Pine became a star three years ago while commanding Capt. Kirk's seat in "Star Trek,"and since then he has solidified his action-star rep with the Denzel Washington thriller "Unstoppable" and the less acclaimed Reese Witherspoon action-rom-com"This Means War." Kurtzman and writing partner Roberto Orci wrote not only "Star Trek" but also the first two"Transformers" movies, "The Island," "Mission: Impossible III" and "Cowboys & Aliens," prompting Forbes last year to call the pair "Hollywood's Secret Weapons" who can take credit for $3 billion in box-office revenues.
So naturally "People Like Us," a semiautobiographical family drama that marks Kurtzman's directorial debut, is coming out in the thick of the summer blockbuster season. In town recently with his lead actor, the 38-year-old filmmaker laughed at the notion that he was receiving some karmic payback, though he admitted he was surprised that DreamWorks decided to release his film in the summer (Friday).
"It just seemed like the kind of movie you'd see in the fall, and then they said, 'You know, the testing has been really good, and we did really well with"The Help"last year, and we really feel like there's going to be a counterprogramming audience for this, and you can either go see all of the big movies about vampire-hunting presidents or you can go see something that's human and real and different and for grown-ups,'" Kurtzman said.
Elizabeth Banks, who co-stars in "People Like Us" and was in town a couple of weeks after Pine and Kurtzman, was in a less talkative mood regarding the release date.
"Don't ask me about that," she said, laughing.
Well, at least DreamWorks is advertising it heavily, perhaps with that "Help" connection in mind.
"I wish we had a best-selling book to fall back on," she said with another laugh.
Those issues aside, Pine said this type of comedic drama finds himself, an experienced theater actor, and his director in more of a comfort zone than the mega movies for which they're best known. (The next "Star Trek" installment, starring Pine and co-written by Kurtzman, already has been shot and will open May 17.)
"When we both started we never in our wildest imaginations would've ever thought of ourselves doing the kind of films that we're doing," the 31-year-old actor said as he and Kurtzman enjoyed a steakhouse dinner. "We both feel incredibly lucky to get to do what we do, and our path and journey has taken us on a certain route with these bigger films, and it's fantastic, but I think the large part of our hearts and interest has always laid in a different, smaller arena, like films that eventually feel like 'Kramer vs. Kramer.'"
Kurtzman cited "Kramer vs. Kramer" as well as "the holy trinity of Jim Brooks, Cameron Crowe and Steven Soderbergh" as having informed his film. Billed as "inspired by true events," "People Like Us" finds Pine playing Sam, a fast-talking East Coast salesman who flies to Los Angeles for his father's funeral and learns that his dad had a daughter by another woman. The father's lawyer tasks Sam to deliver $150,000 to his newly discovered half-sister, Frankie (Banks), but without revealing himself and his mission, Sam befriends her and her son, Josh (Michael Hall D'Addario), instead.
Kurtzman said his dad was a dentist, not a music producer (that came from co-writer Jody Lambert, whose father, Dennis Lambert, co-wrote "One Tin Soldier" and "We Built This City" and co-produced "Rhinestone Cowboy"), and there was no $150,000 or overarching secret.
"My dad had another family before ours, but we knew about them growing up," the writer-director said. "They weren't around. We'd not met them."
Part of the reason the screenplay took seven years to write, he added, was to deal with the "slow disentangling, separating of truth from fiction: what of the truth was going to stay, what of the fiction needed to be amended for the story to work on its own merits."
During this development period, fiction and fact collided in a way that no one could have scripted.
Kurtzman said that hours after he finally figured out his movie's final shot, he attended a party where "a woman walked up to me and said, 'I'm your sister.' Totally random. I think I was in shock for several days at the timing of it and the odd everything of it, but it opened up the door to us getting to know each other. The story for us became about lost time and all the time we could have had together that we didn't have. That definitely made its way into the movie."
Having watched Pine embody Kirk's transition from reckless youth to cool-headed leader in "Star Trek," Kurtzman said he was his first choice to play Sam.
"Sam is a very tricky part to play because the character makes so many wrong choices along the way that hurt people, and yet I knew that it was critical for the audience to love him at every step of the way," Kurtzman said. "It was very clear to me that he was going to be able to play that and that he was going to make it likable."
Pine said he immediately liked the script but had reservations about working on such a personal story with the writer also directing it.
"The worst thing that can happen in a circumstance like that is that the piece becomes precious, and I actually told him very upfront, 'I won't be any good to you if I can't be a full collaborator on this with you, because I have some very specific ideas about it and feel certain ways about different things,'" the actor said.
But, Pine continued, Kurtzman allowed that openness, and much scene-by-scene analysis and improvisation ensued on the set. The director said the script's long gestation period, and the many changes it went through, made him less precious about his words anyway, so he was happy for his actors' input.
"Alex is a first-time director, and I think it's always a real discovery for directors when they realize they have actors who can improv and keep it real and keep it on point," Banks said.
The director and his two leads agreed that the final scene, which I won't spoil, was the most fraught, as Pine fought for Sam's point of view and Banks fought for Frankie's point of view, and Kurtzman tried to moderate.
"We really battled that moment," the actress, 38, said. "It was a really hard day. I made Chris work for it. I really did."
Less of an issue was dealing with audience expectations/dread over whether Frankie might try to strike up a romance with the man she doesn't realize is her half-brother.
"It wasn't really a concern of mine when I was doing it," Pine said. "Perhaps it was because I knew what the story was, and I was reading it from the point of view of a guy who's meeting his sister."
From the script development through the production, the movie was known as "Welcome to People," reflecting Sam's progression into the world of true human emotions. Then the studio tested the title and reported that audiences had trouble understanding it.
"It was a bit of a battle," Kurtzman said. "In the studio's defense, they really let it go for a long time, even knowing that we were having challenges with it in the testing, just with the title. And finally I think we want the same thing for the movie, all of us, which is for people to be excited and go see it."
"I think I was just as connected to that title as Alex was," Pine said. "Look, at the end of the day, Alex made his film. No one can touch his film. The film is his, completely, from back to front. They gave him all the freedom he wished. That never happens. So title-schmitle. I have issues with the poster (with Pine, Banks and D'Addario in a grinning pose). Poster-schmoster. People see the film or they don't. That's the payment. The film is all that matters."