What I learned writing Star Trek
Disclaimer: I have never written Star Trek. Instead, I’ve been reading the late Michael Piller’s book Fade In, on writing Star Trek Insurrection. Being honest, reading it is like being at work. It documents his ideas for the movie, the notes he got back, the discussions over the roles of actors and then the subsequent drafts. Nothing too dramatic. Actually, he had it pretty easy. I’ve had it pretty easy too for the most part so, yes, while I haven’t written a Star Trek movie, this all feels really familiar.
One thing really struck me at the start of the book. He describes the initial concept he pitched and then describes the notes that came back. Instantly, I looked at the notes and thought, well a lot of that ended up in the final movie. If the problems were identified right at the start, how could that happen?
As I read through the book, what became apparent is how good Michael Piller was at two things which, personally, I think worked against his movie.
1) He was great at talking people round.
I guess it’s hard to see this as much of a negative. To succeed as a writer or anything else creative, you have to be able to make a really great case for your ideas. You need to be able to pitch them well and get people on your side. Those skills are crucial.
And yet where this skill betrays you is if you’re talking your way into proceeding with problems that have been clearly identified. You have to know when to stop talking and start listening and really take the notes seriously. Most of Michael Piller’s process as he describes it was rejecting the notes and either talking his way round them or he would use his next skill which I think worked against the movie:
2) He could patch holes quickly.
For every problem he didn’t just talk his way out of, he patched it with a quick solution that allowed him to continue without him having to completely re-examine his story. That too is a good skill and it allows you to keep up momentum and I know he had a preproduction deadline staring him in the face. But the thing about patching problems is that it doesn’t actually remove them. People still ask questions, still pause for a moment to wonder about the actions of a character or the reality of the situation. Even though you add lines in that explain those things, people have still been taken out of the movie and may or may not accept your explanation.
I think the problems required more thought. More willingness to tear open the story and make real fundamental changes. Because for me, the way to tackle a script problem is not to actually find a solution or a fix – it is to remove the problem altogether. Don’t give an answer to the question. Prevent the question from ever being asked. And that usually takes a LOT more thought and, unfortunately, often requires going back many steps in the process to achieve.
I don’t mean to come down hard on Michael Piller. In his life, especially with Star Trek, he achieved more than I have ever achieved and his work on the TV show was excellent. The reason these two things stood out to me is for the same reason that reading the book felt like work – they were all too familiar. I too have talked my way into going ahead with story problems when I shouldn’t have. I too have patched scripts when I should have taken a step back and really looked at why the problems were there in the first place. So I guess in a way, I’m really meaning to come down hard on myself for doing this in the past. As is so common on this blog, this post is really a note to self. But maybe you’ll see it’s something you can watch out for too.
Great movies and shows will only come from great scripts. We have to be willing to listen to every note, hear every problem and we have to do what it takes every time to make that script better.