LP man stars, helps produce retro Star Trek flick
By Heidi Stutelberg
A Lester Prairie man had a vision, a dream to boldly go where few have gone before.
With perseverance, family, and good friends, Josh Johnson did exactly that, along with his brother Jimm, of Austin, Texas.
The Johnson brothers produced and acted in their own retro Star Trek episode titled, “Starship Exeter, The Savage Empire.”
Josh plays a blue-skinned creature in the 30-minute ‘60s flick.
The brothers created a set and shot most of the footage near the University of Minnesota campus, created their own costumes, and even used special effects with glitter and a blender to make the epic, which was released about two years ago.
A little bit of Lester Prairie is even in the film when a close-up shot was needed of Josh’s character. Chris Anne, Josh’s wife, videotaped some shots of Josh adorned in his blue make-up and antennas in their back yard.
Many scenes were shot in metro area parks, with people looking for fossils, walking their dogs, and giving strange looks at Josh in his blue skin and antennas.
The whole concept of producing a retro Star Trek film began when Jimm showed Josh a videotape of special effects that he and a friend, Jeff Link, produced.
Josh later gave Jimm a tape of the Star Trek episode “Arena,” and gave him a tricorder in 1995.
With ideas brewing, the two brothers decided to write a Star Trek spin-off with a starfleet cast, including an Andorian and a Klingon, alien characters of the original Star Trek series, and a starship named Exeter.
By the time they were ready with all of the production details, Josh and his brother decided to produce the 30-minute retro Star Trek episode in the mid 90s.
Josh, an illustrator and an employee of the Star Tribune, took the artistic skills he learned from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and drew the storyboards.
He also helped design Lithtor, the purple Andorian dinosaur-like monster with antennas.
Jimm previously produced a few amateur films and studied writing at the University of Minnesota.
Josh calls his brother a Renaissance man. He says that if Jimm doesn’t know how to do something, he figures it out. So, whether it was special effects or making costumes, Jimm found a way to make things work.
The brothers knew that in order for their film to look as authentic as the original Star Trek series, the props and costumes had to be well-constructed and designed.
At first, they hoped to get by with buying ready-made Star Trek costumes, but were not satisfied with the fabric or overall look.
When they found out the expense of having the costumes custom-made, Jimm bought a sewing machine and sewed the costumes himself, even though he had never sewn before.
Using patterns and specifications available from technical manuals, and books by authors such as Gene Roddenberry, creator of the Star Trek series, Josh and Jimm were able to achieve that authentic look of the ‘60s.
Link was essential in teaching the brothers about the make-up process used with modern-day Star Trek characters such as Commander Data and Worf, in “The Next Generation” series. The make-up contained an adhesive that had to be ordered from a medical supplier, which later became available in costume shops. The adhesive, combined with a water-based color, gave a rubbery layer on the skin.
After working as long as 10 hour days, most everyone could go home, except Josh and the other alien characters. They had to stay and remove their make-up.
Josh remembered it was a lot less fun taking it off than putting it on. It took just as long to remove the make-up, as it did to apply it.
It took two and one-half years to shoot the live-action scenes.
Friends and family members also got into the action of film-making, volunteering as actors, prop and stage carpenters, and stage hands.
Josh’s friend, Michael Buford, played Commander Paul Cutty. As Josh and Buford both worked as security guards in an empty building for the Star Tribune, they had plenty of time to discuss ideas about the movie.
Brother-in-law Ben Hazen, new to the family, said, “Yeah, sure, I’ll be in your movie.” He ended up being committed for over two years, not realizing their Star Trek movie was more than an afternoon skit.
Hazen played the part of Ensign Ben Halley, wearing a red uniform.
Keeping with the original series tradition, Josh and Jimm killed his character off as quickly as they could, having him vaporized, so he wouldn’t have to put on that uniform anymore.
Jimm played the part of Captain Garrovick.
They even talked their dad into being an extra.
Shooting began in the summer of 1996, on the Mississippi River flats by the University of Minnesota. It often was challenging trying to find days when everyone could get together.
Because the actors and crew were volunteers, they had to work around everyone’s schedules.
Jimm created some special effects on his own. To make the famous energizing sparkles when the crew transports to and from their starship, he put glitter and water in his mother’s blender, eventually customizing a small clear plastic box to fit on the blender, then shining a light on the spinning glitter to achieve a very realistic energizing effect.
A friend’s garage was used for the scene of the Exeter bridge set. With the special effect of a green screen, they were able to super-impose the actors over an image of the inside of the ship.
All the funding for filming, which totalled about $25,000, came out of Josh’s and Jimm’s pockets, so when cash flow was slow, sometimes months would go by with production at a stand still.
But they didn’t give up. The Christmas of 2001, Jimm brought home from Texas a rough edit of the episode “The Savage Empire,” and thought it would be one more year until the movie could be released.
Their web site kept fans up-to-date on the progress of the episode’s production.
Eugene Roddenberry, son of Gene Roddenberry, even contacted them, wondering if they were going to be on time with their proposed release date.
Then, on Dec. 19, 2002, Jimm uploaded the episode onto the web site and let about 50 people know it was up. The first week, they got 9,000 to 10,000 hits.
Soon, the Star Tribune and St. Paul Pioneer Press, as well as other papers and magazines, were asking questions. Both Minnesota papers printed full-length feature stories.
Then Slashdot, a web site for nerd news, listed Josh’s and Jimm’s story, which resulted in 10,000 hits an hour. With people trying to watch 50 meg files, the place hosting their site had to turn them off.
Fortunately, a fan of the Starship Exeter offered to host them, and, in fact, is still hosting the Johnson’s web site today.
The saga of the Starship Exeter isn’t over. This coming July, studio shots for the second and third episodes will be filmed in Austin, Texas.
Josh will be there, acting out his Andorian character, B’Fuselek, but plans to gradually phase himself out of the production process to spend more time with Chris Anne and his three children: Caleb, 8, Luke, 4, and Ruth, 1.
Josh is also working on a children’s book inspired by C. S. Lewis’s book, “The Chronicles of Narnia.” His book, titled “Shaile,” will have 16 chapters and full color illustrations. He plans to complete the book by the end of this year.
For those interested in seeing “The Savage Empire,” and the updates of the next two episodes titled, “The Tressaurian Intersection” and “The Atlantis Invaders,” check out the web site at www.starshipexeter.com.