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09.10.09

Brett Ratner: The Movie

Forget the midlife crisis. Director Brett Ratner’s putting out a retrospective DVD. He talks about shooting Madonna, interviewing Michael Jackson, and the time Mickey Rourke camped out in his garage.

There’s a point in Hip Hop to Hollywood: The Brett Ratner Story—a short documentary included on Director Brett Ratner: The Shooter Series: Volume 1, a DVD that comes out Tuesday—when legendary producer and Ratner mentor (one of many) Robert Evans summarizes the filmmaker’s career to date. At the end, Evans exclaims, “And he’s just getting started!”

“In my public life, I’m just a guy who enjoys having fun,” Ratner said.

All due to respect to Evans, but that will come as news to anyone who has followed the work of Ratner, now 40, since his days as the house video director for Russell Simmons’ Def Jam in the late 1980s and 1990s. In fact, what makes Ratner Ratner is that he wasted absolutely no time in imposing himself on the entertainment business.

But breaking into the film industry when you’re a kid from Miami Beach is no easy task. So Ratner followed a passion for music and latched onto the hip-hop scene in New York while still a student at NYU. This led to directing gigs for Public Enemy, LL Cool J, P. Diddy, Mariah Carey, and Madonna. Feature films soon followed, most notably the Rush Hour franchise, with Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan, which according to some estimates has grossed close to $1 billion worldwide.

Now a selection of Ratner’s oeuvre has been collected on The Shooter Series. It includes more than two dozen music videos with director commentary, as well as hip-hop inflected PSAs, Guitar Hero commercials, several spectacularly tasteless and pretentious NYU student films that Ratner selected specifically for their amusing awfulness, and two never-before seen short films—one about the photographer Peter Beard, the other about Mickey Rourke in the late 1980s, when he had dropped out of acting to become a prizefighter.

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A never before seen interview between Brett Ratner and Michael Jackson. Watch the full interview here.

“Mickey grew up at my house in Miami,” Ratner said. “He lived there before I was even born. So when I got to film school, I couldn’t wait to put him in a movie.” Ratner was understandably shocked when, after they reconnected in the mid-1980s, Rourke informed the wannabe filmmaker that he was going to quit acting to become a boxer. “Are you out of your mind?” Ratner said. But then he decided to film Rourke’s training.

Meet Mickey Rourke is the result, a black-and-white promotional short included on The Shooter Series. The footage was edited by filmmaker Albert Maysles after Rourke, Ratner, and The Wrestler director Darren Aronofsky viewed it during a party that Ratner threw at the time of the 2009 Oscars. “I snuck them into my bedroom and said, ‘Guys, look at this footage,’ which I had found in my garage.”

In it, a pre-plastic-surgery Rourke is a lean, cut fighter-in-training, musing on life, acting, and his destiny while skipping rope, talking on a gigantic '80s-vintage cellphone, sparring, and eating Cuban food. “He’s known me since I was a little kid,” Ratner said. “It was down-to-earth—there was no pretentiousness about it. And he really looked like a movie star then.”

The short, which Maysles assembled from hundreds of hours of footage and is now editing and producing as a full-blown documentary, depicts Rourke at the beginning of his Hollywood downfall. “He had too much power and control at the time,” Ratner said. “He was telling directors to fuck off.” In retrospect, the film makes Rourke’s comeback all the more meaningful. “Mickey was in tears when he saw it,” Ratner said. “And Darren said, ‘This is the real Wrestler! You should have directed it!’”

Slightly less emotionally affecting is a bizarre short, also from the '80s and in black and white, that shows fashion photographer Beard conducting a lurid, kinky shoot with numerous half-naked models and…Grace Jones! (Still at NYU, Ratner inhabited a hip-hop/post-punk New York demimonde at the time, meeting everyone from Beard to painter Francesco Clemente and rapper Chuck D.) Leather, chains, and Beard’s famous diaries, which Ratner used as inspiration for similar tomes in his Silence of the Lambs prequel, Red Dragon, are recurrent motifs in the film. The short has an unintentionally surreal look for a simple reason: Ratner was broke.

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Meet Mickey Rourke

“I was having the time of my life,” Ratner said, “but then I ran out of film, and I was embarrassed to ask Beard for money to buy more, so I ran the film through the camera three times. That’s how I got those superimposed images. It’s my best work that happened by accident.” Later, Ratner showed the film to Mick Jagger, a friend of Beard’s, who OK'd the use of a Rolling Stones song because, according to Ratner, “he thought the footage looked like a Stones video.”

More recently, Ratner stumbled into an intensely personal filmed conversation with Michael Jackson. The two had become friends in 1998 when Ratner had needed to get approval for some music for the first Rush Hour movie. In 2003, when the King of Pop was staying at Ratner’s house in Miami, Ratner was awakened in the middle of the night when Jackson appeared over him, filming. “What the hell are you doing?” Ratner said. “You look so peaceful when you sleep,” Jackson replied. A little weird, but Ratner went with it and later turned the camera around to interview Jackson. The resulting black-and-white footage can be seen on the Shooter Series  Web site. “Our relationship came from a mutual love and respect for movies,” Ratner said, lamenting that they never got to work together. “I was lucky to have a friend like Michael. I learned a lot from him.”

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Beard By Ratner

As a package, the DVD confirms that Ratner was an unabashed opportunist from the moment he got to New York. However, his cinematic reputation as a purveyor of entertaining, if not exactly artistic, studio blockbusters is undercut by the tendency of hip-hop royalty to effusively praise his talents (and not just the rap elite—Sir Anthony Hopkins, Ralph Fiennes, Edward Norton, and Salma Hayek also have nice things to say). Sure, Ratner has enthusiasm, Ratner has energy, Ratner is a hustler.

But he also has the admiration of this influential cadre in the African-American community. Quentin Tarantino thinks he should translate his knowledge of this world into a great, signature film. Ratner may never go there—his métier is, unapologetically, pop—but he knows where he stands. His current projects include a biopic of John DeLorean that James Toback is writing, as well as a movie about the relationship between tormented genius Beach Boy Brian Wilson and his controversial psychiatrist, Eugene Landy.

Is Ratner entering a new phase? “In my public life, I’m just a guy who enjoys having fun,” Ratner said, alluding to his well-documented reputation as a man about town. “But the people who know me, who really know me and have worked with me, they give me a lot of respect.”

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Matthew DeBord covers the auto industry and writes the Shifting Gears blog for Slate’s The Big Money. He also writes frequently about Hollywood and the entertainment industry, books, and various other subjects for the Los Angeles Times. He writes about sports for the Huffington Post and has published two books on wine.