I hope this hasn't been posted anywhere because I just spent the last two days transcribing it...

Script Magazine
Everything Old (West) Is New Again: Writing the remake of 3:10 to Yuma
By Bob Verini

"This movie is the perfect ticking clock. We've got this guy in custody, and we have to get him on this train due in at 3:10."

The speaker is Michael Brandt, writing partner of Derek Haas, and this is a team that knows something about ticking clocks and suspense after such credits as Catch That Kid and 2 Fast 2 Furious. Now they're about to make the leap into the really big leagues of studio filmmaking with the September release of 3:10 to Yuma, directed by James Mangold (Walk the Line) and co-starring two of today's most respected stars, Russell Crowe and Christian Bale.

And their jumping-off point for this critical career move is a 50-year-old Western. It's a genre that veteran and tyro screenwriters alike always seem to have a yet to write even though, as Brandt freely admits, "Most of them don't do well. I mean, since Forgiven (1992), what has there been? Open Range, that was a good one but I think it disappointed them in terms of return. Most of the exciting stuff is done on television now." Yet now the writers are getting their shot at the genre, partly because their director saw them as having a fresh vision, but also because well, they know their Westerns.

"Screenwriters today don't see enough movies, especially older movies," Haas opines. Brandt vigorously nodding in agreement. "They lack the cinematic vocabulary; they can't talk intelligently about what's been done before." That this team is particularly cinematically literate made them a shrewd choice to bring a respected, but by now little-known, classic to the screen for a brand-new audience.

"Jim [Mangold] worshipped the original," Brandt says. "It was his favorite movie growing up, but he thought it could use some modernizing, particularly in terms of a second act which the original didn't really have. And he kept saying, 'I refuse to do a Knott's Berry Farm Western,' meaning a clichd, theme-park shoot-'em-up. He wanted to embrace the original, but bring some new things to it. That's why he took a chance on two guys who'd only really written a car movie: He felt we could bring a different sensibility."

You can catch the original on DVD or, periodically, on one of the cable movie channels, a scintillating black-and-white 1957 suspense drama that pits outlaw Ben Wade (Glenn Ford, now Crowe) opposite Civil War veteran Dan Evans (Van Heflin, now Bale). The latter, a crack shot who is trying to make a go of ranching, volunteers to transport the captured Wade to the train that will take him to the Yuma Territorial Prison, in return for $200 that will buy Evans the water rights he needs for his cattle. Wade's gangand Wade himself, a charming, gregarious sort of murdererare all determined to see that the rendezvous with the train never takes place. Much of the waiting occurs in a hotel room in the wonderfully named town of Contention, during which the crafty Wade tries to bribe Evans away from his duty.

In its focus on time and trains, as well as the way in which Evans is gradually abandoned by his allies on the right side of the law, the tale is clearly indebted to High Noon, which preceded the Elmore Leonard short story that inspired the script by the late Halsted Welles, a prolific writer from the Golden Age of television. The original 3:10 to Yuma even has its own High Noon-ish theme song, sung by the legendary Frankie Laine. But Welles' script and Delmer Daves' direction have an integrity and bite all their own; the cat-and-mouse between Dan and Ben is much subtler and more disturbing than anything in the Gary Cooper classic.

Most remakes retain an earlier film's basic premise and some lines or a situation or two, but beyond that they operate as if the new screenwriter just hasn't done his job until he's tossed around, trussed up, and gutted what worked in the past. Brandt and Haas have chosed to do a very rare thing that may turn out be very smart: not merely adapting the original script, but adapting the original script, but adopting large sections of it as well.

"Once we got the job and watched the movie," Haas says, "I asked Sony for an archive copy of the script, and it was intimidating because it's really, really well-written. Now, it's done in a style that's difference from today: It almost reads like a play, with these long, long action-description blocks telling you about Dan's ranch or whatever. But, you could see why that movie did so well back then. The dialogue is snappy, and he took the Elmore Leonard short story, which is basically just the ending of the movie, and extrapolated back to Dan's life, and it's great.

"So, that's why we're sharing credit with him; we used a lot of his stuff," and indeed the remake's card will read, Written by Halsted Welles and Michael Brandt & Derek Haas. Not only that, but the debt to Welles was part of the design all along, Brandt says, "We always had it in mind to use much of what he wrote. There are these great Dan/Ben exchanges that didn't need any improvement. Why try to change it just for change's sake when it's great?"

Recrafting the Tale

Yet Brandt describes major problems with what Welles had written, problems that some critics noted even in 1957. "They had a great first act, and all of a sudden Dan says, 'For $200 I'll take him,' and they cut to a great third act in the hotel room. We said, 'There's a whole middle part missing that we want to write.'"

Haas explains, "First of all, a lot of the original movie takes place in a hotel room. So we said, let's open it up. Let's put the train station in a town 100 miles away, so from the time Dan says, 'I'll take him' to getting on the train, it becomes a road movie.

"And we decided to set it when the railroads were just being built; you can actually see the progression of the railroad as they proceed to this town. Dan thinks, 'If I can just hold out until the train is finished'in the original it was a drought and hew was holding out for rain, but now it's the train'then I can bring in my stock, we'll be okay.'"

Brandt interjects, "We had read Stephen Ambrose's book about the building of the transcontinental railroad, and that was the end of the Old West right there. So, Dan is holding out for civilization on this journey, and there are flags in the dirt marking the railroad's progress; the promise is coming that will take them all out of this."

"Now, of course," Haas continues, "those towns were really dirty: That's where the whores went! So, we felt that Ben Wade could say, 'this is the civilization you've been waiting for?' And that would be an effective theme."

Another of the team's innovations deepened the storytelling while relating to their own lives. Haas describes it this way: "We thought it would be a great idea to put Dan's son Williama character just in the original movie's first acton the road with him." (Though told to stay home with his mother and brother, William tracks the men for a while before catching up to them.) "So, it became a morality play between the outlaw and this fellow who's trying to do thing the right way. We said, let's let that play out in front of the boy who's seeing it all. Really, the movie is from William's point of view in a lot of ways."

Ben Wade's attempt to bribe Dan becomes even more significant with the additions of William. To Brandt, the movie is about "a man's ability to say 'No.' How far can a man go before he says 'Yes'? At what price will he finally sell out? We thought, how great to have his son along as he asks these questions, the son's saying, 'Dad, You're weak, you've never done anything for our family; take the offer,' as the boy is drawn to the 'rock star' of an outlaw."

Brandt confesses that he and Haas "each have our own father issuesour fathers are very strong influences on our livesand whenever we approach a story, for some reason one of the first things we think about is the eyes of a son or the eyes of a father. Our man has to find his internal moral code, but with his son as audience. That's what elevated it to us. Adding William remains true to the genre because Dan still has to go through his journey. But, it's not clichd because he's not a hero by himself."

Sharpening the Characters

A chronically underrated actor, Van Heflin did some of his very best work as Dan, but the writers felt that the script let him down in places. Haas says, "In the archetype of the Western, your hero starts to be a hero right away. In the original 3:10, on page 20 Dan says, 'I'll take him.' Yes, it's on principle; he wants $200 for the water rights, but in essence he's a hero from that moment.

"We thought, instead, let's make Dan become a hero progressively. At first, he's one of a group: He's a little desperate, doing it for money. And then, in the second act, a particular event takes place, and Dan has to rise to the occasion in the moment in front of his son." Yet, Brandt emphasizes that "What our hero isn't, and what John Wayne and so many of them were, is a loner. The lone man caught in the firelight talking about how many Indians he killed, we didn't want to do that at all.

Later in the movie, the bribe takes center stage and offers Dan his biggest dilemma yet. Haas again: "What has to be real in this movie is the temptation of Ben Wade's saying, 'Dan, you're getting paid $200. Well, I'll give you a thousand. No one has to ever know. Life has beaten your wife down, but you can buy her pretty dresses. You can send your son to school. You can have the cows and the water and the property, everything you've dreamed of. Just let me go.' They come to respect each other in the course of the story. So, that temptation has got to be valid or else you're in the 80s' movie clich land.

The temptation should be especially valid coming from Russell Crowe, than whom few actors are more charismatic (sic), though it should be noted that Glenn Ford's Ben Wade was pretty darned persuasiveand frighteningin his own right. Brandt says, "From the short story to Halsted's script to the 1957 movie, Ben Wade hasn't changed. He has the ability to smile and tell two different stories; one smile that can charm the pants off a lady, and the other that can kill a man."

Haas continues, "We always said, this guy has to be the rock star of the Old West. Who's a 15-year-old boy going to follow? His dad who's digging out in the farm, or the guy who's on everyone's lips, whom everyone knows even if they don't know his face? That set up the perfect dichotomy for William. Then, too, there's Ben's simple, manipulative command over his gang. He's street-smart as hell. Much scarier than a guy who wears sunglasses and doesn't talk."

To Brandt, "There are always only a few actors who can pull all that off, and they're always everyone's favorites. We thought, it's got to be Russell Crowe
, Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, or George Clooney, and maybe I've missed one but probably not. They're the kind of men other men would like to be, or have a beer with; good-looking but not in an intimidating way, it's pure charm. And pure charm is a lot scarier and more interesting to write than pure evil. You see the intelligence in their eyes, and Russell does than better than anyone."

It should be noted that when a Russell Croweor a Glenn Ford, for that mattercommits a murder, the moment has got to sting. "We took from the original movie the great moment when they rob a stage and Wade shoots his own man. It sets the tone right there. You do not mess with the guy." Brandt interjects, "You get the feeling that the weakest man out of this gang is always going to get killed, which makes every one of them say, 'It's not going to be me.'"

The writers went out of their way to make Wade's gang diverse and even multicultural, on the theory that a hand-picked group of cut-throats with specialtiesincluding a Mexican sharpshooter and an Apache renegadewould inspire more terror than a faceless mob of extras. At the same time, the team's introductory descriptions of gang members demonstrate a shrewd understanding of how actors think. Here's a sample of the instant impressions that a screenwriter can create:

JORGENSEN (45): Massive arms and legs. A bear of a man.
KINTER (34): A soulless butcher with deadened eyes.
JACKSON (35): Powerful and dangerous.
TOMMY DARDEN (28): Battle-scarred handsome face, a BOWIE KNIFE in his hand.

Haas explains, "When actors consider parts, they don't want to be 'Gunman #3,' so you give them a line or two, and that also gives the casting director something to work with. We've read so many scripts by unproduced writers, and they either don't do that at all or do it too much, and pretty soon you're reading unnecessary details about each one. You have to find a succinct way to say, 'Here's this guy.'"

That bit of craftsmanship ties into the writer's need to grab a studio's attention as well. "We've always viewed a screenplay as more of a marketing device than anything else, especially the first couple of drafts," Haas confides. "It's a way of saying, 'Here's the movie.' Studio executives need to be shown exactly what the movie is. We're not afraid of spelling out some of the filmmaking that should go into a moment."

"We'll write about the camera," Brandt interjects, "and say "The camera flies up in the air and does such and such.' By the time they get to a shooting script, the director's going to do what he wants to do, but if we can put those images into their minds originally, who knows what's going to happen?

"Pace is always important in our movies," he continues, "and we know that, in general, almost every scene in a screenplay goes on too long, and that in the movie it's going to be shorter. You're going to cut out sooner; you don't need that last line or three lines. So, a script is a document that's representative of what's going to be on the screen." Or, as Haas sums it up, "We want 'em flipping pages."

Intensifying the Action

The moviegoer's equivalent of "flipping pages" has to do with the nature and excitement of the film's action sequences, and those are especially hard to pull off in light of the ones that we've all seen before. Haas admits, "There are a thousand times when you say to yourself, 'We can't do that, that's Die Hard.' You've got to try to come up with something novel, but something that's also believable and right for the moment, with the right pacing. That's the job.

"We always cite to producers our favorite action scene, the one in Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indiana Jones is fighting the giant German guy on the plane. He's not just fighting the biggest German guy you've ever seen. He's not just trying to dodge the propeller on the moving plane; his girlfriend's trapped in the plane, there's fire all around and guys with machine guns. There's like, five things going on at once to make that scene great.

"So, we're always thinking, 'What's another perilous thing we can throw at our guy?' If we can't even figure how he's going to get out of itand it may take us an extra two days to come up with itthen the audience probably won't either."

For instance, in the process of deepening the yarn's second act, the team wrote a sequence taking place in the railroad camp. Haas explains, "Our guys are having to face a new enemy they haven't confronted before. They have to deal with that threat while racing through a blasting camp with tunnels collapsing and all of these workers around." Brandt chimes in, "And you still get a sense that Ben Wade wants to get free, and there's still the train coming at 3:10, they can't delay."

Brandt believes that "Writers are always too afraid too afraid to write themselves into a corner. It's always preached that you should outline, outline, outline and in some ways that's fine. You should always know where you want your story and character to end up. But knowing where you're going can hinder the action process.

"It happened in this movie. Originally, we saw Wade's gang as The Thing That's Coming, the 'superposse' as in Butch Cassidy, which should show up periodically to menace Ben and Dan. But we had the idea that once they get to Contention, instead of its just being the 10 guys, how great would it be if the 10 guys announce, 'We'll give $100 to any many who will shoot these guys'? So now at the end of the movie, instead of their getting through 10 guys, they have to get through 100 guys! It's pretty exciting.

"When we added the part about offering $100 to anyone who kills somebody, I remember Derek and I saying, 'That's great. Our guys are in a room and an entire town wants to kill them. Now what do we do?' Well, when you put yourself up against the wall like that, you're forced to find a way out of it (and hopefully we found some interesting, different ways to do that).

"So, if you get your main character stuck on the top of a building, if you write him into that place and you don't know how to get him down, then the audience isn't going to see the obvious escape."

Taking the Next Step

Michael Brandt and Derek Haas met in a screenwriting class at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. While they wrote scripts separately and together, their partnership wasn't cemented until Brandt had moved to L.A. to get work as an editor while Haas lived in Austin working in advertising.

"Derek sent me a film he's written called The Courier. It was completely different from anything he or I had ever done, and very original, but it was 70 pages long. I said to him, 'Well, maybe this should be the end of Act Two,' and I started writing over the course of the next year. When it was finished, I gave it to a woman who was working on a movie, and she gave it to a producer's assistant, who gave it to a producer, who gave it to Brad Pitt's manager, who gave it to Brad Pitt, who wanted to do it."

Alert fans will know that The Courier was never made. On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving in 1999, all shook hands and set out to make the movie, but the very next day news came that both its star and director Gore Verbinski were taking advantage of Julia Robert's availability to do The Mexican instead. Still, the writers were in the trades and had an agent, and when an apartment next door to Mr. and Mrs. Brandt opened up, Mr. and Mrs. Haas moved west and moved in.

"We didn't make another dollar for two years," Haas says. "We were pitching and reading scripts and learning so much about writing. But I thought we were weeks away from getting jobs at Starbucks."

With 3:10 to Yuma in the can and Wanted, a comic book movie with Angelina Jolie and Morgan Freeman, coming out in March of 2008, they won't be working at Starbucks any time soon. They continue to work separately on multiple projects. ("We feel that if we don't have two scripts going, in two different genres, one of us isn't doing anything.") Beyond constant e-mailing, they tend to get together in person just twice a week, out on the golf course. There they work out specific script problems that have come up and talk about the future projects they hope to bring to the screen, with Haas producing and Brand directing. Whatever happens next in their careers, their delight at being able to bring a venerable Western classic to new life is palpable.

"You don't get the opportunity to write them anymore," says Haas, "so we jumped at the chance. It feels like the kind of Western we loved growing up, but it's not too arty; it's a plot-driven movie.

"Let's put it this way: Anybody who sees the poster and goes in expecting to see an action-adventure is going to get what they want."


What we do in life...echoes in eternity

Isis,Queen of Pits
Military Historian, RHR