Michael Piller, when he passed away in 2005, was just 57 years old. He left behind many things: his family, including wife Sandra; hours and hours of Star Trek television and also Star Trek Insurrection, not to mention the millions of fans who enjoyed them; and episodes of other shows he’d written, produced and/or created, such as Simon & Simon, Miami Vice, Wildfire and The Dead Zone. Piller also mentored numerous writers during his time with Trek, and they continue his legacy. But now, finally, something else he left behind is seeing the light of day… FADE IN: THE MAKING OF STAR TREK: INSURRECTION — A Textbook on Screenwriting from within the Star Trek Universe. Piller wrote the book years before, and some fans found copies of it online, but it was never officially published… until now. The book takes readers behind the scenes of Insurrection’s evolution and production, with Piller detailing the changes made to the script as the film came to life.
StarTrek.com recently chatted with Sanda Piller, Michael’s wife and a talented singer, who, with help from several of Michael’s friends and colleagues, at long last saw to it that The Making of Insurrection received the printing and release it deserved. Here’s what she had to say.
It’s been your mission, really, to get this book published properly. Why was it so important to you to do so?
I wanted to help Michael’s dream come true. When he wrote it originally, there were objections from Paramount because they wanted to keep the behind the scenes secret. Since then I believe they see how much people do want to know and how it keeps them interested.
What did this book mean to Michael? Why was it important to him to get it all down on paper for people to read?
When Michael wrote the book, it was a true labor of Love. He had mentored so many Star Trek writers and felt that writing a book of the step-by-step process of what can go into writing a script, would further his mentoring. He had helped his university, UNC, develop a program to help more students be prepared for the real writer’s world, and this was another way he could teach by example.
What do you remember of him writing the book? How easily did it come to him? Was he ill at the time? And, if so, how did that affect his ability to work on it?
Michael was not ill at the time of the writing of the book. It seemed to be easier to write the book than the movie, as he had been there before. But, truthfully, I don’t remember specifically things he would say. In general, if he were stumped on a part of the script, or book he would express he was struggling, sometimes even feeling it was so close, but couldn’t quite get it — and basically he would sleep on it. In the morning he had the answer. He was amazed by that. And he really was amazing. I often find myself saying, “I wish I had thought to remember more!”
What do you personally remember of his involvement in Insurrection? People were shocked that he returned to the franchise to write the film. So, was making it such a struggle that perhaps he even said to you at some point something to the effect of, “This will make a good book one day”?
He started thinking about it even during the process of writing the script. He made all his notes, kept a daily journal and it was all fresh in his mind. He thought writing a book of his experiences would be a good representation of what the process is that you go through. He mentioned many times how ill prepared so many writers straight out of school were because the schools themselves in many cases didn’t know themselves the way it works in the real world of Hollywood. He felt a responsibility to do something about it. Maybe his desperation for writers and good scripts during that third season of Next Gen gave him some insights on how to get more good ones.
What did he ultimately think of Insurrection, the finished film?
He thought it was great. He, too, was disappointed that it didn’t do as well as the other movies. But he felt it was a good story and a good movie.
And what did you think of it?
I truly enjoyed it and I was right at home with it. It kept to a human story. It was more of an undercover, covert, plot to take over a civilization and a planet. Clever. Intelligent. I loved it.
The film, as you say, didn’t do as well as the other movies. It was considered a minor success or a modest failure, depending on how one looks at it. All these years later, we get the sense that people appreciate it more than they did at the time. It plays like an episode of Trek, but on the big screen. Do you agree, or not, that it’s become more appreciated as the years have gone by?
I do agree that time has mellowed many to it, but I do hear all the time that for some it was their favorite from the beginning. They loved the storyline and feel it was even ahead of its time. I’m so glad more people are appreciating it now. Often history tells the truer story.
Ira Behr and Eric Stillwell both contributed essays for the book. Take us through their contributions and what it means to you that they supported the project.
Ira Behr and Michael really got each other. I wish I had been a fly on the wall of those offices in the Hart Building. Those brilliant guys coming from the heart, throwing ideas around, creating great television with, I’m sure, some laughter and some tears. They connected on a personal level as well as professional. Both dedicated family men and, might I say, two gifted wives. We’ve had it all. They were bonded at the core. They respected each other’s work and I am so proud and humbled by his Letter To Michael, in the book. It means the world to me and our family that he revealed so much of his heart.
Eric Stillwell was Michael’s right-hand man from the time of the TV series through Insurrection and longer. He was proud of Michael’s need to give back and help new writers. He was also the biggest Trekker as far as information. He used to give the tours on Paramount and tell all the history. He himself eventually wrote a script. “Yesterday’s Enterprise” was one of the best scripts ever. He and Michael were great working partner and friends. You all work together for so many years and you become a family. I can’t thank Ira and Eric enough. I also really need to give credit to the woman who did all the work to pull this book together. Our good friend Susan Nicoletti worked tirelessly to help this dream come true. She and Michael worked together on several of his scripts, editing and giving him notes. So this, too, was a heartfelt effort for her. She was married to his best friend since UNC.
What do you hope someone reading The Making of Star Trek: Insurrection will take away from it?
I hope whoever reads it enjoys learning about Michael’s personal experience in this process of writing and rewriting, and the meetings and the throwing it out and starting over again. The real experience of it. The process. One secret I just remembered might help you understand… Michael always gave his writers books like Zen and The Art Of Archery or Tennis or Mechanics, or whatever to help them reach that place inside that lets them be calm and hear those voices of the characters speak.
Lastly, it’s the 50th anniversary of Star Trek, and Michael played a huge role in not only helping keep the franchise alive, but in it moving forward. How would you describe his contributions to Trek, and how proud was he of his long association with the franchise?
It’s funny that I didn’t think about him as saving the franchise until I heard Ira Behr say it a few years ago in Las Vegas to the auditorium. That’s when it hit me. Whoa!! Really! In that moment, I was overwhelmed, pleased, shocked, proud and basically blown away. I’m sure Michael’s turning red somewhere with a shy and grateful face at being such a big part of something so special to so many. But at the time he did get to see it in the few conventions he went to with the fans and he saw their obvious hope for that kind of future for all. The true believers. And we laughed along with everyone else at William Shatner’s Saturday Night Live bit when he tells them to get a life. But at the same time, it’s so great. It’s fun and people are truly interested and invested in a positive philosophy that humanity thinks about pursuing. Even more so today. The Prime Directive… if we could only do it here on Earth. But we can hope and strive for those goals and maybe someday in the future we will have helped it happen. Technology is happening. Evolving. We also need to evolve. Live long and prosper.
The Making of Star Trek: Insurrection is available now at www.michaelpiller.net. Sandra Piller also offers copies of it for sale during her convention appearances.
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