By Elizabeth Joseph
Originally published in Script Magazine July/August 2007
For high school buddies Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, transforming a beloved childhood cartoon into an eagerly anticipated action-adventure was a natural fit. With credits to their partnership like TV’s Alias and the big-screen adaptation The Legend of Zorro, Orci and Kurtzman know plenty about adrenaline-pumping action.
When the fourth of July arrives, the box-office warriors won’t be able to tell whether kiddie nostalgia or superhero robots are responsible for the Transformers’ receipts. One thing is for certain—the project’s screenwriters are ready at the gates for what may be the surprise showing of the summer. Referencing classic philosophers and pop culture, the two scribes tell Script about their major influences and the success of their writing partnership.
1. What is your favorite film, and why?
Alex: It changes month to month, and tends to reflect whatever emotional tide I’m riding. This month, it’s Rain Man—a movie that always manages to stay, at the very least, in my top five. Ron Bass’ script is an exercise in restraint and the absolute necessity of humor in drama. You laugh in scenes that could easily be overwrought; you cry because the movie never asks you to. Every moment is truthful, surprising and unpredictable. It proves that mainstream moviemaking can be all about character and succeed.
Roberto: For me, this month, The Hunt for Red October. A perfect script.
2. What is your favorite TV program, past or current, and why?
Roberto: The Equalizer, with the unbelievably lethal Edward Woodward, and Star Trek: The Next Generation, with the best writing I’ve ever seen on television to this day.
Alex: Twin Peaks. I remember seeing the pilot at a sneak preview and having my mind blown. The balance of humor, horror, melodrama and balls-out surrealism is a tonal miracle. It taught me a lot about creating a universe and immersing an audience in little details. The lonely shot of the swinging traffic light. The wind through the pines at midnight. It let you laugh at characters without “winking” ironically at the audience. It also pointed out the importance of having a longterm plan if you want to keep people watching— maybe the most valuable lesson.
3. Who, or what, would you say has had the biggest influence on your career?
Roberto & Alex: Hands down, our high school film teacher Jim Hosney. He had us watching Godard’s Weekend in the 11th grade. He also had us writing Marxist analyses of RoboCop and Earth Girls Are Easy. Jim was the first person who taught us to take genre seriously. He’d go on long rants damning us for being bourgeois slackers. If you were a minute late, he’d make you dance in front of the class to the Sex Pistols’ “Who Killed Bambi?” Getting an “A” from him was like being blessed by the pope. He inspired us to be bold, encouraged our voices, gave us critical eyes, and hung out with us on weekends. We defy anyone on the planet to find a cooler teacher.
4. Describe the reasons your writing partnership has allowed you to be successful with such television shows as Alias, then transition over into film with such movies as The Legend of Zorro, Mission: Impossible III, and now Transformers.
Roberto & Alex: Individually, we were influenced by all the same movies as kids. Everything from E.T. and Back to the Future to Manhunter and Die Hard. So we spoke the same language before we ever talked to each other. We met in high school when we were 17, and it was like finding your long-lost brother. Most writers find their own unique voices over time; we found ours together. Implicit in that is a willingness to collaborate, which is all anyone wants in our business. TV’s all about ensuring quality over a high volume of shows—you’re constantly rewriting to accommodate a location or a last-minute character change, so we quickly learned to be flexible. It prepped us for screenwriting, which is all about earning the director’s trust then building a movie together. Mostly, we’re each other’s safety nets. It makes the challenges and pressures of production exciting and fun, instead of scary.
5. What amount of influence did the 1980’s Transformers cartoon have on your vision for the feature film? How closely will the movie follow the tone of the show?
Roberto & Alex: Never heard of it until last month. Truth is, Transformers was a big part of our childhood experience. It’s nice to know that all those hours sitting in front of the TV after school weren’t a waste of time. Even if we tried not to let it affect our writing, it definitely bled in through our subconscious. Having said that, we knew that while the spirit of the cartoon was essential, we had to find the right tone that made it a movie. Humor was a common link.
6. Describe your experience writing such a big-budget action film. Was your approach to writing the script different from other projects you’ve worked on in the past?
Roberto & Alex: We never approach material from a place of “size” or “budget.” First, we identify the character story. Is it a love story? Is it about revenge? Redemption? Once we have that, we ask ourselves: Could we isolate that character story and write it as a $500,000 indie? If the answer is yes, then we figure out how to add the giant robots. Or the sword fights. Or the car chases. Because a funny thing happens from that approach— the action starts to grow from the people. From their predicaments. The stakes feel real as opposed to merely “big.” So our approach on Transformers wasn’t any different from the others—the one major adjustment was having to think in terms of full CGI characters, especially in the spirit of wanting to keep the movie feeling as realistic as possible. Someone said to us once that you a write a movie three times: first on the page, then when the film is directed and produced, and finally in editing. That was never more true than here.
7. If you could change one thing about the industry, what would it be?
Roberto & Alex: Studios should accept that writers need to take time to write well. There should be a five to six-month contractual window for a first draft. Writing fast isn’t hard; seeing all the details is. Those details inevitably make a script better.
8. What is your next project?
Roberto & Alex: As writers, we haven’t decided yet. As producers, we have a couple of things we’re lining up to make next year, including Star Trek.
9. What is the one project that you’ve always wanted to do but have yet been able to do?
Roberto & Alex: We wrote a little character movie that we want to make ourselves. We’ve been writing it slowly over the course of two years and just finished a draft. We’re starting to think about showing it to people.
10. What parting advice would you give to beginning/aspiring writers just starting out in the industry?
Roberto & Alex: A) Take any job in this industry, anywhere. You are not too old to be a writer’s assistant. You are not too smart to mop floors at a studio. We often hear aspiring writers say there are certain jobs they won’t take because they’re beneath them. That’s a recipe for failure. Every door leads somewhere else. You learn from everything, even the (sad to say it) abuse.
B) Read every script you can get your hands on. There are so many screenplay websites where material can be downloaded for free. And don’t just read the production draft; read every draft that came before it so you can see how a movie evolved.
C) Don’t be married to your words; be married to the spirit of your words. By this, we mean be flexible. There are a million ways to write a scene. The more you dig in, the better a scene can get. Rewriting is your friend. Here’s a secret: The more you show directors and executives that you’re willing to make adjustments, the less likely your chances of being fired. That means having ultimate control over your script.
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