On Cowboys & Aliens, Transformers and screenwriters

With the success of Lost, Alias, the big screen reinvention of Star Trek and now Super 8, JJ Abrams has proven himself a powerhouse in both movies and television. 

Two of his team members, screenwriters Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, have also done very well for themselves with Cowboys and Aliens, the aforementioned modern Trek, and the Transformers franchise.

Kurtzman and Orci are both young guys with a lot of success under their belts, they’re both still a few years away from hitting forty.

They first met in their second semester in their senior year in high school, and wrote together all the way through college, even though they went to separate schools.

“We wrote over the phone actually,” Orci says. “This was before the Internet was even an option for us.”

Kurtzman then became Hercules / Xena producer Rob Taper’s assistant, and he told Orci, “Bob, we gotta write a spec for this show, because if their eyes ever wander, then we gotta throw one down.”

The team wrote a script in a week, but it took a year before the powers that be took a look at the script, which lead to them freelance writing an episode of Hercules. 

“Then we were running the show a year later,” Kurtzman says. “It was during that time that we wrote our first feature spec script and sold it.”

For seven years, Kurtzman and Orci straddled TV and movies, then finally focused exclusively on movies.

“It was really writing for television that taught us how to focus. It reminded us that audiences can change the channel at any point, and we had to keep them interested,” Kurtzman explains. “J.J. hired us because we ran Hercules and Xena. The first thing he said was, ‘Genre like this was typically viewed as B, we have to make it A, and how you do that is recognizing all the potential pitfalls of the B genre.”

When the team was working on Alias, “It was just about the most complicated show you can write for TV, hands down,” Kurtzman notes. 

”Because every week is a movie, and the plotting is incredibly complicated. We often envied shows that were medical or investigative dramas, because the plotting was simpler in a way.”

Even when working together today, “We sit across the table from each other, and write every line together,” Orci says. 

Kurtzman continues, “When you work with a partner, you don’t have any room for writer’s block. Someone is always generating an idea. It’s a rare day when someone comes in and has nothing to say. Also our TV training made the process very efficient because when you’re in television, you just don’t have any time. You have to be cranking out like a machine every second of the day, and our muscles are pretty fit in that area.”