Screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtman talk STAR TREK, TRANSFORMERS 2, DVDs, and a Lot More

     October 14, 2009

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Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen earned over $820 million at the box office and become the #1 movie of the year in North America and throughout the world. Star Trek is the eighth-highest-grossing film of 2009 and has become the highest-grossing film in the series.

The writers responsible for both of those films, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman talked about their DVD releases, during a recent press day at the Viceroy Hotel in Santa Monica. The two compared their processes for each of the films, along with their approach to making existing material interesting and new for audiences. They also talked about their history with “Star Trek” and covered a lot of subjects the fans will find interesting. Here’s what they had to say:

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And if you missed what Alex and Roberto said about the “Star Trek” sequel, “Cowboys and Aliens”, “Transformers 3″, and the “View-Master”movie, click here.

Question: Can you talk about the differences in your approach to the special features on the Star Trek DVD and the Transformers 2 DVD?

Kurtzman: We tend to sit down and talk very loosely about the experience of making the movie. I think the differences are in the way that the movies were made, but not necessarily in the approach to the DVD extras. What’s really cool about the DVD extras is that, in both cases, they documented everything we were all doing together, from the minute that it started, to the minute the movie was released. It’s pretty extensive.

Orci: We tend to try to just be as open in how we came to things as possible. It’s not just, “I remember that day.” It’s more of an interpreting of what we did.

Kurtzman: We grew up having nothing like this at all. For example, there was one screenwriting book when we grew up. Only one. Now, there are DVD’s, you can go online and you can see everything. There is so much there. I think we feel like, “How cool is it for people to actually have the thing that we didn’t have?” So, we try and give as much to the DVD extras as we can.

The opening sequence of Star Trek was very surprising. How did that evolve, and how did you approach that?

star_trek_movie_image_l.jpgKurtzman: Interestingly enough, that was not the first scene of the movie that we wrote. That was the second scene of the movie, and the first scene of the movie is actually on the DVD. The first scene of the movie was the birth of Spock. We knew that the way these characters were born was going to define everything about who they would become. Knowing that Kirk was going to be a renegade, knowing that he was going to have father issues, knowing that he was going to be lost, knowing that he was going to have to come into his own as captain, prescribed a series of things that allowed us to think about, “What would create a man like that?” Rising to the challenge of, “Are you going to be as good as your father, who literally died in the service of keeping you alive? Are you going to rise to that challenge?,” was a very emotional place to begin.

Also, one of the things that we heard a lot was that women do not like sci-fi because there is no emotion. We were like totally offended by that and thought, “Well, okay, that’s bullshit. Let’s show them how wrong that is, from the word go, and then everyone will be equalized. Then, we can all go forward from there.”

Orci: I think the first kernel we had of that was that we thought, “Kirk should be born in space.  He’s on his dad’s ship, and he’s in battle.” It started that he should be born in space and not Iowa.

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Some people felt that Spock Prime stopping to explain what was going on took the audience out of the film. How do you feel about that?

Kurtzman: I think that we tend to be drawn towards structures that are very mysterious, for at least and hour, or hour and 15 minutes. As an audience member, I always really like to be wondering, “What’s happening here? I don’t understand it. It’s really intriguing. Where is the punch line going to go?” But, when you incur that debt, then you owe the pay off, and the pay off is always the moment where someone comes in and says, “Okay, here are some of the answers to the questions you’ve been asking, for the last hour and 15 minutes.”

The trick with those kinds of scenes is to make them really interesting and to make them very character driven because what you don’t want is a scene where someone is just telling you plot. That’s really boring, and the audience tends to just check out. The ace that we had in the hole there was that we knew that it was a very emotional story for Spock to tell because he was telling the loss of his planet and he was talking about his responsibility in that. It’s literally a new Kirk, who doesn’t like Spock, realizing, “Oh, wait, Spock is a much broader character than I ever knew.”

Orci: It’s such a turning point that it’s more than just a plot dump. I wouldn’t change it.

J.J. Abrams talked about examining some of the logical leaps in the story for the Star Trek DVD. Was that something that you got a chance to examine on the DVD? Also, did you address any of the issues that came up with Transformers for that DVD?

star_trek_new_movie_poster_3_27_09.jpgOrci: Yeah. We try to be open about what we’re aware of, at the moment. Certainly, some of the decisions that we made, scientifically, were in terms of canon. That’s what the whole movie is about. Is it canon or isn’t it, and where do you fall on it, if you’re a fan? You can’t avoid that conversation.

Kurtzman: I remember a good four- to six-hour session of walking into the studio and being very bleary. We had gone through everything from all of the decisions that we made, including why we wanted to start doing Transformers again, to how things changed as we went along. A lot of the answers to those questions are on the DVD.

With Star Trek, what was the first moment that you really knew you had found the right blend of everything?

Orci: It happens twice. You get it once when you know you have the right story, and I think we could feel that very strongly, as we were writing it. The “Ah-ha!” of having Leonard Nimoy in it was big for us. But then, you have to actually shoot it, and cast it. Can you really replace icons? What’s that going to be?  Even in the middle of shooting, when you go onto a set, you’re hoping it’s looking cool and not like Saturday Night Live, or something.

The second time was probably after we saw the first cut. So, it happened once when we wrote it and once when we saw the first cut and realized, “Oh, man, these actors are great, and the production design actually looks great.” We saw it come together then.

Kurtzman: I think that writing Star Trek was probably the most emotional experience we’ve had, in the actual writing part of it, because you are dealing with, not only these iconic characters, but the responsibility that you are suddenly bearing, of bringing them back to the world, in a new way, and then telling a story that is deeply, deeply emotional.

Orci: We literally locked ourselves in a hotel room for weeks and weeks.

Kurtzman: We just worked scene for scene, line for line. At the pace that we work at, we don’t always get to luxuriate in every dot and coma.

When you’re writing characters that are that well-established, how do you capture the sound of it without having dialogue that sounds like it’s from the 1960’s?

Orci: We were lucky with this one. When we came up with the idea. we knew it was going to be them young and them turning into who they are, so it prescribed a very natural arc. They don’t arrive at the people you see in the series, until the end of the movie, so it freed us up to not have to mimic them exactly, and be able to tell a growing up story.

Star Trek movie image Chris Pine, Karl Urban, Zachary Quinto (1).jpgKurtzman: Because these characters were so ingrained in our minds from childhood, they are already a live in your head, in some way. So, once you are sitting down to actually write them, you’re listening to your childhood voice, coming back up for you.

That becomes your best compass when you are writing dialogue because we all knew that there were certain key traits about all the characters that had to be represented, but the question became, “How are you going to do it in a new way?” We hadn’t cast any of the actors that we had in the movie, when we were writing the first draft, so it was very much about knowing their personalities, but then finding a way to make it fresh.

Orci: And, reading the novels helped. We read a lot of Star Trek novels.

Do you have a specific memory of the first time you encountered Star Trek, as a child?

Orci: For me, it was being with my uncle. He did the kid’s version of relativity. I just remember that was the first time I heard the name Einstein, and I just realized there was a larger physical, scientific, magical world, and it was through family.

Kurtzman: The original series was already in re-runs on KTLA, when I was growing up. I liked that, but I didn’t lock in, in the same way that I did when I saw The Wrath of Kahn. Watching that, in the theater, and the friendship between Kirk and Spock that was so beautifully drawn in that movie, it just touched me then and it was a huge compass, in terms of what we wanted to get out of the movie.

bruce_greenwood_as_captain_christopher_pike_01.jpgWill you continue to work with J.J. Abrams and push the envelope?

Kurtzman: We’d love to. A good story is a good story, no matter where it comes from. Anything that catches us, we get excited about.

Are you working on his new spy show?

Kurtzman: No.

Does the success of the first movie embolden you guys to take more liberties, as you’re coming up with ideas for the sequel, or does it put more pressure on you to further explore the existing canon?

Orci: It’s like, “Great, I’m glad we had a nice victory, but now we’ve gotta do it again.” There’s the same amount of trepidation and reverence for Trek.

Kurtzman: But, there’s the excitement of knowing that we have everything in place. Going into the first movie, we had no idea what the actors were even going to look like. Now, knowing what the feeling was and who’s playing the parts, will definitely be helpful.

Can you talk about how, for both properties, you approached a familiar thing while still surprising audiences?

Kurtzman: In the case of Transformers, we didn’t see it as re-imagining because there was no movie. It was just a cartoon. That was actually imagining like, “What is this going to look like?” The standards of storytelling were so different, when the cartoon was first invented. They literally didn’t have the ability to do the live-action version.

So, it was about figuring out what the balance of robot to human time was going to be, what the axis point for the audience was going to be, who the character they were going to follow into that world was, why and what that story was. Finding the story of a boy and his car felt like we didn’t really take that off of anything. It was just like, “Okay, what are the movies that this wants to feel like? Well, I think it wants to feel like the movies we grew up on, in the Amblin vein.” And, that led us to a boy and his car.

Orci: With Star Trek, there are 10 movies. You’ve seen it live-action. You’ve seen lots of things that can be done. It’s got a bigger impression in people’s minds already.

transformers_2_revenge_fallen_final_international_poster_01.jpgDid you ever expect that the Transformers sequel was going to be so divisive?

Orci: Yeah, I expected it to be divisive. Sequels are easy targets. It was undertaken under the pressure of a writers’ strike, which makes us targets. It was longer, which was a debate. It was bigger, louder and longer than the first one, and there was controversy on the first one as well. For me, it was just length, but the fans were like, “I can’t get enough. I wish it was longer.”

Kurtzman: It’s very hard to gauge what is going to work for people and what’s not going to work for people. What one person says is way too long, my 12-year-old cousin says, “I wish it had been longer!” That just totally confuses me. So, at the end of the day, Michael Bay has his rhythm and pace, and ends up determining in editing how long he wants to make the movie.

There’s a lot of deleted scenes on the Star Trek DVD, and there were even scenes deleted from the script before it was shot. What was the hardest scene for you guys to lose?

Orci: There wasn’t anything because our original script didn’t include the scenes that ended up getting cut.

What about the whole Klingon thing?

Orci: We added that later. We knew it might be long, but we just went for it. So ,we were fine with exactly how it ended up.

How about with Transformers?

Orci: In that one, it was the reverse. Too many scenes ended up in the movie. No, I’m kidding. In that one, because you are able to animate the robots, after the fact, you are playing with their dialogue, up until the last minute. With Star Trek, once it was shot, it was shot. With Transformers, scenes could be created after the fact, that weren’t in the original script at all. It’s the opposite. You get the opportunity to make stuff up, after the fact, which was the cool thing about it.

star_trek_movie_image.jpgDoes the relationship between Spock and Kirk resemble your relationship with each other?

Kurtzman: We were in the middle of writing the fight scene on the bridge, after the destruction of Vulcan, and realized that we were writing about ourselves.

Orci: I realized that a lot earlier.

Kurtzman: Yeah, but Bob didn’t say anything.

Which one of you is Spock and which one of you is Kirk?

Orci:  I think Alex is Kirk and I’m Spock.

In Star Trek, you hear Greg Grunberg as the stepfather, but you don’t see him. Will you see him on the DVD?

Kurtzman: You will see the stepfather on the DVD, but not Greg. You’ll see a scene there that we ended up losing.

Orci: Greg wasn’t originally cast as that, and then he came in as the voice.  There is a scene that was shot with another actor.

star_trek_movie_image1.jpgIs there room for Greg Grunberg to fit into the Star Trek sequel?

Kurtzman: There is always room for more Grunberg. It’s whether or not he can find the time. He’s one of TV’s heroes. We’ll see how that goes. If he has the time, we’d love it.

Can you update the project you have going with Masi Oka? What’s the status of that?

Orci: We’re still working out the story.

Kurtzman: We actually can’t say too much about it, but Masi is amazing. He’s wonderful to work with.

Orci: Gary Whitta is writing it.

Kurtzman: He wrote The Book of Eli, which is coming out this year.

Orci: He’s developed a great story, and we have to go pitch it to the heads of the studio. We’ll find out what happens.

And if you missed what Alex and Roberto said about the “Star Trek” sequel, “Cowboys and Aliens”, “Transformers 3″, and the “View-Master”movie, click here.

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