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‘People’ reveals some truths

Profile image for By Boo Allen/Film Critic
By Boo Allen/Film Critic
Writer-director Alex Kurtzman tells a semi-autobiographical story in People Like Us. The movie is the directorial debut for Kurtzman, who co-wrote Star Trek and Transformers.MCT file photo/Los Angeles Times, Francine Orr
Writer-director Alex Kurtzman tells a semi-autobiographical story in People Like Us. The movie is the directorial debut for Kurtzman, who co-wrote Star Trek and Transformers.
MCT file photo/Los Angeles Times, Francine Orr

Writer of big-budget scripts turns lens on more introspective tale

Some movie themes will always be timely and universally appealing. And nothing touches more people than movies about families.

People Like Us, which opened in theaters Friday, explores some tangled family situations. The events depicted in the film have an origin in the life of writer and first-time feature director Alex Kurtzman. His film chronicles what happens when a young man discovers that his recently deceased father had another family, including a half-sister he never knew about.

Kurtzman, who recently toured the area along with the film’s leading man, Chris Pine, in promotion of their film, also co-wrote the script — something he has often done before with his co-writer Robert Orci in such big-budget blockbusters as the Transformers movies and 2009’s Star Trek.

Kurtzman first started working on his story and script years ago, never knowing if his efforts would pay off.

“I was very, very fortunate in this one,” he said. “After eight years, I gave it to DreamWorks on a Thursday, and by Saturday morning, they called to say we could make it. They have been very supportive, and it was a real privilege after eight years to be given the keys.”

The film’s story has autobiographical roots.

“I met my sister when I was around 30,” Kurtzman said. “A woman walked up to me and said, ‘I’m your sister.’ We talked, and it began a big exploration of family, about how much time we had missed not knowing each other.

“I thought, ‘We could have looked out for each other.’ And even if this isn’t your story, it does show families are complicated,” he said.

Pine plays Sam, the brother manqué who belatedly finds out about his father’s other life. Pine said he loved Kurtzman’s story immediately.

“Alex sent me the script on Friday, and by Monday, I had committed to it,” he said.

Sam and his newfound sister, Frankie (Elizabeth Banks), have endless questions but have nowhere to take them.

“These characters are all trying to get answers from the guy who can’t answer them,” Kurtzman said. “I love the idea that Jerry [the dead father] was haunting everyone.”

In the interview, Kurtzman touched on the power of movies and how they can affect people and even become therapeutic.

“The beauty of making films is that we are so lucky. People can lose themselves and even see themselves on screen,” he said.

Asked which movies about family affected him when he was younger, he cited Rain Man, Kramer vs. Kramer, Ordinary People and Good Will Hunt­ing.

“They were all studio movies yet intimate character studies,” he said.

And they were all movies, according to the director, that became somewhat cathartic.

“They helped everyone finally to begin to see parents as people and not just as our parents,” Kurtzman said. “With that comes forgiveness.”

In addition to responding to the script’s timeless and universal themes, Pine — who has an English degree from the Uni­versity of California, Berkeley — saw something else in the story and in Kurtzman’s original script.

“It read like a play. I appreciate language and well-written, well-used words. Good scripts, like good plays, have a cadence of their own,” Pine said, pausing to name playwrights Neil LaBute, David Mamet and several others.

Pine said he grew to understand Sam and his conflict.

“Personally, I enjoyed this character, Sam. He’s not likable or particularly sympathetic, but I feel very protective of him because he didn’t have many people looking out for him,” he said.

Kurtzman and Pine worked together previously on the big-budget Star Trek, as well as its upcoming sequel.

After a career working on such extravaganzas, how did Kurtzman feel about his first directing effort being a relatively small film?

“I would love to do it again,” Kurtzman said. “I thought it might be impossible to make a movie that was intimate but did not feel small. … I’ll continue doing it as long as they let me.”