Scott's Spotlight: The Minds Behind Today's Hottest Movies: Screenwriters Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci
by Scott Juba
Published: August 17, 2005
You may not recognize the names Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, but you’d have to be living in a cave not to have heard of the movies they’ve written. These tremendously talented writers have penned the scripts for “The Island,” “The Legend of Zorro,” and “Mission: Impossible 3,” and they are currently working on the script for Michael Bay’s upcoming Transformers film, which is due out in July of 2007.
So, what’s it feel like to be one of the hottest writing duos in Hollywood? “We don’t feel much different [than we did when we were starting out],” Orci remarks. “Alex and I still sit in an office and pal around. When you’re a writer, it’s not like you’re famous,” he says laughing. “I think too, that it’s always been just about the work for us,” Kurtzman chimes in. “The past couple of months have been sort of an odd experience, because you go out and you do all of this press for your movies, and then you end up walking right back into a room and banging your head against a wall, because you still can’t get a scene right. It’s kind of a great thing, because you never know what’s going to happen with your movies and all you really have is your partnership and the words that you write and your passion for the script. At the end of the day, that’s the only thing that can carry you through.”
Kurtzman and Orci have a partnership as solid as any creative team in Hollywood, because they’ve been writing together since high school. Moreoever, their friendship extends well beyond their work. “There was a very immediate connection between us in terms of how we saw the world,” Kurtzman recalls. “We were in English class the first time I heard Bob speak, and I said, ‘Wow. There’s somebody that’s really different.’ We eventually started proofreading each others love letters to girlfriends. I’d hand him a letter, and he’d say, ‘It’s good, but you could really emphasize this point a little more.’ There was just an immediate connection between us.” Orci adds, “We were able to talk about stuff that somehow we weren’t able to talk about with other guys. We were able to talk about sensitive things, and that made it clear that we were going to be able to dig deep into whatever topic we were going to get into, because we weren’t afraid to tell each other anything.”
The open dialogue Kurtzman and Orci share has led them to the type of phenomenal success all writers dream of but few actually achieve. As they discuss how they develop a story, it’s clear why some of Hollywood’s most famed directors are eager to work with them. Like all of the world’s best fiction writers, Kurtzman and Orci understand that the characters are the most fundamental element of a story. When speaking of “M:I–3,” Kurtzman says, “It will be a much more personal story than the last two [Mission Impossible films]. As good as the first two movies were, there was very little character development with Ethan. All we really knew was that he had two parents who died, and he was a blank slate other than that. It gave us an amazing opportunity to dive in and invent this character in a new kind of way. Certainly, when you’re on the third installment in a movie franchise, you want to bring something very new to the table. The exciting thing about doing M:I-3 was figuring out how to tell not only a great spy story but also a great character story.”
Orci also emphasizes “M:I–3’s” commitment to conveying strong characters. “The first two [Mission: Impossible] films you can describe very much in plot terms,” he says. “This one you can describe in character terms. You can say, ‘Ethan is going about his personal life, and he is brought back into this world for a personal reason.’ It still has all of the things that made the first two great, but the core of the story is very much a personal story.”
Kurtzman and Orci are also excited about the release of “The Legend of Zorro,” which they describe as one of their most enjoyable writing experiences. “Zorro was by far the easiest script for us to write,” Orci recalls. “From the minute we pitched that story, we all agreed on where it needed to go, and we never changed it structurally. Our first instincts were what the movie became.” Kurtzman remarks, “Working with [director] Martin Campbell, we’ve learned that you can still make a very classic swashbuckler, and that is a really fun thing to do. The challenge of a movie like Zorro is figuring out, now that it’s eight years since the first one, how to take [the character’s voices] and how to give them a new spin and a new story.”
Kurtzman and Orci agree that writing the script for Michael Bay’s Transformers film is by far the most challenging project they’ve worked on to date “It’s a new paradigm,” Orci points out. “It’s a live action and super special effects heavy, but the robots have to be characters, and they have to interact believably with humans. It takes out of the box thinking.” Kurtzman adds, “A lot of the requirements of film storytelling are very different from the requirements of comic book storytelling. If you look at movies like X-Men, they find an amazing way to balance and vary the two worlds. That’s totally what we’re going for.”
With all of the success they’ve had with their screenplays, Kurtzman and Orci will soon take the step from writing to producing and directing. “The next step after writing Transformers is going to be to write something that I will direct, and Bob and I will produce together,” Kurtzman tells me. “We got into writing as a means to directing. A lot of times, the best directors are writers. That is turning out to be true in the case of J.J. Abrams.”
As talented and intelligent at J.J. Abrams is, Kurtzman and Orci are proving that their storytelling abilities are every bit as refined as Abrams’ are. With their smart career moves and savvy writing skills, they are well on their way to becoming the next great storytellers in Hollywood.