Interview: Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci

We speak to the Star Trek II and Cowboys & Aliens writers.

It would be challenging to find a writing/producing team more powerful today in Hollywood than long-time collaborators Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci. Not only have they previously worked on such recent feature films as Mission: Impossible III and 2009’s Star Trek, but they’ve also provided the screenplay for Cowboys & Aliens, produced and co-wrote the pilot for the new TV version of Hawaii Five-0 and have just struck a deal for the TV version of the Joe Hill graphic novel Locke & Key. In the following exclusive interview, the duo, who got their start penning the Nineties TV series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, detail the crafting of the screenplay for Cowboys & Aliens.

What got you guys involved with adapting Cowboys & Aliens?
Roberto Orci: Honestly, the title. It’s hard to find new stuff these days, in this market, that the studio is willing to take a chance on when it’s unknown. This is both unknown and it’s original – the title is so provocative and anyone who hears it, I think it sparks their imagination and it was no different with us.
Alex Kurtzman: I also think it was the opportunity to do something really original that slams two genres we’re devoted fans of together, and takes both so seriously. It was just an amazing challenge, because figuring out how they fit together was deceptively tricky in many ways, but it was really rewarding with what we ended up coming to.

We know the movie isn’t coming out until next summer, but is there some sort of nugget you can give us about the plot?

AK: I think the tone of this is the whole ball game in a lot of ways. Both genres run the gamut from Spaceballs to 2001, and Wild Wild West to Unforgiven, so figuring out where this movie lived, and the various degrees between those movies was the challenge of figuring out its tone.
Do you feel the two different genres blend together?
RO: We heard the title and we were, like, “Let’s do it!” And we sat down to write it and said, “Oh man, this is going to be harder than we thought.” I mean, you want it to seem seamless to the audience and to feel organic, not just seem like one movie is interrupting the other movie and they don’t go together. They have to weave together naturally, and of course I think that’s why it’s been in development for so long. It’s been around for 12 years – I think everyone who took a stab at it could come up with various degrees of both genres, but finding just the right blend of both that went together, such that it’s a unified whole and not just two noises going together, that was the trick.

We must imagine if you’re doing the Western portion prior to the aliens showing up, it has to feel like a Western?
AK: We always describe it as, “Imagine you’re watching Unforgiven, and the aliens from Alien land,” and we’re never doing it tongue in cheek. We’re never doing wink, wink at the audience, we are committed to a very serious tone, which doesn’t preclude a lot of fun, but I think you have to take both genres seriously, and the collision of the genres seriously, or the movie will not work.

The arrival of aliens in that world would be shocking to them.
RO: And that’s the fun of it, gauging the reaction to aliens with superior firepower and technology they’ve never seen, arriving without it being “yuck, yuck”. Our intent was to run from that kind of tone.
AK: And it’s another way not to take the sci-fi for granted – audiences have seen lots of alien movies, and to see it through the eyes of characters who haven’t experienced that brings you back to the shock and the wonder of aliens, and of not being alone in the universe, to see it through people who don’t even have a phone yet.

Your early drafts were written with Robert Downey, Jr in mind, right?
RO: We wrote a draft of it with a voice that we thought might fit him, with him in mind, and then we realised it wasn’t exactly right for the tone of the movie. A Western is oftentimes about what you don’t say and about sparseness and succinctness, and the events, so in finding the tone, our first draft was too jokey, and then our second was too serious, but with each successive draft, it became closer and closer to what it needed to be.
AK: When the cast started coming together, it ended up dictating a lot of tone as well, because when you have Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford and Sam Rockwell, and Olivia Wilde and Paul Dano, and everyone in this incredible cast, it starts to tell you a little bit about what the movie sounds like. We spent a good month with everyone in rehearsals, just re-writing and re-writing and getting it to a pitch that everyone agreed on.

Once actors like that sign on, they become very hands-on with their characters, don’t they?

RO: For sure. I think everyone’s enthusiasm across the board was really great. And then what I think happens is when you have Harrison and Daniel, aka Indiana Jones and James Bond, it starts to really set up a series of expectations: what is it going to be like when those two amazing stars collide into each other? That determined a lot of what we did in the scene work, too.

Do you see a film like this as a way of making the Western palatable for the audience again?
AK: It’s our job! You have to do that in this movie, you can’t just take the Western for granted at all. In fact, there were several times during shooting that it occurred to us that if we didn’t have a story that couldn’t continue without the aliens landing, we didn’t really have a story. So this movie should be able to continue, the situation you see in the beginning of the movie, the first half of the movie, should be able to continue without the sci-fi interrupting it. You can’t just rely on the sci-fi to save you from the fact that you couldn’t figure out what the story should have been, had this other thing not interfered.
One question comes to mind: how is a six-shooter going to take down a spaceship? Is that part of the fun of the movie?
AK: That’s exactly it.

How much does the movie have to do with the graphic novel?
RO: The premise and the theme of different kinds of people coming together was definitely something that was inspired by the graphic novel, but one of the things we like to do is make sure that audiences are surprised by the story when they come to movies, so we wanted to make sure that it was something new. If you’ve read the graphic novel, you’ll understand the world and a flavour of what the themes might be, but you won’t know the story, so what we’re doing is very much inspired by the novel, but we wanted to make sure it was also a surprise.

You both were in place as writers on the film before director Jon Favreau was. What do you think he brings to the project?

RO: He would tell you himself that he is the tone police. The tone of the movie is basically the whole ball game, and he is great at tone. You can even see that with the Iron Man movies. When people weren’t sure what they were going to be, he blends the needs of the comic with the needs of the general audience with the needs of fans. Here you have two tones that have to mix, you have the Western and the sci-fi, so he is really about making sure that we’re not going out of the lane and into the gutter with whatever we’re doing, and keeping it as realistic without losing the fun as possible. He’s great with actors, being an actor himself. I think part of the reason we got the amazing cast that we did was because they felt comfortable that Jon understood the leap of faith they were taking with a title like this, and that they were going to be protected and he was going to know how to communicate with them.

What amazes us is the pedigree involved with this film.
AK: We’re still shocked! Look, between Ron Howard and Steven Spielberg [who act as producers on the project], they really are the modern day keepers of the Western and sci-fi flames, and in developing the script, to be able to take a note from Steven or Ron, and to have them gauge whether or not we felt authentic to those genres, was the greatest trust fall you could ever take, because you always knew it was coming from the authorities.

Do the days of working on Hercules: The Legendary Journeys seem like another lifetime to you?

RO: For me it feels oddly recent.
AK: I would say the same thing, because I think the lessons we learned on those shows still apply to every minute, of every hour of every day. And what we learned on those shows was to take your genre seriously and love it, and to not wink at the audience because then they’ll feel disrespected. Although those shows were considered high camp, we never wrote them that way. So I think, a title like Cowboys & Aliens could easily have fallen into a camp approach. I would think that was why it never got off the ground before, because people had tried that version, and it never quite worked.

When you were starting out, could you have pictured yourselves being where you are now?
RO: Truth is, yes. I thought we had a pretty good chance to make a living at it, which I think is a miracle, to make a living in this business at all – we wanted to go the independent film route, we thought we would make much smaller stuff, and yes we felt confident we could make a living. But we never thought we’d be part of such major projects.
AK: I don’t think we ever thought we would be sharing company with the people we’re working with now. At the same time, we felt there was no option for us other than to make movies; that was where we just lived and breathed, and without that it would be like taking away oxygen. Certainly we didn’t imagine sitting on a set with Harrison and Daniel and Steven and Jon.
RO: We thought it would take us too long, to the point where they wouldn’t even be around any more! That’s why it feels fast to us – that’s why it doesn’t seem like Hercules was that long ago.

Cowboys & Aliens is set for release 29 July 2011 in the US.