The next time you're sitting around with some friends, wasting time talking about "Star Trek," the Transformers and other pop-culture minutiae, you might want to consider Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman — because they get paid more money than most of us will ever see to do exactly that.
"We're less motivated in taking over a toy line and more about what story we can tell that excites us," explained Kurtzman, one-half of the red-hot Hollywood writing team behind "Transformers" (see " 'Transformers' Writers Talk Fanboy Pressure, 'E.T.' Inspiration, Sequel Ideas") and next year's "Star Trek" film (see " 'Star Trek' Writers Talk Direction, Technobabble — But Not Matt Damon"). "We have this amazing opportunity to make movies for kids and adults, and that's how we approach things."
Now, decades after these two 33-year-old writers ripped their first Optimus Prime action figure from its plastic-and-cardboard backing, they are crafting the modern blueprint for pleasing audiences and studios simultaneously. And for them, the key is making sure that Prime and Bumblebee are as compelling as real-life counterparts Shia LaBeouf and Josh Duhamel (see " 'Transformers' Stars Dish On Sexy Robots, Kissing Scenes In Virtual World").
"We started [the 'Transformers' script] with a boy excited about his first car, whether or not robots were involved," Orci added. "We can all relate with what it's like to get your first car, and how that is your first step into adulthood, and how it means responsibility and sexuality for the first time. [Our job] is all about finding that crux of emotional ideas that we can start with. And then, if we can put robots in, fantastic."
At the same time, the duo injected their "Transformers" script with two elements in rare supply in Hollywood: a reverence for the source material and a willingness to kill off characters.
"We were initially skeptical, because our concern was that we didn't want to make a flick from a show that was a toy commercial," Kurtzman recalled of their first meeting with producer Steven Spielberg. "We were fans of the cartoon as kids, so it's always a little daunting when you're offered something that meant something to you in your childhood. You don't want to screw it up."
"Hasbro knew that our responsibility was to make a good movie," Orci said of the sure-to-be-controversial casualties incurred during the film's robot war. "[We're not] necessarily concerned with the health of their toy line."
The result is a refreshing edge that films like "X-Men: The Last Stand" can't seem to grasp: Characters need to be killed off if the stakes are to be believed. "One of our concerns initially was we didn't want it to feel like a cartoon," Kurtzman said. "When we would tell people we were writing 'Transformers,' the first question would always be 'Is it a cartoon?' ... We knew that having some of the characters die would help that."
One Transformer that was never born, however, is the "iPod Transformer" that you may have heard about as recently as five weeks ago. Addressing the AWOL Autobot, Kurtzman said it was an unfortunate last-minute change. "It was an iPod in the script, but then we changed it to a telephone.
"I'm not sure [why it was changed]," he said of the scene, which now shows Anthony Anderson handing over a cell phone that gets turned into a tiny, homicidal Transformer. "It was an iPod in the script, and some deals were made that we didn't have access to."
But now these best friends since high school have unlimited access to one of the most in-demand franchises in all of Hollywood: "Star Trek." They're reuniting with their "Alias" and "Mission: Impossible III" boss J.J. Abrams, and they recently turned in the prequel script intended to relaunch the stalled franchise.
"It'll probably just be called 'Star Trek,' " Kurtzman revealed of the film, which will depict the early relationship between Captain James T. Kirk and Mr. Spock.
"Really, we've just tried to capture the spirit correctly," said Orci, who will make some major announcements with Kurtzman next month at San Diego's, California's Comic-Con. "It's family, it's friendship, but it's also so much more."
"I think there's a humanistic approach to 'Star Trek' that you feel in every narration," Kurtzman said of the antagonistic friendship between Kirk and Spock. "Alien races are coming together and forming odd bonds of friendship and family. That's the core of the spirit of Star Trek."
When Gene Roddenberry created the U.S.S. Enterprise 40 years ago, his visions of space exploration were a dream of a better day. When Kurtzman and Orci sat down to write their "Star Trek" script, they realized that the dream still needed to be at the center.
"He created a side of 'Star Trek' as a response to the Cold War," Kurtzman observed. "In a way, he made a fantasy of finding a way for everyone to come together — and that has managed to stick through all the versions of 'Star Trek.' "
These days, the Cold War is ancient history. So instead, the writers are attempting a similar approach feeding off fears of terrorism.
"The world's changed, but it also hasn't," Kurtzman said of their approach. "We live in a world where it's about ultra-paranoia of others, and that is as it was back when Roddenberry invented 'Trek.' In a way, it's more timely now than ever to be doing this. ... There was paranoia about the Cold War. That was their version of terrorism. We're living in a very parallel environment right now."
That parallelism would also seem to call for a return from legendary stars William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, who the writers say they "had a meeting with, just to express our admiration and promise that we would treat ['Trek'] with reverence." Now, months later, Shatner is reportedly upset that only Nimoy will get a cameo.
"We were very surprised about that," Kurtzman said of Shatner's comments.
"We're certainly hoping to include him in the shoot," Orci added. "Because we have nothing but reverence and awe for the man."
With the world's most famous over-actor in mind, then, the attention is about to turn to another critical question: Should the new, young Kirk also be so melodramatic?
"It's tough, because so many of the people that portrayed the characters in 'Star Trek' were distinctive," Orci reasoned. "A lot of the writing created Shakespearean-type characters, such that you could imagine it going both ways. You could imagine it being open to interpretation, or you can imagine it being really faithful. We're trying to figure out how to do it."
When in doubt, Kurtzman and Orci will just do what they've always done: Remember what it was like to play with these characters so long ago. Because now they get paid big bucks to act out their fantasies on a soundstage rather than a toybox — and if that's not a dream job, they don't know what is.
"Oh my God, are you kidding?" Kurtzman geeked out when asked if the two Trekkies have been getting chills working on the script. "Every day. It's been surreal and an amazing process to inherit something that you loved as a kid. It's a dream come true."
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