Kicking Off 2009 with Writers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci - Part Two: Transformers 2
by Alex Billington
January 14, 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. Today, we finish our chat with Transformers 2 and beyond.
Due to the immense length of the interview, I had to cut it up into two parts. Yesterday, we talked about all things Star Trek. Today, the interview starts out with a focus on Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and continues with a look at their upcoming projects, their favorite films and influences, and even a cool story about working with Steven Spielberg. If there's any questions you feel I didn't ask that I should have, just let me know, and we'll even try and put together another follow-up interview. But for now, let's get right back into the mind of two of Hollywood's coolest screenwriters. If you enjoyed yesterday's interview, then you should be excited to finally read through this last half of my interview. Let's continue!
To segue into Transformers, I wanted to ask a slightly hard-hitting question. I had read that Christopher Nolan did a lot of research into figuring out how to make The Dark Knight, or for that matter, any sequel better than the first film and to make it better in every way he could. For Transformers 2, is this something you guys actively thought about moving into it? Or how much actual--
Roberto Orci: You bet. We resisted it for a long time.
Alex Kurtzman: Especially because the first movie was such a big success and then it was like let's just make another one. For us, I think the credibility that we would've lost -- forget with the world, but just with ourselves -- to saying yes before we really had a good idea, would've been really disappointing. I think for us, before we locked into what the idea was for the movie, we had to say: "What are the sequels that influenced us as kids and why did they influence us?" The answer was always the same. It was that the movie stood on its own, completely on its own and was a--
Orci: Like Superman II, Empire Strikes Back--
Orci: What are the movies where the sequel was as good as the first one? Those are the things we referenced and thought about and watched again.
Kurtzman: And what emotional tests are the characters that you've come to love from the first movie put through in the sequel that really just stretches them in a way that's unexpected. Those are the two standards that we held Transformers 2 to. So until we kind of felt like we had a story that was going to bring us to those places in a satisfying way, we just couldn't even think about it. And it wasn't until it was like "Alright, guys. We have to literally start writing this movie or we're not going to make a production date. Are you in or are you out," that we finally said "Okay, we'll do it." We just took as much time as possible to know that we could believe in it before we said yes.
Orci: And on that one, it was written with Ehren Kruger because of the strike and because of the fact that we were in the middle of Trek. It was like, not only do we have to make sure we have the right idea, we're not sure we can deliver it in time unless you team us up with this guy that we really like.
Kurtzman: And we had worked with Ehren before so we already had a great working relationship and it was nice to have a fresh perspective. It was great, someone who kind of came in with fresh eyes and said "All right, having nothing to do with the first movie, here's the kinds of things I'd like to see and write."
Orci: It kept us honest, too. We weren't being lazy or just moving through it because we were on our best behavior with him around.
What was the timeline in connection with the writers' strike? Were you guys brought on before the writers' strike?
Orci: It was insane. We literally started breaking stories two weeks before the strike. In two weeks, we generated an outline. It was pens down the minute the strike hit. We didn't deal with Michael at all during the strike.
Kurtzman: They prepped the movie off of the outline.
Orci: Yeah, but we had to come up with set pieces and sort of the basic thrusts of the movie and Michael prepped a lot of it. And the second the strike ended, it was like two months -- I'm not exaggerating -- two months between starting to write and day one of direction. So it was a crazy, crazy race to get it done.
How many changes or how much did Michael Bay add when he did his, as we all reported, his notes about the sequel and story ideas for the sequel during the writers' strike? How much did that play into what eventually became the final script?
Kurtzman: He actually didn't do anything other than, in his own mind, elaborate on action sequences. We had set up the foundation for a lot of those action sequences and he kind of came in and just--
Orci: Add a sight gag here or a joke there.
Kurtzman: But story-wise, it was kind of what it was and it never changed from the first thing we pitched to what we ended up shooting. We didn't have a choice. It was what was there.
This goes for Star Trek as well -- do you do a lot of on-set work? Are you there on set while shooting and if there are necessary changes to be made, do they come back to you guys?
Orci: Yes. Star Trek shot through the strike and luckily, because we were executive producers, we were able to be on set as producers without violating our commitments to the writers guild. But we couldn't change anything. All we could do was sort of, make funny eyes and faces at the actors whenever they had a problem with the line and sort of nod when they had something better. We're on a set a lot. Again, from our TV training, you want to be there when you're going to be in a particularly challenging scene that you know might change and if it's something that's going to not require that so much, you don't have to be there.
Kurtzman: The other thing is that on set, a lot of the time the actors are -- new energy comes up. Sometimes surprises come up and great new opportunities come up, so to be on set and to be able to improvise changes -- in the case of Star Trek, there was very little room for that, very, very little room. I think more than any movie we've ever done, there was very little room. And we did so much work on the script right before the strike that I think everyone kind of had weighed in by the time they were actually shooting the movie. But we do like to keep it loose. When we were doing Eagle Eye, there was a massive amount of stuff that ended up getting changed, just on the fly once the strike ended, and on Transformers 1 and on Transformers 2 as well.
Do you guys prefer to work on your own ideas from scratch, which is literally what we've talked about this entire time, or do you like to adapt from existing work, for example, like with your upcoming Atlantis Rising project based on a graphic novel or book? Do you have a tendency to choose one or the other? It sounds like you guys like coming up with your own ideas more than anything.
Orci: We actually have an appetite for both. It's probably a function of who we're going to work with and working with decent people who you enjoy being around. It's probably a function of whether or not that idea inspires you no matter where it comes from. A good idea is a good idea in our mind. It doesn't matter where it comes from and so it's just case-by-case, but we like to do both.
Do you prefer the freedom of not having to stick to some sort of guideline, like with a graphic novel or something?
Orci: Even with a graphic novel, we never feel we have to stick to anything.
Kurtzman: Unless you're doing something like Watchmen -- which you really can't change too much -- I think it's always about taking the spirit and the best of whatever it is and then figuring out a way to translate it to a film.
Orci: Even Transformers, which was a little more faithful to the original movie. It's a fact there's never been a live action Transformers movie and live action has its own rules. So you have to figure out what's right for that.
What other producing projects do you have coming up? I know you have The Proposal this year. What else is there in the works on the production side of things?
Kurtzman: We have a couple things that are sort of in development that we have not made public yet.
Orci: Cowboys and Aliens is one that we are excited about that hopefully will come up next.
Have you guys found a director for that yet?
Orci: No, we haven't gone out to anybody yet.
Kurtzman: We haven't tried yet.
Orci: Got to be ready first.
Are you working on the script or is someone else writing it?
Orci: Yea, we're writing it with Damon Lindelof right now.
On Cowboys and Aliens, is there any concern with the overlap with Jonah Hex, which I know isn't necessarily the same idea but a lot of the same elements.
Kurtzman: Not really. That doesn't matter because they're so different ultimately.
Orci: In a way you have to put that kind of stuff out of your mind, then once everything is ready to go, then you really look at it. Then it's the studio's decision whether or not they want to take a gamble with competing. We just have to keep our heads down and keep going forward.
How soon is Atlantis Rising heading into production?
Kurtzman: We just hired a writer. He's about to start writing a script very soon and we'll see how it goes.
Orci: It's like producing. We develop it at like a four- to five-to-one ratio. Out of the five things that he's developed, we'll go with one at a time. So we have a few things going and then you hope and pray that one of them gets all the necessary pieces to fall together. Because it's not just a function of whether or not the script is great. It's also which director's available, which actor's available, which director and actor will the studio make the movie with. Sometimes you get an actor and a director but the studio won't support them. So it's a miracle every time a movie gets made.
Besides The Proposal, do you even know what's coming up next for you?
Orci: There's a couple things in the air but nothing we can announce yet. We don't know. We don't know the next thing. It could be one of a few things.
With Eagle Eye, were you happy with the success of the film and the turnout being producers on it?
Kurtzman: Thrilled, thrilled.
Orci: Yeah, we feel very fortunate.
Kurtzman: It was just an amazing experience because it was a Steven Spielberg idea and something he had been nurturing for a long time. So when he asked us to do it and then when the movie got made, we just thought we hope we don't screw this up and we hope that people go see it. They did and we couldn't have been happier with that. That was the first movie that we produced and we really were there, on set, every day producing it and working with Shia LaBeouf, who obviously we've done a lot of movies with now, and DJ Caruso, which was just an amazingly good experience. So it was like an incredibly pleasant experience and then to have the movie come out and do well was just the greatest.
It seems that you obviously learned a lot from it in terms of producing and moving forward with your future projects?
Kurtzman: Definitely. It was a very challenging movie to do on the schedule that we had and the budget that we had to do it on.
Orci: And learn about the marketing a lot as well. Not only that, when you're producing, it's not over once the movie's made. Then there comes the entirely super important part of actually figuring out how you're going to sell it.
Kurtzman: Really, I think from some of the failures that we've had, we've learned a lot, too. On The Island, I think one of the criticisms that we heard a lot was that people didn't know it was a movie about clones. One of the big debates that we had with marketing Eagle Eye was whether or not we were going to reveal the fact that ARIA was a computer. The whole campaign was designed very correctly around the idea of "Who is this woman?" We had a lot to do with that kind of a choice. I think it ultimately paid off because people, I believe came to theater not only for Shia and Michelle, but because they really wanted to know the answer to that question.
That's actually very interesting. How much marketing say do you have in The Proposal and Star Trek?
Orci: The Proposal, we've not been very involved in; on Star Trek, quite a bit.
I guess I'm just curious because being who I am, the journalist and working on all this, all we see is the marketing side of things, so it's something we have to criticize a lot, I'd say. With Star Trek, I want it to be successful and we're all hoping that they get trailers out and posters out on time and people like them and that everything's marketed well because if it's not, we're trying to defend a film that people aren't liking, which is why it's interesting to learn how much involvement you have with that.
Kurtzman: We've learned how important it is, that you can have the best movie in the world and if you don't sell it right, it doesn't matter.
Orci: The crazy truth is that movies get greenlit without a vote from the marketing department saying "we know how to put this out there," especially on movies that are big like Star Trek or Transformers. When you are staking so much of your success on the way a movie's put out there, as the producer, it's your responsibility to be involved as much as possible. And also, it's your responsibility to listen to people who are smarter than you about how to do it.
Is this why you guys like getting really involved with the fans? I know you're very active on the TFW2005 forum and the TrekMovie forum. I think with you guys and a few other people in this industry finally connecting with fans on that level, I think it's really benefiting these films in the end, especially very franchise-related films.
Kurtzman: These movies are not ours. We're not making them for ourselves. We are, of course, but we're making them for people to go see. I think especially with something like Star Trek, we're so lucky to have inherited that mantle and we are just doing our best to preserve the incredible legacy of Star Trek and to keep bolstering the amazing work that's already been done. So this is not something that we can claim we created in any way.
Orci: Right. In particular when it's a franchise that has belonged to fans for as long as it has, that's when we feel a particular responsibility to be open about it. Some people don't subscribe to this -- Alex and I tend to like demystify the process. We maybe are open to a fault about how things work but some people don't like to see how sausage is made. It sometimes hurts their perception of a movie. We don't like to create false mystery. We like to be kind of open about it. That's just how we operate.
Like I said, I think it's incredibly beneficial to all of these films.
Orci: I think as fans, that's what we would've wanted when we were watching these things. The idea that we could've gone online and talked to people who were making movies when we were kids, would've been a dream. We used to be amazed when we could get hold of a script after a movie came out, forget about actually interacting and possibly even having some influence over the material.
Kurtzman: I remember when Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade came out, that the teaser trailer was Steven directing the movie. It showed him on the set of Nazi Germany with Hitler. I think he was strangling Hitler in the preview. I don't remember how old I was, 16 or something like that, but just being amazed that they were showing the movie, that they were premising the teaser with the people who were making the movie and not just the movie itself. I thought it was the coolest thing ever. I loved it. I thought it was such a nice thing to see and I think as a fan, it was sort of like I was being let in on some moment. So I think that forms a lot of what you're talking about. It's really important to let people in when they love something that's been theirs for so long.
Orci: And the fact is, with all these properties that we've been working on, our interaction with the fans has made it such that the fans have essentially become consultants. They have influenced moments in the film and that's kind of interesting and cool and amazing and futuristic and weird.
That was one of the things I was going to ask about. Have you chosen to include certain robots because people really wanted to see Soundwave or something like that?
Orci: Yeah, sure, absolutely. We excluded Soundwave from the first movie because we knew that the version we were discussing was going to be too off-putting and we put other things in there based on fan responses. Same with the sequel.
This is a question that I just love asking. What are your favorite movies of all time, if we can get that out of you?
Orci: Obviously Star Wars, Indiana Jones. They don't even need to be mentioned.
Kurtzman: I think we have a lot of the same touch points. Star Wars; a movie called Manhunter actually. Rain Man is one of my favorites. A movie called The Miracle of Morgan's Creek, which is an old Preston Sturges movie. I can watch that endlessly. And a lot of the Marx Brothers.
Do you think a lot of these films have really influenced your style and your writing and how you put together the films that you put together these days?
Orci: I think without question. We've been in the amazing position of being in meetings with Steven Spielberg where we go "Listen, at the risk of sounding like idiots, we're going to reference one of your films back to you as what we're trying to do here, if you don't mind." He's like "No, no, I steal from myself all the time."
Orci: "So we're saying if our interpretation of this is wrong, just correct us. But it seems like in this movie you were doing this and we're trying to do something similar here." Then he'll say "That's good."
Everyone can mention their favorite movies but, as you guys have just referenced, seeing them play into what we're currently watching is an incredibly cyclical process. As a kid, you watch these movies and then all of a sudden, you're no writing new movies and referencing the old ones.
Kurtzman: It's just surreal.
Orci: I guess some are hesitant to list their influences for fear of being reduced or something. But again, we like to be open about our influences.
Thanks again for taking the time to talk to me today. I really appreciate it.
Orci: Thank you.
Kurtzman: It's been a pleasure.
Best of luck with everything this year. I don't even need to tell you how big I expect both films will be.
Orci: Knock on wood, yeah. Happy New Year. Take care!
Thank you to both Alex and Bob for taking the time out of their busy shedule to talk with me. And a special thanks to the wonderful BeBe Lerner for setting up this interview! Stay tuned for plenty more on Star Trek and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen throughout the year.