Franchise Fred Interview: Alex Kurtzman on The Mummy, Dark Universe and Star Trek: Discovery
As Franchise Fred, I’ve had a lot of talks with Alex Kurtzman. He’s been involved with Mission: Impossible, Star Trek, Transformers and even Zorro. His current project is a doozy. He’s launching Universal’s Dark Universe with The Mummy, to be followed by new films like Bride of Frankenstein and The Invisible Man.
The Mummy stars Tom Cruise as Nick Morton, a fortune hunter looking for artifacts in the desert. In Iraq, he unearths the tomb of Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), who curses him and follows him back to London. Nick’s sidekick Vail (Jake Johnson) also plagues him as an undead spectre. Kurtzman spoke with me by phone yesterday about directing The Mummy, American Werewolf in London homage, future Dark Universe films and the new CBS All Access series Star Trek: Discovery.
Franchise Fred: Were you involved in choosing the title Dark Universe for the Universal monster films?
Alex Kurtzman: Yeah, it was kind of a group conversation between us, Chris Morgan and I, and the studio. That was the one that rose to the top. We threw out a bunch of ideas, they threw out a bunch of ideas and that won the contest.
Franchise Fred: Were there any memorable alternates that almost made it?
Alex Kurtzman: Not really, actually. I think that one just sort of spoke to us. It felt like it announced the intention of the world in the right way.
Alex Kurtzman: Yeah, I was a little kid in that window of time. I’m sure that affected my perception of that kind of character. Obviously, Indiana Jones is the archetype of that in every possible way and I saw it at the perfect age. I was eight years old and I loved that character and the world and the feeling and the texture and the tone. That’s definitely what we wanted to go for.
Franchise Fred: Why do you think we haven’t seen fortune hunters as much in the decades between the ‘80s and now?
Alex Kurtzman: That’s a good question. I think it’s one of those things that needed a modern context. The idea that Tom’s character is a modern military soldier who’s job is to track insurgents who are out there destroying relics, but in fact he’s such a morally challenged guy that he’s using that job to get ahead of the insurgents and steal them for himself. That felt like a new twist on an old idea.
Franchise Fred: Do you think or know there were probably a lot of princesses who were erased from history, even if they weren’t evil conspirators making a pact with Set?
Alex Kurtzman: Not just in ancient Egypt but in many cultures. In Latin it’s called damnatio memoriae, which is just damnation of memory. Somebody did something wrong culturally or offended the gods or did something that was taboo, they would just be wiped out of the history books and that’s a really interesting idea.
Franchise Fred: Is there any way to recover their history and find out about those women?
Alex Kurtzman: Some of them have been rediscovered. I found over the course of some of the research that there were bits and pieces of information. It’s hard to erase someone completely from history. If nothing else, they leave a gap in time and people ask questions about why? The Egyptians were so meticulous in documenting their history that it’s odd for there to be a gap in time. A lot of historians and archeologists have been looking into those areas.
Alex Kurtzman: That actually was super fun for me. I loved the idea that we’ve got so many years of this ingrained assumption that Tom is going to save the day. That was tricky because I wanted to put him up against an adversary that he really didn’t know how to handle. One of the great tropes of a mummy movie, particularly the Karloff Mummy film, although you see it again in the Brendan Fraser Mummy movies is the mummy can get inside your head and hypnotize you and make you do things you don’t want to do. I thought it’s really interesting to put Tom Cruise in that context. Once he doesn’t know what’s going on and he’s ill prepared for the challenge, all bets are off in terms of his ability to stop it. I love that it put him on his back heels and it made the storytelling more unpredictable.
Franchise Fred: Were you careful in his fight with Sofia Boutella that none of Nick’s moves are abusive? He’s not punching her. He has to use different ways to defend himself.
Alex Kurtzman: We talked a lot about that in the filmmaking and in the process of it and the rehearsals. I think what became very clear in the filmmaking and in the process of it and the rehearsals, what became very clear just from a story point of view that it was really a beating. She is so much stronger than he is. The ability to fight back for him is almost nonexistent given her power. Of course, in no way whatsoever did we want it to feel that way so we talked about it.
Alex Kurtzman: American Werewolf is one of my favorite movies. The way that it fuses horror and human in such an effortless way, the way that it took the old school rules of a werewolf movie and placed it in a very modern context, it was such a revolutionary film. I love movies that scare you, hold you in that state of suspense and then allow you to laugh as a relief. It’s a wonderful combo when it’s done right. So absolutely, that movie was an influence.
Franchise Fred: Can the American Werewolf exist in the Dark Universe?
Alex Kurtzman: [Laughs] Well, the American Werewolf is not strictly a classic Universal monster so it feels like it would be a little bit of a violation of canon, but who knows?
Franchise Fred: Could it be Wolfman vs. American Werewolf?
Alex Kurtzman: That’s interesting. I’ll take it up with the board.
Franchise Fred: Did you have complete freedom with Henry Jekyll, or were there some needs to set up his Dark Universe movie?
Alex Kurtzman: No, the intention really wasn’t so much to set up his own movie, although certainly we would love to give him his own movie. It was more to bring him into the story in a way that felt true and right for The Mummy. There was a lot of conversation about whether or not to put him in the film because it’s not necessarily intuitive that Henry Jekyll is in a mummy movie. What we came to was in looking for ways to bring a new element to the storytelling, Nick becomes aware that the mummy exists in the larger continuum of monsters. We needed someone to guide him to that realization. Henry is also a man who, like Nick, is wrestling with two sides of himself, the good and the evil. In that way, it acts as a mirror to Nick’s character. I love that I could have been describing either Henry or Nick when talking about them. IN many ways, Henry has been where Nick is going. I felt like that was a really interesting and justifiable story reason to include him.
Franchise Fred: In the Dark Universe, does it mean they can’t have certain literature? Like no one could have written Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Alex Kurtzman: It’s not my preference to do that kind of thing. It becomes a big meta and self-conscious unless there’s a really clever way to do it. I faced the same challenge on Sleepy Hollow. Did Ichabod Crane and Sleepy Hollow actually exist or were we taking the spirit of it and coming up with a new context for it? I tend to feel like using it as inspiration but not saying “and it also exists” is just more satisfying to me. Less cute, I guess.
Franchise Fred: You can’t have a moment where Nick stops and says, “Henry Jekyll, I recognize that name.”
Alex Kurtzman: Right, then it suddenly becomes, “How? Is that the story?” It’s a little weird. It feels winky. We didn’t want to be winky.
Alex Kurtzman: I think all of the above. If you can take a movie and translate it into a single idea in character terms, then that tends to be, I think, a good compass to follow. In this case, the way we articulated the film as we were developing it was: this is the story of a monster of a human being who has to confront his inner monster in order to become a better man. Once we were able to articulate that, everything organized itself around that idea. So now going into the future, he’s going to be wrestling between the good and evil except now there’s a far, far greater evil inside of him. The question will remain how much of his humanity will win out.
Franchise Fred: What was the decision to skip straight to Bride of Frankenstein for the Dark Universe?
Alex Kurtzman: David Koepp wrote a brilliant script and we were excited by it. It felt like a really logical next step. Part of what we want to do in the universe is not necessarily join the films up too closely from the top, but in fact let the audience fall in love with each character before bringing them together. Bride rose the top because of David Koepp.
Franchise Fred: And the James Whale film is not even 80 minutes, so there’s room to expand.
Alex Kurtzman: Oh my God, there’s so much room to expand on it. Bride doesn’t even show up in that film until the last 10 minutes, and is defined by the singular action of rejection Frankenstein. So she’s defined by her defiance and really nothing else. It’s an awesome thing to be defined by but it leaves us a tremendous amount of room to open the story up.
Franchise Fred: So we’ll see her a lot earlier in the Dark Universe Bride of Frankenstein?
Alex Kurtzman: Without revealing too much, we will be tipping our hat to that film and there will be some new ideas at play.
Franchise Fred: Bryan Fuller’s doing great on American Gods but he did some panels on Star Trek: Discovery before he left. Is it still the show he was describing and envisioned?
Alex Kurtzman: Before Bryan left, he sat down and mapped out the big arc for the season. We had talked initially about that arc early in the process. He gave us a bunch of story areas and those have been significant for us in terms of building on the vision he had. I wish Bryan were still with the show and I really respect his decision to not compromise Star Trek given the demands of American Gods. He didn’t want to have one or the other suffer. It was a hard choice for him but I totally get it.
Franchise Fred: In the Star Trek movies, if the next film brings back George Kirk, could you possibly find a way to have William Shatner visit?
Alex Kurtzman: [Laughs] Well, I’m not involved in the films anymore but I’d sure like to see something like that.