Metal band: Kurtzman & Orci mastermind Transformers' 'Revenge   of the Fallen'
Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci are having the kind of year most screenwriters dream about. In May, they helped their longtime collaborator J.J. Abrams re-launch the Star Trek franchise and watched proudly as the new Enterprise's latest adventure cleared $200 million at the domestic box office. Now the duo, who have been friends since high school and writing partners since college, is awaiting the arrival of their second summer blockbuster, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, the sequel to 2007's mega-hit, which they also wrote for returning director Michael Bay. And since the original Transformers earned over $300 million, Revenge of the Fallen is widely expected to decimate the competition when it blasts into theatres on June 24.
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."
Adds Orci: "You can never write down all of the things he does in terms of camera movement and angles. The blocking comes very much from the writing, but he brings another thing only he can bring."
Despite, or perhaps because of, the rushed production schedule, Orci and Kurtzman found themselves pulling out all the stops in the writers' room to ensure that Revenge of the Fallen would join the rarefied company of sequels that outdid the original. "We tried to put everything we could think of into this one movie," Orci says. "We weren't saving anything. As soon as you start saving things for future installments, you're only hurting your current film." In fact, they poured so many ideas into Fallen, Kurtzman and Orci claim that they have no plans to write the third Transformers film, which Paramount has already slated for a July 1, 2011 release. (Although there's been a bit of contention about that date—on his website, Bay claims he agreed to a 2012 release.) "We made a vow to ourselves that we wouldn't [get involved in a project] if we felt like we weren't able to contribute 100% of our effort," explains Kurtzman. "We have to have a reason to tell the story—the minute we have that reason, that's when we get excited about it."
At the moment, the writers are most excited about launching the second season of "Fringe," (set to return to the airwaves in September), writing the next Star Trek movie (due in theatres in 2011 alongside Transformers 3) and continuing to establish their producing careers through their eponymous DreamWorks-based production company, which is developing such films as a big-screen version of the cult comic book Cowboys and Aliens. Funnily enough, the project they have the highest hopes for isn't a science-fiction, action or comic-book-based feature. Instead, it's The Proposal, a romantic comedy they executive produced and which stars Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds. (The film opens on June 19, one week before Revenge of the Fallen takes over multiplexes across America.)
"We were very excited to learn everything we could about the genre—we wanted to see how it was done," says Orci. "We're very curious to see if people like that movie as much as we enjoyed making it, because it will give us a better sense where of our comedy instincts lie."
That information will come in handy as the duo makes their long-planned transition to directing. "The plan is to find the right film for us to direct in the next couple of years," Orci reveals. "We're happy being the guys that write the words, but we want to try everything. It's possible that we'll each direct our own projects, but we might be too jealous of what the other is doing and so we'll both have to do it!" While neither claims to have a dream project right now, there is one franchise that Orci says he's hoping to see realized on the big screen someday. "I'd love to see [Nintendo's] The Legend of Zelda done right." Now that's letting your geek flag fly.