Mega-Screenwriters Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci: 'It Could All Be Over Soon'
Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci are having a moment, and they know it.
As the screenwriters behind the year's two biggest films, Star Trek and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (cowritten with Ehren Kruger), the writing partners have solidified their position as Hollywood's top screenwriting duo. It's a long way from Hercules and Xena, where the two began, and they'd be the first to admit their journey wasn't the one they planned on. Now, as all they touch turns to gold (and even the projects they've recently produced -- including Eagle Eye, The Proposal, and Fringe -- have become unqualified hits) they sat down with Movieline to discuss their unlikely path, Megan Fox's big mouth, and just whose idea it was to give one of the Transformers a gold tooth.
As near as I can tell, you guys are the go-to team for big genre tentpoles...but do you feel that way, or do you still have to fight for projects you want?
KURTZMAN: You know, I think we just gravitate toward things that we're really drawn to. I don't know in the grand scheme of Hollywood...
ORCI: ...where we are on the list. If it's alphabetical, it's impossible to tell. [Both laugh] But certainly we're on that list of however many names for these kind of movies now. Who knows how long that will last? We always said when we got into this business that a screenwriter has a lifespan of about five years...
KURTZMAN: ...yeah, four years, I think, is the average lifespan of a screenwriter.
ORCI: So it could be all over soon.
Did you anticipate being the big genre guys in Hollywood?
KURTZMAN: Well, we never actually imagined that we were gonna get here, is the weird part. We thought we were were going to be doing independent film. And then we sort of stumbled into this and one thing led to another and suddenly we were very deeply down the road of doing these action tentpole movies. We started with Rob [Tapert] and Sam [Raimi], and then The Legend of Zorro was the first movie we did that got made. Once we got close with the great people at DreamWorks, we keep making movies with them -- it just kind of happened that way. But I'm serious when I say we really thought we were going to be doing independent films. I guess the way that translates to the stuff we're doing now is that we always try to approach it from a place of character.
ORCI: Or theme.
KURTZMAN: Or theme, yeah. Some directors are more interested in that than others, but that's where we come at it from.
So what's stopping you from making independent films?
KURTZMAN: Nothing, at this point. [Both laugh] We've just kind of been on a roll.
ORCI: You can't force an audience to see something they don't want to see, no matter what it is. So we're slightly finding out, as there's more information for how you market a movie, there's got to be markets for everything. It's just a matter or finding them -- until you know exactly where those are, you might as well shoot blindfolded. You don't know where you're gonna put [the film] or where you're gonna go.
That's what independent filmmakers do all the time, though. Right?
KURTZMAN: Oh yeah, don't get us wrong. We absolutely love what we're doing. It's funny because we actually grew up equal parts on Die Hard, Hunt for Red October, and Predator and all those movies as much as we did on Godard films. I think that's always been the fun for us, to try to live in both worlds.
How did you guys go from meeting in high school to working for Sam Raimi on Hercules and Xena?
ORCI: Just after we graduated, we wrote steadily for four or five years. There's no shortcut to it. You know that new book that says it takes 10,000 hours to get good at anything? We put in our 10,000 hours, is basically what happened. By the time we got our first job on a television show, we'd already written -- badly -- for years. We didn't wait for school or class to get us writing...we just cranked out material after material and that was the key.
At what point in your career do you think you guys "cracked it"? When did it become easier to get the meeting, get the job, get the movie made?
KURTZMAN: I think certainly Zorro opened doors for us...
ORCI: We learned a lot from Rob and Sam, too. They were our true graduate school for how to be in a meeting, how to separate the abstract from what's really going to go in the story, how to lose that film school veneer that can be on you if you come in all...
ORCI: Hoity-toity, yeah. [Both laugh] They also taught us the importance of "a gig is a gig." No venue is too small when you're on tour, you know?
With two of the year's biggest movies, is there a certain amount of capital you have now that you're looking to spend?
KURTZMAN: Yeah...[looks to Orci]
ORCI: We're looking at everything that's around and available in town. Things that maybe we may not have had access to before, now we may have at least a seat at the table to pitch. So that's nice, that we can go through what we want to do and that people will sit down with us and hear us out. That's all we ask, obviously, is to be heard out.
What do you make of, say, Megan Fox giving interviews where she seems to dismiss the Transformers script? She's said that she didn't take it that seriously and that the actors just improvised the whole time.
ORCI: Any line you didn't like was hers. [Both laugh] Michael has a very loose set and you do want to improvise in a movie like this. But you're riffing off the script every second...no one should have any illusions about that.
Mission: Impossible 4 was just announced, and you guys wrote the third one. Have you been asked to come on board?
KURTZMAN: People have asked us about it, but we're not doing it yet. We're not involved with it. We're focused on the Trek sequel, and I think we have to make sure that gets done right.
Have the demands on your time increased exponentially over the last two years?
KURTZMAN: Yes, they have. For sure. They definitely have. We're pretty good about sticking to a schedule, but we'd be lying if we said we weren't working late into the night.
Do you thrive on being that busy?
KURTZMAN: I think we sort of see it as something that we're going through right now, and that it's probably not going to be like that for the rest of our lives. So, while we're in the middle of that, we should embrace it and hug it and love it and make it work for us. [Orci laughs] Because at some point it's gonna dry up and go away and we'll be wishing we'd done more.
ORCI: This is very unusual, this year. The strike, in a way, oddly pushed things forward for us. When the strike started, we started shooting Star Trek, Fringe, The Proposal, and Eagle Eye. It's just an accident that this has happened this way.
When you guys were more involved in TV, how did you find time to write your feature projects?
ORCI: It was hard. It was painful. On Hercules and Xena, we wrote The 28th Amendment at night. That was the first movie we sold and it was a spec, so it was a little easier: It was on our own time, no one knew anything about it, and we took four or five months to do it. On Alias, when we had to write Zorro at the same time, that was truly brutal. It was like cramming for the bar or something. 3 in the morning, no life...
At your production company, you're trying to give writers a voice and protect them from being replaced, but Michael Bay is sort of notorious for hiring tons of writers -- Armageddon had a whole raft of them, including your friend J.J. Abrams. Has Bay gotten better about that?
KURTZMAN: Well, I mean, look: this is our third movie with him all the way to the end. Literally, when we started working with him three years ago, we've been the only writers he's worked with for the past three years. I think he has gotten better about it. I think he definitely understands the value of that kind of collaboration.
What's the process of collaborating with him like? How much and how often does he like to involve himself in the initial writing?
KURTZMAN: He has extremely strong emotional instincts about what works for him and what doesn't, so a lot of our process is throwing stuff against the wall. But we tend to come in with a very singular idea, like, "This movie is about this, and here are the emotional turns of the movie." If he's on board with those right up front, then we're in a good place.
ORCI: On The Island, that was a spec that DreamWorks bought for him that somebody else wrote, and we came in as doctors. He'd been with the movie for a year. Whereas on the first Transformers, we wrote two drafts and were in consultation with DreamWorks about who to hire as a director, and we went to him. So he came in very much after the movie was cracked.
And my last question is, "Who gave Skids the Autobot a gold tooth?"
KURTZMAN: That was Michael. [Both laugh] That was definitely Michael.