Spinning Platters Interview: Chris Pine and Alex Kurtzman on “People Like Us”

by Jason LeRoy on June 27, 2012

Alex Kurtzman and Chris Pine on the set of PEOPLE LIKE US

If I were to tell you that one of this summer’s most character-driven and emotionally mature dramas comes to you from the writing team responsible for three of Michael Bay’s last four films, you’d accuse me of being hopped up on bath salts and run away covering your face and screaming. And yet, such is the case with People Like Us, the directorial debut of writer/producer Alex Kurtzman. In addition to his work with Bay, Kurtzman (along with creative partner Roberto Orci) is best-known for writing action-packed episodes of TV shows like Alias, Hawaii Five-0, and Fringe, and blockbusters like Mission: Impossible III, Cowboys & Aliens, and the J.J. Abrams reboot of Star Trek (as well as its upcoming sequel). And when the time came for him to finally tell a personal story inspired by one of the most shocking chapters from his own life, he chose his dashing Star Trek leading man, Chris Pine, to play his onscreen surrogate.

Pine stars as Sam Harper, a slick businessman who is forced to return to his Los Angeles home following the death of his father Jerry, a legend on the L.A. music scene. But while Sam is supposed to be comforting his distant mother, Lillian (Michelle Pfeiffer), he makes a startling discovery: his father had a daughter with one of his mistresses. That daughter, Frankie (Elizabeth Banks), is now a tough-talking bartender raising a sarcastic young son, Josh (the very funny Michael Hall D’Addario), as a single mom. Sam tracks Frankie down and gradually ingratiates himself into her life, despite being too nervous to confess their familial bond. In Kurtzman’s hands, the film manages to feel genuine and even gritty, far from the contrived sentimentality to which it could have easily succumbed. It is also an astounding showcase for Banks, who gives arguably her strongest and most well-rounded performance. Below, Spinning Platters sits down with Pine and Kurtzman (both of whom clearly relish the rare opportunity to discuss a serious project) to discuss the more personal aspects of telling this story, the differences between an intimate family drama and Star Trek, and which of Pfeiffer’s characters Pine would like to get stoned with.

Forgive the Star Trek wording, but what was the genesis of this project?

Alex Kurtzman: I met my half-sister when I turned 30. My dad had had another family before mine, then got a divorce, met my mom, and had us. We knew about them growing up but just didn’t know them. So one day I walked into a party and a woman walked up to me and said, “I’m your sister,” and it kind of blew my mind. We started talking and getting to know each other, and we got very close. The writing of this movie happened over the course of eight years because there was just a lot of working through it, separating the truth from fiction, knowing how much of my life to take and how much to invent.

How much of yourself did you end up using for Sam?

Kurtzman: I think there’s one very fundamental difference. Over the course of the eight years it took me to write it, Sam’s voice is the one I heard last. The reason that happened is because he lies over the course of the movie, and that was not my instinct when I first met my sister. That said, I think there’s a tremendous amount of me in Sam, in that he’s this guy who’s really working through what it means to be part of a family and what’s important to him. Ultimately he goes from this guy who’s all about selling air to being this guy who’s as bare as he can possibly be, like, “This is who I am, this is me in all my raw glory.” I think everybody can relate to that. Everyone has made choices in their lives that haven’t always been the perfect choices, and then you deal with the consequences of those choices. I loved Sam for his flaws. And I think the character’s also very much both of ours. I wrote a character but Chris interpreted it, which added a whole other unbelievable level to it.

Chris, talk to me about the experience of filming a scene in which you get stoned with Michelle Pfeiffer. And if you could have a drug scene with any of her other characters, which one would you choose?

Chris Pine: [pause] Michelle is obviously beautiful, and she’s incredibly talented, clearly. What I think is interesting about Michelle in this part is that you can imagine her and Jerry in 1972. I always think about that scene in Scarface where you can see her coming down the stairs for the first time, and it’s like, Holy moly. And you can imagine her walking into the Roxy or something, and Jerry Harper is there, who’s described as the king of LA, and then just the magnetic pop of these two beautiful stars exploding. And to see her then in that scene where she’s talking to me, overlooking LA, and it’s night — you could just see how all those years added up and all those true moments added up, and after the blistering pop of that first meeting and those first few years comes the fault lines and the cracks in the veneer. And to see that beautiful woman so haunted by so much is, I think, kind of devastating. Really devastating. And she brought obviously such a poignancy to that. [pause] The more interesting answer to your question is I would definitely get that catsuit out and, uh…

Kurtzman: Light one up?

Pine: Turn the lights down low.

Chris, you grew up in a family of actors and performers. Alex mentioned that you added your own layer to the character. Did you draw on your own childhood?

Pine: I think it would have been virtually impossible to go into making this film, no matter what your training is, without thinking about your family. It brings up a lot of themes about family and truth and growing up and looking at your folks as faulty, screwed-up human beings instead of super-people who had some sort of bible about how to parent, which no one has. I didn’t have any sort of recipe for doing this part. I definitely thought about my own relationships and growing up, and what it would mean to really face hard truths. There’s that wonderful ignorance when you’re a kid that your parents are perfect — they know everything, they provide everything, they keep you warm, they love you. Or at least I was lucky enough to have that. And then there just comes a moment that you realize how screwed up they are. It’s not that they’re super-damaged, it’s just that everybody has their own stuff. It’s about whether you choose to love them and accept them for it, or resent them and face them with bitterness. Those are questions that all of us have to deal with at some point.

There’s a scene where Sam imparts a must-have music list to help shape Josh’s tastes. Alex, how much of that list was personal to you? [The film also contains a beautiful new original song by Liz Phair called “Dotted Line”; Kurtzman wrote the character of Frankie with inspiration from Phair’s music.]

Kurtzman: One of the great joys of this was collecting Jerry’s music over the eight years. I think the music is the fifth character in a lot of ways. Among my favorite directors is Cameron Crowe, and I always love how he has music in his movies that is so eclectic. Each character will sort of have their own music, and then there’s the music of the era or the time he’s writing about. I just love the portrait that you can paint musically. Also, it’s a movie about a guy who lived in the music world, and it’s a movie in which everyone is haunted by the same man. So there was definitely a Jerry Harper sound, and as much as Sam is running from his dad, it’s not an accident that [The James Gang’s] “Funk #49”  is the way the movie opens, which I would say is categorically in the Jerry sound; I’m subliminally coating people for the idea that Sam’s a lot like his dad.

Alex, you’re best known as a writer/producer. How was it to finally step up and direct one of your own scripts?

Kurtzman: I got into writing to become a director. I’ve had the incredible good fortune to spend so much time on set with the directors we’ve made our movies with, and I’ve learned a ton from all of them. They all have very different lessons to teach. There sort of came a point for me where I felt like I’d had my training and it was time to become a Jedi. [laughs] It was time for me to go out there and do it by myself. And I didn’t know if I was going to be any good at it. I just knew I had to throw myself into it 100%, and all the lessons I learned from those directors made their way into the choices I made while I was directing. But I have to tell you, I just had such a blast doing this. It was so much fun, and if people would let me do it again, I would love to.

[mild spoiler alert] At first it seems like this could be just another film where we have a protagonist concealing a major secret from another character, setting up the inevitable climactic reveal. And yet when that moment finally comes and Sam confesses his secret to Frankie, it lands so much harder and with so much more emotional weight that I’d expected. How did you approach creating that moment?

Kurtzman: Well first of all, thank you for saying that. Part of the draw for us was the idea that there was going to be a bill at the end of the meal [laughs]. What’s lovely and complicated about the movie is that these two people are so broken and so at sea, and then when they see each other, they have this instant connection that is so based on the fact that they’re broken by the same man. And you want them to be together because you want them to feel completed and not so hurt and not so alone, and what starts to happen is that they do have that, but their relationship is built on a lie. So there’s a lot of truth between them, and yet there’s a whole aspect of the relationship that Sam is concealing from Frankie. So as you’re watching it, you’re hopefully feeling two things: elation that these two people are finding each other and that this brother and sister are connecting, and an unbelievable sense of dread because you know where it’s going. There’s the old Hitchcock adage about putting the bomb under the chair for twenty minutes while the scene just goes on, and that really applied filmically here. The tension of the movie lay in that for me. There would be no movie if he told her that up front.

But I also think that, honestly, for all that planning, the effectiveness and what you said you felt comes from what Chris and Elizabeth brought to that moment, and only that. I did very little that day. I moved the camera a little bit. I whispered in their ear a couple times. But that was it. We had made a point of arranging the shooting schedule so that that was deep in the movie, so that their relationship had really already built itself. This was very difficult, but we tried to shoot as linear as possible. What you hope for from your actors is that the line between actor and character starts to blur, and by that point that’s what was happening. Chris was so racked with the anxiety of knowing this was the moment, and Elizabeth played the moment so perfectly because she was so not expecting it. I think part of it is the heartbreak of watching her have to receive that.

Chris, what is more exhausting: playing the emotional turmoil of Sam Harper, or overseeing the USS Enterprise?

Pine: [laughs] Yeah, they’re both…

Kurtzman: They’re both pretty tiring.

Pine: Just the shooting schedule for a big movie is exhausting. It’s usually five or six months, and it’s just a lot of running. [laughs] A lot of getting your ass kicked, for Kirk especially. So that can kind of take its toll. It’s also incredibly fun. And I think, strangely for me not having been a fan watching it, there is this weird magnetic-power-pull fear of sitting in that chair. You sit in that chair, even on the set on the soundstage, and it is the center of everything that’s happening. I remember, at least in the shooting schedule this time, most of the stuff that we shot on the bridge happened up front, and it kinda hit me like a ton of bricks. I mean, I hadn’t done it in four years or whatever. It took me a second to sort of get my footing back there again. But in terms of this movie, the emotional stuff was quite difficult. I just found it very difficult to try to remain as grounded as I could. I think my personality sometimes matches the Sam you see upfront, so I like to be fast and loose and funny, and a lot of Sam is that. But a lot of Sam is stripping that away and just being a bit quieter. That was tough, but I had Alex there, and I had a good crew around me of actors who forced me to stay as present as possible.

People Like Us opens nationwide on Friday, June 29.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

charles douglas December 27, 2012 at 6:51 am

gostaria de saber a historia real da vida do produtor musical da qual foi baseado o filme desde já agradeço.

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