Writer-director producer Alex Kurtzman co-created the Fox television series Fringe and served as a writer-producer on Alias. His screenwriting credits include Mission: Impossible 3, Transformers, and Star Trek. He now makes his directorial debut with People Like Us, which he also co-wrote and which stars Chris Pine. An alum of U.C. Berkeley and ACT, Pine has trod the boards extensively, as well as starring in the films Bottle Shock, Unstoppable, and Star Trek, in which he plays Captain James T. Kirk. In People Like Us, he plays Sam, a man who wrestles with the discovery of a half-sister he never knew he had. During their recent visit to San Francisco, Kurtzman and Pine chatted with me at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel.
Groucho: I always start looking for the fine print when I see the words "Inspired by true events."
Alex Kurtzman: Yes.
Groucho: But that’s actually something of a bravely honest statement when I think about this film. It’s heavily fictionalized but it’s also deeply personal. Alex, you met your own half-sister and half-brother when you were all adults, right? What were you most keen about recapturing of that experience?
Alex Kurtzman: Well, first of all, I so appreciate what you said because I really wrestled with whether or not to put that in the advertising of the movie. You know, it’s one thing to make the movie; it’s another thing to advertise it that way, and the truth is I sort of had to have my arm twisted into it, but in really wrestling with the decision, what I came to realize is that it is an entirely true statement. It is inspired by true events. And that means that there was room to fictionalize what was absolutely a true event for me. And I needed to be able to sit here and talk to you, when you asked me that question, with a straight face about why it felt authentic. And I think that after eight years of writing the script and separating truth from fiction and figuring out what of myself to put into it and not put into it, I can honestly stand behind the statement that it is emotionally very, very authentic. Your first question was about—
G: What you wanted to recapture of the experience.
AK: Oh. I guess the simplest way to put it is that when I met my half-siblings, what started to emerge very quickly for me was the sense of lost time. And, God, you know, a whole lifetime has gone by. We could have known each other. And to me there was something sad and also wonderfully redeeming about the opportunity that we still had the chance. And that really is what is happening at the end of the movie—is that once the explosions have gone off and everyone is picking up the pieces of their lives—you know, what Sam says to Frankie: "We’re the only two people who know what it’s like." That’s just utterly the truth, you know? And the story really begins when the movie ends because now they can go off and have a real sibling relationship together.
G: Chis, I assume a lot of your prep went into fleshing out with Michelle Pfeiffer, who plays your mother, some of your mutual character history. Can you talk a little about what came up there and your experience of working with her.
Chris Pine: Uh, yeah. I met Michelle at a first kind of work-read-through-ish kind of thing. Well, at the read-through, but I think even before that at the hotel in L.A.. with Alex and her and, yeah, we talked continually even up until maybe the night of shooting the scene where we get stoned and take a walk together about—I mean certainly—look, these two characters don’t share exactly the same perspective on what happened. I mean Sam was the child growing up in that household that he thinks was really screwed up. But certainly, I mean, yeah, when was the last time—? For instance, the first time I walk into that house, I really wanted to know, and I think Michelle really wanted to know, as Jerry was dying of cancer, what exactly happened: how many phone calls did she get from him, did she hear from me at all? When was the last time I was home? When was the last time I saw Jerry? So when I walked in there, there was, like you noted, a really firm foundation of all these kind of playable things—after which we could kind of figure out the moments that were happening on screen. So fleshing out that history in this film in particular was very, very, very important, and while we all had our different ideas, I think at least for Michelle and I, we shared similar ideas.
G: For all our technological connections, social disconnection seems to be a sign of the times. Which is reflected in the original title of the film, "Welcome to People." Do you guys relate to that element of yearning but fumbling to be a person—maybe especially in L.A.?
AK: Yeah, for sure, I think everybody is—if you’re a conscious human being on the planet, I think you’re walking through life trying to figure out who you are. And that’s not something that happens just because you grow up. And certainly feel like striving to be the best version of yourself is always the goal. And it is probably uniquely hard in Los Angeles—sometimes because, you know, it’s a tricky town and our industry is tricky. But at the same time, as a native of Los Angeles, it’s home for me. And it’s safety for me. And my Los Angeles is not the Los Angeles that necessarily you see in movies all the time. It’s not the Hollywood sign and Mann’s Chinese Theatre. It’s the small spaces that are meaningful and private. And that’s actually very much what I wanted to show in the movie. My L.A. You know, the L.A. you don’t see as often.
CP: Yeah, I think—no matter if it’s L.A. or San Francisco or wherever, people are going to be on their iPhones and people are going to be Twitter-ing and Facebook-ing all sorts of stuff that I actually think leads to a weird, fake intimacy—instead of really sitting down with—like we see in this movie, people sitting across from one another and hashing out stuff, which I think—you’re not going to Facebook-ing your Mom saying, "Let’s talk about Dad," probably. There’s something that does not beat seeing someone and talking in front of their face and seeing their reaction: you’re playing off—it’s the humanity of you sitting there with a microphone, and we’re across from one another. We’re not on a phone, we’re not Facebook-ing or Twitter-ing one another: this is real.
G: And that’s something actually that leads to—well, the next question, which is about, unless I missed my guess, you guys used two cameras running simultaneously for many of the scenes. Is that right?
AK: Yeah, as much as possible, Sal Totino, my cinematographer is one of the greatest people on Earth. I said to him, "I really want to try to have as many cameras as possible because I want a feeling of looseness, and I don’t want the feeling that if a magic moment happens, it has to be replicated in the next film. I want to make sure it’s covered from both sides," which made my editor Bob Leighton’s life utter hell because we had just so much footage. But that was the only way, I think, to capture the real moment.
G: Yeah. It was hugely effective because you could tell this was happening in real time, and it gives it more of a theatre feel almost.
AK: Yeah. Thank you for that.
G: I have to ask: the Star Trek sequel’s wrapped—I know you can’t say anything specific and I wouldn’t ask you to—but can you maybe talk about what new colors you might get to play with Kirk the second time around, or tease the film in any way?
CP: What I’ll say is that um, hmm. I have to mark my words carefully. I think that—you know, in the first film we see a brash young man learning how to be the captain of men and women, and leading men and women into battle. What does that mean? Really, what does that mean? As a young man, I think Kirk is still on that journey becoming the captain we all know, and I think our new film explores that even more: of what it means to be a captain when your kind of innate brashness and confidence comes head to head with the stark responsibility of leading men and women in battle. And I think Kirk’s getting there, but he’s still—like this movie, he’s on his way to becoming—he hasn’t quite reached "people." He’s like fifty miles out, you know? But he’s definitely on the way.
G: All right, well, thanks very much for being on the show. Good luck with the film.
AK: Thanks very much.
CP: Thank you.
[This interview first ran on Celluloid Dreams—90.5 FM in San Jose. Listen on the web at www.celluloiddreams.net.]