Exclusive: Transformers Writers Orci and Kurtzman

Writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman have a lot of experience writing for franchises that have fanatic fanbases, having gotten their start on the popular cult TV shows “Hercules” and “Xena” before moving over to J.J. Abrams’ popular spy show “Alias.” In the last few years, they’ve written a number of prominent summer movies including Michael Bay’s sci-fi flick The Island and then teaming with J.J. for his first movie Mission: Impossible III.

Superhero Hype! had a great opportunity to talk to the duo about their latest movie with Bay, a little thing called Transformers, and find out how they got involved in reinventing Star Trek from the ground up with J.J. Abrams. They had some great insights into working with Michael Bay on one of the summer’s most anticipated films and how it compares to working with J.J., making it fairly clear that Transformers and Star Trek are both in really good hands. If you’re a would-be writer looking into doing a bit of genre writing for TV or movies, you can also learn a lot from these guys.

Superhero Hype!: I talked to you guys for “The Island” which was… was that two years ago?

Alex Kurtzman: Yeah, it was two years ago.

Roberto Orci: No, really?

Kurtzman: Yeah, believe it or not.

Orci: Right, that’s right.

SHH!: I’m not sure if you were already working on the script for “Transformers,” but I remember you talking about it even back then.

Kurtzman: Yeah, we were just starting.

Orci: Probably just starting at that point.

SHH!: So at that point, you already had ideas of which bots you wanted to have in the movie and the general premise?

Orci: If we talked two years ago, we were probably just starting to figure it out.

SHH!: Was Michael already attached to direct or was that just a rumor and nothing was signed?

Orci: We all agreed that he’d be best for it, but he wasn’t on yet, so we were going to develop something that would hopefully lure him.

SHH!: Who originally got you guys involved on the “Transformers” franchise?

Orci: Spielberg.

Kurtzman: Spielberg. We were working on “Mission: Impossible” and we’d gone to the set…

Orci: The set of “War of the Worlds”

Kurtzman: Yeah, to work with Tom, and Steven saw us working with Tom and came over and said, “Guys, you should come do ‘Transformers’ for me.”

Orci: “As soon as you’re finished with ‘Mission,’ you should do ‘Transformers’ next.” (chuckles)

Kurtzman: Yeah, and we were initially hesitant, because it was not immediately clear to us what the movie was, and when we sat down with Steven, he kind of gave us that first kernel that got us really excited about the movie, and then we started writing from there.

Orci: ‘Cause we wanted to make sure it wasn’t just going to be a toy commercial, and so when we told him our concern, then we said, “Look, we feel there’s going to have to be a human element to this.” He said, “I totally agree and I even have it for you… it’s a boy and his car.” And that was enough to get us going.

SHH!: If you were working on this hoping to entice Michael after working with him on “The Island,” did you deliberately try to put in stuff that might be typical of a Michael Bay movie?

Orci: I think we decided more that the paradigm of what the movie should be in general was suitable for Michael Bay, as opposed to trying to write it for Michael Bay. He’s the car chase king and he shoots speed and motion better than anybody, and once you have Transformers, characters who are literally vehicles, it wasn’t a long jump to think that he might be good for any version of “Transformers.”

Kurtzman: But it obviously helps, just in terms of thinking about your action sequences as you’re going through the script and designing moments, it always helps to know who you’re writing for.

SHH!: There were a lot of producers on this movie, so did you have to work with a lot of different people in developing the script? What was the process like in getting the script ready to shoot?

Orci: It can get tricky when too many cooks are in the kitchen early on, and I think Lorenzo di Bonaventura was really good at kind of circling the wagons around us and giving us the space to find out what our instincts were and then bringing it to the group and going from there.

Kurtzman: Lorenzo’s also not precious about anything. He’s very willing to throw out ideas. He’ll be the first to tell you, “Look, you might like this, you might hate it, but here’s a thought, maybe we go this way” and it’s a great way to start engaging in a brainstorm, ’cause usually your best decisions come when everyone’s kind of fluid with ideas.

SHH!: Were you guys familiar with the comics or the cartoons? You said you didn’t want to make a toy commercial, but were you fans of the Transformers in any of their guises?

Orci: We watched it as kids. We were right at that age when it was on after school.

SHH!: Did you guys have to go back and do a lot of research in terms of watching the cartoons again?

Kurtzman: Yeah, we went to Transformers School in fact. We went to Hasbro headquarters in Rhode Island, and they showed us every Transformer that they’ve ever made and…

Orci: Gave us all the comics, all the DVDs.

Kurtzman: Yeah, we just literally buried our heads in the comics and in the shows, and just really saturated our brains with everything Transformers, so we had it in our deep, deep subconscious and then we started writing based on that.

SHH!: How did you end up distilling down all the different versions, because there’s obviously a lot of things you had to cover, plus you had to put them within the modern-day world while making sure that all of the important characters were covered?

Kurtzman: You know, one of the challenges of the movie was figuring out how to take it away from feeling like a cartoon, ’cause the only versions of Transformers had existed either as toys or cartoons or comic books. After we had buried ourselves in the mythology, we decided to put it aside and ask ourselves what version of this movie we wanted to see. For us, that became about going back to the kinds of movies that inspired us as kids and then finding a way to tie all the existing mythology into a movie that embodied that spirit.

SHH!: Was it hard giving personality to the robots in terms of giving them lines of dialogue? I know they do talk quite a bit but was it hard writing for robots?

Orci: It wasn’t hard writing them. It was hard getting everyone else to see that it might work. There was even discussions early on about maybe they shouldn’t talk at all, so we had to kind of develop a story that would allow a lot of flexibility to decide things later that wasn’t somehow completely hinging on them talking, and then we slowly, as they got more comfortable with the premise and the structure of everything, they started to see that they could have a sense of humor and could have personalities and really could be…

Kurtzman: But you know, the voices did evolve over the course of the script development. We had the cartoons and the comics to draw from in terms of character templates, and we knew that obviously, Optimus had a very certain kind of character. Jazz was kind of the renegade rock ‘n’ roll guy. We knew we had to conform to that, but the trick was that we also had to make them react to the plot of the movie as we had designed it. We had a really extraordinary experience, one we’ve never had before, in that we were rewriting this movie, even in the editing room, since they were still doing animation, so we wrote the script and then we wrote the script while we were shooting, and then when we were cutting with Michael, we got to look at scenes and say, “This joke could be funnier or this point can be clearer.”

Orci: Or sometimes you can write a joke based on a reaction that you got from Shia or Megan, and actually make a moment there in the editing room.

Kurtzman: And that goes equally for the shots that were coming in from ILM. Sometimes the shots were coming from ILM that would have a gesture or something physical that we hadn’t written in the script, and so suddenly, we were adjusting dialogue to accommodate that.

SHH!: Interesting. You obviously have Peter Cullen reprising his voice role as Optimus Prime. Were there any other of the original voices you wanted to bring or was that the most important one?

Orci: That one was so iconic, and we certainly wrote him so much with that voice in mind. You know, you can’t forget it if you watched those cartoons as kids.

SHH!: What about when you have a script finished but you have people like Shia and Bernie Mac and John Turturro, their personalities are very much themselves and they add a lot in terms of improvisation and character? How much rewriting do you have to do to tailor the characters to them or do you just cast actors who can play the parts as written?

Orci: No, we always like to tailor everything to the actors once they come in, but also, they were perfectly in tune with what was there for the roles, so it wasn’t too far distance to tailor to their personality.

SHH!: Shia has a particularly sharp wit in person and would probably be good at making stuff up on his own.

Kurtzman: Incredibly so.

Orci: Yeah, he’s great. He reacts and reacts and reacts so truthfully.

Kurtzman: I think that’s the key to all these performances is that we set out to make the movie that would make audiences believe that robots were real, and that is equally dependent on the human reactions, particularly for the actors, to what is not actually there. Keep in mind that Shia is reacting to a grip holding a tennis ball that’s supposed to represent Optimus’ face. It’s even more astounding that he was able to pull off the in-the-moment reality that he pulled off.

SHH!: Is this different than the way you worked on “The Island” and “Mission: Impossible” in that you’re able to take what they did and work from there?

Kurtzman: Yeah, certainly from the point of view. I think it’s more akin to animated film writing where you’re rewriting in the editing room ’cause they keep reanimating, but on all the movies, the one common denominator is that we’re always rewriting until it shoots, so it’s never done.

Orci: Yeah, the script can never not be better. You can always improve.

SHH!: How do you guys deal with action scenes in your scripts? I haven’t seen the movie but I know there’s a lot in this movie. Do you have to worry about the budget and what can be done with technology or do you leave that to Michael and the producers to worry about? How do you develop the action in the script stage?

Kurtzman: We are pretty detailed about our action. Obviously, working with Michael is very helpful, but we like to sit down and kind of block out an initial pass on an action sequence, and it’s usually very detailed. It’s usually overly long and executives tend to not read that stuff, but the director reads it very carefully. In the case of Michael, we would write out a sequence and he’d read it, and then he would make his adjustments and send it back to us, then we’d make our adjustments. It exists on page that way, but when Michael actually shoots on the day, he tends to come up with new innovative ways to block the action. That’s one of his absolute talents. In terms of budget, we knew that Michael would put every dollar on the screen, and also thanks to our TV training, where the writers produce the episodes and you do 22 budgets a year, we’re pretty good at knowing what something’s going to cost, and we came really close to the target of what this movie would cost and we were pretty close.

SHH!: You transitioned beautifully in my next question. You both are now fully into the movie world now, so what are the benefits or challenges of doing movies over television?

Kurtzman: You know, there’s a few differences in terms of how you approach the structure and the story and TV tends to be a little more talky and verbal and less visual. The commercial breaks obviously dictate a certain structure, but we love the TV ethic of being extremely collaborative, being extremely involved at every stage and so far we’ve been lucky enough to be with good people who allow us to do that.

SHH!: I know that J.J. Abrams is a writer himself, while Bay is more of a director. The last few movies you’ve generally been working with those two guys. How is it different working with those two guys?

Kurtzman: They couldn’t be more diametrically opposed stylistically. J.J. is a writer first, and thinks as a writer first, and then he will put on his director hat and figure out how to shoot.

Orci: We can cheat less with J.J. at the script level. (Alex laughs)

Kurtzman: Yeah, there’s nobody sharper. He’s the absolute sharpest, and one of the things that we love working with J.J. for is that he has absolutely zero tolerance for any moment that doesn’t feel truthful, and he will call it out in two seconds, and we are able to find the best versions of scenes together because we push each other toward that. The three of us have different tastes and similar tastes, and somehow that all translates to the sauce of the script.

Orci: And yet, J.J. has actually told us that one of his best movie experiences was writing “Armageddon” with Bay.

Kurtzman: So yeah, we have that in common, too.

Orci: There is a common language that does cross over a little bit. We’ve all been to Michael Bay School.

Kurtzman: Yeah, exactly, and J.J.’s had the same exact experiences that we’ve had with Michael.

Orci: Actually, J.J.’s one of the few writers that Michael talks fondly about. (Alex laughs)

SHH!: Now that you’re working together on movies, do you use a similar method of working as when you were doing “Alias” together?

Kurtzman: Oh, sure yeah. Usually, we’ll sit down in a coffee shop and we will beat out the story, and that’s a process that takes time, and you hammer it around and you kind of throw it against the wall. You take it apart and you put it back together and take it apart, and that’s just part of what you do when you’re outlining, and then we will sit down and write.

SHH!: With all the secrecy behind your projects, you’re able to sit in a coffee shop? I figure you’d be under a cone of silence in a barracks somewhere.

Orci: Well, we did that on “M:i:III.” We haven’t done that since. On “M:i:III” we kind of cracked the story right there. We had codenames for everybody. Tom Cruise was “Joel” ’cause that was his name in “Risky Business.” “What if Joel is coming down the side of a building?”

SHH!: As far as a sequel to “Transformers” that has been bandied about, do you both just sit by the phone next week and wait for the studio to greenlight it on July 5 or do you have some ideas of what you might want to do?

Kurtzman: We haven’t been thinking in terms of sequel at all. It was broached with us some time ago, and we both felt pretty strongly that we wanted to put everything into this first movie, send it off into the world with all the love and time that we could, and then see how the audiences react to it.

Orci: You don’t want a movie to suffer because you’re somehow thinking about a sequel that might not happen later. Our responsibility was to try and make a good movie that just stood on its own and then if it succeeds, obviously there’ll be room for sequels, because no story is ever over, but we were not trying to think of sequels, since we just finished literally writing robot dialogue up until a month ago. We have not really thought about a sequel.

Kurtzman: You don’t want to get into something just because it might make money. You want to get into it because you have a vision of what the story would be.

Orci: You have a reason to do it.

Kurtzman: You have a reason to do it and that’s a really, really important thing in terms of our decision-making process.

Orci: And if we find that reason, great, but we’re not going to just jump into it.

SHH!: I think the proper term for what you’re talking about is the “Planet of the Apes Factor.”

Kurtzman: How so?

SHH!: Where they deliberately tacked on an ending to act as a lead-in to a sequel that never happened?

Kurtzman/Orzi: (almost in unison) Oh, yeah, right.

SHH!: When and how did you find out that you’d be writing “Star Trek” and how do you react when you get a call to do something like that?

Orci: We’d all actually been approached separately a year or so before it went down and all sort of landed on it at the same time. J.J. initially was only going to produce it, so we were excited to have him help us as a producer, and it was a bonus when he decided to direct it.

SHH!: I’m assuming you guys were already fans of the show and already knew the history and mythology or did you have to go back and do a lot of research?

Orci: On this one, we were pretty well covered. We’d been kind of doing the homework all of our lives on various levels. Damon [Lindelof, “Lost” co-creator and co-producer on the film] is a gigantic “Trek” fan. I’m a gigantic “Trek” fan. J.J. and Alex are sort of mid-level “Trek” fans in the pantheon, and then Bryan Burk [another producer] never knew it, so between all of us, we knew that it would be a perfect balance.

SHH!: Did you have to work with the Gene Rodenberry estate and get their approval on everything, or at this point, is this an attempt to deliberately do something brand new separate from them?

Orci: I think a lot of the stuff with the estate and all that kind of stuff was worked out before, so it wasn’t like we had to go and convince anyone of anything. They approached us when they knew they were free to do what we wanted.

SHH!: Since this is a fresh start, is it safe to presume you didn’t have to go back and watch all the shows and movies to prepare?

Orci: We didn’t have to, but obviously, between the five of us, we probably did watch everything again.

Kurtzman: Yeah, for sure, and read books, and we’d been deep fans before then, so I think between our subconscious, our childhood having loved the movies and then going back into the stuff, rereading everything, rewatching the various series.

Orci: Having a researcher on call to just go, “Oh, would you look up Episode 9. What was the name of…?” We had it covered.

SHH!: It’s funny, because with your own TV work, you’ve created your own fanbase much like “Trek” did. Is it exciting to take your own love of the material and use your own experience in TV and movies to play with someone else’s toys?

Kurtzman: It’s like greatest dream come true ever.

Orci: It’s incredible.

Kurtzman: Yeah, it’s like the best thing in the world, and honestly, we still have a very hard time accepting that it’s our reality.

Orci: It’s like winning a starship on “The Price is Right” or something. (Alex laughs)

SHH!: I don’t think they give those away on the show.

Orci: No, not yet!

SHH!: Are you guys going to do more stuff with Michael Bay in the future?

Kurtzman: We’re producing a movie together, a book that we just bought over at Warner Bros.

Orci: It’s called “2012: The War for Souls.” It’s all about what’s going to happen in that year, since so many astronomical things in the Mayan calendar are all converging into some event.

SHH!: Are you going to try to get this movie made before “2012”?

Orci: We would hope so.

Kurtzman: Hopefully! That’s our thought.

SHH!: So you’re just focused on “Star Trek” and that then?

Kurtzman: We have a movie that we just kind of got greenlit that we’re producing that is starting prep on Monday that we haven’t really announced yet, so I can’t tell you the title, but that’s taking up a significant amount of our time [Editor’s note – it’s Cowboys & Aliens], including prep for “Star Trek” so yeah, that’s what we’re doing now.

SHH!: Are you getting more into the production side of things? I guess you were already doing that for the TV shows, but are you trying to find and groom writers for the projects you’re producing, too?

Kurtzman: Yeah, absolutely. It’s a big part of what we do now, and we love it. We love the TV model of working with writers collaboratively. It feeds an energy that Bob and I have always liked and that’s why we do it.

In case you didn’t know, Transformers opens on Monday, July 2 at 8pm. Check out our exclusive interview with producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura here. Kurtzman and Orci’s version of Star Trek already has a release date of Christmas ’08.

Source: Edward Douglas