JONATHAN FRAKES, DIRECTOR:
Steering the Star Trek Franchise
by Michelle Erica Green
Star Trek has been very, very good to Jonathan Frakes, and he's the first to admit it. He's set to start shooting the next film for the franchise this week, reprising his role as director as well as that of First Officer William Riker. "I've been calling the movie Star Trek: Nine of Ten," he jokes, acknowledging the current popularity of Star Trek: Voyager character Seven of Nine as well as the so-called "odd-numbered curse" which plagues Trek films, of which the even-numbered installments have been more successful. The actor's last outing as a director for the franchise resulted in the very popular Star Trek: First Contact, and he's worked on Trek television episodes and CD-ROMs in the interim.
"This movie is more romantic than the movies from the past," Frakes says. "You get the same big dose of action and space battles and wonderful new high-tech 24th century science, but the core of the movie is more romantic. I've been describing it as Lost Horizon meets For Whom the Bell Tolls with a touch of All the President's Men." When I spoke to him, the director was in the midst of auditioning ten-year-olds to play a child who shares a storyline with Brent Spiner's character Data. Rumor has it that Picard will be romancing one of the three guest stars, and that Riker and Deanna Troi will finally get together - something Frakes specifically requested.
"I've given up on ever becoming captain, but I certainly have asked them to rekindle the Riker/Troi relationship - I think the fans miss it, and I know Marina [Sirtis] and I miss it. My wife always thought the best work I did on the show was the work I did with Marina. We had very good chemistry." The producers have already discarded several working titles, reportedly including Star Trek: Millennium, Star Trek: Nemesis, and Star Trek: Stardust, the latter of which was the favorite of Frakes. "In the original script, they had me playing Hoagy Carmichael [on the trombone]. That's gone now, but I wish it were back, because I think that's a lovely title and I love the song."
Frakes likes to talk about trombone playing, something he has done since he marched with the band at Penn State University. He played it on Star Trek: The Next Generation, but was often dubbed by someone else onscreen. "When Riker played badly, it was me, but when he was playing well, it was Bill Watrous," confesses Frakes. "My kid still thinks I'm good, though. He recognizes Star Trek when it's on, that's Daddy's show."
Frakes and his wife, actress Genie Francis, seem destined to be forever associated with the characters they play in their respective hit franchises - Frakes as Riker from Star Trek, Francis with Laura Spencer from General Hospital. "There are far worse fates," observes Frakes, though he adds, "It's double-edged," since they each have large followings and are very recognizable to television viewers. His exposure to soap opera audiences has given him perspective on Trekkers, who are reputed to be among the most intense fans. "Her fans are as fanatical, if not more, with the Luke-and-Laura thing that Genie's involved with," he claims.
Frakes' and Francis' two children are growing up around television sets, though both desire to spend more time away from work with their family. "We get no sleep--we have to let them into bed with us," he groans. "I took my son to the set when I shot the first movie, but he knows more about Mommy's show than he does about Daddy's - whenever we go anyplace where there are lights overhead, it's Mommy's work."
Though he's looking forward to the shoot, Frakes is not pleased about the amount of time he'll have to spend away from his family during the next several weeks. "I'm looking to find more time with the kids - it's a bear," he admits. "It becomes very intense, demanding time, especially the shooting schedule - the prep is bad and the postproduction is bad, but when you shoot the movie, you are gone, you lose your family, you lose every other part of your life. That's tough with kids, and it's tough on a marriage." His character will not be onscreen as much as Picard and Data, who will be getting most of the screen time - "and the money," laughs Frakes, referring to the reported negotiations with Patrick Stewart and Brent Spiner which dragged during the weeks before the contracts were signed.
Frakes had much more involvement with the development of this film than he did with First Contact, which had a nearly complete script when he was brought in to direct. "I was in on story meetings with [scriptwriter] Michael Piller and [executive producer] Rick Berman since around Christmas. So I saw a very early draft, and I saw some things get thrown out and reworked. I was sort of a third opinion in the room on this one - I wouldn't be so bold as to say that I had story input, but we've all worked together a long time, so we have a certain amount of mutual respect and awareness of the franchise and the characters."
Frakes expresses great respect for Berman and Piller, the executive producers of The Next Generation for most of his years with the series, and says he enjoyed collaborating with them in this new capacity. "It's always good to have another set of ears and eyes, especially since those guys have been so close to it and so far inside it; they told me it's been good for them to have a fresh set of eyes on it," he adds.
Although he directed theatrical productions in college, the actor got most of his directing experience on the sets of The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager, along with other television shows and some CD-ROMs and specials. While he doesn't usually have time to watch the two ongoing Trek shows, he catches up on then when he directs them, "and I have friends on both those shows, so I catch up with them, too." He calls DS9 executive producer Ira Behr "a very smart writer and producer," and adds that that show also has "a wonderful cast, a little more testosterone-driven than Voyager, which Seven of Nine certainly kicked up."
Frakes played William Riker's clone Tom - a character he would like to revive - on a controversial Deep Space Nine episode in which he stole the Defiant on a mission for the Maquis. "Marina always says, 'I like Tom better, I think he's cuter!' Tom is a little more fun," Frakes agrees. "I was under the impression that they were going to bring him back, I heard a rumor that Nana [Visitor, who plays Kira] would come and rescue me from a Cardassian prison. It seems like a no-brainer to me, but that hasn't happened. I liked doing that show - I like being part of this whole franchise." Frakes also made an appearance on Voyager as Will Riker when Q dragged him across the galaxy to put in an appearance at the trial of another Q.
Frakes is the only person to have appeared on and directed episodes of all three series from this generation, but he had never directed a feature film when he was called for First Contact. "The feature's a bigger animal, but [TV and film] aren't as different as one might think, except that the stakes are higher," he observes, noting that there's more pressure on him this time out because the previous film was so successful at the box office. "The shots can be more elaborate, you can delegate a lot, and you hire the best - my philosophy when I first got the job on First Contact was to surround myself with people who had made a lot of movies, to help me make my first movie. And that really worked. A lot of those people are back," including the production designer, the special effects crew, and the director of photography, "so it worked out quite well."
The new film is scheduled to start shooting March 30th for 62 days, then to go into heavy post-production so that the movie will be in the theaters November 20th. Most of the locations will be local, which pleases the director since it means he doesn't have to travel far from his family. The week I talked to him from his production office at Paramount, he was in the midst of scouting locations and auditioning some of the supporting players: "I'm on my way out to go look at how flooded where we're supposed to build our town is!"
Frakes was called to direct the CD-ROM "Star Trek: Klingon" by Keith Halpern of Simon and Schuster Interactive Division, whom Frakes knew from various Paramount Trek projects. He has made several CDs at this point. His production company, Goepp Circle, which has gotten 275 scripts this year - mostly genre - is working on developing a Michael Crichton-written project. "I would like to direct a small romantic comedy, but no one seems to be dropping those on my desk," he sighs.
Still, he's delighted with the offers he's receiving. He is in negotiation to direct Total Recall 2, a sequel to the enormously successful 1990 film, in which Frakes hopes Arnold Schwarzenegger will reprise his role. "It's in development, but nothing has been signed," his assistant reports. If the deal goes through, Frakes would direct and his partner Lisa Owen would produce the film. While Frakes doesn't generally surf the web, he says that Owen does, and she keeps him informed. He worries, "I can't imagine if I got hooked, I get so little reading done anyway." He'd rather watch his son play computer games than go on the net himself.
In terms of fantasy projects, Frakes says he likes the variety that's offered to him, though he demands to know "What happened to Gargoyles?" He performed the voice of David Xanatos on the Disney animated series, which also featured appearances by Sirtis, Spiner, Kate Mulgrew, and many other Trek actors. "Why did they cancel it? I thought it was a huge success!" he exclaims. "That was a really good gig, I wish that was still around."
One of Frakes' favorite jobs is the Fox series Beyond Belief, a show about controversial phenomena which he hosts. "That's the best gig in the world," he declares. "The people are wonderful, somebody else does the writing, I go in and do a couple of episodes in a day and then do the voice-overs on another day. It's one long day to shoot a couple of episodes and then a few hours to finish the episode up - it's manageable, and it's a good show, and it's intelligent writing. And people like it. There's a lot to be said for that."
Is he interested in the subject matter? "I seem to have become the spokesperson for the paranormal!" he notes incredulously, but quickly adds, "I'm much more interested than I ever thought I was going to be. I've gotten a healthy respect for some of the questions that it asks - I was certainly a skeptic when I did Alien Autopsy." Asked how he feels about The X-Files' parodies of it, he exclaims, "What a great show!" and asks whether there's any dish on the movie. "That's our old director, Rob Bowman, directing that movie - he was a big Star Trek director for three or four seasons of our show," Frakes says proudly.
The actor has stayed close with many of his Next Generation co-stars as well as with the crew, several of whom are working on the movie. "I just had dinner with Patrick last week, Brent I talked to yesterday morning, Marina I talked to yesterday afternoon, [Michael] Dorn's in San Diego shooting the Tiger Woods story - he just directed another episode of Deep Space Nine," he reports. "We are, for some strange reason, all still friends. I spoke to Denise Crosby [who left the series during the first season] - I love Denise."
"The quality of the people I work with, their humor and intelligence and souls and varied interests, are my favorite thing about it," Frakes continues. "I love the actors obviously, we all come from the same place, but I'm talking about the department heads too - Berman and I have worked together for about a dozen years now. Herbert Zimmerman, the production designer, is a wonderful, intriguing, bright, intelligent man. I was sitting the other day, we had been location scouting and had stopped for lunch, and nobody was talking about the film - we were all talking about travel and horses and water and flying and books, it was inspiring."
Even so, the Bethlehem, Pennsylvania native wants to move back to the east coast - "We're working to that end," he says. Of life in Hollywood, he allows, "I hate it - I would like to get out, I'm hoping to be able to live somewhere that I really would like to live and do a movie every so often that I have some input into. That's the ideal." While he occasionally misses doing live theater, which he describes as "a great place to have come from," he says, "I'm glad I'm not trying to raise kids on the money I made in the theater, though!"
Frakes did appear with Next Generation actors Stewart, Spiner, Gates McFadden, and Colm Meaney in a touring production of Every Good Boy Deserves Favour during one hiatus from filming. He's not dying to perform classical repertory as Stewart has done, but he envies Spiner's success on Broadway in 1776. "Theater is dreadful in L.A. - very difficult, and virtually nonexistent," he points out, adding that there are several musicals he wishes he could perform.
As for Star Trek conventions, he does "fewer than I used to, but I still do them - they're a blast. I think it's an incredible phenomenon." He says of his favorite TNG episode, "The Best of Both Worlds," that the two parter was "as good as TV gets." He also has a soft spot for "The Offspring," the first episode he directed, in which Data loses a child he created.
Frakes isn't ready to give up acting, but he does imagine he'll do more and more directing as time goes on, particularly if the new film is as well-received as anticipated. "The hours are the only down side, what it takes away from your family is the only down side," he says. "People always kid and say god, I would hate to have to work for a living, but a lot of it is work - it's work because it's demanding, and it takes a lot of preparation and concentration. But it's a wonderful place to be creative and to play, too."