A Robert Wise Reprise

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Film director Robert Wise, who died this week at 91, won four Oscars. He made West Side Story, The Sound of Music... and sci-fi. Four years ago, Wise told Liane Hansen about reviving Star Trek for the big screen in 1979.


Hollywood director and producer Robert Wise--who died last week in Los Angeles at age 91--is best remembered for two films, "West Side Story" and "The Sound of Music," that garnered him four Oscars. But long before those 1960s musical triumphs, Robert Wise showed a penchant for fantasy and science fiction. The first film he directed was "The Curse of the Cat People" in 1944. And in 1951, Wise tackled what was to become a sci-fi classic, "The Day the Earth Stood Still" with Michael Rennie. Nearly three decades later, in 1979, Wise created a new film franchise when he directed "Star Trek: The Motion Picture," which brought Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock and the Enterprise crew to the big screen.

Liane Hansen spoke with Robert Wise four years ago at the time of the release of a director's cut of "Star Trek." He recalled a slight problem when he read the first draft of the screenplay.

(Soundbite of previous interview)

Mr. ROBERT WISE (Producer and Director): When they sent me the script, I liked the script very much, but there had been one problem with it, with the script: There was no Spock character in it.


Mr. WISE: Leonard had said--Nimoy had said he was tired of putting those ears on and he didn't want to do it anymore. He wasn't going to do it anymore. And when I took the script home to read, and my wife read it and my daughter, and they both ...(unintelligible), they said, `Hey, you can't think of doing this without the Spock character. It just won't work. You see, he's very, very vital, very important to the series.' So I went back to the studio and said, `Listen, you gotta--we have to get Leonard to change his mind and come back in the series.' So I made a date with him, went over and talked to him about it, told him how I saw the picture being done and how I thought the Spock character was so important, and then he agreed to go on and do it.

(Soundbite of "Star Trek: The Motion Picture")

Mr. GEORGE TAKEI (Actor): (As Lt. Commander Hikaru Sulu) Why, why it's Mr...

Mr. WILLIAM SHATNER (Actor): (As Captain James T. Kirk): Spock!

Mr. LEONARD NIMOY (Actor): (As Mr. Spock) I've been monitoring your communications with Starfleet Command, Captain. I'm aware of your engine design difficulties. I offer my services as science officer.

Mr. SHATNER: (As Kirk) Mr. Chekov, log Mr. Spock's Starfleet commission reactivated. List him as `Science Officer,' oh, effective immediately.

Ms. MAJEL BARRETT (Actress): (As Dr. Christine Chapel) Mr. Spock.

Mr. DeFOREST KELLEY (Actor): (As Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy) Well, so help me, I'm actually pleased to see you.

Ms. NICHELLE NICHOLS (Actress): (As Lt. Commander Uhura) It's how we all feel, Mr. Spock.

Mr. NIMOY: (As Spock) Captain, with your permission I will now discuss these fuel equations with the engineer.

Mr. SHATNER: (As Kirk) Mr. Spock, welcome aboard.

Mr. WISE: The only problem we had with the picture was the script; the script wasn't right. As a matter of fact, we were rewriting that script or writing--trying to finish the script almost to the last day of shooting. When we finally got the picture done and finished, we had a kind of premiere opening in Washington, and I actually carried--took the print with me to Washington for the showing in Washington, DC.

HANSEN: You carried the print on the plane with you?

Mr. WISE: Yes, yes, as part of my luggage.

HANSEN: Oh! So you never even had a chance to see...

Mr. WISE: Nope.

HANSEN: ...the whole thing?

Mr. WISE: This was the only picture I ever made, I think, that I didn't have what we call a sneak preview and a chance to try it out on an audience to see how it played. And very often if you take a picture out before you finalize it and some things work and some don't, you try to go back with the editing and finish it. But in this picture, I didn't have a chance to do that, so it just went out the way that I had it at that time.

HANSEN: Was there always the pressure to finish a film on deadline? I mean, one of the things with this film is Paramount wanted to get it out by a certain date.

Mr. WISE: Yeah.

HANSEN: And I would imagine that's true on every film, but was there more pressure on this than, say...

Mr. WISE: There was more pressure on this for some of us, "Star Trek: The Motion Picture," because of the popularity of the series and everything. So there was great pressure to get it out and get it on the screen.

HANSEN: It must be interesting to compare the work that you did on "The Day the Earth Stood Still," where special effects consisted of, you know, aluminum foil balls on a string...

Mr. WISE: Right.

HANSEN: what you were able to accomplish in "Star Trek."

Mr. WISE: Right. Yeah.

HANSEN: Was directing actors to deal with special effects that hadn't been put in yet the same in 1951, I guess it was, when you were doing...

Mr. WISE: Yeah.

HANSEN: ..."The Day Earth Stood Still," as in 1979?

Mr. WISE: Yeah, pretty much the same.


Mr. WISE: You didn't have the special effects there in the shots that they belonged, just have a spot for them to look at and then you'd tell them what they were going--what was going to be up there eventually so they could react to what would be eventually up on that screen. A very hard way to do it. It'd be great to have all the special effects first, but very, very rarely do you get that.

HANSEN: Sure. Well, what attracted you to the science-fiction genre in the first place?

Mr. WISE: I don't know. I just thought it was something that you have ability to kind of go away from actual full-out reality and let your imagination go, and I think that's what attracted me to it.

HANSEN: Messages can often be given in a science-fiction film. They can be couched in such a way that you probably couldn't tell it straight, right?

Mr. WISE: Yes, exactly. That's one of the things about "The Day the Earth Stood Still" that was so good about the speech at the end, you know, that--where he says, `The world better get along together or you're going to have to be eliminated.'

(Soundbite of "The Day the Earth Stood Still")

Mr. MICHAEL RENNIE: (As Klaatu) It is no concern of ours how you run your own planet. But if you threaten to extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder.

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

Mr. RENNIE: (As Klaatu) Your choice is simple: Join us and live in peace, or pursue your present course and face obliteration. We shall be waiting for your answer. The decision rests with you.

Mr. WISE: And I think you get good messages through, messages of importance, with science-fiction films. You don't have to stick to actual reality.

HANSEN: What are you doing next? I know you're 87 years old, but I have the feeling you haven't stopped.

Mr. WISE: Well, I'll tell you, in fact, I have stopped. I did a little film up in a Canada for Showtime, my only film for television, called "Storm of the Summer," with Peter Falk playing the lead. And that was the 40th film I have directed, some of which I have produced. And now at my age, I've decided that that's enough. I'll just stop and sit back and relax.

KAST: Liane Hansen's interview with director Robert Wise. He died last Wednesday at the age of 91.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Liane Hansen returns next week. I'm Sheilah Kast.

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