Important life lesson: When you're talking to William Shatner, be very careful what you say, because it could very well come back to bite you in the butt. Case in point: talking to the actor (oh-so-famous for his role as Captain Kirk in Star Trek) about his newest project, the animated film The Steam Engines of Oz, in which he plays the Wizard of Oz. Things certainly begin somewhat innocently, with the comment to him that the story is highly enjoyable and the characters engaging and quite charming, while certain elements of the animation are....eh.
"How do you spell 'eh'?" he asks good-naturedly, to which I suggest the way it reads here, e-h. All fine and good, until later in the conversation when I foolishly ask him, "What do you feel the strength of this film is?"
"I thought it was the animation," Bill, who you'd never suspect is 87 years old, replies without missing a beat, triggering an embarassingly loud guffaw from me, followed by a hearty, "Well done, sir!"
Based on the graphic novel of the same name from Arcana comics, The Steam Engines of Oz is set a century after Dorothy Gale visited that mystical land, and things have not gone as one would have thought. In the film, a young engineer named Victoria has to join forces with the Scarecrow, the no-longer-Cowardly Lion, some pretty tough munchkins, and the Wizard to locate and restore the Tin Man's heart in order to reverse his tyrannical rule over Oz. As such, it is just the latest in a long line of adaptations of the world created by L. Frank Baum, which continues to touch the imagination.
"Part of the appeal," Bill offers regarding Oz as a whole, "is the adult knowledge that behind everybody lurks somebody else. That's as intriguing a truth as some of the stuff that I've done that I have no explanation for why they remain such perennials. Star Trek is one example, of course, but what is the reason that a couple of episodes of The Twilight Zone I've done are always among the most popular and played all the time?"
(Photo Credit: Cinedigm)
Specifically, he's referring to the episodes "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," which casts him as a man recovering from a nervous breakdown who continually sees a gremlin on the wing of the plane he's flying on, trying to destroy it. Naturally everyone thinks he's crazy, but the final shot reveals that he was actually the most sane of everyone. Then, in "Nick of Time," he becomes obsessed with a fortune telling machine to the point where he's afraid to make a move without its "advice".
"There are eternal truths in each of them," he says. "Truths like the fear of flying, or someone who is superstitious and can't get beyond the superstition. And, again, L. Frank Baum's truth of other people lurking behind the one that's presented to society. That's intriguing, and is perennial, because every child of three or four knows that you present one face to daddy and mommy, and another to Billy."
(Photo Credit: Getty Images)
In regards to the appeal of voicing the Wizard, he points to what Frank Morgan brought to the title character of the 1939 film classic. "When we meet him," Bill explains, "Frank Morgan is playing Professor Marvel, the carnival mind reader. Then he's the Emerald City gatekeeper, the coachman in Oz, and the palace guard — all before we see him as the Wizard. What a wonderful character actor. And The Wizard of Oz, of course, is one of the great classics which has been with me for a long time, both in my life as a youngster and then taking it through the next few generations."
As to The Steam Engines of Oz, he enthuses, "It's a charming story that I feel will hold the audience's imagination in the same way that this guy on the wing of an airplane did. If you were to analyze the story, you might say that it's impossible or ridiculous, yet because it holds that element of truth, you're swept right along and suspend your disbelief."
(Photo Credit: Cinedigm)
Obviously the actor has extensive experience in the world of sci-fi, but does he view a fantasy like Oz as something distinctive? "Well, for me, as an actor it's the reality of the role you're trying to play, because all of them are needful of reality," explains Bill. "So the heart of it needs to be absolutely real, because if it's not, you lose that disbelief. The same thing with science fiction, although science fiction can be based on a great deal of reality. Discerning the fantasy from reality is very difficult, because there are many scientific rules that are accepted in science fiction that makes it almost like real life. Think of the Matt Damon movie The Martian. He had to cultivate and live on Mars for a year by himself. That has a great deal of reality to it, because the guy who wrote the story was an agronomist. He knew how to grow food in soil that doesn't ordinarily allow it. So here was a guy on Mars having a garden, which goes beyond the ability of what we can do, yet you accept it as real because of the truths. In horror films, the guy's coming for you without a head or something, and every so often you say to yourself, 'That can't really happen,' because it hasn't happened, right? But it's all out of the dark corners of the human mind, so it has a reality — but also an unreality in daylight. You need that sense of reality or truth in a fantasy like Oz as well."
(Photo Credit: Cinedigm)
Obviously no interview with William Shatner is complete without a discussion of Star Trek. First off, he shoots down rumors that he will be appearing in a Quentin Tarantino take on Trek that's in development ("It would be so much fun, but I'm afraid it's not on the books"), but then there's the fact that the original series premiered at a time when the world was in turmoil, and there's no denying that these days it's feeling very much the same. So just what is Star Trek's role in 2018?
"I think the best Star Trek stories had — I hate the word message, but an underlying theme that applied to today," he says. "So you could look at a story as stark as guys who are half-black on one side of their face and half-white on the other, and neither one of them were able to accept the other because their color schemes are opposite. It doesn't take much subtly to look what that was dealing with, but it was a terrific story. When Kirk was split into two, one good and one evil, the good Kirk doesn't take much to realize what's behind that, and how we need both sides of our personality to survive. So there are morality stories framed in high drama that Star Trek brought to the audience at its best. That's what it was doing, and I would like to think that's what science ifction in general and Star Trek in particular can bring today."
The Steam Engines of Oz will be available June 5 for digital download and Blu-ray/DVD combo.