“You Can Call Me Bill,” written and directed by Alexandre O. Philippe, screened at the Paramount Theater in Austin on March 16 at SXSW.
The documentary was financed by Legion, which is fan-owned, and all the donors’ names appear in the credits at the end.
The documentary opens in a forest with the quotation, “The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.” The director did a nice return to this forest image at the documentary’s end, but the middle contains Shatner pontificating on a variety of subjects and many clips from his work through the years. Ninety-one year old William Shatner, forever Captain Kirk of the Starship Enterprise, is the subject.
The film had a structure that was projected onscreen:
Prologue: The Miracle
Chapter 1: Love, death and horses
Chapter 2: Masks
Chapter 3: Boldly Go
Chapter 4: Loneliness
Chapter 5: So fragile, so blue
The director explained that in this structure each portion corresponded to one of Shatner’s original songs. The best song was the last one, “I Want To Be A Tree,” which was Shatner saying he wanted to be cremated after death. Then a Redwood will be planted in his ashes and grow into a mighty tree. At age ninety-one he admitted that he thinks about death all the time, but the director shared that he had visited four cities in four days and keeps a schedule that a much younger man would have difficulty keeping up with. Shatner also recently reconciled with his 64-year-old wife just three years after their divorce.
If the structure for the documentary seems a bit “loosey goosey,” it was. But, as Shatner says in the documentary, “Ooga booga should be part of our lives.” It must have been quite a task to figure out how to structure the ramblings of the star, interesting though they are, and to coordinate them with clips from Shatnr’s body of work and still share insightful stories from throughout the years.
Two stories that stood out for me were Shatner’s remarks about how the original pilot (which appeared to star Jeffrey Hunter in the Captain Kirk lead) was passed on by the network, which then took another run at casting, giving “Star Trek” a second shot, a highly irregular course of action.
The other story that Shatner told involved the moment in time, post “Star Trek,” in July of 1969 when he was flat broke and sleeping in a truck in a remote field, while witnessing men walking on the moon for the first time, a bit of his life that he referred to as “the irony of symmetry.” Better times were ahead.
The clip that I enjoyed the most featured Shatner doing a bit at the ceremony awarding George Lucas a Life Achievement Award. Bill takes the stage and begins to talk, but he pulls out a piece of paper from his pocket midway through that reveals he is there talking about ‘Star Trek” but the invitation was for “Star Wars.” We can see Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford laughing heartily while seated beside Lucas and “Star Wars” storm troopers escort the confused Captain Kirk offstage.
Shatner’s life advice: “Take care of the inner child. That curiosity is what keeps us alive. The search for love is what keeps us alive. Curiosity equals love.”
In regards to Chapter 1, Shatner said, “Nature or animals or people are what keep us connected.” He emphasized the connectedness of life on planet Earth throughout the one hour and thirty-six minute documentary, which released March 16th after its first showing at SXSW.
On Acting: Shatner says that, “Learning the words is the work of the actor. The rest is just kicks.” When asked if he was a method actor who took the part home after his work day, he responded, “The carpenter doesn’t come home and try to fix the dining room table.” So that would be a no.
Regarding those who have imitated Shatner through the years, the verdict was “Every word is its own sentence.” Various imitators were shown giving his delivery their best shot, in the same way that Christopher Walken is often mimicked.
Shatner’s life philosophy: “Everything is an adventure.” He added, “Do it fully, boldly, courageously. Limit your sense of regret.”
In his discussion of loneliness, Shatner noted that he had “been alone all my life,” ever since his birth in Canada in 1931. He said, “Loneliness is endemic” and noted that he was talking about existential loneliness. Almost three years after the 91-year-old ‘Star Trek’ actor and his 64-year-old spouse divorced, William and Elizabeth recently decided to give their relationship another go. Shatner said: “‘My wife… she is the zest of life.”
Shatner’s trip into space with BlueOrigin on July 20, 2021, has played heavily into his becoming a proponent of trying to save the Earth. He talked about how he cried upon coming back to Earth and says that he thinks now that he was grieving for the Earth. He commented on the “total denial on a global sale of global warming.” He has been promoting efforts to curb global warming and become an activist to save the planet. He said, “The planet is all we have.”
The director filmed half a day per chapter on a massive sound stage, using three cameras, building up to the “I Want To Be A Tree” song that ends the film. was, as noted, mostly Shatner pontificating, with some clips. The information about the actor’s early years was sparse and figuring out the sequence of his rise to fame was up to the audience member. For one thing, getting the opportunity to go on as the understudy for Christopher Plummer in Henry V was helpful to his career.
Shatner, himself, may have given the best review of this work saying, “I believe about 85% of what I say is good and the other 15% is bullshit. His meditations on life, love, grief and loneliness (among other topics) are worth hearing.