2 Fast 2 Furious. Catch That Kid. 3:10 to Yuma. Wanted.
Michael Brandt and Derek Haas are no strangers to what audiences want when it comes to action-packged moviemaking. But the longtime writing partners, who met as students at Baylor University, aren’t content to keep things get too comfortable in their collaboration. For their latest co-venture, the duo decided to shake things up as Brandt stepped into the director’s chair and Haas took on the role of producer for The Double, a spy tale starring Richard Gere and Topher Grace.
The guys took some time to chat with MM about their writing process, how to keep an audience on its toes and the benefit of working in twos.
Jennifer Wood (MM): How did you guys first meet? What is it about your personalities and working habits that makes you a great team?
Derek Haas (DH): We met in college at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. We were there at the same time as Koresh was holed up in that compound, though we had nothing to do with that. I think both of us are even-keeled and collaborative… it helps when you sit down in a room with 10 people who all want their fingerprints on the script.
Michael Brandt (MB): This is business is so much about hearing the word “no” that it helps to have someone to soften those blows. Whether it’s creative differences with a studio or a producer, Derek and I, as partners, find it easier to stick by our guns creatively in those situations. It doesn’t always pay off, but at least we have each other to secretly blame our failures on.
MM: Is there a “typical” way that you guys work together? Does each of you play a specific role in the writing of a script?
DH: We each work from our houses and e-mail the scripts back and forth, rewriting each other mercilessly. Our only rule is: Best idea wins.
MB: Dividing the work allows us to be more prolific, too, and sometimes success out here is a numbers game. There are a lot of great scripts that never get made, so you have to take as many shots as possible. We both really like the other’s writing, too, and in fact have different strengths. We really just write to impress the other.
MM: Can you talk about how that process differed—if at all—with The Double? Without giving anything away, there are a lot of twists and turns to the script; do those twists become more complicate to plan—and write—when there are two people involved?
DH: The process was the same except this time we knew Michael was going to direct it. You get to write in a bit of shorthand when you know you are going to be the ones making the movie. As far as twists and turns, those always come out of asking yourselves “what if?” What if we killed this character? What if this one was not who he claimed to be? It gets us excited when we start asking those questions.
MB: You have to have all options on the table and feel safe enough to voice what may be really stupid ideas. I think some of our best stuff has started with one of us saying, “This probably doesn’t work at all, but what if…”
MM: Casting is key in any movie, but is particularly important in a film like The Double, where the actors need to be able to inhabit several types of characters in the course of a single performance. Richard Gere and Topher Grace are both particularly well-suited to their characters in the film; how did the casting of the movie work? At what point in the process were they signed on and how did the script change, if at all, once you knew who would be playing the roles?
MB: I’d heard that Richard liked the script and had some interest, so I literally booked a plane ticket to the Hamptons and knocked on his door. He had no idea I’d come so far (from L.A.) to meet him, so he graciously didn’t boot me off the property. After a few hours of script talk, he was in. There was a natural vibe between us that was creative and professional. Richard’s name means a lot in the financing world, so from there we were able to put the money together and cast the other parts. I’d always liked what Topher did in other roles, and thought he’d be perfect for the movie. We had a breakfast and I remember he asked about one particular scene, how he should play it. I gave him a few thoughts and he nodded, then said he’d wished the cameras were there right now, because he totally got it. Creatively, the whole experience was positive from minute one.
MM: What is the key to keeping the audience on its toes? Were there any other films you watched or referenced in regards to the feeling you wanted to create with The Double?
DH: We definitely watched No Way Out and Three Days of the Condor for espionage films. The Unforgiven was an inspiration for an old character and young character out on a mission with personal motivations guiding the way.
MB: Yeah, all those great 1970s thrillers have the vibe we wanted to find. Something textural and real. The Parallax View was another one.
MM: Though you’re best known as screenwriters, The Double marks your debut as a director, Michael, and yours as a producer, Derek. What was the biggest issue you each faced in wearing the dual hats?
DH: For me, it was just trying to make sure Michael would get what he wanted in terms of hours and budget and locations.
MB: For one, directing is a hell of a lot harder than writing. I’ve always wanted to direct, and we’ve always wanted to have our own creative control, but that first meeting in prep where there were 70 people all looking at me as the director for guidance was a far cry from us comfortably sitting in our offices typing out scripts!
MM: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
DH: Don’t let the highs get too high or the lows get too low. It seems obvious, but it is so true in Hollywood. This business will take you on a roller coaster every day. You can’t get worked up about it or you’ll have a heart attack.
MB: Learn how to edit. The days run out fast, and when there are five shots left on your shot list and you’ve only got time for two, how are you going to still create a scene that cuts together in a way that still services the story.
MM: What’s the worst piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
DH: Write a romantic comedy! They’re hot right now!
MM: What’s up next for you guys?
DH: We’re adapting a short story I wrote called “Shake” for Bruckheimer Films, and we’re writing a pilot for NBC about a Chicago firehouse. We’re very excited.
MB: We’re also producing a movie that we wrote called Overdrive in France this fall. Pierre Morel is co-producing with us and a talented young guy named Antonio Negret is directing.