Exclusive: Orci & Kurtzman Talk Transformers and More

By now, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci probably have carte blanche at Superhero Hype! and ComingSoon.net, not just because they continue to write the coolest summer genre movies, but also going to back to their earlier work with J.J. Abrams on the television show “Alias” (a personal favorite of this site’s editor-in-chief).

Even before anyone can hear their latest dialogue in Michael Bay’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, they’ve already had an amazing summer ’09, having co-written and produced Abrams’ blockbuster relaunch of Star Trek and co-produced last week’s rom-com hit The Proposal, starring Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds.

In fact, it’s almost inevitable we’d talk to Bob and Alex around this time of year, because we’ve gotten on the phone with them to catch up on their latest projects for the last two years, and they’ve written one of the most anticipated movies of the summer. (If interested, you can read those previous interviews here and here.)

Admittedly, this might not be our best interview with them, just because they were more pressed for time than usual, and we had a lot of ground to cover, so we basically had to touch upon a little bit of everything. Either way, they’re always fun to talk to, almost like a screenwriting version of Abbott and Costello with Orci jumping in with jokes to lighten up Kurtzman’s more serious answers to our questions. (Hopefully, we’ll someday have a chance to do a longer in-person interview with the guys, ’cause they’re the tops in our book.)

Superhero Hype!: We talked briefly about this last year, but you wrote this before the writers strike and were you able to do some work on it after it was over and before it started shooting?

Roberto Orci: We took the job with Ehren Kruger two weeks before the strike so in that two weeks, we had to generate a 20-page outline that we handed in, and then during the strike, Michael and the amazing (producer) Ian Bryce tried to prep everything they could off of that outline. Then from the day the strike ended to the first day of shooting was three months, so we had to write the script in those three months, handing in pages at the end of every day so they could be prepped. It was crazy. We finished writing the movie two weeks ago, literally.

Alex Kurtzman: Because you’re writing lines for the robots in post. Not only did we rewrite on set but we spent the last six months with Michael in post, cutting the movie and writing the lines for the robots, just making jokes or making plot points more clear. Literally, they had to just rip it out of our dead hands the other day. (chuckles)

SHH!: What about pressures of writing a sequel? When you wrote the first one, no one knew it was going to do that well, but as you wrote the second one, was there a lot of pressure to fit in stuff you weren’t able to do the first time?

Kurtzman: I think frankly, you have to tune out the noise, both of the first movie and just what the expectations are for the sequel. You find the emotional link that you have to the movie and you write to that, and working with Michael, you always know that the action is going to be big. Our job is to actually focus on the small things and hope that the emotional story can be told within the context of the movie Michael wants to make.

Orci: Luckily, there were a lot of things from the first movie that we didn’t get to do, so that we already had some material going into this one.

SHH!: When you guys decide which robots you want to use, they’re designed very differently from the cartoon or the toys, so do you have to just write the action and hope the designers can design them in a way that it’ll work?

Orci: Well, you know you have your core central ones that we have from the first movie and then you try and tailor the other ones to what the action or what the story’s going to be. At least when they’re vehicles, you know what that is very clearly, so it’s more about their robot shapes that becomes the unknown factor. Their voices actually change as we see ILM’s shots come in during post-production. We get inspired by what they’re doing and they come up with some amazing stuff that then changes some of the dialogue for us. We adjust it to fit the physical characterization that we get back sometimes that we’re surprised by.

SHH!: I know you guys write a lot of detail in your action scenes so how does that work when you don’t know what the robots might be able to do technically?

Kurtzman: No, an action sequence has to be choreographed around the emotional steps of the story, so while we work with Bay very closely on the blocking of it, and he certainly does his thing there, he’s working around how it’s moving the plot forward hopefully, and most of those sequences have to reveal something or challenge the characters in a certain way.

SHH!: We’ve seen a lot of the Sam and Michaela stuff in the trailers, so we have some idea what’s going to happen to them, but what about the other characters like Lennox and Epps, have they changed a lot in the two years since the first movie?

Kurtzman: I think you discover that they’ve actually been working with the Autobots, because the Decepticons are beginning to show up again and they’re clearly after something, and they’re not sure why. One of the things you find out early on in the movie that Lennox and Epps have been working with Optimus from the beginning to figure out what’s going on.

Orci: And that they may clash with their civilian leadership so they’re patriotism is slightly coming into question. How do you violate orders without violating the spirit of the law of the orders, but doing what’s right anyway.

SHH!: You two have obviously been working on this and “Star Trek” over the last few years, so how hard is it to keep this stuff secret? When you were writing the first movie, it probably wasn’t as challenging, I’d imagine.

Kurtzman: It’s very, very tough. We actually have to employ stupid security measures at this point on stuff. When we were writing the first “Transfomers” movie, we had sent Michael pages, like 70 pages, and then Bob called me at 11:30 one night in a panic because the pages we had just went Michael were online that night. Someone had hacked Michael’s computer and posted the pages, so after that, everything became very secretive and encryption programs and nobody actually ever had a hard copy of it other than us and Michael.

SHH!: Even with a big crew who has to know what’s going on?

Kurtzman: Really, they’d have to come read the script at the office, and they’d only get certain pages and they’d never get a full draft which makes their lives really bad.

Orci: Compartmentalization. We studied the Nixon White House actually a lot to figure out how to do that.

SHH!: The first time I talked to you guys about “Transformers” was at the junket for “The Island” which was four years ago, but you guys have always been open about sharing information or at least teasing stuff, but I’m actually going to see the movie next week knowing very little about it.

Orci: The tricky part is that Alex and I are not particularly secretive guys by nature at all. We’re very open book, so it’s counter-intuitive to us to dance around the subject.

SHH!: You also have “The Proposal” this weekend and I got to talk to Peter (Chiarelli, that movie’s writer) about a week ago. Are you guys still able to stay on top of the production and development of other projects while you’re so heavily into the writing of these movies?

Kurtzman: We have to work very, very closely with Michael because you really are writing the movie a third time in post and he has to make his editing choices around that, so we were right there with him for the last six months, kind of living with him in post in the editing room.

Orci: When Pete left us, we were very fortunate that we still have a great team assembled at our production company and they really prop us up, and they really are both our day-to-day business arm and face, but they’re also great creatively even in the things that we’re writing. It takes a little village.

SHH!: I was also wondering about developing projects and whether you had to set specific hours in a day for each thing on your plate?

Kurtzman: You know, it’s just a discipline that you learn after time. Starting in television actually is an enormous help, because in TV, you’re working on five things at a time. You’re breaking a story, you’re writing an episode, you’re in the middle of shooting one and you’re posting one, and you’re thinking about what comes after that. You have to do that twenty-two times, so the discipline of having to focus in slots is just something that I think we’ve learned over the last ten years.

Orci: Yeah.

SHH!: I think “Fringe” can be considered a success because it survived a season at Fox, which is very rare I would think.

Kurtzman: No, it’s true and it’s just as Bob said. The only way we can really do this is to have an amazing team. I mean, Jeff Pinkner and Joel Wyman, who are running “Fringe” right now, we would not be able to do what we’re doing if they weren’t so good at their jobs. All credit to them, really.

Orci: It’s really their show, and now we are consultants.

SHH!: Do you still have ideas for the show that you’re able to throw at them once in a while?

Orci: Yeah, yeah, no, we try to get over there as much as we can and as much as they’ll have us. (laughs)

SHH!: You guys really have helped to keep Leonard Nimoy in the spotlight, and it’s great to have him back. Do you think we’ll see him back for the full 2nd season of the show?

Orci: Yeah, it’s great.

Kurtzman: He’s wonderful. He’s going to be back for several.

Orci: Well, you know, he’s special. You can’t just have him in there all over the place.

Kurtzman: Yeah.

SHH!: I’m guessing there isn’t much you can say about the sequel to “Star Trek,” but it was kind of greenlit before the movie even came out. Do you already have time set aside or a deadline of when you want to have a script done? What’s the plan?

Kurtzman: We’re aiming generally for Christmas, but literally, because it’s been such a crazy back-to-back release schedule this summer, we haven’t had time to sit down and think about it. So as soon as “Transformers” hits the theater, we’re going to take a breath and then dive right into “Star Trek.” We haven’t broken anything yet. We haven’t written the story yet.

SHH!: There was also a recent new story that J.J. might be involved with a fourth “Mission Impossible,” and you were involved with the last one, so do you think you’d work on a fourth movie or do think that’ll be too much?

Kurtzman: No, I think we have to focus on “Star Trek.”

Orci: They also haven’t invited us on frankly.

SHH!: What about the other things you’ve been developing at your company? Is “Cowboys & Aliens” going to move forward soon?

Kurtzman: We’re in the middle of writing it right now. We’re finishing a draft with Damon (Lindelof), so we hope to be done within the next couple of weeks and then we’ll get a director on the movie and see where it goes from there.

SHH!: Do you think Robert Downey is still going to be involved with it, playing Zeke?

Kurtzman: Hopefully. Fingers crossed. We talked to him a while ago and we’d love him to do it, but he’s the busiest man alive, so we’re hoping the schedule is going to line up.

SHH!: Are you guys looking at that as another possible franchise or just one movie at a time kind of thing?

Kurtzman: If we’re lucky, but we can only think of it as one movie at a time, because if we start thinking that way, it corrupts the whole movie.

Orci: Bad luck.

SHH!: What about “Atlantis Rising”? Might that forward soon or are you still developing it?

Kurtzman: We’re still in development on it.

Orci: It’s still rising. (rimshot)

SHH!: You mentioned having a great team earlier, but do you have other writers you’re working with in terms of the movies you’re scripting?

Kurtzman: Yeah, we’re working very closely with Paul Attanasio right now, who wrote “Quiz Show” and “Donnie Brasco” (note: probably on the “Matt Helm” film”), we’re working with David Ayer on something, who wrote “Training Day,” (Note: that would probably be “Deep Sea Cowboy”) so yeah, we’re definitely building our…

Orci: Our strategic alliances of like-minded writers.

Kurtzman: And people we’re just massive fans of.

SHH!: I was curious about that because when you have projects where you’re the two main writers, and you’re also producing and developing so many other things, you wonder if you still have time to actually sit down together and write.

Kurtzman: I think that’s the fun of it actually. When you speak writer, you can just sit down and riff a story out quickly, and it’s a safety net for everybody frankly, so we love it. It’s really fun for us.

SHH!: What’s going as far as the DreamWorks deal with Disney? You’ve obviously been there forever so do you have any what’s going to happen with the movies you’ve been developing? You have a movie over at Disney so that helps, but are you going to have to move offices or anything?

Kurtzman: No, I think we’re staying at our offices, right?

Orci: Yeah, I think we’re staying where we are ’cause it’s still the old Amlin/DreamWorks facility on the Universal lot. It’s like the Vatican, it has its own laws and everything. We’re excited for our first Disney cocktails mixer where we can meet everybody and see what’s going to happen.

Kurtzman: The nice thing was that it was a nice (intro) for us in that we made “The Proposal” at Disney, so we’re already very familiar with everybody over there, so it was a nice family to walk into.

SHH!: I understand that as a company, their stories are more executive-driven where a lot of the ideas come from higher up rather than being pitched by writers. Do you think you’ll be able to bring over your own television background of writer-driven filmmaking to them?

Orci: A good idea is a good idea in my opinion, I don’t care where it comes from.

SHH!: Cool. Thanks, guys. I’ll let you go to your big press conference, and I’ll probably talk to you again this time next year. (both guys laugh at this)

Kurtzman: Excellent, fingers crossed.

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is opening in the United States in regular and IMAX theatres on Wednesday, June 22. Star Trek and The Proposal are now playing in theaters.

Source: Edward Douglas