Lunch With Alan Dean Foster, Part II: The Star Trek Book

Reading Time: 11 minutes

The New Star Trek CrewThe New Star Trek Crew
Image by marceatsworld via Flickr

If you joined us yesterday for Part I of my interview with Alan Dean Foster, you learned about his writing schedule and method. Today, learn about Foster’s experience writing the novelization for the most recent Star Trek movie, what he’s working on next (hint: it’s more Star Trek) and a few other things.

To prepare for my interview, I listened to the audiobook version of Foster’s Star Trek book. I very much enjoyed listening to it while driving to the Maker Faire, and the narration by Zachary Quinto was done very well. The book expanded quite a bit on the movie, gave some added background to the characters and was very funny in spots. Foster does an amazing job adding incredible visual detail to his writing. Overall, it makes for a much more complete experience. You come out of it knowing exactly what happened in the story, without having to guess in certain spots.

Me: I listened to the audiobook of your Star Trek book version. The movie was great, but it was very action packed. There was not a lot of character development, probably because it was assumed that people knew the characters already from the original series. You filled in a lot of holes that I felt were in the movie, and just gave a little bit more background and feel for the characters.

ADF: A movie like that, too, goes by so fast. Unless you go back and see the movie again, you miss a lot of stuff anyway. So, a book always goes at a slower pace than a film, even if it’s a slow movie. The book still goes at your own pace. You can pause whenever you want and start it up again whenever you want. But it is fun with something like Star Trek where you have a good screenplay. Where you can go back and you can fill in and get in the characters’ heads and maybe you can adjust some of the science and some of the details as much as you can. The thing people don’t realize about a film of that magnitude, or Terminator or Transformers, is that there are a million things going on on the set, all at the same time, and each one of them costs a dollar. So there is a million dollars going by every day, and there is no time to waste. And it’s impossible for any one person, the director, the producer, anybody, to keep absolute track of everything that’s going on. You can’t be in the costume department, you can’t be up setting the lights with the guys who are rigging the lights. It’s just impossible to keep track of everything. So some things are going to slip through that they don’t want to. And you look at the film and say, “Well, that was stupid.” And what they need is another year to go back and redo everything and go over everything in minute detail. And they just don’t have it.

Me: It costs too much money for that.

ADF: That was the problem with the original Star Trek, the first film that I wrote the story for. They were locked into a release date. They had to have a film in theaters by that date. So a lot of the special effects, which were problematical from the beginning, had to be rushed, and some weren’t finished properly on time. But you go to the theater and you spend your seven bucks and you don’t see that.

Me: Star Trek in the theater took about two hours and twenty minutes, whereas listening to the audiobook took eight hours. So there is a whole lot more complexity there and not so much action.

ADF: It’s different [….] They are called moving pictures for a reason. What you have to visualize in the book is a lot easier to just see on screen. And things you put in a book, like characters’ thoughts for example, they just don’t have time for it, in two hours and twenty minutes on the screen.

Me: How final of a screenplay were you working from for the Star Trek book?

ADF: Star Trek was exceptional, because for the first time, I actually got to see the finished film before I started the book. It’s never happened before, and it shows you how well the production went. That’s not something you read about in the paper. But for someone like myself who has been around the business for 35 years, to actually see the finished film before I start the book, never happened before. They are always working on the film up to the last minute.

Me: Well, the film was supposed to come out in December, and they pushed it back, so I’m sure that gave them some extra time.

ADF: Yeah, that probably had something to do with it, and I’m sure they made a lot of last minute revisions and tweaks, too. But I’ve never even been able to see the rough copy of a film before. Sometimes they don’t even ask me. But in this case it was very helpful.

Me: Did you do a lot of scientific research before this book?

ADF: Before Star Trek? No. I have a pretty good grounding in science. Just as an amateur. I’ve always been interested in science and I always do… I pride myself on doing that research. There is a lot of very lazy science fiction out there. But you don’t need to have a PhD in astrophysics or something. You just have to be able to research your material, and it’s surprising how many people don’t. There were some scientific concepts in Star Trek that I kind of wanted to elaborate on, if you will, and so you go online, in the old days you’d go to the library, and you go online and check things out. And if I have any real sharp questions, there are people like Greg Benford, a fellow writer, who do have a solid academic scientific background. I’d send him an email and ask a question. Everybody shares very freely within this very small group of people who do this on a full time basis.

Me: How did you feel about the way they did the Kobayashi Maru scene in the movie? It seemed a little choppy and not as smooth as I was expecting.

ADF: See, people who are dedicated fans, and who know canon, as it were, can go back and slow the film down, and pick a page out of the book, and say, well, this didn’t quite ring true, or this should have been done differently, or this should have taken a little more time here. And when you’re not spending a bazillion dollars a day, that’s easy to do. Fans essentially have unlimited budgets to make directions. What they sometimes tend to overlook, is that the people who are making the film are making the film for the widest possible audience, at the same time they are trying not to offend long time fans of something like Star Trek or Terminator or Transformers, but what they are really concerned about more than anything else is the overall thrust of the film and the overall storyline. The overall storyline, the basis of the Star Trek film, is the relationship that develops between Kirk and Spock, secondarily the battle with the main villain Nero, and third place the relationship among the crew as we get to know them all over again. Something like the Kobayashi Maru incident is something that could have been cut out of the entire film. In other words, before people criticize it or say it should have been this way, or it would have been better that way, keep in mind that the whole thing, as it bears on those three incidents, could have disappeared entirely and it wouldn’t be there at all. That’s what people sometimes tend to forget. Everybody has their little favorites. I’d like to see more of this. I’d like to see a little more of that. You end up with a ten hour movie. It’s just not going to happen.

Me: The Kobayashi Maru did happen during that part of the timeline, so I guess that’s why they included it. It’s a major event.

ADF: That was the thing they wanted to work in. There are probably a hundred other things they could have worked in, as well, if you want to have an extended film. Transformers is another example. These long time fans of the toy line and the old cartoon series. I get this all the time. They want more of this Autobot or more of this Decepticon. And there’s only so much time. Even in a book, there’s only so much time. And again, remember, the book has to conform to a movie. You can expand and you can refine, but you can’t directly contradict when you’re doing a novelization. You can’t make a bad guy a good guy, or a good guy a bad guy. You do have to follow the film. I’d love to do more and more of it. You have guidelines. And with something like Transformers, there’s even more involved. You’re not just dealing with the studio, you’re dealing with the toy company, which are the ones who hold the original copyrights. So you have to satisfy, when you’re doing a novelization, two major corporate entities.

Me: In the movie when Kirk met McCoy for the first time, in that shuttle, McCoy said that all he had left was his bones. Well, in the book, I heard the word “skeleton” not “bones.” Did you change that on purpose?

ADF: Yes, I probably did. I wanted to make it a little more subtle. I wanted the reader to make the connection. Instead of saying “all he had left was his bones,” “all he had left was his skeleton,” and then the reader thinks “skeleton,” “Bones.” So I was trying to be a little more subtle about it. And they could have done that in the film, too. “All he had left was his skeleton,” and then people in the audience said, “Oh, Bones!” But everybody has a different way of presenting these things. And again in the film they don’t have time for reflection on these things. They have to give it to you right up front because they just don’t have time.

Me: That was something we noticed right away, “Oh, he changed that word!”

ADF: There was a reason for it, it wasn’t arbitrary.

Me: Did you have anything to do with choosing Zachary Quinto to do the narration for the audiobook?

ADF: No, I had nothing to do with it. Fine choice, though. Fine choice. […] Those are marketing decisions as much as anything else. [Narrating an audiobook] is not easy to do. You don’t just sit there and read the book. It’s not just doing the voices. […] The trick isn’t so much, if you’re narrating, and reading an audiobook, is not so much to make the characters sound like individual characters. The thing you have to be careful of is to make the characters not sound like you. It’s the same thing, believe it or not, when you’re actually writing a book. A mistake a lot of writers make is the characters all come out in their dialogue sounding like the author. Painters, when they’re painting portraits… I knew a guy like this. A lot of the people he was painting ended up looking like him. He used his easiest model. You really have to divorce yourself from the characters you’re writing about or the dialogue you’re reading.

Me: I’m sure that comes with practice.

ADF: It’s not an instinctive thing to do. The instinctive thing is to write the way you talk. And I do have characters who talk in books the way I talk. But certainly not all of them. You have to be careful not to make all of your characters if you’re from Topeka sound like they come from Topeka.

Me: I read on your website about a follow-up Star Trek novel you’ll be working on. Is there any more word on that?

ADF: I signed the contract, so that’s a go. At least the first step is a go. The second step is for Pocket Books and Paramount to approve the outline. They wanted an outline. Sometimes when I’m asked to do a book, I just get a book contract for two books or three books or whatever. Sometimes they’ll ask for a very brief synopsis of what the general idea is. Not even so much for the editor. The editors are generally satisfied at this point that I’m going to do what I say I’m going to do. But they have to present something to marketing so that marketing has something to promote from the get go. So marketing will want a description. It’s obviously different with a novelization where you have a film studio involved, sometimes somebody else, like in this case, Hasbro. They want to know what you’re going to do with their franchise. There is a lot more riding on it than just a book by me that’s going to be published. So I did a fairly extensive outline for the book which has the tentative title of “Star Trek: Refugees” which I can’t explain without giving anything away. I mean, I just signed the contract. But hopefully the outline will be approved since the book is due in October.

Me: Do you think they’ll base the next movie on your book then?

ADF: Never happens. I mean all things are possible, but generally they like to have the story written directly for the screen. And some of the criticism, and there’s always criticism, you know, War and Peace got criticized, the Bible gets criticized, everything gets criticized. One of the criticisms that was heard about the Star Trek movie, was something you alluded to, which was that there wasn’t a lot of time for reflection on the part of the characters or to get to know the characters more deeply. As I’ve explained, that is just a function of time. There just isn’t time for it. That is something you do have time for in the book. So in Star Trek: Refugees, the story actually is designed around that fact. There is plenty of action in it, but I do deliberately leave time for discussion of other things besides people shooting at each other. So that’s kind of a round about way of saying that, as much as any author would generally like to see their book made into a movie, perhaps this book is not the most appropriate storyline for a movie. It’s hard to film Jean Paul Sartre II. There’s not a lot of shoot ’em ups going on.

Me: Were you at all disappointed when The Empire Strikes Back had nothing to do with Splinter of the Mind’s Eye?

ADF: A little bit, sure. The story with Splinter was, that the only restriction that George [Lucas] put on me when I was writing that book… And that book was written before Star Wars came out. The only restriction George put on me was that I had to do a story that could be filmed on a low budget. Because he was thinking ahead. The idea being that if Star Wars wasn’t a huge flop, but wasn’t a big success, either, he wanted to have some kind of a story that could be filmed on a low budget. That’s why it all takes place on a fog shrouded planet, for example. But that was the only restriction that he put on me. As to my disappointment, well it goes back to every author would like their stories filmed. But once Star Wars came out, George was able to do anything he wanted. So it was no longer a consideration. People say, why don’t you do movies? I wrote the story for the first Star Trek film. And I’ve written other screenplays that I’ve actually been paid for which have never made it into production.

ADF: There are three ways to get your story made into a movie. The best way is to finance it yourself. Which a lot of people, like for example, Robert Rodriguez, who’s become a big name director, did. You borrow on multiple credit cards, you borrow from friends, you get local people like doctors and lawyers to invest. You make a movie. The second way is to produce the film yourself, without your own money. You get someone to finance it, which you can do, even in Arizona, and produce the movie yourself, whether you direct it or write it is something else again. And the third way is to move back to Los Angeles and go the right parties, and make contacts. And that’s the way most businesses work. Whether it’s the film business or the pharmaceutical business or the beer business, or the people who make twisty ties. It’s all about personal contact. And you cannot do it, unless you are very very famous already in that particular industry, from long distance. Not even with the internet and not with video conferencing. It’s about personal and interpersonal contact.

ADF: I’m very happy in Prescott and I’m very happy writing my books. If something happens with film or TV or gaming, fine. If it doesn’t, life’s too short. If I had stayed in the film business, because I have a degree in film from UCLA and my uncle was in television, if I had stayed in the film business, I’d probably have a great deal more money and be considerably less happy and content. And I wouldn’t get to live in Prescott.

Check back here tomorrow for Part III of my interview, on travel, a subject about which Mr. Foster is quite passionate.

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