Alex Kurtzman and Bob Orci are probably two of the busiest screenwriters working today. It seems like every month we hear of a new project they’re scripting, developing, or what have you (a look at their current IMDb pages includes listings for upcoming projects, from The Amazing Spider-Man 2 to that Van Helsing reboot). Their schedules have certainly stopped me from interviewing them in the past, and when their names are appearing on four high-profile films in the span of a single year, you can see why scheduling would be a bit of a problem.
Now the pair has two projects coming out only weeks apart, with Star Trek Into Darkness and Now You See Me both arriving this spring. Now You See Me has a chance of being a sleeper success, while Into Darkness already opened to impressive numbers this past weekend. It’s been four years since their Trek reboot, and ever since then there’s been plenty of rumors over what exactly J.J. Abrams was hiding in his mystery box.
With the film finally out, we spoke with screenwriters/producers about what that box contained in a SPOILER-filled discussion:
Obviously there’s more pressure riding on this film than the 2009 Trek film, because of the expectations that have been built since then. Having written sequels and being film fans yourselves, what have you found that works and doesn’t work for a sequel?
Orci: Well, you have to treat a sequel as its own movie. What doesn’t work is relying on the expectation that the audience loves the movie or your franchise. You can’t get lazy, so you have to treat the sequel as, well, not a sequel. That’s the trick: it’s just a movie. Every movie has to stand on its own.
Kurtzman: Yeah. As Bob just said, every franchise comes with its own rules, so it’s difficult to apply one rule to all of them. Spider-Man is different from Star Trek, you know? Take your pick. Each has its own rules. You have to know the beating heart and soul of each one. It’s incredibly important to acknowledge what worked and didn’t work with the movie that came before it. Also, it’s important to have it be its own thing and a story that can stand on its own. Typically, one rule of thumb for us is the importance of a bad guy in a sequel. Our favorite sequels stood on their own and had uniquely memorable bad guys. We feel like that’s an important thing. If we can draw one lesson from our sequel experience, it’s make your bad guy great. The first movie tends to be about the coming together of what’s becoming of whoever the hero is. The second movie is typically about putting them through a massive test. Obviously, that involves a character who is capable of doing that, which is where your bad guy comes into play.
And you made a risky choice with your villain. Using Khan, it immediately puts you against Wrath of Khan in the eyes of fans. Is that something you have to consider or is that response something you ignore in the writing process?
Orci: You don’t want to rely on previous knowledge. When you’re taking on something like Khan, you have to figure out…we debated about this, whether it should’ve been Khan or not. The debate was based on that the story did not rely on the knowledge of Khan, the love of Khan, or knowledge of Star Trek. We tried coming up with a story that could stand without Khan. What is a good story? A story about resilience in a certain situation. Once we had a story that stood on its own without relying on previous knowledge of Star Trek or Khan, we thought, “Well, does Khan add anything to it? If we were to put Khan into this movie, do the details of his life and backstory add something? Can we make it even more specific?”
It wasn’t until we had a basic structure where we thought, “Yes, Khan fits quite nicely. The details of his life make it even better.” By the way, for fans, they’re going to be rewarded for their knowledge of the history of Star Trek. For non-fans, it doesn’t matter, because we started by designing a story that stood on its own. It was an interesting process to develop a story where it didn’t matter what the name was. Once we had the structure, we decided Khan was perfect and we could make it even better and more specific.
The one scene I wonder how non-fans react to is when John Harrison reveals himself to be Khan. Is it important that they immediately understand the gravity of that?
Kurtzman: I was going to say, in many ways, that’s what Bob was just saying. If the story is functioning on its own terms, then if you have no understanding or knowledge of Khan, he will be a bad guy with his own weight, agenda, and sensibility that’ll work. If you loved The Wrath of Khan, like we did, then you’ll immediately bring association to it. On the first movie, one of the things that was terribly important to us was to create an alternate timeline, so the outcome of these stories would be different. What that allows us to do is have characters who we’re familiar with, but very different. There are things you recognize about all the characters in our version of Trek that entirely fit with cannon while some deviate. At the core of it, it’s reverence. The core of our choices is from love and homage of what came before. Obviously, Khan is probably the most significant bad guy in Trek cannon, so we knew going in we’d be inheriting an enormous amount of attention based on who Khan was from people. If you look at a character, there are things that are very familiar and different about Khan, and that was intentional. This was not a remake of The Wrath of Khan.
Orci: To expand on what Alex just said, imagine if he said, “My name is not actually John Harrison. I am Alex Kurtzman and I’m this guy whose family is being held hostage and I was used in this way.” It doesn’t matter if his name is Khan or not. The story still stands. The point of the midpoint reveal is that he’s not who you thought he was and he has been manipulated and the people he loves have been used against him. It doesn’t matter if it’s Khan or whoever he is. That story is the story we wanted to tell. That conflict and the details are there, so it doesn’t require you to know [who Khan is].
Alex, you mentioned how this isn’t a remake of Wrath of Khan. For the both of you, where is that line between homage and echoing versus making a remake?
Orci: From the ’09 movie, we thought of getting Leonard Nimoy as freeing us from canon while also honoring it. The movie should harmonize canon. While we were free to do whatever we wanted, we wanted to echo what happened before. For example, in the first movie you have the Kobayahshi Maru. It’s possible in the universe before we came along that was how Kirk and Spock met. Spock may have been the administrator of that test. To free ourselves from canon, we think about what might’ve happened in those days, even if it wasn’t an alternate universe. For us, it’s interesting what could’ve been the same. We didn’t just want to do whatever we wanted. We wanted to free ourselves, but take a stab at what might’ve happened in the previous series. Some people have complained, “Well, they’ve freed themselves, so why even do Khan?” For us, the exciting idea was…we’d freed ourselves, so how can we do the things we know but in a new way? That’s parallels, echoes, and harmonies of what we know as Star Trek, and that’s how we approached it.
I have to ask, there’s been a good amount of discussion over Into Darkness feeling like a post-9/11 allegory. Was that a conscious decision?
Orci: You want to be careful with a popcorn movie not to hit anyone over the head with an answer to something. We always wanted to respect Gene Roddenberry‘s original vision, which was to echo and represent what’s happening. What happened during the original show? You had civil rights and women’s rights, which were represented by Uhura. You had the Cold War represented by Chekov. There’s the young captain, sort of, representing John F. Kennedy. Star Trek always represented the flavor of what was happening back then. In this movie, it was about representing what’s happening today. What is happening today? Well, there’s terrorism, war, and various things where…you just want to raise the questions, not take a stand and being didactic. We wanted to represent the world like Gene Roddenberry did.
Star Trek Into Darkness is now in theaters.