Alex Kurtzman is one of Hollywood’s go-to scribes for science fiction and superhero fare. Along with his writing partner, Roberto Orci, he’s penned blockbusters like “Transformers,” a couple of “Star Trek” films, one of them upcoming, and “Mission Impossible III.” His office suite on the Universal Pictures lot is filled with mementos of these testosterone-fests: a model of the Starship Enterprise, for example, as well as framed posters of all his movies vying for space on the wall of a screening room. But the 38-year-old filmmaker, whose earnest dark eyes shine behind black-rimmed glasses, is making his directorial debut with an intimate character study titled “People Like Us,” which has nary a robot nor a spacecraft in sight.
“But,” he said “it reflects me in a deeper way than anything I’ve ever done.”
Loosely based on Kurtzman’s own family history, the drama is the story of Sam (Chris Pine), a narcissistic young man who, after the death of his estranged father, a music industry legend, is charged with delivering $150,000 in inheritance money to a half sister, Frankie (Elizabeth Banks), he never knew he had. As their relationship unfolds, Sam is forced to rethink everything he thought he knew about his family, as well as his own life choices.
The film’s conceit stems from an unexpected encounter Kurtzman had seven years ago at his aunt and uncle’s 50th wedding anniversary party, when a woman suddenly approached him and said, “Hi, I’m your sister.” Actually, it was his half sister, but Kurtzman had never met her before. Even so, he saw his father’s features in her face. “I was in shock,” he said. “My brain just shut down. I couldn’t process what I’d been told, and at the same time I had so many questions I didn’t know what to ask first.”
Unlike the fictional Sam, Kurtzman knew from childhood that he had a half sister, as well as a half brother somewhere out in the world. On his fifth birthday, his father, a dentist, sat Alex down and told him that he had older children from a previous marriage that had ended in divorce. But thereafter, the matter wasn’t discussed in the Kurtzman household in Santa Monica, nor did the half siblings attend the family’s Jewish and other celebrations. “We just never talked about it,” said Kurtzman, who was raised culturally Jewish and who had to think hard to recall whether he had even seen a photograph of his older siblings as a child. “We were separated by age and geography,” he added.
“I spent my life having moments of wondering where they were and what they were like, and at one point I started to feel that more acutely,” he said. “My wife and I were talking about the possibility of children, and that obviously brings up a lot about family and where you come from.”
One day, a cinematic image flashed into Kurtzman’s mind, of siblings who met only as adults discovering home videos of themselves playing together as children, a lost memory.
It was that very night that Kurtzman serendipitously met his own half sister, which sparked a series of heartfelt discussions. “It became about filling in the blanks,” said the filmmaker, who declined to reveal more about his sister save that she is around 50 and “incredibly brave, super-athletic, smart, thoughtful and understanding.” “We compared notes about where we’d been at different points in our lives, so we could do the math and figure out what our trajectories were.”
Kurtzman also asked his relatives why the families had remained separate, but declined to elaborate on the answers in an attempt to protect their privacy. “There isn’t a color of emotion I haven’t felt,” he said, when asked if he had felt angry about the separation. “But the most overwhelming feeling that both my sister and I had was a sense of lost time; we wished we could have been there for each other. And the deep gratitude of finally getting to know each other, with the hope that it’s never too late.”
The experience proved so life altering that Kurtzman instantly knew he wanted to make a movie about it, albeit highly fictionalized, and enlisted Orci and a college friend, Jody Lambert, to help him write the film.
The movie also draws on Kurtzman’s youthful aspirations of becoming a writer of independent films like Steven Soderbergh’s “Sex, Lies, and Videotape.” He said he carried that screenplay around in his backpack at Crossroads School, where he met Orci, in a French New Wave cinema class, during his senior year. Orci happened to have the same script in his own book bag, sparking a friendship and collaboration that led the partners to earn writing positions on J.J. Abrams’ “Alias” while still in their 20s.
Writing “People Like Us” wasn’t easy—and not only because the filmmakers couldn’t just cut to a shot of an explosion to create cinematic tension. Kurtzman feared his own family story simply wasn’t dramatic enough to sustain a feature film.
As it turned out, Orci had his own family secret: His great-uncle had had a clandestine second family—“He even named the children the same so as not to make mistakes,” Orci said in an interview. “So the mixing of our two family experiences seemed like a good way to dramatize the shock of encountering family you’d never met before.”
While Sam’s parents are nothing like Kurtzman’s, the character and his creator share some emotional truths, particularly “the sense of longing, that they’re missing something—it’s like a phantom limb—which is very authentic to my own experience,” he said.
What’s different is that the film’s half brother and half sister have both been made to feel broken by their aloof father, “and they have exactly the same armor to deal with that—humor and lies—they just do it in different ways,” Kurtzman said. “But all their armor turns out to be totally useless against each other.”
Making a movie based upon his own experience has been cathartic for Kurtzman, who with Orci is now penning the sequel for the upcoming “The Amazing Spider-Man” and rebooting “The Mummy” franchise for Universal.
“What I’ve learned is that judging people for their choices is in some ways the easiest thing to do, until you’re in their shoes and faced with the same [dilemmas],” he said, adding that his family has been supportive of the film. “There are so many things in life where people ask, ‘Why’d you do that,’ but the truth is you had your reasons, right or wrong.”
“People Like Us” opens June 29.