Exclusive: Orci and Kurtzman Talk ‘Revenge,’ Freedom, and the American Way

Judging by their output for Star Trek, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, and The Proposal all in one summer, it seems like screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman don’t sleep. And they won’t get to anytime soon. We caught them not napping in order to ask them about writing for Michael Bay and their upcoming Cowboys and Aliens.
By  · Published on June 25th, 2009

Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman need a vacation.

I’m talking to the two screenwriters who penned both Star Trek and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (as well as producing the big summer romantic comedy The Proposal), and our conversation goes immediately to where they should escape to in order to get some rest and relaxation. Unfortunately for them, they are plagued by the hell of being in high demand in Hollywood. At least in the world of huge franchises – where they’ll be expected to come directly off the opening of Revenge of the Fallen to settle into writing for Star Trek 2 and whatever next installment of the big fucking robot universe that’s to come. For now, it might be some time before the pair gets to hit up a beach with fruity drinks.

Somehow, they find some time for me and for our FSR readers to talk a little bit about working with Michael Bay, the controversy surrounding two of the robots featured in the film, and about their upcoming projects.

Before you ask: no, they will not be beaming anyone out of the womb in Star Trek 2.

You guys have claimed that the method behind writing a sequel is to write it so that it stands on its own as a film. Are there any other rules you stuck to when writing Revenge of the Fallen?

Kurtzman: Every franchise has it’s own set of weird rules that are kind of specific to the universe that was created, but I do think that usually the first of these kinds of movies is about setting the tone of the world, and in the second movie – as was the case with Transformers – I think audiences were expecting us to dig deeper into the mythology of the transformers. For us, the movies that we really loved that were sequels were movies where the character was really tested in some way. In some intense way. Their heroism was tested, and it threw them into a dark place before they could come out on the other side of it. That certainly tends to be the way that we approached this.

Do you have anything to add, Bob?

Orci: [silence]

Kurtzman: You there, buddy?

Orci: [silence]

Kurtzman: I think we lost Bob.

Oh God!

Kurtzman: [laughs]

We’ll try to soldier on without him for now. I’ve seen places where your films are described as “being written for twelve-year olds.” Do you take that as a compliment or an insult?

Kurtzman: No, I think the movie is very much designed for that sweet spot that we felt as twelve-year old kids where you’re waiting for summer to arrive so you can go and have a giant roller coaster ride. That’s certainly the category that Transformers falls into. Michael [Bay] knows he’s not making a movie for critics, and he knows he’s not making a movie for people that want to watch My Dinner with Andre. So I don’t personally take offense to it. That’s just kind of the movie he wants to make. You go for the ride once you’re on board.

But you’re a fan of My Dinner with Andre, right?

Kurtzman: Actually I am. [laughs] And movies like that. In a big way. There’s always that collision of tone with Michael, but we try to push him.

It’s really curious reading what films you guys are into. You said once that you saw yourselves making indie films. Do you ever regret not doing that?

Kurtzman: I don’t think we see it as regret simply because it doesn’t seem like that’s outside the realm of possibility for us. It feels like we took a slightly divergent path from where we were going, but I don’t think a day goes by that we don’t think about how fun it would be to make a movie like that.

Orci: Ask us again on our death bed.

Kurtzman: [laughs] That’s right.

Bob’s back! Excellent. A lot of people ask you guys about how you’re living a fanboy dream of writing for these franchises, but I’m more interested in the freedom you have. You two get to hang out on set and in the editing room where most writers just hand off a script and get called for the premiere.

Kurtzman: We feel really fortunate, and we’ve worked hard to make our directors feel like it’s a collaboration. Certainly, when you go into making a movie with Michael you know that Michael is a very particular kind of guy that wants to make a very particular kind of movie. When you try to push him out of that, it tends not to work. So I think the best thing we can do is to color between the lines. Once you accept that, the freedom is that you can throw out any and all suggestions within those parameters. So once you accept that you have parameters – which so many people see as not freeing, we tend to see – now we know the rules. Let’s play by rules, learn to break them when necessary, stick to them when necessary. I think we just kind of enjoy it. It’s nice to know what your mission is, and it’s nice to that you have one, because sometimes too much freedom can be a block.

Orci: Our TV training taught us how not to be precious with the script, how to problem solve and how to act like a producer. Because in TV, the writers are the producers. We’ll be the first ones to suggest cutting scenes or to suggest cutting our own precious dialog, and I think when a director or a studio sees that you’re just working to make what’s right for the show and not trying to protect some kind of a personal investment – it buys you that freedom.

So you’re comfortable killing your babies.

Orci: Absolutely.

Do you feel like you had more freedom in television?

Kurtzman: I think strangely we feel we have the same amount of freedom…

Orci: Uh, it’s case by case. Sometimes less, sometimes more. But close.

Kurtzman: We never tend to feel limited honestly. I can’t really look at any experience we’ve had in the last few years and say we felt limited.

Are there any franchises that you dream of bringing to the big screen? Maybe something from your childhood?

Kurtzman: No…I don’t think there’s anything off the top of my head. Bob what about you? I think most of the things we were influenced by were movies and television.

Orci: Well the weird thing is we don’t think about it as, “I’d like to see that come back.” It’s more like – “Is there a way to do that in a new way?” Our approach isn’t to make a list of franchises and out of love figure out which ones we’d want to expand. It’s more of which ones are relevant now. So it’s a time issue. I mean, I’d love to see all the things from my childhood done right. That doesn’t mean that we’d want to be a part of them or that they should be made right now.

But what about when you’re just daydreaming? I swear that if you say you dream of directing a feature version of “Thundercats” that my headline won’t be – Orci and Kurtzman to Write ‘Thundercats.’

Kurtzman: [laughs] No, totally for sure. If I could think of one, I’d throw it your way.

Orci: I’d love to see some sci-fi books. I’d love to see [Asimov’s] “Foundation.” I’d love to see [Orson Scott Card’s] “Ender’s Game.” I’d love to see some of that really hard stuff that’s hard to crack.

Kurtzman: The movie that I always wanted to see – sort of on the other end of the spectrum. And I know they’ve been developing it for a while – is [Chabon’s] “Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.”

They’re moving forward with that?

Kurtzman: It’s been on and off for a long time.

I know that most bestsellers are optioned automatically, but I didn’t realize there was any forward momentum on it.

Kurtzman: There was a time when I felt like it was almost cast, and they had a director but it never quite came together. I always thought that would make an amazing movie.

Definitely. Switching back to Transformers, I heard that the gold tooth was Bay’s idea, but do you have anything to say to people who found The Twins offensive?

Orci: Number one, we sympathize. Yes, the gold tooth was not in the script. That’s true.

Kurtzman: It’s really hard for us to sit here and try to justify it. I think that would be very foolish, and if someone wants to be offended by it, it’s their right. We were very surprised when we saw it, too, and it’s a choice that was made. I think if anything it shows you that we don’t control every aspect of the movie.

Were you offended by them?

Kurtzman: I wasn’t thrilled. I certainly wasn’t thrilled.

Orci: Same reaction. I’m not easily offended, but when I saw it, I thought, ‘Someone’s gonna write about that.'”

I know that everyone hounds you guys about spoilers and scoops for your upcoming projects, and I hate to do this part of my job, but let’s just get it out of the way. What can you tell me about The Proposal 2?

Kurtzman: [laughs]

Orci: [laughs]

Whaddaya got for me?

Orci: We’re trying to rope [writer] Pete Chiarelli into doing another movie with us.

You’ve claimed that after Transformers 2 comes out, that you’ll sit down and start working on Star Trek 2. Are you doing that this weekend?

Kurtzman: No.

Orci: No.

It’s vacation time?

Kurtzman: At this point, we literally just finished writing the robot dialog for Transformers two weeks ago, and can’t even think of another movie at this point.

Do you view a third Transformers flick as a capstone film or as simply another entry into the universe.

Kurtzman: I suspect it will be another entry into the universe. They’ve already green-lit the third one, and I don’t think anyone has any idea.

Orci: To back up a bit…I don’t see Transformers 3 yet. I don’t know what that is yet.

NIce. [laughs] Are you going to beam anyone out of the womb in Star Trek 2?

Orci: [laughs] We tried hard the first time. Uh, no. I think we learned that beaming needs to be used judiciously or it can become a crutch.

So you didn’t get to birth Kirk by beaming him out of the womb for the first, but is there anything you’re fighting for particularly for Star Trek 2?

Kurtzman: Not yet. We have literally just sat down to start thinking about it.

Orci: Sorry for boring answers. I love reading on the internet – “No Story Yet For Star Trek 2.” We wish we had a scoop for you.

No worries. My scoop for this interview will be – “Orci and Kurtzman Give Up on Prenatal Beaming.” You’re working on Cowboys and Aliens right now, though, right?

Kurtzman: That’s really where we’re focused right now. We’re nearing the finish line on the script and really hoping to get it off the ground.

Orci: And we’re just beginning our second season of “Fringe” which is also very fun. [Leonard] Nimoy is on it which is amazing, and we get to find out if he’s good or bad.

What excites you about doing Cowboys and Aliens?

Kurtzman: It’s like everything we ever loved about Westerns and everything we ever loved about Sci-fi colliding. It’s just an extremely rare opportunity to take the best of both genres and smash them together. An idea like that just doesn’t come along that often – that feels so clear and elemental. There’s a weird corollary between a lot Sci-fi and Westerns. If you take a look at Star WarsStar Wars is a Western template.

Orci: And Gene Roddenberry pitched “Star Trek” as Wagon Train to the Stars.

Kurtzman: Right. So I think it speaks to everything we ever loved about both genres.

Orci: Also, it excites us to try to bring something to an audience – audiences are so savvy and they’ve seen so many things already – so one way to surprise them is to take two things they know and crash them into each other. That’s a cool idea. It’s original and yet familiar.

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