by Gerry Conway
Alex Kurtzman today, at almost this very moment
Alex Kurtzman is in the news right now, obviously, because he’s the director of the much-reviled “The Mummy” reboot. For what it’s worth, I kinda liked the movie, probably because my expectations were lowered by awful reviews, possibly because I generally like popcorn movies, and possibly because I worked for a year with Alex and his former partner, Bob Orci, when we were a lot younger and far less grey. But I’m not here to discuss the merits of The Mummy. I’m here to relate a story about Alex Kurtzman at 25 which proved to me that he and Bob were (and are) blessed by the Goddess of Good Luck.
In 1998 I’d been working in TV about nine years, and had experience as a mid-level producer on a number of network TV shows, most recently, at that moment, on an NBC show called “Players,” which introduced Ice-T as an actor in the Dick Wolf universe. I’d worked on the pilot for the show, though I ended up receiving no credit, and as a result I developed a relationship with the head of TV development at Universal TV. When the show ended, Universal wanted to keep that relationship alive, so they offered me a pilot deal, along with a role as consulting producer on “Hercules: The Legendary Journeys.”
Ostensibly, the reason I was hired as consulting producer was to provide “guidance” to the two new, and very young, co-executive producers who were acting as writer-show runners: Alex Kurtzman and Bob Orci. This was ridiculous on several levels. First, at that point, Alex and Bob had been on the show for several years and already knew more about it than I ever would. Second, though I was older than Alex and Bob, and had worked in TV a few years longer, I was by no means better qualified than they were: Alex and Bob had been to film school, knew the technical end of filmmaking much better than I did, and Alex, at least, had been part of the film community his entire life– his father was an agent. Third, while I’ve always been realistic about my particular set of skills (I’m a skilled craftsman possessed of moderate talent), Alex and Bob were extremely bright and talented, and already as skilled at the craft of TV writing as anyone I ever worked with. So, despite my ostensible “leadership” position I recognized immediately the only guidance I could provide Alex and Bob was the reassurance that yes, indeed, they knew exactly what they were doing.
I could also introduce them to the concept of playing hooky as a team-building skill.
Let me explain. Producing television, under the best of circumstances, is an all-consuming, life-draining and time-sucking enterprise. People who don’t work in TV imagine it to be a fun, glamorous, and joyful experience. And so it is, maybe fifteen percent of the time. The rest of the time it’s hard work. Long hours (especially if you’re a show runner) are the rule, not the exception. When I ran a show called “The Huntress” I typically put in ten-to-twelve hour days, five days a week, and another ten hours over the weekend. Family life disappears. Relationships strain. Tempers flare. If you don’t find a way to make those ten hour work days fun, you burn out. There has to be more to your life than just making television.
Alex and Bob, I thought, were two very serious, very dedicated, very driven and ambitious young men (they were both about 25) in positions of incredible responsibility. They were writing all the time, pursuing both their TV career and outside screenplay work (they’d written a spec script with one of the best premises I’d ever heard and were shopping for a new agent). Without realizing it, they were on the verge of burning out– at least, that’s how it seemed from my point of view.
Alex was friendly and open, comfortable as a long-time member of the film community, a good-looking and smart young man. (I briefly wondered if I could set him up with my daughter, but she was in college in Washington, DC.) Bob was a bit more reserved, a bit more intense, but equally smart and equally good-looking. They were very much Generation X types– self-contained, achievement oriented, earnest and, in my opinion, a bit tightly wound.
So, as their ostensible guidance counselor, I decided to encourage them to do something completely useless and irresponsible.
The first script I worked on for “Hercules” was based on an outline by another writer on the show, Paul Coyle. Paul really was a senior writer– his career extended back to “The Streets of San Francisco” in the mid-Seventies. During a conversation at a story meeting with Bob and Alex, Paul and I discovered we were both fans of Las Vegas, though for different reasons. I liked Vegas for the night life, great restaurants, and relatively inexpensive hotels– I don’t gamble, so I always feel like I’ve taken advantage of the casinos underwriting the hotels, restaurants, and shows. Paul, on the other hand, was almost a professional poker player– he paid his bills during slow periods by spending weekends in Vegas, picking up several thousand dollars a visit. The two of us, and a few of the other writers at the story meeting, waxed enthusiastic over the joys of Vegas, entertaining ourselves for a few minutes until we realized Alex and Bob were staring at us blankly.
Alex and Bob, it turned out, despite growing up in Southern California, had never been to Las Vegas.
I knew immediately what had to be done.
Yeah, well, that’s not what I said, but it’s what I thought, and over the next couple of weeks I made the case that Alex and Bob and Paul and me (the other writers demurred) should take an afternoon flight from the nearby Burbank airport to Las Vegas, spend a night in the City of Sin, and return to Universal Studios the next morning, refreshed and less likely to burn out by avoiding, for one Tuesday at least, yet another ten-hour work day.
After only a slight hesitation, Alex and Bob agreed.
A week later we were on our way. Paul spent the flight explaining the in’s-and-out’s of gambling in Las Vegas to Alex and Bob, who said they never gambled before. Which games to avoid, which casinos had the fairest slots and best tables, how to bet and under what circumstances. Paul himself planned a night of poker at downtown casinos where the house took the smallest cut. From past experience he figured he’d clear two or three grand. For my part I advised Alex and Bob to catch a show. Don’t bother gambling, I said, or if you do, just set yourself a loss limit – in my case I allow myself to lose a hundred dollars at blackjack, then I’m done. The boys– to me, they were always “the boys”– thought that sounded sensible.
After a great dinner at a first class restaurant, we split up and agreed to meet for breakfast the next morning before flying back to Burbank.
I saw a show, played blackjack for thirty minutes, quit when I was up by twenty dollars, went to bed.
Next morning, the four of us met for breakfast as planned. I felt relaxed and content. Once again I’d beaten the Las Vegas system by not playing along. I hoped Alex and Bob had done the same. The point of this adventure, after all, was to help them unwind a bit. Losing a lot of money wouldn’t exactly achieve that goal. So when we met up I was a bit apprehensive– especially when I saw the glowering expression on Paul Coyle’s face. He looked like a man who’d eaten the outside of a pineapple.
“Son of a bitch,” he muttered. “Son of a bitch.”
“Uh… How much did you win?” I asked.
“Eight hundred,” he said. He glowered. “I lost eight hundred. Son of a bitch.”
I turned to Alex and Bob. They were grinning. I’d never seen them so happy. “We won five hundred,” said Bob. “Each,” said Alex. “About. Maybe it was more. I think it was more.” “We should come back,” said Bob. “Definitely,” said Alex. “This is great. This place is great.”
“Son of a bitch,” said Paul.
A few months after I left “Hercules” there was an article in the trades announcing Alex and Bob had sold their spec script to Richard Donner and were currently in negotiations with Donner and Steven Spielberg to write a sequel to “The Goonies.” I sent them a bottle of champagne with a note of congratulations. Alex and I met for lunch. He was excited and happy and I was happy for him and Bob both. “It’s amazing,” he told me. “Donner took us in to meet Spielberg and pitch him our idea for the sequel. Spielberg liked it and right there said, let’s do this, picked up the phone and told his producer to make a deal with us. Like he was ordering a pizza. Just amazing.”
I wasn’t surprised. Like I said, Alex and Bob had written a terrific spec script with what’s still the best premise I’ve heard for a thriller (so, naturally, it’s never been produced). They were hard working, driven, talented and ambitious. And as their night in Vegas proved, to me at least, they were and are two very lucky sons of bitches.
Gerry Conway is one of the Kings of TV and film and comic book writing and also one of our Beloved Leader Larry Brody’s longest-lasting and closest friends. Everybody who comes to TVWriter™ should be reading his insightful blog, where this article first appeared. Learn more about Gerry HERE.