Note: This article is also included in our year-end creative wisdom round-up.
If this summer at the movies has taught us anything—aside from the fact that Jay-Z was huge in the 1920s—it’s that it isn’t so easy to write a summer movie blockbuster. Just ask the writers of such box office and critical flops as The Lone Ranger, After Earth, and The Hangover Part 3.
Actually, instead of doing that, we called up Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, writer-producers of Star Trek Into Darkness, our pick for the best action movie of the summer (and we’re not alone in that assessment). The longtime writing partners’ impressive track record includes the previous Star Trek movie, Mission: Impossible 3, a couple of Transformers movies, and next year’s Spider-Man sequel. They also produced the summer sleeper hit, Now You See Me. Amidst a couple of Star Trek Into Darkness spoilers (you have seen it by now, right?), they laid out their rules for crafting a summer blockbuster that is both popular and good.
"When you’re writing a sequel to a known franchise, it’s so easy to get lazy," explains Orci. "It’s so easy to assume the audience loves Star Trek, or loves Khan." The duo and their third writing partner, Damon Lindelof, knew that fans were anticipating that Khan would be the villain of this film. "It’s so easy to fall into the trap of doing something because you think people are going to love it. You must come up with what the movie can be on its own and then, if it turns out the villain maybe can be Khan, then you can do it. But you can’t start there."
He also firmly believes in making a sequel stand on its own. "It doesn’t matter if you didn’t see the first movie. That’s an easy mistake. These movies deserve to stand on their own. And hopefully this one does."
The story is important, of course, says Orci. But when you’re making a potential summer blockbuster, you need to give the audience a visual experience like nothing before. "Audiences have seen so much, they’re so savvy," he says. "How do you surprise them? You want to make sure you have some gigantic imagery. A summer blockbuster requires it." And that can be tricky with Star Trek. People already know what the Enterprise looks like, and they certainly know what Spock looks like.
Kurtzman, Orci recalls, was driven to bring to life an idea he had for a single image: the Enterprise rising out of the ocean. "Now," says Orci, "if I were a strict Star Trek fan, I might say, You can’t do that—the Enterprise is a spaceship." They knew that doing it could piss off die-hard fans. "And yet the image is so beautiful, and it’s such a great idea, it’s, like, how do we justify that?"
He does so in part by quoting Spock: "Logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end." And so, he continues, "If logic alone was going to be the thing that will allow you to derive what a screenplay should be, then a computer could do it."
The illogical and fantastical notion of the Starship Enterprise emerging from the ocean drove the entire opening sequence of the film, in which those papier-mâché-looking creatures witness the Enterprise rising. "Suddenly we’re talking about a starship from an alien race hiding among a pre-warp culture, and suddenly you get great story ideas based on wanting to do this image. You chase imagery because it leads you to great story ideas. Our business is to figure out what you want to see. What is a great image? Then how do you derive the logic that allows you to achieve that image?"
"Also," says Kurtzman, "it leads you to humor." The very debate the two of them had about whether to show the Enterprise rising out of the water brought up all the arguments against it, such as, What would saltwater do to the ship? "It allowed us to write Scotty saying, 'Do you have any idea how ridiculous this is?' And it starts to come to life as it is addressing the very concern that any fan would have with the Enterprise on the bottom of the ocean."
Whether we realize it or not, as viewers we’ve grown accustomed to action movies, and even TV shows, opening in medias res—we’re dropped into the middle of the action and dragged along, forced to glean exposition on the fly or wait for an explanation later. "It’s probably true that it’s a very fast way to hook the audience in," admits Kurtzman. "But the stories that excite us the most are the ones that throw us into the middle and force us to catch up, rather than stopping the narrative flow for a lot of exposition that can be clunky. It lands for the audience—and for us—in a more interesting way."
This trend began—debatably—with Raiders of the Lost Ark, which Kurtzman says is a movie that inspires them time and again (they have worked with Raiders director Steven Spielberg a few times, notably on the Transformers movies and Cowboys and Aliens). And yet, Star Trek Into Darkness begins a bit differently than Raiders: "That movie [Raiders] has a cold opening and once it’s done, it’s done." Kurtzman, Orci, and Lindelof wanted to use this isolated opening sequence as many action writers now do—to set up the themes of the movie—in this case, the ways that Spock and Kirk view the universe differently. "The opening sequence is an homage to Raiders, but it’s also a setup to their conflict in the movie. And if you can do both, you know you’re doing something."
"Let’s fess up," says Orci, cutting in. "The original scripts of this movie started with the [sequence in which the] young parents go to see their sick daughter and [enlist help to save her]." Since Orci and Kurtzman are executive producers of the movie, in addition to its writers, they were a part of that editing-room decision; if they weren’t producers, they wouldn’t have been. "We began originally with this emotional place of two parents trying to save their child. But we ended up changing it in the editing room; you always want to start with some kind of emotion. Turns out, in this place the clearest emotion came from Kirk and Spock. Emotion is the key, not necessarily action."
"I’m always amazed by the fact that Star Trek is pegged as being cold and impersonal, because if you talk to people who love Star Trek, it’s the most personal, emotional thing they will talk about in their lives," says Kurtzman, who attests that Star Trek at its best has been done by people who find some personal element to inject into the story, namely Gene Roddenberry. "You draw from what you know."
What Kurtzman and Orci know is each other. And underneath the arguments that Kirk and Spock have about emotion versus logic is one of the essential differences between the two writing partners. "We’ve evolved over time," says Orci. "Alex was Kirk: emotion, leadership, passion, strength. I was more Spock. I was logic, abstract, big picture. That’s the key to our success. On the first movie, we had a couple of arguments about what the script should be and realized the argument itself was the scene. A couple disagreements ended up going right into the first movie. We just wrote down our argument. What a gift. It wasn’t until we were in the middle of writing the movie did we realize we were writing about our friendship. We didn’t do it consciously—that would be way too arrogant. It was just a blessing. One of the reasons we love Star Trek."
The emotional connection takes many forms. Says Kurtzman, "I think what we learned early on was, Don’t be married to your work. Just be married to the spirit of your work, and understanding that gives you the flexibility to work with people, to have different points of view be part of your process. At the beginning, all ideas kind of have to be on the table. And for me personally, I tend to be somebody who responds very much at a gut level to things. That tends to weed out certain ideas and it tends to focus others, but it tends for me to be about an emotional response to some idea."
Did we say there were five rules? Well, while enumerating them, Orci and Kurtzman kept insisting that, really, there are no rules. Then again, says Kurtzman, "Tentpole-movie screenwriting requires very big moves every 15 to 20 pages. Operatic moves. And you need to keep the audience immersed in this constant flow of drama and insanity, particularly when it comes to action. Most action movies follow their rigid structures. Every once in a while, you will get some really interesting paradigm-shifting movie or a movie that breaks tone in a very powerful way, but it’s rare. And structure is key."
"Every movie has its own rule," adds Orci, who explains this by citing a long-held rule, one that stems once again from their friend Steven Spielberg: Don’t show the shark until Act Three.
In Jaws, you don’t see Jaws until late in the film, thus building extraordinary suspense. "Keep in mind," continues Orci, "when Spielberg made Jaws, he wanted to show the shark right away but it kept sinking to the bottom of the ocean, so he was, like, Let’s figure out how to do this. He couldn’t show it right away; he had to figure it out, how to give the audience just enough without showing them everything. What you don’t see is always scarier than what you do see. That was maybe a happy accident."
That said, the writers entertain the notion that they don’t reveal the shark—ahem, Khan—until later in Into the Darkness. "Sure," says Kurtzman, "that’s a great rule. You could say we have two sharks. In this movie, the shark, the enemy, is, in a sense, ourselves. That enemy is apparent from minute one because we are fighting ourselves. The theme of the movie is, how far will we go to exact vengeance and justice on an enemy that scares us. How far should we go from our values. How much does an enemy win when an enemy makes us devalue what we believe in? Immediately fighting ourselves, how far to go to exact the enemy among us? How far will we go? An enemy makes us devalue what we believe in. The enemy’s blood is within us; we are the enemy. We must not succumb to it; we are the same."
He clarifies: "There are two sharks: One you don’t realize is a shark, and it’s staring you in the face through half the movie. That’s a sneaky shark right there."