From the archive, originally posted by: [ spectre ]

http://www.kli.org/

http://forteantimes.com/exclusive/marchiori.shtml
http://forteantimes.com/exclusive/fedcon/earthlings.jpg

Interviewing Earthlings
David Sutton talks to director Alexandre Philippe and producer David
Marchiori about their new documentary focusing on the evolution of the
Klingon language and the people who speak it, Earthlings: Ugly Bags of
Mostly Water.

FT: Can you describe the genesis of the film and how you came across
the Klingon language.

AP: Back in 2003, I had just finished directing CHICK FLICK: The
Miracle Mike Story, a feature documentary about the true story of Mike
the Headless Chicken (chickflickthefilm.com), and I was looking for an
equally strange subject for a follow-up. I was at Denver International
Airport on my way to Europe to visit my family, and had a little time
to kill, so I went to one of their bookstores; and that’s where I
found a copy of The Klingon Hamlet. I remember looking at this book,
and thinking: “This is the strangest thing I’ve ever seen.” And I
made the decision, basically on the spot, to somehow make a movie about
this.

Originally, I thought it would be wild to do a film version of The
Klingon Hamlet; but then, I searched the web and discovered the Klingon
Language Institute, located in Philadelphia. So, I picked up the phone,
and talked to the Institute’s director, Dr Lawrence Schoen, and
convinced him to let us film and interview them during their annual
qep’a’ (or conference).

We had very little time to prepare, because the qep’a’ was just
around the corner; but we made it, and shot for four days straight. The
bulk of the footage that ultimately made it into the final cut was shot
during these four days. That was a really intense shoot. We slept a
total of 12 hours, and shot 33 hours of footage in a very short amount
of time. When we flew back to Denver, I remember being somewhat
delirious, but feeling very strongly that we had captured something
very special. Our intent was to have a trailer, and we ended up with a
rough cut of our feature! We added several shoots after that; most
notably we flew to Beverly Hills to interview Michael Dorn [the actor
who played Klingon character Worf], who provides an interesting
perspective on the KLI – if a somewhat antagonistic one.

Anyway… that’s how this whole project came to be. It’s almost
like it was meant to happen. If I hadn’t entered that bookstore, we
probably wouldn’t be here doing this interview today.

FT: What were your impressions of Marc Okrand, creator of the Klingon
language, and Lawrence Schoen, founder of the Klingon Language
Institute? Did you feel these were highly gifted and intelligent
experts in their field throwing away their talents on something
fundamentally silly, or the creators and caretakers of a fascinating
new linguistic phenomenon?

AP: First of all, I’d like to say that Marc and Lawrence have both
become good friends, and that I have a tremendous amount of respect
for what they do. The whole point of making this film was not to make
another Trekkies, but to try to shed some light on why these people do
what they do – to humanise them. And, yes, most of them are
incredibly smart.

The real question is: am I wasting my talents making films? Are you
wasting your talents editing Fortean Times? Are sports fans wasting
their talents watching football on TV? I don’t think so. Earth is a
strange place, and it’s up to us to give meaning to our lives. If
it’s meaningful to them to learn Klingon – because they have a good
time, because it’s a great intellectual exercise, or because that’s
how they want to make friends – who are we to say they’re wasting
their time? I’d like people to be a little more introspective before
they poke fun at Trekkies or Klingon speakers. To me, there’s nothing
wrong with doing something you’re passionate about – especially if
it doesn’t hurt of offend anyone.

And the Klingon language is, indeed, a fascinating cultural and
linguistic phenomenon. It’s the first constructed language based on
popular culture that has thrived to the point of being spoken in 55
countries around the world.

So, to me, the question isn’t “Why spend any time learning Klingon
when there are so many other languages around” but “why not learn
Klingon?”

When people realise it’s actually a language – as opposed to a
string of nonsensical words that speakers bark at one another – they
start looking at this phenomenon a little more seriously. So, while
I’m not a Trekkie, I still see value in what these people do, and I
respect their hobby. When you consider how many people these days
seem passionate about killing each other, I think that we have no right
to criticise people who choose to spend their free time studying a
language from outer space.

FT: Why do you think Star Trek – as opposed to any other pop culture
fantasy universe – gave birth to a new language?

DM: Well the whole idea of constructed languages, while fun and
whimsical, is also a very serious study for thousands of people around
the globe. We regularly get inquiries from colleges and universities
who are studying constructed languages.  Lord of the Rings spawned a
movement toward creating an ‘Elven’ language, but I don’t think
it ever took off as a serious pursuit. The ongoing fascination with
Klingons appears to be unique.

AP: You know… I’m actually surprised that no language came out of
the Star Wars franchise. But, why Star Trek? Probably because of the
hopeful message that it conveys. The writing in Star Trek, for the most
part, is also typically first class. It makes you think about our
universe, and the possibility of the existence of other beings.

It’s interesting that Klingon, the warrior tongue, is the one that
emerged, as opposed to Vulcan or Romulan. I suppose that’s because
Klingons are bad-asses. In the end, that’s what it comes down to.
They offer the best opportunity for role-playing. They’re outrageous.
They speak their mind. It was a stroke of genius on Marc Okrand’s
part to build the language around their culture and behaviours. For
instance, there’s no word for “hello” or “goodbye”. Klingons
don’t waste their time with such niceties. When they want to leave,
they just turn around and leave. It’s a very pragmatic language, and
it makes us question our own culture. I think we can safely say that
‘political speak’ is the opposite of Klingon. We have so many words
available to us that it’s easy for us to twist facts, to not say
what’s on our mind. Klingons tell you exactly what they think. You
may not like it, but at least you know what you’re dealing with.

FT: The film, as you say, doesn’t take the easy route of poking fun
at what some ‘normal’ folks might consider to be weird behaviour,
even when it borders on the absurd…

Truthfully, of course, some of the film is funny; but Klingon speakers
would see that too – they’re definitely in on the joke, and
that’s what makes it great. But there’s a difference between
finding this weird and laughing at what they do and dismissing their
activities. Yes, it’s funny. Yes, it’s absurd. But that’s
precisely the type of subculture that makes our world so endlessly
fascinating. In this era of globalisation, I think it’s great that
people try to assert their identity by embracing such communities. And
what I’m personally particularly proud of is that I was there to
create a lasting document proving the existence and the worth of this
unique linguistic phenomenon.

FT: The interviewees in the movie are a pretty friendly and articulate
bunch from a surprisingly wide range of backgrounds. Were they
representative of Klingon speakers as a whole?

DM: Everyone we met during the filming process, and all the Klingons we
have met since, are virtually the same – gentle, intelligent people.
Many of them are genuine Trek fans and this is their way of exploiting
their love of the franchise.  Many are linguists and language experts;
in some cases Klingon is the sixth or seventh language they speak. And
many of them are in it for the social aspects. I will say that while
KLI members for the most part don’t indulge in dressing the Klingon
way, they do take on a different persona when in Klingon mode. The
large groups of people who like to dress as Klingons really take on
different personalities while in the role. They act boisterous and
aggressive… but when they change back, all is normal.

AP: Yes, I suppose you could view them as belonging to two main
‘categories’. First, there are the linguists. And then, there are
the Trekkies who stumble upon the KLI, and think it might be cool to
learn the language. But, as many of them quickly find out, it’s a
real language, and it’s a lot of work to master it. Those who stay
are typically the smartest ones.

There are definitely all kinds of people. It’s a strange mix, but,
somehow, it works. They all seem to get along really well, and they
have a total blast when they’re together. It’s really fun to watch,
and I hope I’ll soon be able to attend another qep’a’.

FT: Did you feel that any of the people you encountered had crossed a
line with regards to fantasy and reality… that they were unhealthily
obsessed with all things Klingon?

AP: Well… yes. Maybe. But it’s a fine line, isn’t it? There may
be one or two of them who had something lacking in their lives and had
invested themselves completely into this. That’s where it could
potentially become dangerous. I feel the same way about film sometimes.
There are days when I catch myself being too deeply immersed in the
world of film – thinking about film from morning till night,
deconstructing movies, thinking about the next film I’m going to
make, and so on. When I don’t mix it up with other activities, it can
become unhealthy. But that’s true of anybody who’s passionate about
anything. You can easily lose yourself in your passion. The key is to
realise that life has many other things to offer as well – and maybe
to make the conscious effort to not focus on one thing, and one thing
only.

FT: What about the man who spoke to his young son only in Klingon? The
boy seems to have emerged as a completely normal and very bright kid.
Or the paintball guy who ended up going to Iraq – he was perhaps
slightly odd…

DM: It’s important to realise that while Dr Speers only spoke Klingon
to his son, his wife (who doesn’t speak Klingon), spoke English all
the time. We got to know the entire family very well – they are truly
great people and their son is one of the sharpest kids you will ever
meet.  He is proud of his dad and no longer knows any Klingon…so
obviously there was no damage done.

AP: Yes, d’Armond’s son Alec is a wonderful kid – very smart.
Great parents. Goes to show that people should think a little before
calling his parents abusive. This is probably the least abusive family
I’ve ever encountered.

DM: Roger – or “paint ball guy” is really fun to be around and
doesn’t take himself anywhere near as seriously as he comes across in
his interview… but FOR SURE he likes paintball!

AP: I guess you could say he’s a little strange around the edges. But
look at the great material he gave us at two in the morning! You
can’t possibly come up with stuff like this! That’s what I love
about making documentaries.

FT: While a lot of these folks seem keen to embrace their inner
Klingon, Michael Dorn seems more than a little uncomfortable with the
legacy of playing one for so long…

AP: Oh, very much so. I certainly didn’t expect him talking about
Klingon fans the way he did. And he also seemed to confuse people who
dress up like Klingons, and those who speak the language. Which makes
me feel like he hasn’t really paid much attention to the phenomenon
that has developed around the Klingon subculture. I also found that
some of his comments might have been a little unfair to the Klingon
speaking community, so I decided to turn him into our antagonist, which
I felt would be an interesting role-reversal for him. I hope he
doesn’t mind. I certainly never intended to make him look
uncomfortable, or nasty. The primary intent was to make the other folks
look like the good guys. I wanted the audience to root for them and
their beliefs. But when you consider how many times Michael Dorn had to
put on that costume during his career, it’s no surprise that he
sounds a little ticked off when he finally has a chance to talk about
it without having to wear his Klingon forehead! I’m sure he’s also
encountered his share of strange fans, so his reaction, in the end, is
perfectly understandable.

DM: Michael was a great guy, though. I do believe that as an actor it
is important for him to move beyond the stereotyping that many actors
find themselves up against. One of the special challenges for Michael
is that while he is extremely well known as Worf people don’t
recognize him, because he was in Klingon make-up during all his
performances. He is a serious, and very good, actor and really shied
away from going down the Star Trek Convention route. He seemed to
never really comprehend why there is such fanaticism over Star Trek.
To him, it is just a very good television show and movie franchise.  
He definitely has respect for what the show has done.

AP: But the thing is… he’s not the star of this particular movie.
Other filmmakers might have used every bit of Michael Dorn footage they
could get their hands on; but I didn’t want to detract from our main
purpose, which was to tell the story of the good people of the KLI.

FT: Do you think the Klingon language will continue to evolve and grow,
or, as Michael Dorn suggested, will it die a slow and agonizing death?

AP: Michael Dorn’s theory of a “slow, agonizing death” would
certainly be poetic – at least in the Klingon sense. But I hope
it’s here to stay. In my opinion, Marc Okrand is the key. If he lives
a long life, and the language has enough momentum, then there’s no
reason why it shouldn’t keep going. But the language is young, and
therefore still vulnerable. The thing they have going for them is that
Klingon speakers don’t do this for a year or two. They’re extremely
passionate about the language; and one gets the feeling that they will
continue to speak it, and attend conferences, for a very long time. I
also think a lot depends on Lawrence Schoen, and what he decides to do
with the KLI.

Who will ultimately replace them? What will they choose to do with the
language? Will they be as dedicated as Marc and Lawrence? There are
many unknown factors. But, personally, I don’t think Klingon will
expire any time soon. And that’s a good thing.

FT: OK, every Trekkie is going to point out that the ‘Ugly bags of
mostly water’ tag is not from any Klingon episode… so why that as a
sub-title?

You’re right. It’s actually a line from Episode 17 of The Next
Generation in which a microscopic life form is discovered and the
Enterprise communicates with it through the universal translator. It
refers to humans as “ugly bags of mostly water.”

One of our Associate Producers and Videographers, Young Kim, actually
came up with that sub-title. It refers, primarily, to the title itself
(Earthlings), which in turn refers to the fact that the people in this
film are no different from the rest of us. It may sound like we’re
poking fun at them; but, after people have watched the movie, I’m
hoping they’ll become a little more tolerant about Klingon speakers,
and Trekkies in general. I also found that sub-title very catchy. It
just seemed to fit with the title and the spirit of the film, so I
decided to go with it. But I’m glad Young was a bit of a Trekkie –
I would never have come up with it by myself!

FT: What are your thoughts about Star Trek generally as a pop culture
phenomenon on its 40th birthday?

DM: There is no other phenomenon that I can think of that remotely
comes close to the longevity Star Trek has shown. I mean, c’mon –
40 years later and people of all ages are still loving it…Wow! From a
business standpoint – profits being made by the studios – we’ll
have to see; but from a fan perspective, it is as strong as ever.

AP: Yes, it’s amazing. The fact that there’s probably a Star Trek
convention or two happening right now, somewhere around the globe, as
you’re reading these words, is pretty amazing to me. Gene Roddenberry
certainly hit a chord with the public, and there’s no way to predict
such an enduring success. I personally love to see these things happen.
People need imaginary worlds to take them away from the chores of their
own lives. It’s a natural and beautiful ritual. It’s also what
makes us human: this ability to recognise our lives for what they are,
and to imagine worlds other than our own, either to reflect upon ours,
or to escape it temporarily.

Which goes to show we’re much more than just ugly bags of mostly
water.