TREKKING THROUGH LIFE:
An Interview With Eric Stillwell
by Michelle Erica Green
Eric Stillwell's adult life has been permeated with Star Trek. He co-wrote the only Emmy-nominated episode of The Next Generation, founded a company which produced conventions, and is currently working as producer Michael Piller's assistant while Piller finishes the screenplay for the ninth Star Trek feature.
In a way, though, this is a demotion. As the founder of Starfleet International, he used to be the captain of his own starship, as well as the head of the vast fan organization.
"I started a local club in Eugene, Oregon, where my family moved," Stillwell explains. "The group was like a ship, and I was the captain, and the members were all officers." That was the beginning of Starfleet, a fan group which at one time numbered more than 10,000 members and is still active today. Stillwell discovered from A Star Trek Catalogue - a book about fandom from the 1970s that included the first comprehensive listing of fan organizations - that there were other clubs structured like starships all over the country. So he started writing to all the other groups, forming a common network.
Though Gene Roddenberry was a bit concerned about the structure of the organization - "Gene didn't want it to become too militaristic," with people competing to become commodores and giving orders - the club had the sanction of the series creator, thus making Stillwell a known quantity to Trekkers both professional and amateur. Following a 1982 Starlog article, the club gained about three thousand new members in a few months, and still has people in chapters all over the world - South Africa, England, Australia. At one point, Starfleet was competing with Dan Madsen's to become The Official Fan Club and Stillwell met with the Paramount licensing department, but Madsen's club got the license because they were willing to pony up the ten thousand dollar fee.
Stillwell ran Starfleet into his college years, and met Susan Sackett, one of Roddenberry's assistants and the author of Star Trek Speaks. As plans fell into place for The Next Generation, the young writer graduated and moved to Los Angeles. He submitted his resume to Sackett, then production associate on TNG, who passed it on to producer Bob Justman. There were no openings at the time, so Stillwell took a job on the lot as a page, mostly working as a tour guide. He ran into Justman at the studio premiere of the pilot episode, and Justman - impressed that Stillwell had never tried to sneak onto the sets or hang around the offices - asked whether the younger man was still interested in working on the series. A few weeks later, Stillwell was offered a position as a production assistant...despite the fact that he had failed to recognize Rick Berman at the premiere where he was working as a bouncer, and very nearly threw the executive producer out of the place!
"In Gene's office, being a fan was not a negative on your record," Stillwell notes, adding that production staff members like Mike Okuda were fans before they worked on the series. Stillwell was a P.A. (as they're known on the lot) for two years. During that time, the script coordinator went on a leave of absence and never came back. "After the time expired, they decided to terminate the position, but because I had always been the P.A. who worked with her, I started having to work as the script typist when things had to be finished on the scripts." It was chaotic, so Rick Berman's assistant submitted a proposal to reinstate the position, and recommended Stillwell for the job. Since "script coordinator" sounds like "script supervisor," a union position, the job title was changed to "pre-production associate."
Stillwell was the pre-production associate for three years - meaning that he was responsible for typing, correcting, and distributing the teleplays. He was also responsible for dealing with the deluge of fan-submitted material under the policy instituted by Piller for evaluating spec scripts, which are sent out to union readers, then either passed along to the producers or returned to the writers with thanks-but-no-thanks letters.
Despite his proximity to the day-to-day production, Stillwell remained a fan. He attended Star Trek V: The Final Frontier at the studio with his writing partner Trent Christopher Ganino, "and we said, ‘We can do better than this!'" The two promptly went to a diner and started working on an outline. Ganino had already written a story called "Yesterday's Enterprise," in which the Enterprise-D encountered an Enterprise from the past. "The dilemma for Picard and company is whether to send them back, knowing that they are doomed...and if they don't, could it alter history?"
Stillwell had heard that the producers were interested in a storyline which gave them an excuse to bring back Denise Crosby's character Tasha Yar, and with Ganino came up with another plot featuring Spock's father Sarek, whose research with the time-altering Guardian of Forever from the original series triggered the death of Vulcan philosopher Surak and subsequent rise of a Vulcan-Romulan Empire at war with the Federation. In that universe, Worf didn't exist, and Yar was still on the Enterprise. "We actually had Sarek deciding to stay in the past to become Surak - that story started because when I was a kid, I always thought Sarek and Surak sounded too much alike!" Stillwell laughs. "I stormed into Michael's office and said, ‘My writing partner and I have a story,' and I did an impromptu pitch, which was the first time I had ever pitched, but I hadn't planned it so I wasn't nervous."
Piller was enthusiastic about the idea of a character from the present series who would have to go back in time to set the past straight. "Of course, they ended up changing that - Tasha decided to stay in the past, but that wasn't why things went back to normal," Stillwell adds, rolling his eyes at the fact that they later changed the story to have her survive and be captured by Romulans. Piller wasn't interested in the story about Sarek and the Guardian of Forever, but he liked the idea that Tasha was alive, and had to go back in time to fix the past. "They gave us ten days to write a story with Tasha as the focus. It was Gene Roddenberry's idea that Guinan would play the psychic who would know that they were in an altered timeline - they needed a gimmick, so that the crew would know things weren't as they were supposed to be, and Gene came up with that."
"Yesterday's Enterprise" was one of the most popular episodes ever, and earned Trek a rare Emmy nomination. "I'll never forget that, when they were doing the movie, Rick Berman was quoted saying that if they had known in the early years of the series that they were going to be making a movie, they would have saved ‘Yesterday's Enterprise' for the first Next Generation feature. Nothing like being in the right place at the wrong time!" exclaims Stillwell.
Despite these successes, when he learned towards the end of the fifth season that the producers were planning another series - Deep Space Nine - which would film concurrently with TNG, he realized that he was getting burned out. Stillwell recalls, "We were all afraid they were going to make everyone do double duty, and it would be a nightmare." At around the same time, he was offered a job with Creation, and went to work for the convention giant. A couple of years later, he left Creation and started his own company. Horizon Entertainment got off to a good start, putting on a gala con in Britain among others, but when Next Generation went off the air, "the convention market just sort of collapsed, and we hadn't been around long enough to weather the downturn."
When he found that he couldn't make a living producing cons for the fans, Stillwell went back to the studio. He had co-written a Voyager episode in the interim, the highly-acclaimed first season installment "Prime Factors," with a new writing partner, David R. George III. Stillwell and George also worked with Armin Shimerman (Quark) on some pitches for Deep Space Nine, one of which is being reworked as a novel for Pocket Books' Star Trek line.
"They were welcoming, but they weren't going to make a position for me," Stillwell says of his return to Paramount. "Luckily, one of the assistants left while I was temping for [Voyager executive producer] Jeri Taylor. Sandra Sena [then Piller's assistant] knew that Michael was planning to leave the show, and she wanted to stick with it. So I became Michael's assistant, and she became Jeri's." Shortly after Stillwell started working for Piller in 1996, Piller stepped down as executive producer of the Trek shows to pursue other projects, though he remains a creative consultant.
In addition to the next film, Piller has multiple projects in development, including a non-Trek feature and three or four different TV pilots. Stillwell laughs, "They're all in different stages of - as we call it in Hollywood - development hell. There's a TV movie which is supposed to be filmed in Budapest this year. Right now we're doing all the script revisions on the Star Trek feature - all the revisions come to Michael through me, and through me back to the production. It all starts at my fingertips!"
A political science major in college, Stillwell assists with all the clerical office duties and acts as script coordinator for Piller's projects. He says that Piller encourages feedback and is open to suggestions, but Stillwell doesn't butt in all that often. "When I was younger, one of the things Bob Justman told me was that the fastest way to be successful in Hollywood was to be a writer, so I pursued that to some degree," he recalls. "For a long time I thought I'd like to be a writer, [but] I lost the motivation to focus on it. I don't want to spend every waking moment trying to make a million dollars, so that I spend every waking moment at the studio working my butt off. Now, my interests are not as much about working in Hollywood - my wife (a nurse who acts as a manager for several Trek actors) and I want to get a house and have a decent income and have a life. It's about being happy."
Still, it's a long way to have come for a kid from Idaho who got his start in fandom creating a petition to get reruns of Star Trek back on the air when they were yanked one summer. Starfleet, the organization that he founded, is still going strong. Stillwell won't reveal any secrets about the new movie, but he does have a recent claim to fame. "You know in "Far Beyond the Stars" [a recent Deep Space Nine episode] where Sisko is typing on an old typewriter and there's a close-up on the page? I did that typing!" he exclaims. It's not quite a cameo, but close enough.