2010 Rob Bowman Interview
Rob Bowman is one of the most successful television directors of the last 30 years, perhaps best known for the moody pop-culture phenomenon The X-Files, for which he directed 33 TV episodes and the 1998 feature film. (His other features include 2002’s Reign of Fire and 2005’s Elektra.) Bowman directed 12 episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation during its first two seasons: “Where No One Has Gone Before,” “The Battle,” “Datalore,” “Too Short a Season,” “Heart of Glory,” “The Child,” “Elementary, Dear Data,” “A Matter of Honor,” “The Dauphin,” “Q Who,” “Manhunt” and “Shades of Gray.” He returned for the “Brothers” during the fourth season to handle the complicated split-screen work required for Brent Spiner to portray three characters.
Abundantly talented in the technical, storytelling and acting aspects of directing, Bowman elevated the quality of The Next Generation with unusual, evocative camera angles and a pitch-perfect grasp of the characters. The show arguably reached its greatest early-season heights with Bowman at the helm—and Ron Jones scoring—as in the episodes “Where No One Has Gone Before,” “Heart of Glory” and “Q Who.” Incredibly, except for “Brothers,” Bowman accomplished all of his work on Star Trek before he turned 30.
Today, Bowman works as an executive producer and director on ABC’s Castle. He found a few minutes during August 2010 to discuss his work on The Next Generation with Jeff Bond. While he did not share any particular anecdotes about Ron Jones—in television, the director and composer often work in separate worlds—his passionate recall and appreciation of The Next Generation makes this a worthy supplement for “The Ron Jones Project.”
Jeff Bond: Working on the first few years of Star Trek: The Next Generation, from what I understand about television, you may or may not have had any exposure to scoring sessions. In the process of putting music into these episodes, how much exposure did you actually get to Ron Jones and his work process?
Rob Bowman: It wasn’t the same on Star Trek as it has been on most every other project I’ve worked on, which was fine. There was a fairly clear direction in the music, and I think I might have attended a few more with Dennis McCarthy. But you know, I always thought the music was so cool anyway. I mean, you hear the opening theme, you just get goosebumps.
JB: There are a handful of episodes that you worked on with Ron, and I’m not sure if you would remember them by the title
RB: I would.
JB: Okay, the first one is “Where No One Has Gone Before.” It’s where they go off into another universe.
RB: Oh, that was my first episode. That’s got a lot of spacey texture, there’s actually a similar sound, maybe, to the first Star Trek movie, and they were using the theme from the movie as a theme for the TV show. They went in that direction a little bit more the first year of the show.
That episode was about Wesley Crusher striking up a friendship with the Traveler. The Traveler, who was a benign character, or creature, or alien, whatever, in trying to upgrade the engine room had catapulted them to the edge of the universe. But it wasn’t done, nor was it scored, as drama or anything that had been done nefariously; it was actually quite whimsical and wonderful and magical. And then he had to sort of undo his good deed and get them back because, if I remember the story correctly, with all the might and main of the engine, at warp speed, they would never return to where they were.
It was also a wish-fulfillment episode, where people’s subconscious dreams or hopes and wishes were fulfilled, for a moment. You know, Picard saw his mother, who I believe had passed away. And a crewman had become a ballet dancer, and some other things. So, for my first episode, to have it be sort of whimsical and magical, it just was an indelible memory for me. It wasn’t a straight-ahead Romulan or Klingon drama where there’s upheaval; there’s actually what I would describe as a good dilemma, and I thought scored perfectly.
JB: The next episode is actually more of what you just mentioned. It’s called “The Battle,” and basically Picard’s mind gets controlled, and he commands his old spaceship in a battle against the Enterprise. There’s some really great technical stuff where you create the illusion of the ghosts of his old crew on the bridge.
RB: If I recall correctly, there are more psychological themes appearing in that one?
RB: For me, as a very young director, moving from all the magic and wonder of what could be on an episode of Star Trek, to a much more disturbing, psychological, “I hope he gets out of it okay” story whatever the stories were, the show was just dripping with Gene Roddenberry’s philosophy, which is, “There’s always hope.” And so, as grim as it was when Picard was fully entrenched in his delusion and his psychological descent, at no point did you ever feel it was hopeless—it was just rough going.
To move from magic and wonder of “Where No One Has Gone Before” to a psychological descent—that was a really fun stretch.
JB: The next one is somewhat psychological, too. It’s the Data “evil twin” episode, “Datalore.” Ron Jones actually said that he thought you were like the Ridley Scott of Star Trek, in those early days. You got a lot of texture and atmosphere in that episode.
RB: That’s a very, very nice compliment.
JB: And Ron was doing a little bit of a nod to Alien, I think, in the opening moments of that score. They kind of established the atmosphere of Data’s planet.
RB: Yeah, Jerry Goldsmith there was an “explorer’s ear” to what could come a great adventurer, hungry to see what was out there, which was what I got from Jerry Goldsmith. His theme to Alien is, “I wonder what’s out there?” And, “I’m curious to find out—I’m not afraid of what I might find—I’m curious to find out what’s out there.” And I do remember [Ron] echoing that in “Datalore,” because we don’t know, what is the opposite of Data? What is the opposite force? And is it an equal and opposite force because, holy cow, you don’t want all those smarts—and Data knows everything that exists in the universe, or something like that—you don’t want that turned into the dark side.
I do remember that was good fun with Brent and me, doing both of those [characters], because he’s such a specific actor and so fully commits to the moment at hand. And for him to, in a matter of, I don’t know, seven or eight days, to go from playing sort of the benevolent, all-things-good Data to really the conniving, cunning, mischievous—at least mischievous—Lore, was great fun. And I thought that “Datalore,” different than “Brothers,” we were just sort of sticking our toe in the water and seeing what the temperature was. We didn’t go too far to the dark side. But again, it was “If you’re gonna be an explorer, and you want to see what’s out there, you turn over enough rocks, you’re gonna find a lizard,” is I guess the analogy. And I thought Ron scored the evil side of Data wonderfully well.
JB: You also did the first two major Klingon episodes. One is “Heart of Glory,” and then the second-year “A Matter of Honor,” where Riker serves on the Klingon ship. Ron did sort of his own version of Jerry Goldsmith’s Klingon theme and developed that material across a bunch of episodes.
RB: “Heart of Glory” was the first episode that explored Worf’s background and culture, and who his peers might and might not be. And certainly, by bringing on—forgive me, I don’t remember the other characters’ names—but by bringing on more classic Klingons, you learn a lot, just in contrast, about who Worf is. How he’s using his skills, knowledge, wisdom, experience, for good. And here are guys who just use their training and skills for power, control, fear, all that kind of stuff. And we learn, by the time it’s over, just how honorable Worf is, even to his own, as I remember, sort of misguided soldier friends. Even in having to kill them—he kills one of them—he still gives them a proper send-off. And we learn that there is a brotherhood of these Klingons, and Worf does not see himself as better than [them], he’s just gone a different route. There are the themes of honor, of dignity, of integrity. I think what you leave that episode with is a deeper understanding of who Worf is and why has he made choices to be part of Starfleet as opposed to the Klingon war machine.
JB: And then how about the Riker one, because that’s one of the few strong episodes in the second year. And it’s really fun, kind of putting Riker in the middle of the Klingon command.
RB: In that episode, you get the everyman’s perspective of who these guys are. When you go in with Worf, obviously, it’s more through his point of view. But when you put, not that Riker was ordinary, but you know, categorically, when you put the ordinary man in that situation, just by the contrast of the players in the scene, you learn a lot about who the Klingons are, how Riker deals with them, having to navigate his way through that exchange program safely. You know, get in there, learn what you can; hopefully don’t stir up any trouble, and get out of there with all hands, all fingers and toes intact. I think that was to me a more worrisome episode. In “Heart of Glory,” we always know we’ve got Worf waiting in the wings. If the Klingons, who are scheming while they’re in the jail, you always sort of feel like you’ve got Worf nearby to take care of things. But when Riker’s on the other ship, who’s going to help him? He’s no match for those guys! So I found there to be a bit more anxiety, in “A Matter of Honor.”
JB: Ron said, in fact, to your point, that he didn’t want to write a theme for Riker in that episode, even though the episode was about Riker. He wanted to just use the Klingon music, because he thought the music helped to isolate Riker in that situation that way.
RB: Yeah. And then, you know, there was a lot of whipping up trouble. The Klingons were up to no good, and we’ve got our good friend and pal, Riker, everybody’s best buddy, sitting on a box of TNT. So, yeah, I found that story to be much more stressful and anxious than Worf’s episode.
JB: Yeah, it’s great. You also did the first Borg episode, which is “Q Who.” It also had the character of Q in it, and I thought that was pivotal in moving the show beyond where the original had gone. In this show, there was more real danger.
RB: [Executive Producer] Maurice Hurley had this notion—as I understand—he had this notion that they open many of the episodes with somebody, Picard or somebody, saying, “It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before.” And by the end of the episode, all is conquered, and the Enterprise is on top of it. And it’s really interesting that they came up with something that, no matter what you did, you couldn’t get control of it. That was a very open-ended idea, on a series that had open-and-closed episodes every week where you wrap them up neatly and nice and tidy. And this Borg thing, all we’re going to learn, certainly at least in the first one, is that whatever you throw at them, it just makes them stronger! So now we create a serialized thread in Star Trek, which is: okay, if we’re both going to be out here, and these guys are already stronger and faster—and of course they took away the aerodynamic aesthetics from the Borg ship, it’s just a brick block—then how can we coexist? And it’s a worrisome notion that you’re going to perpetuate. That’s a different vibe, I thought, from Gene Roddenberry’s hopeful mankind surviving what specifically the scenes were, I am not exactly sure, but there was always hope. This one was, [the Borg] are out there, not exactly sure what their objectives are; they seem to be, initially rather to themselves. But once you engage them, then you’re in for a handful, and more than you can control. So, as opposed to scoring a normal episode, you begin with a problem, you go through the middle of the story and you find complexities, and then you have a denouement and a climax. This was, the climax was, “I’m not sure if we’re in worse trouble than we started or less trouble. Hmm.”
And so, new opportunities for the score. And again, a new vibe for the series. I remember I was home and Rick Berman called me and said he had this new character that he wanted to introduce, and would I do it, and I had no clue what it was going to become. I had no idea whatsoever. I just knew that the costumes, and the sort of blank expressions, and the robotic states, were not something I had delved into before.
JB: Now, this is sort of at the opposite end of the spectrum: you had to do the big clips show at the end of the second season, which was “Shades of Gray,” which I’m assuming wasn’t that much fun to do. But how much on something like that are you involved in editing? And then, obviously, Ron’s music had to tie a lot of that stuff together because it’s really unrelated clips, but by the second half of that story
RB: Those kind of episodes are a function of finance. The studio gives you a certain amount of money to make all the episodes but it’s not like making shoes, where they’re all exactly the same, and you can predict how things happen. The stories are different, and they have different requirements, and so you’re going to move north and south of your approved budget number week to week. And that’s always the battle: how do you tell 22 different stories for the exact same amount of money? Well that’s part of the job, but it’s not uncommon that you try to entertain the audience, you dig yourself a little bit of a hole, and then you make a promise to somehow pay for it, and clip shows are a way to pay for it. So, look, it is what it is.
Jonathan [Frakes] and I had a great time in the sickbay, him going through different facial expressions, dealing with the different kinds of memory recall that he was going through: happy, sad, hurtful, all that kind of stuff. And you just make it the best you can, you try to give them some different angles so you stay as fresh as you can, but you don’t have the narrative spine that you’re used to week to week to score from. What’s the central idea? What’s the central theme? And what’s the central problem? And then whatever characters are involved in that week’s story, they’re going to affect the scene, as you and I have already talked about. Well, here are all these disjointed images and scenes and moments, so I can imagine—I wasn’t there for Ron, but I can imagine—how you’ve just got to scratch your head and think, “What is my through-line?” I don’t know. Maybe it’s more of a “damage control composition” than a narrative underline [laughs].
JB: Did you get to meet Ron at all while you were working on the show, or have you met him since?
RB: [long pause] I grew up fully exposed to music and was involved in orchestra. I played the drums and all percussion instruments: piano, timpani, bells, marimba, everything. So I was always fascinated with the musical part of it [but]—only because I was directing a lot—I didn’t have time to go to the scoring stage as much as I wanted to. But I can tell you that, since then, it’s one of the [most fun] parts about film stories getting in there and telling the story musically.
Basically, everybody was aware of how much fun we were having. Dennis McCarthy was I only remember him as boyish, giddy, enthusiastic, effervescent. And I think everybody in the music department was like, “Hey, we get to work” it was different from The X-Files. We didn’t know that that show was going to do what it did. Quite frankly, it’s the opposite dynamic where, when I started working on The X-Files, we didn’t know if anybody was watching. So we did all kinds of weird stuff, just to grab attention, just to say, “We’re different”—we tell stories differently, we have this sort of understated acting, because we have weird things in the stories that we had to balance performance-wise. So Mulder was always understated, and Scully was rooted in truth and science. On Star Trek, because it was a second go-around, you knew people were watching. And you knew there was a fan base out there, and that we were all privileged to be a part of it.
Ron was more subdued than Dennis, who was just kind of always amped up, jazzed about it. That’s very infectious. And I think Ron was much more in his head and trying to be specific and to differentiate the different stories. I don’t remember what the order was, but I think he was clear early on that that show was going to go for a while. And I think it works differently when you’re auditioning for your series to stay on the air, than when you know you’re going to stay on the air. When you know you’re going to stay on the air, now what you’re looking at is, okay, congratulations, we’ve got 44 shows ordered. Well, then you just have to do what my partner, Andrew Marlowe, and I, do on Castle. What we say is, when you’re at the base of the mountain, do not look up, do not look at the summit, just look at your feet.
RB: And be aware of what the pitfalls could be, which are: you could become complacent, you could sit back on your heels and say, “Hey, we’re good for a couple of seasons, we’re already on the air.” But that’s not the way people behaved. They behaved as though they were still fighting for an audience, and Ron was trying to be as story-specific as possible, and keep them fresh, and make it a new experience every week. And nobody rested on laurels or security or any of that stuff.
JB: I was a big Trekkie back then too, and I watched that show. But it was pretty shaky the first two years, and I think your contribution and Ron’s contribution were very pivotal in keeping me watching that show. Because you brought a really strong perspective and a little bit more of an adult feel to a lot of the early episodes. I think they had a tough time figuring out the first couple years whether this was a show for teenagers, or was it a show for adults—and you really helped push it into a more sophisticated area.
RB: That’s very kind. I can look back and say that I sure was trying as hard as I could. I was a very young man, but I had a lot of experience because of my apprenticeship at the Stephen Cannell company, and I took it very seriously. And besides the lack of life experience, because I was in my mid-twenties, or late twenties, or whatever it was, the craft of filmmaking I took very, very seriously. And working with Gene Roddenberry, initially, was downright intimidating. And Patrick Stewart, coming from the Shakespeare company, and LeVar Burton there was a lot of artillery on the show. The sets themselves—if I didn’t have any people to shoot, the sets alone were overwhelming to me. I came from television where you sort of build the sets from week to week. We had, like, the movie sets. And I remember going in to prep for about a month before I shot “Where No One Has Gone Before,” and sitting on the bridge, like, “How do I film this, also populate the bridge with God knows how many people, and get all the production value that the studio has afforded us?” And it was a very intimidating prospect for me, so I just did what I’d been taught to do from my childhood through Stephen Cannell’s company: just work hard.
JB: It’s funny because it’s a sequel to the movies, as well as the TV shows. So you were really forced to recreate the look of the movies, which must have been very tough.
JB: I appreciate you getting back to me. This was a pleasure, to talk to you. And have a great day, good luck with Castle.
RB: Thank you very much.