Roberto Orci And Alex Kurtzman Boldly Break Down The Writing Of STAR TREK For Mr. Beaks!
Published at: May 4, 2009, 10:58 a.m. CST by mrbeaks
Call it J.J. Abrams's STAR TREK if you like, but Paramount would probably still be mulling over a reboot of Gene Roddenberry's groundbreaking sci-fi series today were it not for the brainstorming efforts of screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman. The key? Finding a way into the original series' (TOS) universe without violating the narrative Prime Directive - i.e. Thou Shalt Not Interfere With Canon.
Their solution of an alternative timeline (driven by a revenge-seeking Romulan and protected by an elderly Spock) may not be the most breathtakingly brilliant invention in the history of film, but it was likely the only way the writing duo could get free and clear of established events while still playing to the base. These are the other voyages of the Starship Enterprise. There will be deviations. But the heart of TREK - Kirk, Spock, Bones, Uhura, Sulu, Chekov and Scotty - will remain intact; it's just that when they encounter Klingons or Tribbles or Khan, the outcome is bound to be different. Except when it's not.
On one hand, Orci and Kurtzman are playing with house money; they've got carte blanche to rewrite the entirety of TREK without drawing fire from the purists. But therein lies the problem: will they - along with Abrams and LOST co-creator Damon Lindelof - be able to reach the heights of classics like "The City on the Edge of Forever", "Amok Time" and THE WRATH OF KHAN? Or will this alternate STAR TREK devolve into a compromised, play-to-the-cheap-seats bastardization of Roddenberry's vision?
One gets the sense that Roberto Orci would just as soon take a staff job on GENERAL HOSPITAL as travesty the most beloved science-fiction franchise of the last fifty years. Fucking up STAR TREK is probably not high on Alex Kurtzman's to-do list either, but, as he acknowledges in the below interview, Orci is the Trek expert of the two. Together, they've quickly gone from in-demand tentpole screenwriters (their credits include TRANSFORMERS and its forthcoming sequel, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III and THE ISLAND) to big-time TV/movie producers (they've just completed the first season of FRINGE and have the Sandra Bullock/Ryan Reynolds romantic comedy THE PROPOSAL due this June). But it'd all be for naught if they botched STAR TREK - which, thankfully, they haven't.
Perhaps it's a good thing that Paramount dissuaded them from blowing up the Enterprise in their first film. That's not a joke. We also discuss the development of the script, the involvement of Lindelof, the seeming inevitability of Khan, and much more.
Mr. Beaks: What was you level of familiarity with STAR TREK before you started writing the screenplay?
Alex Kurtzman: It was very intense, but in different ways.
Roberto Orci: My familiarity was pretty high. [I'm] not the ultimate geek; several people at conventions could outrank me easily. But it was certainly high. I'd read most of the novels that I could get my hands on, I was a die-hard fan of a lot of the series, etc.
Kurtzman: I had been a huge fan of the original series when it was on reruns when I was a kid. Then WRATH OF KHAN was kind of the big bang for me in terms of locking in on TREK.
Beaks: Prior to writing the screenplay, when you were kicking around ideas with J.J., did you guys go back and watch a lot of original series episodes?
Orci: I didn't. [To Kurtzman:] And I don't think you did either.
Kurtzman: I went back and read a lot of them actually. Bob had been an enormous fan of THE NEXT GENERATION when we were in high school, and I was not. He was saying, "You've got to watch this show, it's so unbelievable!" And I was like, "Yeah, yeah." But I finally went back and read every single episode, and was totally stunned by how brilliant it was and how well it had evolved. That was my re-entry point. Then I reread a bunch of the novels. But I think we'd--
Orci: But that was after we had the idea for the story already.
Orci: Once we came up with what we thought the story should be, and we pitched it to J.J. and the studio, that's when we went back and started rereading everything and kind of making sure we were on the right track.
Beaks: So you guys went on your own and brainstormed, and then pitched J.J. on the idea.
Beaks: How long did you have to brainstorm before you seized on the idea that you ended up using?
Orci: Eight months. Maybe. And it was eight months before we ever said we'd do it. We just thought about it, and... [to Kurtzman] you tell the story about Marc Evans.
Kurtzman: I'd been having dinner with Marc Evans, who's one of the execs at Paramount. He's a friend of mine.
Orci: And also a STAR TREK fan.
Kurtzman: And he casually mentioned at dinner, "Would you guys ever think about doing STAR TREK?" And I kind of dropped my fork. I knew that it was such a big choice. It's such an enormous responsibility. And Bob had been such a huge, huge fan, that... this was not something to enter into lightly. We thought about it for, honestly, between six months to a year because the fear of messing it up was so frightening that--
Orci: We didn't think we were going to do it.
Kurtzman: And then after a while, we realized the fear was exactly the reason we had to do it, because we felt like we had to protect it. And that if we went to some new TREK movie and felt that whatever choices were made were choices we disagreed with, we'd have nobody to blame but ourselves. So we started talking about the story and what we wanted, and I think immediately we both felt that there was no version of this other than a Kirk-Spock story.
Orci: And yet how do you do that and be respectful. So that's when we hit upon the idea of Leonard Nimoy, and having him be responsible for this new timeline. That's when we knew we could go in and say, "Okay, we've got something."
Beaks: When you brought it to J.J., what did he add?
Orci: I mean, once we had the story, you have to go figure out so many millions of details and scenes. And you can't be in a room with [Abrams] without him coming up with ten million ideas: from how Kirk sneaks onto the Enterprise, to the gun battle that happens on Nero's ship - we originally had that as a fistfight. You just go through every detail. We would give him thirty pages at a time, and he would give us notes.
Kurtzman: The other thing is that J.J. is a self-acknowledged... he had not been a "Trekkie" or a "Trekker" growing up. So his objectivity was actually critical for us. We all knew that what we wanted to get out of this was a movie that hopefully satisfied fans but also brought in a new fanbase to this extremely wonderful franchise that we all love. There have been a lot of reasons we'd heard why people dismiss TREK: it's too cold, it's too sci-fi , women don't like it. We thought J.J. was a perfect barometer for that audience.
Orci: It wasn't going to be good enough for us to say, "Well, that's how it was in STAR TREK." He was going to say, "Well, I don't care! Why is that good here?" It had to stand on its own merits, and we knew that his objectivity would be the filter for everything.
Beaks: I have to ask: was the "Guardian of Forever" ever an element in your story?
Beaks: You mentioned THE WRATH OF KHAN. That's obviously considered the high point of TREK on film. We know that Nicholas Meyer was not a STAR TREK fan before he came to the property, so he was kind of like J.J. in that regard.
Beaks: Do you know if J.J. went back and watched old episodes?
Kurtzman: Sure. He saturated his brain on every level.
Orci: Once he decided he was going to direct it. (Laughs)
Beaks: Did you ever meet with Nicholas Meyer?
Kurtzman: We met Nick Meyer when we were doing STAR TREK DVD interviews. We actually passed on a soundstage.
Orci: And I actually kneeled before him.
Kurtzman: Bob fell to his knees, and I grabbed his hand. (Laughs) He was so kind and generous. He's literally the reason that I wanted to make a STAR TREK movie.
Beaks: What was Damon Lindelof's involvement in the writing of the script?
Kurtzman: We cannot overemphasize how important he was. He and Bob both shared the fanatic TREK point of view; they both were extremely familiar with every detail of history. He was so critical in the story-breaking process as well.
Orci: Yeah, he really helped the story. You can't come in and pitch scenes to J.J. and Damon - and he was there every time we got together - without them literally improvising dialogue right then and there that you must write down, that has to go in the script. They're just that fast. So their spices are all over the script.
Beaks: You've probably been writing STAR TREK episodes in your head since you were a kid, but when you finally sat down to write an actual STAR TREK script, was it difficult to nail the voices of these iconic characters?
Kurtzman: I have to say that it was weirdly like snuggling up to a warm blanket. I think what was weird about it was that it wasn't hard for us to get the voices. What was challenging was making sure that you found those moments that you know you need, like Scotty's famous lines or Bones's famous lines. Any context that you were going to get for those needed to feel extremely organic and extremely real and not like we were cartooning those moments. The minute we cartooned those moments, we knew we'd be dead in the water. That was the challenge: making it all feel very organic.
Orci: Kirk was hard. I thought the other characters were, like Alex said, a warm blanket. Kirk took us a minute.
Kurtzman: I think it's because he was more outwardly a rebel than he'd ever been in any other iteration of Kirk.
Orci: We couldn't hide behind him being Captain already. We had to really find his voice.
Kurtzman: James Dean in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE is who we really had in mind, though Dean was much more internal in that movie.
Beaks: But when you actually wrote "Damn it, Jim!" as an organic, unforced line of dialogue, surely there were high fives exchanged.
Orci: Completely! (Laughs) You've got us pegged.
Beaks: Were there any no-go areas in the writing of the scripts? Anything that you specifically did not want to touch with this first film?
Orci: Once we had the idea? I mean, we had things we changed. We had Carol Marcus in an early draft, we had Nurse Chapel in an early draft, we had a few other shout-outs, but they were just taking up time. The "no-go" rule was that it had to serve our core characters, and if it's not doing that, then we need to look at it again.
Kurtzman: At one point, we were very foolishly thinking about blowing up the Enterprise.
Kurtzman: The studio could not have been more supportive on every level on every decision that was made. The only note we ever got was "Do not blow up the Enterprise." (Laughs) And we were like, "Yeah, you're right."
Orci: (Laughing) We didn't fight it at all.
Beaks: Well, it took them until the third movie to blow up the Enterprise. You've got to work up to that. That's a big move.
Orci: I agree.
Beaks: Do you see yourself getting to that point?
Orci: Now that we have it, I never want to get rid of it. Blow up the Enterprise? Never!
Beaks: You guys aren't going to give me a real answer on this, but I'm going to ask anyway. Have you considered working Khan into a subsequent film?
Orci: The honest answer is if you're a TREK fan, there's no way Khan isn't at the top of the list of things you want to play with, right?
Orci: It'll just be whether or not it's the right thing to do.
Beaks: That's another iconic character with a very distinctive voice. How would you write Khan if you were to take that character on?
Kurtzman: The whole reason we came to this idea of an alternative timeline was so that everyone could feel that canon was being respected while giving us freedom to have the future be unwritten. I think that leaves you as much or as little room for interpretation as you'd like in terms of some of the key characters.
Orci: I think if this works, it'll be because it sometimes does what would've happened in the other timeline, and it sometimes doesn't. It's sort of a harmony - and finding that right balance will the be key if we do it.
Sadly, I had to wrap up before I pressed them on a forthcoming Gorn appearance. Next time.
STAR TREK opens this Friday, May 8th, but you knew that already. You can also check out STAR TREK: COUNTDOWN, a four-part graphic novel based on a story by Orci and Kurtzman.