Friday night at the Los Angeles Film Festival, blockbuster screenwriters Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci finally stepped out from behind the gigantic shadows of directors Michael Bay, J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg to show moviegoers what they could do on their own. Their first low-budget drama, “People Like Us” (more distinctive original title: “Welcome to People”), had its world premiere at the Regal Cinemas downtown at L.A. Live, and the duo seemed both relieved and exhilarated by the moment.
“This is the end of a nine-year journey for us,” said Kurtzman, who both co-wrote the script with Orci and Jody Lambert and directed for the first time. “I feel really proud of the work everybody did. Everybody brought 100% of themselves. It’s been the most satisfying thing I’ve ever done creatively and one of the most deeply satisfying personally. It’s very rare that your work and your life collide in this way and give you the opportunity to tell a personal story but to do it in such a way that everyone gives you the tools to do your best. It just doesn’t happen.”
That personal element had more than a few audience members sobbing in their seats. In “People,” a slick salesman with major debt and reliability problems learns that his estranged father, who has just died, once had a daughter, too. When he reluctantly goes to L.A. to deliver a bag of cash to the woman and her son, it uncovers a lifetime of hurt and longing as well as the possibility of forming a real family.
At the afterparty Friday, the 38-year-old Kurtzman said that the storyline is an amalgam of several real-life elements, but that in reality he didn’t meet his own half-sister until he was 30 years old. “It’s very personal,” he says of the film. “It doesn’t get more personal.” Asked if his sister was at the party, he said coyly, “She might be.”
“These are the kinds of movies we started writing,” said Orci. “When we started writing out of high school, we wrote stuff about us and our families and our girlfriends. What we’re known for was a detour that we took to get back to this point. It’s a big detour, and I’ll take it as a detour. But to have his first directing gig be the kind of movie that we always wanted to write is…”
“We’d like to keep doing both kinds if we can,” said Orci, “and hopefully this one proves that we can do other things.”
While they say they don’t have another small drama in the pipeline (this one cost about $16 million), they are, as usual, in the midst of a great number of new tentpole projects. “Star Trek 2,” which they wrote with Damon Lindelof, just finished filming with Abrams back in the captain’s chair; “Ender’s Game,” which they are producing, is in production at Summit/Lionsgate; “Now You See Me,” another producing effort, is in post-production at Summit/Lionsgate; and they are writing “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” for Sony. Which means this summer will be one of the rare times when they don’t have a major studio release in play.
Disney and DreamWorks are releasing “People” June 29 (“Magic Mike,” “Madea’s Witness Protection,” “Take This Waltz” and “Ted” also hit that weekend), and the studios have had the writer-director and stars Chris Pine and Elizabeth Banks doing a pre-release tour of buzz screenings around the country. But Friday night was family night, and Kurtzman had his entire extended clan at the WP24 party at the Ritz Carlton. In a nifty extension of their collaboration, this was only because his writing partner gave him all of his family tickets.
“I had to make sure [Alex’s] whole family could come,” Orci said. “But believe me, I bank all this. We write this down. It’s gonna come around.”