Acclaimed screenwriter Alex Kurtzman has had many amazing adventures throughout his career, and in the case of his directorial debut, "People Like Us," the big discovery was the end of the story sometimes makes for a great beginning.
"I started this movie with the ending, which almost never happens," Kurtzman told me in a recent interview. "I was sitting in my back yard about eight years ago and thinking of my half-sister, who I knew of but didn't know -- when this image popped into my mind that is the last scene of the movie. I felt it very deeply."
Later that night, Kurtzman said he walked into a party, and about three hours later, "People Like Us" was serendipitously set in motion.
"A woman tapped me on my shoulder and said, 'I'm your sister.' I took that as a sign that I had to start writing the movie," Kurtzman recalled. "When the image came to me, I didn't know who the characters were and how I was going to get there, but I just knew that's where it was going to end. So it was a weird, eight-year odyssey from that moment to figuring it out."
Opening in theaters Friday nationwide, "People Like Us" stars Chris Pine and Elizabeth Banks as Sam and Frankie, a pair of siblings who didn't know each other existed, but share the same sort of hurt over the loss of their father.
"People Like Us" first introduces us to Sam, a fast-talking corporate barterer in New York who reluctantly returns home to Los Angeles with his girlfriend (Olivia Wilde) after learning of the death of his estranged father, Jerry. After a tense reunion with his conflicted mother (Michelle Pfeiffer), Sam learns in secret through his father's will that he is to deliver $150,000 to to the half-sister he never knew.
Once he locates Frankie, Sam discovers she's a struggling single mother with lots of baggage, mostly due to the fact that Jerry deserted Frankie and her mother when the girl was 8. Afraid of the consequences of telling Frankie who he really is, Sam holds back on delivering the cash and befriends her instead. Sam's hope is that somehow, he can learn more about his dad and someday, become a family with his sister and her son.
Kurtzman, who with writing partner Roberto Orci has penned some of the most successful films in recent memory with "Mission: Impossible III," "Star Trek" and the first two "Transformers" movies, paired once again for "People Like Us" -- but this time added college friend Jody Lambert to the screenwriting mix.
While it may seem odd to some that a writer known largely for his science work is the major creative force behind a drama, the truth of the matter is, films like "Star Trek" and "People Like Us" aren't that all together different. Much in the way "Star Trek" is a human story about relationships that happens to be encased in a science fiction film, "People Like Us" is a human story about relationships that happens to be encased within a drama.
"I think sci-fi, at least for me, works its best when it's a metaphor for something or when you are able to connect to it emotionally," Kurtzman said. "In 'Star Trek,' Chris plays a young rebellious man who never knew his father who ends up taking his first steps into adulthood in his father's shoes. I could use the same words to describe 'People Like Us.'"
Kurtzman said he feels lucky to have landed both Pine (he was not only amazed by the actor in 'Star Trek,' but by his stage performance in "The Lieutenant of Inishmore") and Banks ("She opened herself up in a way that was so rare and you feel it watching her on screen," the director said), because with their presence along with Pfeiffer gave him a unique opportunity.
"It's certainly rare that you get to tell a drama like this at the studio level," Kurtzman said. "Some of my favorite movies are dramas. I loved 'Kramer vs. Kramer,' not just because it's a beautiful story about people, but deeply flawed people. But those movies don't happen at much anymore and I guess I felt a tremendously responsibility with this one."
One of biggest characters in "People Like Us" is one you barely see with Jerry (Dean Chekvala), whose presence is felt throughout the film through Frankie's and Sam's emotional remembrances. Kurtzman said the lack of Jerry's physical presence wasn't due to a situation, a la Kevin Costner in "The Big Chill," where Chekvala's entire performance was cut out of the film; in fact, the entire premise of his absence was by design.
"'People Like Us' was very much designed as a ghost story, because these characters are trying to understand what happened, and the one man who could provide them answers is not around to tell them," Kurtzman said. "I thought that journey was interesting because it ultimately reflects something I've learned in my life, which there isn't really one version of the truth. People can tell you certain versions of it and you can fill in certain blanks, but at the end of the day, the only real truth is the truth that you believe."