A Roundabout Way: Alex Kurtzman on People Like Us
Screenwriter Alex Kurtzman, along with his lifelong co-writer Roberto Orci, is one of the most sought-after talents in Hollywood, thanks to blockbuster motion pictures like Star Trek and Transformers, and television series like "Fringe." But director Alex Kurtzman is only just getting his start, helming his debut feature People Like Us, in theaters this weekend. People Like Us tells the story of a man, played by Star Trek's Chris Pine, tasked with fufilling his father's dying wish… to give $150,000 to a sister (Elizabeth Banks) he's never met. The story has an unexpected personal connection to Kurtzman, whose life story turns out to be remarkably similar to his protagonist's. We spoke to Alex Kurtzman about why he chose to direct People Like Us, his evolving relationship with Chris Pine and what he has planned for that curious Van Helsing reboot announced last month.
CraveOnline: People Like Us is… It’s not sci-fi?
Alex Kurtzman: No. [Laughs] I would say that it’s not.
It is, however, a fantasy, because there’s a Rhino Records in it.
Oh there’s a real Rhino.
Is there still a real Rhino? Where’s the real Rhino?!
Well, never mind then. I’m a douche. Have you been wanting to do something smaller and more character-driven for a while?
The truth is that Bob [Roberto Orci] and I always thought that was the road our lives were going to go down. We kind of grew up in the heyday of indie film. We actually met over our mutual love of Sex, Lies and Videotape. When it came out we were kids and it sort of opened up our eyes to a different kind of filmmaking. We all thought that’s what we were going to be doing, and then all of a sudden our lives took a very different turn. And it’s been amazing, it’s been incredible, but I think we’ve always had our tentacles out and our feelers out for when we were going to find that story that brought us back to where we started. And then when it did, it was a long journey to write the script. But yeah, I think we were really happy to go back to that.
Going back a little bit further. What was the script or project that derailed your [indie] focus?
It wasn’t really… What happened was we were actually super fortunate, because we started working in television, and our first job was “Hercules” and “Xena,” two syndicated television shows. And that was Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert, and they were… What was so amazing about working with Sam and Rob is that they were utterly… I mean, we were twenty-two. They didn’t care at all, because they did Evil Dead when they were eighteen or something like that. So to them it was very normal, whereas nobody else would have ever given us the time of day. It was like this incredible crash course grad school, because those shows were… We would do dramas and musicals and comedies and everything on those shows. It was great, and they were so generous with us. And we learned kind of a key genre rule there, which was even if people perceive it as campy, you cannot write it that way. You have to take it seriously.
Camp can only happen by accident.
I totally agree. And I think that audiences feel disrespected if you’re making fun of them in some way. It was amazing. People would ask us what we’re working on, and we’d say “Hercules,” and it was like they were looking down their nose at us. But the truth is that, now, that kind of show is “Game of Thrones!” That kind show is like…
The genre starts out campy, and then the people watching it who took it seriously turn it into something else.
Yeah, that’s right! And what was relegated to quote, unquote “syndicated television” is now what the networks are doing, you know? It was a joy.
People Like Us is based on a true story. How long ago did you find that true story?
When I turned 30, I met my half-sister.
So it’s based on your life.
Yeah, yeah. There’s different aspects between me, and Bob and Jody [Lambert]. I met my half-sister and Jody’s father was in the music industry. He was a songwriter. He wrote “Baby Come Back,” “Nightshift,” “Rhinestone Cowboy,” “One Tin Soldier,” “We Built This City.”
He’s been around for a long time, and Jody kind of grew up around the music industry. So he brought out all that authenticity. Actually, everything… Did you see the movie?
I did see the movie.
Everything in the [father’s] study is from Jody’s dad. It’s all his paraphernalia.
All the pictures?
Well, actually Jody’s dad is in one of the pictures with Jerry. And then the rest of them is stuff we made up. But pretty much the rest in there is from his office.
Obviously the film is very music-based. Did you know which songs you wanted to get initially?
There were some songs that I wrote into the script that were in the movie. And there were other songs that, you know, once you kind of test it to picture, it doesn’t work as well as you thought and you’re kind of looking for other things. But “Tangled Up in Blue” was always that sequence for me, and I never thought Bob Dylan would give us the song. And he did! Which was amazing.
Did you send him the script or the finished movie?
The movie, yeah. We sent if off and then they said “yes,” so I don’t know if he saw it personally. But the response was very positive.
I kept expecting the Talking Heads song “People Like Us” to show up, but it doesn’t.
Where did the title come from? Was it from the self-help CD that plays?
Yeah, I think what I like about the title is it does different things. I wanted a title that said this is who we are as a species. We’re messy and complicated and we make mistakes and we’re flawed, but we’re human, and that’s who we are. And I also kind of liked the idea that if Frankie and Sam were talking to each other and said, “You know, people like us!” So it worked on both of those levels.
Working with Chris Pine, who was basically – for all intents and purposes – discovered through Star Trek, which you wrote… Were you on the set a lot with Star Trek?
What was it like working with him now?
We were on the set occasionally. Chris and I were friendly but not particularly close on Trek. But we were friendly enough that when [People Like Us] was going, I called him first, and we became incredibly close. I think that Chris dedicated himself so completely to really making the character authentic. He really connected to the character, his range is amazing and he just brought so much of himself to it. I love him, I love working with him, I would do anything with him. We just finished Trek 2.
So it’s finished now?
Yeah. So I’ve had the privilege of making three movies with him now, and he’s the best.
You’ve worked with Roberto Orci for twenty years now, you co-wrote People Like Us, but when it came time to direct it, it was just you. Did you talk about that?
That was always the intention. I always got into this to be a director. I feel like I’m… It’s hard to say what I am first. I guess technically I’m a writer first, but you know, I always wanted to direct. And the idea was always that we’d write something and then I’d go off and direct it. We just kind of got there in a roundabout way.
Not to put words in his mouth, but has he expressed any interest in directing?
Yeah! I think so. I think we’re both of the opinion that the first time you direct a movie, it had better be something that’s a really singular expression of yourself. I think that’s the right standard to hold your first movie to, in a lot of ways. So I think that if he finds that, he’ll do it.
Are you looking to direct again right away?
I would love to if they let me! I would love to. I had an amazing time working with the cast and working with the crew [of People Like Us], and it just whetted my appetite to do it again.
You’re behind the Van Helsing reboot.
Why Van Helsing?
Well, I really like the character. I actually think there’s so much more opportunity in the story than what has been put on screen before.
Would it be a hard reboot, ignoring what we’ve seen before?
So what is it that you think hasn’t been done, per se?
Well, I don’t want to give away too much, because we are actually at the very beginning of talking about what to do with it. But I do feel like the Van Helsing that Anthony Hopkins plays in [Bram Stoker’s] Dracula is sort of the parody version of it, and the Van Helsing that Hugh Jackman played was obviously in a different place as well. I think that these kinds of movies have evolved a lot since then. You know, The Dark Knight was a major, major corner-turning moment in the way that genre and superhero stories could be told. Really grounded in reality. Really grounded in really cool things. That’s what I’d like to do without sacrificing the fantasy element. We aspired to do that as well on Trek, you know, keep it “real.” That’s such a different franchise than Batman, but that’s really what we wanted to do. And we’d love to do that with Van Helsing.
Photo Credit: Ralph Nelson/Dreamworks