I first met Kirk Thatcher on the set of Muppets From Space in January of 1999, when he remarked that both of our names started with the letter “K”, so we must be brothers.
Of course, he was right.
While Thatcher’s name may not be instantly recognizable, his *face* may best be remembered by genre fans as the “punker on the bus” in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home - whose blaring & acidic music confounded Kirk and Spock, prompting the stoic Vulcan to silence the cacophony with a fabled Vulcan nerve pinch.
However, Thatcher is much more than just “the punker on the bus” - he has the unique blessing of having been creatively involved with several of fantasy & science fiction’s most beloved franchises: Star Trek (as an Associate Producer), Star Wars (as a Creature Shop technician), and the Muppets (as a writer and director).
He’s also stepping back in front of the camera as one of the trio of expert judges presiding over the new Jim Henson’s Creature Shop Challenge reality competition on the SyFy channel.
And he’ll always be my brother.
From the vaults, I present to you my chat with Kirk Thatcher…
KEN PLUME: Can you give me a little background on yourself?
KIRK THATCHER: I started in the industry when I was about 19 at Lucasfilm, ILM, working in the creature shop on Return of the Jedi. I was a self-taught movie and monster maker. I made masks and creatures at home.
PLUME: Are you from the California area?
THATCHER: I’m from Los Angeles, so when I was growing up, I would talk to people like Rick Baker and John Chambers, who were very helpful in answering questions. I was just like most guys in the effects industry, just doing stuff in the kitchen sink and in the garage.
When I was in high school I met the production designer for Star Wars, a guy named Joe Johnston, and he’d been very kind in showing me around ILM when they were still based in Los Angeles. So after I’d gone to UCLA for two semesters I called Joe up and said that college just wasn’t working for me, they wouldn’t even let me touch a Super 8 camera until I was a junior, and was there any chance that I could come work at ILM. He said, “You know, we’re gearing up for the next Star Wars movie, Return of the Jedi, and we’re starting up a creature shop, so send up your resume.” So I sent up my resume and had an interview with Tom Smith and got the job as a technical assistant, which is basically the lowest man on the totem pole at the company.
PLUME: But a hired man regardless.
THATCHER: Exactly. A working man. So I started working at ILM in the creature shop. I actually helped set up the creature shop, working for Phil Tippet. I actually painted the walls and helped set up the paint room to paint the creatures. I worked in the mold shop. Basically just A to Z from sculpting to molding to fabricating to painting them and shipping them out the door.
PLUME: So this is what, 1981?
THATCHER: 1981, basically starting about March, and we worked on the movie until about Christmas, then sent everything to London. For most of the Spring and Summer of ‘82 I was on location with the movie. I went to Yuma, Arizona and then Oregon. After that, I worked on a bunch of other things at ILM. I worked on Star Treks II and III, Poltergeist, E.T.. I was one of the guys that painted E.T.. I had a great time at ILM learning a bunch of stuff, then Chris Walas got this movie, Gremlins, and Chris and I had become friends, since he had worked at ILM also. He got Gremlins on his own, so I worked with Chris for about a year and helped set his place up and work on Gremlins. After that David Fincher (director of Se7en, The Game, and most recently Fight Club) and I wanted to break out and do our own thing, so we started a rock video company. We were the two youngest guys at ILM. He’s actually a year younger than I am. He’d been a camera assistant in the matte department. So we did some rock videos together. I was the production designer and he was the director. It was a lot of mind-bendingly difficult work for very little money and no time. We had a motto, “We can do it - But it won’t be fun”. We did some Rick Springfield videos and some Martha Davis and the Motels videos. This is about ‘83-’84. We did about 10-12 videos together, and then I moved down to L.A., and he moved down from San Francisco soon after and helped form Propaganda Films.
After I moved down, I interviewed for Star Trek IV to basically be Leonard Nimoy’s right-hand guy, and got that job, and eventually became Associate Producer on the film. Working closely with Leonard Nimoy was great. I started out as assistant to the director and it eventually became Associate Producer. He wanted to call me “Associate Director,” but there was no title like that, and the DGA wouldn’t allow it and so they called me an Associate Producer. He was great. It was the best job I ever had. He let me do a lot of stuff. He let me write dialogue and design aliens, work with the prop and art departments. I was in heaven.
PLUME: So, basically, you were a jack-of-all-trades.
THATCHER: Yeah, a jack-of-all-trades, which is why he’d hired me, because I’d done all that at ILM and on my own, and he wanted someone he could trust to see things through. He was definitely directing the picture, don’t get me wrong, but he trusted that I would make sure he was getting what he wanted so he didn’t have to focus on it, because on Star Trek III, he just felt overwhelmed by all the technical stuff, especially all the special effects stuff, because it’s such a technical process. He couldn’t tell if people were telling him the truth or just giving him a run-around, so he kind of wanted someone in his camp. We got along great, and we’re still very good friends.
PLUME: How did your cameo in Star Trek IV come about?
THATCHER: Well, we were writing the movie, and I was there from the very beginning, even in the script stages, and they wrote this little bit for this punk rocker. The original idea was that the punk flipped off Spock, then Spock gave him the Vulcan neck grip. I actually came up with the idea of, when he passed out, his face turning off the radio. I actually added a couple little comedy bits. He was supposed to give me the Vulcan “Live Long and Prosper” sign after I flicked him off, but we cut that out. Then I added the scene where Scotty talks to the computer when the guy tells him to use the mouse and he holds it up and tries to use it like a microphone. I’ve always been a Macintosh fan, so I said, “It has to be a Macintosh.” Leonard said, “That’s funny, let’s use it.” Back to the cameo, it was this little bit in the movie, and I walked into Leonard’s office and said, “I want to play the punk on the bus.” Leonard’s got a great sense of humor, he’s very funny, so he looks at me with this big smile and says, “Reaaally…” I said, “Yeah, I think I’d do a great job. I’ll shave my head, get a mohawk, whatever.” He said, “Let me think about it.” I said okay, and I was going crazy, because in 2 weeks he didn’t say anything, and I promised him I wouldn’t bother him. I said, “Look, I’m not going to bother you, I’m only going to ask you this one time,” so I really had to live with it and not bother him. I never brought it up, never hinted at it, nothing. So about 2 weeks later, I walk to his office like I did every day, and he said, “Oh, by the way, you can do it.” I said, “What. You mean.” “Yep, you can play the punk.” I was like, “Ohhh thank you, thank you.” So I went out, shaved the sides of my head, dyed my hair orange and got a mohawk, because they don’t really make a mohawk hairpiece that looks real, so I actually had a bright road cone orange mohawk for about 6 months.
PLUME: I’m sure they really respected you on the set after that.
THATCHER: Oh it was great. It was a blast. The first time DeForest Kelley saw me with this outrageous hairstyle he looked me up and down very slowly and said, “Nice shoes”. He then broke into a huge grin and ambled away. He had a very dry sense of humor.
PLUME: You were featured rather prominently on the French poster for the film.
THATCHER: That’s what somebody told me.
PLUME: So the French love you.
THATCHER: They would. I have sort of a French attitude in the movie.
PLUME: That shows you the cultural impact you’ve had worldwide.
THATCHER: Exactly. Leonard said I got the biggest laugh in the entire movie in Russia, because Russia was fraught with punk rockers before the wall had fallen, so they got a big laugh out of that.
PLUME: You’re an icon now.
THATCHER: Yeah. I could win the Nobel Peace Prize and my grave would still say “Punk On Bus - Star Trek IV“.
The funny thing was that I got to write and sing that song that was playing on the radio. “I Hate You”, written by Kirk Thatcher and performed by The Edge of Etiquette. We shot the scene with no sound. There was no music playing. I was just miming to a beat. After we wrapped the movie, the music department was coming to us, and they were playing, like, Duran Duran or whoever Paramount had some deal with. I said, “That isn’t punk rock music. Punk rock is really raw and gritty and dirty.” They said, “Well, we don’t really deal with the Sex Pistols and stuff.” I said to Leonard, “You know, let me write you a song. I can do a song.” I was becoming good friends with the sound editor, Mark Mangini, and a couple of the guys in his sound department. I told Leonard, “We can do a song for you that will sound like a punk rock song. Just let us do it and you won’t have to pay for the rights or anything, and it will be better than Duran Duran.” So I went in with Mark and he wrote the music for it. I had a melody in mind, but I don’t write music, so he turned it into something that could be played on the guitar. We then recorded it in the hallway of the post-production sound facility that Mark had so it would sound bad - very distorted, as if recorded in a garage. We actually used the mics that the sound guys use to do key codes like, “Spock walking down the street, Take 1.” It’s just a cheap mic so it would sound really bad. We did this one weekend and Leonard came in on a Saturday and he listened to it, cracked up, and said, “Great. That’s it. We’ll use it.” And that’s how “I Hate You” came to be.
PLUME: It was used in another film, wasn’t it?
THATCHER: Yeah, it was used in Back To The Beach, with Frankie and Annette. They called me up and said, “Can we use it?” and I said, “Yeah.” I actually got paid more for them using it in that than I did for Star Trek. Hey, here is a little known fact for all the Trekkies. The voice of the computer, at the beginning of Star Trek IV when Spock is doing that computer test, that’s me. I actually wrote those questions. We shot with my voice as a temp track, which we sped up, just so Leonard would have something to react to. So we shot with that and we used it on the temp track. Finally, they’re getting ready to redo it, and they asked Leonard and he says, “Naw, it’s fine. Just use that.” So after doing all this other stuff, that’s how I got my SAG card. For being the voice of the computer! And it’s the only thing that I’m not credited for, because if it was, my name would have been in the credits four times. It would have been in there more than anyone else’s name.
PLUME: You just insinuated yourself everywhere.
THATCHER: I did, yeah. It wasn’t anything I lobbied for. It just sort-of happened. When I hear that computer voice now , I cringe because it sounds so goofy.
PLUME: Well, the film still works.
THATCHER: It’s amazing. It made about $130 million in the US, and I believe the last Star Trek movie only broke $90 million. It just blew all the other Trek movies out of the water with how successful it was. I think a lot of it is due to Leonard’s sense of humor and the fact that Leonard wanted to make a lighthearted romp instead of a serious science fiction picture, and it really reached out to a broader audience.
PLUME: What was your next project after Star Trek IV?
THATCHER: A woman I had met through a special effects company we had worked with knew Jim Henson. Her first husband had directed The Muppet Movie. I was starting to pitch movie and TV show ideas with creatures at the time, and she said, “Would you like to meet Jim Henson?” and I said, “Sure, I’d love to.” She said, “I’m sure he’d like this kind of stuff and I’m sure you two would get along.” This is about 1987, and Star Trek IV had just opened, I think in February. So I met Jim in March of that year, and we hit it off and I showed him a bunch of creatures designs and story ideas and all that. We started working on some story ideas, and in March of ‘88, after I’d know him for about a year, I moved to New York to work on The Jim Henson Hour. I lived in New York for year and worked in New York and Toronto on The Jim Henson Hour and became very good friends with Jim. In ‘89, The Jim Henson Hour was done, and I didn’t really enjoy living in New York, so I moved back to LA and worked on some stuff with Henson, as well as Walt Disney Imagineering. I worked at Disney for nine months, and while I was working there, Jim and I started working on the concept for Dinosaurs. Unfortunately, that’s when Jim passed away, but we took the ideas that he and I had kicked around and started working with a couple of sit-com writers Michael Jacobs and Bob Young who had a development deal at Disney television. Alex Rockwell and I were the Henson side of things, I designed the characters and helped flesh out ideas while Michel and Bob started working on the scripts. Alex, who was the development person at Henson, oversaw the development process. We sold it to ABC in 1990 and in 1991 it went on the air. I worked on Dinosaurs for about four years as a writer and a character designer, and then I started writing the Muppet movies with Jerry Juhl. I cowrote Muppet Treasure Island and a couple of other Muppet films which haven’t been made. I think three all together. So that’s what I’ve been doing till now. I also worked a lot on Muppets Tonight!.
PLUME: Regarding The Jim Henson Hour and Muppets Tonight!, what do you think were the reasons that neither show gelled either with the audience or the networks?
THATCHER: I believe The Jim Henson Hour didn’t gel because I think NBC didn’t know what to do with it. I think it was a little all over the place.
PLUME: It did seem a bit schizophrenic.
THATCHER: It did, and I don’t think the network was really behind us. If the network is really behind you, I mean, you’ve seen some of these horrible shows that run forever. I think they really didn’t know what to make of it. The great thing about Jim was that he never really repeated himself. It wasn’t just a Muppet Show again. I think that was part of it. We only did thirteen, and I think they only aired six or seven. The same thing with Muppets Tonight!. ABC put us on midseason and they ran eight, then they ran a few off over the summer and kept changing our timeslot, and I think they really didn’t know what to do with us. We weren’t bowling people over in the ratings, but I think we would have found an audience. It’s hard to know why those things don’t pick up. I think a puppet show is kind of a tough sell. I think you’re always going to have a hard time getting people to watch up front. With the Muppet Show, it didn’t really catch on until it’s second season. If it was on a network, it never would have made it past it’s first. With Muppets Tonight!, people still come up and say, “You worked on that? Man, that was such a great show.” We only made 22.
PLUME: It’s unfortunate that Muppets Tonight! hit its stride in its second season, when it was cancelled.
THATCHER: Exactly. And it never really aired. Those episodes didn’t air until it moved to the Disney Channel. It takes awhile to figure out what a show is and how it’s going to work. Muppets Tonight! never got that chance with the audience since they pulled us after about 10 shows, and you’re right, we did start to get all the kinks worked out. It takes a while to find out what works and what doesn’t, and to see which characters are going to grow. I think both of the shows would have held up if the networks had given them a longer run.
PLUME: I noticed with Muppets Tonight! that there where a rather large amount of Star Trek references, along with the wonderful George Takei appearance.
THATCHER: Yeah, we got George and Bill and even Leonard did a little cameo. I wish we’d done more with Leonard. Bill Shatner’s cameo was very funny. George was hysterical. He had a ball.
PLUME: And you’re basically lampooning him quite harshly.
THATCHER: Oh, and he got it. I went up to him and said, “George, Kirk Thatcher.” Like he remembered me, and he said, “Ohhhh yes.” in that big baritone he has, and he said, “Oh my.” And we’d written “Oh my” in there, and he said, “You know, that’s what I say. They play that on Howard Stern.” I said, “I know George, that’s why we wrote it in the script.” He said, “Well, you’ve got me down. This is so much fun.” He totally had a ball lampooning himself, because he’s a very loquacious, very chatty with anecdotes, and he’s got that great voice, and he knew were not being mean. That we were just having fun. And we all like to poke fun at the Star Trek fans.
PLUME: I’ve also heard that his anecdotes sometimes go beyond a person’s endurance.
THATCHER: That’s not really true. One of the jokes we made was that he was boring people, but he’s not that bad. He’s actually a very sweet guy. It was funny, though, because I can imitate him pretty well, so in the readthroughs I would do his part and people would laugh. Then he came on the set, and when we did the readthrough with the actor, everyone was elbowing and nudging me and coming up to me later and saying, “Oh my God, he talks just like that! I can’t believe it!” I said, “Well, that’s how George is. He is what he is.” He’s a very theatrical guy with this terrific basso profundo voice.
PLUME: Were there any episodes of Muppets Tonight! written but never produced?
THATCHER: Nope. We wrote 22 and we filmed 22. What usually happened was that the biggest issue on those programs was the guest star. We often would have a guest star, and they would change on us literally a week before the shoot, so we’d have to rewrite the entire script since it usually revolved around these guest stars. In fact, we made a show about that where the guest star died and we had to find a replacement. The reality was that we just kept losing guest stars, so we made up the episode where we just couldn’t get a guest star, and the one that we got died, and we had to keep running around to find one. It also became known as the cameo show, since we didn’t have just one guest star, we had a bunch of them. It was a nightmare. We’d get somebody and then they’d change their mind or their schedule would change. Actors and stars have very transient schedules, but whenever they worked with us, they were great. It was just nailing them down that was the problem.
PLUME: What was the easiest guest star for you to work with?
THATCHER: They were all easy, but easy in terms of just totally having a ball and getting into the Muppet spirit I would have to say Garth Brooks. He was so much fun. I think it was so much fun to work with him because he was having so much fun. It was like he was a kid and he totally got it . He just wanted to be so out there and goofy, and he’s just a really charming and likeable guy. Jason Alexander was fun, but I think Garth was the easiest, just because everything we wrote, he loved, and he totally threw himself into it.
PLUME: How closely are you associated with the Henson Company right now?
THATCHER: I have a consulting deal to develop TV shows.
PLUME: Hopefully you’ll move into directing the features.
THATCHER: That would be nice. They seemed to like what I did with second unit on Muppets From Space. I recently wrote and directed some stuff for the new Odyssey Channel. Some bumpers and interstitials. Stuff like that. They were fast and silly. I got to work with Frank Oz and that was a blast.
PLUME: Well, you certainly provided a relaxed atmosphere to work in.
THATCHER: Thanks for noticing. My main goal was just trying to get what they wanted and try to keep it fun. It’s scary, but I’ve been working on movie sets now for 18 years. I sound
like an old man.
PLUME: Does it sound odd to you, to say 18 years?
THATCHER: It scares the beejeezus out of me to say that I’ve been working in movies for 18 years.
PLUME: Are you happy with where you’re at right now?
THATCHER: Yeah, pretty much. If you’d asked me 10 years ago, I’d say that I would have directed a couple movies by now, but I’m very happy. I love working with the Henson people. They’re incredibly sweet and very genuine. I’ve been very fortunate, actually. If I ever write my biography, I’d have to call it “The Luckiest Guy In Hollywood”, because I’ve never worked with jerks. From the Lucas people to the Star Trek people to the Henson people. All nice, classy people.
PLUME: Sounds like you picked the right companies.
THATCHER: Exactly. It’s the companies that are known for quality stuff and the people have all worked together for years and nobody’s in and out. They’re all basically showbiz families. It’s like going from one circus to another circus. It’s all people who have been together and really respect one another and know how to treat each other, so I’ve been very fortunate. The one thing I learned is that the work is very hard. Importantly, it’s the attitude or the tone of the set from the Director or Producer at the top - that can make the entire process comfortable and fun. When I was the guy in the trenches mixing plaster or standing on the set with 300 other people making sure that the actor with the rubber mask on could breathe, I really appreciated people with a sense of humor who kept it light and let everyone know that, “Hey, we’re in this together. It’s not like you’re the peon and we’re the brilliant geniuses who tell you what to do.” It’s more like, “Hey, how about this? Let’s try this?” When I was down in the trenches, I said, “When I’m up there, I’ll treat people the way I like to be treated.” And fortunately, the way I was treated. It’s like families where you grow up with nice parents.
PLUME: There was a very marked style difference between your directing and Tim Hill’s on the film. His set was much more hushed.
THATCHER: That’s the way a lot of director’s like it. Very quiet with the director very deep in thought, and that’s the way they work. I tend to be more exuberant and loud, and that’s because that’s just the way I work. That’s who I am.
PLUME: I was actually quite surprised that you had never directed anything before then.
THATCHER: If you’re on enough sets, you now what it’s supposed to be like. It goes back to being a lot of hard work. If you can make it fun and at least keep people from thinking that you’ll bite their heads off if they get it wrong, then you’re doing fine. I guess…I’m not an expert…
PLUME: So, what was your final take on Muppets From Space?
THATCHER: I think it’s nice how it’s contemporary and brings the Muppets up to the present day and it’s great how we get to see and meet some of the new characters we developed on Muppets Tonight!, like Bobo, Pepe, and Clifford. I liked that about it. I liked the fact that it’s not just another Kermit and Piggy story. It’s an interesting risk that we took, because in some ways, you don’t go to a James Bond movie to go see Moneypenny. We’re taking a bit of a risk saying Kermit’s there and Piggy’s there, but it’s Gonzo’s story and he’s dragging the rest of the Muppets with him. It’ll be interesting to see what the audience thinks about that. The other Muppet films are ensemble pieces, but it’s interesting to see the crux of the story not be on Kermit and Piggy. To be honest, from the inside, I’m a little tired of that. It’s like, “Okay, they’re not married. They probably won’t be. Let’s move on.” On the other hand, people love that dynamic. Those are the things I liked going into the film. What we were trying to achieve.
PLUME: Well, I think we’ve covered a good chunk of material. Is there anything that you’d like to mention?
THATCHER: God bless America. I just hope to write and direct my own shows someday. So keep those cards and letters coming!
PLUME: Is directing what you want to focus on for the future?
THATCHER: Writing and creating movies and TV shows and directing movies. That’s all… Pretty typical goals for a creative working stiff in Hollywood these days…
NOTE: Here… fully printed & intelligible for the first time anywhere (to the best of my knowledge)… are the complete lyrics to Thatcher’s punker / hate song from Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home:
“I HATE YOU”
Lyrics by Kirk R. Thatcher
Music by Mark Mangini
(to be sung Allegro con Temptible)
Just what is the future?
The things we’ve done and said.
Let’s just push the button.
We’d be better off dead!
And I hate you!
and I berate you !
and I can’t wait to get to you…
The sins of all the fathers,
being dumped on us - the sons
The only choice we’re given is:
How many megatons?
So I eschew you!
And I say “SCREW YOU”!
And I hope you’re blue too!
We’re all bloody worthless,
Just greedy human scum,
The numbers all add up
to a negative sum…
And I hate you!
And I hate you!
And I hate you…too!
(Repeat in angry scream ’til hoarse - or blood sprays from throat. Whichever comes first…)
-This piece courtesy of & copyright Kirk R. Thatcher
1. What is your favorite piece of music?
“Pictures At An Exhibition” by Mussorgsky, as orchestrated by Ravel.
2. What is your favorite film?
I have three favorite films, each of different mood and genre, they are in no particular order: Star Wars, Citizen Kane and Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
3. What is your favorite TV program, past or current?
I’ve logged so many hours in front of the television, I can’t pick one. The original Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits were very influential. Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Laugh In, and the classic Warner Brothers cartoons shown on Saturday morning were also a big part of who I am today. Recently, I’ve enjoyed South Park, The Simpsons, Northern Exposure, and Spongebob Squarepants.
4. What do you feel has been your most important professional accomplishment to date?
Directing a movie…finally!
5. Which project do you feel didn’t live up to what you envisioned?
There are certain aspects of every project I’ve worked on in my career in all sorts of capacities that didn’t live up to what I had envisioned, but I have strange and elaborate visions… which is usually why I was hired to work on the projects in the first place. So I guess I’m dropping back and punting on this one…
6. What is your favorite book?
I love too many to pick out one, but one of the most influential was a series of books printed in the early part of the twentieth century entitled, My Book House by Olive Beaupre Miller. It was an incredibly beautiful series of six children’s books filled with amazing artwork, incredible stories, and poetry… A trifecta of visual and literary inspiration for me at a very early age. The set I have belonged to my father when he was young and I still leaf through the pages for inspiration and to get the sweet smell of old books.
7. If you could change one thing about the industry, what would it be?
By the “industry” I assume you mean “the biz” - babe! Seriously? If I were king of the forest? I would put creative people in charge of the creative decisions… Too many bankers and middle management type executives are involved in the creative pipeline and that is why we find ourselves with such an abundance of well financed dreck…
8. Who - or what - would you say has had the biggest influence on your career?
For what, see questions 2 and 6. As far as people go, it would be George Lucas, Jim Henson, and Leonard Nimoy. All three men mentored me in one way or another, Leonard and Jim in a more direct and personal manner. George Lucas has always been an inspiration to think big and outside of the box and to eschew what is considered standard operating procedure in Hollywood in lieu of better products or processes.
9. What is your next project?
I have a lot of irons in the fire, as they say. I’m being considered for some solely as a director, the others as both writer and director. But nothing is going to move ahead until early 2003, so I’m not going to jinx anything by mentioning them here.
10. What is the one project that you’ve always wanted to do, but have yet to be able to?
To write and direct a movie of my own and then turn it into a videogame, a TV series, a novel and an amusement park ride.
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