'Transformers' scribes talk crafting a hit

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You're not alone if you don't see a connection between "Transformers," "Star Trek" and "The Proposal."

I found out about it from Roberto (Bob) Orci and Alex Kurtzman, who with Ehren Kruger wrote "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen," opening Wednesday from DreamWorks and Paramount. Turns out Bob and Alex also wrote the original "Transformers," wrote and produced "Star Trek" (2009's biggest hit so far) and executive produced "Proposal," which just opened to a $34 million weekend gross.

Clearly, when you're hot you're hot. So why'd they need a third guy to work with them on "Revenge"?

"There was a massive writers strike looming," Orci explained, recalling the dark days of November 2007. Without help they weren't sure they could get the job done in time. They'd been developing something else with Kruger ("The Ring") that didn't happen and felt they'd make a good team.

There was really no time to breathe before the strike began Nov. 5, 2007. Kurtzman: "We agreed to do the movie two weeks before the strike." Somehow they outlined it and turned in a 20-page treatment so director Michael Bay could find locations and have sets built during the strike.

They didn't write a word during the strike.

Kurtzman: "The minute the strike ended (Feb. 12, 2008) we picked up our pens the next morning and wrote for three months. At the end of that period, literally, was the first day of shooting." Orci: "We were handing in pages day by day to prep the movie."

Writing the sequel to a blockbuster is different from writing an original.

"What we have to do is put away the success factor of the first movie and just find an entry point to the story that we can connect with," Kurtzman said. With "Revenge" it wasn't that "it's not about the giant robots," but first they had to find a human story to tell "within the context of what's happening to the robots."

The pressure was intense, adds Orci, with a release date set even before they signed on to write it. Kurtzman (finishing that thought): "Everyone now is an expert on 'Transformers' after the first movie, which can get tricky."

Everyone? There are some heavyweights -- like Steven Spielberg and Lorenzo di Bonaventura -- on "Revenge's" producing team. Did anybody get in the way with too many suggestions? Orci (diplomatically): "All ideas are good ideas and even rejecting a bad idea is good for a project so we never feel that way. I think we're in a lucky situation that all the heavy hitters you're discussing get along. It was very collaborative."

It helped that they'd written before for Bay on "Transformers" and "The Island" and know what he likes.

Kurtzman: "We're also through our growing pains of getting to know each other, and it's strictly about the work. When he's acting up or we're being a wreck we can speak very directly and say, 'Hey, come on, it's us. Let's cut the crap and get to work.' "

As for working, they wrote together in a rented room with a divider -- them on one side, Kruger on the other -- using computers with Final Draft. On a good day: 10 pages. At noon they'd open the connecting door and trade pages. Kurtzman: "Michael would come in and read the day's pages at the end of the day and give us his notes because he was prepping the movie while we were writing it."

Just two weeks went into writing the story. The script took only three months. Orci: "Plus, we were rewriting it through postproduction." How do you rewrite during post? "The robots are animated," he reminded, "so you can change what they say until the last minute."

They were on set during shooting. Because Bay's comfortable with them he likes having them around, Orci told me, "to make sure the actors have what they need if we have to do rewriting on the fly."

Looking back at production's challenges, Kurtzman called getting the balance between the film's spectacle and intimate elements "the hard part." They tried to spend as much time as possible setting up the characters.

Already knowing what the sequel's overall universe actually looks like was very helpful.

Kurtzman: "On the first movie the first question always was, 'Is it a cartoon or is it like the Power Rangers?' " In fact, some people at the studio back then were wondering if the Transformers should talk, "because they were insecure about whether or not the effect would even work."

It also helped to know who'd play the roles.

Kurtzman: "When we wrote the first movie we imagined Shia as an attention deficit disorder Marty McFly (from 'Back to the Future'). In our minds we had a mix of Michael J. Fox's voice and whatever we're bringing to it. Then the minute Shia comes in you very much adjust it to his taste and style. By the time the second movie rolls around we know not only what the character is, but also how Shia would want to say it."

Clearly, they put lots of time and effort into "Revenge's" story, yet critics are often grandly dismissive of such stories. Frustrating? Depends on the day. "A lot of people said the first movie didn't have a story," Kurtzman recalled. "You can take that to heart or you can think maybe because the story was so universal it's invisible."

What they've learned over the years, he emphasized, is that "doing the logical thing is not the thing they pay us for. We get paid to figure out when you're supposed to break the logic and actually go for an emotional feeling and how you get away with that kind of stuff."

Yeah, but coming back to the critics, Orci confided, "The short answer is -- yes, it's very painful."
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