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Christopher Kurtz (ck), Henning Koonert (hk), Tom Gerlich (ge)29.04.11

TZN Exclusive: James Cawley Interview

TZN talked to the "Phase II" Producer at FedCon XIX

A wide-ranging conversation with James Cawley of "Star Trek: Phase II" about his fan film production, upcoming "Phase II" episodes, pure "Star Trek" and JJ Abrams' version of Trek, what a future TV show could look like and why Trek fans would make the better politicians.

James Cawley lives his dream. He plays "Star Trek", equipped with a sandbox that is unique in worldwide fandom. His fan film production "Star Trek: Phase II" (formerly "New Voyages") is often said to be the most elaborate of all times.

"Phase II" has completed a pilot and five episodes at the time of this interview, the latest episode called "Enemy Starfleet" has just been released. By now, part of the show comes from Germany where CGI artist Tobias Richter in Cologne performs his computer wizardry to conjure up the special effects for the show. At FedCon XIX Christopher Kurtz, Henning Koonert and Tom Gerlich sat down with the show's producer and lead actor for an extensive interview.

James talks about his plans for "Phase II", answers questions on acting skills and special effects, describes his relationship with Paramount and critically looks back at JJ Abrams' "Star Trek" movie. He gives his own thoughts on what the future could have in store for Trek and what Gene Roddenberry's vision means for us today.

"Star Trek" Beyond Shatner

TrekZone Network: James, "Phase II" has come a long way since its first steps, especially the effects have become amazing . Still more important, "Phase II" excels compared to some other fan films in acting skills, too. This is, frankly, quite in contrast to the first few episodes. How did you and the rest of the cast manage to boost your performances continuously?

James Cawley: It's like any television show: the longer you work together, the more you know how everybody operates. And the longer you play the same character, the more comfortable you are with the character. One of the problems that I had was that when we started the show, we had different people with different ideas. And everybody said to me: "You have to be James Cawley, you cannot be William Shatner." And my argument was: I have to be this much William Shatner because he is Captain Kirk. Everybody knows William Shatner's Captain Kirk. So how do I find the right balance of honoring that actor without parodying or making fun of what happened before?

So you just have to find your own voice. I just stopped listening to everybody: the people that said "You're too much like William Shatner!" or whatever. I just stopped listening to all that. I said, okay I'm just gonna play this the way I've always seen Captain Kirk and I'm going to enjoy it and if there's a line in the script I read and it says: you have to do THAT line like William Shatner, then I'm gonna do that line like William Shatner. And I found that the fans like it more than if I ignored it.

TZN: Have you ever met William Shatner in person? Have you talked about each others' portrayal of Captain Kirk?

Cawley: I've met Shatner three times. The only time we ever discussed the role was at the World Tour and I introduced myself and I said: "I play you on the internet." And he looked at me and he said: "You're young enough and good-looking enough to be me." And I asked him about how much of himself did he put into the role? And I think he said he was Kirk. After a while, he said, it can only be you. So I probably vindicated my style by bringing as much of him into the portrayal as I can. That's as much as we ever talked. He's a busy guy. To this day he's busy.

A Technician's Guide to the USS Enterprise

TZN: In the beginning the (then) "New Voyages" website carried a banner saying: we are now doing "Star Trek" as it would be done today, approaching it in a modern way. I think that over time you actually have come closer to the original. Was that intentional?

Cawley: That was intent. When the show started, I had a guy named Jack Marshall, who co-produced the show. And he and I didn't get along. At all. But I'm still not a computer person, I'm not online a lot, I don't know how to do websites. So I relied on him for all that technical stuff and the promotions. And he always talked to the press and I was always just the guy that did the castings and the sets and who was on camera. So he had his side and I had mine. But it's my show, and I was content to do that.

But his ideas were much different than mine. My idea was that we'd always continue The Original Series. And his idea was that we'd take The Original Series and we'd put our own modern spin on it. And I never liked that. So I fired him, and I said: "We now do this my way." And the first show we did with me calling all the shots was "World Enough and Time". When that went over so well, I kept making all the decisions and the fans started to get even more into the show, so I guess I made the right decision.

TZN: That was when the Enterprise stopped making barrel rolls...

Cawley: (laughs) Yes, that was never my decision! And you can quote me on that. That was actually a guy named Doug Drexler, who did the special effects, and Doug worked his tail off. He wanted to show that the Enterprise could do all these very special, cool movements. And so we let him do it. That was their decision, he wanted to do it, so he did it.

TZN: By now most of the special effects originate on a computer in Germany. What has Tobias Richter contributed to "Phase II"?

Cawley: Tobias did all the opening shots for "Enemy Starfleet", he did all the planet's visual effects, and then on "The Child", he did every shot. He's an amazing artist. It was a real honor to be able to work with him and to continue to work with him.

TZN: So you are not sharing special effects any more with Daren Dochterman and/or the Dave School?

Cawley: We are, but it's so stretched out. The problem that has slowed my episodes down is that we always had two or three people doing the special effects. And they go off and they do a Hollywood movie at the same time, and they go home and they're trying to do something for "Phase II" and we can't get the episodes out fast enough. And thankfully Tobias is just, he's literally done almost two full episodes in less than a month. And that's a lot of work for one guy. But it's been amazing. So we use as many people as we can but I particularly love Tobias' work. I think he has the right ideas and the right vision for the look of my show.

TZN: Do you stick to the look and feel of previous episodes or did Tobias go off in a different direction - and which, do you think, is the right one?

Cawley: He picked upon what I was trying to do and we let him have the creative freedom to deliver the shot he wanted. I didn't say: "It has to be like this." I said: "Here's the script, this is kind of my idea," and he just worked it out. He's definitely, I think, stepped up the game.

TZN: So it isn't the polished look of "Phase II" anymore?

Cawley: No, I think it is. Definitely you see the evolution of The Original Series into the motion picture. It's just that much more polished. That's how I see it.

A More Busy Bridge: Arex...

TZN: You're not only stepping up the special effects for ships and weapons but you are also going to show us Arex for the first time.

Cawley: Yes! Everybody wants Arex!

TZN: How did that decision come about? To you, had a natural moment arrived now to include him?

Cawley: When we shot the pilot, somewhere in the pilot, there's just a line of dialogue when you hear somebody on an intercom saying "Mr Arex, report to the bridge!" So we always wanted to do it, and we toyed with a puppet and we thought about bringing in an actor in makeup, and both of those were just too challenging. So now technology has finally gotten to where you can just create somebody out of thin air.

And I brought it up to Tobias and at first he thought: wait, this is a near-impossible job! And so we just talked about it and it went away. A few weeks later he said: "I've been talking with one of my guys and here's what it's going to look like." Amazing! So they sent us the test and I was just amazed. So I said: "What we're going to do is re-film part of an episode so that we can put Arex into the show." And Tobias was like "O, o, o, let's not do this without ..." I said: "It's okay, we don't have a deadline." He was very excited and so they're off figuring out how they're gonna finish it and make him do all of his movements.

TZN: That first concept image went up at TrekMovie.com and spawned a lot of reactions ranging from "WOW! Looking great!" to "Hm, he looks like an orange human."

Cawley: Which is great! If people think he looks that real that he could be a person, to me that's the highest compliment that we can get. And you know, for a fan to be able to pull off that kind of work is very unique. You just don't see that happening out there with all the other fan films or organizations. It's gonna be a big feather in our cap to be able to do this. It's exciting.

...And M'Ress

TZN: Once we'll have seen Arex, will you introduce other characters that popped up during the Animated Series for example?

Cawley: Well, everybody wants to see Lieutenant M'Ress. And we will probably do her... I think that we will probably use makeup for that character because it's a feline. That gets very easy to do. So that will probably gonna be makeup. We will see her. I don't think there's anybody else from the Animated Series, it was pretty much just the regular crew, so... But we will see those two.

TZN: How far along are those plans for M'Ress?

Cawley: We actually talked about having her for the shoot in October or so, we'll see how it goes. I didn't say that online because everybody was too taken up with Arex, I thought I'm not gonna get them completely off the fence.

What Paramount Thinks of All This

TZN: Now that the new movie established a new universe, does Paramount grant you more leeway with your adventures in the prime universe?

Cawley: Paramount doesn't say anything. They don't say: "You can do this but you can't do that." Five years ago, when we started, they said: "You can make the project, you can make these films but you cannot make money. You can't profit from "Star Trek" because then you'd have to stop." That's the only thing they've ever said. And that's officially.

Unofficially, I talked to a lot of people that work for Paramount over the years and they loved the project. They think we're doing a great job and I think they look at us as free publicity. We keep "Star Trek" alive when they don't have anything new out there for the fans to be involved. And I think that's why they like us. We just try to keep the brand alive, we try to keep the fans active with "Star Trek" so that they're gonna buy the books, and the model kits, and the DVDs and all that stuff. (laughs)

And I think that's why they like us doing this. Certainly, if they didn't like it they would call me up and say: stop! And they never do that. They're very good. They're on my website all of the time, you know, we go to our Analytics and see Paramount and CBS, we know they're there and they like it. They've been very good to us. JJ was very gracious to me, they've just been wonderful. They seem to enjoy it, we enjoy it and it's for mutual benefit. We get to play "Star Trek" and it helps them sell "Star Trek" merchandise.

Looking Ahead: "The Child", "Kitumba"

TZN: By now you have started to adapt scripts that were originally written for the original "Star Trek: Phase II" TV series. Is that the way you imagine the show is gonna progress for the next years?

Cawley: Not really, no. There were a couple of stories that we liked. "The Child" was an accident. I was in Los Angeles, I was at the world premiere of "Star Trek: The Tour", we were guests. And when I walked in I talked to David Fein, who did the director's cut of "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" as a producer. He and I were talking and I said to him: "Where can I find Jon Povill?" My idea was that I would get Jon to write a story for us. And he said: "He's gonna be here tonight, I'll introduce you."

So when Jon came, David introduced me to Jon and I explained to Jon what I was doing. And his first thought was: let's just do "The Child". I stopped and said: "They did it on "The Next Generation"." And he said: "Yes, but it's not the story I wrote. They bastardized my story. So I'd like to see it from the original." And I said: "Okay, let's do it." And that was that. That was so easy. That's why we did "The Child". "Kitumba" was this lost Klingon thing everybody has always wanted to see. So that's why we did "Kitumba" but right now I have no other plans to do those other things, too, those stories.

TZN: Can you tell us a little bit about the story of "Kitumba"?

Cawley: The story is: basically you find out that the Klingons are ruled by this child-king. And his advisor is not a nice guy and he's actually controlling the child and he wants to wage war with the Federation. And one of the child's regents defects. Because he knows that if they go to war with Starfleet they would mutually vanish. Neither side would survive a war. So he wants to warn Starfleet and says: "You have to talk to the Kitumba and stop this war before it starts." So Starfleet says: "Okay, we're gonna send the Enterprise. Captain Kirk, talk to the Kitumba, try to stop this war." - Kirk is like "What? Why, I don't wanna go. Why are you sending us?" So they send the Enterprise, and the whole story is basically a political struggle on the Klingon planet.

You see how the Klingons go from a royalty, a monarchy to the chancellor and the high council. You see the shift in power and you see how the Klingon people are structured. So you have the smooth-head Klingons and all these other races that they've conquered and brought onto their homeworld to serve them. And you see the classic Klingons with the ridges. How they're in power and how they treat their subjects and how they evolve into the Klingons in "The Next Generation". It's a good story and you see for the first time how Kirk finally sees a ridged Klingon for the first time.

TZN: Are you keeping within canon as established in "Enterprise"?

Cawley: Yes. Absolutely. We actually talked about... one of the ways we're actually able to safely travel to Qo'noS is because we have the maps that Archer came up with. So we mention... Kirk actually mentions Archer by name as President Archer. You actually hear that in the episode. We acknowledge all that. We try to keep canon anyway. We try.

When Kirk Met Spock...

TZN: JJ Abrams' movie revealed the origins of Kirk and Spock, and now you're coming out with your own version of that.

Cawley: I'm gonna come out with a version that's in the old universe, or original universe. I read on TrekMovie, when JJ's movie came out, there were a lot of people that posted and said "I wish that James Cawley would tell us this story from the prime universe." And I kind of laughed and I thought, maybe I will. And the more it kept on and the more people were saying that, I thought okay, let's just do it. So we called David Gerrold and said: "You wanna write a story about how Captain Kirk really meets Spock and comes from the academy and goes on the Enterprise?" – "I would love it, let's do it." So that's what we did. And we start shooting in June [2010].

It's vastly different than the new movie. It follows canon very closely. There's a lot of familiar faces people will see: Finnegan is there, Gary Mitchell is there, Carol Marcus is there, Spock is there, Sulu, Chekov, Uhura are there, Captain Pike is there, Number One. We found a cool way to bring Cadet Kirk onto the Enterprise and meet Captain Pike and not violate canon and tell a story. And we're excited, we have a lot of people coming in to do it. We have a perfect young actor who plays me. (laughs)

TZN: A quick follow-up on that. William Shatner a few years ago came out with his version about how Kirk and Spock meet...

Cawley: ...which I haven't read.

TZN: So the script is not influenced by this?

Cawley: Not that I can say. The idea was David Gerrold's story and he would send me the pages and I would go through it and ask: "Can we do this? Can we do this?" I wasn't influenced by Shatner's book and I really wasn't influenced by JJ Abrams' film because it's a whole different set of events, simply because JJs movie is in an alternate universe and Kirk gets rapidly promoted and ends up on Enterprise and these are those things. Our story has a cadet James T. Kirk staying a cadet - not becoming a Captain. (laughs) He starts the story as a cadet and ends the story as a cadet. He just happens to be involved in something that brings him to the Enterprise for a short while. And I can't tell you what, because that would ruin it. (laughs)

TZN: We're looking forward to seeing it then - in 2011?

Cawley: Yeah, well, we're shooting in June and if we're lucky, it'll premiere in December.

TZN: What are your plans beyond theses three episodes?

Cawley: We don't know yet. I have three scripts. Two of them I'm actively figuring out which one I want to do. The only stipulation I have is I have to beam down. We have to location shoot. So as soon as I figure out which one I wanna do, do I wanna play crazy man or do I wanna go after Harry Mudd? If I can figure out which one of those I would rather do, that's what we're shooting. Either I have to play James T. Kirk in an insane asylum or I have to go after Harry Mudd and I still have to figure out which one to do. Those are my choices. One is called "Mindshifter" and the other is called "The Sky Above, the Mudd Below".

Why The Original Series Still Is "Star Trek" At Its Best

TZN: You have been quoted stating that The Original Series was "pure and perfect." Yet interestingly, that was the "Star Trek" show for which Gene Roddenberry had to compromise most. If you look at "The Cage" and the first season of TNG, that's very different. How far would you go in extending that purity and perfectness? Is the Animated Series? Are the first movies?

Cawley: It was. For me, I think, the original "Star Trek", how do I say... the canon... I think every show after The Original Series, all of them worked to fit together. And I think that was one of the things that was unique about "Star Trek". I think that's why there are so many fans. They took care of their own fictional universe. You actually believed that Kirk lived in this time period and that Picard and his crew lived in their time period and DS9 was happening at the same time. They were very careful. Sure, they made some small mistakes in continuity but they did a great job I think keeping track of all the details.

But as far as a series that spoke to everybody ... I think it's still The Original Series. For its time, it was perfect. It was an action show but at its core it was a message show. It showed us that people of all different races here on this silly little planet get along and work together for a better tomorrow. And I think that's what made it perfect.

It was the show that started it all, the stories still hold up, they still make you question. And I don't think the later shows hold up this well. I think TNG, looking back now for 20 years, it's a great show, but looking at it, I think it looks more dated than TOS. That's just me. It looks very Ronald-Reaganish when I look at it. And TOS is still very far out and great colors and its pure science fiction. For instance TNG: a lot of the things we see on that show we have today. We have iPads now, we have communicator phones, we have all these things but TOS had all these colored buttons that if you touched the same button it did 10 things, depending on how, you know... We don't have things that do that. So you have to look at TOS as really science fiction. And everything else afterward, they really tried to grow on its surface, make it more contemporary. - But I hear there's a lot of Nex Gen fans... (laughs)

TZN: CBS some time ago has remastered TOS and they have also released a re-edited version of TMP as a director's cut. What's your opinion on these re-releases?

Cawley: I love them. I think that, first of all they went back to the original negatives and cleaned it all up and it looks the way it was always meant to be seen. I love the new effects. Some of them might have been better but for children today to sit down and be able to see "Star Trek" in that quality - I wish I could have seen it like that 30 years ago. So I think they did a great job and anything that they can do to keep bringing the original back and getting it in front of the audiences' children. To build a new audience is what they should be doing. The director of the first movie actually said that this made it a better film. Still, it's a slow movie but it made it a better movie. It finished it at least.

What's Wrong (and What's Right) With Abrams' Star Trek

TZN: Then JJ Abrams came along and took the classic "Star Trek" under his wing. From a fan point of view, do you think this new vision is the right direction? And if so, what did he do right that was lacking in the last TNG movies?

Cawley: The only movie I think that was lacking was "Nemesis". I thought that was a bad movie, I think they tried too hard to be "The Wrath of Khan", which doesn't fit for TNG. I think JJ Abrams is a spectacular man, a very nice guy. I think the movie is a fun movie, but I don't think that it's "Star Trek". I think it's too far from the well. If I had to make that movie, it would have had more of the philosophy of The Original Series. I think that it was just an action movie.

And is that a bad thing? No. They wanted to reinvent "Star Trek" for a new group of people. Unfortunately, I think they were trying to make "Star Trek" acceptable to the guy in the street. They didn't market the movie to me, or you. They wanted everybody to go see this movie. I don't know if that's a good decision or a bad decision, I really don't know.

I was disappointed with a lot in the movie, more than anything. There were so many things in hindsight when you look at the movie you go: why do they have to parachute through the atmosphere and land on this drill and shoot it with a hand phaser, when they could have shot the core that it's attached to from space? They did so many things just for the cool action thing that the whole philosophy of Gene Roddenberry's "Star Trek" was kinda blown off this thing.

But the movie was successful. They're creating another one, a lot of people had fun, I think the actors were great. I just think they need to be given a better script. We'll see what happens. But they all, everybody who worked on that movie, believed in what they were doing and the movie succeeded in the one thing that it needed to do and that was get people excited about "Star Trek". And that's what it did. It did very well.

Dreams of a New TV Show

TZN: What do you think of Cryptic's interpretation of the "Star Trek" universe for their game "Star Trek Online"?

Cawley: I have no idea, I'm not a videogame player. So I have no idea of what they've done. Sorry guys, I don't play video games. But I want to see another series some day. I don't think we're gonna see it for awhile. I think they're gonna let the feature films play out as long as they can. I think for the next six years, you're not gonna see another series. And that's only if the sequel is a success. There is no guarantee that another movie will be as... you know, if Paramount knew that it was gonna be success, they'll just keep making it. So they make one, and if it makes money, they make another one. So we have to buy tickets.(laughs)

TZN: Let's assume for a moment that JJ Abrams films his next two movies and they're equally successful and then CBS wakes up and says: "We're gonna do a sixth live-action show." Who would be your pick as showrunner? Would it be Manny Coto, Ronald D. Moore, J Michael Straczynski?

Cawley: I think Manny Coto would be brilliant. I think Ron Moore would be brilliant. My only thing is, whoever is doing it has to do it in the original prime universe. I think they need to go to the 25th century and beyond. I think they need to keep going forward. Gene Roddenberry said: "Let's just keep going forward." As far as it's "Star Trek" on television, it needs to keep going forward.

I'm not a fan of "Star Trek" being made as a movie because it's never the same. You have two hours to tell a story. And you don't have a lot of time to build characters. In a serialized show you have 26 episodes in a year to keep building these characters and getting the backstory down. So in a two-hour movie you have a lot in two hours which you can't do. So I'm not a fan of making "Star Trek" as a movie. I'm a fan of "Star Trek" as a television series.

TZN: Would you prefer a kind of "24" with all-season arcs or would you return to the more episodic format?

Cawley: I don't know. If I were the showrunner, I would probably do a serialized show. And if I were gonna do it, I would definitely do it in the 25th century and I would do it on the Enterprise because nobody gives a shit about all these other starships. It's true. The Enterprise is as much a character as Kirk, Picard, any of these people. They're on the Enterprise, that's the show. And I think that's the important thing to do.

I think the reason that I love the original so much, is because the heroes, the characters were these archetypes. You had the all-American boy, you had the alien, the fish out of water, you had the doctor, you had the Scotsman, the engineer. Everybody could identify with somebody. And it was more adventure-based than say TNG. I think the difference on "Next Generation" was that Picard would talk to the bad guy and Kirk would shoot him. (laughs) It's the big difference between the shows. So whatever you do, I think you have to get it back to this action-adventure format to keep the viewers coming back.

What the World Could Learn from "Star Trek"

TZN: What do you do for a living when you're off "Phase II"?

Cawley: The famous question. I'm Elvis. I work for a company called Legends in Concert, that's all different stars and I'm on stage with a live band and orchestra and I play Elvis. I sing and I go around the US in casinos and I play Elvis. I've done that for 24 years this year. So Elvis pays for the Enterprise. That's my job. I've always been an actor in some form or another.

TZN: What are your thoughts on Trek fandom in general?

Cawley: I think "Star Trek" fans are very open-minded. I don't think I have ever met one that hasn't been. I think everybody is very forward-thinking. I think if the world could be run by "Star Trek" fans... (laughs) You know, we'd need a die-hard "Star Trek" fan as the president or the chancellor or the king of every nation.

TZN: The US seemingly has one in Obama...

Cawley: Supposedly. I don't know. I voted for him. I'm disappointed that he's not spending more money on space exploration. I think that's a mistake. I think that all our nations need to think about space and finding another place to live if we keep abusing this planet.

I think we need to stop wasting our money on war and terrorism and killing each other. Look at all we have accomplished since the late 1960s: we put a man on the moon. We have all this great technology. How much better could we be if we can turn our resources to that. And I think "Star Trek" fans all think that way, I think we all - don't we all want that future? We all wanna go to Mars, we all wanna be able to beam... I would have loved to beam to FedCon instead of flying here.

I feel like Gene Roddenberry, I think there's nothing that we can't accomplish if we can turn our positive energies and our resources to working on this. I think we can cure cancer. I think we can be on Mars in 20 years. We can do all these things but we have to stop screwing around. We have to stop worrying about "O, you have the oil, so we have to spend all this money on the oil or fight you." We have to stop before it's too late. Our kids need to start turning the table and start building the 23rd century today or we don't have a chance. I don't wanna live in a world that's like "Blade Runner", I wanna live in Gene Roddenberry's. So we need to start turning our attention to that.

TZN: Thank you for this interview.

Cawley: Thank you, guys.

Pictures by Tobias Richter.

(ck, hk, ge - 29.04.11)

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