Wednesday, January 29, 2014

An Evening with Robert Butler, Director of 'The Menagerie'

Director Robert Butler and Archivist Mark Quigley (January 24, 2014)
I hope readers who were able to make it to the screening and Q&A with Robert Butler at the Billy Wilder Theater last week had as much fun as I did. The first pilot (along with 'Publish or Perish,' a terrific third season episode of Columbo) looked great on the big screen, and Butler was passionate and animated when discussing his work during the Q&A before intermission.

Butler began the Q&A by joking about Star Trek fans, which generated some laughs from an audience with more than a few "Trekkies" in it:
I don't see any costumes, and I welcome you whole-heatedly, with the confession that I spent a couple hours lately on the Star Trek DVDs that show the gatherings at various cities around the country. I was trying to figure out you, the Trekkies, and the legs, the quick popularity of the show. The thought I'm left with is I found you Trekkies a little less weird than I thought you might be.
When asked why he didn't do the second pilot, Butler explained:
Yeah, I turned it down simply because I'd been there. I think it was a couple of years later, we were talking about that. Gene had gone ahead, I think, and produced more of a television series that he had on the air at the time and I moved on to other things, and then he came to me with the offer [for the second pilot] and I passed because I'd been there. I had heard at the time, probably reasonably, that the network thought and said, "We like it, we believe it, we don't understand it, do it again." So Gene moonlit another script as he was making his subsequent existence, and the show was the result of that.
Butler's timeline is a bit off (the second pilot was produced seven months after the first pilot) and his recollections about Roddenberry producing "more of a television series" aren't quite right (Roddenberry wasn't working on another series, although he did produce two other television pilots during this period, The Long Hunt of April Savage and Police Story), but it's hard to blame him for forgetting a few details almost fifty years later. Memory Alpha indicates that Butler turned down the "envelope" as it was called because "he disliked the series" based on this interview, but I think that interpretation is a little unfair (Butler does admit to some "disdain" for the first pilot, but says this was good for him to have as a director, because it allowed him to approach the material with objectivity).

Butler also commented on the two-part season one episode, 'The Menagerie,' that incorporated footage from the first pilot:
I looked at 'The Menagerie' the other night. I thought a lot of the manipulation was kind of clever. They had this captain, Jeffrey Hunter, as a very distorted remnant of what he used to be, enabling an actor to sit and play him scarred and in the present at that time answering with light signals and so on.  It was kind of creepy and probably a very good idea at the time.
Butler immediately followed those comments by discussing the show's tone and its time period:
Incidentally, fifty years ago I saw a lot of innocence and sweetness and trust and less cynicism than we see now. Not that I endorse either one, but this is very aimed at us fifty years ago when we were more acceptable. I mean, the special effects are a little questionable in spots and of course we can see budgetary [restrictions] all over the screen compared to what we see today and yet those legs, that willing suspension of disbelief that we all seem to do, happens again. We follow the damned thing. It has some beckon for us that it works.
Butler seemed pleased with the pilot, which he watched in the audience. He was especially fond of two scenes early on that provided the series with the crucial "legs" it needed to succeed:
When the first shot kind of goes into the flight deck and we see the crew sitting there in control, and then there's that subsequent doctor-Pike scene that's so good. We've seen that scene thirty, sixty, a thousand times, the innervated hero needs a lift confessing to his mentor, whomever, and yet that beckon was in there. Those legs were playing, and in spite of the (chuckles) directorial superiority, the damned thing works! It's okay.
Mark Quigley, from the UCLA Film & Television Archive, mentioned teasing Butler about his proposed title change for the series, which Butler recounted:
Yes, I thought Star Trek was heavy. I tried to get Gene to change the title to Star Track. That seemed lighter and freer. It's not my business to be able to do that, and yet I was trying to convince him. I believed in it and, you know, water off a duck's back, which is okay.
When asked about the "make it dirty" philosophy he brought to Hill Street Blues, Butler spoke for a minute about the look of Star Trek:
I hated cleanliness. Star Trek was so [clean], I tried to get the scenery butchered up as though it had been in use, and I couldn't do it. The production designer was already working and I lost that argument. It's largely as many arguments as you can win. The more arguments you can win, the more singularity the yarn has. It's not rocket surgery, it's singularity, recognition of people at work and at play consistently and clearly and understandably. That's what we're trying to do, so we win as many arguments as we can.
That's just about six minutes of the Q&A. Butler went on to speak for an additional thirty-five minutes about the origins of his career as an usher at CBS, a stage manager at Studio City during the Golden Age of television, a busy director-for-hire (for such programs as The Twilight Zone and The Lieutenant, created by Gene Roddenberry), and ultimately an in-demand director of television pilots, including Hogan's HeroesBatman, Hill Street Blues, and Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman.

Since this is a blog devoted to Star Trek, I haven't transcribed Butler's other comments, but if there's sufficient interest, I would consider it.


Author's Note: I've continued writing hard-hitting journalism for What Culture this week. So, if you're in the mood for some silly writing about television, I've linked to my latest work below.

January 29: 10 Silliest Things On 24 (And The Lessons To Be Learned From Them)
January 27: 5 TV Cliffhangers That Had Terrible Resolutions
January 26: Star Trek: 20 Worst Episodes Ever
January 23: Star Trek: 5 Great Storylines The Show Left Hanging
January 21: 10 Episodes That Should Have Changed Star Trek Forever – But Didn’t

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for reporting on this for those of us who couldn't be there!