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In June 1999, an intriguing film for science fiction fans arrived on the cinema release schedule. It was called Free Enterprise and co-starred William Shatner as himself, while the premise suggested it was about geeks in Los Angeles. So, like, perfect right?
The resulting film wasn’t quite what us nerds may have been anticipating, but it’s an intriguing addition to the Trek and science fiction canon, not least because it starred Captain Kirk playing with his image and Eric McCormack talking about nerdy things way before he got involved with Brad Wright and Travelers.
Free Enterprise actually began on a Saturday down by the beach. Writer/director Robert Meyer Burnett and writer/producer Mark A. Altman were part of a gang of twenty-something friends who would spend their weekends playing beach volleyball, before grabbing Mexican food and heading to Toys “R” Us to look at the latest action figures.
They had been brought together by a love of sci-fi/fantasy. Burnett was a die-hard fan of Star Trek: The Original Series fan, so much so that the day after he saw the first movie in the cinema he went to school dressed in a Starfleet uniform (yes, he did get beaten up). Their group included Film Threat founder Chris Gore, as well as Dan Vebber (writer on Futurama and Buffy…) and Jeff Bond (The Art of Star Trek book). Burnett had reveled in Altman’s voluminous deep dives into Star Trek: The Next Generation in Cinefantastique magazine.
It was the era of cool indie movies about young people hanging out and talking, films like Swingers and Clerks, which led to another of their posse, writer/producer Kay Reindl (Swamp Thing, Legend of the Seeker) suggesting they make a movie about their lives. Burnett and Altman decided to write a romcom with a fantasy element – William Shatner, their hero, would show up as an imaginary friend throughout the film, helping out our heroes.
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“In our [original] version he was more like Hugh Hefner,” says Burnett now, who on top of his film work is also a successful YouTuber. “He was a martini-swilling hepcat who would just show up and dole out advice about life.”
The rest of the plot of what was then called Trekkers was fairly straightforward. A bunch of guys meeting up, chatting about geeky stuff, one of them falling in love and all that entails.
“Mark and I were going to play ourselves,” says Burnett, “because then we wouldn’t have to pay ourselves. It truly was the most self-indulgent thing I’d ever read, even though I was writing it!”
It was also ahead of its time. At this point, Shatner hadn’t fully become the self-aware figure that emerged through his performances in Boston Legal and elsewhere. It was before comic book movies took over the world. And it was prior to the explosion of the internet and social media that meant cultural memes were easily shared and celebrities interacted more closely with their fans.
They found an investor and began pre-production. There was one small problem – they didn’t have William Shatner.
“We had no connection to [him],” says Burnett. “I think when we were writing this script, we just assumed that because we had written him this role where he’s the coolest man in the universe, that he would have just done it.”
They couldn’t get him on the phone, or get someone to pass the script to him, so instead the writers penned a begging letter, beseeching the actor to do it.
“It was close to Christmas 1997 and he called our office out of the blue,” remembers Burnett. “At first I thought it was a joke.”
But rather than sign on the dotted line, Shatner told the pair that he was out.
“He said, ‘you’ve written a part for me where I’m essentially God…this is embarrassing for me…people would think that’s me.’ I don’t think it ever occurred to us that he would say no. We just thought he would think he’s as cool as we do. We were watching our film dreams go up in smoke.”Robert Meyer Burnett
But the star had a suggestion – if they could write a character that was real, not imaginary, that had foibles and problems, he would consider it. So that’s what they did. Originally, he was going to be doing a one-man version of Titus Andronicus, but that was changed to Julius Caesar and the new script, now retitled Free Enterprise, emerged with William Shatner playing Bill, a heightened version of himself with money and women problems, who befriends the two main characters.
The rest of the cast was rounded out, including Rafer Weigel as Robert and a young Eric McCormack as Mark.
“The first person I ever saw for the movie was Eric McCormack,” says Burnett. “It was very apparent meeting him, that, he’s the guy. You see other actors but he was such a gifted performer that I couldn’t imagine anyone better for this role.”
The script was dense with geeky references, so the writers put together a two-hour VHS tape featuring clips of where they all came from.
“Eric took it really seriously,” laughs Burnett. “He watched the whole thing. It was important to us that they sounded authentic.”
The actor may not have understood all the shout-outs but there were some he appreciated.
“As a young actor, he loved Woody Allen films and loved movies like The Godfather. [In Free Enterprise], McCormack has to say, ‘I can’t do it Sally,’ which is from The Godfather 2. Eric was like, ‘I love that line!’ He loved it when one of the references was something he knew.”
The film had its world premiere at sci-fi/fantasy/horror-centric Sitges Film Festival in Spain.
“It’s not a science fiction movie, but it’s a movie about people who like science fiction movies,” admits Burnett. “Although some would say it is science fiction with all the girls in the film that the geeks were able to meet.”
It got a small cinema release and positive reviews but didn’t set the box office alight.
“I think a lot of people didn’t know what it was,” says Burnett. “Is it supposed to be science fiction or not? I wish our movie had come out four or five years later. It was more about that coming world, the world we’re in today than it was about the geeks that would have been considered traditional geeks back then. On my own YouTube channel, I call my audience members of what I call the post-geek singularity.
“The singularity occurred, we’re all geeks now. The captain of the football team’s not going to beat you up and put you in a locker, he’s going to go watch Avengers: Endgame with you. Nowadays, I think we would have been able to turn it into a sleeper hit.”Robert Meyer Burnett
Still, the movie did have a shelf life, so much so that by 2009/10, there was appetite for a sequel.
“William Shatner kind of became the character we wrote in Free Enterprise after he did Denny Crane and sang on the Ben Folds record,” says Burnett. “He became the guy we talked about.”
He sat down with the star and asked him where the character of Bill would be in follow-up. “He thought about it and said, ‘I think Bill should become a rabbi.’”
[See also: Star Trek | How Roddenberry’s Future Failed Native Americans by Prof. Dr. Katja Kanzler]
The writers thought about how to make that work as a storyline and came up with a grand idea. “He’s not going to go down to his local soup kitchen and feed the poor, he’s William Shatner. There’s only one thing he would do on the world stage, which is of course solve the two-state solution and bring peace to Israel.”
Gradually, Free Enterprise: The Wrath of Shatner began to take shape, an international road movie, featuring a Patrick Stewart cameo.
“The script went from being this low-budget riff to being more like Dr. Strangelove. The end credits were going to be [Shatner] and Richard Branson getting into Branson’s Virgin Galactic ship and blasting off into orbit.”Robert Meyer Burnett
They got the $8million budget in place, but then tragedy struck. “Two days before principal photography, our financing collapsed. I had to call William Shatner and tell him we weren’t making the movie.”
Ten years on from the almost-sequel and Free Enterprise remains a cult hit, especially for Trek or Eric McCormack fans. Burnett has a new movie, comedy Tango Shalom, coming out this year and is working on Netflix animated series Dota: Dragon’s Blood.
He has nothing but fond memories. “A lot of people don’t even know [I made a movie],” he says. “Let alone a film with William Shatner. I think it’s funny and there’s a certain amount of joie de vivre. It’s a happy film.”
There were some Hollywood moments too. “Quentin Tarantino came and saw Free Enterprise at the Hawaii Film Festival and when it was over, we went to this really cool afterparty and he cornered me for an hour in his Tarantino way,” remembers Burnett. “He’d seen the movie once and he knew all of Shatner’s dialogue. He was effusive in his praise. I was like, what a cool dude Quentin Tarantino is.”
He would love to tweak it a bit – not George Lucas level stuff – but a few bits here and there. There’s currently a caption at the beginning that says it’s set in the ‘near present’, but he would like to change it to starting on 13 September 1999.
“So people who were catching it for the first time would understand it’s a period piece,” he says. “Also, that’s an extra reference because 13 September was the day the moon was blown out of Earth’s orbit in the TV show Space: 1999.”
Hey, once a geek…
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Ben Falk is an entertainment journalist and author, who’s talked to scientists about whether Skynet will eventually take over the world and to cryptozoologists about who would win in a fight between a Xenomorph and a Predator. He is the author of books about Robert Downey Jr and Professor Brian Cox and particularly enjoyed writing the parts about how the latter helped make Danny Boyle’s Sunshine.