A Tribute to Michael PillerBy Eric A. Stillwell
Posted at November 2, 2005 - 8:32 PM GMT
Eric A. Stillwell, who founded the fan organization Starfleet before he became a writer for Star Trek and for Pocket Books' Star Trek line, worked with Michael Piller at Paramount Studios as his executive assistant and as the script coordinator for Star Trek: Insurrection. Later he served as Vice President of Operations for Piller Squared, the independent production company formed by Michael and Shawn Piller, where Stillwell served as an associate producer on USA Network's hit series The Dead Zone co-created by the Pillers.
I've been finding it difficult today to find the right words to describe a man who deserves to be honored and remembered for his great skill and talent for putting the right words to paper and seeing those words transformed to our television and motion pictures screens in ways that have been very entertaining and deeply meaningful to audiences around the world.
Michael Piller was a master storyteller. He was a genius at subtext. He had the ability to tell stories on different levels simultaneously, imparting implicit meaning to otherwise innocuous exchanges of dialogue between characters. And through this talent came the truth of his storytelling. The need to be about something. He always wanted scripts to be about something. And he succeeded more times than most.
For me, Michael was somebody I deeply admired and respected. He was a man of integrity and discipline. He had a good and gentle soul. He was more than a boss; he was a mentor and a loyal friend. For many years my life and career were synonymous with Michael's life and career -- and he made it possible for me to have a long and successful life in Hollywood. His passing is a deep loss to me both personally and professionally. I will miss him very much.
When Michael Piller came to Star Trek: The Next Generation as the showrunner and head writer during its third season, it is my firm opinion that he creatively saved the show from an early demise, and in so doing set the groundwork for the most successful television franchise in the history of entertainment. Without Michael Piller, we might never have seen the franchise grow and expand with Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Star Trek: Voyager and beyond. Michael Piller was the creative genius behind those shows, not only because he had enormous talent as a writer, but because he also honored and deeply respected the creative wisdom of Gene Roddenberry. Michael often spoke fondly of Gene Roddenberry and the lessons he learned from him. He said the limitations that were imposed on the writers ultimately made them better storytellers. And I believe this is also true of the writers who studied under Michael's tutelage, whether they appreciated it or not.
Michael's greatest contribution to the industry was his willingness -- indeed, a profound eagerness -- to encourage and recruit young new writing talent. Michael sought out new writers wherever he could find them -- not just in Hollywood, but at college campuses and writing seminars around the country. Personally he donated half a million dollars to his own alma mater, UNC Chapel Hill, to help establish a nationally-recognized screenwriting program. And as a TV producer, he was always a patron of the internship and mentor programs offered by the Writers Guild of America and the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. Most importantly, Michael Piller helped break down the barriers in Hollywood that made it difficult for young writers to get their foot in the door. His desire to open those doors was unprecedented. As head writer of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Michael convinced the hard-to-convince lawyers at Paramount Studios to let him do what nobody else in Hollywood had ever done -- he opened the doors to freelance script submissions to anybody in the world -- not just professional writers -- but anybody in the world who wanted to write a Star Trek script. When the floodgates opened, the scripts poured in. And Michael was the prospector who had a talent for finding those rare nuggets of gold in an avalanche of mud.
Over the years, Michael Piller "discovered" and mentored dozens and dozens of young writers in Hollywood. Today, the names of many of those successful writers can be seen in the opening credits of hit television series covering a broad genre of programming on almost every major network and dozens of cable channels, too! That is his legacy. Michael Piller opened the doors for an entire generation of Hollywood writers. And his impact will be felt for years to come.
Donations in Piller's name can be sent to:
The Michael Piller Distinguished Professorship at Carolina
Writing for the Screen and Stage Program
Arts and Sciences Foundation
c/o Emily Stevens
134 East Franklin Street
Chapel Hill, NC 27514
Eric A. Stillwell recently left Hollywood to return to his home state of Oregon.