Even by the standards of Hollywood, screenwriters Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci are having a hell of a year. It started when their Fox TV series Fringe became a breakout success, continued with the release of Star Trek--which they co-wrote and which remains one of the biggest hits of the year--and now climaxes in June. The Proposal, the Sandra Bullock romantic comedy which they helped to produce, opened at #1 this past weekend. And then there's Transformers, the wee little robot movie which they co-wrote and which looks to bestride the cinematic world like a colossus for the next few weeks. In an exclusive interview with Mania, they spoke about their work on it, Trek and Fringe, as well as future installments of their various franchises.
Rob Vaux for Mania.com: Were you guys fans of Transformers growing up?
Alex Kurtzman: Oh yeah. We used to come home and watch Transformers cartoons after school. We didn't realize that it was homework at the time.
Mania: How did you figure out which Transformers to put into the movie? With the first film, you have to get certain fundamental guys in there--Optimus Prime, Bumblebee and so on. But with the second film, you have more room to play… and there are a lot of Transformers out there.
Roberto Orci: It was basically Hasbro, Michael [Bay] and the two of us all sitting down and looking through everything, seeing what's cool. For our part, we looked at how they might interact with Sam. For Michael, it was how cool they were going to look in motion or what was going to photograph well. From Hasbro's point of view, it was which one made the coolest toy. It was a combination of those three things, and making sure that every one of those decisions was balanced. I remember that Hasbro set up a great presentation: these giant posters of all the Transformers that they were suggesting. There were size comparisons to each other and scale and all of that. It was almost like staring at a giant menu of Transformers.
Mania: Once the robots were all locked in, how did you go about developing them?
Kurtzman: We finished writing the robot dialogue two weeks ago. No kidding. It's exactly how it went down on the first movie, only this was amplified because there were so many more robot characters. You write the movie again when you're in post because not only were the robots obviously not on set, but you can make jokes funnier and plot points clearer. That's a process of refinement that you usually only get the opportunity to do in the world of animation. This was our chance to dip into that kind of writing, and it's been very interesting.
Orci: Michael tries different actors and different voices during the process. Characterization can change.
Kurtzman: Definitely. Jetfire, for example? There were five different versions of his voice. The final voice came after a process of trial and error. The other thing is that we had access to the images from ILM, the effects. You're getting these shots that are so brilliant and inspiring that they make you think of new ideas. A gesture or a move that sends you in a new direction.
Mania: Any robots that didn't end up in the film that you wanted to see?
Kurtzman: I don't know if we could have fit any more in there.
Orci: Unicron. That's the one I'd want to see.
Kurtzman: Yeah, Unicron was great. I would have loved to put one of the Dinobots in too, but it didn't quite make sense for these movies.
Mania: How do you balance the expectations of big movies like Star Trek and Transformers--where an entire studio is wrapped up in the equation--with the need to tell a story that is uniquely yours?
Kurtzman: For us, it's actually less a matter of balance and more a matter of necessity. We resisted doing the first Transformers movie--and this new Transformers movie too--for that exact reason. Until we had a personal story and a reason to tell it, we didn't want to do it. There's obviously a lot of eye candy with these movies--and that's a wonderful part of the equation--but if we don't know what the characters' story is, then we just don't know what we're writing.
Orci: We don't say yes until we have something we can cling to--even if it's just one sentence--while the business aspects are pulling everything else in.
Mania: What was that one aspect here?
Kurtzman: Two things. In looking at the sequels that we loved as kids, they always had a bad guy in the movie that really challenged the hero in ways the first film couldn't afford to. Telling a great bad guy story is part of it. But more important than that was finding a situation to put the characters in--to put Sam in with Transformers and Kirk in with Star Trek--where they just want to be normal. They never expect to be at the center of an alien war, and suddenly there are all these demands being placed on them. It's the Refusal of the Call beat: the classic Joseph Campbell Refusal of the Call. And that inevitably leads to bad consequences for the hero. Once we figured out what that was, it became our reason to do it.
Mania: How does the movie experience differ from the TV experience--from working on a show like Fringe?
Kurtzman: It's funny. We've never felt a lack of freedom doing anything. There is no one medium more constraining than the other. We always like to know what our parameters are. Once we do, we can dream up whatever we can within those parameters. So we don't see them as constraints. TV is just a very different animal because you have to crank out 22 of them a year.
Orci: Although with Fringe, it's something we created, so no one has any right to say "it should be this or that." So there's more freedom in that sense. But it's sort of an abstract distinction. It's still what's best for the story. When we sold Fringe, we described where we ultimately wanted to go with it, so we're all very much in sync. You might disagree with the studio or the network on small things, but in general we're all after the same show. We always try to treat the studio or the network as partners. Every opinion is a valid opinion. We prefer to think of their input as helping us out instead of cutting them out of the process.
Mania: Are you interest in doing a third Transformers?
Kurtzman: I think we just need to take a breath now. We want to see how people react to Revenge of the Fallen. We don't ever want it to feel stale. That's when it's not worth doing. Plus, we're already prepping for the next Star Trek.
Mania: How much can you tell us about that?
Kurtzman: We're just beginning to break story. I wish we had more, but we're literally laying down the basics.
Mania: Are they going to call it Star Trek XII or something else?
Orci: That's one of the things we have to figure out! [Laughs.] With the first one, we just wanted to call it Star Trek. We got away with it, which was nice.
Mania: With Star Trek, there was a real need to reboot the franchise. There was a sense of exhaustion that required totally rethinking things in order to make it work. How did that contrast with the Transformers movies, which don't have eleven previous entries and all of that baggage to deal with?
Orci: On the first Transformers, there had never been a live action version, and while we wanted to be as faithful as we could, we knew it was going to require a lot of changes. With Star Trek, we knew we needed to be faithful--more faithful than Transformers in a lot of ways--and yet, the solution gave us more freedom than we ever gave ourselves on Transformers. Go figure.
'Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen' rolls into theaters tomorrow!