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Loaded with endless pop culture references from Star Trek to Star Wars to Logan’s Run, and an unforgettable performance by William Shatner himself, Free Enterprise received a limited theatrical release during the summer of 1999 but found an audience upon its home-video release (which has included one of the final LaserDiscs ever released and two very loaded Special Edition DVDs). On the occasion of the movie’s 15th anniversary, The Bits caught up with the creative duo behind the project to discuss the appeal and impact Free Enterprise has made over the last decade and a half.
A Few Minutes with Mark A. Altman & Robert Meyer Burnett
(Note: Altman and Burnett were interviewed separately and edited into a single conversation.)
Michael Coate (The Digital Bits): How is Free Enterprise worth celebrating on its 15th anniversary?
Mark A. Altman (co-writer, co-producer): Free Enterprise is probably the first movie to actually depict genre fans as they really are. All too often, the media confuses geeks with nerds and thinks sci-fi fans are a bunch of pocket protector wearing losers who need to get a life. In our film, the guys were dysfunctional, but they weren’t complete losers. I think it really captured what Rob and my lives were like at the time we made it.
Robert Meyer Burnett (director, co-writer, editor): In many ways, Free Enterprise was a film before its time. The idea of high functioning, semi-professional geeks, with careers and love lives, yet still obsessing over the ins and outs of starship propulsion systems and the relative merits of the heroes of the Marvel and DC universes, was pretty new back in 1999. Kevin Smith’s work had already touched upon this... the Death Star laborer discussion from Clerks, for instance... but we put the L.A./entertainment industry geek front and center.
The film also touched off the career resurgence of William Shatner, leading directly to the Priceline ads, his album Has Been with Ben Folds, and eventually his multiple Emmy-winning turn as Denny Crane.
And now we live in what I like to call the Post Geek Singularity, where everyone knows a Mark and Rob, The Big Bang Theory is still one of the hottest programs on television, Oculus Rift is about to change entertainment, Paramount and Skydance will spend 200 million dollars on a Star Trek movie and they’re shooting Avengers: Age of Ultron all over the planet. If you asked me if this world would exist when we were shooting Free Enterprise back in 1998, I’d never have believed you.
We were just a bit ahead of the curve. If the film had come out in the early 2000s, after the rise of the Internet, I might still have a directing career!
Coate: What did you set out to accomplish with Free Enterprise?
Altman: Being my first movie, the first thing we set out to accomplish was to get a movie produced and, given the old axiom, “write what you know,” it seemed an appropriate way to dive into the pool, so to speak. The second thing was Rob and I are both huge Star Trek fans, obviously, but I’m also a big Woody Allen fan, so the idea was to make a romantic comedy that dealt with our obsessions at the time, and I think we did that. There were a lot of films in the 90s that dealt with the Peter Pan syndrome in twenty-somethings, but I think, arguably, we did it the best.
Burnett: I grew up very much alone in my interests. While a social kid, active in sports and in school, working from an early age and always having girlfriends, my mind was very much in the clouds most of the time, pondering day to day workings of the Federation, the implications of the Crisis on Infinite Earths, whether or not Randall Flagg would ever show up again, and would Blade Runner really be released letterboxed on LaserDisc by Criterion? These were how I spent my days. But there was no one to talk to about these things.
I believed the overall philosophies contained in the flights of fancy I loved the most – Star Trek, Star Wars, The Twilight Zone, The Prisoner, Stephen King novels, DC Comics, etc. – were valuable. In a sense, collectively, all of this geek pop culture was really my religion. I was sort of a Universal Humanist.
When I moved to Los Angeles on June 4th, 1988, I began meeting, for the very first time, like-minded individuals. Sure, we may have specialized in different areas of the geek landscape... but we shared an overall understand of the value of this material. The value and power of imaginative storytelling. I began to gather a very interesting group of very motivated and talented friends I greatly admired. So I really hope Free Enterprise reflects those friendships. It’s also been hugely gratifying to see many of these friends go on to achieve great success and themselves add so much to the expanding universe of geek culture.
That, and to finally come out to the world about my boundless love of Bill Shatner.
Coate: Over the years there has been talk of a sequel? Why do you want to make a sequel, and what is the current status of the project?
Altman: There have been a lot of false starts and shady characters. I’m reluctant to talk about it because I don’t like getting anyone’s hopes up, including mine, but recently a new party entered the picture that claims to be very interested in financing the film and I know Bill still really wants to do the picture, as well, so if the stars align, who knows. As Mr. Spock is fond of saying, “there are always possibilities.” In addition to that, we recently announced a Kickstarter campaign which will launch in mid-July, right before Comic-Con, to promote Geeks, our tentatively entitled Free Enterprise TV series. The plan is to raise the money on Kickstarter to shoot a pilot. Dave Rogers is going to direct, who’s a director/producer on The Mindy Project and also was on The Office and Seinfeld. He also owns his own K.I.T.T. and is a long time Free Enterprise fan, so he’s the perfect person for this. It’s very exciting and we’re hoping all the fans who have wanted to see the Free Enterprise universe back on screen again will help support the campaign. There’s a script now, which is hysterical, and it runs parallel to the events in the sequel so it won’t preclude us from making a sequel film as well.
Burnett: Mark and I did write what I think is a wonderful script. Very, very different in tone from the first film. A much different experience from the original Free Enterprise. In 2010, we came very close to making it, but, unfortunately, weren’t quite able to pull it off. It’s much larger in scope than the first film... and in today’s economic climate, much more difficult to finance. But as Kirk said of Spock at the end of Wrath of Khan, “There are always possibilities.” Shatner himself recently stated he’s still very interested in the film, so you never know. It would absolutely be a blast to make, and, like the first film, it’s pretty unexpected in terms of the direction it goes.
Coate: Why hasn’t Free Enterprise been released on Blu-ray?
Altman: There are a few reasons. First, the film needs a new 4K hi-def transfer and that’s expensive, so we need a company that’s willing to spend the money to do this. Secondly, there have been several near misses with financing for a sequel and everyone who’s been interested in financing a sequel has wanted to acquire the rights to the first film, so there’s more value to that if it hasn’t been overexploited, which is one of the reasons it’s not on Blu-Ray and is currently not airing anymore on cable or TV. It’s sort of like when Disney puts their films in the vault for seven years and then makes a big hoo-ha when they’re re-released. I expect we’ll definitely do something big for Star Trek’s 50th anniversary in 2016 if we don’t do anything before. At least, we will.
Burnett: Proper HD transfers are not cheap and we’ve yet to find any distributor who wants to pony up the cash! Believe me... it fills me with a great sadness I can watch Blu-rays of Lifeforce, Possession, Night of the Comet, El Topo or Thief, but I can’t see my own movie on Blu! Quite honestly, we’re also still holding out hope we can get the money to make the sequel, Free Enterprise: The Wrath of Shatner, and the first film would play a part in that deal, so we don’t want to get in the way of that.
Coate: When I interviewed you in 1999 for Widescreen Review you mentioned wanting to shorten the running time of the movie. Yet, a few years later, Free Enterprise was re-released on DVD with a longer running time (the Five Year Mission Extended Edition). Why alter the film, and which cut do you want issued on Blu-ray?
Altman: At the time, we all felt the film could use some judicious pruning, but you have to remember this was still in the day when movies were shot on film and the negative was physically cut. It’s not like today where everything is digital and then spit out to a DI [Digital Intermediate]. But yes, there was probably a better, or at least tighter, film in there, but when we had the chance to do the 2006 re-release for DVD we couldn’t re-cut and re-mix the entire film; we could only really do lifts and add in a few things. And there were a few scenes we really wanted to put back which we should have never cut out like Shatner’s story about running into the burning building, which we got talked into cutting which was a huge mistake we remedied and something that always disappointed Bill, as well. The CGI for Logan’s Run was just a fun little addition by a young special effects guy who was friends with Rob, Shant Jordan, who did a superb job. And, of course, I couldn’t resist adding the crawl at the beginning because it was fun and easy and we got to put in the joke about many Bothans dying to bring you this film. But if we had the opportunity to start from scratch, that would be ideal, but I can’t ever see that happening. After all, this is a film that talks about LaserDiscs, so it’s definitely a product of its time. Of course, if Criterion came to us today, we’d make a deal immediately.
Burnett: Of the two versions that exist, I much prefer the longer, Anchor Bay Five Year Mission Edition. I think it’s a much more satisfying experience. And we put back Shatner’s speech at the party, which we should never have been removed. But truth be told... I’ve never been totally happy with any cut of Free Enterprise. I’ve learned so much as an editor since then... so, if we do ever get to release a new HD version, I’d love to go in, Oliver Stone Alexander style, and recut the entire film from the ground up. I’d just give the entire film little overall nips and tucks. I wouldn’t lose anything... just make the whole movie a bit more... .polished.
Coate: If and when Free Enterprise gets released on Blu-ray, would you like all of the supplemental material previously produced for the LaserDisc and DVD releases ported over, or would you like to have fresh material created?
Altman: Oh, I’d absolutely want to port over all the special edition features we included in the Five Year Mission Edition, which was fantastic. Anchor Bay did a great job, which was a testament to Mark Ward and Bo Alther at the time. Everything but the commentary on the deleted scenes got on there and I thought that was awesome. We worked really hard, and Rob cut a fantastic documentary about the making of the film in which we went back to all the B-roll Jeff Goldsmith shot on set and included a bunch of deleted and extended scenes in the doc, as well. Technically, it’s not great, but it’s a super entertaining making-of feature that I would absolutely want to include, but I’m sure we’d also want to add some new material, as well, since our perspectives have changed over the years, and we have even more stories to share about the film that have accrued in the subsequent years. I always love to talk about how we went to Cannes with the film, which was the first time Shatner had ever gone to Cannes. He went on the Concorde and we went on the wing of a plane in steerage or something, but it was great walking down the Croisette with him as he turned to us and said with a glint in his eye, “Topless, topless is good.” And we went to a party the distributor was throwing for us and Henry Jaglom was shooting a movie called Festival in Cannes, which starred Maximilian Schell, so it was the first time Bill had seen Maximilian since they filmed Judgment at Nuremberg together over 30 years earlier, and when they were embraced in a bear hug, Rob and I just sat there glassy eyed saying this was the coolest thing ever. It was Captain Kirk and Dr. Hans Reinhardt together! We have a ton of those stories like the time Ricardo Montalban called Bill in the middle of a story meeting and Rob and I joked that it was just like Wrath of Khan: they talk on the phone, but they never meet.
Burnett: Since I now have 15 years of experience creating Value Added Material for home video... I’d love to have EVERYTHING ported over, in addition to doing a new retrospective documentary with all the principals. Give fans of the film something special for what would probably be its last release on physical media. Free Enterprise was one of the last LaserDiscs produced, so why shouldn’t it be one of the last Blu-rays?
Coate: In what way did producing Free Enterprise on a small budget help the film? In what way did a small budget hurt the film?
Altman: It was never the budget that hurt us; it was our inexperience at the time. I don’t think the film suffered from budget other than in the schedule. We actually pulled off a logistically daunting film with finesse for the money we had to spend, and there’s not much I would change. I still am a big fan of the original script where Shatner was a fictional Bogart-like character (a la Play It Again, Sam) who gave the boys advice rather than a real live flesh and blood figure, but that was necessitated to secure his involvement and it all worked out rather well I thought. I still can’t say enough good things about Bill Shatner. I think he’s a very smart, very talented man and I’m so glad my admiration for him only grew as a result of working with him. I always like to tell the story where we were in Cannes and he gave his bomber jacket to Planet Hollywood and told this long and dramatic story about it once belonged to Eddie Rickenbacker. And when he walked off stage, Rob and I were astonished, having no idea about the history of the wardrobe, and he just smiled and said he made it all up. Now, that’s a storyteller.
Burnett: I think Free Enterprise was made for exactly what we needed to do it at the time. For a low-budget indie, there’s a LOT of locations, mostly practical, many speaking roles, and I don’t think there’s anything I didn’t get, which was a testament to the producing team. The only way a larger budget would’ve helped my vision of the film would’ve been to get more classic 80s songs on the soundtrack.
Coate: Had you guys had a bigger budget and/or more time, what would you have done differently?
Altman: Taking bigger fees (laughs). This was truly a labor of love. We made next to nothing on this film because we were young and excited about making our first movie, but for the amount of work it was, I would have like to have gotten paid more. Seriously though, probably I would have wanted to make sure the love story was more organic to the Shatner story as it was in the original drafts, and I probably would have cut the script more and had more extras in the party scene. I also would have talked about DVDs and not LaserDiscs. At the time DVDs were new on the scene and we were staunch LaserDisc supporters. The transfers on those early DVD discs sucked, so we weren’t going to even acknowledge DVDs, but the guys’ obsession with LaserDiscs probably dates the film more than any other thing in the movie other than the fact virtually every bar, restaurant and location in the movie has now gone out of business. So much for product placement.
Burnett: Like all filmmakers, I’d have shot far more coverage and spent more time with the actors crafting their performances.
Coate: Have you stayed in touch with the cast members?
Altman: I wish I could say I have, but other than the people like Daren Dochterman, who I was already friends with, I haven’t stayed in touch with anyone other than Bill. I was good friends with Audie England for a long time, who’s a doll, but we both got married and lost touch regrettably. I always considered her my Diane Keaton, and we even had lunch during production in the restaurant that Woody Allen and Diane Keaton break up in Annie Hall, so that’s a fond memory, too. I ran into Eric McCormack a year or two ago at Kate Mantilini’s, which is also going out of business this week, and he couldn’t have been nicer. He mentions the movie in Warren Littlefield’s book Top of the Rock, which I was amused by since he shot the Will & Grace pilot right after auditioning for us, but right before shooting our movie.
Burnett: I still keep up with Rafer Weigel, who played Robert. He’s now a big time television sportscaster in Chicago, where he’s followed in the footsteps of his late father. He’s married to a lovely woman and is now a father. Because of social networking, I keep up with some of the other cast members, such as Eric McCormack via twitter, and I see Phil LaMarr around at various events such as Comic-Con. It’s always nice running into the cast. Everyone seems to have fond memories of making the film, which is very nice.
Coate: Could you have predicted how big a star Eric McCormack would become?
Altman: Honestly, yes. I remember auditioning Eric and thinking he was terrific, and when he came for the callback he was embarrassed that we spotted him in the parking lot pacing and running his lines. When he came in, I told him he had nothing to worry about, he was going to nail this, and he did. He was so professional and so funny that I knew he would have a long and successful career ahead of him, and I’m glad to see he did. I’d love to work with him again because he’s such a pro and so talented. Unfortunately, he got bad advice from his agent or producer and didn’t really promote the film as much as he could’ve, which disappointed me, but that wasn’t his fault. He’s a terrific guy and I’m glad his new TNT show is doing so well.
Burnett: I could, actually. Eric was the first person we auditioned for the film and it was very apparent he was absolutely a tremendous actor with innate star power. He told me he wanted to do series television and sitcoms and that’s exactly what he did. To this day, I often think how fortunate I was to get to work with him. Both he and Shatner went on to win Emmys.
Coate: The original title was Trekkers. Why was the title changed (and what does Free Enterprise actually mean)?
Altman: Trekkers came out of Swingers, to be honest. At the time, we were not only influenced by the movie Swingers, but our lives were pretty much like the guys in Swingers in L.A., only we were aspiring filmmakers and not aspiring actors and Rob never got to direct Iron Man, but otherwise all very similar and we didn’t want to hit that nail on the head so hard. Not to mention, we wanted the film to appeal to more than just Star Trek fans, which was a concern so we dropped Trekkers and went with the more enigmatic Free Enterprise. Unfortunately, now it sounds like some kind of Ayn Rand treatise if you don’t know what the movie’s about. Ironically, Paramount needed to get us to release the title with the MPAA in order to release Trekkies, which we respectfully did even though they did us no favors in the making of the film, but we didn’t want to be assholes about it…although we could’ve – and probably should’ve.
Burnett: We changed the title from Trekkers to Free Enterprise because we didn’t want to encroach on Paramount’s desire to use the term in their own productions. Roger Nygard’s Trekkies, released through Paramount, came out very close to us and figured we’d come up with something more uniquely our own. I’ve always thought of the Enterprise of our title to mean one’s life, journey and ultimate destiny. The Voyage itself. Not just evoking the famous Starship, but everywhere she’s been. The Free becomes obvious after that. Also, I was a big Free to Be You and Me fan when I was little.
Coate: How has Free Enterprise helped your careers?
Altman: It’s been an enormous help. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met who love the film and are fans of the film. When I first met Kevin Feige at Marvel it was because he overheard that I had done Free Enterprise and The Specials and he came up to me to chat. We were very friendly for a while although I’ve lost touch with him in the last few years. That’s happened a lot. It’s a movie I continue to be very, very proud of. I learned a lot from the movie and I’m deeply appreciative to some of the Star Trek filmmakers who were so supportive. Michael Piller came to the premiere and was very generous with his praise, which meant a lot given I wasn’t always so generous with my praise of some of his work. And Ron Moore and I were in a little bit of a spat at the time, but I got the nicest bottle of Dom from him when the film opened, which was an incredibly classy gesture on his part. It’s funny because I’ve never done anything quite like Free Enterprise since, but it was so much a synthesis of my interests sci-fi and Billy Wilder and Ernst Lubitsch and Woody Allen and yet most of what I’ve done has either been TV procedurals, horror/suspense and noir, so I’m really anxious to go back and do something in the Free Enterprise universe since there’s no satisfaction quite like doing comedy when you hear the audience laughing in response to a joke you’ve written.
Burnett: Unfortunately, Free Enterprise is the one thing I’ve ever worked on which never lead to another job for me. I’d like to hope this isn’t a commentary on my filmmaking ability! I did have a blast recently reteaming with Mark on Femme Fatales, the HBO/Cinemax show he created which ran two seasons. I directed five episodes of the show and it was absolutely one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had in the business.
Coate: What project(s) are you currently working on?
Altman: We just finished two seasons of a noir anthology for HBO/Cinemax called Femme Fatales, based on the magazine, which is on DVD now and in a holding pattern on season three for a variety of reasons that are too depressing to discuss, but we’ll probably get around to a third season eventually. And my writing/producing partner Steve Kriozere and I have done a bunch of comic books and sold a few pilots, and I’ve worked on a number of network and cable TV series. And I just sold a new book which I’ll be able to discuss in a few months. But I’m really looking forward to doing this Free Enterprise TV pilot as well as a few other projects in various stages that I can’t really discuss including a Holocaust film which, if we nail the tone, will be pretty amazing. And I’m still consulting on Geek Magazine, which Dave Williams has done an incredible job resurrecting, which was actually a magazine inspired by Free Enterprise. It was a fictional magazine then, but a real magazine now. Ultimately, though, Free Enterprise will always be close to my heart no matter what else I do. And it’s funny because Rob and I always contemplated doing Free Enterprise like Michael Apted did with the 28 Up films and Linklater did with his films and coming back to revisit the universe every ten years. Well, we missed the ten year window, but maybe every 15 we’ll see what these characters are up to and what they’re bitching about now.
Burnett: For the past two years, I’ve been working on creating what seems like countless hours of documentary programming for the HD restoration of each season of Star Trek: The Next Generation and the four seasons of Star Trek: Enterprise. It’s been the one job I’ve ever had where I can honestly say I’m probably the most qualified person on the planet Earth to do, which has been great. On the Season Two set of The Next Generation, I was even the on-camera moderator for a round table discussion with the entire principal cast, which was absolutely thrilling for me. I’m finally working on Season Seven now, so that job is coming to an end. I’ve also been hard at work on the script for a vicious little low-budget horror film I’m hoping to direct.
Coate: What do you think is the legacy of Free Enterprise?
Altman: To be honest, there’s probably not a week that goes by in which someone doesn’t mention the film to me, which is extremely flattering to have a film with that kind of impact. Not to mention, I met my wife because of the film at the Telluride Film Festival. She actually recognized me from the DVD special features, which may be the first time that phenomenon has ever occurred so I’ll always be grateful to the film for that most of all. But I do think that Free Enterprise liberated fandom from the “Get A Life” cliché as well as re-defined Bill Shatner to audiences. You have to remember, at the time, he was doing films like Loaded Weapon and action films with Jeff Speakman, and when we made this film, it was pre-Priceline, pre-Third Rock From the Sun, Boston Legal, all that stuff. And no one was making these kind of self-reflexive comedies like Episodes and Curb Your Enthusiasm that are all the rage now. We really pioneered all this and I’m really proud of that and giving Bill this amazing showcase to display his comic chops and redefine his on-screen persona. So, to me, that may be the best thing about it. Plus it doesn’t hurt that I grew up loving Star Trek and Captain Kirk since I was a kid and got to make my first film with William Shatner. About a year or two ago I had to meet Bill out at the riding center and I had my family with me and we walked up to the arena and Bill galloped up to us wearing a cowboy hat on horseback. He greeted my kids and was so sweet, and when he galloped away, my daughter turned to me and asked, “Who was that?” And I looked at her and said, “You just met Captain Kirk. You may not realize it now, but one day you’ll be telling YOUR kids how you first met William Shatner.”
Burnett: I think, if anything, Free Enterprise depicts a lost moment in time: the Dawn just before the world woke up to the Geek Sunrise and embraced the light of the pop culture imagination. It also serves as a reminder William Shatner is, was and ever shall be, one of the greatest personalities to ever work in show business. A man who remains a tireless, timeless example of a life well-lived.
You can follow Mark on Twitter at @markaaltman. Mark also writes the occasional MOS DEF column here at The Digital Bits.
- Michael Coate