PEOPLE LIKE US
From Concept to Screenplay
Kurtzman's business and writing partner of 20 years is Roberto Orci, with
whom he has written such big event
films as "Star Trek" and "Transformers." Orci and Kurtzman have been friends
since high school when they met
in a film class. Both writers were inspired when they were young by independent
films and over the years they
became increasingly interested in going back to their roots to tell the kind of
story that had inspired them to
write in the first place-small, character-driven films.
When Kurtzman told Orci about the experience of meeting his half-sister, Orci
related his aunt's story about
discovering that her father had a secret family she knew nothing about. It
struck the two writers that the two
stories, as Alex Kurtzman says, "are like chocolate and
peanut butter-they work perfectly together." This was the
type of story that the two writers had been searching for.
Kurtzman and Orci contacted their good friend Jody
Lambert, whom they had met in college, and invited him
to help them write "People Like Us." Kurtzman explains
why Lambert was an important "fresh voice" to the writing
process: "We were really interested in the idea of partnering
with somebody who was totally unfettered by the writing
rules of big action films and was only coming at it from a
place of pure character and nothing else. We knew that this
movie was going to succeed only if the scenes felt as if they were coming from
an incredibly real place."
Orci adds, "And if it feels real, it is because the three of us writers are
friends who don't hide a lot from each other.
It's easy when you're writing something like this to share other stories with
each other that can be embarrassing.
You really want to open yourself up to your experiences and try to get them on
the page and that's something I
think you can only do with people you really trust."
The story evolved over a long period of time, but the writers willingly
invested in the organic process of developing
the story. Kurtzman explains, "We tend to move quickly through things, but this
was one of those odd ones
where we knew that at the core of it, it had to be very truthful and in order
for it to be truthful and complicated,
we needed to take time to find it. Unlike a big action movie that has, in many
ways, preset structural elements
that you have to hit, it was not as clear-cut in this case and we knew that the
major turns of the story were going
to be emotional ones."
Co-writer and producer Orci concurs, adding, "This screenplay was not written
for anyone but ourselves, so we
could take as long as it took for the bread to rise and when the bread rose, we
saw it and all collectively decided
it was ready to be shown."
As the three writers discussed the vibe of the story and
the era that the father in the story would have lived in at
the time, they started talking about California in the late
'70s, early '80s, and what kind of man this father would
have been. Jody Lambert's father was a record producer
who ended up giving up his recording career to pay more
attention to his son as he grew up. They realized that
Lambert's experience growing up around music would
bring even more authenticity to the film, so they crafted the
father in the film to be in the music industry.
Lambert relates, "My father was in the music business and that gave us a
different angle to work from. It opened
up a lot of story ideas and other ways into the story that felt a little more
authentic than, say, a guy who was a
When it came to writing the story, the writers felt that it had to be very
specific and realized that the smaller and
more specific the details, the more the story would be relatable to everybody.
Kurtzman comments, "What we
really wanted was for everyone to say, 'I have a story like that in my family.'
It may not be that exact story, but
certainly a version of it.
"The more specific we made the details of the story,
the broader the appeal seemed to become," continues
Kurtzman. "I think it's because the things that resonate
for audiences are the specific reflections of themselves
or people they know. So, the more specific it is, the more
personal it becomes for the audience and that was the goal."
An example of the writers' details, and one of the most
intriguing, is the set of rules that Sam's father had hanging
on the wall of his study. In a moving scene, Chris Pine's
character Sam passes these rules down to his nephew Josh. Pine explains what the
scene symbolized to him:
"To me, passing down his father's rules is Sam's way of connecting his deceased
father to the new generation
of Harpers. Sam's forgiving his father and saying, 'I'm going to do you a solid,
Dad. I'm going to give these rules
to your grandson.' He is in fact introducing Jerry to his grandson, passing down
the little piece of love that Sam
remembers to the next generation. It's one man looking at a really young boy
who's going to be a man and telling
him more or less that he has a family and that he is loved."
Adds producer Bobby Cohen, "It's one of the scenes that
immediately grabbed me when I first read it. We're all
longing for real wisdom from our parents-not just about
how to succeed, but how to live. To have Sam realize the
latter in time to impart it to Josh is such a telling moment."
The writers spent time creating characters who were
emotionally complicated. Kurtzman explains the rationale:
"The story is about the fact that we are all flawed in so many
ways that people are complicated and they are messy and
they don't always make the right choices. In movies a lot of
the time, everything is laid out in such neat ways and it feels too easy and we
knew that part of being honest was
making sure that these characters felt complicated and were genuine reflections
Using this rationale, the writers developed Frankie and Sam as multilayered
and complex characters who share a
common bond: They are both broken people who were broken by the same man-their
father. They grew up as
only children, but when they finally meet, there is an intuitive, instinctive
connection-a knowing undercurrent-
that sustains them through conflict to discover not only each other, but
themselves as well.
Bob Orci explains why bringing familial conflict to the characters in a real
way is so important: "Conflict within
family brings out the most complicated behavior in people. And if you were
tracking true behavior, then the
minute it becomes a gimmick or the minute it becomes something merely for drama
or a joke, then you lose it."
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