Interview: People Like Us Director Alex Kurtzman

Just about every summer for the past eight years, it’s likely that you see at least one movie that involved the writing and producing team of Alex Kurtzman and Bob Orci, whether it’s the “Transformers” movies, J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot, last year’s Cowboys & Aliens or even the hit Sandra Bullock-Ryan Reynolds romantic comedy The Proposal.

Kurtzman is finally making his feature film directorial debut with People Like Us, a far more intimate and personal story, one based on experiences from his own life that have been morphed into a serious character drama with none of the genre elements we’ve seen in much of his past work.

The movie stars Chris Pine as Sam Harper, a trade negotiator who returns home to Los Angeles after the death of his music biz father in order to get some closure with his mother (played by Michelle Pfeiffer). Instead, he discovers that he has a half-sister named Frankie (Elizabeth Banks) from his father’s previous relationship. Frankie’s a single mother, working bartending jobs and trying to raise a rebellious son named Josh, but Sam has trouble finding a way of revealing his relationship to them, especially since there’s $150,000 of inheritance money coming their way which he could use to deal with his own financial trouble. It also stars Olivia Wilde as Sam’s girlfriend who doesn’t understand the crisis Sam is facing.

ComingSoon.net has spoken quite regularly to Alex Kurtzman and his long-time collaborator over the year, and just like the good will they’ve created with DreamWorks that got them behind this project, they have a lot of good will with us, too.

Alex’s first feature as a director is a terrific character drama unlike anything we normally see coming from the major studios, at least not in the summertime–you can read our review here–so we were more than happy to get on the phone with Kurtzman to talk about it.

ComingSoon.net: We’ve spoken a bunch over the years and I’m not sure this project ever came up even though you’ve been developing it for quite a long time, right?
Alex Kurtzman:
Yeah, eight years. Basically what happened was–as you may or may not have read–it’s based on some of the things that happened to me. I met my sister when I turned 30 and it kind of blew the doors off my life and thus began the process of writing this movie. I’d known about my sister–I have two half-siblings–my Dad had had another family before our Mom had us and I’d known about them but just had never met them. I met them and that exploration really led to the movie. It was a different one for us on so many different levels, but here’s the truth. Bob and I, we always thought we were going to be writing independent films. We grew up in the heyday of independent films. We were both obsessed with “Sex, Lies and Videotape” – we both thought it was amazing and that’s what we thought we were going to do, then our lives took us down a very different road. It’s been an amazing road and I think part of what was so gratifying about writing this movie together was an opportunity to go back to our roots in a way. We didn’t write it for anybody but ourselves. We didn’t do it for money, it was just a total labor or love. We got to really live in the details of our lives and collecting details just from observing things happen, and we don’t always have the time to do that kind of thing. Our goal is always as much as we possibly can to try to put as much ourselves into the material, but depending on the movie and what we can do in the movies, we’ll always have varying degrees of success with that. But in this particular case, it was just about letting this movie be a true expression of us.

CS: Did you actually try to do it as an independent film back when you first started writing it?
Kurtzman:
No, the truth is that I don’t think we ever thought it would get made. It was one of those things that we just said, “You know, we just have to write this because we have to write it, because it just means that much to us,” but I don’t think we had any illusions and we never imagined this would ever happen. I think in our best case scenario, we thought, “Maybe what will happen is that we’d scrounge together a couple hundred dollars from some independent financier and go make a guerilla movie and really have fun doing that.” When it ended up being a studio movie, which in so many ways is a dream, but I never imagined could ever be a reality, it was amazing.

CS: You’d worked with Chris and Olivia before so were you and Bob sneaking scripts to them on set of those other movies?
Kurtzman:
Yes, we worked with both of them, and I think with Chris, he did something very remarkable in taking on the part of Kirk in that there are very characters as iconic as that character, and he managed to give a performance that I think was not in any way a parody, but had echoes of things that were Kirkian, and in a way it’s the story of a very young, rebellions and angry man with a lot of Dad issues who in the movie, takes his first step into adulthood by inheriting the Captain’s chair. And then I saw Chris at the Taper in “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” and in “Farragut North” and thought “This guy’s range is incredible,” and I loved that and I just had a gut instinct that he was going to respond to the material, so I called him and said, “I’d love you to do this and would you like to check it out?” and he read it and right away said, “I’ll do it.” I think for Chris, that’s rare. He really takes time to think about what he wants to do, and I think it just spoke to the fact that he responded to the character he was playing.

CS: I assume you always wanted to direct this, so did it take some convincing of either Steven Spielberg or DreamWorks to allow you to direct? Or was that always part of the deal?
Kurtzman:
No, it didn’t and they deserve an unbelievable amount of credit for that, because movies like this typically aren’t getting made by studios, and they were unflinching and unhesitating in their desire to make the movie, and never once did the question come up about whether or not I was qualified to direct it. I felt a tremendous responsibility to live up to the trust that they were giving me. Frankly, some of the movies that we grew up loving were a lot of the Cameron Crowe movies and movies like “Kramer vs. Kramer,” “Ordinary People” and “Rain Man.” There was this bygone era that I think view through a very romantic lens of studio-built character stories that really resonated and lasted for audiences over many generations. Obviously those days are kind of over now, and I felt like this was an opportunity to go back to that and tell a great character story and yet have it be a studio movie. I really felt like it was a gift to be able to do that, ‘cause it just doesn’t happen very often.

CS: You guys have a co-writer on this in Jody Lambert, and there were clearly some changes made from your own life. I have a feeling you were never a trade negotiator. Can you talk about bringing on Jody and how you wanted to change the story so it wasn’t completely autobiographical?
Kurtzman:
Right, exactly. First of all, my life story is nowhere near as fraught or interesting, so it was just about taking what I felt emotional about and finding a way to amplify that in the story, but Jody and I met our freshman year in college, and Jody was an acting student when I had not declared a major, and I really felt strongly at a gut level that this movie, in order for it to work, needed to be an actor piece and it needed to be a piece that was built around the idea of the performances and nothing else. Jody and I share a love for all the same movies, both studio and independent, so I felt that I’d love to write this with Jody and part of what his voice will help us calibrate is that Bob and I are so trained and there’s a rigidity to the structure of the movies we write, and it’s by necessity, given what the movies are. Audiences expect certain things to happen in action movies at a certain pace, and I wanted a voice in the process that wasn’t constrained by that thinking. Jody is one of my dearest friends, so I loved the idea of the three of us getting together and he was a critical part of it.

CS: What about shooting in L.A.? It’s very expensive to shoot there these days and many movies that are supposed to take place there will shoot somewhere else. Can you talk about the decision to shoot L.A. for L.A.?
Kurtzman:
Yeah, two things. First of all, we qualified for the L.A. tax credit because we were such a low-budget movie, so that helped us a lot, and I felt very strongly that when you look at movies about Los Angeles, it’s so typically the Hollywood sign and the Mann’s Chinese Theater and anyone who really lives in L.A. knows that’s not the L.A. that real Angelinos inhabit. I think L.A. is often about small, personal spaces for people. I really wanted to show an L.A. that was not the L.A. you’ve seen on film, that was about Henry’s Tacos and was about Coles, and was about Neptune’s Net and the places that I feel aren’t always filmed. I also felt like L.A. was the fifth character of the movie because Jerry Harper, I always felt that it was a ghost story. His character is haunting everybody and everywhere they go, there’s a little bit of Jerry Harper there, so when Sam walks into Coles and meets Mike, Jerry’s attorney, at the beginning, Mike says, “We used to come here every Friday for the last 35 years,” you realize that Sam is literally walking into the spaces that his Dad inhabited. I really felt I wanted an L.A. that was effective of that idea.

CS: Let’s talk about Michelle Pfeiffer, which was a pretty major catch. She hasn’t been doing that much lately and I assume she’s very selective. How did you come to Michelle to play Sam’s mother?
Kurtzman:
First of all, I can’t say enough about how amazing she is on so many levels. Just the trust that she gave me as a first-time director, someone with her experience, was such a gift. She approached the character in such an open-hearted way, and I said to her, “This is the thing about Lilian. This is a woman who has been sitting by her dying husband’s side for the last year and the first time she’s put on make-up in many, many months and it’s just for the funeral and that’s when we meet her. What I don’t want to do is betray the truth of that experience and let’s be honest, you’re one of the most beautiful women in the history of time, so I just want to make sure we’re being authentic.” She said, “I’ll do whatever you want to be truthful to this character” and she never once wavered from that commitment ever. I think she looks more beautiful than ever now actually because she was so truthful and raw. Just to be able to work with her and to learn from her experience but also, imagine if you write a script and suddenly, Michelle Pfeiffer raises her hand and says she wants to do it. The minute I sat down with her, within one minute I knew that she was the one and that we were going to click completely. I felt that there was a soulful connection and I’d call “cut” and she’d run up to me and grab my arm and say, “What else can we do? How else can we do this?” It was always in this place of enthusiasm. She just wanted to dive in and I’m so grateful to her for that.

CS: You’re directing your first movie but you’re also producing all these television shows and a couple of movies, so how was it to balance all that stuff? Directing a movie does take a lot more time than some of the other functions you’ve done.
Kurtzman:
Oh, yeah. I mean, look, the truth is that I would never have been able to do it without my incredible partner Bob. When I went off to do this movie, I went off to do this movie and that’s what I was working on, and Bob handled everything else. It was also a testament to our partnership, I think, after twenty years that that could happen. It was yet another evolutionary step in our long-term partnership and I’m so grateful to him for that, because he really had a lot on his shoulders while I was doing this. No joke. Producing “Ender’s Game,” producing “Cowboys & Aliens,” he was really doing it, and I couldn’t have done it without him.

CS: When you got into the editing phase, did Bob come in as he would as per your normal collaboration as a co-producer?
Kurtzman:
No, you know, I wanted to keep him at 30,000 feet because I needed his overview objectivity. The more you watch something, the less you’re able to really say, “Big picture, here’s the problem.” You start putting band-aids on things ‘cause you lose focus on the big picture, and I really wanted his eye for that because he’s extraordinary at looking at the chessboard and seeing the big picture, and I didn’t want to take that away from him. I felt that I’d be doing the movie a big disservice – there are already enough voices in the process on a minutia level, so he was great with that.

CS: I was surprised when I went to the AMC Empire in Times Square, one of the busiest theaters in the country, and they had an absolutely enormous display for the movie right off the escalators where everyone can see it. It seems like Disney and DreamWorks are really getting behind your movie.
Kurtzman:
For sure, for sure, and I think Disney has done an incredible job with being very thoughtful and targeted about who are audience is and who we’re trying to reach. This is a grown-up movie and I really want to believe that in the summertime where there’s just so much noise, movies like “Exotic Marigold Hotel” or even “The Intouchables”–and obviously “The Help” last summer–I think suggest there’s an audience that’s hungry for movies that are about people and about our common experience, and I’m just really excited about that.

CS: You mentioned before that this is not the kind of movie that we see studios making and compared to “Kramer vs. Kramer,” but how do you feel about coming out in the summer against the movies you would normally be making?
Kurtzman:
Well, it’s very ironic of course, but the summer is so often about a lot of noise and my great hope is that some of the movies like I mentioned that have succeeded lately have been succeeding because I think older audiences are hungry to go to the movies and see themselves reflected on screen, so look, we’re absolutely the counter-programming thing, there’s no question, and that’s the standard we’re being held to, so I hope adults want to see a movie that’s an adult movie and that’s what we’re doing.

You can read what Kurtzman said about some of the other projects he’s working on with his partner Bob Orci, including the sequels to The Amazing Spider-Man and Star Trek and their adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game by clicking here.

People Like Us opens nationwide on Friday, June 29.

(Photo Credit: Apega/WENN.com)

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