Those breathy, muffled sounds heard coming out the offices of Paramount Pictures over the last two weeks have been a collective "whew" from studio executives, as the numbers keep coming for J.J. Abrams Star Trek. The reboot of the venerable sci-fi classic has raked in an impressive $159 million since it opened, with some box office tracker now predicting its on course to charter a $250 million haul. Recently the film's co-writers/co-Executive Producers Alex Kurtzman and Robert Orci spoke to Newsarama about the secret of their success and that other summer tent-pole franchise they have a hand in - Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.
Newsarama: Alex, Robert, there was a lot of pressure on director J.J. Abrams and you guys to revitalize this franchise. What do you attribute to the overwhelming positive response and box office numbers to the movie?
Alex Kurtzman: That’s a tough one. The only way to answer that is to tell you a little about what we wanted to do with the movie when we set out to make it. We felt Star Trek had been marginalized as a cult sci-fi show by a lot of people we spoke with, but we never felt that way about it. When we sat down to ask ourselves what Star Trek is about, at the end of the day, it was about the spirit of the family and the promise of optimism. The bridge crew is a surrogate family and the idea we were out there working with other alien species to explore new worlds was just a very hopeful notion. At least it feels to me, especially based on last week’s New York Times, that there is something about the spirit of optimism and the idea of coming together that our country is hungry for right now.
Robert Orci: The soul of Star Trek was just so strong and it needed some curators to dust it off and remind everyone what was so special about it.
NRAMA: When Paramount handed you the keys to Star Trek, did they give you certain guidelines or was it total freedom?
Orci: It felt like freedom, but we had to pitch it first. They didn’t hire us to write it until we came in and explained what we thought we should do.
Kurtzman: Then there were no guidelines at all. It was just “We need help and what would you guys do?”
NRAMA: So why did a prequel make sense to you both?
Orci: Because it was going to be an origin story and no one had ever done that in Trek. It’s not a remake. It was a way to show Star Trek fans something they had never seen that they should be curious about. How did Kirk and Spock meet? Then it was also a natural entry point if you didn’t know Star Trek or felt you had missed too much because we were saying this was the first relevant moment you need to be aware of. That alone made us optimistic that we might be able to touch audiences and non fans.
Kurtzman: The only way to do Trek now was to go back to Kirk and Spock and anchor the franchise in what it began with because there’s already a Next Generation and we weren’t interested in a Next Next Next Generation.
NRAMA: You provided a fresh take on the Kirk/Spock relationship. Why go that route?
Orci: In a way, we went with reverse engineering from what you know. If you met them originally in the show as friends working well together, then dramatically what’s as far away from that which you could put them? Then we thought “What if they’re not friends? What if it’s a trial to actually realize the value in each other?” It seemed like very rich territory.
NRAMA: Sitting down, what were some of the things in the “must list” that had to be included?
Kurtzman: It’s funny because we all sat down, the two of us, along with Damon Lindelof, Bryan Burk, and J.J., made up a list of what we’d expect to see from Star Trek, they were all the same things. There was everything from how Kirk cheated on the Kobayashi Maru to the Tribbles to a million little details. There are certain phrases we knew the characters said and how we were going to get there organically. The exercise for us was in figuring out how to construct a story around revealing those things in ways that felt they were inevitable as opposed to gimmicky.
NRAMA: It must have been difficult servicing all those characters and keeping the plot concise.
Orci: Yeah, and the best Star Trek we looked at, and Star Trek II is one of them, are the ones that really did have a function for every character and really did highlight their role in the family and their contribution to the theme that only together can they go where they need to go. That was very important and luckily an origin leads itself to meeting people along the way. When we came up with the idea of having Kirk and Spock be the point of view of the movie, it became a wonderful challenge to organically find how each person was going to come into their lives.
NRAMA: Most fans would agree Khan is one of Star Trek’s quintessential villains and in many ways, he seems to be a blueprint for Nero.
Kurtzman: Khan resonated for us because he had a very personable and understandable reason for why he turned bad. He lost his family, blamed Kirk for it, and as much as you hated him, you felt like he was driven by that reason, even if we didn’t agree with it. He also hurt Kirk where it hurt most which adheres to a rule we like to say which is your good guy is only as good as your bad guy. Your bad guy needs to test your good guy in such a way that his best character traits are revealed. Khan was just the perfect example of that.
NRAMA: As Star Trek fans, which scene tickled your inner geek the most?
Orci: For me, it was when Spock Prime beams Scotty and Kirk back to the Enterprise and they have that conversation about cheating and he tells them to live long and prosper.
Kurtzman: My inner geek definitely jumps up and down when Scotty was introduced. It also goes crazy when the Enterprise is attacked at the midpoint and as a result of the crew being alive, our people end up in the chairs we know them to fall into.
NRAMA: The script took six to eight months to bang out so what other ideas did you bandy around?
Kurtzman: There was no other macro idea. We knew we wanted to do an origin story with Spock Prime coming back. Obviously, details within the story changed wildly. We had a draft with Carol Marcus meeting Kirk as a child and goes on to be the mother of his son. We had Nurse Chapel have a potentially budding romance with Spock that we explored. At one point, we were bandying around the idea of destroying the Enterprise mid-battle.
Orci: That was actually the only time the studio even put the brakes on us. “Please don’t destroy the Enterprise.” We said “Okay, you’re right. Vulcan fine. Enterprise no.” There were a few million things like that along the way.
NRAMA: At this point, with the success of Star Trek, it’s inevitable that there is going to be a sequel. What kind of discussions have you had about that and where do you see the franchise going?
Orci: We’ve had a few discussions. We are superstitious and think it’s bad luck to talk about your next project before you fully introduce the first one to the world. We’ve had a few little preliminary discussions, dinner, and stuff.
Kurtzman: The nice thing about the reaction has been that people are embracing the idea of it being an unwritten future and therefore the next movie isn’t entirely predictable, yet there are expectations of seeing familiar elements like in the first one. We’re just debating whether that’s the right paradigm to continue or try something different.
NRAMA: Looking at another one of your projects, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is one of the summer’s most highly anticipated movies. Did the success of the first one allow you to go even bigger with this installment?
Kurtzman: Certainly the movie is bigger, but that is definitely not how we thought about it. We feel like the action scenes in these movies are a given to some degree, but they always have to have a serious emotional context or they mean nothing. That means you have to have a small character story at the heart of whatever movie you’re making. For us, it was really coming up with an emotional story that we believed in and felt was sequel worthy.
Orci: And yes, it’s bigger. We have more resources for effects and some of the locations which are just gorgeous and amazing.
NRAMA: So how does Sam get sucked into all the mayhem?
Orci: Without revealing too many details, one of the things we thought a lot about was the hero’s refusal to the call. What we loved so much about Sam is he was a normal kid in this movie who was thrown into extremely extraordinary circumstances and finds himself at the center of an alien war. Now it’s time for him to go off to college and frankly, he never saw himself part of this war. He deserves to be a normal kid and that’s what he’s fighting for at the beginning of the movie. The Autobots meet him for a reason, he refuses, and chaos ensues. It becomes about fate testing you as a hero at a time when your heroics are least likely.
NRAMA: With all the destruction they caused, how does the government view the Autobots?
Kurtzman: The Autobots are in partnership with our government, but not everybody here at home trusts them. There’s the question of whether the Autobots are really welcome on this planet, or aren’t they? That’s part of the story that plays in the relationship with the military and soldiers they met in the first one. Because Mission City was under a communication black out, the world is not fully aware of The Transformers. It’s become like the Area 51 which is something that plays out in the movie. Can the secret be kept?
NRAMA: Ehren Kruger is also credited on this script. How much input did he have?
Kurtzman: He was our partner. We all wrote it together. Two weeks before the writers’ strike, we all agreed to do it and literally had a short time to come up with an outline.
Orci: We lived in a hotel room together for three months. Director Michael Bay would come every day to check on our progress. Ehren was on one side of the room. There was a dividing door and Bob and I were on the other side. At noon, we would meet in the middle and trade pages, go back and forth to our respective sides, read each other’s work, and give notes. We were a partnership of three on that one.
NRAMA: Do you see these Transformer films as complete stand alone stories or a trilogy?
Kurtzman: That was not our conscious intent. And Michael was very clear too. We just wanted to make one big gigantic Transformers movie at the time.