Nick Cook is the brains behind Intrepid: A Star Trek Fan Film, in which he stars as Captain Daniel Hunter. With Star Trek: Discovery on the horizon, he joined us to discuss the future of fan productions following the introduction of official Star Trek fan film guidelines.
For anyone who doesn’t know, just tell us a little bit about Intrepid and how you got into making fan films in the first place.
Basically I used to run a Star Trek fan club in Dundee. The internet was getting bigger and people were downloading their episodes online and people were less interested in going to clubs. The interaction just wasn’t there anymore. So we were wrapping the club up and I was busy with work anyway. We thought we would do an audio novel as a bit of fun. And then someone suggested, why not just do a fan film? And I thought okay, I’ve seen Starship Exeter, I’ve seen Hidden Frontier – that’ll be easy, we can do that… and it wasn’t really as easy as we thought. So we spent about four or five years working on the first one because we didn’t really have a clue what we were doing and perhaps some people would perhaps suggest we still don’t have a clue what we’re doing. Basically it just grew out of a desire to have something to do as a group of fans together and have a bit of fun.
How did that evolve? Did lots of people want to get involved?
I guess the first thing that happened was I made contact with Rob Cage from Hidden Frontier and we chatted a little and talked about doing a little crossover and they’d shoot some footage for us. So after that we decided that we’d team up and do a little short together. My wife and I were planning a trip to LA. We thought we’d visit, hang out for a couple of days and do something fun. That’s how ‘Orphans of War’ happened. That’s a 10 minute short, team up between the crews of the Intrepid and the Excelsior and it was really just a lot of fun.
I’m not sure if that was just insanity but that was how Beta Shield came about which we did, I think the year after. That was really good fun and really quite ambitious and a lot of work. And you compare to things like Star Trek: New Voyages or Star Trek Continues or whatever, it doesn’t look anywhere near as professional as those but you know what? We achieved an awful lot. We didn’t have $100,000 or $200,000 worth of funding. We did it all out of our pockets, we were amateurs, we had fun and we produced a movie. Now you can argue about whether that movie was any good or not – that’s an entirely subjective thing I guess. We’re proud we managed to achieve something that, at the time, nobody else had done – a fan film, two groups on totally different continents. And that to me is what the fan film community is about –people coming together with a common interest and just enjoying what they do.
How do you react to these much bigger and glossier productions, particularly in the states?
I enjoy them. To me they’re fan films whether they’re made with two kids with a camcorder and a couple of off the shelf costumes or you’ve got several thousand dollars and it’s professional who just enjoy having fun with Star Trek.
Hidden Frontier was the first fan film I saw and I remember watching it and going “Hmmm, not sure if I like this.” And I didn’t really watch that again until I saw Starship Exeter and I watched that and I thought “actually, this is good, this is fun.” Then I went back to Hidden Frontier and I actually properly saw what they were doing. I know a lot of people see fan films and think – this looks like rubbish. Actually, look beyond it and see the substance that’s going on there. You can tell a good story in an empty room with one actor. You don’t have to have multi-million dollar visual effects, you don’t have to have expensive costumes. People sometimes get a little too wrapped up in the trappings and they don’t see the substance that’s there. Now I’m not saying that every fan film you see is gold but there’s a lot of stuff there that is really good and people will turn a blind idea to it because it doesn’t match their perceptions of what Star Trek should be or what films should be.
In a very short space of time, greater access to technology has changed the way fan films are made. Comparing 10 years ago to now when many people own phones that can shoot HD, it’s a very different landscape.
The technology that’s there now, is amazing. It is, as you say, in the palm of your hand. When we shot ‘Heavy Lies the Crown’ which is our first film, that’s not even in standard definition. Steve Hammond directed it and did all of the editing and all of the keying pretty much single handed. He often tells the story that he chose to encode the footage – captured from an off the shelf camcorder – at 512 resolution because there wasn’t the storage space to capture it standard definition to be able to edit it. Now you can have 4k footage off a still camera and I can edit it off my Mac desktop easily and it looks great. And that technology is available to everyone. You can do all that stuff so easily now and that’s one of the reasons I think the fan film guidelines are not a bad thing.
There was clearly an escalation in fan films. Whether that’s because of the technology or because of access to crowdfunding platforms, something changed and these films got bigger and more elaborate with some even paying actors and creating business models. Do you think there was always going to be a crisis point when CBS and Paramount would start taking notice?
I think there was a clear escalation over the last few years, largely with crowdfunding but also with the number of professional and there was an increasing monetisation of it. It’s probably not the most popular opinion but with all the perks that were being offered in various productions, I’m not surprised that the studio ended up saying “Actually guys, this is enough.” They have to protect their trademarks and their copyrights or they’ll lose them.
The studio has never been anything but kind in that they’ve ignored us pointedly for years. I remember we were being interviewed by, I think it was CNN, about 7 or 8 years ago. I know for a fact that the guy who interviewed us approached the studio for a quote and they refused point blank to say anything. They knew we were here and they knew what we were doing. They could easily have said “we don’t approve of this” but they didn’t. They just had no comment.
You’ve obviously had a fair bit if media attention through the years. Was that something that surprised you or do you just accept that’s a factor of the growing visibility of the online community?
The big surge in press happened around 2007 and it was off the back of a New York Times article that was largely about Starship Farragut. John Broughton who has produced Starship Farragut since the mid-2000s is a really nice guy; he’s a clever guy – he knows what he’s doing. Somehow he managed to get the New York Times interested in fan films – largely around Starship Farragut but also in the wider community that was starting to build up. Obviously at the time Star Trek fan films were not a big thing, they hadn’t had a lot of exposure. So the New York Times did this article and we were literally half a sentence in this. Who knew that the New York Times was so widely read? The very next day, I was being phoned by press agencies trying to reach me at the hospital I work at. And I think at the time, it was a curiosity and I think the press is largely over that curiosity now.
So what was your first response when you heard that the fan charter was going to imposed on fans?
I don’t believe we ever needed guidelines. I think by and large, the people who made fan films understood, you don’t make money off this, you don’t monetise it. When I first read the guidelines, I’ll admit I was disappointed. I thought, “we can’t make costumes, what are we going to do?” Then I read them again and it doesn’t say we can’t make costumes. It just says if you’re buying stuff, buy licenced stuff – well actually that’s fair enough. I looked at the time guidelines and thought, I can work within those guidelines. And actually, most of the stuff I’ve done sits well within the time constraints. The last thing I did was under 12 minutes. You can tell a good solid story within 15 minutes. If you’ve got half an hour to play with, that’s even better. Limitations are often the spark creativity needs and I think putting limitations on things sometimes makes people more creative.
The other thing about these guidelines and its stressed very strongly – these are guidelines, these are not rules My personal feeling is that nothing has really changed and I actually don’t think that if people don’t stick entirely to the guidelines they’re going to get stepped on. If you start selling things or raising large sums of money, I think they might intervene. If you make a 35 minute story instead of a 30 minute story then I don’t think they’re going to bother. I think if you’re using recurring characters, they’re not going to bother. I think the people who are doing ongoing series are going to have to adapt slightly and not market what they’re producing as a series but I don’t think there’s anything that prohibits using recurring characters or recurring settings.
I also like the fact that they say that they will allow fan films to have a presence at official conventions. This has not been allowed at all in the past and actually previously, there’s been the unwritten guideline that you don’t mess with us, we won’t mess with you. They’re not saying if you adhere to these guidelines, we may even acknowledge you. Now in some ways – I’m not saying we’re sanctioned – but we’re actually working with their blessing which I think is really very nice.I understand why some people are disappointed about that but as someone who has been working in this kind stuff for quite a few years, I’m actually very optimistic about this and very energised by this.
What have you got in the pipeline? Any plans to step back on board Intrepid?
Absolutely! There’s a film we shot actually a few years ago that’s been on the back burner. I’m shooting a couple of scenes to wrap that up soon. I have a couple of shorts which are sitting in post at the moment, just 5 minute things but I think they are pretty cute stories. And I currently have a script sitting on my hard drive that I wrote called ‘Echoes’ which is kind of a 50th anniversary tribute type thing. I’m hoping to shoot that before the year is through and I think that is actually a pretty fun tale and is very much a legacy of Star Trek type story.
Speaking of legacy, how do you think they handled the 50th anniversary year?
I would have liked to have seen more stuff actually. I’m really looking forward to the new series. I love the lineup of writers they’ve got including Kirsten Beyer who writes the Voyager relaunch novels and she’s a really good writer – she gets characterisation and she gets story arks.
I really, really, really would have liked to have seen a Star Trek: The Next Generation-era TV movie, just to give these guys one last outing. And I think there’s demand for these things. Look at The X-Files revival. It did really well. I grew up with the original series and I hated TNG when it started. By the third season, I was completely converted. These days, I’m definitely more a TNG fan than I am an original series. I love them both but I like TNG more.
And in the build up to Discovery, the entire Trek back-catalogue has arrived on Netflix, perfect to open it up to a whole new audience.
Deep Space Nine as a Star Trek series was a little bit ahead of its time. Obviously it was coming out around the same time as Babylon 5 which was much more serialised storytelling. DS9 did it in a slightly less rigid way. Babylon 5 was like one long novel whereas DS9 was like a series of novellas. I think it was probably the most nuanced of the Star Trek series. As much as I loved TNG, it didn’t do well in the nuance and it was always a little bit too perfect in places.
And just to wrap up, what has being a fan filmmaker taught you?
I view Star Trek as a fan very differently than I did before I started making films. Almost universally, I’ve met wonderful people through the fan film community. I think some of the best Star Trek fans I’ve met are the people making fan films. People can laugh and point fingers and make jokes about cardboard sets, ill-fitting costumes, bad green screens and weak acting as much as they like. But people who make fan films are enjoying what they do. They’re doing something that a lot of these people who are pointing fingers and laughing don’t have the guts to do. You can sit on the sidelines and laugh and you might even be right in what you’re laughing at but you’re not the one going out and doing it. Go and do it yourself and do better. It’s wish fulfilment. Put on a Star Trek costume, run around a ship, sleep with a green girl, shoot the alien. It’s fun!
Nick Cook, thank you very much for joining us.