You can't get much higher on the Hollywood Screenwriter A-list than Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci. They are arguably the go-to guys when it comes to big-budget four-quadrant entertainment: TRANSFORMERS, STAR TREK, TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN and, now, COWBOYS & ALIENS. Three of these are Steven Spielberg productions, the other is the franchise-revitalizing brainchild of Spielberg's heir-apparent, J.J. Abrams. And when Kurtzman and Orci aren't racking up billion dollar worldwide grosses, they're creating popular TV shows like FRINGE and HAWAII FIVE-O via their production company K/O Paper Products. It is impossible to overstate their influence on today's popular culture.
Though Kurtzman and Orci started as producers on COWBOYS & ALIENS, it soon became necessary - due to scheduling and other vagaries - for them to step in and get the screenplay across the finish line. They were joined by their occasional collaborator Damon Lindelof, whose integral contributions are praised in Dickinsonian musical terms below. This was, as usual for Kurtzman and Orci, a high-stakes assignment: Jon Favreau, hot off of two wildly successful IRON MAN movies, directing James Bond and Indiana Jones, with The Beard looming in the background as executive producer. Surely, the pressure was excruciating at times.
But they'll never admit it. Kurtzman and Orci have way too many irons in the Hollywood fire to consider failure. Regardless of how the finished product turns out, their only move is forward - to the next movie, the next show or the next graphic novel. As we recently learned from our pals Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon, the only way to keep working in this industry (on this level) is to keep working and trust that what you're putting out there will connect with the mainstream. This is what Kurtzman and Orci have done for the better part of the last decade. And with STAR TREK 2 nearing production, this is what they will continue to do for the foreseeable future.
For the most part, the below interview focuses on the development and writing of COWBOYS & ALIENS (e.g. collaborating with Spielberg, writing for Harrison Ford, and conquering the script's internal logic). Spoilers are skillfully avoided. There are also some process-y questions near the end, and, of course, the obligatory STAR TREK 2 inquiries (spoiler alert: it's "A Taste of Armaggedon").
Mr. Beaks: How did you settle on a tone? Was there one when you began writing, or did you figure that out as you went along.
Roberto Orci: There was a tone that was always a target, and finding it takes time. The first couple of drafts were maybe erring on the side of humor, then we went too serious, and then we started getting closer to the tone we were always targeting. And then, obviously, when Jon Favreau came on, he really helped lock us down the tone. That was one of the reasons we were so excited to get him on this movie: he has displayed an amazing talent for that.
Alex Kurtzman: One of the things that was decided very early on in the process was that it had to be a western first, and a sci-fi movie second. What that really translated to for us was to make sure their world feels really grounded first, because the concept could go completely and totally off the rails. If we felt like we were grounding our characters in a world that both they and the audience felt was real, once we introduced the aliens into that, you would buy the moment when the two genres smashed into each other.
Beaks: Did you look at any specific westerns?
Kurtzman: The first thing that happened, which was pretty incredible, was Spielberg got a print of THE SEARCHERS and took us, Damon and Favreau to a theater, turned the sound low, and just talked through the movie. He just said, "Watch the horizon line: here's why the horizon line is here. These are the things you need to think about when you're making a western." We were writing everything he said down as fast as we possibly could. It was amazing. Here you have no less than Steven Spielberg talking you through how to watch a John Ford movie, and why John Ford made the choices he made. We felt we owed a responsibility to that kind of storytelling first.
Orci: You can say that again.
Beaks: Jesus. I remember when [Rick Lyman] was doing this "Watching Movies With..." series for The New York Times. He finally got to Spielberg, who chose LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. But Spielberg didn't want to talk through the movie! He had a really hard time doing it. And he's famously not a commentary guy. So you four got the ultra-rare experience of listening to Spielberg give a master class on one of the greatest films ever made!
Orci: (Laughing) He charged us out the ass though.
Beaks: Of course. (Laughs) When you began writing, were you writing to archetype or specific movie stars?
Kurtzman: In our first iteration of this, we had been talking to Robert Downey Jr. Voice-wise, that's where our minds were. But as it evolved, what became clear was that the movie really wanted to be the story of the man with no name. To us, the entry point, the thing we understood conceptually before we had written a line of dialogue or even figured out a scene was, "How do these genres come together?" "Well, it's going to be the story of 'The Man With No Name." "Why doesn't he have a name?" "Because he doesn't remember his name." "Why doesn't he remember his name?" "Because he was abducted by aliens."
Orci: And this was Fergus and Otsby as well. All of us were figuring it out as a team.
Kurtzman: And the more we started to understand the archetype of "The Man With No Name," the more it became clear that less dialogue was the way to achieve that. And with Downey, who is a dialogue Ginsu knife, it wasn't exactly the way that the story was going to come together. Also, he went off to do SHERLOCK HOLMES II, so the timing didn't work out for him. So once he was out of the picture, we didn't really go to "Here's the next actor we have in mind." We were just following what we thought was true to the genre. And when we were done, the first actor we thought of was Daniel Craig. And he read it, said he loved it, and was in. We got very lucky with that.
Beaks: Once Harrison comes on, that's a voice that's probably been with you as long as you've been watching movies. Was it that simple? Or did he have his own ideas of how his character would sound?
Orci: It wasn't that simple, because we know him more as the protagonist. In this, had the aliens never landed, he might've been the antagonist of the movie. So you're starting him in a very different place, and you're slightly having to figure it out with him, and figure out his voice. Once we get to the way we know him better, it gets easier for us. But where to start in a way that was believable for him as an actor, and was not trading on just the gimmick of having him, wasn't trading on just his past work, but was its own thing - but also not ignoring his past work, and not forgoing things that work just because they're reminiscent of something [he's done before]. That's something we found with him and Jon. Harrison is a filmmaker, you know? He has as valid an opinion on what's going on in the rest of the movie as with his own role. It was amazing.
Kurtzman: But what you said is true: when you grow up in our generation, you know every intonation and inflection of a way he delivers a line. It's in your head no matter what. So it does help you a little bit, once you get past the surreality of working with him, to write dialogue for him.
Orci: Actually, knowing those things gave us a shorthand with him. We'd say, "Remember that moment when you're like "What truck?'" And he'd say, "That's not how I said it! I said, "What truck?'" That's a starting point. Suddenly, you're using the things you know, and that is helpful.
Kurtzman: And he, to his infinite credit, felt freed by not having to bear the responsibility of being the protagonist all of the time. He loved and relished the idea of playing this character, playing a deeply flawed guy, and not necessarily having to be likable to the audience all of the time. And he's just so likable to the audience no matter what he does, because he's Harrison Ford, that he has that freedom.
Beaks: Did you ever consider keeping him as an adversary to Jake longer into the film?
Kurtzman: I think we felt like we wanted to keep them adversaries as long as possible, but the reality of what they were up against made it so that they couldn't be adversaries forever. We knew that by the end of act two, despite the fact that they were going to be at odds as people, they were definitely going to be trying to achieve the same thing.
Orci: If you're in a conversation with Harrison, he's like, "The minute my son's gone and I see a guy with a laser blaster, that's what I need. I need the guy with the laser blaster. All I care about is my son." You've got to get it past his bullshit detector.
Kurtzman: Which is high. It's very high.
Beaks: He is a notoriously tough critic.
Kurtzman: But that's exactly what you want when you're running into a film that is potentially risky. That was welcome.
Beaks: How much of the alien's history did you write for yourself? In other words, things that you wanted to know that we wouldn't necessarily need to know?
Kurtzman: We talked about it a lot. The question of why they're invading planets obviously comes from the bigger question of what they're doing and what they want. I think that we kind of felt that one really nice advantage to the marriage of these two genres - and part of what makes aliens scary - is not knowing exactly what they're doing or why they're here. So you need enough to know why the plot is moving in the direction it's moving. But in this movie, we came to the conclusion that the mystery of the movie was actually an important aspect of the storytelling.
Orci: And it has to be true to the subjectivity, the point of view of the movie, which is these western people. So we could consider having a thing like, "Why are they here?" "Well, we understand that they're linked to the ancient Anunnaki from Sumerian texts, and their atmosphere is suffering--" "Atmosphere?" "Well, the ozone layer--" "Ozone layer?" "Well, they need the cover, so the sun's gamma radiation--" "Gamma radiation?"
Kurtzman: So suddenly the scene becomes the joke, and that's not what you want. And that's part of figuring out the tone.
Orci: In a way, the movie rises to their level of understanding. You can see a character putting it in their words, saying, "These things come from beyons the stars." As opposed to, "They come from a planet that's seven or eight light years--" "Seven or eight light years?" (Laughs)
Kurtzman: "What's a planet?"
Beaks: That was one of the things I was watching throughout the movie: the terminology. "Will they ever say 'planet'?"
Orci: Or the word "alien". And I've already seen a few people complain about the secret of the aliens. And I would say, "You're missing the point. You are big time missing the point."
Beaks: So how did it work with two teams of writers on this film? And where, or when, does Damon fit in?
Kurtzman: We were on the movies as producers first.
Orci: Our first hire was Fergus and Otsby, partly because we were thinking of Downey and Favreau. We'd met Favreau at Comic Con, and he was like, "Oh, I love those guys." So it was all of us in a room: the four of us, DreamWorks and Imagine cracking the initial inspiration for the story. They did an amazing first couple of drafts, the structure of which served as the template for the movie. Then IRON MAN came out, they went off to do other things, and we brought on Damon.
Kurtzman: And the three of us wrote together.
Orci: That's what the ampersands mean. (Laughs) Even though, actually, with Fergus and Otsby, we asked to all be one giant team together. That's how we felt. We really felt like it wasn't two teams; it was one superteam that worked on it together. It was our shared vision of it. Seeing all of those names on the movie is misleading. I've seen people take issue with that, too, and they don't exactly understand the process.
Beaks: How does your dynamic as a team change when Damon joins you guys?
Kurtzman: I think we'd already had so many conversations through the STAR TREK experience. Even though Bob and I wrote the script, we've talked about how it was really the five of us talking about the various aspects of TREK and what we wanted to do with our story. That conversation was already an easy, free-flowing thing.
Orci: It's just harder to schedule. Alex and I have our own company, and [Damon's] got his own thing going as well.
Kurtzman: He was running LOST at the time, so we were actually all working nights. We would start working at nine at night and go as late as we could.
Orci: I like musical analogies. "It changes your sound a little bit. It changes your harmony a little bit."
Beaks: Damon brings up the treble a little bit?
Orci: The what?
Beaks: The treble.
Kurtzman: Bass and treble.
Orci: Oh. (Laughs)
Beaks: (Laughing) I said "treble", not "Tribble". We're not there yet, man. Don't worry about it.
Orci: It sounded like "trouble". (Laughs) Actually, Damon's the cowbell.
Kurtzman: Great. "Kurtzman and Orci say, 'Damon's the cowbell.'" That's going to be the headline.
Beaks: "More Lindelof."
Orci: "We need more Lindelof."
Beaks: I actually want to double back to the aliens real quick. I really liked their design, but I was curious about the arms that protrude from their [abdomen]. What was the purpose of those?
Kurtzman: Part of that emerged out of conversations with Favreau. One of the questions you're always asking yourself when you're designing an alien creature is "Why?" "What is the functionality of the alien design?" Obviously, there's never been, in our opinion, a better design than the [H.R. Giger's] ALIEN design. So one of the things we came to was, "What are they doing here? Well, if they're mining, that might suggest they're underground creatures. And if they're underground creatures, maybe they're like moles. Maybe they see really well in the darkness. And if they're digging and they're looking for things, it might require that they--"
Orci: They're monsters, but they're technological. We joked that their large appendages are for the tougher work, and the [abdomen arms] are for operating the ship and the computers. That actually came from the idea - discussed, but not articulated because it falls into that category we talked about before - of perhaps these creatures are genetically engineered by a different alien race.
Kurtzman: "Genetically engineered?"
Orci: "Yeah, it's when the DNA of the--"
Orci: (Laughs) So you see my problem.
Beaks: But, as viewers, sometimes we like to know these things.
Kurtzman: Sure, and, bottom line, an alien design has to hit you at a gut level. Period. You can intellectualize it all you want, or you can talk about all the things we just talked about, but it has to hit you at a gut level. That was prerequisite number one. One of the things Spielberg said that was a guidepost for us early on was, "Wouldn't it be cool if you were looking at the alien silhouette from behind and it looked a little bit like Jack Palance - the gunslinger whose arms were poised just by his guns."
Orci: "What if their skin looks like it fits in the desert because it's a dry environment, and there are subliminal-organic clues in the design of it all."
Kurtzman: "Subliminal" being the key word in that sentence. If you saw an alien, and it looked like it had a holster, you would think that's cheesy.
Orci: This movie could've easily turned into an alien with a helmet and a blaster.
Kurtzman: And that's where everybody would've called bullshit on it in two seconds. So Steven was exactly right. And then it comes down to Shane Mahan and Roger Guyett - Shane doing the live-action aliens on set, and Roger doing the digital work - to figure out a way to translate that idea in a way that attaches it to your subliminal idea of a cowboy stance, but you don't recognize it consciously.
Beaks: When did you hit on the idea that the aliens are here for gold? And why did you then incorporate the human experimentation angle?
Orci: Part of it just came from the actual abduction lore. On one hand, you're studying westerns, and the Old West for real, and then you're studying abduction lore. That's where some of the crossover came. What are they doing when they're mutilating cattle? I don't know. Do you? One idea is that, like Native Americans, they use every part of the buffalo. I think Steven, early on in the visualization process of those horrible alien autopsies you see, wanted to be even more explicit. "I want to see them putting specimens of the body in jars." He wanted to make it very creepy. So it's both study and "Can I potentially use this?"
Beaks: In general, how many hours do you write?
Kurtzman: On this process? When we were in the fold, you're waking up and you're working on it, and you're going to sleep right when you're done working on it.
Beaks: But do you have hours of the day when you're really cooking, and then hours when you're burned out, but you're still writing anyways?
Orci: When you're in that point before a greenlight, when you're trying to get the movie locked down, you do bankers' hours even when you're not feeling it. Sometimes we'd have bad days and not come up with a lot of shit, but that's okay. You can go, "You know what? That idea we went by real quick, we can go back to it." Or "Yesterday was a waste of time, but now we know what we're doing. So yesterday wasn't a waste of time, because if we hadn't wasted our time, we wouldn't have written that crappy thing that got us here." So you've got to do bankers' hours when it's crunch time. Or sometimes you check into a hotel; we just sit in a room and use it as our office all day, so there's no phones, and then go home at night - and then come back to catered breakfast.
Beaks: How do you then balance all of the projects that are competing for your time?
Orci: Part of it has been the amazing support we get from DreamWorks. Alex and I aren't a solo act anymore; we've got a pretty thriving production company. We have three feature film executives, we have two television executives, we have an amazing support staff that dabbles in the comic books that are handled in-house. We really do have a great team, and that's part of our having come through TV, where you're managing a business. TV writers are the producers, and they are developing six stories at a time: sometimes writing one, overseeing another, in postproduction on another, and hiring a director on [another]. I think we've just had the good fortune of having a lot of years of learning how to be efficient, and surrounding ourselves with a great team.
Kurtzman: As our volume builds, there isn't always the same kind of time to sit in a room together all day long. But after twenty years of writing together, the fidelity of our communication is so high that if we have to separate and do different things, it only takes one conversation to reset on whatever is going on.
Orci: Also, we like to teaming up with people. That's why we teamed up with Mark and Hawk: they did a lot of heavy lifting, and it would've been impossible without them.
Beaks: So between you and me, it's The Gorn, right?
Orci: (Laughs) You know what? We just used The Gorn in COWBOYS & ALIENS. That's the secret. They really are The Gorn. The Director's Cut will reveal it all.
Beaks: So you guys are gunning for a January production start date?
Kurtzman: We're still in open conversation.
Orci: I've heard so many things mentioned, but we have so much... it's a matter of someone putting the date on paper and saying, "We're starting."
Kurtzman: We're in the process already. A date at this point wouldn't make us move any faster. We're already in it.
Beaks: But is the idea here that the date can change? What's important here is that you get it right?
Kurtzman: No, it's really still an open conversation.
Orci: "Is it a good date?" "How much post schedule does the production really want?" "Is it better to rush for a date we want?"
Beaks: Rushing for a date always feels like a bad idea.
Kurtzman: It can be a very bad idea. Especially on TREK...
Orci: It's just so effects-heavy. You go, "Oh, we only need so many weeks for ILM to [finish] that." Then you get there, and you're like, "Oh, maybe we didn't give them enough time..."
Kurtzman: You just don't want to do that, especially on a movie that we all love so much and has high expectations.
Orci: Rushing means more expensive, and that's a question for our benefactors, who have to decide how bad they want it in terms of that kind of stuff. You can finish stuff [quickly], but it means more people working simultaneously. So those are, in a way, production things that aren't just based on time.
Beaks: And whether it's going to be 3D or in IMAX?
Orci: Exactly. There's a lot of that stuff that doesn't affect our development of the story.
Beaks: I've felt all along that I don't care how long you guys take. Just get it right.
Orci: (Laughs) Thank you.
Kurtzman: Thanks. We agree.
COWBOYS & ALIENS is currently in theaters.