Q & A with Writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman

“Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” opening June 24 from DreamWorks Pictures and Paramount Pictures

“Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” opening June 24 from DreamWorks Pictures and Paramount Pictures.

As part of ZAMM.com’s ongoing series of filmmaker interviews Martin Grove talks to writers Roberto (Bob) Orci and Alex Kurtzman about their screenplay (written with Ehren Kruger) for “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen”, opening June 24 from DreamWorks Pictures and Paramount Pictures.

Directed by Michael Bay, who directed the 2007 original “Transformers”, which grossed $319.2 million domestically, the sequel is produced by Don Murphy & Tom DeSanto, Lorenzo di Bonaventura and Ian Bryce. It was executive produced by Steven Spielberg, Michael Bay, Brian Goldner and Mark Vahradian. The film is based on Hasbro’s Transformers Action Figures. Starring are Shia LaBeouf, Megan Fox, Josh Duhamel, Tyrese Gibson and John Turturro.

In “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” two years have passed since Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) and the Autobots saved the human race from the invading Decepticons. Now Sam’s preparing for the biggest challenge of his life — leaving home for college. At school, Sam is suddenly besieged by visions flashing across his brain like thunderbolts. The Decepticons soon learn what Sam doesn’t know — that he alone holds the key to the outcome of the struggle between evil and the ultimate power of good.

Bob Orci & Alex Kurtzman are both screenwriters and producers. This summer they wrote and were executive producers of J.J. Abrams’ blockbuster “Star Trek”, the year’s biggest grossing film to date with over $240 million. They also were executive producers of Anne Fletcher’s hit romantic comedy “The Proposal”, which opened June 19 to a way better than expected $33.6 million. Among their screenwriting credits are Michael Bay’s “Transformers”, J.J. Abrams’ “Mission: Impossible III”, Michael Bay’s “The Island” and Martin Campbell’s “The Legend of Zorro”.

Q: You wrote the original “Transformers” screenplay together, but you wrote the sequel with another writer, Ehren Kruger, whose credits include the hits “The Ring” and “Scream 3”. Why did you work with a third writer?
Orci: There was a massive writers’ strike looming (which began Nov. 5, 2007) and we simply were fearful that we would not be able to professionally deliver on our responsibilities. We had been developing something with Ehren Kruger already and had found he was someone we were really able to collaborate with. So when the idea came up of the three of us doing it together that’s when we felt that we could maybe actually physically accomplish the task. In addition, it was nice to have someone who was coming in with a fresh perspective and was excited about it and who was to kind of keep us “honest.” It was a way to make sure that we did the best work we could.
Q: When were you writing this?
Kurtzman: We agreed to do the movie two weeks before the strike, which meant that we took those two weeks to break the story and outline it.
Orci: We handed in a 20 page treatment to the studio.
Kurtzman: We handed that in like Midnight the night the strike was called. We stopped. We didn’t write during the strike. And then the minute the strike ended we picked up our pens the next morning and wrote for three months and at the end of that period, literally, was the first day of shooting. So it was a crazy marathon from beginning to end.
Orci: And Michael Bay had to prepare the movie off of our 20 page treatment. So during the strike they just did all they could in terms of securing locations and building things. And then the minute the strike ended (on Feb. 12, 2008) we wrote the movie simultaneously (with that ongoing work). We were handing in pages day by day to prep the movie.
Q: It must have been a frustrating period for you not being able to write.
Orci: Oddly, we lucked out in that we had other things (we had to do then). If we hadn’t had a strike we’re not sure how we would have done it either because “Star Trek” started shooting, “Eagle Eye” (which they were producers of but did not write) started shooting, “Fringe” (the series they were executive producers on) started shooting and “The Proposal” and we had to produce all of those things.
Q: So you weren’t exactly on vacation during the strike?
Orci: No. Hardly.
Q: Tell me about writing the sequel to a blockbuster. It’s got to be different from just writing a spec script. You start out with this tremendous success that must make it more difficult.
Kurtzman: What we have to do is put away the success factor of the first movie and just go to what’s the story and find an entry point to the story that is emotional and that we can connect with. It’s not that it’s not about the giant robots. It’s obviously very much about the giant robots, but we have to find a human story first in order to be able to tell that story and (do so) within the context of what’s happening to the robots. So once we figured that out, we felt like we were able to do it.
Orci: It’s (tough) to have a release date before you even agree to think about it.
Q: The pressure must be intense.
Kurtzman: It is. Everyone now is an expert on “Transformers” after the first movie, which can get tricky.
Orci: I don’t think we’ve ever experienced anything as intense as what this was to get this movie off the ground in this period of time that we had to do it.
Q: You have among the producers and executive producers of this film some heavyweight industry names. Did you have any interference from them or too many suggestions or things like that that got in the way?
Orci All ideas are good ideas and even rejecting a bad idea is good for a project so we never feel that way. I think we’re in a lucky situation that all the heavy hitters you’re discussing get along. I think the only trick would be (if) somehow we were caught in the middle of sort of a major disagreement, but that didn’t happen. It was very collaborative.
Q: Of course, you’d worked with Michael Bay before on the first “Transformers” and on “The Island”. That must have been helpful in terms of knowing what he likes.
Kurtzman: Exactly. And we’re also through our growing pains of getting to know each other and it’s strictly about the work. When he’s acting up or we’re being a wreck we can speak very directly and say, “Hey, come on, it’s us. Let’s cut the crap and get to work.” It’s nice to not have to go through that initial courtship.
Q: When you’re working, how do you work? There are two of you. Are you in the same room or are you writing via e-mail?
Kurtzman: Because we wrote this movie with Ehren, we actually rented a room that had a dividing door and Bob and I would write in the morning on one side of the room and Ehren would write on the other side and we’d open the door at Noon and we’d trade pages across, close the door and read each other’s work and then we just would tinker with each other’s things all the way through. And then Michael would come in and he would read the day’s pages at the end of the day and he’d give us his notes because he was prepping the movie while we were writing it. So we had to stay pretty much on track.
Orci: For the 17 years that Alex and I have been writing we’ve sat in a room together at a table, each with our own computer and our conversations become the script.
Q: On a good day, how many pages could you turn out?
Kurtzman: On a really good day? Ten.
Orci: Yeah.
Q: When you’re writing is there a computer program you prefer?
Kurtzman: We use Final Draft.
Q: Some writers go back to the beginning whenever they start writing and then rewrite what they’ve already done while others just pick up where they left off. What do you guys do?
Orci: It depends on what’s happening. It’s such a gut thing. They’ll be times when we’ll work on a scene and know that it’s not quite right and know that somehow we have to get deeper into the scene in order for the next scene that we write to work. Sometimes we’ll write a scene and feel like we have enough architecture there to move on. So it’s really scene by scene.
Kurtzman: In general, though, we keep going unless there’s a logic thing that must be changed earlier.
Q: With so many other things going on in your lives since you’re also producing films, are you able to write uninterrupted?
Kurtzman: (laughing) No. Never. It’s hard.
Orci: We have an office and sometimes when we really, really have to write we’ll actually leave our office and go get a hotel room.
Kurtzman: We’ll just lock ourselves in a hotel room and write. It’s a sad truth actually that we don’t get to write (for days) in a row anymore and that we miss those days.
Q: Do you enjoy writing?
Orci: Oh, yes.
Kurtzman: Very much. It’s still our first love.
Q: I asked you that because some writers complain that it’s lonely and they’re locked up all the time.
Orci: No. It’s never been lonely for us because we have each other.
Kurtzman: We always think of ourselves as a band as opposed to a solo artist and we’d much rather be in a band. I sympathize with solo writers.
Q: How long did it take to finish this script?
Kurtzman: Three months and two weeks. Two weeks on the story and three months on the script.
Orci: Plus, we were re-writing it through post-production.
Kurtzman: Through production and post-production. We finished writing the movie, honestly, two weeks ago (because we were) writing through post-production.
Orci: The robots are animated so you can change what they say until the last minute.
Q: Were you on the set during shooting?
Orci: Yes.
Q: That’s something a lot of writers don’t get to do.
Orci: Yeah. I think that’s true. Having now had the (good) fortune of working with Michael on three movies, he often needs us there. If he’s feeling like there’s something about a scene that’s going to be particularly challenging he’ll like us (to be) there to make sure the actors have what they need if we have to do rewriting on the fly.
Kurtzman: But we’ve been very fortunate. We’ve been on the set of all of our films.
Q: Looking back at production, what were some of the challenges you faced?
Kurtzman: The balance between the spectacle and the intimate is the hard part and trying to spend as much time as you can on setting up the characters before the whole thing starts to unspool into spectacle. That’s the hard part.
“Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” star Megan Fox. “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen”opening June 24 from DreamWorks Pictures and Paramount Pictures

“Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” star Megan Fox. “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen”opening June 24 from DreamWorks Pictures and Paramount Pictures.

Q: Is it helpful in doing a sequel that you already know visually what a lot of the characters — in this case, say, the robots — look like visually and that you already have a sense of the universe that you’re dealing with?
Kurtzman: Yes. It’s very helpful. On the first movie when we told people we were working on it the first question always was, “Is it a cartoon or is it like the Power Rangers?” They just couldn’t imagine it to the point where some at the studio were even wondering if the Transformers should talk because they were insecure about whether or not the effect would even work. So we were literally overcoming all those challenges and just getting a story that everyone could agree on in the first movie.

This time around everyone knows it works, everyone knows they should talk, everyone knows what they’re going to look like. Everyone has accepted their existence as opposed to in the first movie (which) was very specifically designed as a mystery for an hour so by the time they arrive you’re hungry for them as opposed to just shoving them in the audience’s face from minute one. All those things are not an issue in the second movie.
Q: In writing the sequel did you have in mind some new ways you wanted to push the envelope on “Transformers”?
Kurtzman: Well, we knew it was going to get pushed visually with or without us. ILM had already done so much of the research and development that this time the effects are even more amazing. In terms of structural things, the first story was very much the theme of something we all go through. Everyone wants to get their license to get their car and, hopefully, lead them to freedom, adulthood and sex. And that’s just such a basic, basic concept. Some call it a cliché and it is in a sense, but it’s a cliché because we all experience it. We wanted to make sure that we had the same kind of thematic kernel in the second movie to try to in some way counteract the spectacle.
Q: Did knowing who the key cast actors were help you in writing their roles?
Orci: Certainly, yes. Having written for Shia and Megan and Josh and Tyrese and for Julie and Kevin, their voices were already in our heads so that was obviously (helpful). So it was just figuring out how to evolve them given the story.
Q: When you wrote the first “Transformers”, did you know who was going to play those roles?
Orci: No.
Q: So is there a difference in writing not knowing and then knowing?
Kurtzman: Absolutely. When we wrote the first movie we imagined Shia as kind of an attention deficit disorder Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox’s character in the “Back to the Future” films). In a way, we had kind of a mix of Michael J. Fox’s voice in our minds and whatever we’re bringing to it. Then the minute Shia comes in you very much adjust it to his taste and his style so that by the time the second movie rolls around — and with “Eagle Eye” (D.J. Caruso’s 2008 thriller starring LaBeouf, but not written by Kurtzman and Orci) really it’s the third movie — we know not only what the character is, but also how Shia would want to say it. So there’s a much shorter distance between the first draft and the last draft.
“Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” opening June 24 from DreamWorks Pictures and Paramount Pictures

“Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” opening June 24 from DreamWorks Pictures and Paramount Pictures.

Q: I’m guessing that if you write the sequel to a blockbuster — and obviously everybody wants the sequel to be an even bigger blockbuster — it must be a pressure situation in terms of how do you make it bigger.
Kurtzman: (laughing) We try not to worry about that, actually. Our first job is to make sure that the character’s story is in place and that doesn’t have anything to do with size. And then working in conjunction with Michael, a natural story evolves and then Michael always wants to push it and make it as big as possible. So it’s kind of a union of those two sensibilities.
Orci: We try to ignore it and then once we’ve decided the things we think we want to do then we look back at it and go, “And by the way, is it bigger?” And when we realize we’re going all over the world and you’re going to see the Pyramid of Giza in a way you’ve never seen suddenly you start to (realize what you have). We didn’t start thinking of it in those terms, but this is where it led us and it led us there because it’s cool to have mythology and the past and the Transformers have been here. And since it all came out of that, it’s okay to finally acknowledge, “Yeah, and it’s bigger, too.”
Q: Clearly, you spend a lot of time and energy working on the story and yet when these films get reviewed so many times the critics are grandly dismissive of the story. Is that frustrating?
Kurtzman: It depends on the day. Sometimes it’s frustrating. Sometimes it’s a compliment in that it’s invisible. Like a lot of people said the first movie didn’t have a story. You can take that to heart or you can think maybe because the story was so universal it’s invisible. Apparently, getting a license to get adulthood and get the girl and have freedom, to some people that’s not a story. But to us it is. We’ve learned over the years that a script cannot be logically deduced by the formal rules of logic or mathematics. In a way, doing the logical thing is not the thing that they pay us for. We get paid to figure out when you’re supposed to break the logic and actually go for an emotional feeling and how you get away with that kind of stuff. And that’s really the trick — how do you break the rules of logic to have an emotional logic? That stuff’s harder to analyze. But obviously we want everything to be spoken of fondly.
Orci: The short answer is — Yes, it’s very painful.