Crossing the Finish Line: Screenwriter Michael Brandt on Charting a Cinematic Course for ARTHUR THE KING

Photo Credit: Carlos Rodriguez, Courtesy of Lionsgate

The basics of adventure racing are simple: a four-person team must get from point A to point B by bike, on foot, or in kayaks. Teams set off on a near non-stop race that spans some 500 miles and typically takes the fastest teams around five days to complete. Teams either cross the finish line together or bow out of the race completely. An extreme test of mind and body, endurance races reach a pinnacle each year at the Adventure Racing World Championship, where the very best compete in some of the world’s harshest terrains. That’s the environment where Swedish adventure racer Mikael Lindnord met the stray dog he dubbed Arthur, after the legendary king.

Before the race was even over, the scrappy underdog had become a social media star. Lindnord went on to write the 2016 best-selling book, Arthur: The Dog Who Crossed the Jungle to Find a Home and 2017 follow-up, Arthur and Friends: The Incredible Story of a Rescue Dog, and How Our Dogs Rescue Us. The story inspired two award-winning documentary shorts, as well as the Lindnord’s Arthur Foundation, which championed animal welfare law in Ecuador, where Lindnord and Arthur met. Now the family-friendly adventure story arrives in theaters with a cast headed by Mark Wahlberg. Arthur the King is directed by Simon Cellan Jones and adapted by Michael Brandt from Lindnord’s best-selling book.

Filmmaker Michael Brandt cut his teeth working as an assistant editor for director Robert Rodriguez on films such as The Faculty before writing the screenplays for 2 Fast 2 Furious, Catch That Kid, 3:10 to Yuma, and Wanted. He made his directorial debut in 2011 with The Double and is the co-creator behind the primetime television’s “Chicago” franchise, including “Chicago Fire” and its subsequent spinoffs “Chicago P.D.,” “Chicago Med,” and “Chicago Justice.” Collectively, Brandt’s films have amassed over $680M at the global box office.

Currently in theaters from Lionsgate, Arthur the King follows adventure racer Michael Light, the character based on real-life racer Mikael Lindnord, as he traverses a dense Dominican jungle course with his team and has a life-changing encounter with a dog. Boxoffice Pro talks to Arthur the King screenwriter and executive producer Michael Brandt about the long trek to bring the incredible, based on a true story to cinemas.

Films are often a long journey from their origin to the screen. What was the trail like for you in bringing this story to theaters?

It was a fairly easy project to get off the ground initially. I had an early meeting with Mikael Lindnord at the end of 2017–to get to know him, for him to get to know me, and for us to trust each other. He’d written a book about the journey and because I had great access to him, writing the script came pretty quickly, in terms of a first draft. I felt there was a pretty good blueprint of what the movie should be. I really wanted to stay as faithful as I could to the events of the story. We did have to make some changes; it’s not an all-Swedish team and we also ended up having to change the location of the race for practical reasons. The first couple drafts happened in six months or so. Mark Wahlberg came on pretty quickly after that too. Things were going really smoothly and it seemed like the movie was actually going to get made. Such a high percentage of projects never see the light of day, even if they’re great.

We actually went to Puerto Rico to scout locations with a different director. Then Covid happened and that particular director had another project. We were a bit stuck. Nothing happened for a couple of years. Then Simon Cellan Jones came on to direct and the restrictions were lifted. By early 2021, we were in the Dominican shooting. That’s a typical journey for what is essentially an independent movie. I wrote the second Fast & Furious and when you’re doing a sequel like that, before I was even hired as a writer, they already had a release date. With something like this, the journey is tough and you just hope that you can gather people along the way that have the same vision, want to add to that vision, and you can get it across the finish line.

That finish line led into theaters nationwide. At a Los Angeles screening Mark Wahlberg translated for Ukai, the mixed-breed rescue dog who plays Arthur, saying, “You know what he just said? This movie must be seen in a theater by audiences – together. Laughing, clapping, crying, all of that. Obviously, this is a home and a safe haven for everybody to come together, enjoy together, and experience together.” What was that moment like for you, securing a theatrical release?

We didn’t know that it was going to be in theaters until this past year. The world is changing so fast. A couple of years ago, it was exciting to have your movie on a big streamer where you felt like it was going to be one of a few on people’s splash pages when they turned their TV on. I feel like that’s changed a lot in the last couple of years. There are movies that just show up and don’t get a lot of marketing outside people’s homes. For those of us who love the movie business, it’s just legitimately fun to see trailers for your movie on TV, commercials on NBA games, or billboards around town, on bus stops, and buses.

How did you approach writing a sports movie that happens to have a dog in it?

It’s a great story about a heroic animal that’s a survivor, but what I really wanted to do was write a sports movie. At the heart of it, to understand who Michael is and how Arthur changed his life, you have to understand Michael the athlete. There’s a version of this movie where we hear the dog’s thoughts or he’s animated. Those could all be totally realistic and valuable movies in the end, but my interpretation of the story was as a sports movie. When you think about the theater experience, it’s a gathering place for a lot of different people. That just doesn’t happen in the home. This is the kind of movie, as a parent, I’m always looking to take the kids to. It’s the kind of movie where you can have all different kinds of people in various quadrants go and enjoy it. That lends itself to the theatrical experience.

The film immerses the audience in the experience of adventure racing. Were there things that you learned or discussed with Mikael about the practical realities of adventure racing?

Mikael was the technical advisor and instrumental in getting all of that right in the movie. I was vaguely aware of adventure racing as a sport; I had seen things like the “Eco-Challenge” on television. I knew that people basically go and kill themselves for five days as gluttons for punishment. What was really interesting to learn was not just the suffering part–anyone who goes and treks through the jungle for five days is going to suffer–but the team aspect was really interesting to me. Here are four people who basically live and train doing individual sports that have to figure out a way to work together with each of them serving a role on the team. I felt that was an interesting dynamic and one that should be in the movie.

You’ve served as an executive producer on your recent theatrical work as well, can you talk about wearing that hat on this project? 

From the beginning, I think we all knew this was going to be a team effort in terms of finding a home for the movie. I knew that I could bring skills as a producer, especially given I’ve been producing on all the “Chicago” shows since the beginning, that would be deserving of a title beyond being the writer. I was on set a bunch to try and help Simon, Mark and all the actors shape the story and deal with changes and good ideas. At some point, the line between writer and producer gets blurred, so it’s just better to be wearing both hats all the time–if you have the relationships with the other people involved in the movie and you have the experience to do it. I think it’s just easier for everybody.

Did working as editor early in your career shape the way you approach stories for the screen?

It definitely did. When I started film school, one of the professors, who kind of became my mentor, said, “If you want to write and direct, the best thing you can do is learn how to be an editor and start there while you’re writing.” That was the best advice ever, because anything you do on the page, anything you do on the set, the rubber meets the road in the editing room. Does it work or does it not? You can have the highest hopes in the scene that you write and you can get on set and get all the coverage of the scene you need, but movies are made in the editing room and any filmmaker will tell you that. Having that experience was instrumental in the way I write. I think that I write with economy. There’s an editor’s clock ticking in my head when I write a scene. I appreciate what’s necessary to make a scene and what’s really going to end up in the movie.

Was it difficult to make editing decisions as a writer, in adapting the book and true story into what would ultimately become an hour and half?

That was a challenge, because Mikael’s history, his childhood and his young adulthood, are in the book. He has a lot of great stories about his younger years that formed him into who he is and who he was as the guy that started that race. His father was pretty tough on him. He had his own feelings of inadequacy as an athlete, particularly as a hockey player, where in Sweden that’s everything. His need to prove himself to the world and, more specifically, to his father. He joined the military, he became a ranger. He took the toughest road possible in every part of his life. That says a lot about the Mikael Lindnord who started the race. You can’t put all of that in the first seven or eight minutes of the movie. The movie needs to be about the race starting and Michael Light meeting Arthur. I had to figure out an economy of storytelling to allow the audience to understand who Michael is before that race starts, without going into all those details.

Growing up did you have any particularly impactful experiences in the theater?

As a child of the 80s, going to the suburban multiplex in the midwest, I think I was impacted pretty much the same way everybody else was. It was Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Superman. It was all of those first summer movies that wowed everybody when visual effects were coming into their own. I really enjoyed political thrillers when I was young. Probably more so than comic books. I liked stories that were about complicated people and smart, complicated adults having to make difficult decisions.

I would go to see the summer movies and be as wowed as anybody, but I was always interested in the character dynamics. I was feeling my way through the kinds of movies that entertained me and it wasn’t always the same movies that entertained my friends. As writers, things get ingrained in us early and we don’t know why they stay there, but they fight to come out as soon as you start typing onto a blank page. That’s something we all have to learn to embrace and use to our advantage.  

Photo Credit: Carlos Rodriguez, Courtesy of Lionsgate
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