Exclusive: Alex Kurtzman on ‘The Mummy’, Collaborating with Tom Cruise, and ‘Star Trek: Discovery’

     June 13, 2017

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With Universal Pictures The Mummy now playing around the world, last week I sat down with director Alex Kurtzman for an exclusive interview. During our wide-ranging conversation he talked about how the project came together, what he wanted to do with the action scenes, the importance of practically doing things and not replying on CG, deleted scenes, what it’s like to work with Tom Cruise and if he’s involved in the editing room, Easter eggs, future Dark Universe movies like Bill Condon’s Bride of Frankenstein, and so much more. In addition, we talked about Fringe, what fans can look forward to on Star Trek: Discovery, and the current TV landscape.

As most of you know, The Mummy puts a modern twist on the classic monster movie with Tom Cruise leading the fight against an ancient evil, played by Sofia Boutella. The Mummy also stars Russell Crowe, Annabelle Wallis, Jake Johnson and Courtney B. Vance.

Warning: slight spoilers are discussed during this interview.

Collider: So how much talk was there about putting in an after the credit scene, which the film does not have?

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Image via Universal Pictures

KURTZMAN: There was no talk about putting in an after credit scene. Mostly because I think that’s Marvel’s domain, and we just didn’t feel that it would be appropriate or necessary. I know DC’s done it as well, and maybe down the line we’ll do it, but it wasn’t really a conversation for us.

Was there any talk at the beginning of the movie? It has the Dark Universe logo, and I was thinking as the movie finished it almost might have been a good way to end the movie, with that logo of Dark Universe. Was there ever any talk about that? Or was it always in the front?

KURTZMAN: It was always in the front, and a big deal for Universal, because they’ve never altered their logo before for anything. This was the first time that they’ve actually transformed their logo into something else. There have been movies that have mutated the logo based on the film or something, but never one logo turning into another. It was a big deal for them, and I think there was a lot of pride associated with it for them.

It definitely signifies they’re not screwing around in terms of what they’re hoping to do.

KURTZMAN: Yeah.

What did you learn making People Like Us that you wanted to apply to making The Mummy?

KURTZMAN: It’s a good question. I remember J.J. [Abrams] once telling me how glad he was that he had done the Alias pilot, and then the Lost pilot, and Mission, and then Trek, and then Star Wars. That each movie sort of grows exponentially in scale, and that you learn to tackle more and more as you go. I think that it was very helpful for me to handle a much, much smaller production. And the thing is that oddly, you’re always looking for the same thing. It’s just noisier on a big production, but the focus always has to be first and foremost, how do you take the small moments, and let those moments breathe, and let those moments live. Because those moments are the big moments, they inform the big moments. And I think that, obviously, People Like Us, it was all about the little moments. And I think it was really helpful to me, just to learn how to manage a set, learn how to manage actors, and I don’t know that it would’ve been as easy for me to jump in on something this big my first time out.

Blockbusters are commonplace nowadays. Having written them before, as a director, what did you want to do to make sure the action sequences in The Mummy stood out?

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Image via Universal Pictures

KURTZMAN: Practically, we wanted to use CGI as a tool to augment, but not to drive the storytelling. That meant we wanted to shoot in real locations. We wanted to do as many of our stunts in-camera as possible. We wanted to use CGI as a tool, as an almost invisible tool, to make the in-camera stuff enhanced. Tom does all of his own stunts. He won’t do it any other way, and that meant doing things like shooting the plane crash in real zero gravity in a real plane. It meant going to Namibia to shoot the opening action sequences and all the ancient Egypt flashbacks. And it meant generally building sets that hearken back to the scope, the scale, the beauty, and the grandeur of the original Universal Monsters sets. And not augmenting them with CGI extensions but, in fact, building them to scale, and then shooting them as if they were real locations.

I think it gives the audience a real sense of depth. We wanted people to feel immersed, completely immersed, in the reality of the experience. When you’re on that plane you’re in it as it’s going down as opposed to looking at it through glass. You know, CG is an amazing tool, and I think that sometimes for me the best CG is the CG you don’t even know is there. When it tends to be the driving force of the sequence I tend to feel a little bit more removed from the storytelling.

I still think that one of the best uses of CG recently was Shawn Levy in Real Steel. They built that robot, but then only used CG to move the arm. You really can’t tell that’s CG, but because it’s all practical.

KURTZMAN: Well, like the zombies at the end, those were all real dancers, and we spent six months doing movement training. And then what we ended up doing was removing hands and heads, so what you’re seeing is a body, and then we’d shrink the body down. You’re seeing real people moving, and what the eye tracks is that’s real movement. That’s not computer generated movement. But what you can’t tell is that their hands are replaced with their heads. Obviously, you can tell their head’s replaced, because they’re human skulls running around. But that was generally the approach all around was, you know, there’s only one stage of Ahmanet that’s transformation, that’s motion capture, and that’s still Sofia, and the rest of it is all Sofia. I was very meticulous in wanting to make sure that we were not replacing performance with CG performance.

How long was your first cut compared to the finished film?

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Image via Universal Pictures

KURTZMAN: It was never a long film funnily enough. We were probably just under 2 hours, and then shaved off another 20 minutes, which I think for our first cut is pretty right on. I tend to feel that for movies like this longer is not better. I think audiences are good around an hour and forty-five.

Was this like cutting the fat in scenes or did you lose any actual scenes?

KURTZMAN: We lost some scenes, but the movie went through, as all movies do, a real stage of expanding and contracting, and expanding, and contracting. Sometimes you’re looking at sequence and you think you don’t need something, and then you watch it and you realize how much it’s missing, and so you put it back in. I know some directors actually like to cut by taking as much out as early as possible and then adding back what they think they need as they watch the movie. We just went through a lot of back and forth. And obviously with all the visual effects, that changes the scope and scale of sequences as we go.

Did you cast Courtney B. Vance purely because of his work in Hunt for Red October?

KURTZMAN: Yes. I had Jonsey on set, man, come on. Yeah …

I’m just throwing that out there.

KURTZMAN: I’ve been a fan of his forever, but obviously Red October is a movie we all grew up on and loved.

I learned today that he’s in this movie. I didn’t realize that was Courtney, and then doing my research I realized it, and I’m like, “Get the F- out of here.”

KURTZMAN: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

It’s crazy.

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Image via Universal Pictures

KURTZMAN: Jonsey.

Yeah.

KURTZMAN: I know.

For the upcoming eventual Blu-ray, is it going to have an extended cut? Or just some deleted scenes?

KURTZMAN: No, there’s just deleted scenes. Yeah, there wasn’t really … It’s extremely rare, in my experience, that you watch the deleted scenes on a cut and you go, wow, those really should have been in the movie. Usually, you understand why they were cut. And …

Unless it’s Kingdom of Heaven the director’s cut.

KURTZMAN: That’s true. Actually, you know what, I think I only saw the director’s cut. I didn’t see the original.

Yeah, the film cut is garbage.

KURTZMAN: Really?

And the director’s cut is unbelievably good.

KURTZMAN: Yeah, I thought it was really. I was sort of amazed when I watched it that it got kind of a bad rap, because I thought it was beautiful and really well done.

Well, imagine cutting forty minutes out of that movie and releasing it.

KURTZMAN: Yeah, well now I get it, yeah. But I would say for the most part then. Typically, I think when you see deleted scenes you kind of understand why they’re not in the movie.

So it’s like a few minutes?

KURTZMAN: Yeah, maybe. A total of four or five, maybe.

I’ve always been curious. How involved is Tom Cruise in the editing room?

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Image via Universal Pictures

KURTZMAN: Very, I mean, he’s involved in every aspect of the film. Absolutely everything. The minute he signs on we go through very extensive prep together, and I show him my designs, and I show him how I’m planning on doing sequences, and Tom loves to push it. He really loves to push the boundaries of what you can do as a filmmaker, and he’s always looking for a way to do something he hasn’t done before. Which, for a guy like Tom, who’s made as many movies as he has, that’s pretty impressive. Because we are both so committed to doing as much as practically as we could do, that meant really planning in advance where we were going to do it. The plane crash was a nine-month prep just for the plane crash, because it was storyboard, to PreVis, to half of it on the stage, to half of it in a real plane. And then a whole process in post. So you’re going through a lot of very meticulous detail work, and that will pretty much apply to everything.

Tom is extraordinary at focusing on performance, and one of the things that I received as a gift of his, as every director who does who works with him, is that he will give you everything in takes. And so when you’re sitting in the editing room going, maybe we need to dial it a little more this way, or dial it a little more that way, he’s given you that take. He is so attuned to what he has done, and he has kind of an amazing memory for what everyone else has done in the sequence that he’s often, I remember there was one take where I said this, and I did it this way. Or I remember Annabelle did it that way, or Sofia did it this way. And so we kind of go through it together, and we would just watch the cut over and over again.

He’s like a first AD on set?

KURTZMAN: No, I wouldn’t say he’s like a first AD on set. I think that he is …

I’m exaggerating.

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Image via Universal Pictures

KURTZMAN: Yeah, but he’s very … I guess in the sense that when Tom walks on set, in a blink, he can tell you exactly what’s going on with the lighting, exactly where the cameras are. His first question is what lens are we on, and he knows exactly how to maneuver himself around based on all those variables. I’ve never actually seen anything like it. I’ve worked with some incredibly experienced actors, who obviously know how to play to the lens, but Tom has a very unique way of going about it. It’s kind of extraordinary. I think sometimes he’s performing in the scene while also behind the camera in his mind. I noticed him do that a couple times, and I marveled at his ability to do that, because it’s only the result of making as many movies as he’s made.

Let’s talk about Easter eggs. Obviously there’s a lot in the dialogue that Russell Crowe utters. But are there other little things that people should be on the lookout for? Or Easter eggs towards future things that Universal’s thinking about doing?

KURTZMAN: There are several Easter eggs, yes. When Tom first enters the Prodigium facility there are two, in the fight scene there’s one, and obviously in the sand storm there’s one.

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