Friday, November 13, 2009

Alex Kurtzman & Roberto Orci on Tranformers and Star Trek

Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman wrote two of the biggest movies of the year, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and Star Trek. Transformers 2 is out on DVD and Blu Ray with Star Trek coming in November. We got to sit in on a press conference where the sci-fi wunderkind duo, also behind Fringe and Alias, discussed both films.

Q: Do you have a different approach to the DVDs for Star Trek and Transformers in terms of what you talk about?

Alex Kurtzman: No, we tend to sit down and talk very loosely about the experience of making the movie. I think the differences are in the way that the movies were made but not necessarily in the approach to the DVD extras. What’s really cool about the DVD extras is that in both cases they documented everything we were all doing together, from the minute that it started, to the minute the movie was released. It’s pretty extensive. We grew up having nothing like this at all. For example, there was one screen writing book when we grew up, only one. Now there are DVD’s, you can go online, and you can see everything. There is so much there. I think we feel like, “How cool is it for people to actually have the thing that we didn’t have?” So, we try and give as much to the DVD extras as we can.

Q: What was the screenwriting book you grew up on?

Alex Kurtzman: Well, there was actually one screenwriting book that was interviews with screenwriters and one that was just format. Just format, no creative tips at all.

Q: So how did you learn your craft and structure?

Alex Kurtzman: A lot of writing badly for a long time.

Roberto Orci: We met in high school, senior year. We wrote through every year of college. And, by studying movies. We’d watch a movie and actually write down every scene and stare at it as on outline to see what did the structure look like on paper. Then you reverse engineer from that.

Q: From a writer’s point of view, how important was it to get Leonard Nimoy back in Star Trek?

Alex Kurtzman: We couldn’t have made the movie without Leonard. We knew early on that so much of what was going to be required in re-imagining Star Trek and also in staying true to everything that came before it, was going to hinge on Leonard, in a way, blessing us moving forward. Also, in a way telling the audience that it’s okay. “You can make this transition now, I’m here to help you.” We knew without him we were never going to be able to have a movie.

Roberto Orci: We didn’t agree to do the movie until we had the idea that we could get Leonard to be in the story. That’s going to be a way to do both pleasing old fans, and having him the soul of Star Trek the plot reason for the changes. We knew that his blessing, it wasn’t until we hit upon that, that we said “Okay, now we might know how to do this.” It was pivotal for us. We couldn’t have done it any other way.

Alex Kurtzman: Pitching the fate of Spock, to Spock, was a little unnerving.

Roberto Orci: It’s like “And then your planet blows up. Huh? You like that?”

Alex Kurtzman: But it was great and actually I think he gave us the confidence. He didn’t commit right away but he gave us the confidence to move forward knowing that he liked a lot of the direction that we were going in. I think that both creatively in hearts what we wanted the movie to be, and what the movie became could not have happened without his okay.

Roberto Orci: We took a big risk. We spent five months writing it with him in it, not knowing if he would say yes.

Q: Did you feel you had to at some point explain how Spock got in there, with the scene in the cave?

Alex Kurtzman: I think that we tend to be drawn towards structures that are very mysterious for at least and hour or hour and fifteen minutes. As an experience for the audience, as an audience member I always like to be wondering, “What’s happening here? I don’t understand it, it’s really intriguing. Where is the punch line going to go?” But when you incur that debt then you owe the pay off. The pay off is always the moment where someone comes in and says, “Okay, here are some of the answers to the questions you’ve been asking for the last hour and fifteen minutes.” The trick with those kinds of scenes is to make them really interesting and to make them very character driven because what you don’t want is a scene where someone is just kind of telling you plot. That’s really boring, I think, and the audience tends to just kind of check out. The goal with us, the ace that we had in the hole there, was that we knew that it was a very emotional story for Spock to tell. Because he was telling the loss of his planet and he was talking about his responsibility in that.

Roberto Orci: And it’s mind meld. It’s information but it’s an artistic element of the structure.

Alex Kurtzman: That’s right. And it’s literally a new Kirk who doesn’t like Spock, realizing “Oh, wait. Spock is a much broader character than I ever knew.” This is the first moment.

Q: On the DVD, did you want to talk about the leaps you took in Star Trek lore, or the contentious aspects of Transformers 2?

Roberto Orci: Yeah, as we said earlier we tried to be open about what we’re aware of at the moment. Certainly some of the decisions that we made, scientifically and all of that, yes. That’s what the whole movie is about. Where do you fall on that if you’re a fan? So yeah, you can’t avoid that conversation.

Alex Kurtzman: In fact I remember like a good four to six hour session of walking up to the studio and being very bleary. I think we had gone through everything from all of the decisions that we made from why we wanted to start doing it again, to how things changed as we went along. Yeah, I think a lot of the answers to those questions are on the DVD.

Q: When you are looking at the sequel is it more interesting to you to come up with a brand new adventure for these characters or to reinterpret and revisit previous episodes or a previous situation? What would be more rewarding for you as story tellers?

Alex Kurtzman: Well, every franchise has a different need. So, you have to look at them differently based on whatever kind of a mandate is there. But, in the case of Transformers it was very important to us to have a sequel idea that stood on it’s own. You need to have been able to not have seen the first movie to appreciate the second one. I think that for us it’s always about going back to the sequels that we loved as kids and asking ourselves why we loved them. Empire Strikes Back, Superman 2, Aliens, Terminator 2, Star Trek 2, what do all of those movies have in common? Well, they are amazing stories all on their own. You didn’t have to see the first movie. There was some incredibly emotional test of character in all of those movies. Superman has to give up his powers for love. The Spock and Kirk relationship is being tested by Kahn. Ripley finding a daughter, essentially. All of those things are such big ideas in and of themselves. And you really can’t tell those kinds of stories in movie one, because movie one is very much about establishing a world.

Roberto Orci: Question for you though, how would classify the first movie? As an original or a riff on the old story?

Q: Can we say both?

Roberto Orci: Well, that’s your answer. I think we want some kind of a similar balance in the second one. The fact that you’re debating whether or not it’s original or a riff is great, that’s exactly the point.

Q: Was there a moment in Star Trek when you knew you’d nailed it?

Roberto Orci: You get it twice. You get it once when you know you have the right story. I think we could feel that very strongly as we were writing it. The ah-ha of having Leonard Nimoy I think was big for us. But then you have to actually shoot it, and cast it. Can you really replace icons? What’s that going to be? Even in the middle of shooting, when you go onto a set, you’re hoping its something cool and not like Saturday Night Live or something. I think it was after we saw the first cut probably. So, once when we wrote it and once when we saw the first cut and realized oh man, these actors are great. The production design actually looks great. We saw it come together then.

Alex Kurtzman: I think that writing Star Trek was probably the most emotional experience we’ve had in the actual writing part of it. Because you are dealing with, not only these iconic characters, but the responsibility that you are suddenly bearing with bringing them back to the world in a new way, and then telling a story that is deeply, deeply emotional. It’s like: “Take this thing from your childhood and make it someone else’s childhood now.”

Roberto Orci: Don’t break it.

Alex Kurtzman: That’s very daunting so that’s the kind of thing where you have to tune everything out. We literally locked ourselves in a hotel room for weeks and weeks. Just scene for scene, line for line, you don’t always get the luxury honestly, at the pace that we work at sometimes, to luxuriate in every dot and coma. In the case of Star Trek it really was that, so we really loved that.

Q: Are there any concepts or notions, things that you kind of wanted to squeeze into the first Star Trek movie, which you couldn’t but you would like to revisit for the sequel?

Roberto Orci: You know, we had a few characters in early drafts. Chapel, maybe some of the friends in the academy. But in terms of big concepts? No, nothing that was like, “Oh, not going to be able to fit that in.”

Alex Kurtzman: Right. We kind of threw it all in the first one.

Q: Are you also fan of the other Trek series? Is anything from Enterprise or Next Generation or Deep Space Nine you might want to throw into the next original series movie?

Roberto Orci: I think we would think about it, because we do love The Next Generation.

Alex Kurtzman: I think our instinct would be to first look at the original series before we would consider that, but all of that would be on the table for us, it is on the table.

Q: You spoke about your childhood. Do you have a specific memory of the first time you encountered Star Trek as a child?

Roberto Orci: For me, it was being with my uncle and he sort of did like the kid version of relativity and why going faster than warp was kind of the same, crazy cool, concept. I just remember that was the first time I heard the name Einstein and I just realized there was a larger physical, scientific, magical world.

Alex Kurtzman: The original series was what I knew. It was already in re-runs on KTLA when I was growing up. But then the big bang of it for me, I liked that but I didn’t lock in, in the same way that I did when I saw Wrath of Kahn. Watching that, in the theatre, and watching the Ceti eel go in to Chekov’s ear, and going, “Oh my God, what’s this?” The friendship between Kirk and Spock that was so beautifully drawn in that movie, I think it just touched me then and it was a huge compass, in terms of what we wanted to get out of the movie.

Q: I think its been reported that they might shoot Star Trek 2 and 3 back to back. Is that a possibility and how likely?

Alex Kurtzman: I think that we feel like we’ve inherited this incredible honor, in this mantle of Star Trek and the most important thing is to make sure that we are protecting that first. So, if the studio wants more than one, then great, but our thinking is going to be very much about the story.

Roberto Orci: The story.

Alex Kurtzman: Whether the story prescribes there will be more than one. So, right now we are not thinking specifically about making two and three. It may come up but it’s not where our heads are right now.

Q: Are you thinking about doing more of a social allegory in the second film, like the classic Treks did? You talked about addressing torture possibly.

Roberto Orci: The torture example was just a for instance. We’re not doing a story that is going to be about Guantanamo Bay. Now that we’ve established the characters we can have a more philosophical allegory where what is happening in the future represents, like the best versions in the 60’s did it, represented women’s rights, racial equality, and progressive issues.

Q: Where exactly are you on the process of breaking the story?

Roberto Orci: We’re still just brainstorming internally and going to get together soon and bust our riffs out, see what happens, and start putting it together.

Q: So you haven’t picked your allegory yet?

Roberto Orci: No.

Alex Kurtzman: Uh-uh.

Q: When you right a Transformers movie, do you take into account how fast Shia LaBeouf is going to say his lines?

Alex Kurtzman: Yeah, sure. We’ve made three movies with Shia so we have his rhythm in our heads for sure.

Roberto Orci: He knows that movies tend to go long so, God bless him, he goes right through it at the speed of light.

Q: Did you guys ever expect that the Transformers sequel would be so divisive? It was the most debated movie this summer I think, people either so loved it, or feuded with people.

Roberto Orci: Yeah, I expected it to be divisive.

Alex Kurtzman: Yeah.

Roberto Orci: Sequels now are easy targets, number one. It was undertaken under the pressure of a writer’s strike, which makes us targets, it was longer, which was a debate. It was bigger, louder, and longer than the first one. There was controversy on the first one as well.

Q: Assuming that you guys are on the pro side do you have any of your favorite points on that side?

Roberto Orci: For me it’s just length. The fans are like, “I can’t get enough, I wish it was longer.” So…

Alex Kurtzman: It’s very hard to gauge what is going to work for people, and what’s not going to work for people. Because what one person says is way too long, my 12 year old cousin says “I wish it was longer.” That just totally confuses me. I think at the end of the day Michael [Bay] has his rhythm and his pace, and he ends up determining how long he wants to make the movie.

Q: Both of you were at Comic Con for Star Trek. What are the chances of you two writing a comic for Transformers?

Roberto Orci: Huh?

Alex Kurtzman: Possible.

Roberto Orci: Above zero.

Alex Kurtzman: I guess it would sort of depend. Yeah, if we had a cool story to tell that we couldn’t tell in a movie for some reason, then yeah we would absolutely think about it.

Q: You guys and J.J. are the ones that actually surprised us with the new Star Trek. What surprises you in movies?

Alex Kurtzman: I was very surprised by District 9. I was surprised by it for a lot of reasons. I was surprised because the way it was marketed was not the movie that I saw and I thought that was very bold. Also, if I had read that script I would have said, “There is no way this is going to work. Really cool idea, but where it goes, it can’t. It’s just going to be impossible to execute.” And it was executed so brilliantly, and so emotionally, and I started to recognize that was maybe my studio notes training. Because a studio would never have allowed that movie to exist the way that it did, and yet it became this massive success. I think that those kind of break outs are truly surprising because they give you hope that you can still be doing something different and be doing genre. There isn’t necessarily a prescribed formula that you have to follow all the time. It was an incredibly bold and really great movie. I was very surprised and really pleased by that movie.

Roberto Orci: What he said.

Q: With Transformers 2, you guys already know who is playing the characters. Once you know it’s Shia and Megan Fox, do you write differently than the first one when it was open casting?

Alex Kurtzman: Knowing them and knowing their voices, it’s huge, it’s huge, and a great thing to have. As we said, we made three movies with Shia, and he’s an incredibly fun actor to write for in that he can do dialogue at any pace. Not every actor can do that, he really can run through things. Shia has a really good, I’ll call it a cheese alarm. If he thinks something is cheesy, which I think really means inauthentic, he won’t want to do it. So, when we are writing we are often thinking of kind of knowing where his instincts tend to go, in terms of scene work, and what he likes to do. For him, he cannot act a scene unless he feels the truth of it somehow. It has to be truthful. It can be funny, it can be broad, it can be lots of things, he can talking to a giant robot, but there has to be some truth in it. If there isn’t then he can’t do it, so that’s very helpful, in terms of knowing what he’s going to be looking for in a scene.

Q: And Megan?

Alex Kurtzman: I think Megan was really interesting in the first movie because she was very surprising. There is a sweetness to her and that was what I think made the relationship dynamic work really well. I think that for us, knowing that it was going to be about her character dealing with whether or not the boyfriend that she was leaving, who was going off to school and leaving her behind, whether or not the relationship was going to survive. Thinking about how that relationship was going to play out over the course of the movie I think gave us what we needed. We talked to Megan a lot in preproduction with that, we would have a couple of days where we would all sit in a room and talk about the script, go over scenes, and riff stuff out. I think that is where the actor’s voices really become great, because you’ve been living in your head for so long and then you bring it to them. Then you start rewriting once they are getting their hands on it.
Q: Has the present economy changed the content that you would be writing? Either being ordered to put in more robots for toy sales, or asked to be more modest?

Roberto Orci: I think it’s affected the content in a global way. The movies that are being selected to be made tend to be, right now, this very escapist, fun, big forget your life, kind of stuff. We’re not seeing a lot of dramas but they want to be more conscientious budget wise. Yeah, they do want more robots but for a price. You have to make sure you do it at the right level.

Alex Kurtzman: What that means is that your character story, hopefully, is strong enough to sustain the affordability factor. You won’t be able to have a robot in every shot.

Q: Are you looking to right more smaller scale stuff?

Alex Kurtzman: I mean, we’d love to. I think a good story is a good story no matter where it comes from. Anything that catches us I think we get excited about.

Q: Has the success of the first Star Treksort of emboldened you guys to take more liberties as you start to come up with ideas for the new one? Or does it put more pressure on you to even further explore the existing cast of either of them?

Roberto Orci: I think it’s the exact same pressure as the first one. Great, I’m glad we had a nice victory but now we have to do it again. Same amount of trepidation and reverence for Trek.

Alex Kurtzman: But the excitement of knowing that we have everything in place. Going into the first movie we had no idea of what the actors were even going to look like, so now knowing what the feeling was, and who is playing the parts, will definitely be helpful.

Q: For both franchises you guys are kind of on the frontlines of what is now called re-imagining. How did you approach that knowing this is a familiar thing, but we’ve got to surprise people?

Alex Kurtzman: I think in the case of Transformers we didn’t see it as re-imagining because there was no movie. It was just a cartoon. That was actually imagining like, “What is this going to look like?” Because the standards of storytelling were so different when the cartoon was first invented. It was a cartoon. They literally didn’t have the ability to do the live action version. So, figuring out what the balance of robot to human time was going to be, what the axis point for the audience was going to be, who was the character they were going to follow into that world, why, what’s that story? Finding the story of a boy and his car felt like, again, we didn’t really take that off of anything. It was just like, “Okay, what are the movies that this wants to feel like? Well, I think it kind of wants to feel like the movies we grew up on in the Amblin vein.” It felt like that led us to boy and his car.

Roberto Orci: With Star Trek there are 10 movies. You’ve seen it live action. You’ve seen lots of things that can be done. It’s got a bigger impression in people’s minds already.

Q: What about the decision to change some of the cars the robots become?

Roberto Orci: Well, in the case of Bumble Bee making him not a bug, but a muscle car I think led us to making him more of an action character than was in the original series, where he was sort of the child and the youngest one. He hung out mostly with the kids. He is both closest to Shia but also one of them. He’s one of the soldiers. You find out he lost his voice as a result of war. It does change that a little bit but so many things go into figuring out the character. You write it one way, then you get to see what the car looks like, then you try different voice actors, and different voice actors will bring different things to it that you adjust to. It’s just a lot of stuff together.

Q: There are a lot of deleted scenes in the Star Trek DVD. What was the hardest scene for you guys to lose from the original script?

Roberto Orci: It wasn’t because our original script didn’t include the scenes that ended up getting cut.

Q: The whole Klingon thing?

Roberto Orci: Nope, we added that later. We knew it might be long but we just went for it. So we were fine with exactly how it ended up.

Q: And the same question for Transformers.

Roberto Orci: In that one it was the reverse. Too many scenes ended up, for me, No, I’m kidding. In that one, because you are able to animate the robots after the fact you are playing with the dialogue up until the last minute. With Star Trek once it is shot, it’s shot. So, scenes can be created after the fact, scenes that weren’t in the original script at all. It’s kind of the opposite. You get the opportunity to make stuff up after the fact, which was the cool thing about Transformers.

Q: As fans of the original series of Star Trek and the mythology yourselves, have you given any thought as to how you might incorporate say a character like Kahn into the future series?

Alex Kurtzman: I think we are looking at, where we are starting is “Okay, where are our characters now and what are interesting complications that we can put in their lives? What feels like an organic emotional place for them to get to? How do we want to test them?” Then you look at everything. You look everything and start asking, “Who would be the best foe?”

Roberto Orci: There are mental exercises we play with them. In fact we even at one point had one conversation I think was all about the first movie. It could have ended on then the Botany Bay floats by. You can’t be fans of this and not sit around one night and go, “What if we…?” So we’ve gone through probably whatever you’ve gone through in your minds.

Alex Kurtzman: The short answer is that we haven’t landed on anybody yet.

Q: Now that Spock Prime is in there, will that be a problem creating challenges for the crew when he can just warn them about danger?

Alex Kurtzman: No, because Spock came back into a different time line where everything is unpredictable.

Q: Well, the planets would still be there and he’d have visited them.

Alex Kurtzman: Sure, but the circumstances of how things are on those planets could be entirely different than anything he’s aware of.

Roberto Orci: I also think Spock might decide it’s wrong to tell them of anything.

Alex Kurtzman: Even coming back in time is a violation of the prime directive for him, so he’s probably not going to be really eager to,

Roberto Orci: Yeah, he’s not going to be telling you who is winning the Super Bowl.

Q: Why have you decided not to do a third Transformers?

Roberto Orci: We’ve been working on Transformers longer than I was in college. I think we have our degree in Transformers now.

Alex Kurtzman: I think it’s just a question for us of, the franchise is so wonderful and it deserves to be fresh all the time. I think we just felt like we had given it a lot and didn’t have an instinct for where to go with it next. We said, “You guys should do it right.”

Roberto Orci: We never want to do it unless we have an idea. We always think that the best idea should win. That means opening it up to everybody.

Q: What’s the project you have going with Masi Oka?

Roberto Orci: We’re still working out the story.

Alex Kurtzman: We actually can’t say too much about it, but Masi is amazing. He’s wonderful to work with.

Roberto Orci: Gary Whitta is writing it.

Alex Kurtzman: Gary Whitta is writing it and he wrote Book of Eli which is coming out this year.

Roberto Orci: He’s developed a great story and we have to go pitch it to the heads of the studio. We’ll find out what happens.

Q: Is there room for Greg Grunberg to fit in one of his patent J.J. Abrams cameos in the Trek sequel?

Alex Kurtzman: There is always room for more Grunberg. It’s whether or not he can find the time. He’s one of TV’s Heroes. We’ll see how that goes so if he has the time we’d love it.

Q: He wants to play Harry Mudd. What do you think of that?

Alex Kurtzman: Interesting, yeah.

Roberto Orci: He and Jack Black can fight it out.