Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci are best known as the writing team behind huge budget, big action films like “Star Trek,” “Transformers,” and “Cowboys & Aliens.” But this summer, the screenwriting duo is tackling a different monster – a family film. Directed by Kurtzman and co-written by Orci and Jody Lambert, “People Like Us” stars Chris Pine and Elizabeth Banks as estranged siblings. It’s the personal story that first-time director Kurtzman has been working on for the past eight years.
At the film’s press day, we had the opportunity to speak with Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci and Jody Lambert about their passion project. They told us why it was important to have movies about real people during blockbuster season, their premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival and upcoming projects.
Is it bold to bring out a family movie in the middle of blockbuster season?
Robert Orci: There is the possibility that we’re fools for attempting this.
Alex Kurtzman: We do have a pool explosion in this. I think that we grew up in a time when there was more balance in the studio system in terms of the movies that were getting made. There was big action movies and then there was “Jerry Maguire”. For us, there was a real romantic quality to that. This was a movie that wasn’t written for money. We wrote it for ourselves. We thought that if we were lucky, we would be able to scrape some money together from an independent financier and just make it guerilla-style. The fact that Dreamworks was bold enough to say, “We wanna make this,” gave us an opportunity to go back to the kinds of movies that we grew up loving. I really want to believe that there’s an audience that is starved for stories that are more about us and real life. You go to the movies to lose yourself in an experience. That experience can be a big action movie or it can be a movie about people and characters and something that makes you feel like you’re watching yourself onscreen. My great hope is that there are going to be enough people – as “The Help” certainly proved last summer – who are going to want to see a movie like this.
You premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival. How important was that for you?
Alex Kurtzman: I think it’s really important. In a lot of ways, this movie is going to be about the word of mouth. It’s going to be about people talking about the experience of seeing it and saying, “I saw this movie, you really should go.” We made it for little enough money that it doesn’t have to carry the weight of our usual fare on an opening weekend. My great hope is that things like LAFF and all the other places that it’ll be screening at will allow people to talk about it and get the word out.
The two of you (Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci) are attached at the hip, and then there’s you (Jody Lambert). How’d you know that this collaboration was going to work?
Jody Lambert: For me, it was like the best grad school you could ever hope for. You’re sitting down to write a screenplay with two guys who understand the forms so well and have had great success. The script itself is constantly changing and morphing, but their ability to say that this can’t be a meandering character piece and that it has to have real drive and momentum doesn’t. You’re learning how to do that. That’s something that any screenwriter benefits from. To be able to do it with your friends is miraculous. It’s a beautiful experience to be able to write this kind of movie, which Alex (Kurtzman) and Bob (Orci) love, but for me, specifically, these are the kinds of movies I want to do exclusively. For the most part anyway. To be able to see how to make one that feels like a bigger piece work and roll up your sleeves and do this type of film with them is great.
Roberto Orci: The fun part for us, working with an old pal, who happens to have talent, is that he knows us and won’t be impressed by anything.
Was there any temptation to make the kid fly?
Alex Kurtzman: It took us eight years and we went down a lot of wrong roads. Bob (Orci) said, “Maybe they should all be robots.”
How was it like for you Robert (Orci), to watch your buddy behind the camera for the first time?
Roberto Orci: It was surreal. He always wanted to be a director. I think I benefited from a nice 20-year detour into these other movies. I hope it’s not over. It was amazing to see him behind the camera. When I met him in high school, he had just finished directing his first student film. I met him as a director. So to have our career come back to this place is nice. This is the kind of thing he always wanted to do.
Jody Lambert: I don’t think anyone thought he was a first time director. The way he was so well prepared and his ability to communicate with the actors didn’t feel like he had just shown up on the first day of a brand new job. It felt like someone who had been waiting and paying attention. Studying.
Alex Kurtzman: Like a killer. [Laughs]
Can you talk about your relationship with Chris Pine?
Alex Kurtzman: Chris had a very difficult task in “Stark Trek”. Stepping into the shoes of William Shatner, that character in particular, there are very few characters who are as iconic as Captain James T. Kirk.
Roberto Orci: It was heresy to recast.
Alex Kurtzman: Absolutely. What we were so blown away by was that he tipped his hat just enough to what made Kirk, Kirk. It was a totally unique performance. It’s not like you look at his performance and think he’s doing a Shatner impression. In “People Like Us,” he goes from being a young, rebellious, angry kid with father issues to ultimately taking his first step into adulthood. Then I went to see him in a play at The Taper called “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” in which he plays an Irish terrorist obsessed with his cat and I thought, “This guy’s range is amazing.” I called him. He was the first person that I called. I had a strong instinct that it was something that he could do really well. He responded to it instantly.
Was it smooth from the get go?
Alex Kurtzman: Unbelievably smooth. We would work stuff out, but we didn’t always see eye to eye on everything, Still the partnership was very collaborative. I think all actors need to be heard in their process. I knew that for this movie to work, the actors had to be able to slip into their skin with total comfort.
Is Franky, Elizabeth Bank’s character, based on your sister Alex (Kurtzman)?
Alex Kurtzman: No, actually not at all. Part of why I took eight years to do this was because there was a lot of separating truth from fiction. Emotionally there’s a lot that’s autobiographical, but not plot-wise. My sister is nothing like Franky, but I think she really loved Franky when she saw her onscreen. I think we made things a lot messier. We took the autobiographical elements. Like my father is in the music business, Bob had an aunt he’d never met, etc. We made it messier than our lives were. It wasn’t about correcting past wrongs.
Roberto Orci: We didn’t want to sanitize the story. Part of what was interesting to us about doing it as a studio movie is that, it’s an atypical relationship told in a somewhat traditional structure. That was really interesting to us.
Alex Kurtzman: It looks like a romantic comedy.
Roberto Orci: There was a tension that felt very foreign and yet familiar. We loved playing through that.
How hard was it to write the second “Star Trek” movie?
Roberto Orci: Part of the difficulty was knowing when to actually dig into it. The studios sometimes want you to have the story before the first movie comes out. For it to actually feel as relevant as we wanted it to feel, we took our time. We sat on a story that we had for a while and waited to see if it still felt relevant a year or two later, after we’d all gone through a bunch of stuff. And it still did. The hardest part was being patient and kicking the tires of what our instinct was. Not just writing the momentum of the studio being happy with us and the nice reaction we got. It’s very easy to get overconfident and go, “Anything we say next is going to be Star Trek.” You want to mitigate against that and be your own check. After that, it was agreeing…”
Speaking of other projects, will the fans be happy with “Ender’s Game”?
Roberto Orci: I haven’t seen the movie cut together yet. We haven’t seen it cut together yet, but one of the reasons the movie never got made in 20 years is because Orson Scott Card never supported it sufficiently. So finally, with his narrative support, hopefully we’re on the right track. Getting him is like getting Mr. Spock in the first movie.
“People Like Us” Opens June 29, 2012.