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SCRIPT ARCHIVES: Screenwriter Michael Brandt Moves Behind the Camera

Michael Brandt discusses his move to directing, what he learned about writing from his new perspective, and what screenwriters should consider about becoming a hyphenate themselves.

By Randy Rudder

Originally published in Script magazine September/October 2010

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 Michael Brandt and Richard Gere on the set of The Double Production Photos: Ron Phillips

Michael Brandt and Richard Gere on the set of The Double Production Photos: Ron Phillips

As someone who’s never been particularly big on Westerns, I missed the theatrical run of 3:10 to Yuma with Russell Crowe. My college roommate owned a copy of the original and named it among his top-10 all-time favorites, so I, being inexplicably drawn to this character of the outlaw Ben Wade, got a copy of the Crowe version.

One of the classic lines of dialogue in modern film occurs when Wade is being led off to prison by a posse of mostly good guys who have to get him to the 3:10 to Yuma train before his old gang can break him free. With Wade (Crowe) handcuffed, one of the members of the posse disses Wade’s mother. We know from the look that Wade gives him that this was a very big mistake. In the middle of the night, Wade wrangles free enough to stab the offending cowboy a dozen or so times with what appears to be a spur. As the man lay dying on the cold, hard ground, Wade quips, “Even bad men love their mamas.”

This sense of creating remarkably round characters, along with a proclivity for creating intricately woven plots and sustaining dramatic tension, are just a few of the elements that made screenwriters Michael Brandt and Derek Haas one of the hottest screenwriting teams of the new millennium. In Brandt and Haas films, you may not love the bad guys, but you can always identify with them. And though you may tell the person sitting next to you that you know what is going to happen next, admit it, you really don’t.

 Michael Brandt

Michael Brandt

The challenge for 3:10 to Yuma was adding a second act to the original, which was based on a short story by Elmore Leonard. “We liked the original movie and used a lot of it. But at no time did the director or studio say anything was sacred. Our pitch was to add a second act to the original, to put them on the road as they’re heading to this god-forsaken rail town, and have all of the obstacles along the way: the Chinese camp, the Indian country, the canyons,” Brandt says.

Over the past decade, Brandt and Haas have collaborated on the films 2 Fast 2 Furious, Catch That Kid, 3:10 to Yuma, Wanted (starring Angelina Jolie and Morgan Freeman), and others. Now Brandt is stepping out to make his directorial debut with the upcoming spy thriller, The Double, co-written with Haas and starring Richard Gere. Jerry Bruckheimer also recently purchased the film rights to Haas’ short story, Shake.

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The two met when they were both attending Baylor University in Waco, Texas. Brandt recalls the day he decided he wanted to make movies. “I was doing baseball on the radio at Baylor and really thought I wanted to go into sports broadcasting. I got a chance to produce and edit a spot for the CBS affiliate in Waco on a local high school football team,” Brandt says. “I worked on it for a week, and then it aired during the 6:00 news one night. When I got home, though, my roommates had forgotten to turn the TV on and missed it.

“I decided right then and there that I didn’t want to work on things that just went over the airwaves once and then disappeared. I wanted to work on media that had a little more permanence. Of course, this was in the early 1990s, and there was no way anyone could have predicted that YouTube and the Internet would be around to preserve for all time every little piece of video that anyone has ever shot,” Brandt laughs. “But it was a realization that I wanted to produce the kinds of things that people could go back and revisit time and time again. So the next semester, I signed up for a screenwriting class taught by Bob Darden. That’s where I met Derek [Haas] and we’ve been writing together pretty much ever since.”

 Gere and Stephen Moyer in 'The Double'

Gere and Stephen Moyer in 'The Double'

Haas studied literature and professional writing while Brandt studied film production. At the time, Baylor was on the cutting edge of video technology. “We had one of the first Avids,” Brandt says, “and one of the faculty members there advised me that the best way to break into Hollywood was as an editor.” Brandt received his master’s degree in film production and wrote his thesis on the use of computers in feature-film editing.

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After Brandt and Haas both received graduate degrees at the school, they were off to Hollywood. Within two weeks, Brandt had landed a job as an editor, and a year later was working for Robert Rodriguez on The Faculty. Since Haas’ first love was literature and storytelling, he focused on screenwriting. All the while the two continued to write together. They eventually sold their first collaboration, but it was never produced. Later they wrote the screenplay for Invincible (2001), and the others quickly followed.

"I had to toss out everything I was thinking of as a writer and try to bring something completely different to each page as a director."
—Michael Brandt

Brandt and Haas actually wrote the screenplay for The Double in the 1990s, but decided to shelve it as the Cold War began to wane. “The movie kind of has a No Way Out feel to it. But by the time we finished the script, the Cold War was over, and Russia was in disarray,” Brandt says. “So it didn’t really have the historical context that it would have had just a few years earlier when we first had the idea.”

Still, Brandt says it was one of their best efforts and it was always in the back of his mind to one day direct the film. “We sold The Double as a pitch to MGM over 10 years ago, but it quickly became untimely,” he says. “It was about Russians and Americans and the world of spies, but then MGM kind of fell apart, was brought back, and then fell apart again, so the script just sat there. The WGA has a reversion policy, so we got the script back a year ago and I decided I wanted to direct it. It was one of those scripts that we thought was just a great idea. The script itself wasn’t perfect, but we did some work on it, and then the first person we sent it to was Richard Gere.”

Brandt says there was no way they could have foreseen that tensions with the Soviets would begin to mount again as the years passed. “The world kind of updated itself for us,” Brandt says. “The recent spy exchange with the Soviets was great for [the script].”

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Word eventually got back to Brandt and Haas that Gere had read The Double, but there was no reaction from any of his representatives. “We heard he liked the script, so I went to see him. He knew I was a first-time director, and I knew I might have to win him over. But he and I had instant chemistry. He loved the script and he loved the part, and he believed in me enough to go forward. So about two hours later, he signed on.” After Gere signed on, Brandt quickly found a backer and began assembling his team. The Double began production in Detroit in June 2010.

Brandt says the transition from writer to director has been educational and enlightening in many aspects. “The most challenging thing is to look at something you’ve written in a totally different way,” he says. “You can’t just rely on the words anymore. You can’t just rely on someone else’s vision to get your half-baked idea across. It’s now up to you. That was a huge challenge. Also, I’m now reading scenes differently. Even as a screenwriter, I never really understood the importance of a scene,” Brandt admits. “When you’re writing a screenplay, you’re still not telling the whole story. You’re creating the blueprint for what the movie is going to be. And I found out that the blueprint actually isn’t that much. It’s the outline of the story, and it’s the spine, but it’s not really the heart of the story. I had to toss out everything I was thinking of as a writer and try to bring something completely different to each page as a director.”

Brandt grew up in the Midwest and his very first screenplay was a baseball story set in Kansas City. “I was a child of the 1980s, so it was impossible not to be influenced by Spielberg and Cameron and Zemeckis and Lucas. I was not the French film geek in school,” Brandt explains. “I like good commercial movies. I love tense thrillers. I’ve always been a fan of those kinds of movies. I was influenced by the summer movie market.”

Brandt says he was concerned about the myriad of duties and details required of a director, but felt he was up to the task since he had already worked in so many areas of film production. “I still know my limitations, so I knew going in, as a first-time director, I was a guy that actors could possibly think they could run over. Part of the casting design for this movie and putting the crew together [involved finding] people who would be in for the same experience that we were going for: To make a great movie, and have a great time doing it at the same time—to be collaborative and to be a team—and we’ve been successful at that. Derek and I are used to collaborating. You can’t have a writing partner and be successful at that if you’re not a good collaborator. I enjoy posing problems and inviting other people to come up with answers. I enjoy addressing other people’s problems. I think that all makes the movie better. So we looked for actors who were right for the parts, but also who were creatively on board with us and what we wanted to do for the movie, and I can honestly say I haven’t had a single moment of tension with the actors. It’s all been great so far.”

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Having flexibility, even after shooting has begun, is another lesson that Brandt discovered in his journey to the land of directing. “Our first day of shooting, as we were blocking out the second scene of the movie, it just wasn’t working. And it wasn’t working because there were too many words on the page. We had overwritten the scene. The dialogue was too heavy and too verbose. But I was the first one to recognize the problem. As the actors were walking and blocking, you could feel that there was just too much there. So I started telling the actors, ‘Don’t say this’ and ‘Don’t say this’ and we cut the bulk out of the script, and then the scene worked perfectly. You have to be flexible and adaptable and quick on your feet when you’re on location.”

He says, “There are a million little details that people are constantly approaching you with, from questions about the set to the lighting to the sound to the script to the catering. Some of it is relevant and some of it has nothing to do with me, but people ask you anyway because you are the director. That can get kind of mind-boggling. You have to be a master at multi-tasking. And you also have to be a good delegator because there is no way that you can put out every fire yourself, either.

“I’ve always enjoyed the post-production process since I started as an editor. I worked for Tarantino and Rodriguez and people at Miramax for a while, so I just love the whole process of making a movie. As a writer, you don’t get to do that. It seems like you never quite get to the finish line. You get to go to the premiere and see the movie and that’s great and all, but you’re not there for those final details, those final sound effects, and those final changes in the editing room that really turn it into a movie. I’ve missed that and I’ve always wanted to get back to the filmmaking side of it all,” Brandt adds. “I knew from the time I took that first screenwriting class that I didn’t want to be only an editor or a screenwriter. I wanted to be a filmmaker.”

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Randy Rudder
is a TV producer with the Christian Broadcasting Network, as well as a blogger, an author, and screenwriter. He received an MFA in creative writing from the University of Memphis, an MA in literature from Tennessee State University, and a BA in communications from Mount Union College. Twitter: @randyrudder