People Like Us: Interview with Kurtzman, Orci, Lambert
“People Like Us,” a drama/comedy about family, is inspired by true events. Sam (Chris Pine), a twenty-something, fast-talking salesman, finds his latest deal collapsing on the same day he learns that his father has suddenly died. Against his wishes, Sam is called home, where he must put his father’s estate in order and reconnect with his estranged family. In the course of fulfilling his father’s last wishes, Sam uncovers a startling secret that turns his entire world upside-down: He has a 30-year-old sister Frankie (Elizabeth Banks) whom he never knew about. As their relationship develops, Sam is forced to rethink everything he thought he knew about his family—and re-examine his own life choices in the process. The film is based on similar events in Kurtzman’s life. When Kurtzman told Roberto 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.
Alex Kurtzman directed the film from a screenplay written by Kurtzman, Orci, and Jody Lambert. “People Like Us” marks Kurtzman’s feature-film directorial debut.
Kurtzman: I don’t know where the idea came from, but it just sort of struck me and I had no idea how to get there. And I didn’t think much of it. That night, maybe about three hours later, I walked into a party and a woman walked up to me and said, “I’m your sister.” It was sort of like being in a dream. We got to know each other, and it was an amazing experience. We got incredibly close and as we did, we started to talk about the different things that we had missed, the time that we had missed together, and I think that the overwhelming feeling that we walked away with was just how grateful we were to finally get to know each other.
Influences on the Film’s Themes
Kurtzman: When you’re looking at someone who in some ways has your features, whom you’ve never met before, and whose genetics are very clear, it’s a little bit like looking in a mirror. So, when Sam says in the movie, “She has my father’s eyes, she has my father’s nose,” that was something that I very much felt. The mother and the father are nothing like my parents, and the choices that they made in the movie are nothing like the choices that my actual parents made. So, it is a complicated separating of truth from fiction, and the thing that was most important to me, while being true to the experience of my life, was that I wanted to make sure it was a movie that communicated that everybody has reasons for doing what they do.
Personal Connections to the Material
Kurtzman: In some ways, to be honest, it wasn’t really a choice for me. It was something that kind of happened and became all-consuming. I knew that it was going to be emotionally expensive to go down the road of trying to make this thing real. [His and Orci’s personal stories] are like chocolate and peanut butter—they work perfectly together.
Working with Jodi Lambert
Kurtzman: 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: 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 Writing Process
Kurtzman: 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.
Orci: 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.
Lambert: 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 salesman.
Kurtzman: 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. 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.
Orci: 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.
Kurtzman: 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 of reality.
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