Honoring Spock: Adam Nimoy on his father's legacy at Star Trek's 50th anniversary

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Leonard Nimoy was so familiar that you’ve probably seen his legacy, even if you never watched an episode of the original Star Trek. In Spock, he created the prototypical Vulcan, logical and detached to a fault, but also full of deep and complex emotion — particularly toward his friend, Captain James T. Kirk. He created the Vulcan salute, and made the word “fascinating” a cultural touchstone. But the less obvious facets of his life — his youth in Boston, his family struggles, and even his love of music and photography — are no less rich and worthy of sharing. That’s where his son comes in.

Filmmaker Adam Nimoy originally set out to make a documentary with his father about the importance of Spock in popular culture. But when Leonard passed suddenly last year, the project became much, much bigger. For the Love of Spock is the result: a feature documentary exploring his father’s life through the lens of the character he helped turn into an icon.

A love letter to a father and icon

For the Love of Spock makes its theatrical debut on September 19th, but he made his way to San Diego Comic-Con this year for Star Trek’s 50th anniversary. We sat down to talk about the film, his relationship with his father over the years, and how much Spock means to him.

There's a whole sequence in the movie where you actually go to a Star Trek convention for the first time, and it's overwhelming and fun. How does that compare to San Diego Comic-Con?

Well, this is insane. [laughs] This is 130,000 people that’re going to pass through here. The Star Trek convention is a little more tame by comparison. It's just less people, but no less energetic. It's nice! It's just great when us geeks can get together and enjoy these genres that we're all into, these mythical characters. I really enjoy the energy here.

I was actually at my father's last convention appearance in Chicago — that was in 2011 — but it was the first time I had gone to Vegas, which has been around for many, many years. It was a wonderful, heartwarming experience. I mean, we’re in the post-Leonard era, getting used to having lost my dad, and people were still kind of grieving and mourning. We all are in it together as a community, and people just felt really happy to have me there. It was comforting to them — and for me as well — to be with the entire community of people that just love Spock.

The movie was originally conceived with your dad, before his passing. What was the thrust of the movie you wanted to make with him?

We wanted to make a wall-to-wall Spock documentary. And my dad was very specific about that. We were not making The Leonard Nimoy Show. He had a very acute sense of humility and was not one to blow his own horn about his accomplishments and what he had achieved in his life, although they were many. We just really wanted to educate people about Spock, and get an in-depth view of who he was and how he had evolved over time. He'd changed dramatically and he has continued to resonate for five decades. It's just crazy! He just keeps going and probably will continue to do so. It was really to educate people, particularly people who didn't really know Star Trek per se. I mean, a lot of people know who Spock is certainly, because he's everywhere. [But] they don't really watch the original series and movies. They don't really know what he's all about. So we wanted to kind of give people who had any remote interest a crash course on what Spock was all about.

I’ve always known about Spock, but I came to Star Trek very late. And I didn't know that Leonard was a filmmaker himself until literally just watching your film. I wanted to know what his input was for the original vision.

Well, we didn't have much to do together, because he passed away three and a half months after we initiated discussion about the project. I had most of the input. I was presenting material to him for his approval and comment and what not, and we were going to be doing an almost In Search Of... episode, which was a series he had hosted for many seasons in the late '70s, early '80s, when they were exploring all kinds of strange phenomenon, and extraterrestrial phenomenon, and Bigfoot and Sasquatch and the Bermuda Triangle and all kinds of things. He was going to be hosting it, is kind of how we envisioned it originally. Maybe even aboard the Starship Enterprise and looking at the view screen for clips of Spock. That was my original idea which we were kind of toying with. But then, his health declined quickly. It was shocking. We knew he was ill from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, but in February of last year, he just declined very rapidly and he was gone and I was on my own.

It feels like the movie was this tremendous release for you personally, as well as from a fan perspective, as you made it and eventually debuted it at Tribeca. What was that process like over that year?

Well, it was processing. Processing my dad, processing Spock, staying close to him, finding out more about him, looking at the huge body of work that this man had generated throughout his lifetime. I mean, [he was] a real renaissance man. A real hungry artist who had a vision and a mission to express himself in whatever medium he was working in, whether it was as an actor, as a director, as a poet, as a recording artist, as a photographer. I mean, this is a guy with a lot of different interests. He was doing botany work in our home in the '70s, growing asparagus ferns. I'm still not quite sure what that was all about. [laughs] But you know, it was something that I was reliving, going through the process of making the film. It was very therapeutic in a way. This is one of the purposes of the film now: to give the fans something to work through their loss [with], and have a kind of communal processing of grief for the loss of Spock and Leonard Nimoy. But it's also a celebration of the life of these two guys and the legacy that they leave behind.

I'm so privileged! I can't tell you how excited I am to be able to process his loss in this way. I mean, I directed 10 seasons of TV, so I brought some filmmaking ability to this project, and I gave it the best that I had with a really good staff of people, producers and editors, who helped me, because I was so close to it [and] I needed their feedback. But I think we produced a really good project.

Adam Nimoy

There's a sequence in the movie where people are talking about how devoted he was to the character and devoted to the work, where he didn't come out of the character for long stretches of time. What was it like being around that?

Very difficult as a kid. I mean, oh man. It could be really challenging with him. He was very tough. To begin with, we had problems, because my father grew up in the Depression in the West End of Boston as the son of Russian immigrant parents. And at age 10 he was selling newspapers in the Boston Common in the dead of winter, during 1941, the beginning of World War II. I, on the other hand, grew up in sunny Southern California, and when I was growing up, things were getting pretty good in the Nimoy household because Star Trek was on the air and Dad had steady work for the first time ever. We had very different backgrounds and upbringings. I wasn't selling newspapers. I didn't have a paper route. I was collecting Beatle cards, and watching TV. (In particular, Star Trek.) Although he was only 25 years older than me, we were generations apart from each other, and that was an issue for us.

Add to that this character who was so introspective, inward thinking, and remote. Dad liked to stay in character when he was at home. It's very difficult for him to pop in and out of being Spock. [So] the challenges become more exacerbated between me and him. I can't relate to this guy! I mean, I adore Spock. I'm proud of him. I loved to tell all my friends to watch Star Trek. I loved watching him. I loved seeing our picture in all the trade papers. I loved all that. I just [couldn’t] relate to him. He's so difficult to talk to. And we had a lot of awkwardness between us. So it was really, really challenging. And then it blossomed into outright conflict. I mean, we had a lot of good times together. There were a lot of ups and downs in our relationship, and we had a lot of closeness and a lot of celebrations of his successes, and a lot of times when we were simply couldn't stand to be around each other. So, it's complicated.

I remember I applied to school in Santa Barbara, and he didn't understand it. He came to me and he said, "Students would kill to live here and walk to campus. Why don't you want to go to UCLA?" And I was thinking to myself, "That's the craziest thing I've ever heard. If I stay here we're going to kill each other. I need to get the hell out of here!" But then, luckily, in the last act of his life, we turned things around. We found recovery. He changed his priorities, and made family more of a priority, and we had a very close, loving relationship the last four, five years of his life. I'm really grateful to have that.

You grew up in that setting and went into entertainment law and then become a director. What was that like for you, piecing together your journey in life with the father you had?

I just [had] a lot of sense of self-worth and pride in my own ability. I mean, I went to college and law school [in part] because I was motivated by the fact that I wanted to do something that Leonard could not do. Leonard did not go to college. Leonard barely made it through high school. He was just not inclined that way. He had a very fine, curious, and hungry mind, but he did not have a lot of formal education. And that was something that I knew I could excel at, and it made me feel a sense of self pride that I could do something on my own. That I could walk my own path. And yet still there was a lot of trials and tribulations.

I remember after directing TV, I had to take time off. I had to leave the entertainment industry and go into recovery, and I was teaching filmmaking. And I remember I was sitting in a lawn chair in a gas station in Hollywood, and my students were filming a scene, and they were doing it badly. And I was sitting in this camping chair watching them, and thinking, "Jesus, how the hell did I get here? What is this all about?" And then I get a call from my dad, who was making Trek '09 at the time, and all I'm hearing on the phone is "J.J. this" and "J.J. that" and "We're in Tustin, and we're in a warehouse, and we have 300 extras, but they're gonna paint in 3,000 more people, and there's cameras here and there's cameras there," and this, that, and the other thing. And I go, "That's great, Dad, that's great. I'm glad to hear that's so great and you're having such a good experience." And I hung up, feeling like, "What am I doing here?" So I called my sponsor and I said, "Dude, what is with this? Why is this happening?" And he said to me, "Here's the thing: you have chosen a much smaller path for yourself. Your job is to walk it well. Enjoy the process, my brother, you've got to live in the moment. And there's a reason why you're doing what you're doing right now, and I would just try to enjoy yourself, as best you can, and live each moment as best you can." And when I hung up with him, I got out of my lawn chair and told those students how to direct the freaking scene! Because he was right. I was just going through a stage in my life where I needed to take time out and be introspective and work on myself and my recovery and help my students do the best job they [could].

As a fan, you think about the captains, and all the debate about Kirk vs. Picard vs. Janeway vs. Sisko. And then Spock is just unto himself. How is it, in your view since you were there from the beginning, that Spock can stand alone in the midst of this 50 year history?

Well, it just has a lot to do with the original vision that Gene Roddenberry had for the character and the way my father played that character. He brought a lot of his own personal life into that character, being an outsider. He really brought such a rich and dynamic deep inner life to Spock. And he just had a really cool look. I mean, Simon Pegg said, "You know, one of the things that makes Spock iconic is he's so easily identifiable. You've got the haircut, you've got the eyebrows, you've got the ears, you've got Spock!" And what he represents is just a very inspirational character on a lot of different levels. And the other thing that's interesting to me is it was the right role at the right time for my dad. Looking at a lot of the film for my dad, I think he was at his best when he was pulling things in and really internalizing the characters and working through stuff internally. The way that Spock was written demanded that he do that. Forced him to pull everything inside of himself. And so, because of that, in forcing that, the eyes can see it's this guy with so much emotion. There's so much he's experiencing, and when he cuts loose and starts throwing stuff around and runs amuck, then we're glued!

Adam Nimoy

Do you feel like you've honored him as best you can with this film? Do you plan to continue honoring him in your way, with your continuing work?

Yeah, I mean, the film is a little bit of my bidding him farewell, in a grand, loving way. I hope the film will last for generations of people to come, as Spock will. It's something I would like to move on from in my own life, but right now I really am in it, and I really want to get the word out about it, and I really want to be with the fans during this period. It really is a love letter to him, and my way to honor him and move on. I think he would be pleased with the work we've accomplished. We really set out [to do] what we intended to do in a very short period of time, with a huge amount of material to get through, but I think we really stayed on point.

"The film is my bidding him farewell in a grand, loving way."

What's next for you?

I'm hoping my mission to Mars is next. I'm hoping to do a documentary about getting to Mars. I've interviewed a lot of NASA people, and they were all inspired by Spock. They seemed to be very interested in working with me on another project. There's a lot of activity now to get a man on Mars, a woman on Mars, a crew on Mars, and I want to explore that in a documentary, with like a layman's perspective. That is what's interesting to me now and that's what I'm hoping to pursue as a documentary.

For the Love of Spock will debut in theaters and VOD on September 9th.

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