Alumni of the Year: Michael Brandt and Derek Haas

Awarded to graduates who have demonstrated remarkable achievement in the previous year

For a variety of reasons, partnerships in Hollywood tend not to last. Sometimes, it’s as simple as different opportunities; other times, artistic differences, egos or money get in the way. This makes it all the more notable when a partnership works—particularly one that produces five feature films, a television movie, a video game and two current hit TV shows, a body of work shared by Michael Brandt, BBA ’91, MA ’94, and Derek Haas, BA ’91, MA ’95, two friends whose working relationship has taken on the quality of iron sharpening iron.

The NBC television series Chicago Fire and its spinoff, Chicago P.D., are the two latest collaborations by Brandt and Haas, whose nearly 20-year partnership was formed in a screenwriting class at Baylor University. In the past 11 years, they’ve written five movies. The first, 2 Fast 2 Furious, came in 2003. Catch That Kid, 3:10 To Yuma, Wanted and The Double followed.

Brandt and Haas discovered similar tastes in that fateful screenwriting class, and their working relationship has thrived.

“I think from the get-go that we had the same sensibilities,” Haas says. “We thought the same things were funny. We liked the same movies. We both liked sports and talking about the same topics—so it wasn’t like ‘Mutt and Jeff’ coming together. We saw we were like-minded.”

A career in Hollywood wasn’t initially on Brandt’s mind when he arrived at Baylor. He describes himself as a “misplaced” business major as an undergraduate. As he approached graduation, he thought he wanted to go into media, but had little direction beyond that broad notion. Brandt credits Baylor Film and Digital Media (FDM, then called Telecomm) for altering the course of his life.

“After graduation, I went in and had a conversation with Dr. (Michael) Korpi, who I didn’t know very well because I’d been in the business school,” Brandt says. “I tried to convince him and Corey Carbonara (FDM associate professor) that even though I was a business major, I knew what I was doing in production. So, it was kind of a pivotal moment for me, because what I was asking from them was a teaching assistant position.”

Korpi, professor and former chair of the FDM department, took a chance on Brandt, and that fateful decision was the launching pad for Brandt to eventually move to Hollywood. He couldn’t have arrived at a better time. Baylor was at the forefront of what was then new technology—non-linear editing, which changed the editing process from physical film cuts to digital, computer-based edits. Being able to learn Hollywood’s next big thing before many in Hollywood had even grasped it gave Brandt a marketable skill that took him to California and connected him with directors like Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino. That ability opened the door for him to serve as the primary editor or in the editorial department for a number of films.

Haas, a journalism and English major, knew writing was going to be a major part of his life. However, he didn’t initially know his passion would lead to screenwriting. While he took plenty of film classes at Baylor, he dreamed of writing “the great American novel.” Amidst the rigors of television and film, he’s found time to pursue that passion, writing a trilogy of thriller novels: The Silver Bear, Columbus and Dark Men between 2008 and 2011, before releasing The Right Hand last year.

“I love the blank page,” Haas said. “The four books I’ve written are coming out of my own taste and imagination, the things I think are cool. I think by writing popular fiction, rather than artistic fiction, I fit in a little more with Michael and film guys.”

Brandt and Haas’s dual passions for storytelling came together in a Baylor screenwriting class, a semester that forever chartered their course to Hollywood. Baylor journalism professor Robert Darden taught that screenwriting class, and his impact on them personally has had a lasting impact on their films.

“You talk about someone who changed your life—that’s Bob Darden,” Haas raves. “He was so charismatic and enthusiastic and cynical, yet he talked to us as adults.”

“I walked into this screenwriting class and there’s Derek and there’s Bob,” Brandt remembers, “and Bob started talking about movies. He talked about storytelling. He forced the storytelling aspects of writing onto us, rather than the technical aspects of the movies. And that was the kick start; that’s the way Derek and I break down our own writing.”

So profound was this class on their lives that Brandt and Haas continue to recognize Darden with a special tribute. In every movie or television series they write, they name a character after him—a character that ultimately dies. The strong bond between teacher and former students ensures that the gesture is always seen as an honor. That tip-of-the-hat touch is one of the many ways they remain close to their alma mater as their profile in the entertainment industry grows.

Baylor students have found a friend in Brandt and Haas in the years since they made it in film. Their willingness to share what they’ve learned in Hollywood has informed future plans for Baylor FDM, and their advice has led to the formation of tailored classes and other opportunities to prepare students for the rigors of the industry. The opportunities they’ve given to Baylor students have led to greater numbers of Bears working in Hollywood, and increased Baylor’s profile in Hollywood.

“Certainly loyalty plays a big part of it. But it shouldn’t go overlooked that every time we have given chances to Baylor students, those students have come through for us 100 percent of the time,” Brandt says. “We see the fruits of that relationship. It’s a two-way street. It’s not just us giving back, but we’re also getting something out of what Baylor FDM has to offer—its students.”

Haas adds, “Baylor was such an instrumental part of my career. I met my wife (Kristi, BA ’93) and writing partner on campus, and it fostered a love of writing and film. Giving back—it was never a question.”

Their Baylor partnership has led to movies and shows that have entertained millions, paving the way for Baylor to have a greater impact in entertainment in the future. In the process, Brandt, Haas and future Baylor graduates bring a quality to Hollywood the industry needs.

“Baylor just graduates kids with a certain sensibility that is possibly gentler and for lack of a better word, nicer,” Haas says. “In the creative business, there’s this romanticism of troubled, tortured artists, but you don’t have to be like that. I think that darkness, for lack of a better word, wasn’t innate in Michael and me (or other filmakers from Baylor). … So did that come from Baylor? It had to.”