‘Star Trek’ writing pair cling on to their partnership
On a leafy hillside on the Universal Studios lot, childhood friends Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman share not just a bungalow but a single desk that sits beneath large letters that spell out “C-O-F-F-E-E” -- vintage neon salvaged from an old diner. There, sitting face to face and finishing each other’s sentences, the screenwriters crank out tales of the fantastic for Hollywood, including two of this summer’s biggest popcorn films, “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” and “Star Trek,” as well as Fox’s eerie hit series “Fringe.”
The two met in their senior year at Crossroads School for Arts & Sciences, the Santa Monica private school that lists Amy Pascal, Michael Bay, Jack Black and Gwyneth Paltrow among its alumni, and their great bonding moment was their mutual passion for “sex, lies, and videotape,” the 1989 Steven Soderbergh film that became a signature moment in American independent film. There were, however, no giant robots or photon torpedoes in that Soderbergh script.
“We came from a place of passion for independent films and imagined ourselves writing films like that, but now, for better or worse, we have developed a reputation as guys who write ‘big’ movies,” Kurtzman said. “And I’d really like ‘good’ to also be an adjective that’s used. I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive. You really can do both.”
Perhaps, but the critics haven’t always been kind to their movies, which include “Mission: Impossible III,” “Transformers,” “The Island” and “The Legend of Zorro.” But in a town where screenwriters are often viewed as interchangeable parts, they have become a brand name and have even expanded into the role of producers, a rarity for scribes. Their specialty is science fiction that is brainy but crowd pleasing, and they’ve become trusted wordsmiths for Steven Spielberg, Bay, D.J. Caruso and, most notably, J.J. Abrams, director of the latest installment of “Star Trek” and creator of “Fringe” as well as shows such as “Lost,” “Alias” and “Felicity.”
“What I admire about them is their work ethic,” said Caruso, who worked with the pair on 2008’s “Eagle Eye.” “They burn the midnight oil and support your vision full force. Alex is intelligent and intense and Bob can make any intense situation ridiculously funny. What’s unusually cool about them is that they have maintained the producer-writer power that they earned in television and carried that over into the feature film area, and that is extremely rare.”
The pair are candid about their desire to prove themselves with less frothy fare in the future -- they’d like to reconnect with their old indie spirit. Asked what they have to prove to the world, they looked at each other. Kurtzman nodded to his old friend: “You go first.”
“We’d like to write something that takes place on Earth but only with human beings. No robots, no aliens, no spaceships, no explosions,” Orci said. “We’d like to prove all that time we spent learning about characters actually allows us to write something sustained solely through character.”
Kurtzman grinned. “Yeah, I was going to say the same thing.”
Kurtzman and Orci, both 35, met in a film studies class and seized on the idea of becoming screenwriters with a focus that seems to take place only with kids coming of age near the spotlight in Southern California.
Although many writers are loners by nature, the teens hitched together their careers and began studying the dynamics of notable partnerships, whether songwriting teams or business-world tandems. They were especially intrigued by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, although they found themselves in a much warmer friendship than that historic Hollywood pair, who never really socialized beyond the writers room.
“We approached it almost like we were in a band, and we very purposely studied teams to find out what are the pitfalls,” Kurtzman said. “Why do teams break apart? Why don’t they work? We read about teams that succeeded and started to kind of use their language. One big thing that makes the wheels start to wobble is when someone feels that the contribution isn’t 50-50. We make sure we live up to the partnership. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t have lasted this long.”
Now it’s getting personal
When you write about clones, Romulans and secret agents, you usually don’t get to mine your own life for material, but while writing “Star Trek,” the pair made an odd discovery. In crafting the new cinematic adventure about the Academy days of a young James T. Kirk and Mr. Spock -- before they hopped on the U.S.S. Enterprise to boldly go where no man has gone before -- the writers saw something familiar in the characters who represent fiery emotion and cold logic. “We didn’t even realize we were writing about ourselves until we were halfway through the script,” said logical Orci, whose eyebrows give him a sort of Vulcan mien. “That was a little embarrassing.”
Kurtzman is intuitive and lingers on crafting of characters; Orci is a devotee of science and approaches his work as if he were reverse-engineering the plot. Orci said the “Trek” experience became a valuable insight into their shared career.
“We’re from different worlds, Alex was born here, and I was born in Mexico City and lived there until I was 9. Kirk and Spock are opposites from two worlds. That’s us in a nutshell. We’re drawn to each by what each of us lacks. The story of this film is about two guys who are such opposites that they might end up strangling each other but instead they bond and thrive together. That’s us. We can go warp speed together.”
Orci pores over science magazines, medical journals and oddball websites looking for ideas that can be mined for “Fringe” or future projects. When they write, Kurtzman has his hands on the keyboard, Orci prefers to puzzle out stories in his head. Kurtzman is melody, Orci is all rhythm.
This is a big year for the partners with “Trek” opening May 8 and the Bay-directed “Transformers” sequel on June 24. They also are executive producers of “The Proposal,” a romantic comedy starring Sandra Bullock, which opens June 19.
They’re currently working on a film for next year called “Cowboys and Aliens,” which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like -- beasties from another planet landing in the Old West. That film, an adaptation of a graphic novel, will not move the partners any closer to the art house.
Orci chuckled and said: “It’s true, but we always try to approach these big action movies from a place of: Could you remove the robots and spaceships and aliens and whatever it is and take that character story and make an independent film out of that little story? And if you can and then you sprinkle back in the giant robots, you have something very unique. It’s such an amazing feeling to sit in the theater after you worked on a movie with the scope of ‘Transformers’ or ‘Star Trek’ and hear the audience react to the visceral experience of a popcorn [movie]. It takes us back to the way we felt when we watched ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ or ‘Back to the Future.’ ”
The return of Spock
With “Trek,” the pair and Abrams are trying to win over the famously passionate fans of the venerable franchise with a whole new cast playing the crew. No matter what they do, some die-hards will walk out of the theater grumbling, but the team has one ace in the hole: Leonard Nimoy is back as Spock (Zachary Quinto of “Heroes” plays the younger version of the Vulcan in the film). In fact, Nimoy is the only familiar face from the franchise returning for the Paramount reboot, and winning over the 79-year-old actor was a huge hurdle for the writers, who with Abrams went to visit him at his home.
When they arrived, Nimoy was giving off a “ ‘Who are you guys and what are you up to?’ ” vibe, Kurtzman said. “It was incredibly intimidating. By the end it was very emotional too. We told him that we couldn’t do it without him. We told everything and how he was the key to the movie, that the story doesn’t work without him. There was a very long silence and he got misty.
“He had retired and turned down many offers to return to this character, so this was asking the greatest gunslinger to strap on the pistol one more time. . . . His wife told us later that he didn’t get out of the chair for several hours [and] that he was overwhelmed by all of it and the decision.”
There’s a lot of humor in the film and a certain sexiness that is already stirring debate on fan websites, which Orci and Kurtzman read religiously. Orci is a zealous fan of the franchise with a deep knowledge of its history, and the pair put plenty of traditional touches in the new film, such as the furry and troublesome Tribble that makes an appearance.
“It was scary to try to be funny, but we felt confidant that we had to go for it,” Orci said. “In the original series, humor and sexiness was a key part of the show. It was in the middle of the 1960s and this liberation of the young. And it was funny too.”
The pair learned much of their genre posture at Renaissance Pictures, the shop run by filmmaker Sam Raimi and producer Rob Tapert. Kurtzman got hired there as an assistant in 1997 after college (he and Orci went to different schools but stayed committed to their partnership and screenwriting dreams). At Renaissance, Kurtzman got to watch the making of “Hercules: The Legendary Journeys” and “Xena: Warrior Princess” and called his old pal to see if they could try to write a script to show his bosses. Their work on those shows eventually led to penning scripts for Abrams’ “Alias.”
Now they veer back and forth between TV and film. “With a series, keeping the quality high and writing incredibly fast, that’s the first lesson you learn,” Kurtzman said. “You can’t be real precious. When you’re doing a feature film you have 2 1/2 months, you sort of take your time. It’s a different animal. We’ve learned to do both and we’ve learned it together. We have our strengths, and that’s why it works.”
Orci nodded and added: “He’s a much better speller.”