In both cases, Kurtzman and Orci—self-confessed fanboys who grew up watching “Star Trek” and “Transformers” in their original incarnations—have accomplished the difficult task of taking what was previously considered a geeky cult property and...well, transforming it into a mainstream success.
"We call it tough love," Orci says of their so-far successful recipe. "You've got to really look at it and see what's going to translate to the storytelling that's relevant now and what has to be sacrificed. Sometimes it's hard to know, so it's important to be disciplined about it. You can't rely on the history of the franchise to engender goodwill—you've got to win the goodwill as if the franchise has never been seen before."
Kurtzman chimes in with an additional lesson: "Make sure your story is emotionally universal. When stories are designed around the specific technical details that are part of any particular franchise, those details end up getting lost on the people who are on the outside looking in. You're always looking to honor what was great about, say Star Trek, but also bring in a new audience who can appreciate it."
In the case of the first Transformers, Kurtzman and Orci centered their screenplay around one of the most emotionally universal stories known to man: the tale of a boy and his first car. "Everything in the movie emerged from that basic idea," Orci explains. "Who are the people in the lives of a boy and his car? Well, there's the girl he wants to get into his car and the parents who buy him the car." (Not to mention, of course, the giant transforming robots that either seek to protect or destroy the boy and his car.)
That simple narrative may have been enough for Part One, but moviegoers are trained to anticipate bigger and better things from the sequel, which means the boy at the center of the Transformers franchise—that would be Shia LaBeouf—might need a whole fleet of new cars to satisfy expectations.
"Sequels are frightening because you really have to come up with a reason to tell a second story that doesn't have to do with the first movie being successful," Kurtzman admits. "So we looked closely at all the sequels we loved growing up, films like The Empire Strikes Back, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Superman II and Aliens. The common denominator in all those movies involved a major test for the hero and a bad guy who was truly frightening and who put the hero through the mill. Most importantly, you didn't have to see the previous movie to come into the sequel and like it. Those criteria served as our guide for constructing Revenge of the Fallen."
Another important part of the process was adding a third screenwriter to their team, Ehren Kruger, whose previous credits include Arlington Road and The Ring. The decision to add Kruger to the mix was due both to Kurtzman and Orci's heavy workload—in addition to writing Star Trek, the two were deep in the process of co-creating Fox's paranormal crime series "Fringe" with Abrams—and an accelerated production schedule brought about by last year's Writers Guild strike.
"We broke the story for Revenge of the Fallen in the two weeks leading up to the strike," Kurtzman remembers. "It was kind of like 'Crash, bang, boom—here's the outline for the movie!' Then, during the strike, Michael worked on the action sequences because we couldn't generate pages. The minute the strike ended, the three of us sat in a room for three months and wrote the script. The last day of those three months was the first day of shooting. So it was kind of a marathon."
Working with Kruger, Kurtzman and Orci concocted a story that finds college-bound Sam Witwicky (LaBeouf) and his insanely gorgeous girlfriend Mikaela (Megan Fox) once again caught in the middle of the never-ending war between the heroic Autobots and the evil Decepticons. The exact details of the plot are top-secret, but the film's trailers indicate that Sam is targeted by the Decipticons after he discovers a mysterious artifact that may hold the key to explaining the origins of these intergalactic shape-shifting robots. The poor kid also has to contend with not just one, but two blood-hungry bad guys, a back-from-the-dead Megatron and The Fallen, the oldest and most powerful Transformer around.
And, of course, there are action sequences. Lots and lots of action sequences, all of which are tricked out with the director's love-it-or-hate-it brand of visual pyrotechnics. While Bay is frequently credited (or blamed) as being the sole author of these hyperkinetic, slam-bang set-pieces, the writers say that they played a big role in shaping much of the film's action on the page prior to shooting. "For us, the action always emerges from the characters; the audience tunes out random action scenes that don't move the plot forward or take the characters in some new direction," Kurtzman says. "So in Revenge of the Fallen, there are several sequences that we pitched to Michael in detail as part of the characters' stories and he ended up shooting them almost exactly as we pitched them. Of course, he also comes up with great ways to embellish the sequences and no one is better at that than he is."