Opening in limited release today, The Double offers a contemporary take on the cold war thriller, casting Richard Gere and Topher Grace as men trying to catch a legendary Soviet assassin nicknamed “Cassius.”
Now retired, Gere’s Paul Shepherdson spent his entire life on the trail of the killer and he’s pulled back into the investigation after the murder of a senator that matches Cassius’ MO. Teamed with Grace’s FBI Agent Ben Geary, Shepherdson is trapped in a delicate balance between justice and his own secrets and old wounds.
ComingSoon.net caught up with filmmakers Michael Brandt and Derek Haas, who spoke at length about the decade-long process of bringing the film to the screen. Best known as the writing pair behind films like Wanted and 2 Fast 2 Furious, Brandt and Haas make their directorial debut with The Double. They also speak about their upcoming projects, including Wanted 2 and the now-filming Overdrive.
CS: Where did “The Double” start for the two of you? Michael Brandt: God, what was it? 12 or 11 years ago we sold it as a pitch to MGM. That was way back. That was like three MGMs ago. It just got stuck there. It was a good script. It wasn’t perfect, but it was good. People were interested in making it, but the next thing you knew, MGM just started not making movies and it went away. It was stuck there and our manager and fellow producer, Andrew Deane, was able to apply the WGA reversion rights, which allows writers, after a certain number of years, to get original scripts back from people who bought them. He arranged for us to get the rights back. From there, we did a little work on the script and updated it. Then we sent it to Richard Gere and it just all happened really fast from there. From the time Richard read it, it was less than nine months before we started shooting.
CS: At the point that you got it back, did you know that it was something that you wanted to take on yourselves? Brandt: Originally, it wasn’t. Way back, we hadn’t had anything made yet. We hadn’t even written “2 Fast 2 Furious.” We didn’t have designs on directing it or producing it at that point. We were just guys who were struggling to be writers at that time.
Derek Haas: But when we got it back, we definitely thought that it was one we should make ourselves.
CS: I know only Michael is credited as director, but how collaborative is that side of the process? Brandt: I was the credited director, which is a term that I use very liberally. We’re a lot like the Coen brothers in that we’re both the filmmakers. Derek is the producer and I’m the director. Derek dealt with a lot of the big macro things and I was the guy in the trenches figuring out what kind of pants guys were going to wear. My background was as an editor. I worked for Robert Rodriguez and for Quentin Tarantino way back when. I had more experience being on-set and actually making movies. Derek had worked in the advertising world as a producer. It was kind of a natural place for us each to go in terms of our jobs.
Haas: Michael is being modest. He was 100 percent the director of the movie. We didn’t really believe in the “filmed by” credit, but I get it now. Michael was doing all of the heavy lifting.
CS: Can you take me back to where the two of you met and how you formed a creative partnership? Haas: We met at Baylor University in Waco, Texas when we were both undergrad studies. Then we both stayed for graduate school. Michael was studying film in the communications school and I was studying English literature. We both took a screenwriting class and realized that we liked the same things and kind of had the same voice and sense of humor. We just started writing scripts together. We went our separate ways after college, but reconnected by this new-fangled invention called e-mail and started pounding out scripts. We’ve been doing it ever since.
CS: The film is really a throwback to the Cold War thriller. Is that a genre that you were both particularly fans of? Brandt: It was 100 percent by design. We both love spy thrillers. We love novel spy thrillers, too. We love Clancy and Ludlum. We jumped at the opportunity to do a Ludlum adaptation at MGM that, so far, nothing has happened with. But we’re huge fans of the movies, too, like “No Way Out,” “Three Days of the Condor” and “Marathon Man.” Anything even remotely CIA suggestive. I think it’s kind of obvious watching the movie that we’re homaging a lot of things that came before us.
CS: It seems like one of the troublesome sides of writing something like this is that there must be a lot of research involved. Brandt: There is, but it was all actually happening. When we were doing the rewrite, after we got the reversion back, all this news came out about this Russian agent in England who poisoned a guy, Litvinenko, by spraying poison in his face. Then there were these ten Russian intelligence officers caught in the US in 2010, while we were in prep. We thought we were onto something and it’s funny because I think people might have the tendency to say this looks like one of these Cold War throwbacks and I really think that’s because the Russians are getting to people and saying — I’m just kidding. But, personally, I am, as a filmmaker, inspired by the filmmakers of the ’70s and the ’80s and particularly those three I mentioned. Those are the ones that I’m likely to stop and watch if they’re on TV and, while Derek and I wrote “Wanted” and “2 Fast 2 Furious” — and those are fun to write — there’s a slog in terms of visual effects and the time it takes to make those movies doesn’t interest me nearly as much as the textural feeling that those ’70s thrillers had.
CS: Now that you have more films under your belt, do you come up with an idea and go through a process where you decide if it’s something that you want to earmark to do on your own? Brandt: Yeah, but it’s an interesting dynamic. You’re still going to try and write the best script that you can. Right now, we’re writing the sequel, “Wanted 2.” We’re doing that knowing with absolute certainty that I’m not going to be directing that movie. I’m not interested in it and, hopefully, Timur [Bekmambetov] will come back on to direct. You write it with Timur’s sensibility and try to give him the most leeway to do what he does really well. I think that, right now, if there are scripts that we want to direct, we’re trying to write to our strengths. The idea there is that, as writers, the characters and the story come first. Sometimes you’re writing a script for, say, Jerry Bruckheimer or Timur or Neal Moritz, you know that it’s going to be an event movie and that it’s going to have an event director. There’s kind of more a set piece behind some of the writing.
CS: Is there a freeing sense of going, “Let’s see how they film this!” Haas: Definitely! There’s a bunch of times where you write something and — even on the movie we’re about to do in Marseilles, Michael and and I were walking across this bridge that I got vertigo looking down off of. There’s a huge stunt off this bridge in the script and I remember looking at the actual location as we’re standing at the bridge we’re going to shoot thinking, “Oh my God. They’re actually going to do it! I can’t believe they’re going to do it!”
CS: The film in Marseilles is “Overdrive”? Brandt: Yeah, it’s a car, con, thief thriller with two brother who basically steal the most expensive cars in the world. They get caught between a rock and a hard place, between two crime Mafiosos that are in the same sort of area. It’s almost like a western, but with cars.
CS: Speaking of upcoming projects, what’s the current status of “Wanted 2”? Haas: We’re just writing the script right now. We’re hoping that it’s going to be Timur directing. I think Michael and I are going to strong-arm him into Universal and make him do it. We’re writing and basically picking Wesley up a few years after the events of the first movie and throwing him back into that world.
CS: Are you guys still working on “Alien Legion”? Haas: No. Actually, we were working on that and we turned in a script that Bruckheimer and his guys weren’t crazy about. Thankfully, we were working on a different thing for them and they were like, “Just work on that.” David Benioff, I think, is writing a draft of that for them now. He’s an awesome writer, so I think that’s going to be great.
Brandt: Let me just say that Derek started a site called popcornfiction.com where he’s got a bunch of high-profile screenwriters to write kind of pulpy, fun stories… Bruckheimer bought a story that Derek wrote for that. It’s called “Shake.” It’s a great short story that I don’t think is on the site anymore because it’s kind of in the Bruckheimer world now. But that was the project that we left “Alien Legion” to set our sights on.
CS: When you’re writing a script for someone like Jerry Bruckheimer, who’s famous for elaborate action scenes, are you given a sense of budget that you need to worry about or do you just write and worry about that later?
Brandt: No, on first drafts, even if they told us to write it for a certain budget, we wouldn’t listen. I think on the first draft, you’ve just got to make it the best screenplay you can write. Whatever set pieces come into your mind, you can just go crazy and let other people figure it out. There’s plenty of time to change once the budget comes in and you only get one first chance. I think the Bruckheimer thing is interesting. When you’re writing for Bruckheimer, you don’t write a Bruckheimer movie. You don’t sit down to write something that they’ve done before. You still have to write it like it’s the greatest movie ever made. That’s the idea. You can write the best script you can write and then they’ll do what they do with it.
CS: You guys were attached at one point to “Beverly Hills Cop IV,” which now sounds like it’s not happening as a feature. Haas: Yeah, that’s been away from us for a few years. We were attached. We wrote a draft that we really liked but, for whatever reason, not everyone responded to it. But we liked the script and it’s too bad. It felt like it was all happening in a good place and, for whatever reason, things get beyond your control on something like that.
CS: When something like that comes along, is it because you’re a fan of the franchise and you sought it out or are you approached? Haas: It’s funny that you mention that one because, of all the scripts that we worked on, that one is the one that we least sought out. Usually we do. “Wanted 2” we’ve been wanting to write for four years. Since the other movie wrapped, we’ve been pushing them to hire us to write it. We’re thrilled that we’re getting a chance to do it. On that one, we had written a spec script that Paramount really liked and they called us and said, “What about turning this into ‘Beverly Hills Cop’?” We said no and they said, “We’ll buy the script. We’ll turn it into ‘Beverly Hills Cop.’ We’re going to do it anyway. Maybe you guys spend three weeks on it and at least just make it sound like a ‘Beverly Hills Cop’ movie?” Rather than have somebody else do it, we thought we’d do that. Then three weeks turned into about nine months and it didn’t go. That one is a little strange.
CS: What about “The Matarese Circle”? You were working with David Cronenberg at one point on that. Brandt: Oh, man. You’re just digging up everything! He originally wasn’t attached. It was us and Denzel [Washington]. We sold it to MGM and wrote a draft that everybody really liked. Cronenberg came on as director. Mary [Parent] thought it would be interesting to bring someone like David Cronenberg on. Then Tom Cruise came aboard and Cronenberg started doing a rewrite. By that point, it read a hell of a lot more like a Cronenberg story than it did a [Robert] Ludlum story. From there, it kind of crashed and burned. Mary left MGM and it is what it is.
CS: You mention being fans of spy novels as well. How do you find the time to balance taking in so many books with all the writing work you do? Haas: Oh, we’re always reading. When you think about it, it’s part of your job. If you worked for a technology company, you’d be reading “Wired” and all those things. For us, it’s stories. It’s storytelling. I think it’s funny when you talk to a screenwriter or novelist and they’re like, “I don’t watch television” or “I don’t read books” or “I never go to the movies”. It’s like, “What?!” You’ve got to read everything. You’ve got to read everything. Michael and I have very diverse interests in terms of what we read, but we’re always pooling our two brains on what we watch and what we read. Usually we’re recommending things to each other. But I think you’ve got to make the time. If you don’t make the time, I think you’ll suffer as a writer.