ROUNDTABLE: The Writers Behind Summer's Biggest Blockbusters (Exclusive Video)
THR: Speaking of fandom, what is the summer movie from your childhood that really stuck with you either as inspiration or you just think it’s the most entertaining movie you’ve ever seen?
Markus: Raiders of the Lost Ark. I mean, I don’t believe I’d ever thought of a bullwhip at all prior to seeing that, and afterwards I came home and I literally made my own whip. Which is a little kinky for a 12-year-old. But that movie was everything I wanted in a movie, and had no idea I wanted it beforehand. I just came out like, “That was the greatest thing I’ve ever seen.” And Joe Johnston, who directed Captain America, worked on that movie, which is another reason it’s really hard to argue with him when he says, “I’d like the action sequence to go like this,” and you realize he actually storyboarded that truck chase in Raiders of the Lost Ark. [laughter] You’re like, “…OK. You can have what you want, Joe.”
Miller: Strangely, the sequence from a summer movie that I best remember comes from Return of the Jedi. It’s the scene where Luke has just followed Yoda’s advice and not used his anger, and he’s just gotten his ass handed to him by Darth Vader, right? And Darth Vader and the Emperor are talking—they’re having tea at the Marienbad. The Emperor’s like, Screw it, he’s got a sister, right? And Luke flips out. He goes straight at Darth Vader. He does everything that Yoda tells him not to do, right? And it’s huge and it’s epic and it’s emotional, and that score is amazing, and you realize it’s for all the marbles. I think it’s one of those moments that gives that series its immortality.
Aibel: You took mine. You took Raiders. Was Die Hard a summer movie?
Miller: It was.
Aibel: Die Hard, too. I mean, Die Hard also. [laughter] I just remember back in the day of the singleplex, where in my town I think it was Raiders, Big, Die Hard, where you’d watch the movie and then you’d say, “I’m staying, I’m going to watch it again.” I remember watching those movies twice. Now I would sneak into another movie, with the multiplexes. But back then, those were the first movies I remember going, Everything about this just spoke to me and I wanted to see again. You look back at Raiders and it’s just perfect, things that are set up are paid off, from a craft perspective, and sequences where the characters change throughout them.
Orci: I saw E.T. at a drive-in with my parents and my brother. Amazing. And then the summer of Back to the Future, and it was oversold and I actually had to sit in the aisle to watch it. It was the greatest thing ever. I remember becoming aware of summer as a time for movies.
Kruger: I can remember going to see Jaws 3-D and sitting in the front row and watching that picture and thinking, I don’t know. I think maybe I could do a little better than this. I should look into this. How do you get into this business? [laughter]
Berlanti: My birthday is May 24, which is always around Memorial Day weekend, so I would get out of school for the day and get to go see whatever the first big movie was. The two that pop into my mind are Empire, just because so many things were happening that I didn’t expect. And still to this day, I think about it in terms of Luke does the thing he’s supposed to not do, and he loses! It just kept going to these dark places. And the other one I remember from the summer is Rocky III, when he fights Clubber Lang. And I just remember standing up out of my seat and cheering in the final fight! I’ll still go back. A lot of times when we’re working on a story sequence, we‘ll say, “Is this Rocky I? Are we doing Rocky II? Are we doing Rocky III? Does he get his comeuppance? Is he coming for the comeback? Does he just want to stay in the ring?” So they really imprint on you and last with you your whole life.
THR: Do you actually look at the box office that first weekend?
All: Yeah. Of course. Oh, yeah. Why wouldn’t you? [laughter]
THR: Because it could be an unpleasant experience?
Aibel: Oh. It hasn’t happened yet -- I’m so lucky!
Kruger: Stick around. [laughter]
Aibel: It’ll happen. Believe me. DreamWorks is great because there’s anticipation building. And then you get a call fro Jeffrey Katzenberg’s assistant saying, “What’s the number where you’ll be reachable this weekend?” And then at some point over the weekend your phone rings and it says caller ID: Jeffrey Katzenberg. “Hello?” “Boys…!” And then it’s a whole thing about how wonderful everything is. I’m sure you could also get the call that says: “A little disappointed. We think Sunday matinees are gonna pick up…” Again, what we’re talking about is wanting to reach people, so it isn’t about how much money the movies made. It’s about, Oh my -- millions of people went to see something you’ve spent all your time on and enjoyed it, hopefully, and are telling their friends to go see it. That’s the reward.
THR: But it’s career-related, too. You can get in trouble, right? Although, do you feel like it’s different with these types of tentpole summer movies for writers in terms of who gets the blame if something doesn’t work?
Berlanti: I hope so!
Orci: Sometimes you get the blame even when it worked. [laughter] I track the [box office] stuff more of as a student of the process and just wanting to know as much as possible. Just in case you want to spin what the psychological Monday morning takehome is going to be. It’s a strange time, for sure. It’s not like nothing’s happening.
THR: You know so many other people are looking at that number, too.
Markus: I want to know Monday or Tuesday how it did. Throughout the weekend I just want to feel like, I have a movie out! It’s got my name on it!
Orci: That’s a good idea.
Markus: I remember the second Narnia, which, much like Transformers 2, made a crapload of money. But it’s notoriously the failed franchise killer. Steve called me up on Saturday morning -- so the movie’s been out, I don’t know, 12 hours -- and he goes, “We’re underperfoming…” [laughter] He fucking ruined my weekend! So, I’ll get back to business on Monday, but it’s so out of my hands why should I now screw myself up emotionally for a few days doing this? But, you look.
THR: Do you guys ever write scenes into the script that you know aren’t going to be in the movie?
Orci: We wrote a scene for William Shatner at the end of the movie where Spock, played by Leonard, gives his young self, played by Zach Quinto, something he’d kept with him. And it was basically a recording of Kirk singing “Happy Birthday” to him for the last time before he went off to die in Star Trek VI. J.J. had determined early on that he felt it might seem like it was, a) too small, and b) pandering to the fans a bit. But we wrote it anyway because as a fan you’re always trying to protect that thing where you want to be able to look fans in the eye and say, “We were ready.”
Kruger: Certainly we write scenes that sometimes we hope will not be in the movie. [laughter] Part of our job is sometimes we’ll receive notes from a producer, studio exec, director, actor, whoever. And I may think, “I don’t think this is going to work.” But I can’t just as a member of a collaborative group say, “I’m not going to try that. That’s not going to work, guys. Trust me.”
Aibel: “Let me do a bad job with this to prove to you it’s not going to work.” [laughter]
Kruger: “Well, I’m going to try to execute what you’re asking me to execute, and I’m going to show it to you. And I’m going to have faith that you’re going to review it and understand why I said, ‘I don’t think this is going to work, and here are going to be the problems with it.’ But I know you’re not really going to believe me necessarily until you read it and see for yourself.”
Berlanti: Rather than write one scene 15 different times, because that’s exhausting and not fun, I’ll writer a few different versions of the scene and let them duke it out amongst themselves. That’s expedited the time that I have to spend on trying to please four different voices to fit it all into one scene.
THR: There’s so much input in these movies in addition to yours. How do you ultimately measure the value of your own contribution when you see the finished product?
Orci: I always think of it as like a band, and we put out a great song. And maybe you played lead guitar, maybe you played drums. Maybe you were drums and you sang -- like Phil Collins. [laughter]
THR: You like to think of yourself as Phil Collins when your movie comes out?
Orci: I like the music analogy because on Cowboys & Aliens we got Ron Howard, Spielberg, Grazer, Jon Favreau directing it, three studios: Paramount, Universal, DreamWorks. I guess that’s an orchestra.
Aibel: Like ELO. [laughter] On Panda, I worked on it maybe four years. So I’ll watch it and say, “Hey, that line’s really funny, where’d that come from?” And then I’ll look back, “Oh, I wrote it three years ago.” Or someone else wrote it. These things are so collaborative that it gets to the point where -- if it’s a good collaboration -- you don’t even know who brought what to it. We have our director Jen and our producer Melissa, who are at the head of it, and then there’s all these people contributing and working together and at the end, when no one can actually say, “That was mine, and that was yours,” and it’s kind of a “That was ours,” then that’s the ultimate for our movies.
Markus: If I can’t find myself, or if it doesn’t feel like they’re saying written lines, if I can watch it like a movie and be entertained and no longer think about, "I remember writing that scene," then I’ve done my job. Because my job is not to be there. If I can sit there and forget I worked on the movie -- perfect.