Even Bad Men Love Their Mamas
A Pajiba Exclusive Interview with Derek Haas and Michael Brandt, Co-Writers of 3:10 to Yuma / Daniel Carlson
Interviews | September 24, 2007 | Comments (14)
At first, I thought the guy commenting on my review of 3:10 to Yuma as “Derek Haas” was playing a joke. Granted, a somewhat layered joke, and one that would have required more thought and IMDb checking than your typical prankster is willing to employ, but a joke nevertheless. But to my pleasant surprise, it was indeed Haas himself, one of the screenwriters for 3:10 to Yuma and several other films. He turned out to be far nicer than I had any right to expect about the general cheekiness that occasionally creeps into some of my reviews, and he and his writing partner, Michael Brandt, agreed to an e-mail interview. There’s a weird lesson in there somewhere, but I can’t quite figure it out.
Daniel Carlson: What brought each of you to Hollywood, or inspired you to become a writer? What’s the next step?
Derek Haas: I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was in sixth grade and asked my parents for a typewriter for my 12th birthday. My dad was always reading and would leave these books lying around, and I would pick them up. Different Seasons by Stephen King was eye-opening for me at a young age. We are definitely trying to branch out into making our own films, with Michael directing and me producing … that’s our next step.
Michael Brandt: In film school, I emphasized editing because our school was pretty progressive with new technologies. I had a professor who recommended using skills as an editor to break into Hollywood, and he was exactly right. Within 10 days of moving to L.A., I was editing a feature film, and within a year was working with Robert Rodriguez (on The Faculty). The obvious step for me as a former editor and now writer is to become a director.
DC: You mentioned film school; where did you two go to college?
DH: We went to Baylor University in Waco, Texas. I received a BA in English - Professional Writing and an MA in English Literature. I’ve always been interested in film, which I trace back to the movies I watched as a kid: Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Smokey and the Bandit, E.T., Poltergeist. It wasn’t until I got to college and discovered The Godfather, The Deer Hunter, Chinatown, The Philadelphia Story, all the Hitchcock movies, that I realized the importance of the screenplay to the movie. I’ve never been a film snob; The Great Escape is still my favorite movie.
MB: I started off with an interest in broadcast television. I was interning at a CBS affiliate in Waco, in sports, and spent a week on a story about some local high school football team. It aired, and I went home all proud of myself, but my roommates didn’t see it because they didn’t have the TV on. I realized then that I wanted to create things that could live longer than a broadcast. The next semester I enrolled in a writing class.
DC: So you got to know each other in school? When was that?
DH: We were undergrads there from 1988-1991, and then I was in grad school from 1992-1994. Michael finished before I did.
MB: I went to graduate school at Baylor, which was really into emerging technologies. By the time I got there in 1992, Baylor had been on the cutting edge of high-def technology for years and was moving into non-linear editing, which was just becoming popular. We had one of the first Avids, and I wrote my master’s thesis on the use of computers in feature film editing. It was a great way to learn about filmmaking, pacing and storytelling.
DC: So was the time you spent at school together the impetus for writing as a team?
DH: We knew each other as undergrads, but really became good friends in grad school. We took a screenwriting class together and realized we like the same types of movies and had similar tastes. We just naturally came together to write and realized we were better writing screenplays jointly then we were on our own.
MB: I remember walking into screenwriting class seeing Derek sitting there. We had been friends before but had never talked about our mutual passion. I think from that moment we were destined to work together.
DC: What’s the process like writing as a partnership?
DH: We don’t write in the same room. We e-mail the screenplays back and forth with an open rewrite policy and one rule: Just make it better. We keep one master document and change the colors as we go, so we know what changed as we pass it back and forth. In nine years of doing this together, we rarely argue.
MB: It’s always about making it better, funnier, more clever, etc. At the heart of it all, you can’t write for everyone, because you can’t please everyone. I think Derek and I are really trying to impress each other, and that keeps things focused.
DC: How did you land your first job, Invincible?
DH: Well, it wasn’t our first job, just our first script to get produced. And the movie came out terribly. It’s really an awful, awful movie. We couldn’t even watch it all the way through. Let’s just say that what we wrote and what is on film are two completely different things, with just enough similarities that we somehow received shared credit.
MB: Yeah, I can hardly think about it without my head hurting.
DC: What degree of collaboration do you typically have with the director throughout the filmmaking process?
DH: It all depends on the director. We’ve been fortunate enough to have had a great deal of collaboration on three of our movies: 2 Fast 2 Furious, 3:10 to Yuma, and Wanted. On Catch That Kid, we had basically no interaction with the director, and were only on the set one day. On feature films, the directors pretty much rule, and so you are involved or not involved (for the most part) based on their decision.
MB: (For 2 Fast 2 Furious), John Singleton came to us on day one and said we were the guys he wanted all the way through. It doesn’t mean we got our way all (or even most) of the time, but we did stay involved. Jim Mangold is such a great filmmaker and writer in his own right, we were happy to serve him in any way we could (on 3:10 to Yuma).
DC: When adapting Yuma, did you rely more on the original film or Elmore Leonard’s short story? How constrained did you feel to stick with the original film’s story?
DH: We relied heavily on the original film’s screenplay by Halsted Welles, which is why we share credit with him. We weren’t constrained at all; we just felt like that script had some really strong writing — character work, dialogue, set-ups — (so) we weren’t going to break what was already working. The Leonard short story is terrific, but Welles put the meat on the bones.
MB: We really felt like Elmore Leonard’s short was a great third act, and that Halstead Welles’ script provided a great first act, but that a “remake” could be great because of the chance for a middle. We didn’t want to work on this to re-envision it as much as we wanted to add to it. Same with the addition of the son throughout, and the theme of celebrity. It all seemed timely and modern in a way, even though it was set over a hundred years ago.
DC: How big a role, if any, did James Mangold or anyone at Lionsgate play in shaping the direction of the story?
DH: Jim played a gigantic role in shaping the direction of the story. He was with us from day one, and everything we wrote or pitched to the studio was first pitched to him and the producer, Cathy Konrad. We had countless meetings with them, just talking over the story.
DC: How did you land the Yuma job?
DH: We found out Jim had a real affinity for the original 3:10 to Yuma. We met with Cathy and him to talk over ways we could bring a modern sensibility to a Western and how we could take it into Columbia to pitch the idea for a remake. We fleshed out the ideas of having Dan Evans’ son in on the journey and setting the movie on the road. Eventually, we wrote a treatment for the movie and took it into Sony/Columbia as a pitch. They bought it in the room, and we were off and running.
DC: What’s the filmmaking experience typically been for you? What was it like for Yuma?
DH: There really isn’t a “typically.” For 2 Fast, we were on it from “Fade In:,” through 12 weeks of production, and still making notes on the movie in post. On some of our other movies, we’ve barely been on set. On Wanted, we were in Prague for three weeks before production began and then back for a week during the shoot, but that was it. For Yuma, we were only in Santa Fe a few days, but it was a great experience watching the way Jim worked. He’s a talented director.
DC: What do you look for in a story or screenplay? What kinds of movies are your favorites?
DH: We gravitate toward stories which involve characters put into impossible situations. We love to work on scripts where it is everyone against our one guy and somehow he’s got to survive and make it from Point A to Point B. For characters, we like to deal in shades of gray, where our bad guys have qualities that make them likable and our good guys have qualities that make them flawed. The challenge is to find humanity and universal themes within some pretty fantastic settings.
DC: What are you working on now? What do you have planned for the future?
DH: We’re just finishing up a book adaptation for Universal of the James Siegel novel Deceit. We’ve been hired to write the sequel to Wanted by the same studio. And we’ve got a few more things in the hopper that it’s a little premature to talk about.
DC: If you can, talk about your involvement in Wanted and Spy Hunter.
DH: Wanted has been terrific. We first started working on it when only the first issue of the comic came out, and as the book became crazier and crazier, we tried to keep the script grounded. Timur Bekmambetov is directing and has been interesting and gratifying to work with. The movie is going to be a gigantic, hard-R action movie that we hope will satisfy the comic fans. With Spy Hunter, we worked on it along with who knows how many other screenwriters. I don’t think anything we wrote is going to end up in the movie.
DC: What do you mean by keeping the script for Wanted “grounded”? More broadly, do you read any comics or graphic novels? What’s it been like adapting a comic?
DH: After the second issue, the comic book left the real world and went into a world where super-villains had rid the world of superheroes. It was sort of a mafia story told against that backdrop. So we kept that tone and dynamic, but kept it mostly in the real world, though we do play with things like physics, so it is still a heightened world. It’s something you’ll see from the first trailer; it’s harder to explain here in print.
I grew up a huge Spider-Man fan and collected Amazing…, Web of…, Peter Parker…, and then the McFarlane Spider-Man when it started. I still have most of what I collected, including #33 of Amazing’s “The Final Chapter,” though it’s not in very good shape. I’ve read quite a few graphic novels; there’s a manga one Michael and I have talked about doing more with called “The Drifting Classroom.” Adapting Wanted was a blast for us. We hope people dig the movie version.
DC: Clichéd as the question is, what advice would you give to someone looking to break into screenwriting or directing?
DH: Write something with a big idea. Write it in your own style, tossing away conventions. Then get it into as many people’s hands as humanly possible. If it’s great, it will get noticed.
MB: And quite honestly, you need to live in Los Angeles. There are always examples of writers who make it elsewhere, but the deck is already stacked against anyone trying to break in. You can’t substitute for the contacts and good feedback you can get out here.
DC: Finally, is there a director or actor/actress you’d particularly like to write for?
DH: There are quite a few. We’d love to work with Tony Scott or Ridley Scott. We’d love to work with Ron Howard or Michael Mann or Clint Eastwood, or many others I’m failing to mention.
MB: And Vin Diesel, of course.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. He’s a bad man who loves his mama. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.
Posted by: Rachael at September 24, 2007 2:45 PM