HomeInterviewsINTERVIEW: Strange New Worlds: "Ad Astra Per Aspera" Director!

INTERVIEW: Strange New Worlds: “Ad Astra Per Aspera” Director!

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Star Trek: Strange New Worlds Season Two’s trial episode Ad Astra Per Aspera was a hit with fans. Star Trek has a long tradition of trial episodes from “Court Martial” in The Original Series to fan favorites like “The Measure of a Man” and “The Drumhead” in The Next Generation. Episode Two managed to hold up to these, and more! In my view, this episode stands with some of the best trial episodes Trek has offered and is very Trek in the message it means to impart. We got the excellent opportunity to sit down with the Director of this fantastic episode, Valerie Weiss!

We got to ask some fascinating questions, from the choices behind particular scenes. The “Transcendent” collaboration process with Rebecca Romijn and Yetide Badaki. To even what may be in store for Season 3 of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds!

SPOILER WARNING, this Interview will contain spoilers for Strange New Worlds‘ second episode of season 2, “Ad Astra Per Aspera”.

Director Valerie Weiss with the Star Trek: Strange New Worlds Cast

Reception

So first off, congratulations on the strange new worlds episode. It’s been received very well. From your perspective, how has that reception been?

Thank you so much. It’s been incredibly exciting. I knew when I got the job that I was directing a canonical episode for Star Trek, and that it was a very important part of Star Trek’s history. And I did my research and watch the predecessors like ‘The Measure of a Man‘ and ‘The Menagerie‘. So you know, it was a high-stakes proposition to direct such an important episode. I approached it like I approach anything else, I just do my best and bring my instincts and my craft, and my point of view. It felt wonderful about the process. I knew the producers were really, really excited.

Even before it came out, Rebecca and Yetide had watched it and texted me how much they loved it. So it was a relief to know that even before it aired, but honestly, you know, having not worked in the Trek universe before, I worked on ‘Outer Banks’, where the fans are really, really excited and vocal. So I am used to getting that kind of response. But the Trek fandom goes back so far in history and has people from all over the world and all different ages.

And so honestly, it was mind-blowing, I was on vacation in Arizona and started getting text after text from friends. This is what my friend said and saying it’s the best episode since the 90s. Maybe the best episode ever, like all these exciting, exciting reviews from fans. Then, Chris Fisher, our producing director sent me the first review I saw which was yours. I was so excited to read it. Especially because you actually spoke about the directing. You were such an astute viewer that you noticed shots that I planned so carefully. So it’s been extremely exciting to have this kind of response.

Rebecca Romijn as Una in episode 202 “Ad Astra per Aspera” of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, streaming on Paramount+, 2023. Photo Cr: Michael Gibson/Paramount+

History with Trek

You said you haven’t really done that much with Trek. So what is your history with Star Trek? Have you heard of it before? Have you watched episodes before? Or was it just you got the job? And you’re like, Okay, I need to do my research.

Well, I’ve certainly heard of it. But to be honest, I don’t know that I’d seen much of the series or even the films before interviewing for the job. And when my DP Benji Bakshi, who we worked together on ‘The Rookie’ and ‘Prodigal Son’. He called me up and he had just been hired to be the alternate DP on season two. And so they were looking for directors, is this something I’d want to do? And I said, Absolutely, it sounds great.

So I did a deep dive into The Original Series because I knew that this was a prequel to that. I just was like, “Where’s this been all my life”. I love it, that confluence of ideas and character. It’s so smart. It pushes the envelope of how we think it doesn’t just stay on the surface, but forces you to go deeper and deeper. Honestly, that is what naturally do, it’s why I became a scientist before becoming a director. I just love peeling back those layers.

So as soon as I understood that, that’s what Star Trek does, especially this series, Strange New Worlds based on the original series was going to do that I was so thrilled and the fact that it’s an anthology, and every episode is a different genre. It’s like making a feature film each week, I couldn’t have been more thrilled and honored to be considered for the job.

Starfleet in episode 202 “Ad Astra per Aspera” of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, streaming on Paramount+, 2023. Photo Cr: Michael Gibson/Paramount+

Topical Topics

Some of your previous work is said to have embraced a lot of controversial topics. Unfortunately, as you know, it’s 2023. Some of the topics this episode deals with are still seen as controversial. So what was it like handling this episode and the subjects that it weaves into its narratives?

Yeah, it was. Honestly, that’s what excited me the most to be able to, look at these issues that keep resurfacing generation after generation and quite frankly, never will go away. I think they’re just a symptom of human nature and fear and disconnection and being scared of the other. I think that’s for whatever reason, just inherent in being a human being.

So it’s really important that we keep tackling these ideas through story because if you just tackle them through ideas and politics, you can only get so far. But I believe when you tell a story, you can open someone’s heart. Once someone’s heart is open, you can open their mind.

So it was really exciting to tell it with nuance, but really through this relationship of these two women, Una and Neera. From the perspective of a friendship that was shattered, because of circumstances that had nothing to do with them. And that was really what we kept going back to in the backstory of our character work and our motivation. And our subtext was always going back to those wounded young girls, and how that shaped each of them and their choices since then.

Yetide Badaki as Neera and Rebecca Romijn as Una in episode 202 “Ad Astra per Aspera” of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, streaming on Paramount+, 2023. Photo Cr: Michael Gibson/Paramount+

Levity

The episode talks about some very serious topics, yet there are moments of levity in the episode from Ortigas and M’Benga talking about Spock, to Spock talking about Gilbert and Sullivan, his secret of Una’s. How was it to marry these two elements into such an episode and not have some tonal dissonance between the two?

I love it. I’m so happy that it has first of all Everything Is Everything is a melody right? The serious can only be serious in contrast to something lighter after a while we just become tolerant of a tone if it’s not being varied. So my favorite thing to do is draw from comedy or even just mix genres and tones. I did a panel I’m really proud of for the Directors Guild of America with that. It was about tone and how you communicate unusual tones to your collaborative team.

I’ve always been fascinated by how we mix genres or moods, but make it seamless. So I’m very proud that so many interviewers and fans have talked about the comedic aspects of this really fitting in nicely with the episode and not sticking out or feeling jarring. I agree, I just rewatched it after not having seen it for a year and I laughed really hard at the scene with Spock and his facade and him apologizing for his outburst. They’re just such gifted actors. They know how to walk the line without hitting it too hard.

Melissa Navia as Ortegas, Babs Olusanmokun as Dr. M’Benga and Ethan Peck as Spock in episode 202 “Ad Astra per Aspera” of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, streaming on Paramount+, 2023. Photo Cr: Michael Gibson/Paramount+

Yetide

And yeah, talking about gifted actors, Yetide Badaki really shone in this episode. So what was it like to work with such a talented actor who was also a really big Trekkie?

Yeah, it was just amazing. I’m just wondering where to start. Because you see, I just light up when I think about Yetide, from the moment we met, she was just so lovely, and hungry to go as deep as she could. Such a beautiful collaborator. She wanted to know how everything was being calibrated. She had a real challenge to balance; strength and vulnerability.

So that was constantly something that we had to just be very aware of in the arc, how is she when we meet? How is she when she has to really put up boundaries with Una? She has to say, no we’re going to do it my way, this time. Then ultimately becoming more and more fierce in the courtroom, but also not alienating the judges.

So it was constantly this beautiful modulation that really could not only have been done so well by such a gifted actress but also someone who was so open to collaborating and getting feedback from a director. It is my responsibility to be the guardian of these characters and the tone and which scene is doing what job and what all the beats are and when is the camera doing the work for you where you don’t have to push as hard because it’s right there, and it’s doing the job cinematically.

Collaborative

So she was just so collaborative and down to play. And, you know, one of the first things we did was have dinner with Rebecca. And this is, this is something I worked, I learned from working on ‘Outer Banks’, which is on that show, you know, it’s an ensemble cast, but they’re, you know, there’s a lead, there’s John B. But then there’s, you know, there are different hierarchies of leads in it. But they always were all on set for each other. It was never just isolating one person is more important than the other. And so I did that on my movie mixtape, with the little girl who’s the lead, I made sure when I rehearsed, I rehearsed with her and the other two little girls.

It was really important for me to meet with Rebecca and Yetide because it really was this duo. That was the story. I didn’t want one of them to be privy to information that the other one wasn’t. It really was us sculpting a piece that was consistent in every way together.

Yetide Badaki as Neera in episode 202 “Ad Astra per Aspera” of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, streaming on Paramount+, 2023. Photo Cr: Michael Gibson/Paramount+

Transcendant Collaboration

So in an interview in The Ready Room Rebecca Romain talks about this collaborative process between the three of you, describing it as a ‘transcendent experience’. Could you describe what this experience was like and why she spoke so highly of it?

Oh, thank you. I was so moved. I felt the same way it was so special. Rebecca and I had worked together on “The Librarians”. So I wanted to reintroduce myself and ask if she had questions about the episode. From the moment we talked, I just knew how invested she was not only in her character in the show but for this episode. It mattered so much to her. She wanted to make sure we thought the same way.

We were on the same page, which we totally were. It just became clear to me that Rebecca and Yetide, were all down to work so hard and do whatever it took to honor this really important script by Dana Horgan. So, from the beginning, it was all three of us spending time together. Getting to know each other, feeling comfortable, and sharing really personal things. It made us all feel safe and let the other others know we’re a team. Like “I’m looking out for you”. I’m gonna take care of you emotionally, but also how you appear on the screen.

So building that trust was first, but also understanding who each of them is. Seeing how that dovetailed with their characters. What could be pulled out of them at various times to help them specify behaviors or subtext with a character was very important to the process. They were so generous about it. They both prepared so hard and brought so much to the table at every rehearsal. Certainly, by the time we shot, everyone just lived in their characters. I think you see that on the screen when you watch the episode.

Rebecca Romijn in The Ready Room about the Collaborative Process

Strong Female Characters

What was it like not only directing the very strong actresses of Rebecca, Yetide, Melanie, Christina, Melissa, and more? But also, their very strong, capable female characters?

It was great. It’s the kind of thing that I don’t know if I even thought about it. As a powerful woman who knows other powerful women, it just felt great. It didn’t feel like something that I was aware of.

It’s just when you work with great talented collaborators, gender and all of that falls away and there’s there is just a really nice collaborative spirit and a way of communicating. I think there’s a lot of respect and how you communicate in wondering what the other person thinks about something rather than forcefully imposing a perspective. I will say there was this beautiful flow and conversational aspect of how working with all of them happens so it is pretty great.

Melanie Scrofano as Batel and Christina Chong as La’an in episode 202 “Ad Astra per Aspera” of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, streaming on Paramount+, 2023. Photo Cr: Michael Gibson/Paramount+

Intimate Scenes

The episode has a lot of smaller intimate scenes between characters that will take us from a banger nearer and on and then Neera and Una. What was it like having these intense moments to direct and play with?

I loved it. I loved it, especially because when you’re navigating the courtroom, there’s so much mental gymnastics about your shot choices and making sure the coverage stays interesting. But also, and I can talk about this later, everything was so intentional about the shot choices in the courtroom, and it’s so many characters to cover. And then finally, when I’m in a scene with just two people, and it’s really about how their hearts are connecting, it’s just so nice and so much simpler to get to focus on that and, and the authenticity of a moment.

I mean, I’ll use there’s examples throughout those examples with Pike and Batel in that first scene and the second scene with them and but all these the exam and also Celia’s Uhura and La’an so there are examples all over, as you mentioned.

I’ll use the example with La’an and Neera where the words could have been about anything else. The subtext was; “I have so much shame and I’m beating myself up”. Neera, noticing that and being bold enough to step into the private sphere of La’an, which I don’t think anyone ever gets to do and alleviate all that pain for her. To have La’an played by Christina is such a phenomenal actress. She receives what Neera offers and wears it all on her face. I mean, both of them were just so emotionally naked in that scene. I think you just about see the smallest little sparkle of tear in Christina as you feel everything and it just melts you. So that’s an example of why I love to do those scenes.

Anson Mount as Capt. Pike and Melanie Scrofano as Batel in episode 202 “Ad Astra per Aspera” of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, streaming on Paramount+, 2023. Photo Cr: Michael Gibson/Paramount+

Una and Neera

Yeah, another small scene that people have latched on to is the final scene between Una and Neera with them both holding hands and holding on to each other. How did that scene come about? And what does it mean to you?

So there is an A and a B part of that scene because they hold hands in the courtroom as the closing judgment is delivered, but then there’s another moment where they’re holding hands when Yetide steps up to be transported.

It was kind of planned and potentially as a two-parter. So at the end of the courtroom, I think what I did is show them holding hands, but I never cut back to Rebecca’s face after that, I believe in the courtroom. That was the plan. I just rewatched it and I think that’s what happened. The idea was, that was enough. I want to save her reaction for the transporter room scene when she’s surrounded by her family, which is really the most important thing to her in the universe, Starfleet.

Follow-up Scene

And so that’s the part that sets up this other follow-up of holding hands, again, so that the first part resolves Rebecca’s personal arc in relation to Starfleet. The second part with this handholding resolves the other story, which is her relationship with Nero, which is the beating heart of the whole episode, and as I stated earlier, there’s nothing more tender and more precious than a young girlhood friendship that’s fractured.

So at that moment, where you saw those hands still sort of class thing because they don’t know they may never see each other again, I mean, we’d hope maybe the friendship will be reborn. But even if it’s not, we know that there’s been repair and their hearts have individually been repaired, and they’re going to be better people now, because of this trauma having been addressed. And so anyway, that’s what that was meant to be that was meant to be the hug for them.

Yetide Badaki as Neera and Rebecca Romijn as Una in episode 202 “Ad Astra per Aspera” of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, streaming on Paramount+, 2023.

Meticulous Planning

You’ve talked about the meticulous planning of the trial scene and all the different shots. How did you go about doing that? And what did you want to convey? Especially to the audience.

Yeah, so thank you for asking. So I directed a lot of courtroom dramas previously, I’ve directed several episodes of ‘Suits’ and ‘How to Get Away with Murder’ and ‘For the People’ and ‘Bull’ so I was familiar with how courtrooms work. I was also very attuned to how careful you have to be in them to be so clear about point of view. I mean, it can be tempting for a director to just hose everybody down and then put it together in the edit. It is a much better episode if you really are seeing it through the right character’s eyes and you are feeling like they feel.

So in this case, I worked very closely with our DP Benji Bakshi, who I adore. Because we already had a history together, we already knew each other. So we could jump right into thinking about a character through story and theme. He is one of my favorites because he is so story-driven and so basic. What we did is we came up with rules for each character, and I can take you through a couple of them. So we came up, and I determined an arc for each of our key players.

Una’s Character Arc

So I came up with rules for Una, Neera, Batel, and Pike. I did it for anyone who is really prominent in the episode and specifically, I’ll talk about Una and Neera. With una, she goes from persecution to acceptance. So acceptance for her is having her whole Starfleet family back in her life, and she’s safe. She doesn’t have to give up what matters the most to her. But remember it’s not totally linear, you can go forward and backward with progress, heading to your ultimate goal.

So what we did to show this arc emotionally and viscerally and visually, is when we’re in the persecution phase of the episode we always showed her obscured by something. For instance, in the cell that table would be in front of her. In the shot that you specifically pointed out in your review, when the door closes you just see her through the window. I mean, that’s the most obscured she is. So that should be the lowest point in the entire episode for Una and it was planned that way. It’s my math and science geek brain that comes in handy because I can even then go back and graph where she should be the most obscured in the episode and the least obscured.

So by the time she’s on the witness stand, she doesn’t want to hide anymore. Also, because this episode is about hiding, this is why this obscured syntax really makes a lot of sense. It, she’s totally unobscured, she’s on the witness stand for everybody to see there’s nothing in front of her. She’s baring her soul, she’s baring her identity, her story, her history for everybody. So that’s one example.

Rebecca Romijn as Una in episode 202 “Ad Astra per Aspera” of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, streaming on Paramount+, 2023. Photo Cr: Michael Gibson/Paramount+

Neera’s Character Arc

For Neera’s arc, it is limitation versus opportunity. Because she decided to stay in a place where she was persecuted, she was limited in terms of the opportunities she could have as an Illyrian. She was not hiding. So despite that, she rose to a very prominent career. However, it doesn’t mean that the trauma that she passed through doesn’t still fill her with some kind of limitation. She’s got a defensiveness, a chip on her shoulder when she shows up to the Federation, that really needs healing as well. So her arc is from limitation to opportunity, because she’s there for a reason, a very important reason.

She does succeed. So visually, when she’s feeling limited, we have the camera leave her behind. So we might have a shot of her and the cameras moving away. That was one rule we set up but slowly as she becomes more powerful in her role in Una’s trial, she embraces opportunity. That is where we have her pushing the camera. So that’s why when she starts to offer her opening arguments when she starts to cross-examine Admiral April, she’s pushing toward the judges.

Then with the closing argument, she’s pushing toward them. And so these are examples of rules we set up for every character that was very specific. Even in the ready room with the rest of the cast watching. We had very specific rules for them. I think you’ll notice it doesn’t feel generic when we cut to any of them. Hopefully, it feels like it’s playing the right note and the right melody at the right time with the right framing and the right looks and reactions. So anyway, it was all very meticulously planned and really fun to pull off.

Yetide Badaki as Neera in episode 202 “Ad Astra per Aspera” of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, streaming on Paramount+, 2023. Photo Cr: Michael Gibson/Paramount+

Scientist to Director

You talked a little bit about your Ph.D. and Master’s. So how did that help you direct this episode?

Yeah, people ask all the time about the journey from being a scientist to a director. For me, they’re kind of the same process. There’s logic to it and creativity. People often don’t know how creative sciences are. You’re doing something no one’s ever done before. Otherwise, you wouldn’t waste your time and you couldn’t publish it. so you have to be so creative in how you’re approaching that problem. The first step is to understand the logic behind all pre-existing data and facts that you’re basing your experiment on.

So when I get a script, that’s really the process I do. I read it, and if anything, bumps me logically, and that could be emotional logic. For example, if I just don’t believe this character would say that, or I don’t think they leave the room after hearing that. So I have an innate sense. However, it’s also an intellectual sense of character and story that comes into play when I first approach a script. So I have to get all those questions sorted out.

Luckily, the showrunners Akiva Goldsman and Henry Alonso-Myers, and writer Dana Horgan on this show were so amazing at being available and answering any questions I had. Once I know that then I could be very open and creative. Coming up with these visual rules really helps you stay in a lane so that what you’re doing makes sense and is additive for an audience.

Anson Mount as Capt. Pike in episode 202 “Ad Astra per Aspera” of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, streaming on Paramount+, 2023. Photo Cr: Michael Gibson/Paramount+

Favorite Scene

One of my favorite scenes in the episode is when you have the free characters of Spock manga, and on in the chair, and it zooms in very close to their faces. They’re talking about what Una means to them. How did that come about? You talked about meticulous planning. What is that meant to represent?

So that whole montage was very meticulous, we storyboarded every single shot. We rehearsed the storyboards, we acted it out ourselves to fit. As a montage sequence, it would be very hard for actors to jump in and out. Because it’s getting in the seat out of the seat. So Benji and I walked through it and acted it out on our own. Then we storyboarded it and then on the day, it was a major logic puzzle. You’re not going to keep changing angles, so it was so piecemeal. The cast was great there like “Valerie just told me where to be and what to do” which was lovely. Normally, I would never ask that, but in this case I had to.

So to answer your question about that final shot, we had a lot of choreography before that. So I just wanted to be still, because that was really the big story of the episode. I mean, there’s Una’s trial and everything that it represents. The big story was what Starfleet means to Una. So to have her friends say what she means to them, which really is another win for her. How often do you ever get to know what you mean to somebody? It’s usually only in tragedy that you learn it.

I just didn’t want her or the audience to miss that moment. I wanted it to be so clear and showcased. So that’s why I did that kind of cutting where it almost didn’t matter who you were on. They were all saying the same thing essentially about her. So that was what was behind that.

Melanie Scrofano as Batel and Christina Chong as La’an in episode 202 “Ad Astra per Aspera” of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, streaming on Paramount+, 2023. Photo Cr: Michael Gibson/Paramount+

Season 3

You’ve demonstrated that you’ve done an excellent job on a trial episode of Trek Is there any other genre you’d like to tackle in maybe another Strange New Worlds episode in the future?

Yeah. Oh, my God. What a great question. I mean, I’m lucky enough that they’ve invited me back for season three.

Congratulations!

Thank you. Thank you. I haven’t read that episode yet. So I’m not exactly sure what I’ll be doing but, I’d like to do the opposite of a super talky episode now. I love comedy and like I said, something that has some levity as well as the stakes would be really fun. But honestly, the writing is so good. Whatever I end up with, I’m going to be very, very thrilled.

Very much congratulations on that. I’m sure there are many people who very much enjoyed this episode and will now be looking forward to whatever episode you may direct in season three!

Conclusion

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds Season 2 has a new episode released every Thursday on Paramount+  

Star Trek: Strange New Worlds streams via Paramount+ in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Latin America, France, Germany, Brazil, South Korea (via Tving), France, Italy, Germany, Switzerland & Austria. As well as CTV Scifi / Crave in Canada, & TVNZ in New Zealand. And on SkyShowtime in the Nordics, the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, and Central and Eastern Europe.


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Dom Paris
Dom Parishttps://twitter.com/DomDParis
The resident "Loremaster" among the team, Dom is typically found fact-checking videos and articles for the Trek Central team, as well as reviewing the latest episodes and movies.

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