March 31, 2020

Screenwriter Alex Kurtzman ‘Transforms’ filmdom’s giant robot genre

There’s more than meets the eye when it comes to Alex Kurtzman, who has been able to morph from “Transformers” fanboy to celebrated Hollywood scribe. Variety named Kurtzman one of 10 screenwriters to watch in 2005, along with partner Roberto Orci, and the two are bringing depth to genres once dismissed as camp.

The public has been clamoring for more character-driven tales of science fiction, fantasy and action, from the rebooted versions of “Batman” and “Battlestar Galactica” to original works like “Heroes” and “Pan’s Labyrinth,” and Kurtzman, 33, is riding high on that wave of enthusiasm. With this week’s release of the highly anticipated “Transformers,” the Santa Monica native who shopped at Hi De Ho Comics as a kid is hoping that audiences will appreciate the layered, nuanced approach he’s taken to this giant-robot rumble.

Kurtzman and Orci met as students at Crossroads School, where they studied French New Wave cinema together. The two collaborated on scripts over the phone while attending college in different states and got their industry start working for Sam Raimi’s Renaissance Pictures on such shows as “Hercules: The Legendary Journeys” and “Xena: Warrior Princess.” Kurtzman said Raimi taught him “the most important lesson of all, which is you have to take your genre seriously.”

The pair went on to write for the first season of ABC thriller, “Alias,” followed by the films, “The Island,” “The Legend of Zorro” and “Mission Impossible III.”

Kurtzman and Orci were initially hesitant to sign onto the “Transformers” project for the exact reason director Michael Bay was going to take a pass. “We felt it would be a toy commercial,” Kurtzman said.

But when executive producer and DreamWorks honcho Steven Spielberg explained that “Transformers” is ultimately a tale about a boy (Sam Witwicky, played by Shia LaBeouf) and his car (the Autobot Bumblebee), all three were ready to roll out.

To prepare for the film, Kurtzman and Orci studied for three days at a Hasbro “Transformers” boot camp with Bay, and the pair showed the director a reel of character-driven mecha anime, a popular genre in Japan that helped inspire the original Transformers toys in 1984.

Kurtzman said one of the biggest challenges was attempting to take the film away from the various animated series and comic books spawned by the toy line.

“One of the first questions we were always asked when we would tell friends that we were doing ‘Transformers’ was, ‘Well, is it going to be a cartoon?'” he said. “They just couldn’t imagine it being [live action].”

Another challenge has been striking the right balance with three different, though perhaps overlapping, audiences. It had to be family friendly but also meet the expectations of summer patrons who crave explosions. And then there are the rabid “Transformers” loyalists who want consistency.

Kurtzman said he and Orci draw from their past.

“I go to my inner kid,” said Kurtzman, who grew up culturally Jewish. “Where do we find our inspiration? It’s the movies that inspired us as kids, and a lot of that was sci-fi, but a lot of that sci-fi was fun.”