The screenwriting team of Derek Haas and Michael Brandt had been friends since college, but they only started to get their feet wet in Hollywood when they wrote the hit action sequel 2 Fast 2 Furious. Although their output has been relatively quiet since then, they’ve been grinding away over the last few years, writing many scripts that have been bought and put into production. The first one of them to get released is next week’s remake of the 1957 Western 3:10 to Yuma, directed by James Mangold and starring Russell Crowe and Christian Bale, followed next year by Timur Bekmambetov’s take on the comic book Wanted. They have many other scripted projects in the works including one they plan to direct called Miamiland, but they recently joined up with Writing Partners, a co-op of writers that includes “Pirates of the Caribbean” scribes Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio, Stuart Beattie (Collateral), John August (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) and more, who have signed a spec deal with 20th Century Fox.
ComingSoon.net talked about all of these things and more with the duo in a recent phone interview.
ComingSoon.net: How did you guys get involved with this? Did you know James Mangold beforehand? Derek Haas: It was good agenting actually. Our agent also reps Jim, and we found out that Jim’s favorite movie growing up was “3:10 to Yuma” and he was interested in remaking it. Literally, they put us in a room together, and we just started talking out how you make this for modern audiences. Together, over the course of several meetings and phone calls and talks, we all went in and pitched Columbia on the remake and they bought it in the room, but then they put it in turnaround. It was a Columbia movie back in ’57.
CS: Was it put into turnaround after it was shot or before it got made? Haas: No, no, before it got made.
CS: When you started working with Jim on this, what was the direction you had on what to keep or change from the original? Brandt: Our feeling was that original was fantastic. It was based on a great short story, but in watching the original, we thought there is kind of a middle section of this movie that is missing in a way. The Elmore Leonard short story was kind of leading up to the third act, and then the movie dealt with the set-up, but the original movie is almost a two-act play. It goes from Dan catching Ben Wade to cutting to the hotel room when they’re already in Contention waiting for the train. We thought it was rife for an additional meaty section in the middle where they’re on the road, Wade’s gang is after them, and that’s when we decided that Dan should have a son who ends up joining them along the way, so then it becomes that battle over the son’s soul so to speak.
CS: Did you already know the movie when you first heard about Jim wanting to remake it? Haas: We knew the movie, and in fact, when we pitched Columbia, we got them to give us the 1957 script by Halsted Welles. There was so much stuff we admired from the original movie that it just felt like we’re not going to change things that are working, that are great. Let’s just try to take these and take it further.
CS: What about the Elmore Leonard story? Had either of you read it before you started working on this remake? Haas: We hadn’t read it, but we did read it before we ever talked to Jim and Cathy (Konrad, Jim’s wife and the film’s producer), but we weren’t familiar with it until we found out that it was a movie that Jim wanted to make. Brandt: It’s very short. It’s only two pages. Haas: It’s probably like six or seven. It’s very much the waiting in the hotel room scene and then attempt to get to the train, that’s pretty much the gist of the Elmore Leonard short story.
CS: Were you guys fans of Westerns in general? It would seem to be something out of left field after something like “2 Fast 2 Furious.” Haas: (both laugh) That’s funny. I grew up in Texas and Michael’s from Kansas City and we both went to school in Texas, and we grew up big Western fans. We’ve pretty much written all different genres, but to get to do a Western now, when they’re making so few of them, for us was a goal and an honor.
CS: It seems like such a different thing since there’s been so few Westerns in the past few years “Brokeback Mountain” “Open Range” When you went into this, were you hoping to reinvent the genre or try to write a traditional Western that might interest audiences who aren’t necessarily into Westerns? Brandt: Jim was adamant about not making a walk-down-Main Street, dusty Western that felt clichéd. Part of the reason he hired us–because at the time we were definitely guys known for writing more poppy action movies–and he admittedly said he wanted to write a Western with a bit of a modern sensibility attached to it. He was very aware of the financial ramifications of making a Western, that it can be difficult if you fall into the clichéd world of Westerns. I think that’s part of the reason he hired us actually.
CS: There’s some fairly intense action scenes, including the shoot-outs. Did you go into a lot of detail about what happened while writing it or did you leave some of it for Jim to work out on set? Brandt: We write every beat of the action that we possibly can, and then once production gets closer and they start working with the stunt coordinator and doing storyboards, it certainly may change, and it usually will become expanded or contracted depending on the budget. Generally in our screenplays, we try and write every beat of action, everything that’s happening, so that when somebody’s reading the script, they can see and understand exactly what’s happening. Hopefully, your action will not only inform the story but inform the character, too, and if you don’t write the specifics of the action, then that’s just wasted time and space. Haas: For instance, in “Yuma”–not to give anything away–one of the things we wanted to give in that final third act gun battle was his son, who is watching this unfold–in fact the whole movie is kind of seen through his eyes as a morality tale in front of him. We thought, “Okay, we need to give him something that’s believable but that propels the action, but is also germane to his character. Here’s a kid who grew up on a ranch, dreaming to be a gunslinger. What skills does he have? Well, he knows how to herd cattle and manipulate livestock.” In that climactic part when they need to get to the train, he uses those old skills. Literally, we wrote that out, but that’s the thought that goes behind any kind of an action sequence. You can’t just write “Point A to Point B.” It’s gotta all be based on the characters.
CS: You have these two great characters and these two great actors playing them, so when Russell Crowe and Christian Bale come on board, do they immediately read what you did and sign on or do they expect a lot of changes in the characters and the dialogue before they agree to do it? Brandt: Jim is such an actor’s director, and he’s also a good writer, and when you have actors of that caliber, they’re going to come in and bring their own thing to it. Part of being the screenwriter, ultimately it’s about servicing the actor and the actor’s needs for the character. As long as that in turn helps the story, so every movie we’ve written, the actor brings their own way of talking, their own vocabulary, and we support that. Haas: And the director.
CS: How about balancing the two characters, because you really do have these two leads and the movie could be about either one, which is amazing since you don’t really have many movies like that. Haas: Right, right, and honestly, that’s in the original movie, too. I mean Glenn Ford and Van Heflin were so good together. I mean it goes way back to the Elmore Leonard short story. You had on one side of the ledger, this outlaw who is basically a rock star of the old West–that’s what we always referred to him as we were going–but who would also charm the parents off of you. Then on the other side of the ledger, you’ve got a guy who’s never been able to realize his dreams, and who is complex but who wants to do the right thing, but life’s beating him down. When you start with that premise, which we go right back to the original material, and then get to go from there, and then you get these two amazing actors that get to play it, for us, it’s just a dream come true.
CS: Were you guys able to spend any time on set watching it being filmed? Brandt: We did. We took a trip down there and hung out for a little while, and there’s nothing greater than standing on a set of a Western, standing in the middle of two cow-patty studded roads where there’s a saloon, a hotel and all those things. It was just a fantastic set to be on, and Jim runs such a tight ship, and he’s such an easy guy to get along with on the set. The whole experience was really positive for everybody.
CS: Where did he shoot the movie? Haas: Right outside of Santa Fe. Brandt: There was a lot of dust.
CS: For some of the scenes, like the chase in the mines, were those locations found or did Jim have to build some of that to fit the story? Brandt: Both locations and builds. I mean, the towns were built, but they found those caves. They expanded them obviously. I think it was a little bit of both. Haas: We weren’t there for the days when they were shooting in the caves, but they were telling us, yeah.
CS: That’s why I asked about how detailed you wrote the action, because to come up with a scene like that and then actually find a place in which to film it Haas: That was actually fun to write because one of the things that we did different the original, when you put it on the road, we were trying to find, “Okay, what’s the thematic link to how the second act can play out” and it was always about the train. Since the movie’s called “3:10 to Yuma,” it’s about a train coming, and if you can set it post Civil War in the time when the railroads were just linking up America, which is the death of the Old West, it’s such a perfect place to do it, so then their journey mirrors like the town of Bisbee where they catch Wade, they’re just planting the flags for the new rail station that’s going to be there. In fact, it’s the payroll to the railroad that gets held up in the opening, and then as they go backwards or towards Contention, you see the evidence of the rails going down and we go through a Chinese labor camp, and that’s why they’re blasting through tunnels and the strange set piece in the old West of this gigantic operation going on. For us, it was fun, ’cause then you get to set an action sequence in that backdrop.
(At this point, we talked a bit about their work on Wanted, based on the comic book by Mark Millar and J.G. Jones, which you can read here.)
CS: Going back a bit, you two first met in school? Haas: We did. We met in grad school actually. I was doing English Lit, and Michael got his masters in film, and we realized we liked the same things. That was back in ’93 or ’94, but we didn’t really start writing together until ’97/’98 and that’s when we sold our first script, so we’ve been doing this ever since.
CS: What else do you guys have in the works? Brandt: We’re adapting a novel for Universal called “Deceipt.” The author of the novel was James Siegel who wrote “Derailed.” Lorenzo di Bonaventura is producing that, so we’re just finishing that up. Haas: We have a spec that we’ve written that we can’t talk too much about, but we’re trying to get going with Michael directing, and we’re pretty far down the road. You talk about breaking through the next ceiling. That’s the thing we want to do is make our movie with Michael directing.
(At the L.A. junket for the movie, Haas and Brandt revealed that the movie is called “Miamiland” which they’re currently casting and trying to get together with UK financing. It takes place in New York and Miami and it’s about two educated con men who have to go to Miami to separate the biggest kingpin in Miami from his money. They hope to start shooting soon, but it depends on when the writer’s strike happens, which they talk about below.)
CS: How did you decide which one of you would direct the movie? Brandt: Well, it’s kind of natural. I went to film school, and I moved out to Los Angeles after film school and was editing and at one point, I was living down in Austin, working for Robert Rodriguez as his assistant editor, so my background has been in filmmaking, while Derek’s background is in English literature, he has his masters in that, so early on, we decided I want to direct, Derek’s going to produce and we’ll write together, and that’s kind of the way it’s been working.
CS: I read something about a movie called “Countdown” that you’re producing, so what’s that about? Haas: “Countdown” is cool. It was a thing that a couple of younger writers, Scott Burn and Stephen Gregg came to us. They had an idea to take this old “Twilight Zone” episode based on a Richard Mattheson short story called “Death Ship” and turn it into a feature movie. They basically took the kernel of the idea from “Death Ship” and ran with it, and we ended up helping them get it set-up acting as producers, so we ended up setting it up at Summit with Erik Feig there and Mandalay. Now we’re just trying to get a director on, and that’s getting close and we’re very excited about that. Those guys did a great job.
CS: It seems like you guys have a lot on your plate right now, though I’m guessing that this is stuff you’ve been working on over the years that’s just all coming together at once. Haas: And then they all pop up. You’re exactly right. Brandt: (laughs)
CS: Were you also involved in the attempt to adapt the video game “Spy Hunter”? I know that every writer in Hollywood that I’ve talked to has taken a crack at that. Brandt: We did a draft along with everybody else in town. It’s a tough nut to crack. Ultimately, you’re given an action star like The Rock, who was attached when we were doing it, and a car that turns into a motorcycle, and it’s just really hard to keep a movie like that grounded.
CS: I think that if that movie ever gets made, the WGA is going to have a field day trying to figure out who should get credited. Haas: I think there’s been 15 writers on it.
CS: I know. I think I’ve talked to at least half of them. (both laugh) I’m not kidding either. Why did you guys decide to sign onto this Writing Partners thing? The line-up of writers involved is pretty amazing. What was the incentive to sign up for it? Brandt: We thought it was a chance to do something different and a chance to change the way writers are treated in this town. We thought as a group we could parlay our ability to write, and our ability to write commercial movies, and exchange that for creative control over some movies and a back-end, real gross points. We really wanted to bring back-end and creative control into the conversation as far as writers and studios go. It was only by banding together with such great names and people who’ve been so successful that we could do that.
CS: How do you see this looming writers’ strike affecting this deal, if at all? Brandt: Well, it shouldn’t affect the Writing Partners thing at all Haas: It doesn’t affect the Writing Partners, but it is something we have to plan for, and we know that the Guild is extremely serious about.
CS: Do you think that the Writing Partners might be a good step to working things out the way everyone wants it to? Brandt: It’s interesting. The two studios who have made deals with writing co-ops, Warners Bros. and Fox, are two of the lead studios, and as far as the production end sees it, the writers are going to strike again. It’s a double-edged sword, and from our personal point of view, we’re not really sure how to take that, if you understand that. Haas: My feeling is that what Writing Partners did is less about I don’t think it will affect the potential strike. What I do think it does is break through a barrier that all writers can strive to emulate. In fact, that the president of the Guild, Patrick Verone, sent an Email to Craig Maizen, our friend and partner in this, just basically saying “Thanks for doing this. It’s a positive thing for writers. If one set of writers can get this going, then why can’t everyone.” That’s why we feel very proud about it.
3:10 to Yuma opens nationwide on Friday, September 7, and there will be a special sneak preview in select cities this coming Sunday night, September 2. Check back next week for interviews with James Mangold, Russell Crowe and Christian Bale.