Thursday, December 16, 2010

Taking Direction

by Drew Martin

Following a recent interest in the original Star Trek series (see This Old Starship posting), which I have been viewing and enjoying with my kids, I decided to take a look behind the scenes so I borrowed I Am Spock, by Leonard Nimoy, from the library. I started with Nimoy because the Spock character is rather interesting. By the 23rd century the Earth has overcome racial prejudice and nationalism (except for some occasional Russian pride displayed by Chekov) and a couple kilt-swaggering scenes by Scotty. Alienation is left to the aliens so Spock, half human, half Vulcan, bears the brunt of most onboard social transgressions, which Nimoy identifies with growing up Jewish in a very Catholic part of Boston. In fact, there are many judaic references, including the V hand sign, Vulcan greeting that Nimoy created from a sign of the Hebrew letter, shin, he saw rabbis gesturing in temple (which stands for Shaddai, meaning "Almighty").

The character is the first of its kind: the first alien to not be incompatible with humans, culturally and physiologically: his existence is result of the consummation of a union between a human mother and a Vulcan father. The challenge for the writers, directors and especially Nimoy was to define what this character could be. Unlike Captain Kirk, who William Shatner is pretty consistent with throughout the series, Spock quickly changes from a somewhat aggressive and reactionary performance to a smooth and logical delivery. It is as if the actor and character learn from each other.

Nimoy details this evolution and explains the inconsistencies and digressions (mainly due to newer writers who did not understand the character). Once Spock was established and all the unevenness was ironed out, it was then a matter of further developing the Vulcan half breed he played on and off for decades.

I asked myself, "As keeper of this character - where does he go from here?"

The book was written in 1995 and I am unsure how it was received by Trekkies. It definitely was not an insider's book. Nimoy wrote it carefully for a general audience and is quite detailed about the day-to-day details of working on a television series, being an actor and director as well. Star Trek aside, the book works best as a story of an actor discovering himself as a director...not only in the genre where he cut his teeth (sci-fi) but also for comedy (Three Men and a Baby with Tom Selleck) and drama (The Good Mother with Liam Neeson). In discussing the latter, Nimoy explains:

We'd given ourselves a day to shoot this interview scene. I asked the cameraman to put two cameras on Diane Keaton, one for the larger shots, and one for tighter close-ups. (Let me explain something about camera work; it's a lot easier to simply light a set for the wide shots and shoot those, then go back and redo the scene again with different lighting for close-ups. Lighting that looks good for both types of shots requires a lot of painstaking setup, and camera people would much rather not do it.) So of course, when I told the cameraman to give us two cameras which required the much tougher type of lighting, he asked, "Why?"

"Because," I replied, "the psychiatrist is going to ask Diane Keaton a few very difficult questions. Her character's tense 'mask' is going to be slowly stripped away while she delivers several pages of intense, emotional dialogue. I want both cameras to be ready to capture both types of shots, so she doesn't have to go through this again and again. The fewer times she has to do it, the better."

"Okay," he said, and got right to work on it without further questions, because he understood what an enormous effort it would be for an actor to have to do such a difficult, draining scene - then go back and immediately do it once more.

For this scene, and other sensitive, emotional moments, we were using Agfa film in the cameras, because it gives a much softer effect; for the harsh "realistic" scene, such as those in the courtroom, we used Kodak film for its crisper "grittier" look.

I liked how Nimoy articulated his interest and secured his director position for this film: he assured the producer...

..."I have a strong background in Odets and Chekhov, the literature that is the line the The Good Mother extends."

I have never had much regard for movie actors and Hollywood business but I Am Spock gave me some insight of the craft and talent that goes into the productions. Most importantly Nimoy muses about the boundaries, overlapping and merging of one's character with one's character.