"There are only a handful of guys that I've met in the movie world who mix interracially as though there were no such thing as race — not just who have some black friends, but who actually behave in a way when they're in interracial situations where there is no sense that they're even thinking about it," says Toback. "I always sort of secretly prided myself on feeling that this was a quality I had and that no one else I'd met had to the same degree, but starting with the first day of shooting on Black and White, I saw that Brett has the same thing. The irony was that he was playing a guy who wanted to direct Wu-Tang Clan in a video, and in real life he already had directed them in a video!"
Ratner's videos — some of them can be found as extras on the DVDs of his feature films — are stylish, highly cinematic affairs, usually conceived as mininarratives rather than collages of abstract images. One, for the 1994 Heavy D track "Nuttin' but Love," included an appearance by then up-and-coming comic Chris Tucker, who three years later would be cast opposite Charlie Sheen in the New Line—produced action comedy Money Talks. When the film's original director proved unable to cope with his star's rampant improvising and walked off the set, it was Tucker who suggested Ratner as a replacement.
Ratner was ultimately one of three directors considered for the assignment; once again, his chutzpah carried the day. "He came in and, for 20 or 25 minutes straight, just pitched his heart out to say why he should be the director," remembers Stern, who, together with New Line's then president of production Michael De Luca, ended up giving Ratner the job. Released in the summer of 1997, Money Talkswasn't a great movie, but it was funny (Ratner deems it his funniest film to date), a fine early showcase for Tucker, and a generally solid effort by an untested director thrown into the fires of a major Hollywood production just two weeks before the start of shooting.
After the movie became a modest hit, Ratner turned his powers of persuasion on Stern, entreating him to leave the studio to come and work for him. At the time, Stern declined. "I was like, "I'm kind of an up-and-coming executive. I'm not going to leave and go produce movies. You directed one movie!'" Four years later, when Ratner renewed the offer in the wake of Rush Hour, Stern accepted. "When he gets enthusiastic about something," Stern says, "look out — he's going to make it happen."
"He could sell ice to Eskimos," says Rush Hour 3 associate producer David Gorder, echoing the sentiments of almost everyone I talk to for this article.
It's a trait Ratner ascribes to his mother, Marsha Presman, who taught him to be fearless in the pursuit of his goals. Described by Ratner as "a bit of a party girl in Miami" — a hint that extroversion may run in the family — she was just 16 when she gave birth out of wedlock, and Ratner grew up thinking of her less as a parent than as an older sibling. His father, Ronny, a ne'er-do-well rich kid who Ratner tersely calls "a druggie, a fuckup," wasn't in the picture at all; by the time they finally met, Ratner was already 16. Meanwhile, the man Ratner called "Dad" and credits with raising him was Alvin Malnick, a Miami lawyer and friend of Ratner's paternal grandfather whose clients included the gangster Meyer Lansky.
As a teenager, Ratner developed a close bond with another family friend, famed music producer and Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers. It was Rodgers who bought him his first Super 8 movie camera and allowed him to bring it into the studio during the recording of Madonna's seminal Like a Virgin album in 1985. "Madonna was like, "Get this kid away from me, he's so annoying!,'" Ratner remembers. A scant 14 years later, Ratner found himself directing the pop star in the video to her "Beautiful Stranger" single from the Austin Powers soundtrack.
Then, earlier this year, the mythology came full circle with Ratner's self-effacing cameo on HBO's Entourage, in which the show's endearingly bullheaded career bit player Johnny "Drama" Chase (Kevin Dillon) convinces Ratner to cast him in Rush Hour 3 by invoking the director's own storied history of lucky breaks and refusing to take "no" for an answer. The kid who once had to hustle his way into film school is now the director kids go to film school trying to become. And when Ratner tells you how it all happened — as I saw him do this past May before an audience of students at the Cannes Film Festival — he does so with such beguiling, if-I-could-do-it-you-can-too modesty, that it's not even worth asking if everything in Ratner's life really happened so fatefully or if certain episodes have been enhanced for dramatic effect (like that "chance" meeting with Simmons that maybe, just maybe, was carefully engineered on Ratner's part). It's a good story, and Ratner is nothing if not a born storyteller.
For the record, Brett Ratner doesn't particularly care whether you take him seriously or not. At least he says he doesn't, and I tend to believe him. It's one of Ratner's most appealing traits, actually — a lack of pretense and a sense of comfort inside his own skin that one all too rarely encounters in a business where every comic actor wants to be taken seriously, every agent is actually a producer, indie directors hanker to try their hand on big-studio projects, and George Lucas says what he really wants to do is make small, personal art movies.
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