Future-Proofing Star Trek: The Motion Picture: The Director’s Edition – David C. Fein interview
Producer David C. Fein is giddy. And he has every right to be. After forty-three years, Star Trek: The Motion Picture (TMP) has at last become the film it was always meant to be. With the April 4K UHD release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture: The Director’s Edition, Fein has completed decades of work, endeavoring to fulfill a promise to a dear friend. That friend was director Robert Wise.
The original 1979 theatrical release of TMP had been rushed into theatres to meet marketing and screening obligations. Working until the last possible moment, it was Wise himself who delivered the film cans to be distributed to theaters. But he knew more than anyone that it wasn’t the film he had intended to make. None of this first version of Star Trek: The Motion Picture had been completed to his satisfaction – from visual effects, the sound mix, and even the color grading. It was a sad time for this legendary director, who had begun his extensive career as an editor on Orson Welles’ masterpiece Citizen Kane.
In 1999, Fein and Wise met by collaborating on the first iteration of Star Trek: The Motion Picture: The Director’s Edition. With a new edit (which fleshed out the characters, completed effects, and enhanced picture quality), the DVD release of the first Director’s Edition was a hit with fans and with the studio. But even after all the additional work, Wise and Fein still felt a sense of incompletion. “When we did the original Director’s Edition, we were thrilled with it, but it was still intended to be a work cut, to show the studio,” says Fein. “Even after that monumental accomplishment, we knew that there was so much more work that could be done. Because DVD is what made the studio money, it didn’t make any sense from the studio’s perspective to come back to it again. It was a big endeavor, and we had to get to this point for it now to be as fantastic as it is.”
While the edit remains what Wise had intended, this time around, Fein came back to the studio with other, specific goals. “Robert Wise always told me: ‘When you’re making a movie, focus on how you can tell the story the best way. Don’t let yourself be restricted by anything surrounding you. Use every tool available.’ So, that’s where my focus was, this time. The focus here wasn’t to polish what we had done before. It was how can we expand on the storytelling in every way, while we were using such wonderful tools to make it look so much better. How can we amplify the story and take it further?”
The film today could not be what it is without embracing the evolutions that have happened since. “What’s thrilling is, when I sat down with Bob, he had me swear on my life that I would make this happen. It was great that we had talks about the future, because I’m sure the feeling would be, you know, we have to keep this what it was. No! His answer was always: ‘Push it forward.… Do everything we can do to tell the story,’ and that’s what’s magic.’”
“Now you listen to me, you pointy-eared Vulcan!”
The sound mix was a vital component to this new endeavor. The first Director’s Edition still suffered from muffled sound and the use of sometime flat, on-set dialogue, which was not what Wise had intended. “Dolby Atmos is an environment where the sound can do anything,” Fein explains. “When we’re in the wormhole, the sound moves with us. That was the goal: to really focus on making the film tell its story with every piston hitting.
“It’s entirely the same in the edit. But there’s so much going on in the sound that there’s even a couple of places that are now sort of a dream sequence. That’s what’s wonderful. It was crafted to tell the best story that could be and just having those little moments throughout. If you think about what’s going on and the way it sounds and the way that it surrounds you, it’s saying so much more than what’s on the surface. That’s what I always felt from the film originally, but we’ve really focused on bringing it out now. The point was to expand the film.…
“There’s so much subtlety that has been brought into the film that there’s a lot of places that it’s different, but it’s entirely the same, you know? It’s just so subtle, and that’s the best thing. It’s the same thing that I say about visual effects – the best visual effects you’d never noticed that they were a visual effect. This is the same thing in sound, that there’s so much more going on now, and I hope you don’t notice it, but you feel it. That’s what’s beautiful about this.”
All the dialogue was also given special attention thanks to the discovery of the original ADR (Automated Dialogue Replacement) Masters. The first-generation digital transfers of them have been put back in place, so now the dialogue is crisp. “There was so much that was just really embraced in making that sound fantastic,” reminisces Fein. “And what’s wonderful about finding the ADR as well is there are some scenes that were restored that were also in the special longer version. Those had always used on-set dialogue. Now, we have found looping for much of them. So, whereas they always sounded flat on set, wherever they were looped we were able to bring those looped pieces in. Robert Wise himself directed the actors in the looping sessions. When you go in and you do looping, you look for how you want the actor to present the information. There’s so many takes of Bob [Wise] talking to Persis [Khambatta]: ‘Say Decker.’ So, she repeatedly says, ‘Decker,’ just to get the right inflection in her voice to come across. All those scenes that were originally shot, put back in with the on-set dialogue, those were not the fine-tuned final takes that Bob intended. And now, they’re in, and they’re beautiful.”
Background character dialogue has also been replaced this time around, with some special surprises. “Chekov has some beautiful new lines that were recorded at the time for the film. They are now in place, and they work beautifully because they actually expand on certain scenes. This is exciting! This wasn’t a restoration, it was a reimagination, based upon where Bob’s vision was and what he had told me.”
Insufficient facts always invite danger
“When we’re taking something that’s the size of a postage stamp and making it the size of an IMAX screen, there’s so much more information that could be presented to it,” says Fein. “So, all the effects were rendered higher quality, but not from the same material. The edit is pretty much the same when it comes to what we had before, because that’s where it was really polished and fine-tuned. However, there are some surprises. There’s absolutely one specific visual effect shot that hopefully no one will notice, but it also fixes continuity. There’s a lot of little fun surprises in it, because the point here, as I said, is to focus on telling the story the best way it possibly could be told, not just polishing what was there before.”
All previous editions of TMP have shared one error that has finally been corrected. After a movie has been shot, months can be spent working on how the colors of the finished movie should look. Again, due to the rush to complete this project, that aspect was originally given very little attention, with only four days spent on color grading. Every time the film has been transferred, that same color grade was used. This time, Fein insisted on giving the film the look that Bob wanted. “Everyone could say, ‘Well, I loved the way the film looks.’ But that’s not the way the film ever was intended to look,” Fein reasons.
“This is the thing that I’m proudest of, of any accomplishment on this project. I did not create a 4K UHD version of the existing movie. I created a new digital negative. The first thing I said when I walked into this new project was: ‘This film needs to exist and it needs to exist for all time in every format, like any other movie.’ So, for the first time, the film has been given a careful and very thoughtful color grading that matches the story and brings it forward. There’s definitely going to be people who say it doesn’t look right. Okay, it doesn’t look like the four-day work that was there forever… but that’s the point. This is not polishing an unfinished work. This is finishing an unfinished work. And it doesn’t invalidate the theatrical version that people fell in love with.”
You may remember a little scene in the film where a bright light shows up on the bridge? Fein insisted on working on the nits (amount of brightness). “I so future-proofed that. I said that it’s 3,500 nits now at home, which means it looks better at home in HDR than it would have in the theater. Which means that, in five or six years, when we have TVs that can be that bright, we already have it rated to that high. But that’s the thing; this is about the future. It’s a forty-two-year-old movie about the future and that gives us the ability to focus and make it into something that’s really special in that way.”
“What you’ll find is that, especially in this version, there’s so much going on in the background that you may never have realized before. V’Ger is a character and there’s a perspective of what’s happening with V’Ger itself that is suggested in a beautiful, beautiful way. There are some visual effects that are in there that people will look at and ask: ‘Was that there?’ And in some instances, there was, and there’s some that there wasn’t. It’s that beauty of making the film so much more compelling. That’s what my goal was: how can we make the story bigger with just what’s in front of you? And that was the challenge, and that’s what I’m the most excited about, about the film.”
The final frontier
As we wrapped our interview, Fein became quietly emotional. “I had to promise Bob that I would be doing this. I would never stop. And a lot of it took getting the tools to where it would be both cost effective and time effective, just because the challenge of being able to present the idea that this isn’t going to be what everybody has seen before. That has risks. But I just know that that’s been my history, to know what I love, and I love feeling the movie, I love disappearing into it. This is a movie finished for 2022, exactly where Bob would have imagined it could have been.”
Fein chokes up, as he quietly adds, “You know, I think Bob is smiling again, and can’t stop smiling now. He didn’t want to be known for the theatrical version. It was the one that got away. So, I’m sure the time is worth it, and for me to be able to know that it’s going to be what it is forever… I’m ecstatic, I’m thrilled, I’m so happy for everybody. I’m excited for people to see it.”
The updated version of Star Trek: The Motion Picture – The Director’s Edition will premiere on Paramount+ on 5th April 2022. A physical media release will follow, with new special features.