Release Date: June 29, 2012
Studio: DreamWorks Pictures
Director: Alex Kurtzman
Screenwriter: Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, Jody Lambert
Starring: Chris Pine, Elizabeth Banks, Olivia Wilde
Genre: Comedy, Drama
MPAA Rating: PG-13
ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
BIRTH OF THE STORY
When writer/director Alex Kurtzman was young, he knew that his father had been married before and had two other children. Separated by distance and 15 years, the other family led their lives and Kurtzman led his. They never met one another.
One day, Kurtzman began to think about the other family and from that initial wave of thoughts, the idea for "People Like Us" began to germinate: What if, when he was young, he had actually met his half-brother or sister and never realized it?
In an uncanny and totally serendipitous moment, Kurtzman met his half-sister at a party that very same day. As Kurtzman explains, "I don't know where the idea came from, but it just sort of struck me and I had no idea how to get there. And I didn't think much of it. That night, maybe about three hours later, I walked into a party and a woman walked up to me and said, ‘I'm your sister.'
"It was sort of like being in a dream," continues Kurtzman. "We got to know each other, and it was an amazing experience. We got incredibly close and as we did, we started to talk about the different things that we had missed, the time that we had missed together, and I think that the overwhelming feeling that we walked away with was just how grateful we were to finally get to know each other."
Kurtzman admits that it was "a little bit shocking" for both of them to finally sit down and meet. "It was an amazing thing to me because when you're looking at someone who in some ways has your features, whom you've never met before, and whose genetics are very clear, it's a little bit like looking in a mirror," says Kurtzman. "So, when Sam says in the movie, ‘She has my father's eyes, she has my father's nose,' that was something that I very much felt."
Kurtzman is candid about how he felt making a film on a subject that he has a personal connection to: "In some ways, to be honest, it wasn't really a choice for me. It was something that kind of happened and became all-consuming. I knew that it was going to be emotionally expensive to go down the road of trying to make this thing real.
"The mother and the father are nothing like my parents, and the choices that they made in the movie are nothing like the choices that my actual parents made," he continues. "So, it is a complicated separating of truth from fiction, and the thing that was most important to me, while being true to the experience of my life, was that I wanted to make sure it was a movie that communicated that everybody has reasons for doing what they do."
FROM CONCEPT TO SCREENPLAY
Kurtzman's business and writing partner of 20 years is Roberto Orci, with whom he has written such big event films as "Star Trek" and "Transformers." Orci and Kurtzman have been friends since high school when they met in a film class. Both writers were inspired when they were young by independent films and over the years they became increasingly interested in going back to their roots to tell the kind of story that had inspired them to write in the first place—small, character-driven films.
When Kurtzman told Orci about the experience of meeting his half-sister, Orci related his aunt's story aboutdiscovering that her father had a secret family she knew nothing about. It struck the two writers that the two stories, as Alex Kurtzman says, "are like chocolate and peanut butter—they work perfectly together." This was the type of story that the two writers had been searching for.
Kurtzman and Orci contacted their good friend Jody Lambert, whom they had met in college, and invited him to help them write "People Like Us." Kurtzman explains why Lambert was an important "fresh voice" to the writing process: "We were really interested in the idea of partnering with somebody who was totally unfettered by the writing rules of big action films and was only coming at it from a place of pure character and nothing else. We knew that this movie was going to succeed only if the scenes felt as if they were coming from an incredibly real place."
Orci adds, "And if it feels real, it is because the three of us writers are friends who don't hide a lot from each other. It's easy when you're writing something like this to share other stories with each other that can be embarrassing. You really want to open yourself up to your experiences and try to get them on the page and that's something I think you can only do with people you really trust."
The story evolved over a long period of time, but the writers willingly invested in the organic process of developing the story. Kurtzman explains, "We tend to move quickly through things, but this was one of those odd ones where we knew that at the core of it, it had to be very truthful and in order for it to be truthful and complicated, we needed to take time to find it. Unlike a big action movie that has, in many ways, preset structural elements that you have to hit, it was not as clear-cut in this case and we knew that the major turns of the story were going to be emotional ones."
Co-writer and producer Orci concurs, adding, "This screenplay was not written for anyone but ourselves, so we could take as long as it took for the bread to rise and when the bread rose, we saw it and all collectively decided it was ready to be shown."
As the three writers discussed the vibe of the story and the era that the father in the story would have lived in at the time, they started talking about California in the late'70s, early'80s, and what kind of man this father would have been. Jody Lambert's father was a record producer who ended up giving up his recording career to pay more attention to his son as he grew up. They realized that Lambert's experience growing up around music would bring even more authenticity to the film, so they crafted the father in the film to be in the music industry.
Lambert relates, "My father was in the music business and that gave us a different angle to work from. It opened up a lot of story ideas and other ways into the story that felt a little more authentic than, say, a guy who was a salesman."
When it came to writing the story, the writers felt that it had to be very specific and realized that the smaller and more specific the details, the more the story would be relatable to everybody. Kurtzman comments, "What we really wanted was for everyone to say, ‘I have a story like that in my family.' It may not be that exact story, but certainly a version of it.
"The more specific we made the details of the story, the broader the appeal seemed to become," continues Kurtzman. "I think it's because the things that resonate for audiences are the specific reflections of themselves or people they know. So, the more specific it is, the more personal it becomes for the audience and that was the goal."
An example of the writers' details, and one of the most intriguing, is the set of rules that Sam's father had hanging on the wall of his study. In a moving scene, Chris Pine's character Sam passes these rules down to his nephew Josh. Pine explains what the scene symbolized to him: "To me, passing down his father's rules is Sam's way of connecting his deceased father to the new generation of Harpers. Sam's forgiving his father and saying, ‘I'm going to do you a solid, Dad. I'm going to give these rules to your grandson.' He is in fact introducing Jerry to his grandson, passing down the little piece of love that Sam remembers to the next generation. It's one man looking at a really young boy who's going to be a man and telling him more or less that he has a family and that he is loved."
Adds producer Bobby Cohen, "It's one of the scenes that immediately grabbed me when I first read it. We're all longing for real wisdom from our parents—not just about how to succeed, but how to live. To have Sam realize the latter in time to impart it to Josh is such a telling moment."
The writers spent time creating characters who were emotionally complicated. Kurtzman explains the rationale: "The story is about the fact that we are all flawed in so many ways that people are complicated and they are messy and they don't always make the right choices. In movies a lot of the time, everything is laid out in such neat ways and it feels too easy and we knew that part of being honest was making sure that these characters felt complicated and were genuine reflections of reality."
Using this rationale, the writers developed Frankie and Sam as multilayered and complex characters who share a common bond: They are both broken people who were broken by the same man—their father. They grew up as only children, but when they finally meet, there is an intuitive, instinctive connection—a knowing undercurrent— that sustains them through conflict to discover not only each other, but themselves as well.
Bob Orci explains why bringing familial conflict to the characters in a real way is so important: "Conflict within family brings out the most complicated behavior in people. And if you were tracking true behavior, then the minute it becomes a gimmick or the minute it becomes something merely for drama or a joke, then you lose it."
DIRECTOR ON BOARD
"People Like Us" may be Alex Kurtzman's feature-film directorial debut, but there was never a question about whether he would be the one to helm the movie. "I felt that after seven years of protecting these characters and building them, it was going to be very difficult to hand the project off to somebody else, particularly since the vision that we had by that point was so specific," says Kurtzman. "I really felt like this movie was such a part of me that I couldn't even begin to imagine someone else directing it."
Kurtzman and Orci have been fortunate in that when they were writers on a film, they also were working in producer roles. This allowed them to interact with directors on set. Kurtzman comments, "All of the incredible directors that we've worked with have taught me so many lessons along the way and I absolutely know that I could not have done this if we had not had those experiences. Sitting behind those directors, having the trust of those directors, observing them, watching them and getting their advice was a gift."
Producer Bobby Cohen adds, "I've had the good fortune to work with a lot of first-time feature directors, but Alex's situation is very unique. Alex has been working with directors at the highest level for years, soaking it in. He was a showrunner on ‘Alias,' and in TV, unlike movies, the writer/producer is the primary creative leader. This was not the same thing as working with a fresh-out-of-film-school kid, filled with nothing but youthful exuberance.
"Alex has been planning and challenging himself for years for this moment. He knows what he wants and understands about the camera, how a crew needs to work, the nuances of a budget and the challenge of a schedule," concludes Cohen.
Because of Kurtzman's prior experience, going on set for "People Like Us" wasn't as daunting a task as it could have been if he'd walked in cold. The director admits that he loves being on set and that it is his "favorite place to be." "I felt like the crew was family. The actors were family. Everybody was collaborating on the same thing," says Kurtzman.
"The vibe on set to me was pretty extraordinary. I felt like everybody was there because they wanted to be there and everybody was happy and it's very important to me as the director to have a happy crew because I believe that you're making a movie collectively."
Kurtzman spent a lot of time in rehearsals before shooting, establishing a rapport between himself as the director and the actors. Kurtzman's affinity for collaboration quickly created trust on set. "The way to create a circle of trust is to empower the cast and crew to be who they are, to follow their instincts and to play out their interpretation of what you have," explains Kurtzman. "The more they do that, the more people feel like they're part of the process. They feel like they have ownership of what they're doing."
The director explored the light and heavy moments in the film to find the right balance between humor and drama. The story had a complicated tone and Kurtzman felt the key was to never violate the drama and to never violate the humor. He talked to the cast about expressing humor and levity organically and reminded them that it always had to come from "an honest place." "My favorite movies are the movies that are actually dramatic movies that have incredible flourishes of humor because the humor comes out of the quirkiness of people and who they are and how they behave in scenes," comments Kurtzman.
When Kurtzman approached directing "People Like Us," he had a definite vision in mind. "I wanted "People Like Us" to be a movie that, while it spoke to a specific experience, spoke to a universal experience, and that experience is being part of a family and trying to find out who you are in the world and where you fit in, and what matters to you and what's important in life," says Kurtzman. "It doesn't matter who you are or what mistakes you made, we're all the same—people like us. This is who we are and this is what we're about."
Producer and co-writer Roberto Orci was happy to see his friend Alex Kurtzman achieve his goal of directing a feature film. "On the one hand it was amazing to see my best pal actually see his dream fulfilled. Then to find out he is great at it and to see the actors respond to him was equally amazing. The fact that it is material he generated gave him an advantage that most directors don't have. He knows the material, so there was no question he couldn't answer. Watching him direct ‘People Like Us' was one of the highlights, and one of the pleasures, of our partnership."
Kurtzman also gets kudos from his cast, who all appreciated his collaborative and inclusive style. Chris Pine, who plays Sam, says, "I got great joy out of watching Alex direct for the first time, watching him bring to life something that was so emotionally impactful for him. But what I really want to stress is that Alex's greatest gift is his incredibly fine-tuned sensitivity. Alex was always inclusive. He always created a true sense of wanting to make it better communally. Work became this even playing field and he had the ability to not be precious about something that was clearly very precious to him."
Michelle Pfeiffer, who plays Lillian, adds her take on the director: "The whole reason I did the film was because I fell so in love with Alex when I met with him. He's incredibly collaborative and incredibly humble and really smart. He's a gifted director and really has great instincts about performance and how to talk to actors. I just loved working with him and I really hope I get to do it again."
Elizabeth Banks was impressed by Kurtzman's competency in his first directorial foray. "Alex was a first-time director, but he was more prepared and more involved than some of the directors who've done it a long time," says Banks. "He did an amazing job with this movie. I think he's a true auteur. He really cares about every little detail and it's really been fun to be part of someone's first directorial project."
The filmmakers approached casting the film very carefully and deliberately, keeping in mind that the character-driven story needed to involve actors who not only looked the part but could bring a sense of relatable reality to the characters' emotions.
Producer Roberto Orci explains, "In dealing with casting, we were trying to take our commercial instincts and yet, not have that be the point. The point is, are you an actor? Is it a real script? Is it a real movie? Is it something that is dealing with something that is meaningful to you? Is it true? And so the two kind of went together...there was kind of a parallel of our process."
After reading the script, Chris Pine ("Star Trek") signed on for the role of Sam—a very different role from his previous parts. He recalls what drew him to the material: "As so often happens when you read good material, it doesn't take long after finishing the last page to realize that this will be a part of your life. I liked the balance of humor and anger...so many layers of emotion that had been packed down."
The filmmakers were very excited about casting Pine and his performance blew them away. "Chris' performance is a magic trick because his character makes every wrong decision and yet, at every turn, with every decision he makes, you're feeling for the guy," says director Alex Kurtzman. "And that can only come from an actor who is both protective of the character and also incredibly appealing on screen."
CHRIS PINE ON SAM: "Sam is a class-A bullshit artist with his work, with himself, with his girlfriend, with his life. He is Mr. Show. He has created—because of a deep pain, a deep sense of abandonment—a wonderful, shiny, bright, big show that he sells to the world while he dies a little bit more every day."
The filmmakers were all fans of Michelle Pfeiffer ("What Lies Beneath," "Batman Returns") , so when she responded positively to the screenplay and the part of Lillian, Sam's widowed mother, they were delighted and excited to work with her. Alex Kurtzman recalls his first meeting with the famed actress: "I knew after one minute of sitting down with Michelle that we were going to be utterly connected to each other and that she was going to give a performance that was totally unselfconscious and totally true. I walked out of the meeting thinking, I am so lucky to have this woman playing this part. She is so amazing and every day on set together was a gift for me."
Pfeiffer admits that the unique story was a major attraction to the project for her. "They don't make a lot of movies like this anymore and I think there's a real appetite for it," comments Pfeiffer. "Given the cast and the subject matter, it will appeal to a really wide range. People are always looking for something that moves them in some way, whether you're making them laugh or you're making them cry. This one does both."
MICHELLE PFEIFFER ON LILLIAN: "In the beginning, Lillian and her son Sam are both just shut down from each other, from themselves and from life. They have both, in very different ways, retreated from really living, feeling, experiencing and interacting."
Elizabeth Banks ("The Hunger Games," "The Next Three Days") accepted the part of Sam's long-lost half-sister Frankie. Banks relates how she became involved with the project: "I remember reading the screenplay and really loving it. Then I went into Alex's [Kurtzman] office, and we read a lot of scenes together. We talked about the characters and the personal connection that Alex had to the story."
The filmmakers embraced Banks' comedic talents as they felt that her natural talent would be perfect to define Frankie's on-screen persona. Kurtzman explains, "Elizabeth is such a natural comedienne; she's so funny, and she can make a moment pop in 10,000 different ways, and that's what her character Frankie needed to do. Frankie needed to be this person who came into the room and you couldn't take your eyes off of her. And if you asked her a direct question about her life experience, she'd deflect it with some humor."
ELIZABETH BANKS ON FRANKIE: "Frankie is always leery of men. I think she's met all kinds and she's very protective of herself and her situation and her son. To invite someone as deeply into her heart as she does Sam is a very rare thing for Frankie."
Olivia Wilde first met Alex Kurtzman when she was making "Cowboys and Aliens" and agreed to read the script. She found herself drawn to the material and ready to sign on the dotted line. She tells why: "It is the kind of movie that actors want to make when they get in this business but don't always get a chance to. It's very simple and it's very meaningful and I just hadn't read anything like it, ever. It reminded me of great films like ‘Ordinary People' and I just wanted to be a part of it. And the people working on it were some of the most talented people in the business. I felt it was the kind of family story that's never told anymore."
OLIVIA WILDE ON HANNAH: "Hannah's fallen madly in love with Sam, who's so mercurial. One moment he's all in and then the next minute he goes completely cold. Their relationship has progressed to the point where it is a serious partnership, and yet he's not all there and she's constantly chasing him and picking up after him, in an emotional sense."
Michael Hall D'Addario makes his feature film debut in "People Like Us." Chosen from among hundreds of hopefuls, the Long Island, New York native has been acting since the age of 6. A talented drummer and musician, Michael says, "I like how much the script relates to music and I think the storyline is great."
Producer Bobby Cohen has praise for the young actor. "Michael's been a lot of fun," he says. "He's great in the part. And in the times where we've asked him to step up and go to an emotional place, he's been able to do it. He's got the gift."
MICHAEL HALL D'ADDARIO ON JOSH: "Josh has a single mom. His life is kind of a struggle. He's a rebellious kid, but on the inside he's not so rebellious. When Josh finds his uncle, he really connects with him and has kind of a father figure in his life."
The cast is rounded out by great performances by talented actors Mark Duplass ("Humpday") and Philip Baker Hall ("The Insider," "Bruce Almighty").
Commenting on the cast, director Alex Kurtzman says, "I was so lucky with my actors. From the minute we started, they were dialed into their characters and they knew instinctively exactly who those people were. I think the beauty of the performances that they all give is that they were putting themselves in those parts, and you can see it."
THE MAKING OF "PEOPLE LIKE US"
"People Like Us" was filmed entirely in Los Angeles and the surrounding area. Instead of iconic landmarks and tourist attractions, the locations the filmmakers chose were more grassroots, hometown Los Angeles—the L.A. most tourists never see. As producer Bobby Cohen explains, "There is something special about shooting in real locations. There is a texture to them that you can't rebuild. It makes a difference. That had been one of Alex's [Kurtzman, director] main things from the get-go—he wanted to shoot the parts of L.A. that don't normally get attention."
Continues Cohen, "We're not shooting the tourists'-eye view of L.A. As a born New Yorker, it's been fun shooting in more offbeat neighborhoods. Alex intuitively understands the moods of these places and has done a very good job of capturing those moods on film."
Director Alex Kurtzman comments, "I'm a native Los Angeleno and my city is not the glitzy, cliched Los Angeles that I feel like I see on screen in other films. I felt strongly about representing the L.A. that was the story of the movie and was one that others had never seen."
One of the scenes in the film was shot at Rhino Records, one of the oldest record stores still in existence, and famed Hollywood High School became the setting for the Toluca Park Middle School. Old-time eateries Henry's Tacos, Cole's French Dip and Neptune's Net were featured to lend authentic L.A. flavor—no pun intended.
Shooting in real locations, such as the houses, restaurants, schools and churches used in the film, presents challenges for lighting—walls cannot be moved and there are usually not high ceilings to accommodate the lights. But director of photography Sal Totino was a genius at coming up with simple, yet elegant ways to light the film that did not sacrifice the high quality of the filming.
Director Alex Kurtzman relates, "To Sal Totino, it isn't about what's the most beautiful lighting scheme. It's about: how is this frame telling the emotional story of the characters? That's the first question that he asks. He translates an emotion beautifully. I can't imagine ever working with anyone else."
Production designer Ida Random brought a very real look to the film, as if the audience were actually brought into the living room of a familiar house. Without overdoing the production design, Random was able to create an intimacy and comfort level that draws the viewers in, but never visually bores them.
Much of the music business memorabilia in the "Jerry's Study" set belongs to Jody Lambert's father Dennis Lambert, a Songwriters Hall of Fame nominee whose hits as writer and/or producer include "Ain't No Woman (Like The One I Got) ", "Rhinestone Cowboy", "Baby Come Back" and "Nightshift." Lambert showed production designer Ida Random a storage unit full of his father's memorabilia and she used it in the set, including photographs of Dennis Lambert himself and his actual Gold records.
Costume designer Mary Zophres continued the "real" look with her choice of clothing for the characters and the extras. Zophres says, "It's not the kind of movie where you want the clothes to be front and center. They tell the story of who the characters are and then you move on. You shouldn't be aware of the clothes. They should just sort of tell the story and go away."
In dressing Chris Pine's character Sam, Zophres had him in an expensive suit that is above his means at the start of the film, but when he goes to L.A. he only packs casual clothes for what he thinks is a 48-hour stay: two pairs of jeans, three T-shirts, a jacket and two button down plaid shirts.
For Elizabeth Banks' character Frankie, Zophres chose a leather jacket that she wears a lot in the beginning of the movie. Then as the story progresses, she loses the jacket as her character evolves. The subtle shift in costuming was deliberate to parallel the storyline.
In dressing Michelle Pfeiffer's character Lillian, Zophres took into account that the character had cared for her dying husband for some time and probably lost some weight without knowing it, thus she dressed her in slightly looser clothes.
Zophres was also very aware of the background costuming. "The background helps tell the story. We've had very specific scenes where there should be a look to where were, like we were at Cole's downtown versus The Standard. Those are two hugely different looks. One is an old diner and the other is a trendy nightclub. You reveal those two places through how you dress the people in the background. It is a very important element to me."
Music is another key element of the film. Since the character of Sam's deceased father Jerry was in the music business in the 1970s, music is an important thread that ties the past to the present, enhances the storytelling and links the characters. "The idea of the father as a music producer is part of the DNA of the writing but part of it too is a filmic idea that we all have a soundtrack to our lives," says producer/co-writer Bob Orci.
"When you are going through a big change, somehow you remember the music in your life better," continues Orci. "So the fact that Jerry, Sam's father, was a music producer made it something that is a comfort to Sam and also becomes part of the soundtrack of his life. Sam is left the record collection instead of money. He is left with this legacy of music."
In the film, Sam's father Jerry is a character who is supposed to have been successful, but not the biggest hit maker of all time. That storyline gave the filmmakers a chance to find great music that may not have been the most popular of that era, which was graced by such iconic acts as The Rolling Stones and The Beatles. The filmmakers had an opportunity to introduce or reintroduce the audience to music of the period that was exciting, but may have been overshadowed at the time.
Sam first meets neophyte music lover Josh in a record store, where Josh is busy stealing CDs. Sam engages Josh in conversation, introducing him to the music of his generation and some of the artists he learned about from growing up around his dad.
Producer Bobby Cohen feels that it is in scenes like this where the music undercurrent in the film pays off. "At a certain point in our lives, music becomes very important to us. But let's face it, most of don't know where to start, so it's great to see Sam pass down his knowledge to Josh," says Cohen. "Again, we had a very clear idea that we wanted an eclectic mix of music—cool but not trendy. It's another smart element of the film."
But there was also a more modern music sensibility that spoke to Frankie and Sam, and the worlds that they live in. Director Alex Kurtzman points out, "Finding the balance of the character of the music and the identity of the music was important, so that the music was telling you a story in a progression along the way."
Because the music in the film was obviously so important to the filmmakers, Kurtzman knew he needed a composer who could bring a score that was much more than generic. He explains, "I knew it needed to be orchestral and I knew that it needed to also be able to branch out to other very different kinds of sounds and when I heard the ‘Slumdog Millionaire'score by A.R. Rahman, I was blown away by the fact that it was a different sound."
It was his score for "Slumdog Millionaire" that catapulted Rahman to fame after winning two Academy Awards® for Best Score and Best Song. Overall, he won 15 awards, including two GRAMMYs®, a Golden Globe® and a BAFTA. To date, Rahman has won 25 Filmfare Awards, 3 MTV Awards, 4 IIFA Awards, 6 Tamil Nadu State Awards, 6 Zee Awards and 4 Screen Awards.
"A.R. stuck out for me as a composer who was just doing something very different," Kurtzman continues. "When we met, I could tell that he was a genius and that he could probably do anything. He very quickly understood the sound that I was looking for and we spent two months together at his house while we were in post, figuring out how to work the songs and notes and every little rhythm, every little emotional nuance into the film.
"He was an amazing collaborator. There's a reason why he has won two Oscars®. He's extraordinarily talented. He was the unexpected choice, which is what I loved about it," Kurtzman concludes.
"PEOPLE LIKE US"—COMING SOON
On June 29, 2012, "People Like Us" opens in U.S. theaters and moviegoers will find themselves connected to the experience of the film in a very real way. Director Alex Kurtzman says, "'People Like Us' is a relatable family drama. It's a movie that is about an experience that's specific and yet very universal at the same time.
"It's a movie that's about all of us. It's about who we are; it's about the choices that we make," he continues. "It's about the mistakes that we make and about the beauty that we find in life, in each other and in our family, no matter how complicated that family is. At the end of the day when all is said and done, nothing is more important than family."