Alex Kurtzman isn’t exactly a household name, but 98% of the people reading this have seen at least one of his movies.
Together with his writing partner Robert Orci, Kurtzman penned the scripts for the first two Transformers movies, J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot (and his Mission: Impossible sequel), and last summer’s Cowboys & Aliens. Kurtzman’s producing credits include the television shows Xena: Warrior Princess, Alias, Hawaii Five-O and the cult hit Fringe.
Now Kurtzman’s stepping behind the camera to direct People Like Us, a tenderhearted story of redemption that finds Chris Pine (Capt. Kirk of the excellent Trek reboot) picking up the pieces of his fractured family after his father passes away. The writer-director spoke with us about his first day on set, the talent in his ensemble and what he saw in Pine while they collaborated on Trek. Here’s Alex Kurtzman:
Movies.com: You are a first-time director who brings a ton of on-set experience to his directorial debut. Tell me about your first day of shooting. How did that feel being the responsible one? How different was it from previous experiences on set?
Alex Kurtzman: Well, I had done a lot of prep, and I had such an incredible crew around me. They made me feel so safe, so quickly while we were in prep. I also had come off of two-and-a-half weeks of rehearsals with my actors, which we felt was really important given the nature of the material. So by the time day one rolled around, as nervous as I was, I also was like, “Let’s go!” I really wanted to hit the ground running. So it was nerve-racking and terrifying and totally, unbelievably exhilarating and wonderful. I remember coming home that first night to my wife and saying, “This is the best job in the world!”
Movies.com: Maybe I’m wrong, but that amount of prep time with your cast seems rare, isn’t it?
Kurtzman: To have that amount of time on a studio movie is pretty rare. But the studio was extremely gracious in giving me the time because the bottom line is that I didn’t have a spaceship, an explosion or a robot to cut to, so if the dialogue wasn’t working, and the interactions between my actors wasn’t working, then I had nothing. In the same way that you preview an action sequence for months before shooting, then I guess this would be the equivalent, because that is where the beating heart of my movie lies.
Movies.com: Let’s talk about how you direct actors. You have a fantastic cast, yet each has their own individual style. Did you give them as many takes as they needed to find the difficult emotional moments in the script?
Kurtzman: You know, I have very little experience as a director. I have a lot of experience working with directors, watching them work, but very little experience … I mean, I did some television, but it’s so different.
So I kind of just went with my gut. That was the best barometer. Casting is your first and most important choice when it comes to directing. If the people you cast are dialed into your material, they are going to do more than half of your job for you.
But I also really felt that the best way to get the rawest performances out of everybody was to give them the room to find it. After having worked for eight years on the script, I knew why every period and comma was there. That freed me up to say to my cast, “What do you think? How do you want to do this?” We would have wonderful conversations about the different ways to play the material. The actors are such finely-tuned machines, all of them, with different skills sets and such experience. With Michelle [Pfeiffer], for example, there was such instant trust that I’d give her minor adjustments on set and then see these miraculous changes happen between takes, and I was endlessly amazed at how brilliant she is. And the same goes for Elizabeth [Banks], and the same goes for Chris [Pine] and Olivia [Wilde]. I was so lucky to have them! So the short answer to your question is that I trusted the material so much because of the eight years I spent working on it that it was a joy and a pleasure to give it over to the actors and let them find out a way to make it real.
Movies.com: What did you see in Chris on the set of Star Trek that told you he had what it took to play the lead in People?
Kurtzman: Having worked with him in Trek, that story was about a young, rebellious kid who finds himself inheriting a captain’s chair. He has an arc that goes from that kid to the beginning of adulthood. And I watched Chris perform it with … listen, that was a very, very difficult role for anyone to walk into, to play Capt. Kirk. You are stepping into William Shatner’s shoes. And I’m not sure how many more Shatner impersonations we need to see in this lifetime. But it was one of those things where Chris managed to bring his own thing to it. It never felt like a Shatner parody, and yet you understood that there were certain shared traits that still made it Capt. Kirk. It was understated, but brilliant.
But I’d also seen Chris on stage in a play called The Lieutenant of Inishmore in L.A., and he was 180 degrees in the opposite direction. He plays an Irish terrorist who is in love with his cat. It was this broad and wonderful character, and yet Chris found a way to make it truthful. Then he was incredibly good in Farragut North. My instinct was that he has so much more range then people may be aware of at this point.
I also feel that there are very few men in film today. You know? There are very few American actors who are real men. Chris is a guy. He’s a guy’s guy. But when you look in his eyes, there’s a 10-year-old boy. And that is exactly what I needed from Sam, because Sam is a character who puts on all of this armor because of the way he was ignored as a child. He’s barely holding on to life, really. And when it all comes crashing down, what you see is this kid who is frightened, and whose dad wasn’t there. Sam is a character who makes so many bad choices in this movie. And in order for an audience to stick with him, they have to think that he was trying, but he just didn’t have the tools to make the right choices because he grew up in a house of lies. And I just thought Chris got that, immediately. Directing him is one of the great joys of my life, and I really hope audiences see this movie and recognize what a true talent that he is.