Alex Kurtzman interview: The Mummy, Transformers

Alex Kurtzman chats to us about The Mummy, Univeral's Dark Universe of films, and writing for Michael Bay.

The Mummy (2017) is directed by Alex Kurtzman. We were interested enough in chatting to the director of The Mummy, but Kurtzman has a fascinating CV, having worked on several high profile films and TV series as a writer and producer with Roberto Orci, including The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Star Trek (2009), Fringe and the first two Michael Bay Transformers movies.

Den of Geek sat down with Kurtzman to chat about his experience making The Mummy and the upcoming Dark Universe, the collection of linked Universal Monster movies that he’ll be working on, and what it was like to work with Michael Bay.

When did you come onto The Mummy?

The studio came to me, it’s got to be four or five years ago now, and asked if I’d be interested in doing The Mummy and I jumped at it because I’m a lifelong fan of the Universal Monsters, and I was very excited about the prospect of taking this film and bringing it into the modern day and trying to do something new and fresh and different with it. It was daunting, to think about how to do it, but I got excited because it felt like a challenge.

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And what was the context they approached you under? Was it with a mind to direct?

Actually no, it wasn’t. Originally it was just to produce. Then we went through some drafts from some writers and as we began to evolve the story and the possibility of the story, the question for us all was how can we do something different and fresh and how do we open this world up. As that began to happen the idea that The Mummy exists in a larger world of Gods and Monsters became an interesting idea, and that’s how Dark Universe, which is all these monster films that we’re doing, came to be. But it didn’t start with Dark Universe, it actually just started with The Mummy.

And what state was it in when they approached you? It was just an idea?

It was an idea. No, they had nothing, it was ‘We want to do The Mummy again, what do you think?’

This is a film that, even before you’ve called action on your first shot, has a lot of identities. It’s a remake, it’s a franchise starter, it’s a universe launcher, it’s a Tom Cruise movie. How heavy a burden was that load to carry when trying to establish the films own identity?

I mean it’s definitely a load to carry in that you’re right, everybody has preconceived notions and ideas and associations, but I count myself among one of those people. I loved the Karloff film as a kid. I just remember seeing him come to life for the first time and seeing his eyes open and seeing the beauty of the make-up and being so struck by it. I tend to be drawn to the things that I had an association with when I was a kid. Those are the things that excite me the most. Yes, it’s daunting in that everybody else has a version of that story.

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When Tom came to the table, I think less than being daunted by it I thought ‘wow, this is really interesting’ because you wouldn’t expect Tom to be in this movie, and now he is. So now you’ve got two major events happening and that’s going to be something special.

After the screening of the film I went to my editor emailed me and asked if it was a Mission Impossible film or a Mummy film, which I think is a question a lot of people will have. But actually, you’re really quite restrained with your action. Was there ever any temptation to go more action heavy? Or even studio pressure?

Not really, no. I think that we wanted to pay tribute to the Monster films. There was a lot of speculation, based on the first trailer people thought ‘ah, it’s going to be Mission Impossible: Mummy and there’s not gonna be any horror in it or any scares’. Y’know, it’s always interesting to see people’s initial reactions to those things because our goal was to deliver what audiences expect from The Mummy. Certainly if you’re a fan of the Brendon Fraser films you’re going to expect action and adventure and humour, but we wanted to deliver that in the new context. And you have to be scared. You have to be. I could not in good conscience make a monster movie without scaring people. That just would’ve not delivered on the promise of what you expect from a monster movie.

That’s actually one of the things I like most about it, it’s creepy in places. When I went in, and I hope this doesn’t sound rude, but Alex Kurtzman isn’t a name where I’m expecting to go in and find it creepy. Did that come intuitively to you? Were you confident in making it scary?

You know, I am a huge horror fan, and have been since I was 12. I watch everything I can possibly get my hands on. Horror is a very interesting and unique genre in that it seems to be largely defined by the director who is making the film. And I guess you could say that about any genre, but horror is kind of unique in that way because every director approaches scares and suspense differently. Some directors build their horror on showing you a lot of violence. Some directors build there horror on showing you none. The movies that, as a kid, affected me the most found an extraordinary balance between teasing horror, holding you in a state of suspense and then showing you some really, really scary shit. I love that and I love the challenge of that. And if you didn’t expect it from me and then felt I delivered something, that’s nothing but a compliment to me.

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Were there horror movies, I mean obviously The Mummy, but particular horror movies you referenced?

My favourite horror film of all time is The Exorcist, which is a cliché because it’s probably everybody’s, or most peoples. Tom (Cruise) and I watched it quite a bit. We watched it actually less for the scenes in the bedroom, which are obviously brilliant, but more for the first 10 minutes of the film, which is a very transportive experience. In the first 10 minutes of the movie, which is essentially a silent film, you are immersed in a world and filled with a deep sense of dread, without any real understanding of why. Friedkin builds this extraordinarily scary tone, and a sense that something really, really bad is coming, and he does it purely visually. He does it with mood and long takes and quiet and sound and light. He went to those real locations, they shot it in Iraq. He just puts you in a world. And when we talked about how we wanted to approach modern day Iraq and ancient Egypt, we kept going back to The Exorcist as a major reference for tone and texture and look and light and colour and the building of suspense in certain scenes.

Tom has worked with Kubrick. So, to be able to work with an actor who has worked with Kubrick is quite something. We watched The Shining. We talked about Eyes Wide Shut a lot. We talked about what Tom calls an atonal rhythm that Kubrick had in all of his films. And it’s a fascinating thing to hear someone who has worked with Kubrick and understands how Kubrick achieves these rhythms with his actors.

You can take the scene in The Shining between Danny and Scatman Crothers’ character. So they’re sitting at the table and they’re having ice cream and they’re talking about what’s in the hotel room. It’s a normal conversation if you were to read it on the page but there are very strange pauses between the questions and the answers that make you so uncomfortable and you can’t tell why. And that’s all designed by Kubrick, long single takes where people are not speaking in a normal rhythm to each other and it makes you deeply unsettled. And so we talked a lot about that.

We watched a lot of Hitchcock. A lot of Hitchcock. As any director who ever wants to make a movie must and does. We watched The Birds and we watched Vertigo and we talked about how Hitchcock would build suspense and about the length of the takes and the utter deliberation of how he would sequence shots together and how he would build tension.

To be able to sit in a dark theatre with Tom who has worked with so many of the directors who I love and talk about what was going on on the set of those films in order to understand how we could apply those lessons to The Mummy was honestly a dream come true for me, and I think any director would have been lucky to have that experience.

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It hadn’t occurred to me that you would have someone there to just chat to about Stanley Kubrick who had worked with him. That must’ve been fun.

It’s more than fun. You kind of can’t believe you’re having the conversation. As a lover of those films, you constantly wonder ‘How did he do those things?’ because it’s more than just the beautiful production design in a sense of lenses and framing and all the things that many people have written about far more eloquently than I’ll ever discuss about Stanley Kubrick. To talk to someone who has actually been there with him to see how it works in an entirely different thing. And I think that kind of thing, for me as a young director, is a gift.

You get away with a lot for a PG 13. Did you have to negotiate for it? (this interview took place the morning before The Mummy received a 15 certificate in the UK)

There was some negotiations with the MPAA. But it’s interesting because the films that I grew up with always walked right up to the line of R and never crossed them. I can look at, even Raiders by today’s standards, guys’ faces melting. Those movies scared the shit out of me as a kid and yet they weren’t R rated films. I think that the films that inspire me the most are the ones that don’t cross the line into R.

You know, give me American Werewolf In London as a hard R and I’m the happiest guy in the world, but that’s a very specific kind of movie, you know. And I think that if you’re making a film for a global audience where you want people to come see the adventure and you know kids are gonna be there, then I have to put myself in the position of where I was when I was a kid. And I have to remember what was scary about seeing things like Raiders or Temple Of Doom or Jaws. I think Jaws is R.

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But I take inspiration from trying to find a way to manage and control where on the line we fall when it comes to that kind of stuff. Take a look at Jurassic World a couple of years ago. There’s some incredibly scary sequences in it, I was like ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe that this is a PG-13’ and yet it was. I think what that tells me is you can get away with a lot more now in what’s called the family film than you were able to even a couple of years back.

And there was never any discussion about doing an R rated version?

No, not really. Not at this scale and scope. Horror movies, of which I consider myself a diehard fan, are more limited in terms of audience. It’s a very specific genre audience and it doesn’t always reach a global audience. Sometimes it does, but rarely, and we endeavoured to make a much larger movie than that.

In fact, you’re making a whole universe of movies like that. Bride Of Frankenstein is next. I think because of the Brendan Fraser ones, The Mummy feels like the easiest sell of those old Monster movies to bring…

Because people are familiar with it, sure.

Bride Of Frankenstein is a little lower down the list, I think.

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In terms of easy sells?

Not even as an easy sell, but as a family, tentpole film, I would assume is what you’re going for. Are you having a tough time with it?

David Koepp wrote a brilliant script. A brilliant script with a very unique structure and a central relationship that I think is gonna be relatable to a lot of people while also being very true to what I believe people love about Bride. Here’s the weird thing about Bride Of Frankenstein. It is one of the weirdest movies you’ll ever see in your life. It is such a strange film. What amazes me is that the bride doesn’t show up until, what, the last ten minutes of the film? Doesn’t say anything, rejects Frankenstein, he pulls a lever and the building explodes and that’s the end of it. It’s not like she has long monologues, it’s not like you get to know her character, it’s not like she goes out into the world. There’s almost no screen time with her.

And yet everybody remembers the iconic look, the hair, who she was. Articles have been written, there’s Halloween costumes. It’s an enduring character because there’s something mysterious about her and that look, and the idea that she was created to serve another man. Which is gonna be an interesting thing to tackle in this day and age. It might be something we subvert in our film. It will be really interesting to see where we go because I actually think that Bride is maybe a lot more accessible as a character than you may think. Mostly because she’s not really a character yet based on the original Bride Of Frankenstein.

That’s interesting. I watched it again at the weekend, actually, and I’d forgotten that she was in it so little.

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In the same way that with Karloff and the bandages, all you remember is Karloff in the bandages; he’s out of those bandages in one scene, at the beginning of the film. He spends the rest of the movie not in the bandages, but you don’t remember that. You remember him in the bandages. That speaks to the unbelievable design work of those characters and the enduring legacy of the looks of those monsters. And I think that’s something we can’t mess around with. That’s sacred ground.

So with the Dark Universe, and I appreciate you’re probably not going to be able to tell me much, but Creature From The Black Lagoon, which I think is probably my favourite monster film…

It’s a great one, yeah.

That’s been in development for a while. Is that still something you guys…?

A million percent.

And is it the same script?

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No. There were scripts before the Dark Universe initiative came up, before I was involved. We started over. I honestly have not read those scripts because I wanna keep a fresh brain for whatever we’re doing next. We have an amazing writer on it now and I think we have an awesome take and I can’t wait. For me, Creature is one of the first action horror films. If you look at the origins of that movie, it really is. The Mummy in many ways, the original Mummy is kind of a parlour film whereas Creature was a more expansive monster movie, and certainly we want to honour the heritage of that.

I have a completely off topic question now, because I’m here with someone who has written for Michael Bay and he fascinates me. What’s the process of writing a script for Michael Bay?

Well, I came in to rewrite a script for Michael Bay, I wasn’t the original writer on The Island. And then on Transformers we started from scratch. Obviously from Michael’s films you can tell that he sees things in a very specific way. And what I found on Transformers was it was here’s the mission, it’s a car that turns into a robot, go make a movie. You’re starting with ok, that could be anything. When we were looking for, what is the entry point for that film that will allow us to connect to an audience, it went back to E.T., it was a boy and his car which turns out to be an alien. Michael really responded to that and I think trusted us in the process and we trusted him to deliver something visually that was gonna be different.

I’ll admit I have not watched any of the films after the second one. I don’t know what happens after the ones that we wrote. It’s interesting that now a fifth one is coming out and I feel so separated and far from those films. But we were kind of searching for a tone there. We didn’t really know what we were going to be able to achieve and it’s amazing that now there’s a fifth one of it.

The process with him is he likes what he likes, he doesn’t like what he doesn’t like, and he’s very clear with you about that.

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But he’s a fun guy to work with in some ways, and I think that’s one of the things that very few people write about him, that you can have a lot of fun with him. And I did. I had a lot of fun with him sometimes. There were hard days and there were great days. But I could probably say that about any director that I worked with.

We only have a minute, so just briefly, the new Transformers, they’re doing a universe, they’re using a writers room. What’s your take on it?

I believe those can be fantastic. Are you talking about my take on writers rooms?

Writers rooms for movies.

I think they can be great. I come from television, so I’m very familiar with writers rooms. I think an effective writers room can be wonderful. I don’t believe that film studios have fully understood or adopted what it means to work a writers room. In television when you’re doing a series it is an assumption and the network is built on understanding the writers room is going to function this way and is going to deliver stories. Studios don’t get that yet, they don’t really understand that. I have yet to see them allow writers rooms to function to their full capacity. I think the idea of doing a writers room is amazing, and I think if you’re going to do a universe it could be brilliant to use the right writers.

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What’s challenging about writers rooms is that you have to let the process work. Which means, you need to the writers come to the studio, to the network let’s say, with ‘Ok, here’s episode one, here’s episode two, this is where we’re going to go on a long arc, here are the stakes we’re gonna be put in the ground, we know we’re going to get from here to here, this is end of the season.’ If a writers room in a film context could function that way, I think it would be brilliant to do something like that. What’s hard is that, when you take a job on a television writing staff, your full time job is to sit in that room and break story all day long and write scripts. When you’re a feature writer they don’t structure it the same way. So you’re not sitting in a room every day for 8 months, you tend to be paid as an individual writer. So the system has to be built and refined differently, and I don’t know yet that it has been successful. I want to believe that it can be because I think it can be great.

What’s your favourite Jason Statham film?

My favourite Jason Statham film? Oh my god. Are you gonna hate me if I tell you I’m not wildly familiar with Jason Statham films?

I won’t hate you. I’ll be confused.

Ok, so let’s say The Transporter.

Alex Kurtzman, thank you very much!

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The Mummy is in UK cinemas from June 9th.