Our very own J.C. and Adam had the privilege to attend the 12th Annual Nashville Screenwriting Conference that was held June 4-6, 2010, in Nashville, Tennessee. Along with attending several of the great panels featured last year, they had the chance to chat with a some of the panelists, which resulted in a few of them agreeing to partake in our CUT TO: shenanigans.
Derek Haas agreed to an interview months ago, but due to his busy schedule as screenwriter and first-time producer on The Double it has taken J.C. the better part of a year to complete this interview.
Don’t know who Derek Haas is? Where have you been? Seriously? Writing partners Michael Brandt and Derek Haas are the force behind such engaging, fast-paced, kinetic screenplays as 2008’s blockbuster Wanted. Brandt and Haas’s adaptation of the acclaimed graphic novel starred James McAvoy, Morgan Freeman and Angelina Jolie and grossed $339 million worldwide. Their first produced work, Universal’s 2 Fast 2 Furious, has amassed over $236M in worldwide box office. In September 2007, Brandt and Haas also wrote the film 3:10 To Yuma, starring Russell Crowe and Christian Bale, directed by James Mangold.
Q: I guess, first, tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got to where you are today.
A: I always wanted to be a writer and have been lucky enough to do that for the last dozen years. I received an MA in English Literature from Baylor University and then worked in advertising for a few years, while I kept writing at night. In ’98, I contacted my friend Michael Brandt from college with the kernel of an idea for a screenplay, and we collaborated to write it.
We were lucky enough to land Brad Pitt as the lead, and the script sold, but the movie was never made. Still, it got us our first agent and our names in the trades, and our careers were off and running. Later, I decided to write a novel and feel fortunate to have found a publisher for my books. I’m writing my third now, and Michael and I just shot our first film where Brandt is directing and I’m producing. Anyway, I can’t complain.
Q: What was the first screenplay you ever read and how did it change or alter your approach or perspective on filmmaking?
A: The first screenplay I ever read was either Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or Matewan. I can’t remember which I read first. The former taught me that you can entertain the reader in the action-descriptions and write with the same flair in the dramatic parts as you would in the dialogue parts. The latter taught me that the good guy should have a little flaw and the bad guy should have a little likability: that it’s okay to be gray with your protagonist and your antagonist.
Q: When you first started to learn the craft, did you read/study any how-to books on screenwriting, and if so, which ones did you find to be the most beneficial?
A: I didn’t. I took a screenwriting class with Michael at Baylor when we both attended there. If there was a textbook involved, I don’t remember it… I think we just read scripts and watched movies and wrote. I still think that’s a pretty good way to learn to write, after you get down the basics about formatting.
I think we just read scripts and watched movies and wrote. I still think that’s a pretty good way to learn to write…
Q: As a writer, how and where do you seek out inspiration? Anything in particular?
A: No, I just try to see things differently. Listen for bits of dialogue from strangers. Look at interesting street corners or cafes or alleys and think, “What would happen if an assassin were standing there?”
Q: What is your writing process like (i.e. schedule, outline, notecards, treatments, etc.)?
A: For movies, Michael and I meet and try to break the story together, usually with our manager, Andrew Deane. Next, we work up a treatment that we pass back and forth a dozen times by email until we have something we think is worth writing. Then, usually, I do a vomit draft, where I write the script without ever looking back and just try to get a very rough draft of the movie on paper so we can start the real work of actually writing the movie. Michael does a pass, I do a pass; we keep doing passes and have meetings until we have a draft we think is worth reading, then it goes into the studio.
On books, I just have a vague idea of a beginning, middle, and end… then I just start writing. About a quarter of the way through the novel, I start to get a good idea of what the last line of the book will be… then I write toward that line.
Q: How long does it take you to write a “vomit draft”? It seems you have so many scripts going at one time, how do you juggle all of them?
A: Vomit drafts usually take me around 4 weeks. As far as juggling scripts goes, MIchael works on one and I work on the other, then we pass them back and forth.
With the books, I just try to find time to work on them when I feel like I’ve hit a good stopping point on whatever script I’m working on at the time. If I can squeeze an hour or two into each writing day, I’m good. Four or five hours of screenplay work and then one to two hours of novel work I consider a good day.
Q: What software do you use and why?
A: Final Draft for screenplays, because we always have. MS Word for books, when I’m not out and about, where I’ll write with good old ink into a blank journal.
Q: As the old adage goes: writing is rewriting. How do you approach and what is your process in regard to rewriting?
A: I try to distance myself from personal connections to the script and just ask myself, “If I were given this draft written by a stranger and asked to rewrite it, what would I do?” Usually, Brandt and I have discussed the ideas we want to incorporate into the next pass and it’s just a matter of executing those ideas. Plus, I know Michael will always make it better.
Q: What was it like to sit in a darkened theater with an audience and watch your words come to life for the first time on the big screen?
A: There is no better feeling. Seriously, it’s fantastic. When something up there on the screen works the way you imagined it would, and the audience laughs or gasps when they’re supposed to, it’s the greatest. Electric. It’s why you worked so hard on that script.
I just try to see things differently. Look at interesting street corners or cafes or alleys and think, “What would happen if an assassin were standing there?”
Q: Has watching actors act out and speak your written words changed your process in any way?
A: It gives you a better ear for dialogue and for how a line can be transformed from words on the page to audible words coming out of a mouth. I’m always a little shocked when an actor makes something funny that wasn’t intended to be funny, or more shocking than it was supposed to be, just by stressing a syllable or changing the rhythm. They make us look so much better than we are.
Q: I’m extremely curious about The Courier. I was told it’s getting made and has been extremely re-written by others, but I just got a draft of it today that is dated 09-01-2010 and it only has you and Michael Brandt on the cover page with an Arclight Films logo. What’s really going on with this project?
A: I don’t know why that Courier draft had no other writers names on it, but that seems a bit hinky. Is the script any good? Then we definitely wrote it. This is where I’d put a “winky” icon if I did that type of thing.
I think Arclight is finally making that movie but I’m not sure how much of it is our script. I should probably look into that. We’re not involved in the production, but I have high hopes that it’ll be awesome.
Q: I remember reading somewhere that the first draft of The Courier had FUCK YOU: instead of FADE IN:. What’s the story on that?
A: That’s not true. This probably arose from the Balls Out script which started with “FADE THE FUCK IN:” My friends Tim and Malcolm wrote that.
Q: Can you talk about Beverly Hills Cop IV? If so, how is that coming along?
A: Here’s the story on BHC4. Michael and I wrote a spec script called Dying Day that Paramount bought to convert into BHC4. They asked us to rewrite it for Axel Foley, and we met with Brett Ratner and agreed to do it. We all decided that we wouldn’t write the comedy version, that we would try to write it as a straight-up action movie, and while there would be suggestions for “humor,” we would let comedy writers and Eddie himself work out those bits. It was pointed out that the original BHC came from an action script intended for Stallone.
Our first draft was a little tonally off, as we straddled the action/comedy line and probably weren’t too successful at either. We revamped it and wrote more of a straight-up, darker action movie that was tonally more akin to new James Bond then old James Bond, and I like that draft a lot more.
Some website got a hold of it and said, “where’s the comedy?” I love it when websites do that. Anyway, for a number of reasons, Paramount decided not to make that movie, and I believe they are now working on a draft based on Eddie’s idea for the story. Subsequently, I said, “let’s get two new actors and make Dying Day!” I keep waiting for “Paramount” to appear on the caller ID on my phone but they haven’t called yet.
Q: So you are working on Dying Day, then?
A: No, we’re not. I was kidding. Unless Paramount wants to do it. Then I wasn’t kidding.
Is the script any good? Then we definitely wrote it. This is where I’d put a “winky” icon if I did that type of thing.
Q: I think I remember the review of BHC 4 that you are talking about. I think it was on ScriptShadow. What are your thoughts on sites like that? That give out reviews/plots/opinions of scripts that are in super early stages of development?
A: Unless you have the screenwriter’s permission, I think it’s a s****y thing to do. A draft is not a shooting draft. Often times, you’ll attempt something in a first draft that basically serves the same purpose as an artist’s sketch — especially if you know you have a guaranteed two-steps on this script. You’ll sit in a development meeting and agree to give something a try. What if we move that up to the front? What if we make the best friend a girl instead of a guy? Let’s see how that looks on the page. The case of BHC4 is a good example. “These guys aren’t putting any comedy in this movie!” No, we’re not putting any comedy into this draft.
Anyway, I’m not saying what we do is high-art and there are many reasons for someone to bag on a script, but at least bag on the shooting script and quit reviewing drafts of movies that are still in development. Giving studio execs any outside reason to feel shaky about a project is not a good thing for writers.
Q: You guys are big in the way that you work a lot with specs. Are there any of your scripts that changed during the filmmaking process that you wish you would have been more involved in because your original vision didn’t make it? If so, can you give an example?
A: Yes, to some extent, unless you make the movie yourself, they all change. The biggest example for me is the “Loom of Fate” in Wanted. Michael and I never understood the purpose of that loom or why it needed to be in the movie. We were fired from the project and then re-hired right before production. We tried to get rid of the loom then, but I think the set was already built. I think the mandate was: do whatever you want with the script, but don’t touch the loom. So, then, our mission became to make the loom land as softly as possible, which I think we accomplished somewhat.
I know we wrote a scene for Wesley to say “where do these names come from?” and then we had Sloan sidestep the question by saying “they come out of a necessity to keep balance in the world.” At least that way he didn’t have to say, “they come from this mythical loom.” Look, Timur shot a hell of a movie and I give him a ton of credit for making the movie look like nothing anyone had seen before. I’m really just nitpicking because that loom still bothers me. Less loom!
Q: Your IMDb page is a mile (exaggeration) long with in development titles. What actually is going on with those as of right now? Are some dead, some awaiting financing, etc.?
A: Yeah, I don’t understand how IMDb works because it’ll have some information on things we haven’t worked on in years. It’s hard to talk about some of them without sounding like I’m making excuses or trying to paint Michael and I as victims. “We wrote this excellent draft and THEY screwed us!” I’m starting to learn, like with The Courier and The Double, some projects can get resurrected out of nowhere. I used to think that was impossible, but now I understand screenplays don’t have expiration dates.
Q: Let’s talk about The Double a little. I believe it is your next project that will be released, right? Is there a time frame for release yet besides 2011?
A: No, we’re just concentrating on finishing the movie. We went into it without domestic distribution, so all of those things have to be worked out once we finish it.
I’m starting to learn some projects can get resurrected out of nowhere. I used to think that was impossible, but now I understand screenplays don’t have expiration dates.
Q: Also, will this be one of those projects that’s much closer to your heart than other things you’ve written because you are fully involved in it?
A: Yes, by far. Michael directed the movie and I produced, so we really did shoot the script we wrote. The only changes were because of budget concerns, but we kept the integrity of what we wrote. Hyde Park, who financed the movie, let us shoot the script… and we had excellent collaboration with some fantastic actors: Richard Gere, Topher Grace, Martin Sheen, Odette Yustman, Stephen Moyer, Stana Katic… really everyone was on board with the screenplay and everything Michael shot started with the words on the page. It was quite gratifying and I hope audiences will dig the movie.
Q: Has MGM figured out what their doing with The Matarese Circle? They have huge names attached but don’t want to spend the money on it?
A: Love our draft for that and I hope when the MGM sale gets worked out, whoever is in charge will want to make it. We know Denzel dug our draft and that the producers Ben Smith, Lorenzo di Bonaventura, and Nick Wechsler were thrilled with it. Who knows? It’s a cool, big spy thriller with attitude.
Q: Alien Legion, how’s that coming along? Are you guys doing anything different with that script since it’s a big Bruckheimer-summer-family-flick?
A: We turned in a draft to Bruckheimer last Spring before we left to make The Double. I don’t think they were crazy about our draft and decided to hire other writers. I hate it when we turn in something the studio doesn’t like, but it happened here.
Q: All Creatures Great and Small is such a huge creative idea. I was surprised 2 years ago when I read about it and thought there’s no way someone is going to make that and best I can tell it isn’t going to happen. Am I right?
A: Again, we loved that script. I remember after we turned it in, Sony gave it some high praise in the coverage and Neal Moritz loved it, too. We sent it out to a handful of directors and couldn’t get anyone to bite who would make the studio comfortable at the budget numbers it would take to realize that film. For whatever reason, the big directors didn’t respond to it. Maybe it was the writing and we thought it was better than it was. Maybe it was the post-apocalyptic nature of it. Nothing kills a project faster than not being able to land a big director… so as far as I know, it died or else they hired another writer to take a new stab at it. I still love it and think it would make a huge summer movie.
Q: Michael Brandt was going to direct Countdown a couple years ago and you were going to produce it. What fell through there?
A: That’s a fun script, actually, written by Scott Burn & Steve Gregg. It was set up at Summit, and Brandt was going to direct it, but after developing it, it became apparent to Michael that it wasn’t the right thing for him to do first. I think it was the right decision for everyone when he took himself off the project.
…everyone was on board with the screenplay and everything Michael shot started with the words on the page.
Q: So, then, how is Shake coming along? Has a draft of that been turned in?
A: We have not yet turned in a draft of Shake. I think it’s coming along great… even though they didn’t move forward with our Alien Legion draft, the Bruckheimer team have been supportive and hands-on for what we want to do with Shake.
Q: You run a great little site called Popcorn Fiction and you post old-timey little tales that are all great reads. One can see why you decided to take on the project on the site’s About page, so I won’t ask about that, but as far as options go… as far as I can tell, Shake seems to be the only story that has been optioned. Are there any others?
A: Thanks so much for the nice words regarding Popcorn Fiction. I’ve enjoyed publishing those stories. I don’t know if others have been bought or optioned because the authors keep their copyrights and can do whatever they want with the stories. I know unequivocally that more than one of the authors has been hired for other screenwriting work based on his/her short stories. I know of at least one writer who is now on the staff of a television show because the showrunner read his story on PF. It’s really gratifying.
A: I opened it once last Spring for general submissions (for one week) and received something like 105 stories. Out of those, I chose to publish three. I had a great group of screenwriters who agreed to help me read through the submissions and unfortunately, only a few were deemed right for the site. I’m going to open the site again in the Fall this year for one week. I hope we find some more great short stories.
Q: How has the response been otherwise to Popcorn Fiction?
A: I can honestly say the response to PF has been overwhelming. I have over a 1000 subscribers, half of which seem to have email addresses that mean they’re working in the business on the studio/producer/agency side of things. Subscriptions are free, and basically mean I’ll email you each week when a new story is published, and won’t use your email for anything else. I also get email responses back from people all over the world: France, Egypt, Japan… it blows my mind. There is a hunger for contemporary genre short fiction.
Q: Can you tell us a little about your books?
A: It’s a series of novels told from the mouth of a professional contract killer named Columbus. The first book, The Silver Bear, was a national best seller, and the second book, Columbus, was nominated for a Barry Award for Best Thriller of 2010. I have a blast writing the books and I’m really thrilled with all the reviews I’ve received. There is nothing better than getting an email from a random person who picked up the book at their local bookstore and took the time to contact me. When all is said and done, we write for the readers and the audience.
A: The third novel in the Silver Bear series, Dark Men, will be out this Summer. I’m finishing it now.
Q: Usually a novelist becomes a screenwriter by adapting one of his own works, but you just got into both trades by writing original works. They are two totally different forms of writing and you have managed to find success in both. How is it that you find a balance between writing novels and screenplays?
A: I honestly enjoy doing both of them. Writing novels gives you a lot of freedom: you don’t have to worry about budgets, and set pieces, and casting considerations. You can write your characters grayer… you can explore their inner thoughts and shape the story with language. I have an incredibly generous publisher and editor who let me do what I want to do with those books.
Screenwriting is also rewarding because it’s such a collaborative medium… I have the freedom to try various things knowing Michael will swoop in and make everything I write a thousand times better. And that’s just in writing the script… then, if the movie gods smile on you, you get to work with talented filmmakers and actors and production designers and DPs who turn all of that work into an entirely different medium. It’s extremely gratifying to hear the words that were in your head for so long brought to life by talented people.
…it all starts with the script. Write a great script and don’t worry about all the other things you can’t control.
Q: Sum up your feelings of Hollywood today and the process of getting a script made into a film. Do you feel that it’s a good process overall?
A: I think it’s a long process from script into film, but the process is worth it. You just have to put your very best work forward, and if you have talent, then that talent will shine through. I don’t know if it’s a “good” process, but it’s an expensive process, and those expenses have to be justified. And it all starts with the script. Write a great script and don’t worry about all the other things you can’t control.
Q: Finally, this whole interview stemmed from the Nashville Screenwriters Conference, so what did you think of that con? And do you think you’ll be attending again?
A: Absolutely one of the best conferences for screenwriters in America. Les Bohem, a great writer himself, invites screenwriters to participate, and it just seems like he gets great ones to come in every year. I hope to keep getting asked back, because I have an absolute blast.