Interview – The Writers of Transformers 2 (Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman)26.06.09 # Interview # 14 Comments
Yesterday I got to chat on the phone with Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, the writers of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. It was premiere day for the film and the guys were in good spirits. Both were very friendly and easy to talk with. I guess it’s hard not to be upbeat when you have two successful summer films under your belt (Star Trek and The Proposal) and a sure-fire millions-maker about to power through the weekend.
The conversation ranges from their future Star Trek films all the way back to their early days on Xena: Warrior Princess. Enjoy!
Movie Moron: Star Trek, which you wrote, is the highest-grossing movie of 2009 so far. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen will be right alongside it. The Proposal, which you exec produced, was number 1 last weekend. Will there be a point where you guys are so successful that everyone else should just give up?
Roberto Orci: I certainly hope not. Actually we like to discourage competition. No, not really, competition is good for … everybody. It makes everyone raise their game.
MM: How was your experience with Revenge of the Fallen different to the first Transformers?
RO: The first one was a classical experience. Alex and I went off for a few months and wrote two drafts. Then we developed it with Michael Bay in mind. And once we had something we went out and pitched it to him and got him on the movie. With the second one it was much more of a mad dash. There was a writers strike right in the middle of it and we were developing it with Michael, so we had two weeks to do the story before the strike hit. We gave him a 20 page outline and then he went off to develop it and prepare the action based on that outline. And as soon as the strike ended we had three months between the day it ended and the principal day of photography, so we had to literally write pages and hand them over every day. Our first draft. As he was preparing them and giving us notes and feedback with Ehren Kruger who wrote the movie with us. So they were two very different experiences.
MM: Was the first one a bit easier then?
RO: The first one was easier in a certain way. Process-wise it was easier. For sure. No Question. But what was a little bit harder about it was that no one could fully imagine what it would be like having real life humans interacting with full C.G. robots. So the studio was, at certain points, giving us notes like “should the robots talk?” They weren’t exactly sure how it was going to work out. Figuring out how to set the tone for the movie was very challenging.
MM: Yeah. Well because you’re creating a universe with the first one.
RO: Right, there hadn’t been a live action Transformers movie before.
MM: Which is the easiest Transformers character to write for, and which is the hardest?
RO: I think Optimus’s voice comes pretty naturally, just because he’s such a defined character. We can’t really claim any credit in writing his voice. He’s been a fully rendered animated character for a long time.
Alex Kurtzman: And Peter Kullen’s voice is just seared into our brains since childhood. It’s very good to get in touch with your inner Optimus Prime.
RO: The villains are hard because it’s hard to make them fun, scary, and fresh all at the same time. (laughs)
MM: What was the most important script note you got from Steven Spielberg? (exec producer of Transformers 1 & 2)
RO: I think it was from Steven … in the original conception, in the very first draft, the back story with the original seven transformers, Steven said there should be a way to link back to Optimus Prime. So the original seven were not primes, they were just the original seven. That’s what led us to the idea that if they were the original primes and The Fallen was an original prime and that Optimus was the last living descendant … then came the logic that a only a prime can kill a prime. And suddenly we felt like there was focus to the mythology that led back to one of the main heroes.
AK: More of a circle that tied everything together.
RO: That’s for sure the best note we got from him.
MM: And from Michael Bay?
RO: Michael … I’m trying to think of … one of the great notes he gave us when we first started working with him was don’t try to write what you think a Michael Bay movie is. Just write what you think is right, don’t try to fit it to what you think I want. I thought that was an interesting note that helped us work with him from then on.
MM: What’s your favorite scene from the Transformers TV series, and what made it work?
RO: What made it work was, in the modern world, as you see technology rise up around you, the idea of it being personifeied as a modern mythological idea. Before, the Greeks used to personify their environment through the gods, now our environment is so populated with technology that they, in a way, represent kid-like modern Greek gods, these personified technological wonders. Imagine talking to your toys and your technology, I think it has a very multifacited connection to the playful, curious sci-fi brain in anybody. And … what was your first part of that question?
MM: Your favorite scenes or moments?
RO: I always liked the images of Megatron and Optimus fighting on Hoover Dam. It was a huge inspiration for the first movie and what the aesthetic could be for general in the franchise, thinking big that way. Iconic images of robots fighting on iconic landmarks.
AK: Yeah I’d go with that.
MM: Hugo Weaving aside, were there any big star names up for the voices before Michael Bay went with who he did?
RO: Michael was … I don’t think he had an intention or need to attach “names.” He wanted to be open about people who were trained in voice work to be given equal chance as any big names. We played around with the template of “big names” to be voices, but I think we always knew we were going towards character actors.
MM: Can you point us to a couple of Easter Eggs in Revenge Of The Fallen that fans should look out for?
RO: (long pause and whispering) We’re just weighing …
MM: The consequences?
RO: The theoretical considerations of telling you where an Easter Egg is … um … R2-D2 is in Star Trek! (laughs)
MM: I guess that’s another question. For all the stuff you do for J.J. (Abrams), like Slusho appears in Star Trek and whatnot …
RO: There are a few Bad Robot Easter Eggs in this movie that you should look for that are a shout out to our friend J.J. I mean, how can you not have Bad Robot Easter Eggs in Transformers?
MM: So are you telling me we might actually see the Bad Robot (J.J. Abram’s company logo) in the movie?
RO: Maybe. Or, maybe, one of their … somethings.
MM: With these big summer blockbusters, how much room is there for experimentation?
RO: The truth is that, it’s very nice for us to know what the parameters of expectation are. Once you know what your lines are you can color within the lines and that never feels like a limitation. It actually feels like now you get to play freely with a clear understanding of what film you’re making. And we’ve never really been told that we can’t do something. Certainly not for any production reasons. We may have disagreements with people over story things, but never … we’ve never been limited in any way that feels like our creativity is being hampered somehow.
AK: And it’s different than writing something that has never existed, that is original. When you attach to a known property your job is to find out what is essential about it that works, that is going to translate correctly to live action. And what has to be sacrificed. And that’s where the parameters come from. Not from any external source. We have the freedom to make those tough decisions, and that’s frightening, but you’re being guided by the franchise if you’re really analyzing it.
MM: You’ve been writing together for 18 years. What’s the one idea in your movies that you two have disagreed upon the most and who won the argument?
RO: Let’s see …
AK: No, I can’t think of anything.
MM: Do you guys tend to speak the same language? Has it always been like that or has it been a progression you’ve had to work at?
RO: We speak very different languages but we always end up coming to agreement on whatever we’re writing. It’s literally impossible to write something if we’re not in agreement on it. So we end up finding ways to own it or if someone is more right than another we will wait till one person concedes and says “know what? You talked me into it.”
AK: And were it a case where we’re at an impass, we’ll go to a trusted third party for arbitration and say “which one to you like better, we’re not going to tell you which one of us wrote it.” And literally the only open disagreement that Bob and I ever had was on Alias. That’s the only thing I can ever remember.
MM: And the disagreement made it to screen, meaning …
AK: Bob argued that Will and Francie should get together and I thought it was a horrible idea and that turned out to be exactly the right idea.
RO: Oh that’s nice. Aaaaaahhhhhh! (laughs)
AK: That didn’t turn out though because where is Bradley Cooper now? (Everyone laughs)
MM: You’ve mentioned that the fan talkbacks are informing future Star Trek films. Are there any specific suggestions that you’re going to consider? Any big Red Lights of where NOT to go with the franchise?
RO: As you can imagine every kind of opinion has been expressed in relation to the movie, so there have been both red lights, green lights, yellow lights, the gamut. What they have done is very quickly identified the fork in the road, which is to do a completely original story or to harmonize with canon the way we did in the first movie, where some of the events overlapped with the original universe and were the same even if time travel hadn’t happened and some of the harmonies were reversed, like Spock with Uhura instead of Kirk. They very quickly have fallen into those two camps. And that’s interesting cause that’s the debate we’re having with ourselves. So we’re literally getting to read this ongoing debate online and it’s very helpful.
MM: Seems like it’s a lot of people fleshing out all the possibilities.
RO: And just the merits of one philosophy over another more than any specific ideas. It’s more about what’s philosophically right to do. Very fascinating.
MM: We’ve been debating this question on the site – Why didn’t Nero just warn Romulus if he went back in time?
RO: Nero is intent on returning to Romulus as a conquering hero. And he’s got 150 years before there’s any threat to Romulus. So his main mission is find Ambassador Spock, the man who failed him, get the weapon of mass destruction, conquer the Federation, and then return to Romulus. To do anything before that would possibly endanger Romulus and prematurely cause war.
MM: Arguably the most iconic Star Trek villain: Khan. What is the chance you’re going to bring him back?
RO: What do you think Alex? 50/50? Is that a boring answer?
AK: That’s a good answer.
RO: 50/50. Let’s flip a coin right now on the phone. If I said 10/90 I wouldn’t tell you which direction we were leaning in anyway.
MM: How close is Robert Downey Jr. to signing on Cowboys & Aliens, and how to you persuade a star like him?
RO: Nobody persuades Robert Downey Jr. We spoke to him once and he loves it for all the same reasons we do. Crashing the two genres and this great graphic novel. And he took to it as a fan would. So the question is whether or not his schedule is going to work out. He’s an incredibly busy guy. Between being Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes we don’t know if he’ll be able to put us into the schedule, but we certainly hope he’ll try.
MM: You got your first big break working for Sam Raimi on Xena: Warrior Princess. Any future plans to collaborate?
RO: We’d work with Sam in a heartbeat. Yeah, of course! He hasn’t asked us but we’d work for him in a heartbeat.
MM: And how’d you feel about Drag Me to Hell?
RO: We didn’t see it! I haven’t seen anything because we’ve been basically working on Transformers until the last two weeks. So all free time I spend with my family. But literally everyone we know who’s seen it says it’s fantastic!
MM: You were saying earlier there’s an inter-connectiveness within your works when it comes to Easter Eggs, even between Star Trek and Transformers. Is that weaving towards anything bigger we should know about?
RO: We’ve gonna have The Enterprise vs. Megatron! No, you’re tempted to think in those terms, but that becomes a somewhat corporate decision. You’re pitching things owned by two different studios to crash into each other. But it could happen, why not? G.I. Joes vs. Transformers makes a lot of sense, actually.
MM: That’s about it. Thanks for taking the time.
RO: Thank you!
AK: Thank you so much.