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The fate of a world rests on the talented shoulders of two men - 'Transformers' movie screenwriters Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci

By Zach Oat

Posted January 12, 2007  12:20 PM

They say it takes a thief to catch a thief. So who do you hire when you want to capture the hearts and minds of Transformers fans around the world? The answer should be obvious.

The live-action Transformers movie is one of the most talked-about and long-awaited film projects in history (or, at least in the ToyFare offices), and if executive producer Steven Spielberg and director Michael Bay were going to roll out on this $150 million project, they needed to know the script was in good hands. Enter Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci. Friends since high school, the pair got their start writing Xena: Warrior Princess and moved on to J.J. Abrams’ Alias before penning Bay’s The Island and Abrams’ Mission: Impossible 3.

Now reunited with Bay, their task was to bring their childhood icons to the big screen in a way that would emphasize the humanity of these giant robots even as they transformed into cars, jets and tanks and inflicted massive property damage. A difficult job? Absolutely. But they wouldn’t trust it to anyone else.
TOYFARE: So were you guys Transformers fans as kids?

KURTZMAN: We were big Transformers fans. We both had the toys when we were kids and we loved to play with them, but it wasn’t until we took the movie on that we really pored over the deep, deep, deep mythology of the franchise, and really kind of got inside of it.

What’s the challenge of updating these characters for the 21st century?

KURTZMAN: It was less a matter of updating the characters, because I think we all felt like we wanted to stay very true to the characters that we grew up with. The challenge for us was more in figuring out what the human storyline was gonna be, because you know in the cartoons and in the comics, the human characters were the least of what the stories were about. So first we said, “Look, we know all the robots, we know all of those characters we grew up with, but what do we want to do for the movie?”

ORCI: It’s all for nothing if the audience is not somehow appropriately represented in the film to experience the magic of the robots through. That never seemed to be a problem for us as kids, watching the cartoon or reading the comics, but when it came to a live-action translation, as Alex was saying, it was important to be able to update those [human] characters without taking anything away from the Transformers.

Was it difficult to balance the big robots and the real people in this script?

ORCI: It was the hardest thing in the world. [Laughter.] I mean, we had a really hard time figuring out what the structure and the paradigm of the movie should be, such that fans don’t feel cheated by the fact that we have humans in it at all, but it’s still accessible to people who aren’t aware of what the Transformers are.

KURTZMAN: One of the big conceptual decisions that we made early on was in the vein of Jurassic Park. What was really smart about Jurassic Park was that there was a lot of buildup, and it really whetted the audience’s appetite to see what the dinosaurs looked like. And the one thing we knew was that if we could find a way to make these things real and give them vitality on-screen, what we didn’t want to do was take for granted how amazing it was to get that. We knew that we had to structure the story around the idea of it being a reveal—we couldn’t just start with the robots so nakedly out there. We had to make the characters in our movie the audience, in a way, and we had to have the characters saying: “What’s going on? What is this world about? What’s happening here? We don’t understand things,” and let the story reveal itself that way.

ORCI: And in a way, what Alex is saying is implicit in the franchise, in that they are “robots in disguise.”

KURTZMAN: Exactly.

ORCI: So if you’re really gonna milk that idea, you want to have to find them in a way. Figuratively and potentially plot-wise as an audience, you want to discover them as something hidden.

How did you determine which Transformers would appear and which wouldn’t?

KURTZMAN: Well, we knew there were a couple of key characters that had to be in the movie come hell or high water. Optimus Prime, Megatron, Starscream and Bumblebee—we just knew you couldn’t make this movie without introducing those characters. And then a lot of the character choices were decided between us and [director] Michael [Bay], because they were conceptual—you know, they were based on designs—and as the script evolved and as the story evolved, there were certain characters that we realized were better suited possibly to waiting for the sequel, because we didn’t wanna do the half-baked version of them. So every choice that we made and every character that we put in the movie was one that we knew we could service really well and that could represent the character as we had known them as a child.

ORCI: We’d love to fit in all the ones that we love, but at some point it’s gonna start getting in the way of the story if you want to be true to what they really transformed into or what their function was. You don’t want to have to cut away to a robot sitting in a shoe store because he was disguised as a shoe in the comic book, you know? That’s why we wanted to make sure we picked the four or five key characters before we freed ourselves to let the story dictate the rest.

Are there any characters that you would have liked to have seen in this one that didn’t make the cut?

ORCI: Soundwave, of course.

KURTZMAN: Soundwave is actually a great example of the process that we’re talking about, because he was originally in the movie. He was one of those characters that was so iconic. I mean, anyone who knew about Transformers in the ’80s knew the boom box that turned into—

ORCI: [Interrupting] The tape deck!

KURTZMAN: …So right off the bat he was one of the first ones we thought of, but then as the story evolved it became clear that we weren’t gonna be able to make him work in a way that was gonna speak to the fans and to us, and we just kinda went, “You know what, let’s save this for when we can do it right, as opposed to having people be angry at us for doing it wrong.”

ORCI: I mean forget about the fact that he turns into what he turns into. Just try fitting a tape deck into an ’06 story, you know?

You could always make him an iPod…

ORCI: Or a giant Humvee with a bunch of speakers, as some of the fans suggested.

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