For millions, William Shatner is the embodiment of Captain James T. Kirk. That character may belong to the world, but no one knows him better than Shatner himself. So when the actor decided he wanted to interview the five other actors who have played Starship captains in various television and movie versions of “Star Trek,” he selected himself as the director. “The Captains,” a curiously whimsical feature-length documentary, follows Shatner as he engages in soul-searching conversations with Patrick Stewart, Kate Mulgrew, Scott Bakula, Avery Brooks and Chris Pine.
Set to a peaceful jazz score, the movie works like a 97-minute therapy session for the 80-year-old star as he looks at back on the “Star Trek” legacy and discovers newfound appreciation for its lasting appeal. The unorthodox project has landed an unequally unconventional distribution plan: “The Captains” premieres on Epix’s cable channel this Friday, but anyone with an Internet connection can stream the movie for free on Epix’s website as part of a two-week trial subscription.
“The Captains” kicks off an Epix-hosted retrospective of Shatner’s career, also included in the trial and Shatner will promote the event with an appearance at San Diego Comic-Con July 22. In preparation for that appearance, the actor got on the phone with indieWIRE from his L.A. office to discuss the documentary’s production and the other ways in which his career has wandered off the beaten path.
Comic-Con must be a part of your blood now, but this is the first time you’ve premiered a movie you directed there. Are you excited?
I am. I’m going by helicopter while everybody else is going by car. There’s a huge traffic jam running from Los Angeles to San Diego. It could take three hours to drive there on a Thursday night. I’m avoiding that. Being able to avoid that traffic jam is a significant moment in my life.
That means a lot coming from you. In the documentary, you call Captain Kirk “an iconic character.” Is that why you choose to direct the movie?
Well, I’m producing it as well. It’s my project and nobody else could do it, really. Nobody knew the material, the people. Nobody had the significant experiences that I had. I went into it presuming that I would have interesting questions with everybody but I didn’t know what I was going to get and I didn’t know what would happen to me, as we dramatize in “The Captains” the epiphany I had. I had made one other documentary called “William Shatner’s Gonzo Ballet,” which also, by the way, is debuting on Friday on Epix.
But you didn’t direct that one. [Editor’s note: The credited directors are Patrick Buckley Bobby Ciraldo, Kevin Layne and Andrew Swant.]
It’s hard to say exactly what somebody’s doing in a documentary. For example, in “Gonzo Ballet,” which is an hour-long documentary about the making of a ballet–in this case, the Milwaukee Ballet Company dancing to six songs that I wrote with Ben Folds–my camera’s there. I got the footage and edited it. Then I spoke about writing the songs and what the ballet means to me. It makes for a compelling hour in which I permeate everything, but it’s hard to give a name to what it is you do in a documentary. Can you say that Michael Moore writes the documentaries he makes? They evolve. He asks questions and people speak. In a way, by asking questions, he’s writing it. Is he directing it or does he just have a camera on them? So the documentary milieu is a strange one, because it writes itself. If you can find the core of what you’ve done, where you’ve placed your cameras, then you’ve got a documentary.
It sounds like William Shatner is a fan of cinéma vérité. Then again, you’re not exactly a fly on the wall in “The Captains.”
I’m a mosquito sucking blood. (laughs)
You say that nobody knew the material better than you. How did you go about putting the project together?
I was able to sell it in Canada and get basic funding there. Then I called everybody and said, “I’d love to come and talk to you.” Then I had to arrange their dates and fly all over the world. That was more expensive than the budget could take. Even if I had gone commercial, it would’ve been more than the budget could take. In that moment of stress, that inability to move, a Canadian airline manufacturing company offered to lend me an airplane. That was one of the key moments in putting this together.
So what was the budget?
At that moment, it was a couple hundred thousand dollars. It eventually became more, but that was what I had to spend at that moment in time.
It’s interesting to consider the fact that somebody with your name recognition still has to struggle with fundraising challenges.
If you have a script and you say, “This is the script I’d like to make, and I have so-and-so interested,” then that has a value. If you say to somebody, “I’d like to go talk to five other people who played the captain on ‘Star Trek,'” they say, “Well, what you are you gonna get?” Well, I don’t know. So it’s a nebulous project. Now, what might happen is that if I want to make another documentary, I can show them “The Captains” and say, “This is what I did.” But I can’t guarantee that will help. Who’s going to give you a million dollars for something like this?
The movie feels like an expression of your nostalgia, as well as a way for you to come to grips with the aging process.
I’m so glad you said that. It is a personal document of mine. My heart and soul are in it, and you can see it. I didn’t realize that until we got into the editing room. The big question by the distributor was, “Who’s going to interview you?” And I said, “Well, I’ll make this a conversation, so that while conversing with these people, I will respond by giving them some of my experiences as well.” But I didn’t really know quite what I was talking about, and I certainly didn’t anticipate the moments of awareness that happened.
You include a lot of scripted bits, such as arm-wrestling with Chris Pine outside the Paramount lot in Hollywood, and walking through the forest in the U.K. when you happen upon Patrick Stewart.
I wanted to find a way of talking to them, easing them into conversation, without sitting down and saying it’s an interview. So for each person, I try to find some amusing way into it, so it becomes a fun conversation.
You’ve always been open to making fun of your celebrity, based on the familiarity people have with “Star Trek” in general and Captain Kirk in particular. As a result, most of your earlier work doesn’t get much attention. For example, you’re really good in Roger Corman’s “The Intruder.”
Those roles are all in the past, just as much of my life is. It really doesn’t matter to me. What matters to me is this extraordinary album I’m doing called “Seeking Major Tom,” which will be coming out in the fall, and a book called “Shatner Rules,” which will be coming out in the middle of October. I’m releasing a book and an album within a week of each other. Those are major things for me. I’m beginning to figure out how to do all this. It’s a little late in my life, but better late than never.
“Star Trek” just became available on Netflix Instant. How do you feel about people discovering the show for the first time this way?
It’s great. You know, I do some “Star Trek” conventions from time to time. The audience there is composed of six-year-olds and 60-year-olds. It’s a huge crossover. Adults brings their kids. There are moments that are…so touching that they’re hard to repeat. From this moderately successful television show, people have taken away life experiences. As I say in “The Captains,” I always used to disparage it, but I don’t anymore.
Do you have a subscription to Netflix?
I do, and I’m changing the subscription to the lesser amount (laughs). I think it’s $9.99 for the year. You know they’re raising the prices?
So you’re switching to streaming only?
You must have a preference for streaming, since “The Captains” is streaming online for free this weekend.
Using the technology to its utmost. It’s extraordinary to me.
You’re very active on Twitter. How has that affected your career?
I think about it on two levels. One is that I’m able to communicate with people, and that’s fun. The other, as you point out, is that it’s a means of promoting things I’ve done that I want people to hear about. So it’s wonderfully communicative.
You were recently kicked off Google+, then got reinstated after tweeting about it. What happened there?
They didn’t think it was me because of the kind of things that were written on it. They thought it wasn’t me because there were a lot of people imitating me. I put up a stink about it, so they realized it must be me, and they renewed me.
So how are you liking it?
Well, it’s fun. I don’t technically know how to do it, so I have people help me, but I’m telling them what I want to say on it.
While on the topic of social media, what do you make of the “Shit My Dad Says” phenomenon? The twitter feed spawned a show in which you starred, but it has since been canceled.
It was a miracle. A guy gets on the web and says, “This is what my dad said,” and four people listen. Within a week, he’s got a million and a half followers. Within three months, he’s got a network and a studio deal. Within six months, he’s got a series. A year after that, it’s off the air. I don’t know why they canceled it. In Canada, it’s in the top 10. All the other speaking countries had it in the top 10. It was often in the top 20 here in the States. I don’t know.
It’s not like you don’t have other things to do with your time.
I’ve got a lot of things to do. In a strange way, because so much of my life I look back and say, “it was meant to be that way” when something doesn’t happen, it usually works out.
Last month, you received an honorary doctorate from McGill University. Would you ever consider teaching?
No. I know so little. I’m in a position of having to learn. I’m not equipped to teach. I don’t have the ego for it.