IN Conversation with Michael Brandt

Writer and producer Michael Brandt. Photo by Deborah Hancock

The producer and screenwriter behind Arthur the King, a heartwarming film based on a true story about an adventure racer who adopted an injured stray dog during a grueling competition, has lived in Los Angeles since 1995 but considers himself a Kansas Citian through and through.

Michael Brandt was born in Madison, Wisconsin, and lived in Overland Park from kindergarten through high school. After graduation, Brandt went to Baylor University, where he earned a bachelor’s and an MA in communications studies with a concentration in film. At Baylor, Brandt met Derek Haas and the two began writing screenplays together, finding early huge success with 2 Fast 2 Furious in 2003, then 3:10 to Yuma, Wanted, and The Double, which Brandt also directed.

In 2012, Brandt and Haas created the still-running NBC drama Chicago Fire, which gave rise to Chicago P.D., Chicago Med, and Chicago Justice.

Brandt recently spoke with IN Kansas City by phone from his office in Los Angeles, where he shares a home in the Brentwood neighborhood with his wife and four of the couple’s combined six children. The conversation touched on his decision to leave his successful partnership with Haas, the origin story of Chicago Fire and projects he would love to shoot in Kansas City if the right incentives were in place.

What are the key things you remember about growing up in Kansas City?
It was the suburbs in Overland Park in the ’80s, so I look back really fondly about how easy it all was. I mean, it doesn’t feel easy when you’re 14-years-old and going through puberty and all the issues of junior high necessarily, but it was really great. My family was really strong. I went to Shawnee Mission South High School and had lots of good friends. Back then you didn’t lock the door and life felt relatively simple, and there were no cell phones in all the best of ways. So all my memories of Kansas City are really good. I still have lots of friends from there. My mom lived there; she recently passed away, and my dad died when I was a freshman in college, but I still have tons of ties to Kansas City, and I’m there all the time.

Chicago Fire, which you co-created and co-wrote, is still a successful show. Why did you leave in terms of writing and show running after five seasons?
The truth is when I packed up a U-Haul and moved to Los Angeles, the dream was to write and direct movies. And while I love network television, and I loved it growing up, that was never part of the game plan. At the time I had a writing partner, and we had been very successful and got some movies made, and an agent called and asked how I felt about TV. I was lukewarm about it, because I didn’t really know how to run a show. It’s a lot of work, especially at the network level. We’re talking 12 years ago, so streaming really wasn’t what it is now. And so, running a writer’s room and making 22 episodes for a network schedule was not something I’d done before. It felt like a different skill set than writing features, so initially I wasn’t that interested. But the sales pitch from the agent was, [executive producer] Dick Wolf wants to do a show about firefighters, he wants to hire a features writer to write the pilot and that would be the extent of your responsibility. He said you don’t have to have anything prepared, he’d really like to sit down with you and talk about it.

So, we had the meeting and the agent had done his job perfectly because I think Dick’s going to pitch me, and Dick thinks we’re coming in to pitch him. The agent was just trying to get us in a room together. So, Dick says, “Well what do you got?” The truth was, I had nothing. Off the top of my head—because I’d lived in Chicago before Kansas City, and my dad had grown up there so I still had family in Chicago and spent time there—I said, “We could set it in Chicago because there’s an uptown and a downtown and lakes and rivers and bridges and it’s cinematic, and it burned down in the 1800s so there’s an ethos there about fire. LA doesn’t have enough weather and 9/11 was hanging over anything you did in the rescue space in New York, so I just threw out Chicago. At the time, I didn’t know the difference between a fire truck and a fire engine—there is one.

What is it?
[Laughs] A fire engine has water and hoses, and a fire truck has ladders and rescue equipment.

Thanks. So, you didn’t know a lot about firefighting yet but you pitched Chicago as the setting.
Yeah. The other thing I said was, Law and Order is very much case-of-the-week. It’s just plot. And you rarely spend a lot of time with the characters at home. There’s a body, and two detectives show up with notepads and try to figure out who done it. And I said, thinking this would probably end the meeting, I wouldn’t want to do fire of the week. I would want to do Hill Street Blues in a firehouse.

And he said, “Well I started as a writer on Hill Street Blues and that sounds really good.” I didn’t know Dick had written Hill Street Blues. So, all these things fell into place, and he said, “Go to Chicago and figure out the show.”

We met a guy in Chicago who introduced us around to a bunch of key members of the firefighting community. We came back and pitched the show to Dick and NBC and next thing you know we’re making the pilot in Chicago and then, you know, to cut the story short, I look up five years later and had created four shows and was making 60-some episodes a year, and I found myself kind of serving as a zookeeper to a bunch of animals that never got full. Your job was to just keep feeding them and they are never going to get full. That wasn’t what I wanted to be when I grew up.

The great thing about doing a show in Chicago is we’re all there—the actors and producers, I would write, I would direct, and we’re working with real firefighters and real hospital doctors so there’s a real family feel to it all. Chicago during the polar vortex wasn’t great but apart from that, it was a great experience and a tough one to let go of. But part of what I do is to make myself happy and part of what I do is to challenge myself. I felt like it was probably time for another challenge.

As a screenwriter and showrunner, how do you avoid tensions with directors or actors who want to take the story in a direction you think is not right?
Well, I’ve directed a lot. I direct the finale of Chicago Fire every year. And part of being a writer is being the collaborator and the filter that everybody’s ideas ultimately will come through in figuring out how to appease everybody but mostly service the story.

Certainly there’s a skill in writing, and I think what a lot of writers don’t realize is that if you’re successful in your writing, the skill that you’re going to have to develop is listening to people and openly considering what they’re saying. And if it makes the show better, you use it, and you take credit for it. And if it doesn’t make the show better, you have to figure out a way to make them understand why you think it doesn’t work. It’s certainly a little political.

Ultimately what I found as a writer is, every good idea wins, but more often than not the person who built it from the ground up, meaning the screenwriter, knows what’s best. That doesn’t mean he always has the best ideas, but he knows what’s best for the show. It’s like being a parent with your kids. In your gut you kind of know what is best. And you can take everybody’s opinions about how you should be raising your kids, but then you have to follow your instincts.

In adapting the screenplay for Arthur the King from the book, which is a true story, how did you decide which elements to keep and which to change? For example, why did you make the protagonist from Colorado instead of from Sweden?
In the first draft of the script, I did make him from Sweden, and it was much closer to (professional adventure racer) Mikael Lindnord’s life. But once Mark Wahlberg signed on (to play Lindnord), there was no reason to try to shove Mark into a Swedish accent—that’s going to cause him and the production months of pain and agony when I could just type “He’s from Colorado.” For the story, it doesn’t matter where the guy is from. So that’s one of those [changes] that you’re willing to give.

Arthur The King, starring Mark Wahlberg, was written and produced by Michael Brandt.

How involved were you during the filming of Arthur the King?
I was very involved. I was the producer, and we shot in the Dominican Republic right after Covid, when things kind of opened up in January of 2021. Prior to that I’d done some scouting in Puerto Rico with a different director who ended up not doing the movie. I had been looking for locations, and then I was there for the rehearsals and prep and the beginning of the shoot.

It would have been great to have stayed there the whole time, but Covid protocols were strict and when the production was off in the jungle doing its thing, everybody was happy with the script, and there was not a lot of reason for me to still be there. And the fewer people the better when every day everybody tests and one positive test means the whole thing shuts down.

How does writing by yourself compare to your long writing partnership with Derek Haas?
Well, it’s interesting, because I had spent pretty much all of my writing career working with him, and it was great, and we really were an example of the sum being better than the parts. We excelled at different things and in different areas of writing. And when you’re first in Los Angeles just trying to make it in the business, you hear a lot of noes. Those noes are a little easier to swallow when you’re working with a partner, whether it’s the subconscious of  “I can secretly blame my partner for the fact that we didn’t get that job.” [Laughs] I’m joking about that, but you kind of rise and fall together, which is helpful.

I think with maturity comes a difference in the kinds of stories you want to tell. I was moving away in my heart of hearts from the more purely action-oriented stuff and more into the character-oriented stuff. Not to speak for Derek, but that’s where I was. And I was in a place where network television was a grind, and it is a grind, and it can be a great grind but ultimately, I was considering, “Is this what I’m going to be doing the rest of my life?” That isn’t what I wanted to do, and it is what he wanted to do, so we gracefully went separate ways.

I find writing by myself more satisfying. Like, I can point to Arthur the King—the second I heard about the story I said, “That’s a movie and I want to do it,” and I don’t know if Derek would have felt the same way. When you’re on your own, you can just follow your gut.

You directed The Double in 2011 and you directed several episodes of the Chicago shows but you did not direct Arthur the King. How satisfying is just screenwriting to you versus the satisfaction you get from directing?
Directing is hard. It’s a grind of the most miniscule and seemingly unimportant decisions that have to be made that all add up into one massively important decision. Pretty much my emotional routine is, “I just want to write this. I don’t think I want to direct it.” And then the minute we get to production I’m like, “Wow, I really should have directed this.”

Not because I don’t think the director is doing a good job, but just because it’s fun to see the story all the way through. When you’re on set directing something that you’ve written, you feel very free in the moment with the actors to say, “You know what? Let’s just cut these four lines of dialogue. Who cares? You guys just look at each other and tell the story that way.”

If you’re directing somebody else’s material, certainly on a television show, you don’t really have that right or that opportunity.

What are you working on now?
I’m working on a couple of features for Netflix. One is a boxing movie based on an original idea of mine and Jamie Foxx’s. We have a major actor attached to it who hasn’t been mentioned yet so I don’t think I’m supposed to talk about it. It’s not that I don’t want you to know the information, but I don’t want to jinx it. [Laughs] I’ve been working on that script all morning.

I just finished up another feature for Netflix, and I have a television show starring Henry Golding from Crazy Rich Asians, based on some Dean Koontz books, that we are very close to going forward on.

Kansas City is not competitive right now with Chicago and Atlanta as far as tax breaks for the film industry, but if it were, do you think it has conditions that could make it attractive as a place to make TV shows and movies in the future?
That is the perfect question because I have another project that I have spent a lot of time on in Kansas City the last couple of years. It’s a TV show that I would love to do in Kansas City.

In just the first five years alone between the three shows in Chicago, we spent close to a billion dollars in Chicago. When we started shooting there, one of the first conversations we had was with (former mayor) Rahm Emanuel, who, putting tax breaks aside, knew the value of the continual flow of production in the city is a continual flow of money into the city. He said, “I’ll give you guys whatever you need in terms of access.” So, whether it was, “Hey, we need to close this street down,” or “We need some help on this L-train line,” he helped open the door. In return, we’ve moved a hundred people from various places to Chicago who now live there full time, and who knows how many crew members we’ve hired. We spend a lot of money in the city. It’s not just hiring people, it’s restaurants and hotels and there are even tours now of places that Chicago Fire has burned down over the years. There is a nice tax break in Chicago, and I think it’s easy for people to say, “Why should our city be giving money back to these rich Hollywood people?” But that is not actually what’s happening.

When I made The Double we made it in Detroit, because at the time Michigan had a really, really, healthy tax break, and the summer that I made that movie there, there were five giant features all shooting in Detroit. When that tax incentive went away that year, production stopped. And we were filling hotels. That’s not tax money leaving to go into Hollywood pockets, that’s Hollywood money coming into hotels and restaurants.

I would like to do the same for Kansas City. In addition to the TV show, I also have a feature I’m very interested in that takes place in Kansas City. I know there have been people hard at work there, whether it’s on the film commission or some news people who have been pushing for more tax incentives, and I’d like to come in very soon swinging very wildly and trying to get more of that.

What appeals to you about shooting in Kansas City?
I love the place. It’s not just my hometown. I legitimately love what the city’s doing and what it’s done and the way it’s grown. My wife is from California, and we’ve spent a lot of time in Kansas City. Every time we go there she’s at the point where she wants to buy a place there. She genuinely loves the people and everything about it.

It’s the perfect size city to do production in. It kind of has everything but it’s not so big that the permit process and all the things you need to do in a city like Los Angeles or New York, it wouldn’t be as hard as that. Selfishly I just want to be there because I want to be back home.

Interview condensed and minimally edited for clarity.