DreamWorks Pictures’ PEOPLE LIKE US: Interview with Director Alex Kurtzman

Q : Tell us where the story came from?

AK :  Uh, you know, I met my sister when I turned 30.  Um, my dad had had another family before ours.  Um, we knew about them growing up.  But, uh, I’d never met them.  Um, so I was sitting in my, um, my house and in my backyard.  And, uh, I think it was because my wife and I were starting to think about having kids.

And — and, you know, makes you think about your family and where you come from.  And I had this, um, I started thinking about my – I have a half-sister and a half-brother.  And I started thinking about them and wondering who they were and what they were like.  And this image came to me.  And the image was the last image of the movie.  And I didn’t know who those characters were in the image.  But it just — it struck me very profoundly as the ending.  And, um, I thought, “Wow, that — that seems like a really interesting story.”

And I didn’t think much of it.  And I went to a party that night.  And a woman walked up to me and said, “I’m your sister.”  So that begun the seven years of the odd odyssey of trying to work through it and separate truth from fiction in order to make a movie.  And, um, so what you see is I think in many ways very autobiographical and in other ways there’s a lot of invention in there.  But I certainly think there’s a lot of emotional, you know, emotional truth for a lot of people in my family in there.

Q : Did you know who you wanted to play those roles?

AK : No, not really.  Um, you know, because it took eight years to write the script, a lot of actors go through, you know, your life in eight years.  And the person who’s right at the beginning isn’t necessarily right at the end.  And, you know, there was also a question to me about how old I wanted Sam to be at certain points.  And, you know, because he behaves — he makes choices that are so incorrect.

Um, you know, there’s a part of me that felt like maybe he should be younger.  And then there was a part of me that thought, “No, really, it’s about a guy who is sort of in a real delayed state of adolescence.”  And he’s actually 30 and she hasn’t quite grown to that place yet, you know.  Um, and, uh, no, not really.  But Chris was the first person that I asked, having worked with him on “Trek” and having seen him in theater.

And I just felt like the thing about Chris for me is that he’s first of all he’s a guy.  And I really needed Sam to be a guy.  And he’s a man.  But when you look at him in here he’s ten years old.  And every time I saw him on the monitors I saw this boy.  And what I thought was so beautiful about that is that the only way to forgive this character is to understand that he’s really still a child in a lot of ways.  That he’s trying so hard to be a good person.  He just doesn’t really know what that means at the beginning of the movie.  And, um, you know, I loved  the idea that, you know, the movie starts and he’s this guy who’s literally selling air.

And the movie ends and he’s the guy who’s just utterly, you know, vulnerable standing there on his sister’s doorstep saying like this is who I am, you know.  I don’t know how to be better, but I wanna try.  Um, and I — that required a lot of range.  And then, you know, I saw a lot of actresses for Frankie and they were all amazing, every one of them.  But my worry with Frankie was that she would walk into the room and there would be a heaviness about her given her life.

And when Elizabeth came in, she did the A.A. monologue and the Laundromat monologue.  And she kind of threw it away.  And when I felt like I was watching was this person who was trying very hard not to have the words mean what they meant.  And because of that they meant so much more.  ‘Cause she wasn’t living in the drama of it.  She was sort of trying to play it off.  And the more she tried, the less capable she was of playing it off.  So that by the time you get to the end of those monologues you realize how raw and real she is.

And how she can’t – her armor is coming down.  And right when her armor is coming down she’s letting Sam in, you know.  Um, and, you know, she’s also just a brilliant comedian.  You know, she can kind of spin any line a thousand different ways.  She’s unbelievably smart.  They both are just so smart.  And, um, there’s a sharpness about her that I think is conveyed in Frankie’s character because I knew that Frankie had to be like you do not mess with Frankie, you know.

Like she could mow you down – but when she did make herself vulnerable, you needed to recognize that it was such an experience and a rare moment for her ‘cause she just didn’t do that.  Um, and Elizabeth I think conveyed all of that to me and in about two seconds when she started reading.

Q : Did your sister see the film yet?

AK : Yeah.

Q : And what did she think about it?

AK : She was very proud.

Q : How many kids did you look at for that part?

AK : Over 500.

Q : Was anything improv’ed with the actors?

AK : Um, I felt strongly that the movie needed to have a very improvisational feel.  And the only way to get that is to rehearse.  Um, so what we did was, as I said we had two and a half weeks of rehearsals.  And it is a big part of what you’re doing there other than just working through the scenes is everyone starts to get trust for each other and they get comfortable so that with so little time and so little money to make the movie that there wasn’t, there wasn’t gonna be room for OK, what’s this scene about.

You know, when we got on set it had to be, alright, remember what we talked about.  Let’s open that up.  And, um, and in that there was a lot of improv stuff that kind of – I would improv with them.  And I would write down ideas and then I’d rewrite scenes.  And, um, when the scenes felt like they, you know, I think the taco scene which is one of my like I — I loved shooting that scene.  I rewrote it an hour before we shot it.  And then had them improvise on top of that.  So it really felt like kind of all over the place and loose.

And yet a lot of the dialogue in that scene is written.  So, um, it was sort of a mix.  But for the most part I wanted the actors to feel comfortable enough not to feel they had to say something unless it was really important.  And it give them the confidence to say it — to say the words that I had written.

Disclosure: Disney/Pixar sponsored travel, accommodations and activities during my stay in Los Angeles. Thoughts are my own.