Photo by Donald Huston.
Directing Chuck Huber (left) and Vic Mignogna (center) on the set of Star Trek Continues.
James Kerwin is a standout filmmaker, director, writer, producer, editor and public speaker whose projects have earned countless awards and prizes. Critics who have reviewed his work have praised him as an innovator and risk taker, describing his approach as imaginative and inspired. James was named Best Director and Best Screenwriter by New York Visionfest for Yesterday Was a Lie, his feature film debut from Entertainment One.
Fans of the Star Trek franchise are likely familiar with Kerwin’s award-winning work on Star Trek Continues, where he served as a writer and director on several of the web series’ most memorable episodes. An upcoming project, When the Train Stops, has several well-known Star Trek alumni in the cast as well, including actors John de Lancie and Michael Forest, who also appeared in Star Trek Continues.
In addition to his many creative endeavors, Kerwin gives back to the community through his involvement with the annual Young Playwrights Festival at the Blank Theatre Company in Los Angeles. The nationwide competition gives aspiring playwrights, ages 9 to 19, an opportunity to see their vision come to life on stage in a professional production featuring known actors from film, television and theatre. The 2018 competition is currently accepting submissions through March 15.
Photo by Donald Huston.
On the set of Star Trek Continues with director of photography Matt Bucy.
In Part One of this interview, you mentioned the movie 2001 and the Star Trek TV series as having influenced you as a kid. Were there any specific directors that you looked up to or whose style you appreciated?
I did not really watch Star Trek, the original series, as a kid growing up. I was aware of it, but I didn’t see it until I was in my teens. I grew up watching Next Gen and Deep Space Nine – some of the later Star Trek series – and I always liked them, but I wasn’t fanatical about them. I saw most of the original series episodes, but I didn’t pay that careful of attention to them until Vic Mignogna brought me on to start directing Star Trek Continues, at which point I went back and watched the entire series through with a fine-tooth comb, and that’s when I got into it.
As a kid, Stanley Kubrick was, by far, my favorite director. 2001 was such a seminal movie and I think he’s absolutely amazing. I loved the original Blade Runner and I loved the new Blade Runner, too. Ridley Scott is phenomenal. Another film that I like is Solaris – the Steven Soderbergh Solaris – which is much truer to the book than the 1972 film. It’s another heady science fiction film that makes you ask questions and goes in a very unexpected way. Soderbergh is another director that I admire a lot. And, I really admire Sam Esmail. I know I mentioned Mr. Robot before, but, as far as television series that have a very innovative directing style, he not only show-runs but directs every episode of that series. It is a hauntingly beautifully directed show and I have tremendous respect for him.
Let’s talk about Star Trek Continues. How did you get involved in the project? I’m curious what your first reaction was when you were asked – did you feel the weight of having to live up to this monumental franchise and the expectations of its hardcore fan base? Or were you just excited to take on the challenge?
Kipleigh Brown, who played Smith in Star Trek Continues, and I were doing a short film a few years ago based on Karel Čapek’s Czechoslovakian science fiction play called R.U.R. We were shooting this short film and I had cast Vic Mignogna in it. He plays Kirk in Star Trek Continues and is the executive producer and show runner – he originated that project. I knew Vic peripherally through friends and I thought he’d be right for the role in this short. While we were shooting, he said to me, “Hey, I’m doing a Star Trek fan film. Do you want to watch it?”
As I alluded to before, that kind of thing can be very hit-and-miss because people who aren’t professional filmmakers sometimes make productions that don’t turn out that great. I didn’t know what to expect. I had seen some science fiction fan films in the past – Star Trek and Dr. Who fan films – and I actually made Dr. Who fan films when I was a kid with our home video camera. So, I had it in my mind that I don’t know if this thing is going to be any good – it might be great, it might be terrible – but I’ll give it a shot. When he showed it to me, I was just blown away by the quality of it.
Vic said his whole vision for doing this particular Star Trek fan film – which I agreed with wholeheartedly – was to assemble people who are fans of the franchise, but also who happen to be professionals in the field. The actors all love Star Trek, but they’re all professional, working actors. The people behind the scenes, from the producers to the writers to the makeup supervisor, the sound supervisor – they’re all professionals in Hollywood doing this. That was his whole take on the fanfilm genre – get industry professionals to do this.
Then, in some of the below-the-line positions, the different departments, bring in new young people who are learning about filmmaking and want to get into filmmaking, and tutor and teach them so they can have exposure on a set, doing something they love, and they’re Star Trek fans, too. Our production assistants, some of our wardrobe assistants, some of our makeup assistants and so forth, may have never worked on a set before, but they want to, and they love Star Trek, so this is a learning experience. What’s great is that most of these people have gone on and are working professionally on other productions in the industry, now that Star Trek Continues is over. That is something I think is really special.
When Vic showed me the first episode, I thought it was great. He said, “I’m tossing around an idea for a mirror-universe episode. Would you be interested in coming on board and writing and directing it?” I had some ideas as well, so we tossed them around, but I realized his idea was actually a lot better than mine. He said, “Go ahead and do the teleplay and you can direct it.” I did that and the rest is history.
As far as how I approached it, honestly, I didn’t feel a huge burden because I was pretty confident in what we were doing. If you study Star Trek, the original series, it has a very specific lighting style, very specific shot composition, camera positions, camera movements, the way that it’s cut. I’m a huge fan of late-‘60s science fiction. I love 2001, like I said, but I also love everything from the kitschy stuff like Barbarella to great television series like The Prisoner. I love that late-‘60s milieu. I went into it thinking, “Yeah, I think I can do this. I think I know what I’m doing.” I was pretty confident that we would be able to make some really good content.
After my first episode, they asked me back for another one and then another one and I became story editor and producer and ended up directing most of the episodes over the course of the 11-episode series. I’m proud of it. I’m proud of what we did.
I am glad that the fan response has been what it is. At the screening of our final episode last fall at Stan Lee’s Comic Con here in Los Angeles, at the panel afterwards, somebody asked me, “What’s your favorite part of having made the show?” and I said, “Being here.” Being able to watch the episode in a room with hundreds or thousands of fans cheering at the right parts, laughing at the right parts, crying at the right parts, and knowing – okay, we did it. We did exactly what we set out to do. That was really great.
Accepting the Burbank Film Festival Award for Star Trek Continues from left; Tim Vittetoe, Lisa Hansell, Michele Specht, James Kerwin, and Kipleigh Brown.
The team behind Star Trek Continues was able to involve a lot of actors who participated in the various Star Trek series through the years, including James Doohan’s son and a number of well-known guest stars. How important was it for you to try and include as many Star Trek alumni as you could – not only to honor them and their contribution to the Star Trek family, but also to give something to the fans that they would appreciate?
It was important. It was something that we thought the fans would appreciate. Vic is very well known as a voice actor in Japanese animation and has done a lot of genre conventions throughout the years and met a lot of the main Star Trek cast members – and I have as well, through my science fiction directing. Kipleigh Brown and I have basically done every project together for the past 12 years or so. We did the film for Entertainment One, we’ve done my short films, theater and everything. She was on Enterprise and Vic and I brought her on immediately as a series regular on Star Trek Continues. As far as our regulars, we had her and, like you said, we had Chris Doohan, who is not only James Doohan’s son, but also played the transporter chief in the Kelvin Timeline movies.
Then, we had many guest stars. We had Michael Forest, who reprised his role of Apollo from the original series, who’s not only an amazing actor and a towering, wonderful figure, but he’s also become a great friend. We had John de Lancie, who was Q in all the latter Star Trek series, and it was amazing to get him on and to work with him, and so many others. We’ve also had people like Rekha Sharma, who did Star Trek Continues and then, afterwards, went on to do the “real” Star Trek. She was a guest star on our show and went on to play Commander Landry in Star Trek: Discovery, so we’ve had people go both ways, which is really fun.
This question has been asked of many people who have been involved with Star Trek through the years, but I’d like to hear your perspective as someone who, like you said, didn’t necessarily grow up obsessed with Star Trek, but also as someone who has studied the original series frame by frame to prepare for Star Trek Continues. What is it about Star Trek – this entity – that is so long-lasting and remains so beloved by fans around the world? Is there something specific that started with Gene Roddenberry’s vision for the original series that has remained a thread throughout all these years?
I think there are two things. When interviewers ask that question, there tends to be a canned response everybody says, which is, “The hopeful Roddenberry vision of the future.” And I think that is absolutely a huge part of it. At a time, in the late ‘60s – when people were building bomb shelters and a lot of people thought, as a human race, we don’t have that much longer because we’re all going to nuke each other – he created a story that was set 300 years in the future where people had overcome all of that. Yes, they had gone through some terrible wars to be able to overcome that – it wasn’t all a la-di-da, future perfect, utopian thing. We had to go through some hard times, in the story of Star Trek, to get to that future, but we eventually did.
That message in the original series was one of people working together on a bridge who are completely colorblind to each other, as far as race, species, people from different planets. Now, were there Starfleet officers in the original series who had some of these flaws? Yes. We saw officers who were racists, officers who had alcohol problems, officers who had all sorts of different issues. It wasn’t 100% perfect, but it was something we could see that we would strive for – a future in which people have largely overcome their differences and were working together to explore, because that’s what people want to do. That message has persisted through all of the Star Treks and it’s something that really means a lot to people.
However, at the same time, sometimes people think that’s it – that’s the reason – and then they end it there. I don’t think that’s fully the case, because there have been times in the story of Star Trek where we’ve seen the narrative take darker turns, when the Federation has been at war and so forth. A lot of Deep Space Nine was a pretty dark series. A lot of Discovery has been pretty dark. That doesn’t make it not Star Trek and, in fact, I think people who say that are wrong, because in Roddenberry’s future, there was conflict. There was conflict between the main characters, conflict between Star Fleet and other civilizations – it’s not going to go away. I think when people say, “Discovery is not Star Trek,” it’s nonsense. It is absolutely Star Trek. People said that about Deep Space Nine back in the ‘90s, and now Deep Space Nine is well beloved – in many cases, considered one of the absolute greatest of the Star Trek series by fans and critics.
But, the other thing that gives Star Trek such longevity is that it is a nuanced, detailed world. There is a lot of Star Trek content; all of the live-action series and films, and the licensed work as well – the animated series, the video games, the books and things like that – which may not be completely canon, but they still fill in some of the gaps in the picture. I think people find all that nuance and detail fascinating. I certainly do. I am drawn to that.
I am good friends with Larry Nemecek, who was our creative consultant on Star Trek Continues and is one of the most famous Star Trek authors in the world -- he wrote the Stellar Cartography book and was a writer on Voyager – an amazing guy. When working on Star Trek Continues, one of the things that he and I worked very hard to do was to keep it accurate. I’d be working on the draft of a script and at one o’clock in the morning I’d call Larry and say, “Hey, if the Enterprise is going from this sector to this sector, what star would be about midway between them and could they stop there?” We would get into all that kind of minutiae, which some people might think is ridiculous, but it’s not. That’s what makes it feel real. That’s what makes it feel like a very real, complex world that not just Rodenberry, but all of the subsequent writers and show runners have created. They’ve created a very complicated world with different civilizations and different races that interplay in different ways, and it very much mirrors the way humans interact with each other, and different societies here on Earth interact with each other, with all the political and interpersonal nuance. The sheer amount of Star Trek content and the detail within it is a really important reason why it has had the longevity that it has.
It’s funny to hear you talk about those conversations with Larry Nemecek, because you know if you had gotten any of those details wrong on Star Trek Continues, some fan out there would have called you on it.
I’ll give you a perfect example of when that happened. We released Episode 4 of Star Trek Continues, called “The White Iris,” which is a poignant story about Kirk dealing with loss in his past. Kirk has a line in the episode where he refers to something that is talked about in the original series, in the episode “Obsession,” when he was stationed on the Farragut and a lot of crewmen were killed in a very unfortunate event that Kirk was part of. So, we have Kirk talking about that in the episode and I completely miscalculated the number of years ago that it happened, and he says it was seven years ago. Well, we put that episode out and immediately emails started coming in: “It wasn’t 7 years ago, it was 13.” We immediately pulled the episode, dubbed the line so Kirk says 13, and reposted it. We actually fixed it.
Some say, “Oh, people are too picky.” No, they’re not too picky – they should be that way, because it pulls them out of the story if you get stuff like that wrong. If Kirk’s backstory doesn’t add up, he doesn’t feel like a real three-dimensional character. All of those little details are very important and that’s what Star Trek does so well.
That’s one of the things I love about Discovery. People complain about Discovery messing with the Star Trek canon, but when you break it down, it’s not at all – in fact, they’re doing an amazing job of tying it into canon and referring to things that would have happened before. I think those details are what make people watch.
If nothing else, it speaks to people’s passion about Star Trek – the fact that they are so invested in it and have all of these facts memorized. It is part of people’s lives.
On the set for Episode 3 of Star Trek Continues, called "Fairest of Them All," with actress Kipleigh Brown.
(End, Part 2)
About James Kerwin: A filmmaker, director, writer and producer, Kerwin is a member of Mensa, and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. Discover more about James at his website www.JamesKerwin.com and Facebook page. Find out more about Star Trek Continues at the website and Facebook page.