For Hollywood screenwriters and producers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, it’s been quite the summer of cinematic extremes, beginning with the critically acclaimed “Star Trek” and concluding with the hugely successful but more critically divided Transformers sequel, ‘Revenge of the Fallen’. It was a circumspect Orci and Kurtzman who talked to Paul Fischer about these two very different experiences as well as what’s next for two of Hollywood’s most successful writing team.
Question: How seriously do you take the good with the bad? I mean, Star Trek received over 90 percent rave reviews, while Transformers, not so much. Do you take it seriously? Do you ignore it? Why do you think this is?
Orci: We take it seriously, in as much as a real fact of a media blogosphere dialogue. And as its own phenomenon, that’s a fascinating thing to engage in one way or the other. We tend to separate that from what an audience feels. And we tend to go by the audience. You know, you always want to make sure that you don’t overlook a valid opinion that has something constructive to say, merely because it’s negative.
Kurtzman: Nobody can honestly say that they don’t care about reviews. Like, nobody. But we knew the minute we agreed to do Transformers 2 that these were gonna be the reviews, no matter what we came up with. And that’s just a fact of life that you accept going into it.
Question: Let me ask you this. You’re working with two very, very filmmakers, with Abrams and Bay. And I’m just wondering when you’re working on a Bay film, what the different process is in writing a script, for a director who has very different visual sensibilities to somebody like J.J. Abrams?
Kurtzman: I mean, it’s a very different process. They’re very different directors. They look for very different things.
Orci: But part of that difference comes from the fact that they’re different franchises. They require different things.
Kurtzman: Yeah. That’s right.
Orci: You know, it’s not just that we’re writing for Michael Bay. We’re writing for Transformers. And Michael Bay is perfect for Transformers. And J.J. is perfect for Star Trek, because what Star Trek requires is something else. So, we tend to look at it as, the show is the boss. All of our boss. And we’re servicing that more than anything. You know, in terms of differences in the experience. Obviously, Transformers 2 was unique, in that it went down in the middle of the strike. We were writing the movie three months before it was about to be shot, therefore we were handing Michael pages that night. You know, every night, so they could be prepared. Which was different than Star Trek, where we had six leisurely months to go write two drafts.
Question: Right. And Star Trek is very much a character-based film. I mean, you’re dealing with both iconic characters, but also you’re developing relationships in that particular movie. This one, you’re really creating, I guess, a lot of set pieces for Michael to work with. And I’m just wondering, how frustrating is it for you when you do have such limited time? And does that affect the final product, as screenwriters?
Orci: In terms of ” frustrating,” we try to think of it as just an interesting challenge. I mean, putting together a movie of this size, coordinating with Michael and production and the military and Hasbro, is a fascinating thing to do. You know, we try to sort of learn and enjoy, and not be paralyzed by the fear of it. On the other hand, it’s not to say – it’s just a different experience, going off to write a script for six months, you know?
Question: What do you do differently as a writer, when you’re doing something like a Transformers 2, that you don’t have to worry about when you’re doing a Star Trek, or any other initial film?
Orci: Well, one is, we’re making more room for the action. Because we know that Michael is going to want to push that, and get every dollar on the screen. You know, you don’t just go to Egypt for a two-minute sequence. If you’re going to be at the Pyramids of Giza and be one of the first people to be allowed to shoot there, you really want to maximize that. And we know that that’s going to be the case with him. So, of course, there’s a different kind of a pacing.
Question: Was this one a much tougher film to work on than Star Trek? I mean, is it much more challenging to think more in visual terms than in, let’s say, dialogue terms, which you might have to do with a lot of other scripts that you’re writing? Because a screenwriter is clearly not just a writer of dialogues, or scenes.
Question: So, for the uninitiated, how do you define yourselves as screenwriters?
Kurtzman: Well, I’ll tell you that the common denominator on all of these things is that we never approach our writing from – at least we try not to approach our writing from, ” What’s the action sequence?” The action sequence needs to be the result of a genuine story progression. And if the action sequences are not moving the characters along in some fundamental way, then they, by our logic, should not be there. But every movie has a different director, and that director sees what they do differently. So, our job is – I think we feel, as screenwriters – to find out what kind of movie the director wants to make, argue as much as we can for emotion and logic, and then work within those parameters.
Orci: And that’s the screenwriter hat. And the other hat is just problem-solvers. I mean, we were as involved in trying to figure out which of the military vehicles to use in a massive war than – you know, we took meetings with Michael and the military to work together to get the most accurate representation of what they’re doing. So, just kind of – we’re all just – if there’s a problem and we can help, then we’re there.
Question: You guys are clearly two of the most sought-after screenwriters now in Hollywood. How surprised are you by your success? And how different is your process now, than it was when you both began, which seems like quite a long time ago, really? I mean, Alias, I suppose, was the thing that really established you as really great writers.
Orci: Well, one big difference is, we started only writing. And now that we have a production company, we split our day between writing, and the day-to-day of running a production company, and attempting to develop projects for others to write and direct. So, it’s become half of a real job. [LAUGHTER]
Kurtzman: And in terms of how surprised we are – I think, frankly, we’re shocked. Shocked to find ourselves working in the company of people like J.J. and Steven and Michael. Shocked that we’ve had access to things like Star Trek and Transformers. Just basically shocked that we can write movies that are seen by the amounts of people that seem to be coming. And –
Orci: And it’s never lost on us that there’s also a high degree of luck.
Kurtzman: Yeah, a massive amount of luck.
Orci: There’s a half-lottery element to it.
Kurtzman: You know, I think we tend to wake up in the morning and say, ” All right.” You know, especially with movies like Transformers, you’re servicing a massive machine. You’re servicing a studio agenda. You’re servicing Michael, and you’re serving Hasbro, all of which we see as positive.
Orci: The auto industry.
Kurtzman: [LAUGHTER] Yeah. I mean, it’s a crazy – it’s a crazy mix of everything that is kind of massive in our country. And so – you know, a lot of our job is to go, ” All right. We have to try and tune out the noise, and do the best we can to tell a story within those parameters.” But, you know. Make no mistake. I mean, the decision to do a movie like Transformers 2 is to accept right off the bat that A, we’re going to be slammed by critics. You know. It doesn’t matter what we do, it’s just going to happen. B, that – you know, Michael is the kind of filmmaker who makes the kind of movies he wants to make. And we happen to really enjoy watching those movies. So we’re gonna help him make that kind of a movie. Which is very different than waking up and working on something like Star Trek. You know. I mean, they’re just different franchises, with very different directors. So, you know, we’re, I think, highly attuned to our surroundings. And, again, our job is just to be the facilitators for everybody’s idea, and to try and do the best we can to keep the emotion and the logic of the story in place.
Question: Now, at the Star Trek junket, which I attended, [LAUGHTER] you guys were very politically-correct, and very cagy about the – ” What’s going on with the Star Trek sequel?” question. Now that we’ve had a few months.
Orci: Cagy? We’re not hiding anything. We’ve said it, exactly the truth.
Question: Well, I mean, given the fact that that movie did so well – and what was masterful about that film was the fact that you can really now take it in any direction you want.
Question: Is there serious discussion about the Star Trek sequel? And what would be your ideal – if you could come up with one story line from the original series to incorporate as fans, what would it be?
Orci: I don’t know. Literally, we’re making it a point not to even commit to saying what we would do to each other. We can literally clean out the summer, you know? It’s just too early. It’s sort of like swimming the 100 meter in your time off, you know what I mean?
Question: Do you think there’ll be a period where you’ll be able to sit down and start coming up with ideas?
Orci: Yeah. You know, we’re going to start in a few weeks. We’re gonna just – move past this period of time here, take it all in, as was said, and then re-educate ourselves with the material. Just come at it again without forcing it, you know?
Question: I think Fringe is one of the most brilliant pieces of television. Do you like working in television? Is it hard to come up with creative ideas for a very different political environment that is the television industry?
Orci: We do like television. We have – you know, we work with so many other writers on that show. Jeff Pinkner and Joel Wyman really run that show. So, running a show is extremely time-consuming. It’s very difficult to do that and really do much of anything else. Which is why we’re not running that show. We are proud consultants and co-creators, with J.J. And we get to come in a few times a week and sit with the staff, and just pitch any idea that we have. And they go into the system, if they stick or not. So it’s great fun for us, because we get to come in and just consult and play. But we remember how difficult running shows was. But TV’s great, because you get to see a long plan executed over months and years if you’re lucky, and you get a different kind of storytelling experience.
Question: I don’t know what one tends to believe, when one looks at IMDB. But it seems that you guys have more films in development than anybody else I know. [LAUGHTER] So, let me ask you if you could tell me what it is that you guys are working on, either as producers or writers, that you can confirm, and that you’re particularly excited about?
Kurtzman: Well, we’re working on Cowboys and Aliens right now,which we’re extremely excited about.
Orci: We got an amazing first draft from Fergus and Ostby, who co-wrote Iron Man, and we are getting in closer and closer.
Question: Now that movie is already cast. I mean, is Downey doing that? Or is that just a rumor?
Kurtzman: We’ve spoken to him. It’s not cast, but –
Orci: There’s nothing set in stone.
Kurtzman: There’s nothing official. But we’ve spoken to him, and we’ve expressed our interest in all trying to find a way to make it work together. He’s insanely busy, so we’ll see if the schedule can work out. But that’s one of those – I think in the same way that Star Trek for us was. Something we could kind of luxuriate in, and feel that we have a larger degree of authorship over. And that is really fun for us. We have to keep doing those things. Otherwise it becomes too much of a grind.
Question: You two guys have been working together since when, now, as a team? It’s been many, many years.
Kurtzman: Ninety-one? Ninety-two?
Question: Do you see this relationship as being like a happy but occasionally rocky marriage?
Orci: We think of ourselves as a band, you know? And some bands really do stay together.
Question: How do you account for that? Because it’s really remarkable, to me, that you guys have been able to navigate the often rocky waters of Hollywood, and remain a calm duo. I mean, I’ve been interviewing you guys for God knows how many years now. Why is that?
Kurtzman: Part of it is obviously safety in numbers. You know? It’s great to always know that you’ve got back-up right there with you. We never get writers block, because it never happens at the same time. [LAUGHTER] You know? When one is down, the other picks the other up. And frankly, it’s just more fun. You know? What better thing than to go to an office and play with your best friend?
Question: Do you have distinct roles as writers? I mean, does one have a particular strength than the other? And do you sort of play off each other’s strengths and weaknesses?
Orci: Yeah, sure. Even our interests, and the way we approach stuff. You know, sometimes on some projects, Alex will see the battlefield before I will, and vice versa. So. Our strength and weaknesses switch off, depending on what the material is.
Question: What about other aspects of production? Have you ever thought about directing? Either one of you, or together?
Orci: Absolutely. I think we’ve just been on a somewhat fortunate run lately, so we haven’t had time to pick out that project. But it’s something that we, I think, are getting closer and closer to.
Question: So, am I talking to the next Coen Brothers? [LAUGHTER]
Kurtzman: Well, we should be so lucky. [LAUGHTER]