'Star Trek II' producer talks Ceti Eel, J.J. Abrams, and more (Q&A)

Robert Sallin, producer of "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan," shares his experience working on the film, looks at the future of "Trek," and dishes on whether that was Ricardo Montalban's real chest.

Robert Sallin with Genesis device
Robert Sallin poses with the Genesis device prop. Courtesy of Robert Sallin

The release of "Star Trek Into Darkness" has not only spurred interest in the "Trek" world in general, but especially in its film daddy, the original Khan-as-villain movie "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan." While the new film takes quite a few detours, it is full of homages to the earlier work.

Let's look back to 1982. "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" had been released in 1979 and faced a poor critical reception. Paramount, the film's studio, was gun-shy after the movie nearly doubled its original budget, ending up with a $46 million price tag. Nonetheless, plans for a second movie plodded along.

Into this mix of wariness and hope stepped Robert Sallin. With 2,000 commercials to his name, he was primarily a director, but he signed a deal with Paramount to take on producer duties for "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan." With no script ready, no director on-board, and Paramount keeping a tight clamp on the budget, Sallin had his hands full with steering the film into and through production.

All those trials somehow came out OK in the end. "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" is now often viewed among fans as one of the greatest films (if not the greatest) the franchise ever turned out. Crave caught up with Sallin to get a behind-the-scenes view on this iconic movie.

Q: How did you get involved with "Star Trek II?"
Sallin: I went to UCLA film school back before it was fashionable. One of the people with whom I became friendly was a guy named Harve Bennett. Our paths diverged. I eventually started my own production company, producing and directing about 2,000 commercials for clients all over the world. In the late '70s, I decided to close my company. I was tired of the 30-second format and really wanted the opportunity to expand creatively. Harve had just signed a deal with Paramount to be involved with three projects. One was "Star Trek." I decided to come aboard, so Paramount signed me up to be the producer of "Star Trek II." Harve was busy working on the other things.

Crave: What were your duties as producer?
Sallin: I was a director. I had never produced anything per se, but I ran a commercial company and we were very focused on costs and managing costs. My primary responsibility was mounting the whole production. That meant everything, including selecting all the key department and crew personnel. I was also tasked with supervising the day-to-day production, keeping it on budget, and creating and supervising the visual effects, which involved a lot of going back and forth between ILM (Industrial Light & Magic) and Hollywood.

STII poster
"Star Trek II" poster. (Click to enlarge.) Paramount

Crave: How did you find a director?
Sallin: I created a list of 40-plus directors I thought might be interesting, but it turned out nobody wanted to do it. Some people didn't want to do "Star Trek." Some people didn't want to do science fiction. Some people didn't want to do a sequel. I would have thought people would be dying to do it. I was really astounded. Then, my secretary suggested Nick Meyer and I had liked his film "Time After Time" and admired his script, "The Seven-Per-Cent Solution."

Nick came on-board well after the visual effects were already in production and dived right in. I have to give Nick substantial credit for rewriting the script in about 10 days. It was his rewrite, uncredited, that we actually shot. He took the disparate elements that Harve was struggling with and he just made it work.

Crave: What were the actors like to work with?
Sallin: Casting Ricardo Montalban as Khan was a major stroke of good luck. He was a consummate gentleman, consummate professional, and one of the nicest people I've ever run into. Bill Shatner and Leonard [Nimoy] are top-of-the-line professional actors, they are so talented. But they had been playing their roles for so long, there was a bit of nonchalance as they approached shooting. They knew what they were doing, but there was kind of a casual atmosphere, which is fine. Then, Ricardo arrives on the set and the first thing he does is a 10-minute master shot without a break... and it was perfect! Boy, the next day, suddenly Bill and Leonard are there promptly, and they've got their lines learned. It's not that Ricardo was a better actor, it's that his whole attitude was so professional, so suddenly the boys had to ratchet it up.

Crave: How were the special effects handled?
Sallin: In "Star Trek I," all the monitors and all the displays were Super 8 or 16mm film projectors. They made noise. When it came time to do coverage, you couldn't sync them to match. I said, that's going. We're going to do it with computers. There was a lot of that kind of stuff.

I also pushed ILM to create the very first computer-generated graphics visual effects they or anyone had ever done for a major film at that time. It was the creation of the Genesis planet video report. ILM really got excited and gave the idea full support, even though that short sequence cost nearly a quarter of a million dollars and it came out of their end of the budget.

Crave: Spock's death started a huge controversy. How did it come about?
Sallin: This is contrary to what everyone says. Harve had a discussion with the major cast members about returning for their roles. Everybody agreed, except for Leonard. Leonard didn't want to do it. Leonard is one of the most intelligent people I've ever run across. To quote him, he didn't want to put on the ears anymore. I wasn't a Trekkie and Harve wasn't a Trekkie, so we said, "Let's kill him off." Done. But, despite my attempts to keep the scripts logged in and under tight security, the word got out and the uproar was substantial. Then we had to figure out a way that he wouldn't really be killed off. That's when the idea came that he should be shot to the Genesis planet and we could play the rebirth-of-life concept. But, up until that moment, he was really going to be a goner. During that, I got a telephone call on my home phone saying, "If you kill Spock, we'll kill you." I had two small children and a wife, so we had enhanced security around our home, though nothing ever happened.

Ceti Eel concept
This Ceti Eel concept wasn't chosen for the final film. (Click to enlarge.) Courtesy of Robert Sallin

Crave: Let's talk about the Ceti Eel. It gave me nightmares as a 6-year-old child.
Sallin: I didn't mean to traumatize you. The way that came about, the writer suggested a creature that would take control of Chekov and the Paul Winfield character by attaching itself to their necks. I said that it had been done before in a TV episode and was immediately challenged to come up with something better.

Well, the next morning, I went out to pick up my newspaper and there was a slug on the pathway. I thought, what if that slimy thing was able to go into the ear? We had an adviser from the Jet Propulsion Lab, a space guy. He said, sure, we can justify that. I called ILM and asked Ken Ralston to design some creature sketches. He did 15 sketches, I picked one, and that's what we used. I loved sitting in the theaters when everybody cringed.

It was great fun bringing the Ceti Eel to life. Up at ILM, they engineered a piece of monofilament which moved a little plastic worm covered with slime. You pull one end and it would stretch the little creature and move across Chekov's face. We also had a huge, oversized model of an ear for the actual insertion. We just tried to make it as gross as possible.

Crave: Was that Montalban's real chest?
Sallin: Yes. He was in amazing shape. His pectoral muscles and his whole upper body [were] very strong and they emphasized that with the costume. That was real Ricardo.

Crave: Have you seen "Star Trek Into Darkness?"
Sallin: I was invited to a screening, but I didn't go. There's part of me that has been there and done that. On the other hand, I'm a huge fan of J.J. Abrams. The guy is so talented and is such a fresh, creative force to take this on and do what he's done. I'm full of admiration. I've seen bits and pieces of the other one and I think he is truly taking "Star Trek" where no man has gone before.

Crave: Why didn't you stay with the "Star Trek" franchise?
Sallin: When I finished "Star Trek II," I was called up to the executive offices at Paramount and I was asked if I would stay on and produce more "Star Trek" features. I thought about it and I didn't do it. Part of it had to do with the fact that the man who had brought me into Paramount was Harve Bennett and that would mean taking the franchise away from him. Even though the reality is that I produced "Star Trek II" and he worked on the script, I felt a sense of obligation that I couldn't do that to him. I should have stayed on, but I didn't. Over the years, a lot of fans have noticed that the later "Trek" films were inconsistent in creativity and production quality after "Trek II." I took that as the highest sort of compliment.

Crave: What do you see for the future of "Star Trek?"
Sallin: Most of the fans of the previous films have accepted J.J. Abrams' new direction and appreciate it. It's a different time. It's 30, 40 years later and we have new audiences. You can't keep dwelling on the old guys and the old things. It has to move ahead. It has been energized through J.J.'s creative vision. I feel that with him in the captain's chair, the future is truly unlimited. Previous "Star Treks" found their audiences. It will go on for who knows how long. It's a combination of new blood, younger blood, an enormous amount of talent, and Gene Roddenberry's core belief that there is always hope.

 

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