October 22, 2008
Just a nice Jewish director: Public and private images of Brett Ratner clash in swirl of contradictions
(Page 3 - Previous Page)As a kid who grew up in love with "old Hollywood," Ratner's passion for movies is unbridled and nostalgic. He talks about "Scarface" and "Raging Bull" as if they were spiritually enlightening. He reveres the auteur-driven cinema of Martin Scorsese, Coppola and Spielberg, the so-called "movie brats" of 1970s Hollywood, whose film school education graduated them from being mere directors to "filmmakers." In a way, Ratner is a love child of the cinematic revolution that they started, but he works in a changed industry.
"I love old Hollywood because old Hollywood, for one, was run by Jews. Two, the people who ran the studios were the guys who bought the first pencil for their company. That's what I loved about New Line [Cinema], dealing with Bob Shaye -- if I need some money for my film, I get a 'yes' or a 'no' directly from a guy who owns the company and bought the first pencil," he says. "Now it's become such a corporate kind of conglomerate business."
The irony is that Ratner is a prize in today's Hollywood, when only four out of every 10 films turn a profit, according to the Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers, banking at the box office makes you something of an idol. Unlike the maverick filmmakers of the '70s who started a countercultural shift with the kinds of movies they made, Ratner works in an industry where films that pander to the lowest common denominator often have the widest appeal and make the most money.
"Look, I make big, commercial Hollywood films so I'm very lucky to do that, but the business is completely changing, and I'm very old fashioned. I revere guys like Jim [Toback], who are legendary in Hollywood, and Warren Beatty and Bob Evans, because they've seen it all and survived in a different system. They were the mavericks, the rebels of the business," he says.
"You can't really become that anymore, because it's a different world. Bob Shaye was the last of those guys. Now the film companies are so big, the business is so big, the cost of making movies is so big. You can't have your own personality. You have to be part of a system."
Ratner's edgy artistic tastes contrast with his mainstream work as a director. At first, it might seem that his penchant for high culture somehow belies the sensibilities that define his own artistic expression. Considering the movies he makes, his highbrow interests are confounding; his favorite films are the product of an elite film school education, and the art and photography he owns are indicative of a sophisticated eye. Even his home, far from being an overwrought "McMansion," is instead an architectural gem.
And while art collecting is common in Hollywood -- both because it can be a good investment and enhances social caché -- Ratner's interest in art represents his own educated taste. So while nary a room in his house is without a nude photo, Ratner's interest is not necessarily in the pornographic, so much as the erotic. In other words, he is a connoisseur of the best of what's popular, not lowbrow. And it's a mistake to assume that because his movies are commercially successful they lack artistic sophistication.
"I happen to have a commercial sensibility, because my interests happen to be the interests of the mainstream audiences. It's because I am a student of urban culture, which became pop culture," Ratner says.
He attributes the development of those sensibilities as a filmmaker to growing up during the zeitgeist of the street culture explosion, when hip-hop began taking root as a cultural phenomenon. He credits his friend Simmons for mainstreaming that culture and marketing it through the creation of Def Jam Records.
"Everything black was always cool," he says. "When I was a kid, the black kids were always the coolest kids -- the kids who knew how to dance, the fastest runners; they knew how to fight, they were athletic, they had the coolest clothes. I took all my bar mitzvah money and went and bought the entire line of Fila."
But, he says, "I didn't want to be black. I wasn't one of those white kids acting black. I knew who I was."
The notion that urban culture informs Ratner's work also supports his belief that being a good director has less to do with content and more to do with style.
"The films I loved, you know, were not the films that I necessarily would make." Ratner explains. "The best filmmakers have a point of view. I see movies that have no style, no personality, no charm, no individuality, no whatever. They could be directed by anybody."
"What I'm proud of is that I have friends that admire my work, like him [points to Toback] and friends like Polanski and even Warren that recognize it," he says. "Because directors aren't snobs; they're critics. Directors recognize a good movie when they see one -- a well-made movie, a movie with great performances. They don't care about the genre. We know how hard it is to make a movie that works."
Ratner has a point. During a time when independent films are drowning at the box office and critically acclaimed filmmakers can't get financing for their films, the ability to make a movie that sells has trumped artistry.
But as a cinephile, Ratner also knows that there's more to moviemaking than nine figures -- "If I compared myself to Steven Spielberg, I wouldn't be a happy person."
Full of contradictions, Ratner is both self-satisfied and frustrated. He is a grand self-promoter who name-drops heavyweights in Hollywood almost every other sentence. But he also seems desperate to be taken seriously by all the people and the press who, because of his playboy reputation, continue to dismiss him as the flavor of the month. This has been the most challenging piece of Ratner's otherwise glorious reign in modern Hollywood.
"The hardest lesson that I've learned is that somehow my public image affects the opinions of my work, which is crazy because my work is my work. My public life is my public life. If I choose to date every girl in this town, which I don't do, but I'm saying if I chose to ... " he says, having trouble finishing the rest of his thought.
"I don't judge people. But because I have some image thing, people would say, 'Oh, will they not take me seriously?'"
His voice trails off, and, for a moment, I wonder if Ratner, who calls himself "a pathologically positive person," is allowing himself to be vulnerable.
"The people who are real filmmakers -- real producers like Brian Grazer and Chuck Roven, the producer of "Batman" -- these guys all want to work with me 'cause they don't give a s--- about my personal life."
If it's true that Ratner has impressed the most important people in the movie business and if his films continue to top box office charts, he's likely to have staying power. At the same time, Hollywood is a fickle industry, and Ratner's overconfidence may be masking his own fear of failure.
"My movies are just movies that people want to go see," he says, even though he admits eventual failure is "guaranteed."
Ratner views his success as the product of hard work. To succeed in Hollywood, he says, it's more important to be self-aware and know your limitations. He even has a formula: "I always say, you could have 90 percent talent and 10 percent effort, and you'll be less successful than someone with 90 percent effort and 10 percent talent." He doesn't aspire to be the best director in the world but promises he'll work harder than the best director in the world.
"I'm blessed for one reason: Because I knew what I wanted to do my whole life, and it wasn't because I read stories about directors getting laid. It wasn't about the wealth and the Hollywood of it all, the bulls---. I don't give a s--- if the biggest stars in the world are all hanging in my living room at a party. They'll all be there, and I'll be sitting in the back having a conversation about filmmaking. I care about filmmakers," he says.
Some could argue that Ratner's passion for moviemaking is what keeps him grounded amidst the whirlwind of his success. Others might suggest it's his family and friends. His maternal grandparents currently live in the guesthouse of Hilhaven Lodge, and it has been suggested that in the absence of his biological father, Ratner has engaged in relationships with older, male friends -- paternal types -- as a substitute.
"If you're not down-to-earth, everything starts to fall apart because you start to believe the hype. You get self-involved, and then you become an asshole, and then people just want to see you fail," Ratner admits.
There's also Ratner's strong Jewish identity. Though he says he is no longer observant, he also says "the discipline, the praying, the culture, the Jewish law, everything that I've learned is what grounded me and made me the person I am today."
He considers himself pro-Israel. He counts Marvin Hier as his Los Angeles rabbi. And every now and then, he enjoys putting on tefillin with Ron Perelman in Perelman's private chapel in New York.
"I'm not religious anymore, but I'm still spiritual," he says. "I realized God loves me if I'm religious or not. The truth is, I believe in God. I fear God. I'm very close to my family; I love the Jewish customs and traditions -- I have mezuzahs on every door."
What he's missing is feeling connected to a Jewish community. He says there are too many self-hating Jews in Hollywood.
Those are the last thoughts he shares seriously, before asking if I think my parents will like him. A bit restless, he offers to show me around Hilhaven Lodge.