'Star Trek 2' Screenwriter Alex Kurtzman Reveals 'Kirk Doesn't Understand What It Means to Be Captain'

Alex Kurtzman People Like Us 2012
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The screenwriter, whose new film "People Like Us" is due out Friday, tells THR about the perils of seeding a first film with sequel possibilities: "That's when people will kill you."

Although his latest project is the kind of movie Hollywood seems to seldom make any more -- dramas that don’t involve robots, superheroes or vampires -- Alex Kurtzman is intimately familiar with the machinery of tentpole blockbusters. In fact, his respite from them was mercilessly short-lived: After completing People Like Us, his directorial debut, Kurtzman threw himself into co-writing (with longtime partner Roberto Orci) Star Trek 2, the eagerly-awaited follow-up to J.J. Abrams’ 2009 franchise reboot.

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Kurtzman sat down with The Hollywood Reporter early Wednesday for a chat about People Like Us, but he also offered a few insights into the process of assembling the sequel -- in particular, where Captain Kirk and company are headed after the end of the first film, and how best to combine ideas old and new for the best moviegoing experience possible.

The Hollywood Reporter: If theoretically Star Trek 2 examines what it means for Kirk to be Captain, how much is the film a Quantum of Solace follow-up that starts right after the first film, and how much does it take place some time after the events of Star Trek?

Alex Kurtzman: I can’t answer your question directly, but I can say the assumption that we did not want to make was that just because he’s in the chair and they’re on the bridge together that they’re the crew that you remember from the original series. They’re not -- the crew from the original series had gone on many, many journeys, they were a well-oiled machine in terms of how they function, and these characters are still figuring out who they are and who they are to each other. And I did not want to jump so far ahead that we missed a really important emotional connection to that transition for them.

THR: Prometheus drew a lot of criticism for asking a lot of questions that it doesn’t answer. How tough is it to ask big questions that have open-ended answers without leaving the audience unsatisfied at the end?

Kurtzman: I think it depends on what the story is demanding. To me it always flows back from, what do I want the audience to take home from this. And you have to be aware that the price tag with that will be potentially a sense of unfulfillment. But I think Damon [Lindelof] was exactly right -- you will never get a consensus opinion on the nature of the universe and existence and why we’re here. And I think the brilliance of what he did was you asking this question -- because how often do you go to a studio movie and walk out asking those questions at all? The fact that he was able to interject that and infuse that into an Alien movie is extraordinary to me.

I tend to look at things first and foremost as a character’s journey from beginning to end, and oftentimes the journey won’t be resolved at the end, it will just be the completion of whatever that moment in their journey is. Jim Kirk, for example, inherits the Enterprise at the end of Star Trek but that doesn’t mean he fully understands what it means to be Captain. It just means, oh, he has the Enterprise now -- so now what? He’s never sent men and women to their deaths before, so what’s going to happen when that kind of question comes up for him? I guess I normally look at it from a place of pure character.

THR: If you’re shepherding a franchise through a number of installments, how much are you anticipating the chance to develop a story beyond a first film?

Kurtzman: I think audiences are really smart, and I think if they feel like they’re being set up for a sequel with a lot of intentionality, they don’t like it. They’re like, “No, you’re just trying to get me to pay more money for the next thing.” In the case of Star Trek, Star Trek exists in a continuum of so many different versions of Trek, and it was always designed to be a story that continued and continued and continued, both from Roddenberry’s first approach to the movies that then came along. So we knew we were walking into a franchise that was designed to be a continuum. That said, you cannot write the first of that thinking you’re going to leave 10,000 open-ended questions so people will come back to see the sequel. So in the case of Trek, it was, let’s really focus on telling the story that we want to tell, let’s bring the bridge crew together, and let’s do it in an unexpected way, but hopefully make some bold choices about the narrative.

But we don’t like to count our chickens before they’re hatched, and if you’re writing ‘Movie 2’ of something, you know that you’ve already inherited a story, and you know that people have agreed to go with you along on the ride of a continued narrative. But I still think that for the most part, it’s really hard to do that. Now, Empire Strikes Back, one of my all-time favorite movies, couldn’t have more unresolved shit at the end of it, but there was something deliciously enjoyable about that. I mean, you felt radically unfulfilled, but not in a way that somehow violated the story. You were totally satisfied by the experience of it because those endings were about consequences, and I think that can be really satisfying if you know where you’re going and you know that’s what you’re intending for the audience to do. If you throw it in as a last-minute afterthought, that’s when people will kill you.

THR: Has it been a struggle to find stories that are different than the library of tales from previous iterations of Trek, or is there groundwork laid out through those stories that you can build upon for your film but just make it more cinematic?

Kurtzman: Star Trek at its best was always allegory, and wildly entertaining at the same time -- they always coexisted, those two things. And we were supposed to be out this year in theaters, and part of why we all collectively said we really shouldn’t do this is because we put a lot of love and time and effort into making this without violating canon, and yet bring something totally new to the table when it came to Star Trek. The last thing we wanted to do was destroy that by letting a speed mandate mess up our storytelling, and we just felt we weren’t ready. So we wanted to take more time with the story to make sure that the story is as true to everything that keeps you watching one episode a night before bed.

And you can’t do that when you’re rushing and you can’t do that when you’re rushing at a production level, either; the studio wanted us to shoot in 3D which is awesome, but what you don’t want to do is rush through 3D. You want your storytelling and the sequences that you design and everything you conceptualize to be coming from a place of knowing "that’s where I’m going," and having it be totally organic to the storytelling. And when you see a movie that is like that, that gives you that whole experience, you feel it -- you always feel it. And God bless J.J. for saying "we need another year."