Jonathan Frakes will always be associated with Star Trek, thanks to his role as Commander William Riker on The Next Generation. But that also led him to a career in directing, first with TNG and later with over 40 episodes of other series (including Leverage, Castle and Burn Notice). With the release of the third season of The Next Generation on Blu-ray – as well as a separate copy of The Best of Both Worlds – he sat down for a one-on-one interview with Collider. Hit the jump to read the interview.
JONATHAN FRAKES: I had been interested in directing since college, and during the first and second seasons I asked Rick Berman – who was in charge of all things Star Trek at that time – about giving me an episode. He was naturally reluctant, but not so reluctant as for me to lose hope. I had to go to what we refer to as “Paramount University.” I was lucky enough to spend about 300 hours in the editing room with some very generous editors who were also interested in directing. Rick was impressed and took me under his wing. I went to pre-production and casting sessions and story breaking sessions with the writers. I went to post-production sessions when I wasn’t working; I looked at scoring sessions and ADR sessions. I got to see every aspect of production; my eyes were open wide and thanks to the support of my wonderful wife Genie Francis, I was consistent about going to these things.
Finally Rick relinquished an episode called “The Offspring,” and it just happened to be a great spec script from Rene Echeverria, who went on to have a great career writing for Trek. It was his first script and my first directing job. We were lucky that it turned so well; it was a Data episode and I give all the credit in the world to Brent Spiner for making it fly.
How was working with Spiner as a director rather than a fellow actor?
FRAKES: He’s a very practical actor and he has great ideas. One of my philosophies as a director is to listen to other people’s great ideas because they’ll help make you better. Brent has that gift. He thinks about the script, he thinks about the character, he thinks about the story, and then he says “what if we try this?” I was the beneficiary of his clever ideas.
FRAKES: Both aspects are true: it was appealing and daunting in equal parts. First Contact was a fantastic script, but it was my first movie. I had the whole franchise there. It was my job to screw it up. I’m so grateful that Rick and everyone had so much faith in me. Luckily for me, it turned out well. It was like a kid getting the keys to the car. I’m glad I didn’t crash it.
Frankly, I think I’m a better director than I ever was an actor. I’d love to go back to acting, but nobody seems to want me.
What was the vibe on Season Three with your legs now under you and a sense that this wasn’t just a flash-in-the-pan show?
FRAKES: I think we look at it that way in retrospect, but I don’t think we felt that way at the time. There was a natural progression as we all got comfortable in our characters’ skins. The relationships between the characters were better and better defined, and naturally the writing was more succinct. They started to write to the actors’ strengths. I’m not sure we were we quite aware of it at that point, though that’s clearly the case in retrospect. They actually screened The Best of Both Worlds in theaters. That was a special time for the show when we really hit our stride.
FRAKES: We knew there was something when we read Mike Piller’s script, but the full impact of it didn’t hit us until after it had aired. Patrick [Stewart] tells this marvelous story about fans pulling him over and telling him that we ruined their summer. It really wasn’t until that period that the full impact hit us. When we first get the script, it moves around the seven or eight series regulars as to who the focus of the episode is. This was clearly a Picard and Riker episode, which got me excited. Then the addition of Commander Shelby to the mix made it even more exciting. She was Brian Dennehy’s daughter, this stage actress from New York and she was wonderful to work with. We sometimes struggled to find conflict within the crew. Everyone was on the same page on The Enterprise. Everyone was working together. Suddenly there’s this outsider and she’s defying Riker and going over his head… that was wonderful to work with, and Elizabeth just hit it out of the park.
What was it like bringing a guest star like Dennehy into the ensemble? You had some big ones this season, or at least actors who went on to be very prominent. James Cromwell, Saul Rubinek…
FRAKES: We had a policy on our show, because all of us had been guests on other people’s shows, that when people came in, we wouldn’t just leave them hanging. It’s unnerving to be a guest star on a television series. If the cast takes you in socially as well as professionally, then the actor relaxes in their work. They’re less afraid to make mistakes, they’re less afraid to try new things. Elizabeth was like that. She was part of that long list of guest stars: the right girl at the right place at the right time. And once she caught the vibe of the show, she was like a member of the crew.