Love, like or loathe him, Alex Kurtzman--and his writing partner Roberto Orci--have made a lot of money for a lot of people. He began as a writer for "Hercules: The Legendary Journeys" TV series (produced by Sam Raimi) and "Alias" (created by J.J. Abrams), and moved onto such scripts as THE ISLAND (for Michael Bay), THE LEGEND OF ZORRO, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III (directed by Abrams), the first two TRANSFORMERS movies (also directed by Bay), Abrams' STAR TREK movie and its recently shot sequel, and Jon Favreau's COWBOYS & ALIENS. He's also contributed to the Tom Cruise sci-fi adventure, directed by Doug Liman, ALL YOU NEED IS KILL. He also continues on as creator of the current T.V. series "Fringe" and "Hawaii Five-0."
But somehow, amid all of the aliens and explosions, he managed to find time over the years to piece together a screenplay with Orci and Jody Lambert called PEOPLE LIKE US about a half brother and sister who meet for the first time under unusual and painful circumstances, after the death of their mutual father. STAR TREK's Captain Kirk, Chris Pine, is Sam, a salesman who works his ass off to close a deal only to have his boss (Favreau) take his entire commission to cover his debt. At this same time, he finds out his father has died and goes to his mother to offer some (very little) emotional support. Only then does he find out he has a half-sister (Elizabeth Banks).
Kurtzman was driven to write this story after meeting a half sister of his own for the first time (under very different circumstances; I'll let him explain), and the film feels like a passion project with a pair of exceptional performances at its core. I recently sat down with Kurtzman and Pine in Chicago to get to the heart of the evolving definition of family, and maybe squeeze a little STAR TREK 2 information out of them. Please enjoy Alex Kurtzman and Chris Pine…
Capone: Hello. I’m Steve.
Chris Pine: How are you, Steve?
Capone: Good. It’s good to meet you.
Alex Kurtzman: Hi Steve, I’m Alex. It’s good to meet you, too.
Chris Pine: [Points to my digital recorder] That's a nice one. We haven't seen one like that yet.
Capone: Too many lights? Is it too distracting?
Chris Pine: It's fantastic. It's like a tricorder, or…[He picks it up and hold it to his ear like a cel phone and says,] "Kirk to bridge." [Kurtzman laughs]
Capone: They had asked me to moderate the Q&A last night and I was not able to.
Capone: I know. I would have loved to have done it actually, but I had a five-hour play of THE ICEMAN COMETH, so I couldn't.
CP: Oh my God. Five?
Capone: Yeah, with Brian Dennehy and Nathan Lane.
CP: It’s Brian Dennehy, that’s right. I thought it was Stacy Keach. How was it?
Capone: It was phenomenal, a once-in-a-lifetime thing. And it was five hours. It finished up at midnight.
AK: It’s like ANGELS IN AMERICA.
CP: Jesus. Five hours…
Capone: Speaking of which, I heard you might be doing a little theater [Pine was in talks to play opposite Scarlett Johansson in CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF on Broadway; Jeremy Renner is also in the running].
CP: Yeah, maybe. I mean I’m talking to Scarlett and the producers. It’s an exciting opportunity.
Capone: How much theater have you done?
CP: I’ve done a lot of theater. I started off in theater and while I haven’t done Broadway, I did Martin McDonagh’s THE LIEUTENANT OF INISHMORE at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.
AK: He was amazing.
CP: I did Neil Labute's FAT PIG, Beau Willimon's FARRAGUT NORTH, all in Los Angeles. I love it.
Capone: So lightweight stuff mostly. (Everyone laughs) So about this film, I’ve seen other films that have tackled this from different angles, but the thing that kept popping back in my head was that the idea of a standard-issue family--I’m not saying it doesn’t exist anymore--but it’s rarer than it used to be maybe 30-40 years ago. There used to be that adage that your friends are the family that you choose, but now you can actually choose your family too.
AK: That’s right. Absolutely. I think that everyone that I know has a different definition of family than the family they were raised with, and yet their definition is utterly informed by the family they were raised with. So with every generation becomes a new evolution of everything. I do think that in the case of PEOPLE LIKE US, you’ve got characters who in so many ways were fractured away from their family at a very, very young age and have spent their lives running from it, and the movie is about the moment where you sort of recognize that as far as you get from it, you really can’t run far enough and the point is to go back, deal with it, and then figure out what you want your definition of family to be.
Capone: What did you think about that idea of family as you read the script and played this character?
CP: Well first of all, I just read the script and didn’t think about any themes initially. I just read the script from front to back and thought, “My god, that’s a great story.” I think this won't answer your question probably, but your question made me think of it: something like THE ARTIST. I love the fact that in 2012, and even given the movies that he and I usually make, that a silent film could be so well received in this modern, multitasking, Android…
CP: …cynical world. What THE ARTIST shows is that a simple story told well will always have a place.
AK: So true.
CP: And so I think that even though I’m jaded enough to think that people won’t make KRAMER VS. KRAMER anymore or ORDINARY PEOPLE or these family films that I thought were so fantastic and that hold a spot in my heart as great filmmaking, that we can still make those kinds of films. It was an opportunity to make a small film, a very small story, albeit a unique one, that like all of these films passed that I love--SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE is one version of it, but then you have KRAMER VS. KRAMER and RUNNING ON EMPTY--these great family dramas.
They're all unique stories about family dynamics, but no matter the text of the situation, it’s drama, and we all have family drama, whether you have parents or not or whether people thought your family was perfect, but in fact you had major issues with your dad that you are not dealing with. Everybody’s got stuff, so I think hopefully it will find a place because just because people will think “My god, was he going to fall in love with his sister?” There’s none of that. The heart of it is people dealing with becoming adults and having to talk to their mothers like “You’re not super mom or super dad anymore; you're a flawed person, and I’m either going to not have a relationship with you or choose to love.”
Capone: Yeah. The family drama has kind of been usurped at the studios, almost doesn’t exist anymore on a large scale. So yoru film was kind of a throwback for me, because I’m old enough to remember the movies you mentioned--TERMS OF ENDEARMENT and KRAMER VS. KRAMER--and they did capture that universal truth that family is hell sometimes, and it needs to be sorted out or not. Were there some sort touchstones like that for you when you were conceiving PEOPLE LIKE US?
AK: All of those, and I was as influenced by Jim Brooks and Cameron Crowe and Steven Soderbergh and directors like that as I was by Spielberg and all of the other people. A movie like this has often existed in the last couple of years only in the indie world, and very rarely will a studio give you the opportunity to make a big movie about big emotional ideas and universal themes and yet have it be an intimate character drama. And this is absolutely a studio movie.
I think that the movies that Chris is talking about, the KRAMER VS. KRAMERs, those were studio movies and they felt like studio movies, and there’s something very romantic about that to me and there’s something very fresh about it to me. This was like our opportunity to bring that back to the world, and yet hopefully it feels modern and contemporary. You started off by asking a very contemporary question, which is “Is this movie about how everyone gets to choose their own family and define it in a new way?" and I think the answer is Yes. So new-school question, old-school format, and I just think that everyone hopefully can relate to some aspect of being a brother or sister, mother, or father. That’s all part of what the movie is about.
Capone: Yeah. The incident in your life that sparked this [Kurtzman met a half-sister that he was aware existed at a mutual friend's party completely by coincidence], how long ago did that happen?
AK: I was 30 [Kurtzman turns 39 later this year], and it took a lot of time to sort through it and to separate truth from fiction, and what emerged was PEOPLE LIKE US. So it took seven years to write the script, and that’s very rare for me and for Bob and our writing partner, Jody. We unfortunately exist in a world where they have a movie poster before we have a script, and it’s like “Here’s your release date. Go!” It’s very daunting, and there’s no bigger motivator than a release date.
But in this particular case, it was one of those things where we knew very early on that this script was going to have to stay in the oven until it was fully baked, and there wasn’t going to be any premature pulling it out, and it was going to tell us when it was ready. And that was a very unique experience and a life lesson in patience. We weren’t writing it for anybody. No one was paying us to do it. It was just this amazing love letter that took time, and we were writing it for ourselves. In some ways, I thought it might just exist in a drawer for the rest of my life, and that would be okay as long as it’s right and real.
Capone: Did it feel like you had to just get it out of your system whether it got made or not?
AK: Remember that scene in ALIEN, when the alien burst out of his chest? That’s what it was for me. It was exactly that. It had to come out and there was no stopping it until it came.
Capone: You said it took a long time to process, but how did meeting this person impact you? How did it change the way you look at the rest of your life.
AK: Well, I knew about my siblings; I just had never met them before, and I think that what emerged for me most and I think is reflected in the movie is the sense of lost time, the sense when you meet somebody who's so much a part of your DNA and you start comparing notes about where you were: “Okay, when I was here, you were there.” You start to realize that you just missed a lot of time, and I think that in the case of PEOPLE LIKE US, you’ve got these two characters who since childhood have put up these huge walls and developed these huge shields to deal with their pain, and the minute they set eyes on each other, there’s some undercurrent of recognition that goes far beyond language, and that is definitely something that I felt, big time.
Capone: Chris brought this up a little while ago, and you deal with it in the film. There is an actual psychological phenomenon called "genetic sexual attraction," The audience is going to be thinking about like “Wait, what's happening between these two?” Did that take a while to get through that aspect of the script?
AK: I think we saw that it was the obvious complication to what was starting to emerge, but first and foremost, I was certainly very concerned about it and wanted to make sure that the balance of the movie was being held correctly. But what has been so gratifying to me is that audiences have been reacting to movie, and that’s not the experience of the movie. The experience of the movie is totally about watching these two very lost people find each other and that we as an audience hopefully can connect to that as a universal experience.
The tragedy of the movie, the Greek tragedy of the movie, is what starts to happen because the relationship is built on a lie. But it also forces big questions about forgiveness and reconciliation above and beyond just that relationship, but the relationship that both of these characters have to their father and their families and to their lives. So I feel like it’s so not the driving force of the movie, yet of course we were aware that there was a trap there, but it’s just not I think the take home from the movie or really what the movie is about.
Capone: No, not at all. And Chris has the unenviable task of having to pretend like you’re not attracted to Elizabeth Banks [everyone laughs], so that’s really unfortunate for you. At the same time, you have to have a chemistry with her and yet almost have like an anti-chemistry with her, because you don’t know her and yet there has to be a connection there. How did you work that out with Elizabeth?
CP: The question about chemistry, there’s nothing I can do or Liz can do. It just either happens or it doesn’t, and you can try to bond with the person or hang out off set. It either works or it doesn’t, and I think Liz and I get along great. What I enjoy about Elizabeth Banks is that she’s got an incisive intelligence. When we're on set and talking about stuff, she can pinpoint exactly what she needs from the scene, what she needs from Alex, and what she needs from me, and she just kind of presents that as a package. There’s not a lot of beating around the bush. She's very direct, and I love that about Liz. Reading the script, the whole idea about falling in love or not, it was never an issue for me, because I guess reading the script, I was reading it from Sam’s point of view, and I thought about my sister and I’m like “I don’t want to have sex with my sister, so…”
CP: “…so I’m not going to be into it.”
Capone: That’s good to know.
CP: Certainly that was Alex’s department in terms of if at any point it felt like we were making a completely different movie. He had to put the kibosh in it and certainly it became about moments of behavior, about looking into each other’s eyes and stuff like that that can be taken the wrong way. Certainly it’s a different experience for Frankie’s character, because she has to have the bomb dropped that this guy is indeed her brother.
But I think people, because it’s such an easy thing to talk about is like, “Well they are going to have sex.” But if you really look at it from the fact that Frankie wants to connect with another human being. Frankie is dying to connect to a person: that’s why she is screwing Mark Duplass downstairs. She’s dying for a connection, so yeah sex is one way to do it, but really what she is talking about is she wants to be emotionally connected to another human being and what she finds in Sam is someone to do that with, and the next step is obviously to connect in that deep personal way, which is making love.
But that’s not the story. The story is really like “My god, I’ve fallen in love with this other person that I connect with emotionally,” as Sam does as well. What we then deal with in the last quarter of the film is what Frankie finds to be the betrayal, which indeed is a betrayal of trust and which highlights again Sam’s inability quite yet to own the truth in which he finally is able to do, and unfortunately if that was dealt with on page 5, we wouldn’t have a film.
AK: At one point, I questioned whether or not it should happen on page 5.
AK: Yeah, I was like “Well what would happen if in the first scene together if he just told her? Where does the story go? For me personally, what I loved as a writer was the challenge of walking that line. There are two categories of character movies for me. One are like really nice well done slice of life movies that are great, and then there are character movies that you remember in 30 years. And the common denominator among those movies is the fundamental emotional problem of those movies.
In KRAMER VS. KRAMER, it’s a guy who is essentially not even seeing his son until he is forced to take care of him, falls in love with his son, and then you know his wife comes back and is like, “I want him back.” That's a hugely emotional problem. In RUNNING ON EMPTY, you have a family where the children are paying for their parent’s mistakes, and at any moment the FBI could break that door down and take that family away and so even small dinner table scenes are fraught with that tension, and that tension is what holds you to the screen.
So I think we felt that there was a third rail of tension in the fact that this relationship was building itself on a lie, because what was really happening was you were so happy these people were finding each other, you were so happy that they were finding each other. You were so happy that they were feeling connection, yet you were constantly reminded that there was going to be a price tag for it, because of what was going on there.
Capone: In all of the films that we have mentioned as reference points, they all have kids. My mind immediately goes “How is this fucking this kid up? How many therapy sessions is this kid going to have to go through to get past seeing this happen?”
AK: Totally, and it’s always such a choice to put a kid in a movie like this, and it either really works or it really doesn’t in my experience in the movies that I’ve seen. I think KRAMER VS. KRAMER is really the absolute, hands-down best example of you know the insertion of a child into that storyline and how authentic and real it felt and really the emotional consequences of what was going on on that kid, and I think if you can capture that, that’s when those stories work so well.
Capone: Okay, they're going to wrap me up in just a second. One more question: Tell me one thing about the new STAR TREK film that nobody knows yet.
CP: Oh god.
Capone: If I don't get at least one thing, Harry will fire me.
AK: [laughs] Oh Harry, Harry, Harry…
Capone: [to Chris about my recorder] I’m already excited you picked this thing up and put it to your ear by the way.
AK: Yeah, you've already got him saying "Kirk to bridge."
CP: I mean god, I’m so nervous about being shackled.
AK: We’ve literally shackled to each other on this one. Can I think about it and get back to you?
Capone: If you want, sure.
AK: Is that okay?
Capone: That’s fine.
CP: I’m going to give the safe answer, but it’s true, but it is relentless. The movie is relentless, and for the visually inclined people who want to see major sequences, there are a couple specifically that I think… I’m not a huge 3-D fan, but I think will be incredible. But what I’m more excited about and what I think they did so well is that really the story is that much better, and the journey that these guys go on is that much more, and what they always talked about is that even though they're a crew from what we know about the original team, the fun of getting there is following that journey to where they become that tight-knit crew. It’s no fun if they're already a tight-knit crew. So suffice it to say, they're still learning how to get along.
Capone: So we are still in that place where they're bonding?
AK: One-hundred percent. They only really came together as a team at the end of the first movie as a function of story. But the bridge crew from the original series, they aren't those people yet, neither in age nor in experience. So I think the worst mistake that we could have made was to assume that they were there already at the top of the movie and skip that stuff. And the other thing I’ll say without revealing too much is that in the first TREK, we made choices--in our invention of the story--that were extremely controversial. Blowing up Vulcan, hugely controversial choice, and we knew that die hard Trekkers were either going to skewer us or accept it based on the emotional architecture around that choice. I think for us, TREK is at its best when it is making hugely bold moves like that, and there will be hugely bold moves in this one.
Capone: There you go. I'm going to quit while I'm ahead. I look forward to it. Thank you gentlemen.
AK: Great talking to you. Thank you.
CP: It really was a pleasure. We appreciate your time.