INTERVIEW: 11 Out Of Context Questions About FREE ENTERPRISE with Star Trek Guru and Director Robert Meyer Burnett

Star Trek Guru and Co-Writer and Director of the cult geek comedy FREE ENTERPRISE [1998] Robert Meyer Burnett, talks with TV STORE ONLINE about the origins of FREE ENTERPRISE, a possible sequel and why he isn't a fan of J.J. Abrams STAR TREK.
TV STORE ONLINE:  Robert, Thanks for taking the time to chat today!

BURNETT:   Not a problem.

TV STORE ONLINE:   What was the idea behind the writing of FREE ENTERPRISE?  I know you co-wrote the film with Mark Altman...So how did the two of you get hooked up in the first place?

BURNETT:    Well, I had been a fan of Mark Altman's work. Mark was not only the Co-Writer of FREE ENTERPRISE but also the Co-Producer. I was a fan of his, in awe of Mark's 100 page retrospectives that he would write on each season of Star Trek: The Next Generation [1987-98] for Cinemafantastique magazine. In 1994, when I was working here in Los Angeles at Full Moon Entertainment, Mark had started his own magazine, Sci-Fi Universe. I was a huge fan of that magazine too. Full Moon co-sponsored, although with Sci-Fi Universe, a screening at the San Diego Comic Con of the film OBLIVION [1994], in which George Takei starred. I met Mark there, and from like 1994 to 1997 we became the best of friends. Mark would drag me around to Star Trek conventions that he was putting on for Creation Entertainment. We traveled all over the place, and eventually we just started producing stuff together. We produced the Sci-Fi Universe Awards here in Los Angeles at the El Rey Theater. We put together a sci-fi kids day at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas when the STAR WARS Special Edition was released in 1997. 

Both of us wanted to make movies so we started working on a script together. We wrote DAY OF ATONEMENT, which I always thought of as the Jewish EXORCIST. The same way Catholicism informs the vampire myth, we were using Yiddish folktales and mythology to come up with some sinister material. Ultimately, the script just didn't work. It Some time passed, and I was off working for Landmark Entertainment on The Star Trek Experience, which used to be located at the Las Vegas Hilton. I was working as an editor. Mark called me one day and says, "I've got to read you this scene that I've just written". He reads me the scene from FREE ENTERPRISE where the character of "Rob" walk into Junior High School and gets beaten up while wearing a Starfleet uniform to school the day STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE [1979] is released. But in his version of this story, Mark had William Shatner appear to Rob and give him advice, allowing him to turn the tables on the bully. Mark asked me what I thought about it, and I told him that I thought it was really funny. A couple weeks later, Mark hands me a 250 page words-on-paper draft. 

At that time we were going to call the film TREKKERS because we were using the film SWINGERS [1996] as our inspiration. We thought that if those guys could make a movie about their lives, then we could make a movie about ourselves, just a couple guys who loved Star Trek and were trying to make our way in the Los Angeles film industry. That was how it all came about.

TV STORE ONLINE:   When you wrote the script...You weren't sure that William Shatner was going to come on board to play himself...Did you develop any sort of back-up plan, so that should Shatner not want to make the film with you, you would still be able to move forward on it?

BURNETT:  We didn't have any back up plan. Shatner actually kept turning us down, so we had kicked around other ideas so would might make the film without him. We wrote another draft of the script featuring a fictional television series called SOLAR QUEST...which predated GALAXY QUEST [1999]. We figured we'd cast Malcolm McDowell in the Shatner role. It was going to be a thinly veiled version of Star Trek. But because we had so many actual sci-fi and real world references in the script, it was a bit strange to have it all hinge on this fictional show SOLAR QUEST Fortunately, Shatner eventually agreed to do the film.

TV STORE ONLINE:   Do you think that you would've gotten Shatner for the part in FREE ENTERPRISE had his career then been as elevated as it is today?

BURNETT:  Probably not. Shatner today has sort of become the character we wrote in FREE ENTERPRISE. Back when we were thinking up the film, Mark and I were so obsessed with the original Star Trek series and the impact that Shatner had on both our lives. But at the time, no one else was offering Shatner leading roles in indie cinema. When the guys producing the Priceline ads came to the premiere of FREE ENTERPRISE here in Los Angeles at the AFI Festival, they saw Shatner's performance and I think a lightbulb went off over their heads. So I do think FREE ENTERPRISE really was the flashpoint to his career resurgence. I think they saw Shatner in the big rap scene at the end of FREE ENTERPRISE, which was clearly an homage to "The Transformed Man" and his performance of "Rocket Man" from The Saturn Awards from 1978, and they realized that Shatner could poke fun of his own persona. Then Shatner took that idea and ran with it. He's won two Emmys as "Denny Crane" on The Practice [2004] and Boston Legal [2004-08] because of the character of "Bill" in FREE ENTERPRISE.

TV STORE ONLINE:  Why haven't we seen a FREE ENTERPRISE 2 all these years later?

BURNETT:    We almost made it. We wrote a terrific script which Shatner loved, and just two days before the start of principal photography, we lost our funding. FREE ENTERPRISE: THE WRATH OF SHATNER was the title. It was a very meta script that used the first film in a unique way. I still entertain the possibility of getting the money and making it. It's a wonderful comedy with a tremendous part for Shatner.

TV STORE ONLINE:  There were rumors going around on Star Trek fan websites that claimed to have new or leaked information about a sequel to FREE ENTERPRISE...

BURNETT:  We never made any official announcements or anything like that, and I'm glad that we didn't because we'd really have egg on our face now. We live in an era where every movie website or every movie blogger think that they understand how the film industry works but they really don't. They don't understand the difficulties of trying to get an independent movie up and running. I'm a big fan of movie websites. I visit many every day, but when you're trying to put together an independent production, and your financing is never locked in...I don't believe in making any announcements until after something has been shot. In fact, we even denied that a FREE ENTERPRISE sequel was in the works because the whole thing was always on very shaky ground.

TV STORE ONLINE:   So many of the scenes in FREE ENTERPRISE were based on things that actually happened to either you or Mark Altman?


TV STORE ONLINE:  Does that include the scene were the "Rob" character is trying to go down on the girl in the car while trying to drive at the same time?  If so, how fast was the actual Robert Meyer Burnett going?

BURNETT:   I was probably going about 10 or 15 miles per hour at the time. I was on a street in Hollywood called "Argyle". I was driving up a hill and I was coming back from a concert. The band I had gone to see that night was called Clan of Xymox. They were on the 4 A.D. record label. I was a 4 A.D. fanatic. I was with a girl named "Sara". We were kind of having an affair. The whole thing seemed like a good idea at the time, but, obviously, it really wasn't. Because I did end up actually crashing my car. I...ahem...wasn't paying attention to the road, and what happened was that I swerved to miss a light post right by the entry to the 101 but ran right into a fire hydrant. 

When you hit a fire hydrant, it's not like how it is in the movies. You don't run it over and a get big gush of water spewing into the air. I hit it with my Toyota Celica and I completely smashed in the front of my car and just a little trickle of water came out of the hydrant. So disappointing. In an earlier draft of the FREE ENTERPRISE script, we had an extension of this scene, what actually happened, after I had crashed my car, my head going into the windshield, a homeless guy walks over and says, "I saw the whole thing. You were cut off by a bastard lawyer and he took off!" So I looked at the homeless guy, pulled out my wallet, opened it, and grabbed a twenty dollar bill. I said to him, "Dude, if you can stand here, and tell the police the same thing when they get here, you can have this twenty dollar bill". So I walked three blocks to Hollywood Blvd., found some cops, and had them bring us back to the scene of the accident. When we got there, one of the cops was saying, "Well, maybe we should have this kid walk a line". The other cop said, "Nah. Nah. This kid is just upset. His girlfriend is upset". When we got there the homeless guy was waiting, and sure enough, he told them exactly what he told me. The cops filed a report. I gave the homeless guy the twenty dollars. My dad filed an insurance claim because the car was totaled. I ended up getting a new car and it all ended up working out. 

I basically got away with it. I told my sister later on what actually happened that night and the next year at Thanksgiving, she outed me to my whole family.

TV STORE ONLINE:    There is that line in FREE ENTERPRISE that Erin McCormack says about how Shatner's co-stars on Star Trek hated him...Was that a line that Shatner gave you any guff about in the script when you first presented it to him?

BURNETT:   I think that he really thought that was funny. When he first agreed to be in FREE ENTERPRISE we had to go to his office and sit with him and go through the script. We were really concerned about how he was going to respond to that line. When we got to that line in the read-through, he starts to laughed his ass off. He said, "Do you know what George Takei says about me?" So he loved the line.

TV STORE ONLINE:  What do you think is the best single episode of the original Star Trek television series?

I think it's "City On The Edge Of Forever" because it really involves quintessential sci-fi concepts of time travel. It also shows the sacrifice of friendship. Plus it has this absolutely tragic ending, which MUST happen to preserve the original timeline. It's Star Trek firing on all cylinders. I also might be the only person that loves "The Immunity Syndrome" from Season 2. It's a weird episode and sort of "heady". It's a great concept and you never see it on any Top Ten Star Trek Lists of the best episodes.

TV STORE ONLINE:  What did you think of the first J.J. Abrams STAR TREK [2009] film from a few years ago?

BURNETT:  I was not a fan of that film. I was very disappointed by it. I thought it was a very beautifully made film, and I enjoyed the cast. But I thought the film was incredibly superficial, and at the end-of-the-day it ultimately wasn't about anything. The misstep that the film makes, is that you miss the core of Star Trek itself. Star Trek was all about the relationship and respect between "Kirk" and "Spock" plus "McCoy" and that was missing from the Abrams film to a very noticeable degree. Star Trek was allegorical, and there was nothing in Abrams film that worked allegorically. It had nothing to say about our world today. But as much as I didn't like the film, to its credit, TREK '09 did create a new interest in the original series with younger people who might never have seen it, which is terrific. I just wish there was more substance there.

TV STORE ONLINE:    Should a romantic relationship ever stand in front of a nerd or geek from purchasing the DVDs, models or action figures that he or she wants as seen in FREE ENTERPRISE?  Has your viewed changed all of these years later?

BURNETT:   Absolutely, and I'll tell you why. Because it's more important to keep your relationship stable. If you pay your bills, then your girlfriend or boyfriend knows you're responsible, which is all anyone expects. If I want to buy a $1500 dollar model from Space Battleship Yamato, my girlfriend isn't going to bat an eye as long as my responsibilities are taken care of. The Robert Meyer Burnett in FREE ENTERPRISE was doing stupid shit that was a determent to himself. The character was buying stuff he couldn't afford and letting his power get turned off as a result of that. But If you keep your significant other happy, then you can get away with murder. If you've taken care of your responsibilities and your significant other says, "Why are you buying a $1500 dollar model from a animated show that no one remembers"? Well, then...THAT'S when you kick 'em to the curb. If everything else is taken care of, how you spend your money is your business! If I want to buy a 12-inch figure of Nicholas Cage from FACE/OFF [1997] from a Japanese toy store after I've paid my bills, I don't want to hear from anyone how stupid that purchase is! If that's what I want to spend my money on, that is what I'm going to spend my money on...! Amirite?!?

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