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THE SCREENWRITER'S CRAFT

'Star Trek' writing pair cling on to their partnership

Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman met in high school and have forged a reputation for scripting blockbuster movies and eerie series.

March 29, 2009|Geoff Boucher

On a leafy hillside on the Universal Studios lot, childhood friends Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman share not just a bungalow but a single desk that sits beneath large letters that spell out "C-O-F-F-E-E" -- vintage neon salvaged from an old diner. There, sitting face to face and finishing each other's sentences, the screenwriters crank out tales of the fantastic for Hollywood, including two of this summer's biggest popcorn films, "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" and "Star Trek," as well as Fox's eerie hit series "Fringe."

The two met in their senior year at Crossroads School for Arts & Sciences, the Santa Monica private school that lists Amy Pascal, Michael Bay, Jack Black and Gwyneth Paltrow among its alumni, and their great bonding moment was their mutual passion for "sex, lies, and videotape," the 1989 Steven Soderbergh film that became a signature moment in American independent film. There were, however, no giant robots or photon torpedoes in that Soderbergh script.

"We came from a place of passion for independent films and imagined ourselves writing films like that, but now, for better or worse, we have developed a reputation as guys who write 'big' movies," Kurtzman said. "And I'd really like 'good' to also be an adjective that's used. I don't think they're mutually exclusive. You really can do both."

Perhaps, but the critics haven't always been kind to their movies, which include "Mission: Impossible III," "Transformers," "The Island" and "The Legend of Zorro." But in a town where screenwriters are often viewed as interchangeable parts, they have become a brand name and have even expanded into the role of producers, a rarity for scribes. Their specialty is science fiction that is brainy but crowd pleasing, and they've become trusted wordsmiths for Steven Spielberg, Bay, D.J. Caruso and, most notably, J.J. Abrams, director of the latest installment of "Star Trek" and creator of "Fringe" as well as shows such as "Lost," "Alias" and "Felicity."

"What I admire about them is their work ethic," said Caruso, who worked with the pair on 2008's "Eagle Eye." "They burn the midnight oil and support your vision full force. Alex is intelligent and intense and Bob can make any intense situation ridiculously funny. What's unusually cool about them is that they have maintained the producer-writer power that they earned in television and carried that over into the feature film area, and that is extremely rare."

The pair are candid about their desire to prove themselves with less frothy fare in the future -- they'd like to reconnect with their old indie spirit. Asked what they have to prove to the world, they looked at each other. Kurtzman nodded to his old friend: "You go first."

"We'd like to write something that takes place on Earth but only with human beings. No robots, no aliens, no spaceships, no explosions," Orci said. "We'd like to prove all that time we spent learning about characters actually allows us to write something sustained solely through character."

Kurtzman grinned. "Yeah, I was going to say the same thing."

Kurtzman and Orci, both 35, met in a film studies class and seized on the idea of becoming screenwriters with a focus that seems to take place only with kids coming of age near the spotlight in Southern California.

Although many writers are loners by nature, the teens hitched together their careers and began studying the dynamics of notable partnerships, whether songwriting teams or business-world tandems. They were especially intrigued by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, although they found themselves in a much warmer friendship than that historic Hollywood pair, who never really socialized beyond the writers room.

"We approached it almost like we were in a band, and we very purposely studied teams to find out what are the pitfalls," Kurtzman said. "Why do teams break apart? Why don't they work? We read about teams that succeeded and started to kind of use their language. One big thing that makes the wheels start to wobble is when someone feels that the contribution isn't 50-50. We make sure we live up to the partnership. If we didn't, we wouldn't have lasted this long."

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Now it's getting personal

When you write about clones, Romulans and secret agents, you usually don't get to mine your own life for material, but while writing "Star Trek," the pair made an odd discovery. In crafting the new cinematic adventure about the Academy days of a young James T. Kirk and Mr. Spock -- before they hopped on the U.S.S. Enterprise to boldly go where no man has gone before -- the writers saw something familiar in the characters who represent fiery emotion and cold logic. "We didn't even realize we were writing about ourselves until we were halfway through the script," said logical Orci, whose eyebrows give him a sort of Vulcan mien. "That was a little embarrassing."

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