Roberto Orci talks People Like Us
In yet another summer filled with blockbusters like The Avengers, The Amazing Spider-Man and The Dark Knight Rises comes a movie about human relationships called People Like Us. Sam (Chris Pine) is down on his luck and finances when his father suddenly dies. At the reading of his will, he learns that his father had a daughter, Frankie (Elizabeth Banks), with another woman. Sam has to find Frankie to give her what his father left her in his will, but he decides to befriend her and keep the fact that they are related from her.
Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Jody Lambert teamed up to write this personal story, and after some changes, they are pleased with the outcome of the film. Orci was kind enough to speak with me about tweaks in the script, what this story means to him and Kurtzman, and what it’s like being a Latino in Hollywood.
AG: Can you tell me a little bit about the inspiration for this script?
RO: When Alex was 30, he was at a family party, or whatever, and his half-sister who he’d never met showed up. He met her for the first time, and imagine looking at a woman you’ve never met but seeing in her face your father’s face, the face of other members of your family. So that got us to thinking, “How can we dramatize that?” And then it turns out that I had a member of my family, an aunt, whose father had a secret family, secret kids, the whole thing. So we kind of mixed the two inspirations together. Like what if you didn’t meet your half-sister until you were an adult, and what if you didn’t even know she existed until your father’s passing, until you were all at the reading of his will. You have to interact with this woman, and that just kind of gave us a vehicle to combine our experiences.
AG: The casting for this film, when you were writing the script, did you picture anyone in any part in particular? Did the people in casting do a good job of picking who you thought were going to be these characters?
RO: We started writing this script a long time ago, years ago, before we even knew who Chris Pine was, so we went through several incarnations. When the script was finally ready to go, when we knew that we had support and we were going to make the movie, the first person we thought of was Chris. He was the first person we called.
AG: What made you want Chris for this role?
RO: The character does so many things wrong. You know, he’s at that age where he’s not quite a grown-up, but not a kid anymore. He makes so many mistakes that in order for you not to just stop caring, you have to have someone like Chris who is able to make the mistakes and have them seem like they’re coming from a humanistic place of his short-comings. You sympathize with him for his short-comings as opposed to being distanced from him or not liking him. That’s a very fine line to walk. You’ve got to do the wrong thing but gracefully, with humor and with humility. That makes Pine the perfect Sam.
AG: Can you tell me a little bit about what comes with filming? Were there any really big script changes that you didn’t anticipate? How do you deal with that?
RO: We make sure to take three weeks before we start shooting to rehearse with the actors so that they can really find the voices of their characters. You know, we always say, as writers, to be married to the spirit of our work, but not just words. As long as you know what the theme is about, what the story is about, you’re going to be fine. When you have actors of this caliber, you want to sort of make sure you’re catering the part to them. So in rehearsing with them a few weeks before, we change the script to make, or to better reflect, their unique voices and their unique character. By the time we were shooting, it was pretty smooth and there were no surprises.
AG: How did you find the backing for this movie? I know this is a really complicated storyline. Did it really stay true to what you had originally planned?
RO: The emotional center of it, yes. The details and some of the plot machinations, no. I mean, in our first draft, which was terrible, his father’s a surgeon or fishery or something. It’s funny how you think what someone does for a living in a movie doesn’t matter, and yet it turns out to be extremely important. It tells you a lot about them even though for some people a job is just a job. So the idea of meeting your sister and not telling her, getting into her life, having that build to the end, that was always the case. But like I said, some of the details surrounding that world did change quite a bit.
AG: Since this was such a personal story for you and Alex, I can imagine this being very therapeutic. How was it writing something like this?
RO: It is therapeutic, for both Alex and I. We’ve been writing together about 20 years, so writing about this stuff, we know each other’s families very well, and we know who were talking about. We’re kind of brothers in a way, so it is like being engaged in a sort of different kind of writing. Instead of doing research about outer space and aliens and robots, we were trying to get to the center of the relationship with your family members, with your parents, with your sisters and brothers, and it’s very much like therapy.
AG: So going to back doing research on outer space and aliens and robotics and stuff like that, I mean, this is such a big difference from Star Trek and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. What made you get into that kind of writing, the robotics and space stuff?
RO: Well, when Alex and I met in high school, we started writing, and the kind of stuff that we wrote was stuff like this. They were very much dramas and dramedies based on our life, based on our experiences and our families and our girlfriends and our friendship. That’s where we started, so the first four or five things we wrote, no one ever saw them, we never sold them, but the first four or five things we ever wrote were very much like this. Then we took a detour into the kinds of things we became known for – big movies with special effects and big action – but that’s not where we started. Now with People Like Us, we’re going back to where we started.
AG: Touching a little bit on being a Latino in Hollywood, what kind of advantages or disadvantages does that bring?
RO: The advantages are more clear to me. The advantage is that number 1, in the movie-going audience of the United States, Latinos are among biggest movie-goers of any other audience. Latinos see more movies, so whether or not I try to, just the fact that I have, luckily, some bi-cultural experience, I can’t help but have that seep through to my work. It’s unconscious, and hopefully it makes it more recognizable to a large audience. On a more sort of tangible level, because I grew up in Mexico City as a kid, I was fascinated by American movies, American culture, and American TV shows. I sort of studied it in a way, I mean, I learned some English that way, watching movies in English. I was a student of it as a result of sort of being in another culture, kind of studying it like it was outer space itself. Latinos are great story-tellers as you may or may not know. My grandmother from Cuba was one of the greatest story-tellers ever, and we just have such rich stories. They’re not the same stories everyone has. Every culture has its own stories, and when you really have access to another culture and its rich history, then you know twice as many stories as the next guy.
AG: I actually graduated from the University of Texas at Austin, so I was wondering a little bit about your experience there. I know you attended UT, so can you tell me a little bit about it?
RO: I was there, and actually my brother went there. He graduated there with a history degree, and he’s also a writer. I was there from 1993 to 1996, something like that, and I remember I got into the Radio, Television, and Film program. I took a few requirements there, and I had great class with Ramirez-Berg.
AG: Oh yeah, he’s still there.
RO: He was really great, I really enjoyed his class. I was halfway through the program when Alex and I got our first job, and I moved to LA thinking it was temporary, that we would just write this one script and I would come back and finish school, but we never stopped working.
AG: Well that seemed to work out!
RO: Yeah, so far!
AG: Delving a little further from this movie, I know you also write for Fringe. Can you tell me what fans of the show can expect from this next season?
RO: I can’t, I have been sworn to secrecy!
AG: I figured! Just wanted to see and ask you.
RO: Good try!
AG: Well is there anything else you think the readers in Houston need to know about your or about the movie?
RO: Yeah! It’s very daring for a studio, in the middle of what looks like a usual summer, to do a drama, or a dramedy as it’s called. To do a movie like this in middle of the summer, I think it’s pretty cool. They don’t make movies like this all the time anymore. It would be great if we had a movie-going audience that enjoys big movies but also appreciates movies about people.
AG: All right, well thank you so much for your time! It was really nice speaking to you.
RO: Thank you, take care! You, too.