How Director Brett Ratner Evolved From Party Boy to $450 Million Warner Bros. Mogul
This story first appeared in the Nov. 1 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
The last night of filming on Hercules: The Thracian Wars in Budapest, with just a few hours to go on this chilly October evening before the movie wraps at 6 a.m. Even after eight months of seven-day weeks, during which he often has worked 16 or 17 hours straight, director Brett Ratner bubbles with enthusiasm as he sits hunched before three monitors in a cavelike set at the Origo Studios, where a body double for Dwayne Johnson is chained to a wall, from which he soon will break free.
An end-of-semester quality pervades the place. Several crewmembers pause to say their goodbyes, and Ratner himself will leave imminently for London. After that, he'll head home to Beverly Hills before moving on to Shanghai, where he'll take meetings with his RatPac Entertainment partner, billionaire James Packer ("We're gonna explore what we're gonna explore"). Later, the two will share a vacation at Packer's polo horse ranch in Argentina. "Feeling sentimental?" a producer yells out. "No way," says Ratner with a laugh.
Despite an easygoing manner, the 44-year-old director has his share of neuroses. His leg twitches a mile a minute, and his nails are bitten to the quick. He admits to being a "germophobe" ("I'm more of a hypochondriac -- I grew up in a house of doctors") and confesses to a fear of planes ("I'm scared of flying -- terrified"). Contrary to his party-boy reputation, he avoids so much as a hint of alcohol, let alone anything heavier, and says even in his school days, he was too focused on films to think of anything else: "I never tried a drink to this day. I've never had a sip of alcohol -- a sip of alcohol, ever. I've never had a drug. No interest."
In person, he appears more grounded than the larger-than-life frat boy many have encountered through the media, that permanent partier whose exaggerated portrait in an Entourage episode made even insiders believe he was just a glorified social butterfly.
He's warm, generous and surprisingly sweet, with a notable absence of malice -- and much more circumspect than the guy who quipped "rehearsal's for fags" during a Howard Stern interview (after which he apologized so profusely, he was given GLAAD's Ally Award) or the boorish fellow whose crude comments about performing oral sex on Lindsay Lohan contributed (along with the "fag" joke) to his forced resignation as Oscar producer in 2011, a move that made him a public pinata for months.
Sometimes it's hard to connect this rumpled, direct, self-proclaimed "fat guy" with the tabloid staple who has dated models and actresses and even tennis sensation Serena Williams. "People mistake the fact that I'm fun for somebody who's not serious," he says. "But I'm the opposite of what people think I am."
That became clear Sept. 30 when Hollywood let forth a collective gasp at the news that Ratner and Packer were two of the key players behind a $450 million slate deal with Warner Bros., a joint venture between RatPac and Dune Capital Partners that will cover 75 films, or nearly all of the storied studio's product over a four-year period. It's not just the first time in recent years that Warners has agreed to take a financial partner across its complete body of work; it's also the first time a director has been involved in any such undertaking.
"Filmmakers have raised money for a movie before," notes Ratner, "but not for a slate of an entire studio's movies. And when the [profits start coming], this will pay for more than $1 billion of production."
How much actually ends up being invested will depend on the success of the individual films and the money that then is plowed back in through the RatPac-Dune Entertainment deal, but the slate's first release, Gravity, already has grossed $284 million worldwide (and counting).
"They're on board to finance the lion's share of our slate going forward," says Warners CEO Kevin Tsujihara, who had his first face-to-face meeting with Ratner and Packer regarding the deal Oct. 21 during a breakfast in the executive's Burbank offices. As for Ratner: "He is an innovative guy with a lot of experience in the film business. He has been around for a long time, he understands how films get put together, and while this is a passive deal, it's always great to have partners who understand our business."
Ratner is a bundle of contradictions -- a "big kid" (in his words) who's involved in one of the most significant film-financing pacts in years; a refined student of movie history who chooses to make ultra-commercial popcorn pictures; a man who's dated some of the most beautiful women in the world and yet whose closest friends are "all over the age of 70."
Although his $100 million-plus MGM/Paramount feature Hercules seems unlikely ever to earn a best picture Oscar, Ratner also is the man who was tapped to rescue the Academy Awards until that went awry, a major regret for this passionate lover of all things film.
He hardly can contain his enthusiasm for cinema, and the giants who have stamped it, and seems thrilled to show this reporter an e-mail from Oliver Stone, in which Stone teasingly refers to Ratner's Budapest location shoot as his "Hungarian rhapsody." Days after we meet, he bombards me with pictures of himself alongside other "masters," from Amour's Michael Haneke to The French Connection's William Friedkin. He tells me three times, excitedly, that his production designer, Jean-Vincent Puzos, also worked on Amour.
He loves talking about his mentors, Hollywood legends Warren Beatty, Robert Towne and Robert Evans (he shows them early cuts of his films and even lived in Evans' house for two years). And he's equally intense about his collection of movie memorabilia, which includes 100-plus Polaroids that were taken during the 1970s as wardrobe continuity shots for the first two Godfather films, along with a pair of miniature silver boxing gloves that Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro presented their crew as wrap gifts on Raging Bull.
"You know what my dream movie-memorabilia is?" he asks. "The necklace from Rosemary's Baby."
Ratner has asked his friend Roman Polanski about that object, but "Roman doesn't have it," he sighs. Polanski is just one of his "besties"; the two hang out together in Paris, and Ratner will release Polanski's 1972 documentary about race-car driver Jackie Stewart, Weekend of a Champion, with a Nov. 7 premiere at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
His boundless joie de vivre spills over on other filmmakers he doesn't know so well (he produced an Emmy-nominated American Masters film on Woody Allen) as well as subjects that spark his considerable curiosity, from Erno Rubik, inventor of the eponymous Cube (about whom he's planning one of his many documentaries) to film books, several of which he has reprinted at considerable expense through his RatPac Press, including Lawrence Grobel's Conversations With Brando.
Such positivity is almost irresistible; it affects this reporter, the crew and the vast line of human beings linked in an endless chain that ultimately leads to Ratner. But it also runs the risk of making the director seem more bubbly than brilliant. Too many people use the word "boyish" to describe him; too few speak of his work. And that gnaws at him, risks chipping away at what he calls his "pathological happiness."
"At the end of the day, whether I finance a slate of Warner Bros. movies [or pursue anything else], I'm still a director," he insists.