“People Like Us” Sparked by Alex Kurtzman's Long-Lost Sister

Top Hollywood Screenwriter's Personal Journey Inspired His Directing Debut

Hollywood screenwriter Alex Kurtzman was used to being part of a partnership, but he was not entirely prepared to suddenly be someone’s brother overnight.

Kurtzman is one half of one of Hollywood’s most successful and in-demand writing teams, spending two decades with collaborator Roberto Orci penning huge Hollywood projects including the first two “Transformers” films, the “Star Trek” reboot, “Mission: Impossible 3” and “Cowboys & Aliens,” and launching TV hits “Fringe” and “Hawaii Five-O.” But it was an unexpected reunion with the sister he never knew, from the family his father left behind before he was born, that sparked the inspiration for his latest film – and directorial debut – “People Like Us.” The story specifics are wildly different, but the emotional core came from his life: exactly how connected are to someone who shares the same DNA but grew up a world away?

Kurtzman gives PopcornBiz a glimpse into the real-life impetus for “People Like Us” and his first stint behind the camera, as well as some clues as to what to expect from his return to blockbuster-writing with “Star Trek 2.”

I was surprised to learn that the “People Like Us” story is so close to your own life. How did you decide to open yourself up enough to fictionalize your story and put it out there?

After I met my half-sister, I was 30 years old, and I really felt an indescribably strong need to write about it in some form. I felt the more I wrote, the more deeply in love I felt with all the characters. I also felt like I wanted to write a story that was messy – that was about a messy situation. We don't always get to do that when we're writing action movies. The mess is a different kind of a mess. I was having all these thoughts about family, and the idea that no matter how far you run from your family they're really the most important thing in the world. It became an obsession. I kept going and going and going, and the truth is that I never really thought that movie would happen.

How did it finally come to pass?

We weren't writing it on assignment and we weren't writing it for money. We were doing it for ourselves. It took eight years, which is very different from the way that Bob [Orci] and I typically write. I just knew that I had to see the story through to completion and it was wrong a lot longer than it was right. We went down a lot of wrong roads, and I think that part of what obsessed me about it was the puzzle. I couldn't figure out the big picture of the puzzle. I had all these pieces and all these moments, but I didn't know it all fit together.

So the more that I wrote, the more it started coming into focus. And finally when I felt like it was done and I exposed it to people and the response was really positive, I felt a tremendous responsibility to the story. I couldn't imagine – because it was so vivid and alive in my head – the idea of handing it over to another director just seemed inconceivable to me. So it was terrifying but it was really exciting, and I think that I've had the incredibly good fortune of getting to learn from so many talented directors, sitting over their shoulder and watching them do their thing. That gave me the confidence at some point to say, 'Okay, let's go!'

How did working with talent that you've worked with before in movies you’ve written, like Chris Pine, Olivia Wilde and Jon Favreau, help you? And the same for bringing in the new faces like Michelle Pfeiffer and Elizabeth Banks?

We like to work with the same people over and over again. It's always great when you're making a movie about family to have family around you. Favs is a great director. He manages to find beautifully human moments and comedy in larger-than-life contexts. That's a really hard thing to do tonally. What he did on 'Iron Man' is deceptively tricky, too: it looks easy, but it's not at all. So, it's nice to have his support, his blessing. He's very selective about what he does and it was great to have him there.

Chris and I had worked together on 'Trek,' but this is a different experience. We were friendly, but we became very close on this movie because we were living a very different experience together. Olivia is just a sweet, sweet person. Sam, the character that Chris plays, is this very broken guy and he makes a lot of mistakes, but he has chosen to be with somebody who constantly forces him to be honest and truthful. I thought that it said there was hope for him early on if he chose to be with her.

Michelle Pfeiffer is Michelle Pfeiffer. She's just a goddess on every level. The thing that was so amazing about her was that she was utterly unselfconscious about dedicating every choice she made to being truthful. She just trusted me, and the minute that I met her I loved her. Every day on set was a joy with her. She was always trying to dig deep. I'd call cut and she'd come up and grab my arm and say, 'What else can we do? How else can we do it?' That's what your dream of Michelle Pfeiffer would be and she turned out to be that person, so it was an amazing gift.

Elizabeth is just a genius. She's a comedian who can spin any line a hundred different ways. Her comedy chops are just unparalleled, but she's an incredible dramatic actress. I could see it in some of the movies that she'd done, that she was going to blow the doors off of the right part. She was just so wonderful to work with, and she really went there.

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