Nicholas Meyer, a trek among the stars

BY BRIAN DAU | MAY 14, 2009 7:27 AM

Counterphobia: A psychological condition in which the object feared becomes the object loved. For UI (and Daily Iowan) alum Nicholas Meyer, it’s a diagnosis he uses to explain his passion for making movies. As a child, his parents took him to a showing of The Beggar’s Opera, starring Sir Lawrence Olivier. Meyer, 63, said he “completely freaked out” and subsequently fell for film. However, it didn’t immediately occur to him that filmmaking was a real career.

“I never dreamed of becoming a writer or making movies, because I didn’t know they were made,” Meyer said. “I thought they were dreams you could pay to see.”

It took a UI playwriting course for him to understand that people could make a living solely off writing. A former film reviewer at The Daily Iowan, he has since written three Sherlock Holmes novels and screenplays for more than a dozen films, including Star Trek 2, 4, and 6. He also directed Star Trek 2 and 6, among other films, and he is generally considered responsible for beginning the pattern of even-numbered Star Trek movies receiving greater critical acclaim than their odd-numbered counterparts.

“Iowa jump-started everything for me,” Meyer said. “It was the blank slate I needed.” He repaid the favor by establishing a scholarship for dramatic writing available to UI theater students.

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He returned to Iowa City last weekend as the featured speaker at the UI President’s Club meeting. UI Foundation Vice President Dave Dierks said Meyer still has a “true passion” for the university.

“I consider him part of the conscience of Hollywood, in that he makes films that speak to the lost art of filmmaking,” Dierks said. “They’re more about sophisticated plot lines than technologically stunning effects or big-name actors. He makes films the way people used to make them.”

Although Meyer is likely most well-known for his revival of the Star Trek franchise, which was nearly axed after the first film flopped at the box office, he doesn’t consider those films his proudest accomplishments. Instead, that goes to the time he saved (well, helped to save) the world from nuclear holocaust.

Among his directorial credits is the 1983 made-for-TV film The Day After, starring Jason Robards and JoBeth Williams. The film premièred to an estimated audience of 100 million viewers (a mark that remains unmatched in TV movie ratings) and depicts the effects of a nuclear war on Lawrence, Kan. Meyer said Ronald Reagan credits the film in his memoir as the catalyst for his realization that no country could win a nuclear war. This led to the Reykjavík Summit with Mikhail Gorbachev, which in turn led to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty of 1987.

“It’s probably not the best movie, but it changed the world,” Meyer said. “It’s counterintuitive, because if the movie was too good, it wouldn’t get people talking about nuclear war. It had to be kind of like a public-service announcement.”

These days, he struggles to produce his kind of film when “nobody wants to see movies about people.” In what he describes as the “anti-communal, viral, cyberspace” world, he worries about the disappearance of the shared experience provided by movie theaters, when people can just see new movies from home.

“The world is in such deep shit, we’d rather just see slasher flicks,” Meyer said. “Anything but more reality.”

His candid cynicism seems an appropriate response to the superficial reputation of Los Angeles filmmakers. With his upcoming memoir, The View From the Bridge: Memories of Star Trek and a Life in Hollywood, scheduled for an Aug. 20 publication, he’s in a reflective mood. He’s even willing to offer a bit of advice for the current generation’s creative force.

“We’re all thrown off the Empire State Building at birth,” Meyer said. “The question is what are you doing on your way down? Do you spray paint ‘Fuck You’ on the side, or do you paint a picture of a sunset?”

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