Comic-Con 2011: Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci's Guide to Writing Genre Films

"Cowboys & Aliens"
"Cowboys & Aliens"
 Courtesy Universal Studios/DreamWorks

We're not ones who like to give advice, but there are a few things we've learned in our 19 years of working together that should serve anyone looking to write for genre TV and movies. And a forum devoted to everyone who loves Comic-Con just might be the perfect place to lay them out since we know we all have that love of genre in common.

The first question that comes to mind, however, is this: Isn't everything part of some genre? If our tips are in any way relevant, they should transcend all definitions. But because this is a special Comic-Con issue, we can at least agree that genre writing has something to do with being a fan.

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So our philosophy can basically be expressed in a single sentence: A genre screenwriter must be both the child and the adult at the same time.

Hollywood is a business, and the laws of "adulthood" reign supreme. The clichés are true: It's a small town. One miss can kill you. Success has many fathers but failure only one. Not everyone who wants to make it will. Some people want you to fail.

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So if you're lucky, there you are, trying to please everyone while not letting any of them know how terrified you really are. Hopefully your luck is the result of having written enough that you've learned the common knowledge the town expects you to have. You're past thinking that clever dialogue is all a screenplay really needs, never forgetting that story structure is more important -- and you no longer confuse structure and plot.

Hopefully you've accepted that the audience is always right, even if they can't articulate why, and that it is your job to interpret their reaction. You've figured out how to contribute to marketing and product-placement meetings (plus military-support meetings), and you've gained enough trust to build yourself a space. This is the space where you've pushed everything and everyone away, leaving you alone to … let the kid inside you play.

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Like all kids, you'll be vaguely aware of the adult hovering to make sure you don't hurt yourself. But soon you forget you're being watched. The cynicism of product placement is replaced by the sense memory of actually playing with your toys. Sitting across from Harrison Ford during a script meeting, we were reminded that it wasn't just the movies that seared his chin scar into our memories -- we held his very likeness in our hands as 6-year-olds. Same with Optimus Prime and Mr. Spock.

A toy to an executive is an avatar to a child. And connecting those two mind-sets is key to storytelling as a screenwriting grown-up.

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Later, as preteens, we dropped the action figures for straight role-playing, taking toy guns in hand and pretending to be James Bond. Flash forward a few decades to Santa Fe, N.M., on the Cowboys & Aliens set, watching Daniel Craig -- in full cowboy attire -- holster his six-shooter in favor of a laser gun.

It's funny how as kids we made up stories for those characters every time we played, but we never bothered to write them down.

Now we write them all down. And our action figures are actual size.            

-- Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman

THE WORK

  • Cowboys & Aliens (2011) – co-writers
  • Fringe
  • Star Trek (2009) – writers
  • Transformers (2007) – writers
  • Mission: Impossible III (2006) – co-writers
  • Alias
  • Xena: Warrior Princess

 

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