Adam Nimoy was 10 years old when his father, Leonard Nimoy, made his debut as Mr. Spock on Star Trek in the fall of 1966. As Adam grew up he saw his dad flourish as a stage and screen actor, singer, and eventually, filmmaker. The younger Nimoy had already embarked upon a career as a showbiz attorney when he realized he would rather make a living from creative work. He turned to directing, helming episodes of TV series including NYPD Blue, Gilmore Girls, Party of Five, and Star Trek: The Next Generation, among many others.
Nimoy’s new documentary, For the Love of Spock, will be released in theatres and through Video-on-Demand services on Friday. Air & Space spoke with him in late August.
Air & Space: You explain in the film that you intended to make a documentary about Mr. Spock, the fictional character, but when your father died early in its production you decided it should be about his life and career, too. How did that change how you approached it?
Nimoy: Initially, it was going to be wall-to-wall Mr. Spock. My dad had a great sense of humility, and he did not want this film to look like “The Leonard Nimoy Story.” He did not want to be blowing his own horn about his accomplishments in his artistic career. We had to be very careful about that. But after my dad died, the outpouring of emotion for him from people all over the world made it clear that people were mourning the loss not only of Mr. Spock, but of Leonard Nimoy, the artist, the humanitarian, the Renaissance man.
It became clear at that point that we really needed to expand the film to include something of his artistic career. And then as we progressed further, it became more and more clear that my own story was very much bound up in what was happening with my dad throughout the years. Because I was there for it. I had a personal relationship to talk about. And people thought it would make the film more unique if we delved into the challenges of being the son of Leonard Nimoy, and my relationship to Spock.
The archival interview footage we see of your father in the film is well-curated, but you must have initially intended to shoot new interviews with him.
Absolutely. The strange thing was that he had been approached in December of 2014 about the possibility of working on Star Trek Beyond. [The film was released in July.] And he told me that he didn’t think he was going to be around in the spring of 2015, when they would be starting production on the film.
So after that, we were talking about working on the documentary, and I said to him in January of last year, “We’ve got to get a camera crew in here right away. I want to interview you for final thoughts on Spock.” He said, “What’s your hurry? We’re making this film for the 50th anniversary. That’s a year-and-a-half away.” And I said, “Dad, you just said to me you didn’t think you were going to be around in the spring!” And he said to me, “I was having a bad day. I’m fine. There’s no hurry.”
But he passed away at the end of February [2015, at the age of 83]. We really didn’t get any new interview footage of him. But that’s when we discovered there was so much material of him out there. We also had the audiobook of his autobiography, I Am Spock, which was critical for us.
Researching a documentary seems like a daunting task. I imagine it’s very easy to get lost in minutiae, and that the difficulty of choosing what material you can use must be greatly compounded when the subject is as personal and emotional as your own father, and your relationship with your father. How did you approach that problem?
Well, I’m a big fan of another documentary film about a famous father; it’s called Trek Nation. It’s about Rod Roddenberry’s search for his father; trying to find out what his father was about. And it took Rod about nine years to make that film, because he was really on a path of discovery. I love his film. I love what he came up with, but we didn’t have that kind of time! We really wanted to make the festival circuit this year, and we really wanted to make it in time for the 50th anniversary.
We had an excellent editorial team, Janice Hampton and Luke Snailham. I had to rely heavily on them. Janice had a lot of experience. She knew nothing about Star Trek, but she knew what we were trying to do. And I relied on the other producers. We had four producers, who all weighed in, and I was happy to have them weigh in so I wouldn’t get lost. I’m too close to the material. You must have outside people that you trust telling you, “This is too much. You need this. You don’t need that.” Otherwise we never would’ve made it through. There’s so much material on my dad: In film, in TV, the poetry books, the photography, his voiceover work.
One of the things I appreciated about the film is when you spike the pace with some fun editing, like when the crew of the Enterprise — including Mr. Spock — is seen reacting to some mysterious transmission that turns out to be a video of Leonard Nimoy singing “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins.” Is that the kind of flourish that comes to you in the editing room?
Yeah, one of the editors came up with that. The thing about “Bilbo Baggins” is—I love my father’s recording career. He’s very good at easy listening. He put out about five albums. Some of it is just superb. And some of it is really kitschy, what-were-you-thinking?-type material. “Bilbo” is one of those. My sister and I were like, “What is this?”
But Star Trek is the same way. There’s so much great, serious fare in Star Trek. Serious drama done by excellent actors. Really good storytelling. But there are some Star Trek episodes where it was like, “This is ridiculous.” And we wanted to kind of meld the two together.
In that particular segment, I let our junior editor, Luke Snailham—who was a student of mine at the New York Film Academy—I let him cut it. He came up with the idea of putting [the song] on the bridge. It just works, because we’re melding these two kitschy elements, of Star Trek and my dad’s recording career. And we needed to deal with “Bilbo,” because so many people were asking us if we were going to include it or not. I think we got the right tone by putting it onscreen on the bridge of the Enterprise.
We hear in the film from Amy Mainzer, the chief investigator for Neowise at JPL, and from Bobak Ferdowski, the Mars Science Laboratory flight engineer. Did you just put out a call for NASA personnel who counted Star Trek or Mr. Spock as an influence?
The producer, Dave Zappone, my collaborator and partner, had a relationship with NASA. Dave has been involved with a number of Star Trek projects with Bill Shatner. And NASA has a strong relationship with Star Trek, because many NASA scientists and engineers were inspired by Star Trek, and NASA loves inviting Star Trek people to social functions. I’ve been to several already. So we had these connections to NASA and JPL to begin with. And we wanted to have that in our film, that Star Trek has inspired so many people in the space and science industries. We knew who they were, and we knew who we wanted to approach. We knew they were fans.
I want to do more projects with NASA. I’m hoping my next documentary will be about the Mars mission that’s ongoing. There will be more of that exploration of the Star Trek connection with NASA scientists.
For the Love of Spock will receive a limited theatrical release on Friday and be available through Video-on-Demand services immediately. The film will also screen Friday night at 9:15 at the National Air and Space Museum, preceeded at 8 p.m. by the Smithsonian Channel documentary Building Star Trek. Tickets are required for both screenings; they're free but currently all reserved. You can join the wait list here.