“Most people aren’t like him,” Robert Evans said to me. “His trouble is that he applies himself to too many things at one time. He’s got film projects, books, commercials, web sites; he takes care of his grandmother and grandfather who live with him….he’s all over the place. He’s perpetual motion.”
Evans recalled when he first became aware of Ratner’s talent and his ability to connect with people. “We were sitting in my house and he told me they wouldn’t let him make The Family Man unless he got Nic Cage. Cage didn’t want to do it. Brett said, ‘I’ll get him.’ He went out and got him. I had big regard for him when he did that. It’s my favorite film of his. It had a sensitivity to it. He got a performance from Cage that I thought was his finest to that time. He showed something about himself that he hasn’t shown in any other film. Brett’s a terribly talented person. It takes a lot of talent to do the music videos he did when he was just a kid. Whatever he’s touched, he’s done well. But he isn’t respected enough. The creative community sees him as a Player, he goes to the parties, gets the publicity. He’s not elusive enough. He’s seen everywhere, including the 7-11. He’s too nice that way. But his mind is very fertile.”
What Evans admires about Ratner is that “he doesn’t speak badly about people. When you’re in an industry where 95% of the people are unemployed there’s a lot of jealousy. Brett is not that way. He doesn’t badmouth his competition. And he knows how to make his own deals very well, I’ll tell you that. He’s a very shrewd businessman.”
“All of my friends are in their seventies and eighties,” Ratner says. “I fell in love with old men at a young age. I just love their knowledge and experience–I learn so much from them. I don’t pick their brain, I eat their brain. Quentin Tarantino said: ‘Brett is very attracted to the guys who were in Hollywood and had a great time while they were there.’ When I do a movie, I’ll invite Warren Beatty, Bob Evans, James Toback [who wrote Bugsy and The Gambler, and directed Fingers, Black and White, and Tyson] and each one will have a completely different opinion about the movie. They’ll be very critical of me; they’ll tell me the truth. I spent two years living on Bob Evans’ couch while my house was being remodeled because I just wanted to hear the stories, and old guys love telling the stories. Bob is a friend, a father, a mentor, he is everything. If I wanted to break up with a girl and I didn’t know how to do it he would write the letter for me. If a girl wanted to break up with me and I didn’t want her to go, he’d get on the phone and go: ‘You can’t leave the kid.’ I learned so much about the business, about relationships, about love, about life, about pain. I wish I’d recorded it all.”
Ratner credits Evans with giving him advice about friendship. I learned from Bob that there are three circles, and in the first circle are your best friends. But you shouldn’t have more than five. No matter where I was in the world, no matter what I was doing, if they called me I would be there for them. If I stop being best friends with somebody, I can replace them. That’s how life is. And by the way, I might not be in their best friends circle! It doesn’t have to be reciprocal. Your family’s the second circle, which you can’t choose. The third circle is a huge circle around these two circles, and that’s the rest of the world, your acquaintances, the people you have lunch with, the people you say hi to. And maybe they’ll move into the best friends circle one day. Who knows?”
In that outer circle, only a few have impressed Ratner enough to make him seek their autograph. “When I was seven I went to Las Vegas with my mom and she spotted Telly Savalas in Caesar’s Palace trying on a suit in a clothing store. ‘Go ask him for his autograph,’ she said, I didn’t want to but I did anyway. He wrote, ‘Brett, who loves you baby? Telly.’ Then when I met Jerry Lewis I asked him to sign his book The Total Filmmaker which I love and would like to republish. He asked me my nickname and I told him, and he wrote, ‘Rat, You remind me of me what I was a kid. Thanks for taking me back forty years.’ I don’t really ask people I don’t know for autographs, but I do ask friends to sign their books. I asked Roman Polanski to sign his. And recently, for my 40th birthday, Hugh Hefner signed the first issue of Playboy to me, ‘To Brett who shares the dream, Hef.’ That’s pretty special.”
Hef’s dream is to see a movie made of his life, and Ratner’s his director of choice.
“Doing Hefner is like doing a movie about Howard Hughes,” Ratner says. “You can’t cover his entire life so we’ve tackled what the period of time we’re going to cover is. You don’t want to make a four hour movie; there have been 20 documentaries on Hugh Hefner. So we’ll focus on the creation of the magazine and end it with the magazine’s peak, which was 1975.”
At the moment, Ratner sees Robert Downey Jr. playing Hefner, but until the cameras are ready to roll, that could change. Brett has learned that nothing is set in stone, especially in the mercurial world of Hollywood. He long ago learned how to deal with people and their expectations.
“I’m an artist, but I don’t make a fuss over it,” he says. “I don’t alienate myself from the rest of the world. I actually hang out, go to restaurants, I’m interested in the newest music, gadgets. I’m interested in pop culture. Some directors live in the big house and they don’t leave. They’re in their own world and you can tell when you watch their movies, people don’t talk like that. It’s harder to make a movie that millions of people respond to, than it is to make a pretentious art film.
“When I’m on the set with Anthony Hopkins for Red Dragon, I can’t be trying things out. I have to know exactly what I want, be very specific, tell him precisely what I need from him. I can’t be experimenting with him.” Experimentation is left to the shorter form music videos he still does. “In a music video, there are no rules, so I could try a new camera, a new lens, or a new piece of equipment. If it works, then I apply it to my films. So music videos, photography and commercials are an opportunity for me to experiment, develop my story telling skills and understand the tools of my craft. My sensibilities and my instincts are what people respond to. I feel like I’m in the zeitgeist. I did music videos 16 years ago, and now a 15 year old, [Miley Cyrus], is asking me to direct her video. It makes me feel like I’m still relevant. I try not to alienate myself from the rest of the world.”
Rather than alienate, he tries to give back. He created a scholarship for NYU film students would can’t afford to pay for their student films. “The problem with film schools is that if you come from a wealthy background, you can spend $100,000 and some other kid can’t even afford the film. It becomes unfair. It’s kind of cheating when a kid comes to film school with a lot of money. So I offer scholarships to even up the playing field.”
He also puts his energy into serving on the board of trustees of the Simon Wiesenthal Foundation and Museum of Tolerance. “I’m very passionate about it. I keep discovering an incredible amount of hate and intolerance around the world, not only for Jews, but for minorities. I think the museum is great because it educates a lot of people.”
If it seems like Brett Ratner has got it all, he almost does. What’s missing in his life is a partner who can not only share the ride, but give him the children he says he wants. In the meantime, he’ll just have to settle for all the girlfriends he gets to choose among.
“When it comes down to it, what makes me the happiest is not the millions of box-office dollars, it’s sitting in that theater when everyone is around me and they’re laughing or they’re crying, they’re feeling something. It’s that I have that talent and capability of affecting an audience. I have the know-how to make people feel a certain way. That’s my gift, my way of being able to express myself.”
His ways of expression can be seen the moment one walks into his house, where the photographs of stars he’s shot are mounted on easels in the living room.
“See that picture I took of Al Pacino?” Ratner says, pointing to one of the many large framed photographs he’s taken over the years. “When I met him I said to him, “Thank God I didn’t want be you.” Then I told him my Scarface story, about how I was on the set when I was twelve and saw how Brian De Palma directed Al. And Pacino listened! And I thought—‘I want to be that guy. The guy telling him what to do.’ That was my epiphany. Which I told to Pacino years later when I was going to photograph him. I said, ‘I didn’t want to be you, I wanted to be the guy telling you what to do.’ And he turned to me and said, ‘Now’s your chance. Where do you want me to stand?’
“I told him what to do, and I took that picture of him, and that’s my Al Pacino story.”