Screenwriters Michael Brandt and Derek Haas, on adapting comics like Wanted and working on The A-Team.
The latest comic book to translate to the big screen, Wanted stars James McAvoy as Wesley Gibson, a fumbling cube-dweller going nowhere in his personal and professional life. That is, until he meets Fox (Angelina Jolie), a member of a secret assassin society, who tells Wesley his destiny lies with them and he must avenge his estranged father’s death by learning the ways of the Fraternity. With nowhere else to go, Wesley joins the mysterious group and trains in the art of knife-fighting, code-reading and firing off curving bullets. Far fetched? Maybe, but in the hands of effects savant director Timur Bekmambatov (the hugely successful Night Watch movies), it’s even more entertaining that way.
Screenwriters Michael Brandt and Derek Haas (3:10 to Yuma, 2 Fast 2 Furious) adaptated Mark Millar’s nail-biting graphic novel series, and we “wanted” to see how exactly they tackled the task.
Fandango: Were you the first writers on Wanted?
Michael Brandt: We were the first writers, and we were the last writers, and there were a couple of writers in between, one of whom was Chris Morgan, who we share credit with, who did a lot of really good work on it. The same Universal executive we worked with on 2 Fast gave us the first issue of the comic when it came out. We were really fascinated by the main character of Wesley.
Fandango: Were the rights for a movie actually picked up as the comic was being published?
Brandt: Correct. I think it was going to be a six-ssue graphic novel, and Universal picked it up as the first issue was being published. From the first issue, they decided they wanted to go find a director.
Fandango: I'm sure you’re aware that the comic book community is very concerned about the assassins being super-villains. The movie version could have gone in another direction, but following the first issue, you're very close to the comic book.
Brandt: Really, the first two issues, that's the first act of the movie. There are some things that happen later in the comic that we either anticipated or incorporated, so it doesn't detour entirely. It detours in terms of worlds, but we picked up things as the comic went along.
Fandango: Wanted belongs to a certain style of comic book that uses variants of known characters or archetypes, like Watchmen or Authority. To a comic book audience, that makes sense, but I think it was probably wise not to go with the masks and capes to tell this particular story.
Brandt: The first issue of the comic book was very nihilistic; it had a very strong theme. And that's the best part. It's not the fact that's it's a spoof, it's not that there's guys in capes. The studio is not going to make an R-rated movie with people in capes that's kind of spoofy.
Derek Haas: We wanted an R-rated movie. The studio wouldn't be able to market a men-in-tights-and-capes hard R movie, because kids are going to get excited about tights and capes, and then they wouldn't be able to see the movie, and we would have to tone it down to PG-13. We wanted to keep the tone of the comic, so hard R suits our world.
Fandango: There are a lot of colorful, and colorfully named, characters in the comic, like Mr. Rictus and Johnny Two Dicks, but most of them did not make the transition. By my count, only three made a straight transition to the film.
Brandt: Wesley and Fox.
Fandango: And Wesley's girlfriend, right?
Brandt: Wesley's girlfriend, plus his friend from the office who we named Barry. Our character of Sloan is an amalgamation of Rictus from the comic book, but it's definitely not a straight lift. I want to be clear about something here. When you're hired to adapt something as a screenwriter, you have to find what it is about that thing that talks to you, and you have to make it your own, and you can't just regurgitate it back in movie form. To get something like Wanted, that is so specific in its voice, across in movie form, you've got to make tough decisions. Derek and I decided that Millar's theme in the book, and what Millar was ultimately saying about what it's like to be a disenfranchised youth, what it's like to find something in the world that's important to you, was more important than Johnny Two Dicks, or any of those characters.
Fandango: As screenwriters, is there a certain glee in discovering who is going to be playing the characters? For example, Morgan Freeman.
Brandt: That was the single best piece of casting for Derek and me, simply because we were having trouble trying to describe who the Fraternity are and how they work and what their history is. As soon as Morgan Freeman says those words, "We are a fraternity of assassins, we are here to keep balance in the world," because Morgan Freeman has so much weight, and so much history behind him, you believe him as an audience. He could say that the sky is green and the grass is blue, and down is up, and you'd believe him. That gave us a lot of leeway. We were actually able to cut a lot of description and dialogue, because Morgan could just say "Here's the deal."
Fandango: You were probably also then given the freedom to craft the character to match his very smooth cadence, and rely upon the fact that his presence would communicate in ways something that words can't.
Brandt: Exactly, writing to his cadence was a lot of fun.
Fandango: James McAvoy has said in the casting process, he was sort of the oddball out of all the other actors, but eventually he was chosen. Was that decision based upon the direction the script was going, a more diminutive, shyer character?
Brandt: The comic is done to look like Eminem, and there was a lot of talk about Eminem doing it...
Fandango: That's what I was getting to.
Brandt: That was fairly obvious to us that was what Millar intended. You know, as much as Eminem would have been great, it would have been a very different movie. It was important for the Wesley character to be someone who is very put-upon in the beginning of the movie, and who has to rise up to the challenge. The great thing about McAvoy is he can do that. He can play the nerdy, nebbishy kind of guy in the beginning, and then in the end, when he pulls out guns and he's kicking ass, it plays too. It was really a strong casting choice by Universal.
Fandango: What about the envious chore of giving action and voice to Ms. Angelina Jolie? In the comic book, her character of Fox is obviously patterned off of Catwoman, and specifically, Halle Berry's portrayal of her.
Brandt: We [originally] wrote the character to be much more like the comic book. She kind of had that feminine, sexual wildness to her that Fox from the comic book had. Then, when Angelina was cast, she had one set of very specific notes, which were that she didn't think her character would talk very much. She wanted to play it cool and calm and more like a drill sergeant. She specifically referenced An Officer and a Gentleman. She wanted to be the person in the background with her arms folded, watching Wesley train. So, we rewrote the character to serve her, and when you watch the movie, you can see that she can do so much more with her eyes, just standing there, watching, than she can with her dialogue, and we were very happy that was the choice that she made.
Fandango: Your action scenes are very detailed. Is that something you do as a writing team, or are one of you more action oriented, and the other is more dialogue oriented?
Brandt: Derek writes everything and I just make sure the punctuation is correct.
Haas: We pass scripts back and forth 20 times before we turn it into the studio, so I can't even tell anymore what I've done and what Michael's done, but we never think that one writes the action and one writes the dialogue. We try as each of us takes their turn to keep elevating it, and keep surprising each other. And if you can come up with something novel and unique, then that wins in the script. So all those action sequences were just both of us trying to outdo each other.
Fandango: Is there talk of Wanted 2?
Brandt: There's talk.
Fandango: Have you started to talk to Mark Millar or anyone else about it?
Fandango: In the time since you did most of the writing of Wanted, you've had another movie come out, and you've been announced as writing a TV show adaptation, two novel adaptations and making your directorial debut. Let's start with 3:10 to Yuma. A western really stands out from your other projects as a genre, but perhaps fits in more thematically with your other films—except maybe not Catch That Kid.
Brandt: Actually, it fits in more with Catch That Kid than 2 Fast 2 Furious. What gets us excited about movies is the journey of the main character. Even with Catch That Kid, the girl's dad was sick, and she was doing what she could to save him. What was exciting about writing 3:10 to Yuma, long before anyone was cast and we could even dream of working with Russell Crowe and Christian Bale, was the idea of a father and a son on the road together with a famous gunslinger who the son appreciates more than his own father. And it applies in Wanted too, where Wesley is avenging the death of his own father, who is someone he's never known in his life. So, believe it or not, writing across genres is not as important as finding that one theme that you can connect with as a writer.
Fandango: One of the projects that you are working is one of the most anticipated films in the past decade. It's up there with the fourth Indiana Jones and the Star Wars prequels. The A-Team. Seriously, whenever I've covered A-Team news, web traffic just skyrockets.
Brandt: That's a lot of pressure!
Fandango: It’s a beloved television program. Each of the four characters has a very defined role. Are you writing them in the voices of the original actors, or are you thinking more about who might be playing them in the 21st century?
Brandt: It's a little different. We're imagining the characters as we want to see them on the screen. In our minds, we want to take what was good about the "A-Team" TV show, which was these four people who represented the four branches of the Army: intelligence, artillery, aviation and the infantry, and say, what's the down- and-dirty version? What can we do to avoid being campy and cheap? Hopefully, they cast the kind of intense actors who will bring these characters to life.
Fandango: Will it be an origin film?
Brandt: Yes. We're going to see the team come together. I don't want to give away the ending. It ends with what the TV show starts with, pretty much.
Fandango: So, it's a prequel.
Fandango: There are so many trademark "A-Team" lines and themes, like "I love it when a plan comes together." Do you feel pressure to put all of that in one film? Is there a balance you have to find?
Brandt: We try to use the ones we want to use in a cognizant way, so when they do come out, it comes across as the cool version, instead of the campy version. I should also note that we were rewriters on this movie. We weren't the original writers. I don't want to take credit away from the other guys who started the process. Our goal was to move away from campy, like "Starsky and Hutch," and more towards the Casino Royale version.
Fandango: One novel that you are adapting is Deceit by James Siegel, who wrote the novel that Derailed was based upon. It involves a journalist whose situation is similar to Jayson Blair or Stephen Glass. How's that going?
Brandt: It's going very well. The studio is very high on it. We think it can be in the vein of Michael Clayton; it's got a great hook. Like you say, it's about a reporter who has a reputation for telling lies, and now he comes across a giant story, and he's the boy who cried wolf. He's known for making up 40 stories for the New York Times, so how does this guy overcome his stigma and cover this story, when no one will believe him?
Fandango: You also have The Matarese Circle, which is about a CIA agent and a KGB agent who have to team up to uncover some sort of conspiracy.
Brandt: You have it close. The KGB was the '70s, so we had to update it a bit to make it current. They hate each other, but because of this outside force, they have to team up.
Fandango: And finally, I'm sure you want to talk about Countdown, which Michael, you’re directing, and you both are writing and producing.
Brandt: Yeah, we’re currently casting. It's a psychological thriller with action elements, based upon a Richard Matheson short story from the 1950s. It's one of those great "Twilight Zone" ideas, about space explorers who land on a planet, and when they get off, they discover their own ship has crashed, and they find their own dead bodies. They realize they're looking at their future, and so it becomes a movie about avoiding your own fate, can you change who you really are to avoid your own fate? It should be a really interesting puzzle that the audience can ride along with the characters. It should be really fun.
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