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'People Like Us': Alex Kurtzman On Writing & Directing An Adult Drama, Hollywood's Endangered Species

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"People Like Us": Hollywood's endangered species

"People Like Us" is a rarity in Hollywood: An adult-themed movie, released by a major studio, with actual stars, and no guns, sex or aliens. Seeing it on the marquee with high concept fare like "Marvel's The Avengers" and "Ted" is akin to watching a dog walk on its hind legs. Directed and co-written by Alex Kurtzman, "People Like Us" is drama -- like the kind Hollywood used to make, when movies like "Kramer vs. Kramer" were the top films in the country.

Not that "People Like Us" is a stiff. Kurtzman (best known as the co-writer -- with his partner Roberto Orci -- on the blockbuster films "Star Trek" and "Transformers"), infuses his directorial debut with the pizazz of an action film -- quick cuts and close-ups -- all while keeping the story focused on the relationship between Sam and Frankie (Chris Pine and Elizabeth Banks, giving strong performances), two long-lost half-siblings brought together by the death of their father. The only problem? Frankie doesn't realize Sam's her relative, giving "People Like Us" some very heavy dramatic stakes. And to think, Kurtzman accomplishes all of that without an All-Spark.

HuffPost Entertainment spoke with Kurtzman about bringing "People Like Us" to the screen, whether Hollywood is done making this type of movie, and why he's excited about "Star Trek 2."

"People Like Us" has been in some stage of development for almost a decade. What was the most difficult part of bringing it to the screen?
The really difficult part of the process was the writing. It took eight years to write it. The script was a weird one. Part of it came from my own life. I met my sister when I turned 30. There was a lot of personal exploration that came from that and I did a lot of writing about it. In the very first draft, I went away from my life experience so much that it didn't feel authentic. I wanted to figure out a way to come back to it, but I also wanted to invent stuff for the story. I felt my own life maybe wasn't interesting enough. Seeing through that process took a while. What I really wanted to accomplish was a movie where you might see a character and think one thing about them in the beginning, but by the time you've gone through the journey of the movie, you realize that, not only are they a totally different character, but you see them in a totally different way. That's something you can't outline; that's something you find slowly.

I imagine a tricky part of the script was how you play the relationship between Frankie and Sam. The audience and Sam knows they're related, but Frankie does not. How did you make sure not to have that relationship go too far in the minds of the audience?
We talked about it at length. I did two and a half weeks of rehearsals. It was very important for us to do that, because we had so little time and money to make the movie. There was not going to be room on the day for broad discussions about why scenes were there. We had to get that out of the way. That meant really analyzing each scene and talking about how it was functioning in the progression of the storytelling and the relationship. What we wanted the audience to feel, first and foremost, is that we have these two very broken people, who have put up this armor to deal with life. They were both broken by the same man. So, when they meet, all the armor is defenseless against each other. They form a connection only the two of them could have because of their shared father. The problem is the relationship is built on a lie.

We wanted the audience to feel two things: So much investment in the characters that you really wanted them to be together as brother and sister. And also the looming threat of the fact that, because the relationship was built on a lie, when Frankie found out what was going on, there was inevitably going to be an explosion. That tension was really interesting to me, dramatically, because I could not figure out how to get out of it. I felt that was so cool; for an audience to have the experience, "Oh my God, I'm watching a traffic accident in slow motion. How are they going to get out of it?" It tethered me to the story.

Was it hard to convince DreamWorks to release this film, considering how adult dramas aren't really made any more by big studios?
All credit to DreamWorks. After the eight year process of finding it, I finally felt like we had it. I gave it to our partners at DreamWorks, and I said, "Guys, you don't have to like this, and you most certainly don't have to make it, I just want to know what you think of it." I gave it to them on a Thursday and I got a call on a Saturday and they said, "We're going." I don't think any other studio would have done that at all. They were very smart about the budget.

Do you think we're going to reach a point where studios don't even make dramas like this? That they'll be made only by indie studios?
God, I hope not. I really do. I really want to believe audiences want more than just one kind of movie. I certainly know I want more than one kind of movie, and I like to make all those kinds of movies. I feel like I hear too often from people, "There's nothing for me at the movies! It's always for somebody else." Part of that is because adult movies tend not to be made anymore. I think if they're made at a number that makes sense [then it works]. It does not make sense to make them for a lot of money. We had very little money by studio standards. I think that's the only way they can exist. But in a lot of ways, what's great about it is that it really forces you to go, "How am I going to use what I have to make this work?" There's no room for excess. There's zero room for it. Part of what killed the dramatic movie at the studio level in the last couple of years wasn't just that the tastes started shifting, but I think a lot of these movies were made excessively. So, the ability to recoup on your investment is lower. If they're going to continue to be made, I think they have to be made at a price. Which I think is a good thing.

Not to put words in your mouth, but like "How Do You Know" from James L. Brooks cost around $120 million to make, and it only made $48 million worldwide...
And yet, James Brooks is one of my all-time favorite filmmakers. We wouldn't be in this place without "Terms of Endearment," "Broadcast News," "As Good As It Gets." He brought in a whole generation of filmmakers. I want to believe there's room for that still. Given how much things are changing, it might take a while to see where they fit, you know?

Shifting gears to the movies that studios do make: What did you learn writing "Star Trek" that helped inform how you went about writing "Star Trek 2"?
On the first one we were utterly terrified because we thought we were going to get killed. As fans of "Trek" we were talking about shifting the timeline and recasting. We were all very aware there was a high degree of failure there. We put all of our love and focus into it, and people liked the movie, which was very heartening. I think that one of the things that happened immediately was that the studio said, "Let's go make another one right away!" And we felt, "Whoa, hold on!" We all felt that rather than rush the second one into production, we needed to wait a year to give ourselves the time to metabolize what had worked about the movie. Not to be on set scrambling to fix problems, but to take the time to make sure the story was worth telling. If the studio wanted to shoot in 3D, which is exciting, give us the time to prep that correctly. Make that organic in the DNA of both the storytelling and how we go about making the movie. So it feels like a real choice, as opposed to something that was imposed on us. J.J. Abrams has done an extraordinary job shooting the movie, and I think we feel like we were really happy we took the time, because we were ready when we went out again.

On the other end of the spectrum, you've been hired to write the sequel to "The Amazing Spider-Man," even though you don't even know who's going to be back or what audiences will respond to. Was there any pause about taking that job?
I think we went into that movie not knowing what to expect, but we walked out of it utterly in love. It's so on the money tonally and Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone are so amazing. They're so good. All the producers are wonderful. In the same way we talked about our protection of "Star Trek," they felt the same way about "Spider-Man." It wasn't a cynical money grab. It was like, "We love this. This is our baby. We need to make it great. We want to continue it in the right way." I think we were so excited about how they were talking about it, their excitement was infectious.

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