Roberto Orci and his writing partner Alex Kurtzman is one of Hollywood’s most successful screenwriting teams, from the Alias TV series, and the films The Island, Legend of Zorro and the upcoming Star Trek prequel to their credits. Their latest script is for Michael Bay’s much anticipated Transformers. Orci, doing interviews solo, spoke to Paul Fischer.
Question: What is the balance you have to strike between the needs of characters and creating visual set pieces for Michael Bay?
Orci: The hardest balance actually was tone. Honestly, people are going to come at this thing. It’s a cartoon, it’s a toy line, it’s for kids. It’s not a movie. One of the ethics was trying to make it as realistic as possible. And yes, it’s Transformers and there’s a long history of fun in it so it all had to be fun. Those two, realism and fun, are complete opposites so the hardest part was walking the line in tone.
Question: Was the comedy the most fun you had?
Orci: That was fun. But it was also hard. It was the icing on the cake. Everything else had to be sort of in place before we could kind of get to that moment. We had to make sure that the structure of the movie was a solid paradigm that you could hit with a hammer and it wouldn’t fall apart before we fully committed to what the humor could be. But it was always implicit in the process. It had to be fun.
Question: Was it your intention to cross age groups?
Orci: Certainly that was the studio’s intention. From our intention, it was to try to be true to what the situation is which is you have this boy and everything that he brings to it. You have this world event happening in terms of how the government would react. If the kid’s there, he’s got parents so a lot of the things are dictated by- – as opposed to trying to fit some kind of a formula, it was more about starting from where we’re starting from and trying to extrapolate it realistically and yet as fun.
Question: What would happen if there were snakes on a Decepticon plane?
Orci: I think we’d have a bigger hit. I should have thought of that.
Question: Is the military pleased with this film? What was their input?
Orci: First of all, it was amazing to get their help. The production value makes it such that the production value is far and beyond what the actual budget is thanks to their help. I was a little bit surprised by the fact that they were willing to jump in so readily because there is a slight thematic complexity in terms of what the military’s role is. They get a terrorist scenario wrong. They assume it’s the wrong people. They blame the wrong people. The only person who figures it out is a woman among all the men. So that was definitely part of something that we wanted to bring to it. So for them to jump on was very, I think, gracious. However, obviously, they also get to show off their stuff so I think both of us got something out of it.
Question: Did they have script approval?
Orci: They didn’t have script approval. They can decide if they- – they suggested a few little things but nothing- – there’s nothing they wanted to change pretty much that compromised too much. At the very end, the one thing that we went at them over was at the very end, we were going to say that the Defense Department had decided to hide everything. I’m not even sure what’s in there now. The wording was such that it sounded a little more sinister than it turned out to be. Put it that way.
Question: How do you write for a director like Michael Bay?
Orci: The first great step is to make sure that he’s not involved until you’ve written two drafts. So we wrote two drafts before we actually showed him anything. That was in order so that we would be confident that again, the structure would be solid enough that he could come in and play and we wouldn’t be developing something based on an idea that was half formed. Also it helps when you have Spielberg as the producer. This is our second movie with Bay so we got to know him pretty well. We are able to predict essentially and very much we wrote this movie in a way for him and for Spielberg and for ourselves.
Question: How much did you take from the John Rogers draft?
Orci: We kept the idea of going after the Allspark. The basic idea that they’re fighting for this artifact was in his draft but we kept that idea.
Question: Did Michael bring the “boy and his first car” idea or was that you?
Orci: That’s something we came up with with Spielberg. Spielberg asked us to do the movie and we were very concerned it being a giant toy commercial with no humanity. We came in and we said, “Listen, we’d love to do the movie but we don’t know what it is. Take your movie Close Encounters. It’s a great alien movie but it’s actually about a guy whose family is disintegrating through his obsession. Do you guys agree that this is a human thing?” And he said, “Yes, and here it is, a boy and his car.” That’s all he said. That was enough for us to go, “Ahh, okay, now I know what it is.” Thus we developed a draft off of that.
Question: You address every possible fanboy thought, but why not try an EMP blast?
Orci: Well, there was an EMP blast at the bass. Not against, because everyone uses an EMP. They use it in Oceans 11. The minute you’re in Vegas with an EMP device, aliens… So we did think of it. Maybe you’re right.
Question: And there’s no reason the aliens wouldn’t be impervious.
Orci: Exactly. We considered EMP and we’re like, “Nah.”
Question: Is this a pre-9/11 action movie?
Orci: In our conversations, that same conversation with Spielberg, when we got off on Boy and his Car, we were like, “Well, we love”- – this is something we’d been wanting to talk to him forever, “We love the old Amblin days. The movies that I saw when I was targeted for this age group, when I was between 11 and 15, Back to the Future, ET, all those kinds of things.” So we had literally a conversation about trying to bring back the old Amblin ethic. In a way, this movie was primarily written for what we wanted to see, what we thought Spielberg would want to see and what we though Michael Bay would want to see, hoping that if we succeed in all three that then the audience would want to see it. It’s very much a mix of Spielberg/Amblin in a way and Bay/modern day action. That’s kind of where it ended up.
Question: Working on Star Trek, why do these prequels bring so much life to franchises and how does it apply to Star Trek?
Orci: Obviously a known brand is a known brand. Awareness to the roots, that automatically adds a layer of a known quantity to just marketing-wise.
Question: But for audiences it works.
Orci: I think they A, feel a little bit of ownership for it so that’s part of it. And B, because we’re all starting from the same point, they get to do a lot more predicting about what it’s going to be. In a way, it becomes interactive in that we all get to be on the lot, I guess, going off of that show that just came on. Everyone gets to sort of test their ideas against what they would do relative to what’s actually going to be done in the movie. I think that’s why fans get so involved and why you get as much criticism as you do but also it’s a double edged sword.
Question: Are you intimidated by the idea of working on Star Trek?
Orci: In theory we were, but when we came up with what we wanted to do, we felt pretty happy.
Question: What is that exactly?
Orci: They trek through the stars in the future.
Question: Are you shutting out the fanboys?
Orci: Well, they have nothing to go on so I am shutting it out for now. On Transformers, we had so many leaks that they did have things to go on so I felt like we had to engage the fans.
Question: As far as predicting and testing, does that feed more into original series or movies?
Orci: It’s pretty comprehensive. If you’re a fan, you’re going to see one kind of movie and if you have never seen it, you’re going to be introduced to it in a different kind of a way. That’s the goal.
Question: Is there a timeline to be done?
Orci: It’s written. We wrote it already. Shoots in November.
Question: The theme music is so iconic, will they keep it?
Orci: I don’t know what we’re going to do. Star Trek II switched.
Question: How much input do you get into details, like the plane in the building?
Orci: The action is pretty detailed, yeah.
Question: When you write that, does 9/11 come into it?
Orci: Yeah, look. The minute you have anyone trashing a city, you’re there. It’s part of why we chose LA because I think people don’t care if anyone in LA gets whacked. But as we were saying, it was also part of the complicated or the slightly hopefully nuanced for a giant toy movie aspect of how the military was reacting. Yes, it crosses our mind and it was obviously open for discussion if it had been nixed.
Question: What’s 2012?
Orci: It’s a book we just set up at Warner Brothers by Whitley Strieber who wrote The Hunger and Wolfen and who’s also a famous alien abductee. It is his latest theory of what’s going to go down in 2012 based on the Mayan calendar and based on factual astronomical convergences are going to happen on that day.
Question: How credible do you think he is?
Orci: I certainly think he believes it. You’re basically asking do I think aliens are here? I don’t know. Obviously, we’re doing so much alien stuff all the time that I am now becoming an expert and reading everything I can. I’ll have an opinion one of these days.
Question: How faithful will you be?
Orci: We really like the initial concept. We always try to be extremely free with what the dictates of the live action story need to be. If it ends up being extremely similar to the book, great. But we don’t stick to anything just because it’s there. We question everything.
Question: Why the interest in aliens?
Orci: First of all, what Star Trek was originally, you were able to tackle social issues in just detached enough way that they were palatable. Sometimes you do something overtly without the alien or the sci-fi veneer or genre and then it becomes sort of a moralizing hitting people over the head with a message. I think you get to do it a little more subtly when you’re going through a culture reflecting us back on ourselves. It’s kind of a projection of our fantasies and our fears. That’s interesting.
Question: When the Island didn’t perform, was there concern- –
Orci: We weren’t part of Transformers before it opened.
Question: Were you surprised to be back after that?
Orci: We were surprised in theory just because obviously for obvious reasons. However, we had a great relationship with Michael. We had a great relationship with Spielberg. They were all, luckily, hopefully, none of them blamed us for what happened. I think the business model of the movie was wrong. I think that’s what everybody sort of concluded.
Question: Was it good to have certain producers off Transformers?
Orci: No, I love them. We learned everything from them.
Question: How important for you is that the new WGA agenda of empowering the writers?
Orci: Yeah, it is. I think writers sell themselves short a lot. I think there’s sort of a victim mentality among a lot of writers. I also know that Alex and I have been extremely spoiled and extremely lucky. On every movie we’ve been on, we were there until the end, in the editing room, on the set. We hear that that’s rare. It’s been the norm for us so we know that that’s fortunate and we know that I’m sure lots of writers have been victimized and do have a fair complaint. However, I think there’s a difference between how you handle that internally and how you handle that on the exterior. I think there’s a lot more the writers could be doing to claim the control that they can have through their position in the structure. They really can take leadership roles and some of them don’t.