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Writing a tentpole summer movie can mean huge rewards, but it’s also rife with extra pressures. An exercise in politics as much as creativity, these colossal productions often require a screenwriter to collaborate not only with directors and producers, but also with the toy industry, comic-book companies, merchandising entities, rabid fans, marketing execs, storyboard artists, the laws of physics, previous movies and source material and, often, a host of other unseen writers. In a roundtable discussion equal parts wry realism and clever insight, Jonathan Aibel (Kung Fu Panda 2, which opens May 26); Greg Berlanti (Green Lantern, June 17); Ehren Kruger (Transformers: Dark of the Moon, July 1); Christopher Markus (Captain America: The First Avenger, July 22); Ashley Edward Miller (Thor, May 6; X-Men: First Class, June 3) and Roberto Orci (Cowboys & Aliens, July 29) lay bare just how the blockbuster sausage is made — and why it can be the coolest job imaginable.
**Most of these screenwriters have writing partners. In order to keep the discussion manageable, THR asked each team to send just one person. But Aibel writes with Glenn Berger (Kung Fu Panda, Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel, Monsters vs. Aliens); Berlanti writes with Michael Green and Marc Guggenheim; Markus writes with Stephen McFeely (the three Chronicles of Narnia films); Miller writes with Zack Stentz; and Orci writes with Alex Kurtzman (Transformers, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Star Trek). Kruger (Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, The Ring, Scream 3) writes alone.
[The official WGA credits for these movies are: Cowboys & Aliens, screenplay by Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman & Damon Lindelof and Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby, story by Mark Fergus & Hawk Ostby and Steve Oedekerk; Green Lantern, screenplay by Greg Berlanti & Michael Green & Marc Guggenheim and Michael Goldenberg, story by Greg Berlanti & Michael Green & Marc Guggenheim; and Thor, screenplay by Ashley Edward Miller & Zack Stentz and Don Payne, story by J. Michael Straczynski and Mark Protosevich.]
The Hollywood Reporter: How would you define the elements of a perfect summer movie? And has it changed from your childhood?
Ehren Kruger: There are three things: It needs to make you cheer, it needs to make you gasp, and it needs to make you laugh.
Roberto Orci: And has role play. It has to make you want to be in that world.
Ashley Edward Miller: I think that a great summer movie has gotta have an emotional experience at the core of it. When you are 7 years old, you go to see Star Wars for the first time, and there’s that moment when Luke’s on Tatooine, he’s looking out, it grabs you. If you look at the great summer films of the ‘70s and ‘80s, they had that emotional experience. And I think that as an adult you crave that, too.
THR: Jon, is it different in animation? Obviously, there’s a slightly different set of rules there.
Jonathan Aibel: Well, they take so long that, first of all, you don’t really know it’s a summer movie because you’ve had four years of spring-summer-fall-winter. [laughter] And with DreamWorks, when we make two movies a year, maybe three, they all have to do all these things whether it comes out in November or March. So it’s true of any great movie that it’s going to have all those elements, it’s just that summer is the time when as a culture we come to expect that and want that. For me, it feels like it’s in the last 10 years that this has really become a thing, an event. Where when I was a kid and I went to these movies, I have no recollection of when I went to see them.
Greg Berlanti: In the case of Green Lantern, from the very beginning we always tried to discuss, What kind of genre is this if it’s not a comic book movie? I can remember being a kid and seeing the ad for Star Wars and saying, “I want to see that.” I can remember going to Superman and coming home and making anything I could into a cape as quickly as I could and dashing around the house. In a way, it’s very rewarding to suddenly be a part of something where you go, “Oh, OK, we’re melding those two worlds together, and we’re trying to do something that, we hope, some kid out there can have the same kind of experience that we had.”
THR: When you guys are working in an environment where you know you’re up against so much other spectacle — including each others’ films — how do you make sure that yours stands out?
Christopher Markus: The only way to stand out is to not compete. Because if you’re sitting there going, “I’m doing Captain America, but I know they’re making Transformers, so we ought to put some robots in here…,” you’ll go nuts. So this is a movie, about this guy Steve Rogers, and treat him as humanly as possible, and make essentially a biopic about your main character. Then hopefully it’ll stand on its own as a solid movie and compete on its own merits. Because you can’t roll it out and say, “It’s gonna have 90% more Matrix, and 35% Hangover…” There are executives who would kill to be able to program that, but…
THR: Are there a lot of Hangover elements in Captain America?
Markus: Oh, yeah. He is actually drunk for about 90% of the movie. [laughter]
Kruger: I would say that you definitely have to be true to your mythology and your source material. I do think if you had a group of directors here, they might have a different opinion on the idea of standing out and competing, because many of these movies are greenlit now based on pre-visualized animated sequences that are the action sequences or moments that are really designed to wow the audience or stand out in a trailer. When we are trying to design sequences that fit our narrative, there is a piece of our brains — and if there isn’t, as soon as we’re working with the filmmaker, they’re going to be hammering at that piece of our brains — about, What are we doing that hasn’t been seen before? What are we doing that someone is going to see onscreen and say, “I have never seen that image.” Whatever the scale of the movie, I think we’re all aware that we need that in our picture.
Orci: And the last thing is our choices. You have to get back in touch with your inner fan. We have the luck of having grown up on a lot of this stuff, and by merely saying Yes to doing Green Lantern or something, you are saying, “That stands out to me.” Hopefully. If you have integrity. [laughter] If you’re really doing it because you’re passionate about it. You gotta for a minute be a kid looking at the concept that’s presented to you and go, “I want to see that.” And if you don’t want to see it — bad. If you want to see it, that’s the first clue that it might stand out.
Miller: And the unique purview of the writer is connecting those big visuals to the emotional content. And if you’re emotionally involved, if you’re passionate about what you’re writing, if you care about the characters, that’s going to come through on the page. The actors are going to pick that up, the director is going to put that into his movie and the audience is going to experience it.
View the roundtable video gallery
THR: Many of you have worked with pretty strong-minded, visionary directors. How do you manage those relationships in terms of what you’re trying to bring to it when those ideas don’t line up?
Orci: Two hats. Always try and act like you’re one of the problem-solvers, like a producer. You put on your producer hat and you put on your screenwriter hat, even if you’re not technically a producer on the movie. Just do it. Acknowledge that part of it is a business, and then be able to be in the problems of the movie that sometimes extend beyond the script. Casting can be its own challenge that somehow affects how the script is being looked at, depending on if another actor’s coming in you can easily take it personally. But if you take a broader view, then suddenly you’re indispensable not only as hopefully the writer, but as one of the problem-solvers.
Markus: Dealing with the director, I generally go into it — maybe this is my natural self-deprecation — but I think he knows far more about the physical making of the movie than I do. So Steve and I can sit there and dream up 8,000 action sequences where a tank flies off a cliff or something, and then there’s this moment where you sit down and go, OK, I’m now with the guy who actually has to make a tank fly off a cliff. And if he tells me, “It would be easier to do this,” or, “That’s not going to happen,” I have to respect that, because I have no fetters on me in front of the computer. A lot of the time, their thing is better than my thing, because theirs can actually happen with the physics of the world. So it’s going to hit you harder on the screen.
THR: I guess there are fewer limits at this point given what you can do with CGI. And with animation you have even fewer rules, right?
Aibel: We can, theoretically, do anything. But it’s like any other production, and may even be harder in some ways, because every single element has to be built. So you can have a scene and say, “We need 10 people in the background.” In a live-action movie you could probably go get ten people and have them stand there. We would have to create them, and someone has to design the skeleton that shows how they walk, and rigs them. It’s actually very limiting in some ways, because you don’t have the resources, the time, the manpower or womanpower to build all these sets and create all these characters. It forces you to be more imaginative with what you have.
THR: Do you have an example of how this may play out during development?
Aibel: My partner and I saw our role to be there for the director to remind her at any point, “The story point is this, that the emotion of the character is here, and even though you’re dealing with these huge issues we’ll be there to whisper what the character’s thinking.” We had a scene where the color of the sky was a certain color. It was the most beautiful sky ever, but it made it seem ominous. And we were introducing these characters with this ominous sky, and the audience was a little confused, because, “Those are the good guys, but now I think they’re the bad guys.” So it was this very long discussion about why should the sky be a different color. The story and the artistry all have to work together to communicate the emotion.
THR: In working with J.J. Abrams and Michael Bay and Jon Favreau and Martin Campbell, do you have specific examples of how those relationships played out on a particular piece of the script?
Kruger: We get involved in the process at different stages, but if we had the luxury we could each go off for three months by ourselves and write a draft of one of these pictures — usually we don’t have that luxury at all! [laughs] But we could do that, and then Jon Favreau could direct the movie, or Michael Bay could direct the movie, or Martin Campbell could direct the movie. As we start to rewrite per that director’s vision, at the end of the process you would have three scripts that no longer resemble the original at all. At that point our job is to make sure we are serving the story best and defending the emotional components of the narrative while working with that filmmaker and what they want to create. If I sit down with Michael Bay and say, “You know what, I see this more as a Paul Greengrass sort of style movie…,” that’s the last sentence out of my mouth and I’m out the door, right? [laughter] But what I do know is that I’m going to work with this director’s very strong authorial vision, and whatever I come up with for a set piece, he’s going to inject with human growth hormone and make it something wilder than I could imagine. But at the point where he says, “I want to cut this sequence because I find it boring,” and it may be a sequence that I feel is critically important to the emotional journey, or understanding the theme of the picture, then I have to stand my ground and I have to fight him. I have to say, “No, you can’t cut it, and this is why…”
THR: And how does that usually work out?
Kruger: If I make my case well, it works out.
THR: Do you have an example from Transformers 3?
Kruger: Well, certainly there are… [long pause] I have more examples from Transformers 2. [laughter all around]
Orci: Two weeks before the [2007-08 writers] strike, we handed him a 30-page treatment, then he went off, he turned it into 70 pages. He started prepping the movie, and because of the time constraints he got totally locked in. We were locked in a hotel room for three months because the strike had just ended, and it was five blocks from Michael’s office. So it was me, Ehren and Alex in a hotel room every day so he could drop by at noon, see what we had, take pages, and then go prep the movie because it’s gotta go shoot!
Kruger: Many of those things, under a normal process, would have been considered a first draft outline. And then suddenly you’re locked into some of those things. And at that point it becomes very difficult — and very expensive — to try to rework macro ideas. Added to which, he was a bit cross about us going on strike in the first place!
Orci: He blamed us for the strike. [laughter]
THR: He made a comment recently that the second film was “crap.” Would you guys like to take this opportunity to respond? How did you experience that?
Orci: He said before it was unfair to all of us.
Kruger: It was really an untenable position to be trying to prep — to put him in that position of trying to prep — a movie of that scale, where six months out you have to commit to sequences and locations…
Orci: The movie could have been pushed, but he uses all the same people over and over. He considers himself kind of a jobs program. And for him the idea of pushing the movie means all these people that rely on him go down and they’re in between jobs, etc.
Kruger: Also, and maybe Bob you’d agree, a lot it was reacting to people’s feeling from the first movie, “Well, we want to see so much more of the robots and more action, we just got a little taste of it.” I think that that second movie was a bit of an example of assembling spectacles and trying to make the narrative work in a sort of connect-the-dots way, which is not the ideal way to make one of these movies.
Orci: He’s reasonable when he’s not mad at you. You just fight, and he’ll pay attention. When we met him on The Island his first question to us was, “Why should I trust you?” Our answer was, “You shouldn’t yet. Let’s see what happens.” As long as you’re honest and not backing down from what you actually think, most people respect that.
THR: A lot of these types of movies go through a lot of iterations and a lot of writers. How do you deal with that philosophically and practically when you’re either coming on to something that other writers have worked on or other writers are coming on after you? Leaving arbitration aside for a moment…
Markus: The best experiences that I’ve had have been where you acknowledge each other. We did a rewrite on a movie a few years ago, and the previous writer sent us a nice e-mail saying, “I’m really glad you guys are on it.” We had a dialogue with him. And we’ve now done the same thing when we’ve been rewritten, and whether or not it affects what you’re doing on the script it makes you feel better that you’re not being taken advantage of in some way. You collaborate with people in the art department, you collaborate with the cinematographer — this is another guy you’re going to have to collaborate with. It’s not delightful when someone goes, “Hey, guess what…”
Miller: “…I’m dating your wife!” [laughter]
Markus: Or, “Guess what, you guys did a great job. He’s only going to change dialogue…” And it’s like, I don’t care about any of the other parts of the script! I only like the dialogue! It’s such a natural part of the process by now, whether or not it’s an incredibly pleasing one. And then, you can often find a way to slip back in the door when no one’s looking and just take it all out again… [laughter]
Miller: We’ve been through a couple of different variations on this theme, and usually it’s been under ridiculous time constraints, so there’s no time to call somebody and have a conversation, or you’re coming into the project in a place where they’ve completely thrown out their idea of how they want to get into it, and they want to start fresh. Your first question is: “Why am I here? What about the material that existed in your mind isn’t the movie that you wanted to make, and we want to go through this process again?” Because you’re coming in to do a service. You’re an artist, you’re a craftsman, you take pride in your work—but you are also trying to help these people spend $150 million! And the second question is: “When you think about what this movie is, what’s the feeling you walk out of the theater with as an audience member?” Because the more you have that conversation the more you can lock into a person’s tastes and point of view and become a bit of a chameleon. And the third question is, you call your agent and you say, “This is great, we just talked to these guys, and it’s all very touchy-feely — but who am I actually working for?” Knowing who is actually in charge — and by the way, the answer to that question is always different, because they all think they’re in charge. [laughter] Sometimes it is the director. Sometimes it’s the studio. Sometimes it’s an incredibly powerful producer. And knowing who it is that has to be pleased is key. Because that’s the person that you really need to lock onto. Ultimately it’s their taste that’s going to decide whether or not this is a movie.
THR: Speaking of all the people that have to be pleased, especially on these movies, in some cases you’ve got toy companies, marketers, product partners, comics companies, merchandisers, not to mention the studios —
Kruger: The United States military. [laughter]
Orci: When we were in the hotel, it’s like, “We’ll start on Act I. You figure out which carrier group we need off the coast of San Diego.” [laughter]
THR: What’s the funniest or oddest or most interesting specific example of that interaction that you can think of? You’ve got action figures and plush toys — to what extent has that actually played into the writing and developing of the script?
Berlanti: We had a lifesize Kilowog, who’s this big hulking beast that’s a friend of the lead characters in the Green Lantern Corps, and now starting to see those toys come out, it’s definitely a surreal experience. The best you can do throughout is go, What would I want to see, and what would I do? It applies to any of the elements in terms of where and how something like DC was involved.
Orci: For Transformers 2, we had to throw in the Chevy Volt. The Chevy Volt came middle of the process. And actually someone had asked me on one of the websites that I talk back on, “Hey, did you have to put the Chevy Volt in?” And I said, “Yeah, we had to stuff him in there.” And I guess someone got an angry call from the car company that the writer had said that we had to stuff the Volt in there. [laughter] Which I apologized for.
Abel: You just said it again.
Orci: I just said it again. And then the giant railgun that we had to get in, where the military’s got this new gun that can shoot a projectile 100 miles off the coast. So now we have to make sure that wherever we are in Egypt it’s close enough to the coast that the railgun can hit the thing at the top of the pyramid.
THR: So the military is pitching you on this?
Orci: “We got this new railgun that we really like…”
Markus: “Can you advertise our gun?” [laughter]
Orci: It’s insane. [to Kruger:] Am I lying?
Any of that on Transformers 3?
Kruger: I’ve had a couple of experiences now with Hasbro and this mythology. Transformers exists because it originated as a toy. They’re looking at a franchise that the last movie grossed $800 million, and they sold $800 million worth of toys. But they never look at it like, “All right, guys? This third movie is an advertising platform for us.” They look at it like, “Whatever’s going to be the most entertaining movie, you go make that. We will inform you of the existing mythology, and we want to be a resource that can help you however we can.” That said, there is a meeting where they will say, “Here are our toy sales for the last picture. These are the characters that really sold well, these are the characters that sold not so great, and these are the characters that really didn’t sell at all. If you so choose…” [laughter] “…not to put in the characters that didn’t sell well at all, if you don’t want to bring them back for this movie, that would be OK with us.” [laughter]
Aibel: You would think that because [Kung Fu Panda] is animated, plush toys come to life, that there would be that pressure. There really isn’t any. Either that, or they just keep it from me. It’s very much, Tell the best story, make the characters and their problems and what they’re going through resonant, and if it connects with an audience then the toys will follow. That being said, Yes, it’s a little strange to see a panda who exists in ancient China in a commercial for Happy Meals. My partner and I will get the scripts and help punch up Po’s jokes in the McDonald’s ads, and it isn’t like, Oh, we’re selling out! It’s, we want people to see our movie.
THR: Almost all you guys are working on properties that have deep source material and fervent fanbases. To what extent can that influence you and to what extent do you engage with that?
Miller: You have to start as a fan. Look, the nice thing about working for Marvel, on Thor when we walked in there and sat down with them, was that we never had to explain to them what was cool about Thor. They knew! I collected Thor like crazy as a kid, I have the entire Walt Simonson run on Thor. I have my opinions as a fan. Other fans have their opinions and I either agree with them or I don’t. But you have to come to it that way. With Thor, they just released a one-minute clip, and it’s cool, and it’s Thor going to get his hammer, and he fights this gigantic S.H.I.E.L.D. agent in the mud, and there’s a cameo of somebody—I don’t know who it is, but he’s got a bow… I saw that, and when I was a kid and I experienced that character, that’s who he was, he was that guy that even without his hammer, if you stuck him in a room with 50 other guys, he’s walking out alive. So seeing fan reaction to material like that is always interesting, because some people go, Wow, that’s exactly what I think he is. And other people say, What? The most difficult thing in terms of watching fan reaction to things is that the fans have a relationship with the source material and they have a relationship with the film material, and the reality is that you’re mainly trying to service the film material less than the comic book material. Fans’ opinions obviously affect your box office, but they can’t affect the creative choices that you make.
THR: What about you, Greg — in your case you’re basically attempting to launch a franchise?
Berlanti: The comic book itself has changed a lot since I was a kid—maybe I stopped reading a little bit later than I’d admit—[laughter] — but there were actually other Green Lanterns and whole other stories and other aliens and other things that had come into play. Hopefully, if we’re fortunate enough and we get to do a second one of these, we won’t have to explain all of this mythology again to this degree, because there’s so much of it. But that’s also what separates it and makes it exciting in its own right.
Aibel: Someone’s always going to say to you, “In Green Lantern 2, we need to explain what happened for the people who didn’t see the first one.” And then you say, “Who is seeing Green Lantern 2 who hasn’t seen Green Lantern 1?” It happens with Panda, I’m sure it happens with every sequel.
THR: These days, fans have such an expectation of access to you guys and having their demands met. And the studios now pay more attention to that than they used to, which means you probably get more pressure from that. And you’re probably all down at Comic Con walking those hallways — surely, you’ve run into fans who have some comments or criticisms.
Markus: Oh yeah. I think if you know you respect the material, you have that, you hide it away, you keep it inside you. [laughs] Then you deal with whatever comes. I’ve gone on the Internet, especially with the Narnia movies, where you have these very fervent people for various reasons…
Kruger: Why did you do that? Why did you go on the Internet?
Markus: Because the only alternative was writing. [laughter] And you go on there and somebody will say, “I can’t believe they’re doing this…” And I’ll get kind of angry, and then I’ll realize more than likely my day has just been ruined by a 10-year-old. You gotta go, OK, but that person cares. I’m writing about something that people care about, which is nice. This has people all over the world typing about it. So you’re like, even if they hate me, this is great! But I also think they are not as stuck in the mud as we might like to think they are, in that they really do have different universes in their head, they have the comics and they understand the demands of the movie. If you shift the mythology a little bit because people aren’t going to accept something that took 40 issues of a comic book to explain [cut down to] five seconds, they’ll realize, Well, that’s better than making a really lousy version of what we already know.
Orci: I think screenwriters have become more visible than they’ve ever been. The screenwriter in the minds of many is the most realistic or accessible entry point to having the dream come true of coming and working here. Because none of us have to look like a movie star to do it. You just have to have a good idea and you have to be able to work hard. So part of it is kind of acknowledging that dream a little bit, and I personally like transparency. I like to try and explain as much about the process as possible. Some people, by the way, don’t like that. Some people don’t like to see how the sausage is made at all. You tell them that some plot decision came out of wherever it came from, even if you think it works great, and some people can’t handle the truth. [laughter] They think it all has to be: I’m going to go in an ivory tower, and I’m not going to be seen for three months, and when you see smoke come out of the top, the script is done. [laughter] It is a little bit of proving you’re a fan, and you only do it on the properties where you have the true respect. Because they can smell it otherwise. Lyndon Johnson used to make sure that whenever anyone wrote him a letter his staff wrote a letter back the next day, within 24 hours. So there is a bit of politics to it. As many hands as you can shake.
Kruger: The scale of these movies that we’re talking about, our job is not really to appease existing fans so much as it is to create new fans. Because if Greg is writing a movie that is going to speak only to men and women who have ever purchased a Green Lantern comic book, he’s dead. The movie’s dead. He’s gotta be true to that mythology and respect that mythology, but he’s got to find the universal themes in it and some new adventure that is going to make people who have never heard the words Green Lantern before in their lives interested in learning about this story. [to Berlanti:] Hopefully, you don’t feel that pressure. [laughter]
THR: Well, he does now.
Orci: Give the guy a break! “You’re dead!”
Markus: “You’re screwed!”
Kruger: Same with Thor, you’re dead! [laughter]
Miller: Hung on the Tree of Woe…
Orci: It’s a campaign. The base has to be happy, but you don’t win the campaign without getting the independents. That’s what Favreau says.
Kruger: Right. In that respect, I don’t think we approach writing a big summer movie any differently than we approach writing a small, independent movie. The fact that someone’s spending $200 million on it or $10 million on it doesn’t really change our process at all. It changes the level of —
Orci: Client services.
Kruger: Palace intrigue. [laughter]
Aibel: When we talk about a movie as successful, there are different definitions. Because people want different things out of movies. And sometimes the things we want to bring aren’t necessarily what people want to find. But if you’re looking to be entertained, does that mean you really care about that character’s speech in Act Two? Or the thing that was so important to the theme? Eh, maybe you just go past it because they want to get to the next explosion. [laughter]
Orci: You said it, the word “entertaining.” Above all, it has to be entertaining. That’s the one thing we left out of the summer movie definition. If it’s entertaining, all else is a little bit secondary.
Kruger: Transformers 2 has a reputation that it wasn’t a great movie. And yet, we’ve had the experience of sitting in the theater and hearing a whole 500-person theater cheer and laugh and walk out of the movie theater happy with their $10 expenditure for those two-and-a-half hours.
Miller: As a fan, in terms of just the Transformers, little things can make a huge difference. The voice of Optimus Prime. I mean, holy shit. Whenever he says, “Autobots, roll out!” I’m just 12 years old and weeping. It’s like you said, the audience isn’t walking out of the theater saying, “You know when Optimus and Bumblebee were having tea together at Marienbad, and they were having that conversation, it really made me think about my place in the world.” Those conversations don’t happen. Those conversations are kind of bullshit, because those conversations are up here. [points to his head] They’re all intellectual. Going to the movies is an emotional experience. And if you’re entertained it’s because you’re brought into the world, and because there’s something that carries you into it.
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.
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