How did Hollywood’s premiere screenwriting duo Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci spend the opening weekend of Star Trek Into Darkness, the sequel to the blockbuster franchise reboot they also penned? By bouncing around Los Angeles to hit as many screenings as they could get into to see just how the risky, controversial story twists they concocted (along with fellow top scribe Damon Lindelof) went over with audiences. "My God, we've been waiting for four years to hear the audience applaud or gasp when Benedict [Cumberbatch] revealed his identity," Kurtzman tells BAM! POW! ZAP! as Orci chuckles in agreement.
There are spoilers galore ahead for moviegoers who didn't trek to the 23rd Century on opening weekend, so consider this paragraph the Neutral Zone before the team breaks down their thoughts on some of Into Darkness' big reveals. Then read on to be introduced to James Badge Dale, whose turns in Iron Man 3, World War Z and The Lone Ranger mark him as summer's sharpest scene stealer.
Kurtzman & Orci: Weighing the Pros and "Khaaaaaaaans!"
When it came to long-speculated-about identity of Cumberbatch's John Harrison, an enigmatic figure revealed to be the revamped Trek timeline's incarnation of Khan Noonian Singh (easily the most revered villain of all previous Trek canon in his prior incarnation, as embodied by actor Ricardo Montalban in the original series episode "Space Seed" and subsequent movie Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan) the writers were prepared for just about any reaction, from "Yay!" and "Hooray!" to "No!" and "WHAT?" "All you want as a filmmaker is a reaction, and to get one is a win for us," says Orci. "Even if you hate it – it's a cool reaction, frankly. You just want a reaction. You want to surprise the audience. You want to tell a story that makes you opine and makes you scream, one way or the other. The reaction we don't like is when you react not at all. We don't like you to just sit there and go, 'Hmm, interesting…' If you have a big reaction, positive or negative, then we did our jobs."
Kurtzman compares their long-weighed decision to utilize Khan to "carrying nitroglycerin up a rocky mountain for 25 miles, and at any point it could blow up in your face and kill you. Part of why we chose to go the direction that we went down was because we actually dismissed the idea of doing Khan at first. For a while we said, 'Okay, yes – that will be everybody's expectation, so let's remove that from the equation. What is the right story here? What are we picking up from the last movie? What threads do we need to carry on, and what do we want our story to be about – not a plot, but actually what is it about?' A lot of big ideas and themes emerged, and a lot of ideas for our characters started to emerge."
"Once we knew what we wanted to say, then we were able to ask ourselves, 'Is Khan the best way to say it?'" continues Kurtzman. "And I think we felt that because we were on the divergent timelines there would be things – as there are with all characters in our timeline – about both the characters in the storyline that would be very familiar and very different. Motivationally Khan was always about his family and always about his crew, and yet he had a backstory with Kirk in the original series and in The Wrath of Khan, that does not exist in our timeline – so again, familiar but different. We really debated it because we also knew that as much as people were expecting it, we would probably also be punished for it. To be able to stand by our choice, ultimately I think we came to a place where we were able to all look each other in the eye and do that, and then ultimately look at the audience and do that – and that's why we went down that road."
Equally challenging was their decision to borrow another touchstone from Wrath of Khan and invert it, playing out a dramatic death scene this time with Kirk (Chris Pine) having sacrificed himself to save the Enterprise while Spock (Zachary Quinto) watches his friend die helplessly. "It can't just be a scene that you do because it was done in Wrath of Khan – It has to have its own meaning," explains Orci. "In 'Wrath of Khan,' the meaning of that scene is the end of a friendship: it is the acknowledgement between Kirk and Spock that they have been and always shall be friends, as Spock says. Well, we figured out in our movie it could be the opposite. It''s the beginning of Spock realizing their friendship. Literally Kirk asks him, 'You know why I saved you at the volcano?' And finally Spock realizes it's 'Because you're my friend.'"
"When we figured out that same scene could signify the exact different situation of their friendship," adds Orci, "that's when we knew that maybe it's worth considering. It's not worth it just to do it. It has to actually have a context in the story. In our story, our heroes have not really gotten to know each other. We realized that scene could actually pay homage to Wrath of Khan, but have it mean the exact opposite."
The screenwriters ruminated on notions for the sequel for months before breaking the story, considering the lessons learned on their first Trek collaboration with their longtime colleague J.J. Abrams and dedicated to further growing the franchise’s to fans and non-fans alike. “We wanted them all in the theater,” says Kurtzman, “and we did not want to take for granted that it would be an easy thing to do twice.”
The first film was daunting (they turned down the writing assignment multiple times before accepting) but the sequel had a unique degree of difficulty all its own. "I would argue the second movie was scarier," explains Orci. "Suddenly we had the freedom of having freed ourselves from canon, and it just made it that much more difficult." Adds Kurtzman, "It's part of why we took a year just to talk about the story and really marinate on options, because that level of freedom is scary and comes with tremendous responsibility. And we needed to feel the confidence to move forward knowing we were making the right choices."
The duo – who have penned the script for the upcoming Ender’s Game as well as the in-production sequel Amazing Spider-Man 2 (which they’ll discuss in an upcoming BAM! POW! ZAP! – say that they’ve been so focused on launching Into Darkness that they genuinely haven't considered any notions for a third Trek, with or without Abrams at the helm, just yet (the studio hasn't signed them for another tour yet, either). "We don't like to count our sequels before they hatch," says Kurtzman. "So we don't know – you have to ask us again in a month. We might have to clear our heads at that point."
James Badge Dale: Super-Powered Scene Stealer
As the Extremis-enhanced, flame-fisted bad guy Eric Slavin (known as Coldblood in the Marvel Comics) in Iron Man 3, actor James Badge Dale tested his mettle against the biggest screen superhero of the moment – but why stop there? Before 2013 is over he’ll have moved on from tangling with Robert Downey, Jr. to sharing world-threatening scenes with Brad Pitt in World War Z and Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger.
Dale was new to the Marvel Cinematic Universe both as actor and fan, he tells BAM! POW! ZAP! "I just wasn't cool enough to read comic books," he says. "The comic book kids were hanging out with Transformer toys, and I had Go-Bots. I was down the nerd ladder pretty low. But my cousin really helped me out – she's a huge comic book fan, knows all about the Marvel universe, and every time I had a question I would call her." Not helping his cool points: "The first time I met Downey my dogs almost attacked him," he admits. "I’ve got these two 40-lb. dogs that were hanging around the trailer, and he just came up and knocked on the door, and opened the door. He had no idea. Suddenly I turn around: I’ve got two dogs running at Robert Downey, Jr., face-first, and all I'm thinking is, 'Oh no – here goes the entire film right here.' I'm pulling the dogs back, like, 'Oh hey, Robert! Do you want to come inside?' And he just stares at me and goes 'No.'"
The actor has two more high-profile stints in summer blockbusters ahead, opening just weeks apart. In Word War Z, "I play a guy who's basically holding down a military prison as a kind of a fort," he says, having to make a conscious decision to take on another military man after his breakthrough turn in the HBO miniseries The Pacific. "I gave so much of myself to that, and I want to do different roles and different characters, but this one was a different film. This is a giant zombie movie based on a brilliant book and it stars Brad Pitt. So I absolutely jumped at the chance to do it. Brad's cool, man. We had a good time shooting it."
Then there's The Lone Ranger, playing Dan Reid, brother of the iconic Masked Man (Armie Hammer). "The one theme all three of these films for me is that it's all new territory: the Marvel Universe, a zombie film, and then I've never done a Western," he says. "You're out there in the middle of the desert, the wind's blowing, there are dust storms everywhere. You look around and everyone's still smiling and getting this work done because they love the film. That's what made Lone Ranger special."
And, of course, he got to work with Depp. "We hung out on top of a moving train," Dale says before recounting his first meeting with the actor’s actor at the film’s first table read, thick with a typically jittery pre-startup sense of nerves on everyone’s part. “Johnny's just a tad late, and Ruth Wilson turns to me and says, 'Wouldn't it be cool if Johnny just showed up in full Tonto regalia?' And sure enough the door opens, Ruth grabs my arm and goes 'Oh my gosh!' Johnny Depp comes in, in full Tonto makeup. I've never seen a room lose all the nerves at one moment like that. He just sat down and was like, 'Hey, guys. How you doing? Want to read?' And it took all the nerves out and the read was brilliant and hilarious and funny."
Even while enjoying his newly earned sweet spot in big studio tent-poles, Dale plans on testing his limits with each new role. “My job is to keep pushing myself, to keep changing," he says. "I just try to keep that attitude going forward. Someone said to me a long time ago, 'Treat every job like it's your first and treat it like it's your last.' So I try to keep that in mind. Because I don't really have any other discernible skills, so if this doesn't work out for me I'm in trouble!"