Writing partners Michael Brandt and Derek Haas sold their spec script "The Courier" in 1999. They subsequently wrote the screenplays for "2 Fast 2 Furious" and "Catch That Kid." Currently, they are writing a Tom Clancy adaptation for Paramount and an adaptation of the Matt Helm novels for DreamWorks, along with rewrites on projects for Disney and Universal.
What is your background? Where did you go to school and how did you start writing?
Derek: We met in college. Michael’s from Kansas City and I’m from Dallas. We went to Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and stayed there for grad school. I did a Master’s in English Lit and Michael did film, concentrating on editing. We took a screenwriting class together and realized that we liked the same stuff. Then we went our separate ways after school. Michael came out to LA and was editing movies. He worked with Robert Rodriquez and Quentin Tarantino doing assistant editing. He actually lived with Robert in Austin.
How did you end up living with him?
Michael: Actually, I was living in LA. They flew me down to Austin to work on "The Faculty" and put me up in an apartment. But the editing room was in Robert’s house. There were nights I slept there, so it definitely felt like I was living there.
How did you start working with him?
Michael: When I first moved to LA, I worked as an editor on some low-budget productions that Robert’s wife was producing. That led to getting to know Robert, which led to a job at Miramax which I then left and started working with Robert on "The Faculty."
So you had one screenwriting class together in college. Have you had any other writing training?
Michael: No. In that screenwriting class, we started screenplays and wrote the first 30 pages or so by the end of the first semester. We then both finished ours. Neither of them were very good but we both thought they were great. Then we wrote a romantic comedy that we thought for sure was going to be our home run. And looking back, we were listening to all the screenwriting rules and not just writing what we wanted to write. My first script was a father-son baseball movie that took place in Kansas, because that was my life.
Derek: "Write what you know."
Michael: I was following that rule. Derek’s was a murder mystery that took place on a Baptist school campus. I can’t imagine where he got that idea. (Laughter) It wasn’t until we stepped away from the rules of writing, and just started writing, that all of a sudden our own voice came out. When I read a screenwriting magazine, I still think "Oh my God, I’m not doing it right, I’m forgetting about this beat that this guy says every screenplay has to have." Those things are intimidating. Sometimes I think the education of writers is such a business that it’s more about the business and less about actual helping the writer. (pauses) I just had to go into my rant there.
Derek: So no, we only took that one class. (Laughter)
What was the inspiration for "The Courier," which was the script you had a big success with?
Derek: We threw "Write what you know" out the window and changed it to "Write what you think is cool." We just had an idea of something we haven’t seen before - a guy who delivers things to people who don’t want to be found.
Michael: It was Derek’s idea. We hadn’t seen each other in a year or so, and one day 70-80 pages of a script showed up in my email and he said "Hey, I wrote this. Read it and do what you want with it." And it was in a voice I had never heard before. It was a way of writing that we had never been taught.
Derek: That was the inspiration. But it was incomplete. The script was moving toward a resolution the guy has to find someone, and he was going to find him. But by page 60 he had found him. I said "What are we going to do next?" And Michael said "What if that’s not the guy, he just thinks it’s the guy but it’s not?" And then we had our twist. We didn’t even realize we were following the rules of storytelling but we were. And I think that single idea of a guy who delivers things to people who don’t want to be found is what sold it. The voice helped, but that fact that you could get it down to one sentence really helped sell it.
So it was high concept.
Derek: It was high concept but it wasn’t a big movie. To us, it was always this little movie. Then the producer who optioned it ended up getting Brad Pitt attached, which is really why it sold. As soon as that happened, it became a $60 million movie and we had to add in helicopter crashes and all that stuff.
Michael: And it was doomed to fail. (Laughter) Because ultimately, if you have a voice that’s offbeat and you try to overly commercialize or Hollywoodize the story, then it doesn’t work. Once we put in the helicopter crashes and all that in, it ended up sounding pretentious, rather than just being a neat little movie about cool characters. It just didn’t fit. It was a square peg in a round hole.
Derek: It turned into "The Transporter."
So how did that producer become attached to the script?
Michael: When I was on the set of the "The Faculty" I said to myself, "I’m never going to ask Robert (Rodriquez) to read this. I’m not going to do that to him." He trusted me in that position, and I didn’t want to be that guy who tries to use him for anything. But I got to know a woman who was the post-production supervisor. She had contacts with a lot of people in Hollywood. I gave the script to her and she flipped for it, and she gave it to a friend who worked for this producer. And the rest is history. That woman to this day still has a producer credit on this movie that will never get made.
Derek: That’s one piece of advice we always give to young writers: Get your script into as many hands as you possibly can. If you know someone who knows someone who’s in the business, try to get that person the script, because who knows who they know? And when you start getting the feedback that everyone likes it, that’s when you know you’re onto something. When you get the feedback "Eh…" then you should probably try to write something else. But for us, it just snowballed. Everybody who read that script liked it. So we thought, "Wow, we might have something here."
So what happened after Brad Pitt became attached to the project?
Michael: Intermedia optioned it. Gore Verbinski and Brad were going to do the movie. We did a pass on the script for them, and around Thanksgiving of 1999 we all shook hands and said "Let’s go make a movie." Then within two weeks Julia Roberts signed on to do "The Mexican" which was a DreamWorks movie. Gore’s first movie "Mouse Hunt" was a DreamWorks movie. Jeffrey Katzenberg called Gore, and Gore and Brad left our movie and went to do "The Mexican." And that was it.
That must have been such a rollercoaster for you guys, going from first-time writers with a huge project about to happen, to it all stopping.
Michael: We didn’t make another dollar for a year and a half. Here we thought we’re ready to go, we were going to set the town on fire. It was tough. We had tons of meetings, but jobs were hard to get.
Derek: We spent that year learning how to pitch, by going into all these meetings. We hired a manager and went thourgh the open writing assignment list, which is the big list that every studio has of all the assignments they have, either re-writes on scripts or book adaptations or whatever. We pitched everything we could possibly come up with a take on. We didn’t get anything for the first year, but finally we got one thing, and that lead to another. Work begets work in this town.
Did your manager coach you on your pitches?
Michael: Our manager did help us, but not so much from a coaching perspective. He helped us become more picky. He kept us from going after the jobs that had been on the open writing assignment list for four years and were never going anywhere. Or the jobs that we were never going to get hired for because we weren’t big enough. Instead, he helped us hone in on the jobs we actually had a chance of getting. And because of that we started taking steps forward, instead of just taking the machine gun approach.
Do you have the same manager now?
Derek: We do. We’ve had the same manager the whole time: Andrew Deane at Industry Entertainment. Andrew also really helped us when we had written our second spec called "Miamiland." Our other representative at that time said we should wait until "The Courier" comes out and then go out with this as a spec. We thought that sounded like good advice, but it wasn’t. Putting out this second piece of material a year after "The Courier" reminded everyone that these guys can write, they can do characters, they can do twists, they can do pace. So that went all over town and we ended up optioning it. That movie still hasn’t gotten made, but that’s how we started getting assignments. Now we had two things out there, we weren’t one-hit wonders. That was Andrew’s idea, getting this in everyone’s hands. It was the best thing that could have happened for us.
You are currently represented by William Morris. How did you approach getting an agent?
Michael: We started at a smaller agency. We had been offered a job to write for an Internet cartoon. I called a friend who was represented at that agency and said, hey, I think we’re going to make a deal to write for the Internet, can you put us in touch with an agent? And oh, by the way, we have a spec that we want to give you as a sample.
Derek: And a producer was interested in it.
Michael: At the time, nobody knew how much money there was going to be in writing for the Internet. So I think that agent took us on as clients thinking, worst case, we were going to make $10,00 on the Internet and he was going to get his little piece of that. And then he read our sample. And that got us in the door. So in a way, we kind of cheated.
Derek: We’re definitely opportunistic.
Michael: We highly recommend cheating.
Derek: So we were at a small agency for the first year and half. Then we decided that we wanted to go to a bigger agency. The fear being, now you’re the small fish in a big pond and you’re only there to service the director or actor clients. But we found the opposite to be true. Jeff Gorin is our main agent at William Morris, along with David Lonner and Danny Greenberg. They treat us great. I feel like we’re in the forefront of our agents’ minds everyday. And there is some clout with being at one of the Big 5 agencies. We know this because we’re nosy and we always ask studio executives. They always say that if a script comes with a CAA cover or a William Morris cover, that’s something that they read right away.
Michael: But any agent is a good agent if you don’t have one.
Derek: Absolutely. That’s the number one advice I’d give to a young writer. Put all your effort into finding representation, either a manager, a lawyer or an agent. That’s the first thing you should do.
Michael: When we didn’t have a manager, we were anti-manager, thinking "Why should we be giving 10% to someone else?" But then we took a step back and said, 10% of zero is zero. If you have somebody out there getting you jobs, that person easily pays for himself over the course of year.
So what was the first assignment that you got?
Michael: It was a re-write on a movie for a franchise, which is no longer around. The movie never got made.
Derek: And we got paid scale.
Michael: But that movie saved us. We were weeks away from having to get jobs. We really thought we had blown our chance. Then we got that job…
Derek: And immediately got two more right after that.
Michael: We sold a TV show.
Derek: And the pilot never got made. Then we got an assignment for Universal, a re-write, about a division of the FBI called the Hostage Rescue Team. They sent us to Virginia to train with the FBI and meet spies and all this stuff. We turned in the script about 3 weeks before September 11th happened. The story was a big global political thriller, so we were a casualty of that. But the studio loved the script, and that summer they had this movie coming out called "The Fast and the Furious." They called us to ask if we wanted to write the sequel. And we said "no." We just didn’t want to write what we thought was a big dumb action movie. We wanted to write big smart action movies! So our agent called and said…
Michael: "The answer is not no, the answer is yes." (Laughter)
Derek: They said, this is like the Godfather asking you for a favor, you don’t turn it down. And it ended up being the greatest thing for us, because we were the only writers on the movie from start to finish. We worked with John Singleton all the way through. It didn’t turn out exactly like what we would have done, but John did a great job and we’re proud of it.
How did the writing process go for that specific type of project, a big franchise sequel?
Derek: We were lucky in that we had worked with a studio exec, Scott Stuber, who became President of Production while we were on that project. We had a great relationship with him. We literally pitched the concept for the sequel walking out of the screening of the first movie, and they said, "Go write that." So we wrote a first draft that they loved. But they couldn’t make a deal with the lead actor we had written it for, Vin Diesel, and when he dropped off, so did the director, Rob Cohen. They hired John Singleton, and he’s the kind of director who is a writer’s dream, who wants the writers involved all the way through, from conception to the end. So we had a thousand meetings with him in pre-production, with storyboards and all that. Then we went to rehearsals in Miami and stayed for the first eight weeks of shooting. So it was great.
Michael: We were prepared a little bit by the studio that making a deal with Vin might be difficult. When we wrote the first draft, we knew that we might have to change that character out. It was strange writing a script for an existing character thinking that he might not be in this movie, so we came up with a plot and a scenario where we can put someone else in.
So that was a very successful film—
Michael: It accomplished its goals, we like to say.
How did that affect your careers?
Derek: Very positively. (laughter)
Michael: We bought houses.
Derek: A week after the premier of the movie, we had a studio executive tell us "You guys had written these small quirky character stories, but we didn’t know you could put that into a big budget movie, but now we see that you can."
Michael: It was important for us that we were the only writers. On an $80-90 million studio movie, that’s unheard of. I think Universal made it clear to the town that we were good to work with. We delivered a movie that accomplished its goals and made a lot of money, and we were the only writers on it. So that made the rest of the town comfortable handing us something that was expensive.
Derek: The initial circle of everyone who writes a screenplay is a mile across. The circle of people who have sold a screenplay becomes smaller. Then it becomes really smaller for people who have a produced screenplay. And it becomes tiny for people who have a produced screenplay that made more than $100 million. So for studios, they have a choice of hiring guys who are questions marks, or these guys who delivered a movie that did well.
Michael: The funny thing is, before we were produced it was infinitely frustrating losing jobs to guys who had written movies that we thought weren’t any good but had made money. And now I’m sure there are guys who we get jobs from, who are saying "Oh my God, we just lost a job to the guys who wrote ‘2 Fast 2 Furious’!" But right or wrong, there is a level of comfort for a studio executive in hiring someone who has written a successful movie. A typical studio executive wakes up every morning with one goal: not getting fired. And the way you don’t get fired is by hiring people who are perceived to be the right move at the time.
Derek: But six months later, when we’re getting offered car action movies and rewrites on big budget dumb TV show movies, Michael and I had to go to our agent and say "We want to be re-invented. We were the quirky character guys and not the big budget action guys, so how do we marry the two?" We always liked espionage, smart action like the Clancy books. Our agents found a Belgian psychological thriller about a crime lord’s rise, so we took it for very little money with Michael directing. Once we did that, the re-invention started, and now we’re doing a Clancy adaptation for Paramount, and more adult stuff.
Your current projects are all assignments – adaptations or re-writes. Are you in a position to write a spec, and is that something you’d want to do?
Michael: The town is kind of set up to thwart writers writing specs. Studios give producers big fat deals, and producers come up with ideas for movies based on novels, TV shows, articles, what have you. Some are good, some are bad, but there’s a certain content that the studios know they need to have. So if a studio says, "Here’s something that we really want to make, with a producer who we are required to make a certain number of movies with each year, you guys want to write it? And oh by the way, we’ll pay you a lot of money?" It’s pretty hard to turn that down.
Derek: If you do get a spec made, and especially if you direct and produce, then it’s much easier to get your next one and your next one. That’s the dream. But one of the things Michael and I like about some of the assignments that we’ve done is that they’ve almost been like specs. The Matt Helm project we’re doing, for instance, were forty books written in the 60s. We took the character and put him in a modern setting and basically spec’d it ourselves, and the studio went for it. If you can take their kernel of an idea and make it your own, then all the better.
Michael: A lot of times what the studios have are the big ideas. And they’re good ideas. So if they’re going to hand you a good idea and let you go write it, why not do it?
What is your daily process as writing partners?
Michael: I think that we’re a little different than most partnerships. Ours came out of the fact that Derek lived in Atlanta and I lived in Los Angeles, so we were forced to write over the Internet. We wrote separately and emailed back and forth. And not just scenes but sometimes entire drafts. We work entirely separately and just rewrite each other, completely and freely. We have an unwritten rule: if you want to change something that I’ve written, you have to make it sufficiently better that there’s no argument. So by the time the studio gets our first draft, it’s been through a lot of re-writes between us.
Derek: We pass it back and forth. Open re-writes, just make it cooler, that’s the rule. We change the font colors each time, so you can see what the other person did. We rarely argue, and it’s usually over half a line of dialogue.
Michael: Two people who are as passive-aggressive as we are don’t really argue; what you do is change things without changing the color. (Laughter)
Derek: Or you wait until the draft comes back and then change it back to the way it was before.
Do you ever work in the same room?
Derek: No, we have offices in our houses.
Michael: We spend as little time together as possible.
Derek: But we’re probably together three or four times a week in meetings, notes meetings, new job meetings, whatever. And occasionally when we’re stuck we’ll get together for an hour and talk it out. Then one of us will go tackle it after that.
When you’re starting a new project, do you outline?
Michael: The pitch process forces you to. We don’t outline as much as work out the beats. We get a feeling for what the movie’s going to be, where our character’s going to be on page 80, not specifically but emotionally, where the story is going to be. In some ways you can spend all your time outlining and use it as an excuse not to write. It’s not until you get into the writing process that you find things that you never would have thought of while you’re outlining. So I think new writers who spend a lot of their time outlining are wasting their time.
Do you have to turn in an outline or a beat sheet for an assignment?
Derek: Usually you verbally tell them what you’re going to do. You don’t want to leave something behind, because then they’re judging those sentences, which are really just ideas. You don’t want to be judged on a three-page synopsis when you’re going to write a 110-page screenplay. That is a danger, and it happens a lot. They always ask for something to leave behind. And we say, "Oh, these are just our scribbles."
What do you think new writers should know that they don’t know?
Michael: If you’re going to be in the studio business, the high-budget movie game, you have to realize that the studios are looking for somebody to give them what they want. In some ways, they are in the commodity business. We became more successful when we listened to what they told us they wanted, and we took that, made it ours, and then gave it back to them in our own version. When we kind of listened but then went away and did our own thing, and tried to give that back to them, they said "This isn’t what we wanted to buy. We told you what we wanted to buy, and you’re trying to sell us something different."
Derek: A lot of screenwriters have that attitude that "I’m making art and everyone should worship me." Michael and I are unashamed to be commercial writers. We want a hugely successful movie. We may not have "Boys Don’t Cry" in us, but we have "The Matrix" in us, we have "The Hunt for Red October" in us.
Michael: The other day I was talking to a writer friend about producing something for him. He had a big commercial idea. But when he pitched it to us, it was the darkest, smallest little idea. We told him we can’t sell it. He said, "This is the only way I know how to write this movie." And we said, no, there are other ways to make this movie, and the reason you haven’t been hired as a screenwriter is because you’re not listening to what the studios are telling you they want. You do have the other version in you, you just have to give them what they want, then you fill in all the rest with what you want to do.
So you have to adapt yourself to what they buyer wants.
Michael: You don’t have to. But you do have to deal with the ramifications of not adapting yourself, which may be that you’ll never sell anything. If that’s what you want to do, fine. But the way we view it is, if you’re willing to give a little in the beginning, in the end you’ll be able to take a lot. And that’s worth it to us.
So you two want to move in the direction of producing and directing. Will you be doing your own projects?
Derek: We have two young writers who came to us who had sold one other project before. They had a great idea for taking a Richard Matheson short story that had been a "Twilight Zone" episode and making it into a big commercial movie. So we came on as producers and offered the studios that we would do a polish, and we set it up at Summit and Mandalay. Now the movie is going, and we’re out to directors. We feel that we can offer that to studios, that we can shepherd projects better than some junior executive. Of course, we also want to get behind the camera on our own projects. On our projects that have been made, you see things that you would have done differently, so naturally you want to do them yourself the next time.
Michael: I sat in a room with Robert Rodriguez for 9 months and watched him make a movie. That’s the best film school you can have. Seeing the freedom that he’s built for himself is something that we aspire to. Derek and I both really admire John Sayles because he does it his way. He does the big re-write for money, and then makes his own little movies. He wrote "Piranha" early in his career to help pay to make his first movies. There’s nothing wrong with that. William Goldman decided to write "Shazam." If he can do that, nobody can tell us not to be commercial. It buys you freedom.
Derek: One other piece of advice is: watch every movie you can possibly get your hands on. Read as many scripts as you can. Get the five best scripts in the genre that you want to write. Read whatever the big spec sale of the year is. Read "Stay," even though it didn’t do well, it was still the big spec sale of the year. See what is being bought. Don’t live in a vacuum.
Chris Leeder is a recent graduate of the UCLA Professional Program in Screenwriting. His scripts have placed as a 2003 Chesterfield semifinalist and Fade In semifinalist, and as a 2002 Scriptapalooza finalist. He lives in Los Angeles.