People Like Us is a family dramedy inspired by true events from the life of writer/director Alex Kurtzman. The story follows Sam (Chris Pine), a twenty-something guy who learns that his father has suddenly died, leaving behind a secret 30-year-old daughter (Elizabeth Banks) that Sam never knew about, and he is forced to re-examine his own life and re-think everything he thought he knew about his family.
At the film’s press day, Alex Kurtzman talked to Collider about deciding to share such a personal story with the world, the advantages and disadvantages in writing something without a set deadline, what made him decide to direct, and how important the casting was for the tone of the movie. He also talked about the emotional experience of returning to the Enterprise for the Star Trek sequel, what made he and business partner Roberto Orci want to sign on to write the sequel for The Amazing Spider-Man, how they just wrapped Ender’s Game (which takes place 70 years after a horrific alien war) and Now You See Me (about FBI agents who track a team of illusionists that pull off bank heists during their performances) as producers, and how excited they are to be rebooting Van Helsing and The Mummy. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
ALEX KURTZMAN: The truth is that, while we were writing it, I don’t know that we ever had any real thought that it would ever get made. It was just something that I felt so compelled to write. It took eight years to write it. We did it for ourselves. We didn’t do it for money. It was just something we had to do. Bob [Orci] and I always thought we were going to be writing independent films. We grew up in the heyday of the indie movement and we thought that was what we were going to be doing, and then our lives took us down a totally different direction. I think that part of what it was, was that we had always been looking for a way to get back to our roots. And yet, the experience of making all these other movies has given us so much, in terms of what it means to make a movie. Watching so many amazing directors do their thing, I’ve learned so much from all of them. I just felt like it was time to do that. I guess the best answer for you was that it was like an obsession. I just couldn’t stop writing it. I never really thought it would come to the world, but here we are, having this interview.
KURTZMAN: Sure, yeah. The problem was that I couldn’t stop working on it. The disadvantage was obvious. We went down so many wrong roads, so many times. It was wrong a lot longer than it was right. You’re constantly making a leap of faith, thinking that you’re going to get to the next thing and somehow at the end of this road, it’s going to work. The puzzle of it fascinated me. The fact that I couldn’t figure it out so quickly obsessed me, a little bit. I loved that. It was an exercise in patience, actually. That was one of the life lessons. Really, what happens is that you go, “I’ll wait for life to show me certain details, and then I’m going to collect those details and put them in the script.” I started thinking of the script as a living organism that rejected anything that wasn’t truthful. Every time I tried to apply a film convention to it, it didn’t fit and it didn’t work. The luxury of being able to wait for something to show itself [was an advantage]. For example, Sam wasn’t in the barter business until year seven of the writing process. I couldn’t hear him, for a long, long time. One of the most important choices you make, as a screenwriter, is what your character does for a living because, even if it’s not really what the story is about, it tells you the condition of their life. Are they happy? Are they sad? Are they doing what they love? Are they doing what they hate? Once I heard that, I knew how to write him. But, it wasn’t until year seven that I was sitting down with a friend of mine who said, “Before I was a screenwriter, I was in the barter business.” I said, “What’s the barter business?,” and he told me about it and it was like a lightbulb went off over his head because it was the perfect venue and perfect metaphor. That was it. It was about having faith and patience, and letting those things come to me.
Had you known, from the beginning, that this was something you were going to direct, or was it more a matter of the fact that you spent so much time working on it that you couldn’t hand it over to someone else?
KURTZMAN: Both. I always thought, at the back of my mind, “If this ever happens, it would be a great way to go back to why I got into this business, in the first place.” As it went on and on and on, it was so alive and vivid and specific in my head that I couldn’t imagine giving it over to somebody else ‘cause they wouldn’t see the same things. I guarantee you that, if I had been sitting behind another director on this movie, I would have been looking over their shoulders, thinking they were doing everything wrong, the whole time. That would not have been good for anybody.
How important was the casting of this for you, especially with the tone of this movie?
KURTZMAN: It was huge! I was blessed with this unbelievable cast. We had two and a half weeks of rehearsal time before we started shooting and I felt strongly about that because I really wanted to make sure they were living in the skin of their characters. It’s a complicated relationship. And yet, what I wanted the audience to take home, more than anything, is that it’s really a story about these two very broken people who find each other and need each other so much. Above and beyond everything, I wanted the audience to root for Sam and Frankie to end up together. It’s obviously complicated because their relationship is built on a lie, but to me, that’s what was interesting. As a writer, it interested me to figure out how to solve that problem. Every actor in the movie just brought themselves to it, completely. We were all very in sync and all very much pointing in the same direction. I was so grateful that they really let themselves go. They were very un-self conscious. They really let themselves go there, and they weren’t afraid to look bad and messy. I don’t think the movie could be what it is without that.
KURTZMAN: Oh, yeah, for sure! Me and Bob [Orci] and Damon [Lindelof] and J.J. [Abrams] and Bryan Burk all feel very protective of Star Trek. The studio had wanted it a year earlier and we said, “No, we can’t. We’re not going to be ready and we don’t want to rush this.” We felt very fortunate that the first movie was well received, and the last thing that we wanted to do was destroy that by rushing something. It’s very precious to a lot of people. We love our Trek and we just wanted to keep it safe.
At the Prometheus junket, Damon Lindelof told Steve (at Collider) that you guys built the ship so that all the hallways connect and you can leave the bridge and really walk around the Enterprise. How cool was it for you to really walk around the ship?
KURTZMAN: It was insane!
Did you make sure to film some extra long takes of the cast, walking and talking?
KURTZMAN: That was the point. J.J. was brilliant, in building the sets that way, because what he wanted to do was be able to play whole scenes without a cut, as you were literally moving through this huge, huge ship. Just to walk on the set was incredible. Scott Chambliss, who’s our production designer, built this glorious set.
Do you have any idea when J.J. will release the first official images or the first teaser trailer?
KURTZMAN: Not sure yet. That’s still in discussion.
KURTZMAN: Well, we’ve seen the movie. You always go by your gut. That’s the best you can do. You go by what you feel, and you say yes or no based on what it inspires in you. All I can tell you is that, when I saw the movie, I loved the world that (director) Marc [Webb] had created. I think Andrew [Garfield] and Emma [Stone] are incredible in it. They’re amazing! And I love everyone at Sony. Producers Matt Tolmach and Avi Arad, and everyone there, are so protective of their Spider-Man. I just have so much respect for them. We just saw it and we were excited. When you’re a kid and you’re a superhero lover, the holy trinity is Batman, Superman and Spider-Man, so to be able to take any of those and play with it is a huge joy.
What are you working on beyond that? How many things are you juggling right now?
KURTZMAN: Well, when you’re directing, that’s what you do. There’s only room for one thing. That’s why my partnership with Bob [Orci] has endured for as long as it has. We would never have been able to do everything we were doing, when I was off directing. We just wrapped Ender’s Game, directed and written by Gavin Hood. We also wrapped Now You See Me, directed by Louis Leterrier. We’ve finished Star Trek. We have Hawaii Five-O. We’ve been doing a lot of stuff.
Aren’t you also rebooting Van Helsing and The Mummy?
KURTZMAN: Yeah. It’s cool! There’s been such a tonal shift, in the way audiences go to movies, particularly these big movies. I think a lot of that had to do with The Dark Knight and the success of The Dark Knight. Suddenly, it became about, “We want The Dark Knight version.” But, whether you end up doing The Dark Knight or not, I think what’s cool about that is that it’s only grounded superhero stories, or big mythological stories in more reality. That’s really what The Dark Knight did, and that was the turning point there. We try to do that on Trek. It’s exciting, doing Van Helsing and The Mummy. They’re both exciting, for those reasons.