The Arty Semite

Screenwriter Alex Kurtzman on 'People Like Us'

By Curt Schleier

  • Print
  • Share Share

Alex Kurtzman is best known for writing Big Summer Movies, the so-called tent pole films. If it has a Roman numeral in the title — “Transformers,” “Star Trek,” “Mission Impossible” — there’s a good chance that Alex and his writing partner Roberto Orsi are involved.

June 29 marks the release of “People Like Us,” a different kind of Kurtzman film: one he not only wrote, but directed and, more importantly, lived.

Getty Images

In “People,” Sam (Chris Pine) is a shady, fast-talking salesman who learns his father has died, forcing Sam’s reluctant return to California and his estranged family. In fulfilling his father’s last wishes, he discovers a 30-year-old half-sister (Elizabeth Banks) and young nephew (Michael Hall D’Addario) he knew nothing about. How they get to know each other and work pass the deceit that separated them is at the heart of this film.

Yes, it sounds suspiciously like a Lifetime Movie of the Week, and even begins with a placard testifying that it is “inspired by true events.” But in fact it is a thoughtfully constructed and extremely well acted film — Michelle Pfeiffer and Olivia Wilde round out the top-flight cast — and is one of the most intelligent pictures of a summer overstuffed with, yes, comic book tent pole movies. There’s not an autobot in sight.

As for the “true events”: Growing up, Kurtzman, 38, knew his father had another family and that he had half siblings that he never met. He spoke to The Arty Semite about his missing family, an unexpected reunion and a joint bar mitzvah.

Curt Schleier: It must have been strange growing up knowing you had a half-brother and half-sister, but never meeting them.

Alex Kurtzman: Yes. Definitely [they] were a presence. I didn’t ask too many questions until I met my sister, and that wasn’t until I was 30. It was a little like having a phantom limb, you know there’s a part of you missing, but you don’t know where it is.

The film’s production notes said “People Like Us” began when you were sitting around one day and you thought about what it would have been like growing up knowing your siblings.

It was weirder than that. I was sitting in the garden of my house one day and I was thinking about this and all of a sudden this image flashed in my head. It was the last image of the film, though I didn’t know it was going to be the last image of the film. It struck me like an arrow, it was a very powerful image. And three hours later, I walked into a party and a woman walked up to me and said, “I’m your sister.” It was weirder than a movie. Of course, you call it weird and I call it my life.

Have you spoken to your father about why the two families were kept apart? What was his reaction to the film?

There are some things I won’t talk about, that I want to keep personal. I will say he’s been my greatest supporter always, he’s incredibly proud and always gave me the faith to believe I can make something of myself as a writer.

Your father and you share a bar mitzvah bond, as well, right?

I didn’t go to Hebrew school, but I did have a bar mitzvah — with my father. His father died when he was 12, so he never had a bar mitzvah when he was younger. So we decided to have one together.

This film is so different from pretty much everything you’ve done in the past. Why travel this road?

The truth is when Bob and I started writing together, we always thought we were going to make small, independent films. We met because of our mutual love for “Sex, Lies and Videotape.”

How is the process different?

Typically, with a bigger movie, we have a release date before we have a script. So it’s go-go-go time. In this case, we weren’t writing for anyone but ourselves. We spent a lot of time separating the truth from the fiction, figuring out what to keep, what to fictionalize. It was very different, a real learning experience. It taught us both the patience required to create truths about these messy characters, to wait for life to present moments to us to include in the script. It took eight years, and the script changed a thousand different times. I had that ending in mind always, and we worked backward from that ending. I love the complication of the relationship between these two damaged people, a relationship built on a lie.

Watch the trailer for ‘People Like Us’:

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: People Like Us, Interviews, Film, Curt Schleier, Alex Kurtzman

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.