With Cowboys & Aliens hitting theaters tomorrow, yesterday afternoon I sat down with screenwriters/producers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci for an extended interview. During our wide ranging conversation, we discussed Comic-Con, Cowboys & Aliens, balancing the western genre with Sci-Fi, Harrison Ford, Kurtzman’s directorial debut Welcome to People (which stars Chris Pine, Olivia Wilde and Elizabeth Banks), Hawaii Five-0, Fringe, the potential for TV show crossovers, the Star Trek sequel, 3D, Ender’s Game, the Star Trek video game (which takes place after the first movie), and so much more. Hit the jump to either read or listen to the interview.
As usual, I’m offering you two ways to get this interview, you can either click here for the audio, or the full transcript is below. If you have the time, I always recommend listening to the audio. Cowboys & Aliens hits theaters tomorrow.
Alex Kurtzman: [laughs] Busted.
Roberto Orci: [laughs] It was great. It was fantastic.
Did you do that for more than a minute or did you do that for the whole time?
Orci: I wore it for a good afternoon. From about noon to four on Saturday.
Kurtzman: I was impressed. It was impressive.
The two of you have probably reached a point in fandom where people actually know who you are. Were you stopped at all or can you be anonymous at Comic-Con?
Orci: We can be pretty anonymous, but oddly enough someone who I work with thought it was me but then thought, “Nah. He would never have a hat on.” So they didn’t stop me. [laughs]
Kurtzman: So he wasn’t not recognized by the people who know him and then he was recognized by people who don’t.
Comic-Con just happened and you guys are obviously geeks just like me and everyone who is going to be reading or listening to this interview. What is the stuff that you geeked out over at Comic-Con this year? What is the stuff you saw around the convention floor that you really wanted to buy or got?
Orci: Well, for me, I always have to buy a little Star Trek paraphernalia. I got a shirt and I got a skirt for my wife. It’s red and Star Trek. I can’t wait to see it. I got a couple of comics. I got a couple of random things that I had no idea about. They were just based on impulse. I saw it and the right person said, “Hey, get it!” and I grabbed it. It’s just a random sampling. You got a bunch of toys for your son, didn’t you?
Kurtzman: Yeah. It was my son’s first trip to Comic Con. (he shows me a picture on his phone) There he is – Wolverine right at the legs of Optimus Prime. So my shopping was all for him. Although Bob did tip me out to the remote control air sharks. Did you see those?
Orci: The remote control air sharks that were flying around.
I did not see these.
Orci: Oh, man. That is the coolest thing I saw.
Kurtzman: He just couldn’t believe it. He was literally like, “It’s the biggest toy store in the world…”
Orci: …mixed with Halloween.
Kurtzman: He got stopped like 15 times by people who wanted to take his picture. So he was in heaven. [laughs] And nobody knew who I was, but, man, they sure liked my 5 year old.
Orci: I was there with a paid escort so we had a very different….[laughter] I’m kidding. I was there with my wife.
I had a blast this year. I think the most woman I have ever seen at the Con was this year, which I think is a good sign for the industry.
It feels to me like it’s been years that I’ve been talking to you about this one project. It’s finally now on the verge of coming out this Friday. It’s literally been years. For people that have heard about the movie and are trying to stay spoiler free – what is the one thing you want people to know about the movie that you think they really should know?
Orci: It’s interesting to ask us this. What should they know about a movie that says so much in the title? It’s one of the first titles that we have ever seen that is its own logline for Christ’s sake. I guess they should know that we really were inspired by the western and that mixing the sci fi into it was a way to do a western when westerns have seemed less relevant until recently thanks to True Grit and other things. Sci fi allowed us to be more true to the western than maybe even doing a literal western.
Kurtzman: Strangely I feel like that the thing that was exciting to us about it is that it was a gimmick free experience for a title that could’ve ended up with a movie that was potentially sort of gimmicky, you know? We were surrounded by the keepers of the flame in both the western and the sci fi genre. So were never allowed to really delineate from the tone that it needed to be. That was pretty remarkable because when you have modeled one of your characters after John Wayne in The Searchers and one of your producers have actually been in a movie with John Wayne you know that you’re going to be kept on the right track. Obviously with Steven [Spielberg] and what he has been and done for sci fi and having that around to make sure that we never deviated tonally from all of the movies that we loved. All of the sci fi movies that we loved was massive. So I think we felt very protected in the bubble of the experience.
I’m a huge fan of sci fi and I am a huge fan of westerns. It seems like mixing those two genres would be awesome. I’m really excited to see the movie. I haven’t seen it yet, but can you talk about the balance of not stepping too much into sci fi and then not stepping too much into the western? Can you talk about that balance? Can you also talk about how realistic the movie is in terms the time?
Kurtzman: We all agreed early on that we were making a western first and a sci fi movie second. That was the way to achieve the tone. It was to ground the audience in a very real and gritty western and we would then literally invade that movie with aliens. We always used to say, “It’s like you are watching Unforgiven and then the aliens from Aliens land.” That was the tone we were going for.
Orci: The point of view of the characters is that they live in the old west. So naturally to be true to them is to prescribe to a western style point of the view. We can’t suddenly break the rules of the western to go into a sci fi movie. The sci fi movie had to still fit within the western.
Kurtzman: Definitely. We always knew that the road in the scene where the two genres collide, which happens at the end of the first act. It happens in the way our character’s brains process lights in the sky when they have never really seen electricity before. There is a lot of room there to go off the rails tonally. You can go into jokeville in two seconds right there. That is one those scenes that we wrote and rewrote a trillion times because the reaction had to maintain the level of aspired grace and with going forward with what we were trying to achieve with the western at that point. It was great. We also had actors that took it extremely serious. Harrison [Ford] does not mess around when it comes to the western genre. It’s a genre that is beloved to him and he has been wanting to do one for a long time. Daniel [Craig] also helped ground us in such a perfect way because he is our entry point into the movie and he is literally the man with no name. Uncovering the story why he has no name and how that relates to the alien story is part of what attracted us to the movie.
Orci: We produced the movie and wrote it.
Kurtzman: We were there the whole time.
That is what I thought. You guys obviously have rehearsals and read throughs and then you are on set and you dealing with being on location. How much did things possibly change on set? Can you talk about working with Harrison Ford? Was he shifting and adjusting? There has to be a level of “…this is Harrison Ford.”
Orci: Totally. We spent a lot of time before we were even shooting with all of our actors as they were cast. We would spend weeks with some of them just going through the script and just mining everything that we could get out of the character. In a way the part expands and then as you get to the set what happens is that it contracts again to its most essential points. But now it’s been simmering in all of the details that you talked about. So maybe we can get to that one experience that we talked about that that character might talk about by the campfire. But now we don’t have the campfire scene, but that is okay. We built up the characters and tailored them to these actors. You want it to be as specific as possible. With Daniel we found out that he can do so much more with less. He is so good with his body language and facial expressions. He can express a lot of stuff and we can actually lose some of his lines and just have him play it physically. So everyone got that. We got that experience with most of our actors. Structurally, though, the movie never really changed.
Kurtzman: It didn’t really. Even though we had a release date and the pressure of our shooting schedule – we had the luxury of time. We did spend a good month just sitting in a room with Harrison, Daniel, Olivia [Wilde], and Jon [Favreau]. We would work through the script and plot out character arcs together. We talked about what we wanted to achieve and how to get there. There were a lot details that we had already put it in the draft. They had signed on based on a draft and they liked the details. It was really just a matter of expanding on them.
You guys have worked on a number of different things. Did you find that this is the project where you had the most friends saying, “I think I want to visit you on this one.”
Orci: [laughter] Yeah. There were a lot of visitors. Finally about half way through the shoot a production manager was like, “Alright. When we get to the ravine I’m going to ask for a no visitors rule. Nobody can come in. I’ve had enough visitors.” [laughs]
Kurtzman: We were in awe of the cast that ended up coming on to the movie from the beginning. All of our friends wanted to at least be around them.
Orci: It’s a cool location. You’re out and it’s almost like you’re out there camping.
Orci: Alex has been finishing Welcome to People that he just directed. We are doing Star Trek on the side and we are gearing up for the new development season. We are on soft prep for Ender’s Game. So we don’t see anything. We don’t see any horizon. We are like veal in a box. [laughs]
When are people going to see the first images or trailer for Welcome to People? When is it going to be released?
Kurtzman: It’s a different kind of movie in that it’s a family drama/comedy. I don’t think there is going to be an image like in Cowboys & Aliens where everyone is like, “What is the alien going to look like? How is Harrison going to look like? How is the alien going to look like in his chaps?” It’s not that kind of movie. I’m in the process of figuring that out with the studio. I’m literally a month away from finishing post.
Orci: Then we will see it. Then we will know what is a good release date. We will plan it around.
Are you planning to take it to any film festivals?
Kurtzman: I would love to. I think that it feels like the kind of movie that would thrive there. It’s been an unbelievably joyful experience from the minute that I started. It’s just been incredible. It happened very fast. It happened in the middle of Cowboys & Aliens very unexpectedly.
Orci: The script didn’t happen very fast. That only took us six years.
Kurtzman: Seven actually.
Orci: Well, once somebody read it, it happened fast.
Kurtzman: Yeah. Once we got it out there it happened quickly. But we did take seven years to write it, which was a new thing for us.
Kurtzman: Was it six or seven?
Orci: Between five and seven.
Kurtzman: Sure. Although I think that Sundance is more geared towards independent film and it’s not really an independent film.
I don’t even know if it’s independent anymore. Fox Searchlight releases their stuff there all of the time.
Kurtzman: Sure. Maybe. I think that kind of thing would be amazing. It’s always been my dream to go to Sundance. It would be pretty poetic.
So basically there is no word on when fans are going to be see anything from the movie?
Kurtzman: I’m literally about to get into all of those conversations with the studios about when they want to start releasing images and how things will get out there.
Kurtzman: Yeah. [laughs] Here and abroad.
Orci: It worked out.
You obviously put a lot of heart and soul into launching a TV property and you never know if it is going to do well. What was your reaction when you found out what the numbers were after the pilot and what it continued to do in the first season?
Kurtzman: CBS supported the show unbelievably well from the beginning even before we wrote the script with Peter Linkov. They were just right there to support the show and they had such a clear vision of what they wanted to do with it.
Orci: They were so behind it as a result. I think our reaction when it came out was that we weren’t glib about it and it was a sigh of relief. We knew that they had put so much great effort behind it and actually had such great marketing. They had given us every opportunity to make it good that it was really going to be our fault if it didn’t perform. So it was a sigh of relief.
Orci: Our motto is always “Do no harm.” That is our motto, right?
Kurtzman: Right. Peter Linkov deserves unbelievable credit for guiding the show at this point. We are there for him as much or as little as he needs us. We are definitely still involved with the show, but he is really running the day to day of it. He is the soldier in the trenches.
Orci: So if we hit a snag or something we have to come in and break a story or take some writing – we can but we don’t demand anything from the process other than what is helpful and good. At the beginning of the season we obviously get together and we plan what the season is going to be. We plan what the major arcs of the characters are going to be. We are still involved in the DNA of the show but the day to day running of it is Peter Linkov and he does a great job. He is a machine.
How involved have you been with season two?
Kurtzman: We are still involved. Yeah.
Can you tease anything for fans of the show?
Orci: Everyone really changes. Everyone is going to go through a…they are not where they were in season one. We managed in season one I think to have a good blend of stand alone episodes and mythology episodes for the year and in season two that keeps going and ramps up even more. There is a great…shit. I don’t know if I can give this away.
Orci: Part of the fun of Hawaii Five-O is the idea of this destination that everyone wants to be at and the idea of the cool characters that exist in this place that is a mix of the United States but also a mix of this kind of Caribbean place. So we have a lot of new cast members coming in. A lot of it has been announced. We have Tom Sizemore coming in and Terry O’Quinn from Lost. So it indicates that we finding a good balance story wise between servicing our family of people and also forcing them into different configurations with amazing casts. These aren’t guest stars of the week. These are multi-episode arcs.
One of the things that I wish happened more on TV as a fan is having more crossovers between shows. I know it’s almost impossible to do. I look at stuff Community and Cougar Town. You’re still supervising producers if you will on Fringe. What are the chances of a Hawaii Five-O/Fringe crossover?
Kurtzman: Very slim. [laughs]
Orci: We were having lunch the other day with [Leslie] Moonves and [Rupert] Murdoch. [laughter]
Orci: It’s funny that you bring this up. We have found ourselves in a couple of conversations lately with other people going, “How can we force crossover?” So I think part of it is that everyone is starting to want that again, but it is going to be hard.
Kurtzman: But I think it would be almost impossible to crossover shows from different networks. I don’t know how that is going to happen.
Orci: It could happen.
Kurtzman: But did that even happen when we were little? Wasn’t it always just charaqcters from different shows from the same network?
Orci: You know, there was Battle of the Network Stars.
Kurtzman: But that is different. That is a game show.
Kurtzman: But you are running the risk of running the other network potentially more than yours. They would never do it.
I, as a fan, think that would be something cool.
Kurtzman: As a fan it would be amazing! For sure.
I am just throwing this out there. It’s completely out of left field.
Kurtzman: We should start a movement.
I’m bringing it up right now. I guarantee that people in the comments section will be like, “Hey, that is a good idea.”
Orci: I think if we had the right kind of product placement that crossed over between one of the defense department giants and the propaganda arm of the parent companies…and I am not saying any names. [laughs] IF there was a confluence of that then I think we would get a crossover.
Orci: At the beginning of the year we go to what we call mini camp. We show up and we pitch as many dopey things as Alex and I can think of and then we watch during the year to see if any of them were used.
Kurtzman: Jeff Pinkner and J.H. Wyman are the ones who deserve all the credit for the show right now. They are the ones who are doing it.
It is one of my favorite shows on TV. I think it is exceptional stuff.
Kurtzman: Yeah. They are doing an unbelievable job.
Orci: And that is a Bad Robot production. They have a lot of…Kathy Lingg has been there since the beginning and there is Athena Wickham. There is a whole team over there that handles the show really well and produces it really well.
Just in case if I run out of time I am going to throw out the Star Trek 2 stuff. I spoke to Damon Lindelof three days ago and he said that Star Trek 2 is finally a priority for him, for J.J., and for you guys. Can you guys talk a little bit about how it’s like to finally have it as your number one assignment?
Kurtzman: The studio was bullish and that is great. That is what you want. They set a date and we all felt strongly that we did not want to make the movie if we didn’t feel that we could match the enthusiasm and love that we brought to the first one. To put the movie out to just meet a date would not have been the way to make the movie. I think we owe too much to the fans and to ourselves to not do it that way. We really wanted to take our time until we felt that we had a story that we could stand behind and that we felt was worthy of a sequel.
Orci: And Damon was finishing Lost and we didn’t want to start without him. It was just a matter of everyone lining up.
Kurtzman: It was not wanting to rush.
Orci: It was also wanting to clear out everything else a little bit. I guess that is the horizon as you said. That is our next mountain to climb and we are all geared up.
I’m going to curse on this one – I fucking loved Star Trek. I love this film like nobody’s business. I saw it at the Hero Complex Film Festival and I just forgot how awesome it is. This has to be for both of you the one thing that everyone comes up to you to talk about. What is like for you to have something that is so loved by so many people?
Kurtzman: It’s the greatest thing in the world.
Orci: It keeps your subconscious working on it even when you are sleeping. I really think it does take that place in our minds sometimes no matter how many other things we are doing. I think it keeps the pressure up in a good way. That is why we are not going to do it unless if we have the greatest story that we have ever thought of.
Orci: We are such a part of a team on Trek in terms of how it’s a development that we share with J.J., Damon, and Bryan Burk. So, yeah, you do have to keep notes and remember your stuff because it’s a band and when you get together to practice you want everyone to have done their homework a little bit as opposed to when it is just me and Alex in an office every day usually.
Kurtzman: It is different in the sense that when we wrote the first movie J.J. was only a producer and he wasn’t going to direct the movie. We were writing to get J.J. Our secret goal was to get him to do it. But he hadn’t committed to the movie so we weren’t…
Orci: We weren’t recording together in a way.
Kurtzman: Exactly. Whereas on Transformers with Michael [Bay] it was a lot of day to day back and forth with Michael. So he was more infused with the process. So I think it is a little bit like that.
Orci: Every project is different. However the fan pressure on Trek is something unlike any other project I think.
Orci: Yeah. We want to take in all of the information culturally because it is a cultural icon that does require a couple of different hats that other movies don’t require.
Kurtzman: When we were first approached about doing the first one we said “No.” and it took us a year to say “Yes.” for all of the same reasons. We just did not want to mess it up. I think we feel the same responsibility on 2. Now even more so actually because expectations were low on 1. No one really knew what it was going to be. Now everybody is waiting for it to match what they felt wabout the first one. So there is that added pressure.
3D seems to be an ever growing thing. What are your guys’ thoughts on 3D? I’m sure you guys have maybe talked about doing Trek in 3D.
Orci: It gives me a headache unless if it is animated. That is all I am going to say.
Kurtzman: I think it’s great when you have time to design your story thinking around it. I think if it’s just a matter of throwing more things at the camera I tend to personally not be much of a fan.
Orci: I bet the technology will get better and better and it will be a harder choice to decide. But for right now it is still cumbersome and it is still unbelievably expensive. Some movies wouldn’t be able to get made if it was just going to be made in 3D and some movies shouldn’t be made in 3D. With the vistas we were going to have in Cowboys & Aliens….right now with the technology my understanding is that past 50 or 100 feet you are suddenly losing this effect. So in a way you are trading that thing for the feeling of film, for seeing a real classic movie, and for seeing a natural environment. It was a debate we had on Cowboys & Aliens and we wanted to keep it true to its classic roots.
Kurtzman: We actually didn’t feel that it was as true to the story as we wanted it to be. So at the end of the day Jon certainly decided that as a filmmaker he was more interested in the 2D version and that was all we needed to hear. The last thing you want to do is force a filmmaker to do something to just make money.
Kurtzman: I don’t think we are thinking about 3D at this point. At least I am not. I am just thinking about the story.
Orci: Yeah. We are not. I’m sure it will be budgeted both ways probably and we will be able to make an assessment there, but we actually haven’t discussed that with our band mates. I actually don’t know what they think about it.
Kurtzman: If there is a great reason to do it then it’s certainly a conversation. But we are not thinking around 3D right now.
Kurtzman: I think we are still having that conversation. That is the truth.
So you guys think it could still reach next summer?
Kurtzman: I think anything is impossible. Transformers 2 was done in post strike in 3 months from the beginning of the script to the first day of shooting. So anything is possible. But, again, we have to take into account the spirit of wanting to do it right. So time is going to be a factor.
Orci: We are in the exploratory part of pre-production where we have people working. We have designers and we have all that kind of stuff to help us figure out the exact budget. That is what we are doing. We are budgeting it through R&D. We are in the research and development phase of what the movie is finally going to cost. We are scheduling and hopefully will be shooting in the new year.
Does that have any cast attached to it?
Orci: We just had our first casting meeting today.
I’m curious about theme parks. This is going to sound bizarre. There are a lot of rides happening for different kinds of properties. Right now Star Tours is apparently the shit right now.
Kurtzman: I heard it’s amazing.
That is what everyone is telling me. So if Universal ever came to you and said that they wanted to do a Star Trek ride like Star Tours – would you guys be down with something like that?
Kurtzman: I remember seeing when they did the Terminator 3D ride, which nothing had ever been done like that. [James] Cameron directed it and it was exciting for him as a filmmaker to take on the challenge of figuring out how to make the experience go a step further. So if we had a great story and an experiential reason to do it – it could be great. I wouldn’t rule it out. I haven’t thought about it yet. This is the first time I am thinking about it.
Orci: We wouldn’t write the crappy Star Trek ride. I can tell you that. It better be a cutting edge experience that we are going after.
Kurtzman: It’s very cool.
Orci: Did you play it? It is pretty amazing.
I didn’t go to E3 this year. How involved were you in the Trek video game? What should fans be looking forward to in the video game?
Orci: Our company is very involved and Bad Robot is very involved. We wanted it to have its own reasons for being. So the gameplay and what you do in the game has to have its own reasons without being called Star Trek. The idea of genuinely character based co-operative gameplay and role playing with the characters you love is interesting. Story wise it fits in continuity with what we are doing. So it is not a remake of the first movie or of any other movie. It’s kind of a in between step of what is happening in our Star Trek universe. We have an amazing writer and we are just trying to bring the same approach to the movie – it has to have every reason to stand on its own. Movie games don’t normally adapt well and we are mindful of that. We wouldn’t be going forward unless if we felt that we addressed that.
Continuity wise would it go “first movie, video game, and then the second movie”?
Orci: Or they are not real fans. [laughs] I don’t know what is wrong with these people. Like a good Star Trek fan I buy every piece of crap that the Star Trek universe puts out. No, I’m kidding. [laughs] But I have Christmas ornaments, a pizza cutter that is in the shape of the Enterprise, and I have a phone.
Did you buy the Master Replica Enterprise?
Orci: No. I haven’t got that one. Buy it? No. I’ll get it for free. [laughs]
You guys are obviously involved in a lot of TV. What is going on right now with the next season?
Kurtzman: We are literally just starting to think about it.
Orci: Nothing to announce right now, but we are meeting with every writer in town. We are looking for new material with book scouts and article scouts. We are getting together every week and having our fun TV brainstorming session. It’s literally sitting just like this and going, “What should we do?”
What are the chances of you two ending up doing something on HBO?
Kurtzman: Oh, man. That would be great. Oh, my god. That would be the best. That playground is amazing.
Orci: There are so many great cable stations doing such amazing stuff. We are absolutely looking at as part of our development plan.