with the Star Trek series. 
  • Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country: Meyer continues the nautically themed sets, costumes and music, although the tone of the piece is less swashbuckling then Star Trek II and more elegiac.
  • The Deceivers: The focus is on an English officer of the East India Company infiltrating the notorious gang of cult murders called "thugs".
Old age is often an important central subject matter (Star Trek II and VIElegy) as are important contemporary political situations, frequently illustrated with satirical social commentary:
  • Time After TimeJack the Ripper is positively excited by the mankind's contemporary capacity for violence and addresses it visually as he flips through the channels on a motel TV.
  • Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan: The Genesis device has a destructive power analogous to the hydrogen bomb developed after WWII.
  • The Day After: The film addressed the possibility of nuclear winter, intentionally de-emphasizing which country used first strike to accentuate the global consequences.
  • Volunteers: As a comedy, the film was meant to poke fun at 1960s political icons like JFK and Albert Speer.
  • Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home Contemporary 1980s American culture is gently teased throughout, from the use of swearing ("Colorful metaphors") to its paranoia regarding Communist Russia.
  • Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country: The basic plot is based on the fallout of the Chernobyl disaster in the USSR and the end of the Cold War between the USA and USSR.
Meyer frequently juxtaposes characters from different story universes:
  • Sherlock Holmes meets Sigmund Freud in The Seven-Per-Cent Solution to deal with Holmes' cocaine habit.
  • H.G. Wells is friends (unknowingly) with Jack the Ripper in Time After Time.
  • Star Trek VI reveals that one of Spock's earth ancestor is actually
Meyer openly acknowledges a lack of "creative reverence" in terms of story structure or aesthetic design to either his own projects or those generated by others:
  • In his screenplay adaptation of his novel The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, Meyer rewrote the ending to prevent audiences who had already read the book from finding the film predictable.
  • Star Trek II, IV, and VI: Meyer has often said he worked in blissful ignorance of the series and its mythology. In fact on VI, Meyer came to blows with Gene Roddenberry over the notion of human prejudice existing in the future in the Starfleet.
  • Elegy: Meyer casually changed the title out of dissastifaction with the original title of The Dying Animal and was surprised when no one complained about it.
Meyer frequently references his father, either subtly (In Star Trek II, Meyer added the title "In the 23rd Century" to help orient his father) or directly (The Deceivers is dedicated to Meyer's father following his passing).

Two of his films have the distinction of advancing the use of computer generated imagery in films: the Genesis effect in Star Trek II as well as the floating Klingon blood in zero-gravity and the Praxis explosion in Star Trek VI.

Frequent collaborators include:

Meyer's films have launched or given a substantial boost to the careers of the following actors/collaborators:
  1. The only two films of Nicholas Meyer that grossed over $100 million are Fatal Attraction, which he made uncredited rewrites to (including the filmed alternate ending), and Star Trek IV, where he was credited as a co-screenwriter.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Searching for Filmmaker

Filmmaker is a real gem of a documentary directed by George Lucas of Star Wars fame. It chronicles the trials and tribulations of Francis Ford Coppola and his rowdy band of filmmaking misfits as they work to create The Rain People. A cursory search on Amazon shows nothing. The film seems to be only available on YouTube thanks to user "genursus", whose real name is Christohper Dye.1

If it wasn't for these clips on YouTube, the movie probably wouldn't be available at all. It is frequently used as archival footage in documentaries about Coppola and Lucas, but rarely as a whole film. It is not included on the DVD of The Rain People or any other DVD by Coppola or Lucas.

  1. The YouTube channel, Genursus, has the sub-heading "Dyenamic Films". There is a link to the Dyenamic Films website. The "About" page indicates it is run by Christopher Dye.
The whole movie on YouTube:

Monday, January 28, 2013

The Trademarks of Barry Sonnenfeld

-Frequently works with Will Smith (MIB I–III, Wild Wild West), Tommy Lee Jones (aforementioned MIB), Rip Torn (MIB I&II) and Siobhan Fallon (MIB I, Big Trouble).
-Frequently makes a cameo in his films: The Addams Family (the passenger in the model train set), Addams Family Values (Mr. Glicker), Big Trouble (voiceover as the sports color commentator), MIB I (one of the faces on the screen of prominent people who are aliens), MIB II (the father of a family who's home is actually a hidden MIB weaponry), RV (Irv, the picture on Robin Williams' eponymous RV).

-As a director, frequently works with Steven Spielberg (Exec Prod. on MIB I–III), Bo Welch (Production designer on MIB I–III, Wild Wild West), Rick Baker (Makeup on MIB I—III and Wild Wild West)
-As a cinematographer, frequently worked with the Coen Brothers (Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Miller's Crossing)

Writing/Subject Matter
-[Slapstick comedy] Nearly all of his films includes some form of slapstick comedy whether its more fantastical (Addams Family, Addams Family Values, MIB I–III, Wild Wild West) or earthbound (Get Shorty, Big Trouble, RV)
-[Gadgets] Hi-tech gadgets feature prominently Sonnenfeld's films, especially in the Men In Black films and Wild Wild West. One can argue that steampunk elements in the Addams Family films are just low-tech gadgets as well.

-All of his films have shots taken from below eye-level and have quick camera tracking-in movements for comic/dramatic effect (Will Smith's "I make this look good" moment in Men In Black is a particularly notable example)
-Fast motion shots (Addams Family I &II, MIB I)

-Cutting between shots with similar composition to create humor (Big Trouble)

Special Effects
-Frequently uses ILM for special effects (MIB I–III, Wild Wild West)

NOTE: This is a living document, so it may be updated in the future on a semi-regular basis.