We’re used to hearing the term “passion project” associated with a student’s film thesis or maybe a micro budget indie film. Rarely do you pair that with a mainstream movie. But in Alex Kurtzman‘s character driven drama People Like Us, viewers can see right off the bat that this film is near and dear to the famed writer-producer’s heart.
Believe it or not, People Like Us is loosely based off Kurtzman’s own life. How would you feel if one day you discovered you had a sibling out in the world? People react to a life-altering event like that in many ways. Kurtzman used his own discovery as a means to broaden his creative horizon. For years, he toiled away at this project, perfecting the script with the help of his colleagues Roberto Orci and Jody Lambert.
Now, he’s finally completed the film that’s been stewing in his imagination. We recently got the opportunity to sit down with the famed director about his directorial debut.
I find People Like Us to be particularly interesting because it’s loosely based off your own experience. Half of the time, people are too timid to express how they feel, especially on film for millions to see. What initially made you want to write this?
Alex Kurtzman: Aside from my own family story, I think it came from this image of the ending of the movie in my head. It was profound for me. It moved me. I thought I didn’t know how these people in that image were but it really said something to me and I didn’t know how to get there. So part of the process was figuring out what that image meant and what was behind it and who those people were. They weren’t immediately apparent to me. I heard Frankie very quickly but I didn’t hear Sam right away. And I think we did this movie for ourselves. It wasn’t a movie that we did on assignment or for any money. Bob [Roberto Orci] and I thought we were going to be doing independent films and our lives went in a very different direction. But I think it was also the idea of getting back to where we started in some way. It was kind of an obsession, is the best way for me to put it. The more I wrote about these characters, the more I fell in love with all of them.
So how much of the character Sam is you?
Alex Kurtzman: I think there are aspects of Sam that are me. I think part of why I couldn’t hear him right away is because I tend to be somebody… it would’ve been impossible for me to lie about something that big.
It’s kind of surprising how long his character holds off on telling Frankie the truth.
Alex Kurtzman: Well, he’s in such a desperate spot and this is a character who grew up in a house of lies, so that’s what he’s used to doing. And since he grew up in a house of lies he moved into a job in which his livelihood is dependent on his ability to lie. So everything in his life is a lie. He’s also in an incredibly broken relationship with his family and he’s massively in debt. So all of that equals, ‘I’m in a tailspin, I don’t know what to do, I’m just going to try and dig my way out.’ I love the idea of what happens when you’ve got a character that’s so challenged that way and is presented with this big moral choice. Is it going to redeem him or is it going to destroy him? And because he doesn’t intend to lie to Frankie at the beginning, he just sort of happens by accident and everything sort of builds on that. The more he’s in, the more his relationship starts to make this incredible genuine collection except she doesn’t know the truth. So he realizes oh my God, if I tell her now I’m going to lose this forever. And it just gets worse and worse. I think that dramatically it was just very interesting for me, trying to figure out how to solve that problem.
Did you always plan on directing this film?
Alex Kurtzman: Yes I did. I think the more I wrote it, the more I fell in love with it and the more impossible it felt to me to imagine giving it to somebody else.
You can always tell in a person’s voice, through the way they describe certain scenes, shots or characters, that this is their baby. This is their passion project. You can tell that this is genuinely yours.
Alex Kurtzman: Thank you, thank you. I’m glad that comes through because this is definitely … man, to keep going down as many wrong roads as we went down over the eight years, I loved it so much. I tried to translate that everyday to people on set.
What was it like collaborating with another writer, given the fact that this is your precious script? Was it kind of hard to separate yourself from the material?
Alex Kurtzman: Not really, because Bob and I have been partners for so long. What we do is train to really think structurally about story telling. I felt like this was a story that didn’t want to be constrained by structure. It needed to have a really inevitable structure but I didn’t want it to start from that place. I knew it needed to be an actor piece first. And Jody [Lambert], who I’ve known since college, was a trained actor in college. I thought it would be so great to have him in this process because he won’t even know those roles. He’ll be able to ding something when it doesn’t feel real.
Kind of like the outsider’s perspective, the third party.
Alex Kurtzman: Bob and I, our partnership is a constant negotiation of story. We don’t all just like sit down and agree on everything. We’re always negotiating. I wasn’t afraid to add to that. I welcome as many voices in the process. I’ll take a good idea from anywhere.
I also heard that from Chris Pine and Elizabeth Banks. They said even though this is your movie, your story, that you gave them a good amount of freedom to develop these characters even more. Was there a specific scene where this is exactly what you wanted out of this movie?
Alex Kurtzman: A great piece of advice that I got was to be so prepared as a director that you’re willing to throw it all away at a moment’s notice when something better happens in that moment. I think my job was to walk on set every day completely planned and prepared but really to be listening for what was truthful. Most of the time I’d get into my car at the end of the day and think ‘I hope I got it, I think I did.’ I do a lot of coverage and I think with a performance movie you need as many choices as you can. And then every once in a while I’d get in the car and everybody just hit their perfect notes today. With this cast, everyone was so dedicated. They really were wringing themselves dry to be truthful and authentic that I never felt that we were struggling for it. As a director, you’re never sure until you’re actually in the editing room exactly what’s there. But I felt so confident in my cast and I felt so confident in my crew. My incredible D.P. and like everybody was there, they knew what they were doing. So my job was just to really try and tune out the noise and focus on what was happening on screen and see if it felt real.
It does. And that’s the one thing I keep hearing from everybody is just how natural everybody comes off.
Alex Kurtzman: What is it like when you’re in those rooms talking about it? What is the vibe?
The vibe’s good, though a bit serious at the same time since it’s such a deep character piece. But it’s so sweet and it’s about family. Those are the people that are with you no matter what from the day you’re born until the day you die. And what exactly did you want people to get out of that?
Alex Kurtzman: That’s right. You just said it. You just nailed it! That is exactly what it was. It was that at the end of the day, no matter how far you run from your family, whether you’re close to them or whether you’re not, you’re defined by your family. From the minute you’re born until the minute you die, those are the people that are the most important. Those are the people that make you who you are. And life presents you with so many distractions and you can so easily focus on the wrong things. I think that moment when Sam is talking about the rules and he says ‘Everything you think is important isn’t and everything you think isn’t important is.’ That’s the message of the movie in a lot of ways. Life presents you these things that become sort of false distractions. When all is said and done, the most important thing is your family. That even broken families can be mended. I think that’s what the movie’s about.
Well now that you’ve successfully conquered People Like Us, what are we going to see next from you?
Alex Kurtzman: I don’t know. It’s a great question. I feel like I wetted my appetite and I wanted to make a small character movie feel big. I loved the romanticism of making it at a studio level and really making it feel like a big movie. I’d like to play on a bigger canvas next time. That doesn’t necessarily mean I want to do an action movie. I mean maybe, who knows? If it’s the right one then great! I’m really open and I think this experience taught me just to be open.
It’s amazing how many projects you and Orci do. Just looking at what you’ve done within the span of the year. I’m surprised you have enough time out of the day to even breathe.
Alex Kurtzman: We just wrapped Enders Game. We just produced it, we didn’t write it. And we wrapped the movie Now You See Me and we just wrapped Star Trek 2. We have a lot of amazing people that we were working with and certainly we can’t take all the credit. We have a wonderfully tight-knit group of people. Bob and I have been doing this now for twenty years together. Before we worked professionally we were best friends and really found a rhythm. When I went off to direct this movie, Bob went off and produced two movies. Because when you’re directing there’s no room for anything else. It’s one hundred percent focus on that. It’s been another forming part of our partnership. No matter how many things you’re doing, you need to make sure you’re focusing on what needs to get done. That’s why we have such a great team around us.
People Like Us is out in theaters everywhere June 29.