Kicking Off 2009 with Writers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci - Part One: Star Trek
by Alex Billington
January 13, 2009
Now that we're well into 2009, it's time to start looking ahead at some of the big movies coming up this year. Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, whether you're familiar with them or not, are directly responsible for two of this year's most highly anticipated summer features. Alex and Bob (as he's better known) are the screenwriters (and producers) behind J.J. Abrams' Star Trek as well as the writers of Michael Bay's Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. So to kick off 2009, I talked exclusively with the two of them about everything from how they got into screenwriting, to their work on Trek and Transformers, to their plans in the future. In this first part, we focus almost entirely on Star Trek.
Due to the immense length of the interview, I had to cut it up into two parts. It just so happened that this first part ended perfectly just as we switch topics to Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. To put it simply, these two guys are some of the coolest screenwriters (and producers) working in Hollywood. Not only are they die-hard fans of all the franchises they've worked on, but they embrace the internet and love all the fans that make their movies a success (and appreciate their input). I've been looking forward to talking with them ever since I discovered that they had written the first Transformers. Whether you're a budding screenwriter or are just a die-hard Trekkie, this is the interview you'll want to read to kick off 2009!
I'm very excited to be able to talk with you guys given how much prominence you've gained in the screenwriting world and producing world recently.
Alex Kurtzman: Thank you. We're very excited to talk to you.
Since I've never really had the chance to talk with either of you in a setting like this, I wanted to start at the very beginning and ask how both of you first got into this and whether screenwriting was your initial passion.
Roberto Orci: It wasn't as a kid. I thought I was going to be a lawyer but when I met Alex in high school, we immediately -- the minute we graduated -- started writing screenplays together and pretty much from then on, our dream was always to have a production company and to become working writers and in sticking together, we were able to make it happen.
Kurtzman: I did, from a very early age, know that I wanted to write. I probably saw it as a means of getting to direct. And when Bob and I started writing professionally, we started to realize that producing was an essential part of the translation, of preserving kind of the integrity of the translation from script to screen. You have more control over the end product that way, so one kind of led to the other.
That's actually what I was going to ask about next -- how you guys got into producing and what made you want to go in that direction.
Orci: Because we started in television, which was our first writing job, where the writers actually become producers automatically, we really got to see and get an appetite for being involved in all aspects of production from writing it to being in the editing room to casting. So when we made the transition to features, that was kind of already in our vocabulary. Even on the movies that we are not credited as producers, we try to act like producers. If you act like a producer for a while, eventually people call you producer.
Kurtzman: We perceived that there was this kind of a weird disconnect between writers and the studio for a long time in that often people felt like "well, we'll just hire another writer when we have a problem with a script," as opposed to having a producer who is also a writer who can talk to other writers in a language that is their own. We always like to think of it as when you're working with a writer, knowing what size nail you're going to need and what size screwdriver you're going to need, what kind of screwdriver you're going to need. It is a very specific language that writers share so it felt like since we can speak studio language and we can speak writer language, why not try and meld the two.
I've never heard that kind of answer before, actually. Has it worked out well, in terms of the results? Have you seen them changing? Have you seen them getting better now that you guys have been able to produce and get more intricately involved?
Kurtzman: We love to do it. The short answer is that we love to do it. I think we are learning as we go more and more. With every movie brings a different kind of a challenge and so you figure out how you're going to meet that challenge. A lot of the time, you'll end up with a problem that is: "Okay, we have this much money to make the movie and we have this much money on a certain scene, the scene that is written and can't be done for the box that it has to be put into. What are we going to do?" Well, the writer has to solve that problem and not the producer. The writer has to figure that out first and then the producer has to figure out how to take whatever the new version is and make that work. So it's a very united process ultimately anyway. Hopefully, the writers and the producers work together well enough to be able to figure out how to bridge that gap.
Tying back to the beginning, how do you step into the process of collaborating? What I mean is, does one of you write the dialogue, the other write the story, or is there an equal share between what is contributed to the script from both of you? Does one of you finish the first draft and the next take a look at it? How do you work together? How does your chemistry work between you two when working on a script?
Orci: Altogether different, but Alex and I right now are talking to you from across the table that we've been sitting at for the last five years. We sit across from each other, each with our own computer and our scripts are our conversations. We contribute equally, to figuring out what the story is and then actually writing down what is said and how the scenes are blocked, etc.
Kurtzman: It goes back all the way to the way we started writing together, which was pre-internet when we were at college. Bob and I would get on the phone and we would put the phone between our ear and our shoulders for like six hours and just write line for line together, staring at screens half way across the country from each other. That sort of conversation just became what we knew. We didn't really know any other way. It wasn't like "All right. You take this scene and that scene and then we'll divide it up and we'll come back together." It was just kind of a conversational line-for-line development that continues to be the way we write now.
Orci: Except in emergencies and we have to split up. When we have too much on our plate, we can divide and conquer a little bit, but we only see that in an emergency.
I guess I'm just fascinated to see this collaboration work so well between you two.
Orci: We shock ourselves.
Out of curiosity, how long does it take you two to finish a script from start to the final shooting draft?
Orci: Six months?
Kurtzman: Do you mean between breaking a story and then actually writing it?
Kurtzman: We've been in a slightly odd position over the last couple of years because a lot of the scripts that we've been writing have a pre-mandate to go into production very quickly. So we have less time than we ideally would like some times to write. But in the case of Star Trek, it was, what do you think, Bob?
Orci: Yeah, six months. It was a fair six months from breaking the story to writing the script. Paramount moved forward very quickly off the first job, which was a miracle for us.
Kurtzman: The standard contract usually is twelve weeks. Normally, writers take three months for a draft and then another couple of months for re-writes. So it's what it is contractually – that's about how long it takes.
Moving into your slate of films this year, let's start with Star Trek -- how did you guys first get attached to that?
Orci: I think Alex first got a call from one of the Paramount executives who happened to be a friend of yours, right?
Orci: He mentioned "Hey, Star Trek might be something that Paramount's interested in doing? Do you guys have any interest?" And that was the first we heard of it, about three years ago maybe.
Kurtzman: I think, maybe, we were in the middle of writing Transformers or something. It came to us and I knew-- when I first met Bob, he had an Enterprise phone. He was a die-hard. So I knew the minute it was brought up, I couldn't not talk to Bob about it so I said "Bob, is this something you could imagine us doing?" We resisted it for a long time not because we didn't want to do it but because it really felt like enormous responsibility to take on. That's not something you go into lightly. You have to really have a reason to do it. We didn't want to just do Star Trek 11.
Orci: In discussing it, when we found out that we actually really did have an idea of what we wanted to do, that's when we started to get serious about it, sort of "Yes, we'd be interested."
Was it ever one of those dreams when you were a kid that you were like "One day I'm going to write the next Star Trek movie"?
Orci: Yeah, it was. In high school, I thought that and after so many of the Star Treks came out, I thought "Oh, well, that was a nice dream. I guess it'll never happen. Star Trek is pretty much covered." And for it to come back and for it to have worked out this way was definitely a dream for me.
Kurtzman: And for me, it wasn't a dream only because it seemed entirely impossible. I couldn't even imagine that we would ever get an opportunity like that. I always hoped we would make movies but never inherently something that meant so much to us. That's a whole other kind of surreal animal that we never defined.
What's the first thing you do when you take on a project like Star Trek? Do you go back and watch as much Star Trek as you can and just get an idea of the franchise you're about to tackle? Where do you begin with something like that?
Orci: I think we begin with our first thought impressions, just get out our first thoughts without filtering them, without censoring them, without being your own worst critic. Just get out what comes to mind first just to see where your gut points you. That's the first thing we do. And then you go do all your homework.
Have these first thoughts usually translated into ideas that stay within a script in the end?
Orci: Yeah, usually because unless you have that first gut, then you shouldn't do it unless you have a reaction. The reason we like to get out our first reaction immediately is to make sure that we have a reaction, to make sure that we have an instinct pointing us in a certain direction. And if that is difficult in coming, then we are hesitant to jump into a project where that's the case. When you're hired to do something like this, you have to make sure that you are the right person for the job. A lot of times, it's a lot easier to convince someone else that you're the right person for the job and you can get yourself into a job that you shouldn't be in.
Kurtzman: The other thing I think for us that was key to Star Trek was that the idea of taking it on was very scary. That can be a very good thing. It can be a challenge that you have to rise to as opposed to something you're immediately comfortable in. So I think we were partially motivated to see if we were going to be able to bring it.
In relation to Star Trek, whose idea was it for the story to take place as a prequel?
Orci: We came to that independently. Certainly that was Alex and my instinct. The first time we ever heard what Paramount wanted it was the same. I'm not sure if they got it from us or we all arrived at that conclusion simultaneously.
Kurtzman: The other thing was that in looking at Trek in its glorious history, it just shocked us that the story of how the bridge crew came together was never told. It was referenced in bits and pieces but it was never told and it's only kind of the most epic big bang story that you could possibly tell in Star Trek. So it felt to us like if we were going to bring something new to the table, that that was the place to start. It just always started with Kirk and Spock for us. It was always about Kirk and Spock.
Orci: And even though I loved "The Next Generation," one of the reasons we felt that Star Trek possibly had passed us by is we never imagined that anyone would want to go back and take on the original Star Trek again. We thought no one would ever go for that and we were not interested in doing sort of the next- next- next- next- next generation. The idea of doing a new crew had already become an old idea and the new idea really was going back to the original crew.
I'm just fascinated how it all happened because Paramount could've made Star Trek 11 with another crew, but somewhere along the process someone said "let's reboot it," to use that term, and this is what we have now. Obviously there is a lot of buzz and interest and obviously it was the right direction to go.
Orci: That would be the idea we pitched and we never heard any resistance.
It's good to hear that's the direction they wanted to go, too.
Orci: Apparently. Or they have good poker faces, we're not sure which.
How has it been working with J.J. Abrams? Is he the best guy to work with in terms of making sure the script gets translated to the screen the way you guys wrote it? How much actual interaction did you have with him?
Orci: Absolutely. We were so lucky to get him to direct this movie. I'm sure you've been doing your own research about him and know that he only thought he was going to produce it. But it was always our secret goal, me, Alex and Damon Lindelof, to really persuade him to do this and persuade someone of his talent and of his caliber to give Star Trek the attention it deserves from a director like him. So we definitely tried to keep him involved but also tried to surprise him a little bit so that he'd have a reaction to it as well. We pitched him the story and as we'd go through writing it, we'd check in every 30 pages, we'd come in and tell him what we're going to write next and let him get kind of excited about it and just kind of kept him in the process throughout, hoping that he would fall in love with what we were all doing. God bless it, it worked.
Kurtzman: I think as a writer all you can hope for is that you will end up working with a director who will translate with the highest possible fidelity whatever you've written on the page to the screen. And having done 20 trillion episodes of "Alias" and then having just finished Mission: Impossible 3, which we all wrote together, there's a shorthand we have with each other. And I think JJ felt appropriately that Trek, if we were going to take the approach, needed a new set of eyes and a new perspective directorially, that it needed to be a little bit more rock 'n roll than previously figured and just bigger. We knew that at all costs, we needed to get him to do it. It was a long and slow process but ultimately, I think when the script was finished, he settled down quickly and we were thrilled.
Was there ever concern that the bigger aspect of this new Star Trek would be rejected by fans?
Kurtzman: Do you mean bigger or more action?
Both I guess. As I said, we know that this new version has become something that people have embraced, but was there ever concern when you guys were writing it, when nothing had been revealed yet, that this reboot was going to be rejected, whether it was because of the action, whether it was because of the bigger aspect, whether it was because the direction Abrams wanted to take it?
Orci: Sure. We certainly don't finish the script and go "Wow, that ought to take this world by storm. Let's go home." Anytime you finish something you hope it's received well but you have to follow your instincts. We felt pretty confident about it actually and obviously, when JJ agreed to direct it, we thought okay, that must mean something because he came around. So in a way, he was kind of our first test case in terms of whether or not we were heading down the right path. His stamp of approval, I think, made us infinitely more confident that we'd settled on the right idea.
Kurtzman: The other thing, we all speak a common language and one of the languages is the language of set pieces. "Alias" had two to three per episode and so we spent so much time analyzing set pieces and how they work and why they work and almost taking a three act structure approach to each set piece. Obviously, there were a lot of set pieces is Mission: Impossible 3, but a lot of the movies that we loved as kids were influenced by the same kind of approach. And so it felt like ironically, when we did "Alias", the set pieces and the action scenes were always what we wrote last. In a way, while we knew some of the things we wanted to do in Trek, we did not start from a place of set pieces.
The fact that the set pieces happen to reflect accurately the kind of emotional storytelling in Trek, was great for us, and so organic to the story as opposed to "Let's just have a big action sequence here because something like this has never been done in Star Trek before." It really just had to do with, did it feel right and did it feel honest and did it feel like it was consistent with what was going on story-wise. The fact is that, if an action sequence does not somehow further character development in a big way, then it shouldn't be there, period. We were more concerned with the non-fans.
Orci: We're fans enough to know we had enough of what Star Trek is about that we thought fans would like this Trek. We were much more concerned with is it going to be relevant to a general audience. And we know that was JJ's concern as well.
I don't know if you guys know the answer to this question, but was the decision to move the release from Christmas to May made after the first teaser had been put out? Was it based on interest in the film and confidence that it could be a strong May release? Or was that decision made for other reasons?
Orci: It was after the first teaser, otherwise we wouldn't have released it that early. Yes, it was because they actually felt it could actually be a summer movie as opposed to, I guess, a Christmas movie.
Kurtzman: It was also just the reality of the massive, massive amounts of special effects in the movie. We're still in the process of going through them. So the idea that we would've actually released the movie three weeks ago, given what we're still in the middle of right now, seems impossible.
Stay tuned for Part Two of our exclusive interview with Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci!