The writer-director: Alex Kurtzman’s ‘People Like Us’ explores family

Seven-and-a-half years ago, a woman approached screenwriter Alex Kurtzman at a party and introduced herself. “She said, ‘Hi, I’m your sister,'” Kurtzman said. “I was in shock.” Kurtzman clearly saw his father’s features reflected in the woman’s face, but here he was at age 30 and he’d never met her.

The stunning experience of encountering his half-sister for the first time led to Kurtzman’s latest movie and his directorial debut, “People Like Us, which opens June 29.

A heavily fictionalized version of his own story, the film stars Chris Pine as Sam, a self-absorbed young man charged with delivering $150,000 of his recently deceased father’s money to a sister he never knew he had (played by Elizabeth Banks). Michelle Pfeiffer plays Sam’s mother, a fragile widow bearing a secret of her own, and Devin Brochu is his sly, self-reliant nephew. Kurtzman’s writing partner, Roberto Orci, and college friend, actor Jody Lambert, collaborated on the screenplay, each adding details from his own family’s colorful history.

Alex Kurtzman: In the Calendar section elsewhere in this edition, an article about Alex Kurtzman and his directorial debut, “People Like Us,” identified the actor playing Chris Pine’s nephew as Devin Brochu. Brochu does have a role in the film, but the actor playing the nephew is Michael Hall D’Addario. The error was discovered after the section went to press. —

The film father’s career came from Lambert’s dad, songwriter and record producer Dennis Lambert, and the element of mystery from Orci’s aunt, who had a secret family. Kurtzman’s father, a dentist who is still living, had a family and got divorced before he married Kurtzman’s mother, but even though the children had never met, their existence wasn’t a secret.

“We knew about them growing up,” said Kurtzman, a Santa Monica native. “We were separated by age and geography…. After my dad’s divorce, he met my mom and we just never really grew up knowing our half-siblings.”

Filial drama is new creative terrain for Kurtzman, who with Orci, has penned such sci-fi and action-driven films as”Star Trek” and”Transformers,” and has just signed on to write the new”Spider-Man” sequel.

“This movie came out of the first moment in my life that I had something to say that didn’t require a giant robot or the Starship Enterprise, that there was a way maybe to hold the screen based on something grounded,” Kurtzman said.

Taking the story from anecdote to screenplay required Kurtzman to ignore many of the screenwriting habits he’d internalized working on action films — instead of a plot-driven script, this one would be all character. With DreamWorks providing the financing, he shot the film in Los Angeles over 40 days in 2011 for a budget of less than $20 million.

“I wanted to make the kind of movie I didn’t get to see anymore, a movie that was big and was about humans,” he said.

As the project developed, Kurtzman said his family relationships have evolved too — he spoke with his siblings often while writing and has screened the film for his entire family, including his father.

“That party was a lovely beginning of a connection,” Kurtzman said. “In one way or another, everybody has this experience in their lives … the moment when you have to define your relationship to family and how your family’s made you who you are, whether you’ve spent your life running from your family or deeply connected to your family. There comes a moment where you have to evaluate who you want to be as a man or a woman or a father or a son or a brother. That was the experience I wanted to capture in the movie.”

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