by Luke Hickman
Now on Blu-ray, from the writers of '3:10 to Yuma' and 'Wanted,' is writer and first-time director Michael Brandt's 'The Double' - an espionage thriller starring Richard Gere and Topher Grace. In it, Gere plays a retired CIA agent who's called back into action when an assassin who he spent his career tracking resurfaces. Grace plays an up-and-coming young agent who devoted his collegiate studies to investigating the assassin's case. Both have to work together in a twisted journey to uncover the assassin's identity and stop him from taking out other government officials.
Michael Brandt comes from an interesting past in the movie-making business and took time out of his busy schedule to tell us about how he went from studying film, to editing, to writing and now directing. He also tells us how hard it is to break into directing and what it's like finally making that switch. Enjoy!
HDD – Luke Hickman: Hello!
Michael Brandt: Hey, Luke! How are you?
HDD: Not bad. How are you?
Michael Brandt: Well, I'm a little under the weather, so I hope that my voice will hold out.
HDD: Right now, I can understand you just fine.
Michael Brandt: Good.
HDD: Have you been doing a lot of these phoners today?
Michael Brandt: Actually, you're early on the list, so that's good. I don't know if by the end I'll be able to do the phone calls – but for now, I'm fine.
HDD: I watched 'The Double' Blu-ray last night and you put together this film independently, right?
Michael Brandt: Yeah. Hyde Park was the financing company. They finance their movies – most of them – through foreign sales. They actually have a fund out of Abu Dhabi that they use to finance their movies. It's independent, as in it wasn't a huge studio [film], but it wasn't like Derek Haas' mom or anybody like that [financed it] – just some sheik in Abudabi.
HDD: (laughs) That's awesome. You and Derek have been working together for some time now, right?
Michael Brandt: We've been working together since we were in college. We met at Baylor University in the early '90s, we were in grad school there together. I ended up in Los Angeles working as a film editor and Derek was working in advertising in Atlanta when he sent me what he thought was a completed script that was like 75 pages long. I said, "This isn't quite done yet, but it's really good." We'd tried to write some stuff together earlier in college and it was all terrible. So he sent me 75 pages of this great idea and I said, "What if this isn't the end of the movie, but the end of the second act?" I wrote the end of the movie and went back and rewrote some of the other stuff. The next thing you know, we had Brad Pitt attached to that thing and Gore Verbinski [set to direct], but at the last minute they left our movie to go do 'The Mexican' with Julia Roberts. So our movie didn't get made with those guys, but we were on the map in Hollywood. Derek moved out to Los Angeles and we got an agent. The rest is cinematic history, as they say.
HDD: What a cool beginning! Was your goal to always end up directing?
Michael Brandt: When I went to film school – Baylor is a really good technology school in terms of the technology of media. When I got there in the early '90s, we were already finishing up with high-definition television – and this was in like '92. The head of our department at the time had been Sony's head of new technologies in the '80s, so we would go to NAB (the National Association of Broadcasters conference) and run Sony's high-definition equipment for them. We knew more about it than they did. When I got there, thankfully, my interest was film and they were transitioning out of HD because they thought it was "old school" – like everyone was starting to do it – and were getting into this thing called non-linear computer editing. I had one of the first Avids ever made. We got it and I figured out how to take it apart and put it back together. I got really into the techie side of it. I went [to Baylor] wanting to be a writer/director and left there as an editor, which turned out to be the best move I could make because I moved to Los Angeles and within three weeks I was cutting a feature and within a year I was working for Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez because they were all making the move to the Avid and I was one of the few guys who knew how to do it. It's funny looking back at how it all worked out. Then Derek and I sold our first script when I was working with Robert. That was a really long answer to a question that I can't remember.
HDD: "Was the goal to end up directing?"
Michael Brandt: Yep. And that's how I got there.
HDD: (laughs) That's awesome. So, how was it directing your first feature film, being the man in charge on-set?
Michael Brandt: Umm. There's great satisfaction in having the final decision go through you. I loved that. I loved knowing that fail or succeed, it was going to be on me - and also Derek. The nice thing about my personality in terms of creative collaboration is that I'm really open to input – and that's because I have a writing partner. You can't survive with a writing partner without being naturally collaborative. You have to have that mindset of "the best idea wins." That was something that I tried to bring to directing – "the best idea is going to win" – versus the guy who comes on set and everything has to be his way. What's funny is as I look back, there are times when I think that I should have stood up more for what I wanted specifically than I did. I should have been a bigger asshole than I probably was. Maybe there are some things in the movie that worked better in my own mind than when I watch it. Directing, all in all, is really fun because it's such a massively collaborating situation. It's also physically exhausting. It's a hard day, you never get to stop, and even when you're done you have to be thinking about tomorrow. Really, until you've [directed], you don't know just how mentally taxing the whole thing is.
HDD: How long was the process of making 'The Double?'
Michael Brandt: (laughs) Well, let's see. 12 years. We sold the idea as a pitch to MGM 12 years ago. Then we wrote the script, MGM got bought and sold and bought and sold and the script disappeared into their vault. We got the rights to it back and were able to separate the rights so that we owned them and Derek and I went out and got Hyde Park and [Richard Gere] attached. It was a really long process in some ways, but once we got Richard, the time from when we were shooting was seven months. That part was actually pretty fast.
HDD: Was it hard landing Richard?
Michael Brandt: You know, landing any actor for your first directing gig is a huge challenge. I've been trying to direct my first movie for six or seven years and it's hard to get somebody who's worth enough financially, to a financier, to commit to a first-time director. The script kinda spoke for itself, it's pretty strong – it's an interesting character for a guy like Richard to play. Our agent sent it to him and I heard he liked it, so I conned my way into a meeting at his house and after a couple of hours with my "dog and pony show," he was in. He was really open-minded and didn't care that I hadn't directed before. He embraced that and actually never took advantage of the power that guy like Richard Gere has on a relatively small movie. That was nice. He championed me and Derek all the way through it.
HDD: Once you had him, was it easy casting Topher Grace, Martin Sheen and Odette Yustman?
Michael Brandt: Yeah. Once you get a guy like Richard, you now have a certain amount of cache on the movie. You then get attention from agents and actors around town. And Topher - we needed that second guy though. There are a lot guys around that age group who could've played that role, but Topher, I thought, was an interesting choice because - he's obviously funny. He can pull off comedy easily. But the times that he has done drama, I've been impressed. I've always been impressed with what he did in the Weitz brothers movie ['In Good Company'] and also the Soderbergh movie he did – I can't remember the movie, I have too much cold medicine in my brain.
Michael Brandt: Right! I'm also inherently fascinated with watching funny people do serious work. It seems like there's a tension there to it, like if you watch Patton Oswalt – the funniest guy on the face of the Earth – in 'The Fan' and watch him play drama, there's something even more dramatic about it because you realize that there's a pain behind the comedy to begin with. I thought Topher would be – (SPOILER) nobody would think that there's an additional twist at the end of the movie if we cast Topher, so that meant a lot (END SPOILER). Talking with him about how I saw the character and how he saw the character, it felt like a natural fit.
HDD: With you being a techie, were you involved with the Blu-ray conversion process?
Michael Brandt: I'm a tech person, but certainly limited. Any of that kind of stuff is beyond me. I'm not quite as techie as I used to be. No, I wasn't involved [with the Blu-ray], but I was involved in all of the actual post [production]. In terms of editing, I actually did some editing myself. I really thrived on that whole process, but the actual transfer and all that, that was not me.
HDD: With technology moving at a rapid pace, is it hard to keep up with it? Do you want to keep up with it?
Michael Brandt: That's it. I would like to be more involved with it, but the truth is that my life right now is as a screenwriter and director and also the father of three little kids. It's seriously hard enough just trying to figure out if the Lakers won last night.
HDD: I've got tell you before I get kicked off the phone that I'm a huge fan of '3:10 to Yuma.'
Michael Brandt: Thank you! We're working with Jim Mangold on another project right now that – since you liked 'Yuma' – you might really like as well.
HDD: Can you tell us a little bit about it?
Michael Brandt: Um. All I can say is that it's a sports movie.
HDD: Well if you're saying that it's got a '3:10 to Yuma' element to it, I'm in.
Michael Brandt: Thank you very much!