Take it, Matt.
The Writers Guild Foundation hosted and coordinated the ticketed event, which was ably moderated by Paul Attanasio.
Working first as assistants for Sam Raimi on his Xena and Hercules series, the then twenty-three year old Orci and Kurtzman broke in early but struggled to get past the stigma of the fantasy genre until they met J.J. Abrams. Abrams appreciated their ability to give “A treatment to B material” and brought them onto Alias. The success of that relationship lead to work on Abrams’s Mission Impossible 3, Fringe (which they co-created), and Star Trek.
Collaborations with Michael Bay include The Island, Transformers and its upcoming sequel. They produced Eagle Eye (with Steven Spielberg) and the Sandra Bullock/Ryan Reynolds comedy The Proposal.
The ninety-minute talk to a theater nearly full of writers and a sprinkling of suits, notably Stacey Snider and her posse from Dreamworks, covered collaboration, craft and the creative process.
The partners also defined a new-to-me screenwriting term: the structurefuck.
But most in attendance were there to ask (and gush) about the duo’s latest hit, which elicited some story lessons worth sharing.
Nero’s storyline in Star Trek was much longer in both the script and the shoot. Much was left on the edit room floor. Nero was tortured by Klingons, had to wait out twenty-five years somewhere and spit out bitter monologues, etc. All but one shot was cut from the final version. They found in post that anytime they took the story away from the heroes it sagged. Nero served only as a force to bring everyone together. The more screentime spent away from Kirk and Spock, the more defocused the movie became so they reeled him in significantly in post.
Lesson: Sequels are for villains; origin stories are for heroes. Heroes determine structure. In further support, Alex Kurtzman offered the example of Iron Man, which he said was all about Robert Downey Jr. and the suit he forges. As for what Jeff Bridges was up to? No idea. Didn’t matter. Good as he may be on screen, we’re really just waiting to see Downey in the suit again. (Not much Vader in Star Wars Episode IV compared to The Empire Strikes Back come to think of it.)
Kirk n’ Spock
Kurtzman and Orci researched heavily, studying partnerships – Lennon and McCartney, Billy Wilder and I.A. Diamond, for example — to explore why the core relationship of Kirk and Spock worked so well creatively for the series. Like Lennon and McCartney, both Spock and Kirk lose a parent. It’s something fundamental and shared that allows for a connection even with the contention and heated power struggle. Halfway through writing the first draft, Kurtzman and Orci discovered their own relationship as friends and writing partners had infused itself into the Kirk and Spock dynamic.
The writers felt they had to tie in the current climate and break from the past in a visually and emotionally dramatic way. Destroying Vulcan felt to Orci like seeing 9/11 and the Holocaust all at once. While that was said in jest, I think, the sentiment and desire to break this movie out from the era of the series was genuine. Something radical needed to happen.
Why does Spock get the girl?
It was a visual way to show Spock’s choice: his human/mother’s side had won out over his Vulcan side. It compressed Spock’s arc and made the writers love Uhura more for making the unexpected choice while messing with audience expectations.
Finally, for those interested in process, it took five months to break the story and two-and-a-half more for them to write it.
Advice for the aspiring
Mop floors, do anything you can to get inside and “reveal a surprise.” At age 23, the partners fetched coffee for the producers of Xena and Hercules. They wrote a spec episode and had it ready when the time was right. Wasn’t quite good enough but they were given an episode to play with and when the showrunner left, they were given the helm. They were twenty-four.
Kurtzman noted that P.T. Anderson was a PA smoking outside a set and started chatting with Philip Baker Hall. They hit it off, which lead to Hard Eight. In short, move to Hollywood, look for your moment and be ready when luck strikes.
Once you’re working, see studios as clients not villains out to ruin your art. Learn to love the process of rewriting. Be married to the sprit of words but not the words themselves. Often the studios have forced them to get beyond the “kernel” of the story in the first draft to explore new avenues and ultimately improve the story. (Notably, there were no horror exec stories typical of writers’ panels.)
How does their partnership work?
They’d met in high school but it wasn’t until after college when they began editing each other’s love letters that their partnership began. Neither had any idea how to write, but they were able to expose embarrassing parts of themselves without worrying about being judged or “thrown in a locker.” Each has their strength – Kurtzman at creating moments and Orci on the macro story elements.
They’ve been writing partners for 17 years. They credit that success to treating their relationship with the care of a marriage and applying some of the same addages: Don’t go to bed angry. Make sure one side doesn’t feel like they’re doing all the heavy lifting. Respect strengths and weaknesses.
To structurefuck is to disrupt a linear narrative by playing a scene twice in order to achieve a surprise reveal upon second viewing of that scene. The idea being to plant information in the audience’s heads early, when they’re likely to accept it as truth. When the scene plays again later, you alter (or “fuck with”) the perception of fact and force the audience to reevaluate the story by ripping off a mask or showing that the gun shot a blank or that the heroine actually dodged the bullet and didn’t fall to her death but was hanging naked by a bed sheet caught on a piece of glass.