Meant to be Seen is really excited to have Steven-Charles Jaffe in the hotseat today! Steven has produced and/or worked on huge successes like Ghost, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Demon Seed, Strange Days, K19 The Widowmaker and more. He has worked with everyone from James Cameron to Captain Kirk, and his latest work is an up and coming film called “Gahan Wilson: Born Dead, Still Weird”. Everything is up for discussion including his new movie, Star Trek, virtual reality and more! Yes, we might even learn who would win a fist-fight between Han Solo, Captain Kirk and Khan for some hot Wookie love!
Steven, it’s an honor to welcome you to Meant to be Seen. You’ve produced everything from Ghost and Demon Seed to Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. I imagine you get new scripts all the time…what gets you interested and excited about getting involved with a new movie? What sets things apart for you?
Thank You, Neil. It’s an honor to be interviewed for Meant to be Seen. Lately I’m not looking for outside material. I’ve developed six projects that are very special to me. However, these are projects in different genres.
There’s a 3D animated feature based on a Gahan Wilson illustrated novel, co-written by me and Nicholas Meyer. It starts out as a classical film noir detective story but as the witnesses to the crime appears, they and the world they inhabit become stranger and stranger, until the movie resembles something in between a Gahan Wilson version of Star Wars and Men in Black. It’s a lot of fun and totally weird in a Gahan way. And it’s “weird”, but kid friendly too. I also have co-written an original “Michael Crichton-esque” sci-fi thriller set in and around the the military industrial complex in San Diego. I’m going to direct a re-make of a Spanish thriller, which is sort of like Spielberg’s first movie DUEL and The Hitcher. My brother, Robert (who wrote Demon Seed, and co-wrote and produced with me – MOTEL HELL) have written a totally off-the-wall farcical thriller set in Silicon Valley… these are a few, but it should give you the impression that my taste in choosing material is eclectic and unusual, in your face fare.
Some of your movies are just way ahead of their time. For example, Demon Seed is one of those horror movies that I saw when I was really too young to have seen it. For those unfamiliar, what was the premise of the movie?
It’s based on an early pulp novel by Dean Koontz, about a woman whose husband has built a computer with enormous artificial intel that takes over the house and imprisons her, and decides to father a child with her!
I think back at that horrified housewife with this distant master computer in charge of every appliance, and I think that the concept of the film is even more applicable now than it was back then. I mean, we live in a world where hackers break into webcams, baby monitors, and even steal our identity. How did you get into the mindset for this movie way back then, and what has caught your eye today?
I’ve been a slave to technology ever since I bought my first computer! Back to when we made Demon Seed, my brother befriended an amazing scientist at JPL who was head of A.I. until Nixon cancelled the program. Lucky for us, he became a tech advisor on the movie. Kind of funny that the computers we used in the movie were WANG computers which were supposed to be competing with IBM. I was encouraged to hear that the new iPhone has fingerprint I.D. However, I’m sure they’ll initially have some Identity theft issues, but the idea that either your finger prints or your Iris is all you need as a password – can’t wait for that.
Meant to be Seen is very much an immersive technology website. Right now, some of the hot up and coming products are the Oculus Rift – a virtual reality headset, and Open Court – a virtual reality camera system being developed by NEXT3D. You produced Strange Days which was written by James Cameron, Jay Cocks, and directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Again ahead of its time, what was the premise of Strange Days?
Strange Days was made in 1994 but set in the near future New Year’s Eve 1999. It was a film noir tech thriller where the main character, played by Ralph Fiennes, has a device that records life experiences directly off the cerebral cortex (Not Virtual Reality – replay someone else’s reality) and selling the recordings like illegal drugs. When someone leaves a recording for Lenny (Ralph Fiennes) that is a murder, things spiral way out of control with a huge action packed climax as the new year rings in.
It’s becoming more and more plausible that we will have a future where immersive VR content can be shared and disseminated to the masses. For now, it seems the early adopters are the naked movie people and live events. However, as a professional movie maker, and respecting that there is a learning curve with what can and can’t be filmed for VR…is it feasible for a VR cinema world to take off? Is there an opportunity to reinvent the way stories are told for this choice of media? Are there experiences you think would work well?
When video games can be played with head mounted 3D displays — or taking this concept further, played via your amygdala (the part of the brain that produces dreams or nightmares) and these could of course be used for positive mental stimulus – I think of pediatric cancer wards where kids are trying to recover from cancer and need some serious positive distraction which this type of VR technology could accomplish. On the dark side socially – maybe it’s the bright side, if prostitution would become irrelevant because VR could supplant it – would that be a good thing for society or not? I think this is a subject that think tanks would be better off devoting their time to instead of trying to take over countries or waging war.
Head Mounted Displays and the concept of VR isn’t anything new – it’s just that the technology got a lot better and a lot cheaper for things to really take off. When Strange Days was shot, what type of equipment did James Cameron have access to? Was he doing anything special from a VR point of view?
We needed to have a state of the art, small camera that could be used with a heads up display instead of a regular viewfinder (See the opening restaurant robbery scene in Strange Days – there’s only two cuts in this nearly 5 minute insane action sequence). In any event, I asked Jim how we were going to shoot these POV sequences since no camera existed that could achieve this, and the nice thing about working with James Cameron is that he has researched this and came up with the solution – “We’re going to build a new camera.” So we did and it worked great. Then everyone in Hollywood wanted to rent the cameras – I think they were called SL35.
Before we talk about your work with Star Trek, I understand you are partnered with Nicholas Meyer. In one word…what movie would our readers most know him for?
KHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAANNNN! He did Star Trek 2, 4, 6, The Day After…and Time After Time.
The Star Trek movies have a tradition. I don’t know what it is, but every second movie is usually the best. Star Trek: The Motion Picture…OK…Star Trek II – AWESOME…Star Trek III…OK…Star Trek IV…AWESOME…etc. etc. Even Star Trek: The Next Generation followed this pattern, though I really liked their last one more than it was received. I thought it was a fun movie. Anyways…how do you explain this pattern? Were the cast and crew quietly aware of it?
As Nick is so fond of saying, “Unlike Beethoven’s symphonies where the great ones are the odd numbered symphonies, Star Trek has an affection for the even numbered ones… Don’t know if the cast or crew had any awareness of this pattern.
What do Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country and The Berlin Wall have in common? Is it true that one film’s failure led to another movie’s success, and what was the Vulcan influence?
Nick and I had made a movie in Berlin when the wall was coming down. A spy thriller called Company Business starring Gene Hackman and Baryshnikov, which didn’t get a decent release by MGM, and it was very depressing to have worked so hard on this film only to see it thrown to the wind. A few months later, Nick received a call from Leonard Nimoy, saying he was developing a new Star Trek movie about the “wall” coming down in space where the Klingons were the Russians… in any event, my ears perked up but Nick initially wasn’t interested. When he got off the phone with Leonard, I said that filmmakers rarely get a chance to re-do their own movie (in effect). He stopped me and said, “What the F.. are you talking about?”….”Nick, we can remake Company business’ themes under the guise of Star Trek and this time the studio isn’t going to bury it, because it’s Star Trek…”
How did it feel to produce the last Star Trek movie featuring the entire original cast? Were there any antics (or scuffles) on the set?
Having grown up on Star Trek I was totally stoked. I also had the added responsibility of directing second unit which began before first unit in Alaska where I filmed the Klingon version of Siberia. I did have one very odd moment, while waiting for a lighting set up on the bridge of the Enterprise I was staring at the original cast and suddenly remembered watching these actors on tv in stamford, Conn where I grew up. It was a lovely and weird memory.
Han Solo and Captain Kirk walk into a bar. Princess Leia is sitting alone. With whom does she leave and live happily ever after with? No, you can’t say “The Wookie”!
Leia would see RIGHT through Kirk’s facade and want none of it. Solo might be a scoundrel, but Leia likes it that way…
Over the past few years, JJ Abrams reinvented the Star Trek franchise by introducing us to much younger versions of the characters, and rewriting Star Trek history as we know it. Having been involved with the original cast and crew, what did you think of this new direction and take on the franchise – and how is it that Khan is suddenly white and British?!? AAAAAAAAABRRRAAAAAAAAAAMMMMSSSSSSS!!!!
Any time you take something that is beloved by many people and rewrite it to any extent, there will inevitably be a group of people who won’t like what you’ve done. For me, I like seeing a new perspective of these characters I already know. Is this the “right” perspective? That’s not for me to say. Did I enjoy watching them…yes. As far as a white and British Khan…revisionist history takes all shapes.
On a more serious note, you produced K-19 The Widowmaker which starred Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson. What’s the basic premise of the film, and how close was it to the actual story?
It was based on the true story of one of the first Russian Nuclear subs that fired a ballistic missile under the ice. This event scarred the hell out of us (the United States) but on their return to Russia they had a tragic and devastating nuclear meltdown. Very sobering drama I’m very proud of it.
I’ve seen the movie a couple of times – it’s one of those films where it starts, you get into the story, and you’re just compelled to see it through to the end. However, I also know it wasn’t the commercial success it was expected to be. What happened?
Bad timing it was released shortly after 9/11 – not exactly the sort of light hearted, escapist fare people wanted after that…
Let’s move on to your new movie “Gahan Wilson: Born Dead, Still Weird”. Tell us about Gahan Wilson; who is he and why has he been such a positive influence for you?
Gahan Wilson’s cartoons came into my life at an early age – in fact, when I was around ten I discovered Gahan’s cartoons in a friend’s Playboy magazine, so I saw naked women (in a magazine) they were scuba diving playmates in topless swim suits at the same time I saw these weird, twisted, dark humor cartoons that were like Charles Addams in extraordinary lurid colors that had more bite than Addams’ work. In any event, it stuck in my head and stayed there all the way through adulthood and producing movies…
He’s obviously a comic genius. Are there themes or messages that are very important to him? What makes his work unique compared to other artists?
Gahan has one major theme that has various political, ecological, and the just friggin’ weird stuff – “Gaiety in the face of doom.”
Well, in a nut shell, he offered the dark side to cartoons like Charlie Brown and other “normal” single panel cartoons. His asymetrical way of drawing, no characters’ design fits into square, round, rectangle shapes.
Why was it important to do this as a movie? What did you want to come out of this that other forms of media couldn’t do?
I realized that I needed to make a film to showcase Gahan’s talent and tell his unique personal story. I also realized I would need a greek chorus of some iconic stars to make the same case I’ve been making about Gahan’s genius.
Can you name some people who make an appearance in the film?
Stephen Colbert, Neil Gaiman, Stan Lee, Hugh Hefner, Randy Newman, Guillermo del Toro, Mike Mignola, Lewis Black. They all embraced my request which was a real thrill.
I understand that this has been one of the most challenging movies to finance and release. Comic genius Mel Brooks even weighed in on the direction you should take. What happened? What did Mel think of the movie?
Well, Mel’s famous for many things including, “Never put your own money in a show – or a movie.” When he asked if I had put my money into it, and I said I had…well, a lot of nasty words were hurled at me…and then I said please watch it and the decide if I should be barred from the BrooksFilms’ alumnus. A day later, he called back to say it’s a great movie…and there’s no way I could have pitched this to get funding, so this is one of the few exceptions to the rule about investing in your own movie.
The movie has already been made. Why are you still raising money for the film? What is the money for, and what difference could it make?
I had to turn down my usual way of earning a living producing Hollywood movies, which meant no income while I made the doc. Then the economy tanked and things got worse – It was particularly trying to survive and keep the film going. So this year, we were urged by my filmmaker friends to get into the Oscar race with the doc, and use crowdsourcing to raise a modest Academy campaign. Which is what we did – just raised enough to rent the theater in New York and L.A. to satisfy the required showing time to get in the race. We hope we at least get a nomination, but in the meantime I’m pushing as hard as I can in interviews and social media to get the word out about the film.
Where and how can people see the movie?
OCT 22-27 IFC CENTER NY Showtimes will be announced on Monday Oct 7 on our website:
Where can people go to make donations for the film? Is there a deadline?
The same website. We’re still short on advertising so we’re looking to raise a stretch goal of an additional $10,000.
Last question for you! A spacial vortex takes place, and a young “Old School” Khan, the “British” Khan, General Chang, a horny Captain Kirk, and “Pan Farr” Spock walk in to a bar. For whatever reason, they haven’t had anything good to read in years. In the center of the room is a signed copy of Shakespeare’s greatest work in its original Klingon…and Chewbacca’s sister (let’s make it interesting!). Who wins the battle for literacy… and possibly…Chewbacca’s sister’s hand in marriage?
A fine choice! Thank you for joining us, Steven! Readers are encouraged to help back Steven’s film – he has worked really hard on it, and it’s a great underdog story. It would be a great thing to see an Academy Awards nomination going his way!