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PEOPLE LIKE US

Director on Board
"People Like Us" may be Alex Kurtzman's feature-film directorial debut, but there was never a question about whether he would be the one to helm the movie. "I felt that after seven years of protecting these characters and building them, it was going to be very difficult to hand the project off to somebody else, particularly since the vision that we had by that point was so specific," says Kurtzman. "I really felt like this movie was such a part of me that I couldn't even begin to imagine someone else directing it."

Kurtzman and Orci have been fortunate in that when they were writers on a film, they also were working in producer roles. This allowed them to interact with directors on set. Kurtzman comments, "All of the incredible directors that we've worked with have taught me so many lessons along the way and I absolutely know that I could not have done this if we had not had those experiences. Sitting behind those directors, having the trust of those directors, observing them, watching them and getting their advice was a gift."

Producer Bobby Cohen adds, "I've had the good fortune to work with a lot of first-time feature directors, but Alex's situation is very unique. Alex has been working with directors at the highest level for years, soaking it in. He was a showrunner on 'Alias,' and in TV, unlike movies, the writer/producer is the primary creative leader. This was not the same thing as working with a fresh-out-of-film-school kid, filled with nothing but youthful exuberance.

"Alex has been planning and challenging himself for years for this moment. He knows what he wants and understands about the camera, how a crew needs to work, the nuances of a budget and the challenge of a schedule," concludes Cohen.

Because of Kurtzman's prior experience, going on set for "People Like Us" wasn't as daunting a task as it could have been if he'd walked in cold. The director admits that he loves being on set and that it is his "favorite place to be." "I felt like the crew was family. The actors were family. Everybody was collaborating on the same thing," says Kurtzman.

"The vibe on set to me was pretty extraordinary. I felt like everybody was there because they wanted to be there and everybody was happy and it's very important to me as the director to have a happy crew because I believe that you're making a movie collectively."

Kurtzman spent a lot of time in rehearsals before shooting, establishing a rapport between himself as the director and the actors. Kurtzman's affinity for collaboration quickly created trust on set. "The way to create a circle of trust is to empower the cast and crew to be who they are, to follow their instincts and to play out their interpretation of what you have," explains Kurtzman. "The more they do that, the more people feel like they're part of the process. They feel like they have ownership of what they're doing."

The director explored the light and heavy moments in the film to find the right balance between humor and drama. The story had a complicated tone and Kurtzman felt the key was to never violate the drama and to never violate the humor. He talked to the cast about expressing humor and levity organically and reminded them that it always had to come from "an honest place." "My favorite movies are the movies that are actually dramatic movies that have incredible flourishes of humor because the humor comes out of the quirkiness of people and who they are and how they behave in scenes," comments Kurtzman.

When Kurtzman approached directing "People Like Us," he had a definite vision in mind. "I wanted "People Like Us" to be a movie that, while it spoke to a specific experience, spoke to a universal experience, and that experience is being part of a family and trying to find out who you are in the world and where you fit in, and what matters to you and what's important in life," says Kurtzman. "It doesn't matter who you are or what mistakes you made, we're all the same-people like us. This is who we are and this is what we're about."

Producer and co-writer Roberto Orci was happy to see his friend Alex Kurtzman achieve his goal of directing a feature film. "On the one hand it was amazing to see my best pal actually see his dream fulfilled. Then to find out he is great at it and to see the actors respond to him was equally amazing. The fact that it is material he generated gave him an advantage that most directors don't have. He knows the material, so there was no question he couldn't answer. Watching him direct 'People Like Us' was one of the highlights, and one of the pleasures, of our partnership."

Kurtzman also gets kudos from his cast, who all appreciated his collaborative and inclusive style. Chris Pine, who plays Sam, says, "I got great joy out of watching Alex direct for the first time, watching him bring to life something that was so emotionally impactful for him. But what I really want to stress is that Alex's greatest gift is his incredibly fine-tuned sensitivity. Alex was always inclusive. He always created a true sense of wanting to make it better communally. Work became this even playing field and he had the ability to not be precious about something that was clearly very precious to him."

Michelle Pfeiffer, who plays Lillian, adds her take on the director: "The whole reason I did the film was because I fell so in love with Alex when I met with him. He's incredibly collaborative and incredibly humble and really smart. He's a gifted director and really has great instincts about performance and how to talk to actors. I just loved working with him and I really hope I get to do it again."

Elizabeth Banks was impressed by Kurtzman's competency in his first directorial foray. "Alex was a first-time director, but he was more prepared and more involved than some of the directors who've done it a long time," says Banks. "He did an amazing job with this movie. I think he's a true auteur. He really cares about every little detail and it's really been fun to be part of someone's first directorial project."

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