Valerie Weiss — Directing Strange New Worlds‘ “Ad Astra Per Aspera”
I recently had the privilege of interviewing Director Valerie Weiss, who directed the second episode of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds‘ second season, “Ad Astra Per Aspera”. An award-winning filmmaker and scientist, she brings her background of studying biochemistry (in which she holds a PhD) and directing many other TV shows to the world of Strange New Worlds.
How did you get hired to work on the Strange New Worlds episode “Ad Astra Per Aspera”?
Benji Bakshi‘s the alternating DP in the second season, and Benji and I had done two TV shows together. He was the DP on The Rookie — that I directed an episode of, called “Greenlight” — and then again on Prodigal Son. We randomly just work together. In television, it’s kind of unheard of that you ever work with the same DP again on different shows.
Benji had just gotten hired to do Strange New Worlds. He called me and said, “Val, would you ever want to do a Star Trek? They’re still looking for directors. You’d be amazing. Let me know if you want me to put your name in.” And I was like, “Of course! That sounds so much fun.” And then he referred me to Chris Fisher, who’s our amazing producing director and the director of the first episode of Season 2. I had a great interview with Chris, who we call “Fish”. And then he put me through to Secret Hideout, Alex Kurtzman‘s company, and I again had a great interview.
Then, it was a done deal, which was really, really exciting, because for me, the three things I love most are world building, amazing characters and performances, and making entertainment that’s about something. It doesn’t have to be preachy. In fact, what I like most is very entertaining entertainment, and then you’re like, “Oh, wait a minute. I’ve changed how I think or feel about the world as a result of watching it.” And whether that’s through comedy or because you start crying when you watch something, that’s the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine get in.
Were you a Star Trek fan before you came to this project?
I had very limited experience with Star Trek before getting the job. I maybe saw one episode of The Original Series before interviewing. My neighbor was Michael J Pollard, who sadly had passed, but he was in an episode called “Miri”, and I think we watched that because we were friends with him and we’re like, “Oh my God, that’s young Michael J!”
Once I was going to interview and Benji told me that it was a prequel to The Original Series, I started watching it and I was like, “Oh my God, I love this!” because even though it looks so old-fashioned or dated now because of the technology, the ideals and ideas were so modern and ahead of their time. I was like, “Yes! This is such an exciting property. I want to be part of this.”
What civil rights factors, if any, appealed to you in this particular script?
I think why I became a scientist is that my worldview is all about reducing everything to basic principles. That’s where any activism I have comes from — just looking at what’s fair. And for me, it’s not specific to a group or whatnot. It’s really just, like, are we treating people as they want to be treated and as we’d want to be treated? That’s what I love about this episode: many different groups have attached to it as an anthem. I feel like anyone who feels disenfranchised or taken advantage of can absolutely attach to the story, because it’s just so universal.
And it’s a warning! I think as much as it’s looking at the past or the present, what it should do is look towards the future, because I think — as we have more serious problems with climate change, which is a big issue for me, and we’re worried about AI — we’re only going to have more conflict and stress as a race of people, which is ironic, because this episode’s about people who are also not human. But we’ll only have more anxieties in our future, so we need to start learning how to deal with that now, and I think this episode’s a great opportunity to get conversations started.
Did you find your experience of directing other legal dramas influential to directing this particular episode of Star Trek?
Yeah, for sure. I mean, they’re different in many ways, and Star Trek has a lot more heavy moralistic questions at the center of them. It’s not just straight typical crimes or civil cases that come up in your typical legal TV show.
I’ve done so many of those, and where it’s really useful to have that experience is: How do you make a courtroom visually engaging? How do you design your shots so you’re really thinking about point-of view? Who are you with? Are you with the witness; are you with the lawyer? Who do you want to identify with? When? And what’s the arc in that courtroom? How do you keep it propulsive? And so, working on those shows, it was just so nice to have that muscle flexed, coming into it, so I wasn’t tackling something like that for the first time, because it really is a skill set.
How did you specifically use the episode’s characters and the visual medium of television to help tell such an emotionally moving story?
In doing Strange New Worlds and this episode in particular, I’m such a character-driven director and luckily Benji is such a story-driven DP and we have a history, so we always start with stories. So, we came up with many rules for each actor, each character, about how the camera interacted with them. It’s kind of fascinating. First, I think about an arc, because what we feel as an audience, what we respond to, is how something changes. The bigger the change, the more we’re moved.
For instance, Una has an arc from persecution to acceptance. More than anything, she wants to stay with Starfleet; that’s her family. And so, we made up rules. In the beginning or at any point where she’s feeling persecuted, we show her obscured in the frame, so there’s foreground blocking her or a doorway blocking her. Several people have commented on a shot I’m very proud of where the door closes and you just see her through a little window.
As the show evolves, by the end you see Una totally full shot. She comes around the table to the witness stand and she’s fully shown on the witness stand; she’s able to reveal herself. And then in the transporter room at the end, again, nothing’s obscuring her.
Specific even moreso to the courtroom was Neera. Her arc that we determined is limitation versus opportunity. She’s so boxed in by feeling oppressed by the Federation. As strong as she is and as much as she’s achieved and as proud as she is to be Illyrian, it’s still an obstacle to feel that oppression, and so that limits her in the beginning. By the end, she’s taken this opportunity and won.
Visually, the camera language we designed for Neera’s arc is that, in the beginning, we wanted shots where she feels left behind, where the camera’s leaving her, and it’s not tight on her. As she gets more empowered and her legal case takes shape with the information she starts to deduce about Una turning herself in, she ends up pushing the camera. So by the time she’s doing closing arguments, she’s pushing the camera as she’s going to the judges. When she’s talking to Admiral April and she’s cross-examining him, it’s a push of the camera.
It’s all very subtle, but it’s subliminal and you feel this when you’re watching it. I think that’s why, even though it’s a talky episode, it feels action-packed. It’s because the visual language is very intentional, and every single shot is designed to maximize the emotional storytelling.
That’s so interesting. Were you involved in casting the actors?
Yeah, for sure. I think Yetide maybe was engaged before I got there to start prepping. But I remember Fish and Henry reached out and said, “This is who we’re thinking about for this role. She’s amazing. Take a look.” And I was like, “Sold, sold! She’s incredible,” and I think Fish had worked with her before, so… Oh my God! Couldn’t have had a better Neera, and I love her to death.
And then with the rest of the guest cast, with Pasalk and the judges, I was very involved in that aspect as well. It’s definitely a collaboration with the producers too, especially because they know who might come back or what they need in their, sort of, tapestry of Vulcans that they show in the series.
I remember fighting very hard to have the primary judge be a woman and someone of Nicky‘s age because it just really was very important to me. With these two female lawyers and a woman on the stand, I just felt it shouldn’t be decided by a man. That would feel so patriarchal, to be appealing to a male judge. And I mean, we have two male judges on either side. But I just remember having that conversation, saying, “It really needs to be a woman, and I think this is the right actor for it.”
I know that the Tellarite at the side was played by David Benjamin Tomlinson, who’s done a lot of Star Trek work, mostly on Discovery but on Short Treks as well. I thought it was really cool to see him return.
Yeah, he’s amazing. Obviously, you’re just really seeing his eyes through the makeup, and he says so much with his eyes.
There’s a shot where Neera approaches him at the bench during closing arguments and she talks about being left out, basically. It’s almost like saying it sucks being the kid in the schoolyard who no one wants to play with, right? This is the subtext of the line. And I really made sure that they connected on that because, you know, that’s what so many of us feel like. And that’s, again, the universal of the story. Nobody should be left behind in the schoolyard; nobody should be left behind anywhere. We all have the capacity and resources to take care of each other.
How do you approach directing actors? Did you give them any unusual directions?
I absolutely love actors, and I spend a lot of time in the process. Something I love about directing the show is they build into my prep time individual meetings with every single member of the cast, no matter how big their role is that week. So, I got to talk to Celia about Uhura’s arc in this episode and got to talk to her about her belief system. How does she feel about eugenics? How does she feel about Una at this point? Does she feel betrayed? I know she loves her, but does she have any mixed feelings, for instance? And so, we have those conversations before we get to set, and then I’m able to draw on those conversations when we’re shooting.
But I also take time to really get to know the actors, as personally as I can. For instance, with Rebecca and Yetide, we had dinner together and spent a lot of time together. I got to know them as people. Rebecca and I had actually worked together on The Librarians years ago. And, you know, we share personal things that are related to the episode. I do too. And so, when we’re working and we’re on set, if — and I always ask permission about this — if someone needs a little boost to get somewhere, I ask if I can reference something they told me, very respectfully. Always pretty much, they say, “Yes, please, please. I want to be there.”
At the end of Una’s testimony, they’re very intimate, the two women, and I remember giving the direction, “It’s like a slumber party, and it’s the middle of the night, and you guys are talking. I want that.” I guess that probably seems like an unusual direction for Star Trek, but it’s an example of me going wherever I need to go to get the moment in the subtext. That’s the truth of the scene.
How important do you feel it is to have strong leading ladies of color, like Neera?
First and foremost, you need the right actor to tell your story. And there’s no question Yetide Badaki is the right actor, not only for this, but probably most things. She’s a powerhouse and just an incredible talent and master of craft, but also so in touch with herself and her vulnerability. She can be strong, she can be vulnerable. I mean, she’s a gift. So, even independent of your question, she’s the person that we should all be hiring.
And then absolutely, representation is important. I know as a woman, seeing more women in roles of power means something to me. I have two daughters. Watching movies with them that I may have watched and enjoyed when I was younger, I no longer can stomach some of them because of the messaging around how women are treated, so absolutely representation is really important.
As much as we’re improving in that category, I’m sure in twenty years we’ll look back and find something distasteful about how we’re doing it now. We’re not doing enough or whatnot, and that’s normal because culture changes. As a culture, we’re adapting and we’re paying attention and we’re sensitive to inputs, which hopefully we always will be.
I noticed that quite a lot of the admirals we see, for example April and Pasalk, are males. So, do you consider Starfleet a patriarchy?
That’s a good question. This is my main experience with Star Trek, so I don’t know that I feel comfortable answering that. I mean, for the purpose of this particular episode, I think it was an interesting balance.
I think what was really neat about Neera’s cross-examination of Admiral April is that it sounded like she’s attacking him when she’s calling him out for being hypocritical about making those decisions as a captain, basically, and you’re like, “Oh my God, he’s defensive and she’s really attacking him.” What was really crafty was, when she’s doing her closing arguments, you realize she’s setting up the success of the testimony, so that she can draw an analogy between Pike and April. That was a really beautiful thing, and I wonder — had April been played by a woman — if that flip, that misdirect, would have been as successful. I think you bought into her going after him possibly because of the gender, and then the flip was, I think, a nice move. I don’t know if that makes sense to you.
Yeah, it does. Yeah, thank you. Did your background in biology prove influential or significant to the directing of the episode, or was it coincidental?
It definitely helps, certainly when thinking about the Eugenics Wars and genetic modification and adaptation. Where I really thought about it was in designing the aspects of the Illyrian world that I got to put on screen. Studying biology, you learn so much about adaptation, natural selection, and adapting to your environment, so I wanted to really showcase the Illyrians as heroes. Anyone who’s adaptable and can make good of a bad situation, to me, is a hero. They’re genetically doing it, in terms of being able to live in that place, where the air is noxious and Pike can’t breathe there. But I also wanted to say that it’s something to be admired and celebrated, which is why I asked for them to be in bright-colored clothes and all the extras are chatty and happy on their lunch break. They’re a survivor culture, as many disenfranchised cultures are. They find ways to be happy with what they have. So, it was fun to talk to Bernadette Croft and collaborate with her on the costumes and say, “How do we make them feel flashy and proud, because this is a proud culture, and they should be, because they’ve survived? They’ve had it much harder than anyone else who gets to live in an environment that’s more forgiving.” And so, again, it was like using basic biological principles and expanding it out from there.
There’s one other thing that you may or may not have noticed from a design perspective. Because we were going to be in the courtroom — which was very round and curvilinear — I wanted the contrast of the Illyrian world to the Federation to be very pointy. So, all of Neera’s costumes have points, and her assistant has pointy costumes. Their fingernails were sharp and pointy, and even Neera’s haircut — I wanted a really strong bob that was sharp-edged. And so, she would always feel a little bit out of place in the Federation because of the aesthetic of her appearance.
Did you enjoy directing the humorous scene involving Spock’s so-called “outburst”?
Yes, I loved it. I love doing comedy, and Ethan Peck is so talented. The only thing I was sad about is I didn’t have more of him in this episode, because I could watch him for an hour straight.
Getting to do something comedic with Ethan and Melissa and Babs was really funny, and Graeme Somerville, who played Pasalk, is excellent too. Even rewatching it the other night, it made me laugh out loud when you cut to them and they’re just so still, and he’s so earnest when he apologizes for his outburst. Oh my God, I loved directing that scene.
Ethically, do you think it’s fine when Batel and Pike discuss the case before the trial?
That’s a really good question. Probably not. I think Batel’s a good human. I don’t think she’s doing a great job, but she’s in a really hard place. But that’s our story, right? We’d much rather watch that in our episode than her not engaging on that level. So, I’m sure it’s unethical that Batel was having that conversation with Pike, but for matters of the heart, she honored what she was supposed to be doing.
When the episode depicts areas of Earth’s surface, like at Starfleet Headquarters, how was that done? Was that CGI? Was it location filming?
I’ve got to give a shout out to Jonathan Lee, our amazing production designer, who I got to know quite well on, on this episode. In this case, we took two approaches to it.
In the prison — because the windows were so narrow — we were able to put a translight, a backdrop of San Francisco, out the window and do it practically, saving money later, on visual effects, so there was nothing CG about that. Every visual effects shot counts in the budget, and we were being really careful about respecting the budget.
In the courtroom, whenever we shot towards the judges, there were windows. So, we had a green screen there, and then it was composited later.
We had a meeting with Akiva Goldsman, one of the showrunners. He’s like, “It’s the courtroom. Tell your story. Don’t be skimping on an important shot that tells your story. Just, you know, be conservative where you can, and then get the job done elsewhere.”
That’s cool. You mentioned cutting. Were there any deleted scenes from this episode?
I don’t think so. The script was really tight. This is one of the experiences I’ve had where I handed in my director’s cut and then the editor called me and was like, “Valerie, they changed three shots. That’s it.” And they were trims or something. I was like, “Oh my God, that’s so exciting that I gave them what they wanted.”
I think the only thing that might have been shortened… There’s a little bit of Neera’s closing arguments that is shortened a little bit, and I think it’s for momentum, but it’s maybe only two or three sentences. So, it’s pretty amazing.
It’s great to find out about those. Was there any consideration to including more flashbacks? When I first watched this episode, I was quite surprised, because for years, I was thinking I’d love to see the moment when Pike meets Una for the first time and I thought this is surely a prime opportunity to show that in flashback. So, I mentioned that to my girlfriend, watching it tonight, and she was like, “Well, if you pay attention to what’s emotionally being played out, then it’s not really that relevant to the story emotionally.” You know, it’s more emotionally relevant that you see Una in her childhood, dealing with being genetically engineered.
Your girlfriend sounds really smart, because that’s what I was going to say.
First of all, what we have is exactly what was scripted. There was never a conversation with me about having additional flashbacks.
I think the scene where a flashback like you’ve suggested would go would be the scene with Pike and Batel in the mess hall. But I think Pike’s performance on his face says it all, like he remembers that moment. I don’t know that any flashback would do more justice than seeing how he feels about her in the present.
Yeah, in hindsight, I can certainly see your point. Would you like or be open to returning to direct more Star Trek?
Yes, definitely! I’ve been invited back for Season 3. So yeah, I love this franchise. I’m hooked! I want to do it all now. Again, it’s just such a vehicle for really thoughtful content, and it reaches everyone in the world. I mean, what’s better than that?! You can reach people in any country and it goes, you know, beyond gender and socioeconomic groups and interests. I think that’s what I’ve always hoped for, was to be able to connect with as many people as possible in the short time we have on Earth. So, I’m so grateful that I got this experience.
Brilliant! Thank you so much for this interview. It’s been great to speak with you.
Thank you. I enjoyed it. And thanks for everything you’ve said about the episode. I really appreciate it.
Webmaster of WarpFactorTrek, Dan is an avid Star Trek fan who lives in Aberdeen, Scotland. Dan has loved Star Trek ever since discovering it in his childhood. He worked as an administrator, for six years, on the encyclopedic Star Trek website Memory Alpha, which involved studying the making of the various series and films. He has been mentioned in the official Star Trek Magazine, has qualified from a Star Trek course taught at Glasgow Clyde College, and coordinated the SubSpace Chatter (formerly The Scotch Trekker) YouTube channel, which regularly featured live interviews with the cast and crew of Star Trek.