How Director Brett Ratner Evolved From Party Boy to $450 Million Warner Bros. Mogul
Two years after his Oscar debacle, the onetime wunderkind turned power player opens up, carefully, about his mistakes ("I've said dumb things") and his massive ambition: "I'm always at my best when it's big."
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.
The Warners deal got underway in April, when Steven Mnuchin, chairman of Dune Capital, a private investment firm based in Los Angeles, heard that the studio was looking for an outside investor. After meetings with Warners, he was introduced to Australian billionaire Packer at a dinner for Beatty hosted by producer-financier Arnon Milchan. Mnuchin suggested Packer join him in making a major investment.
Packer had inherited a fortune from his father, media magnate Kerry Packer, then sold the properties he took over and used the money to build an even bigger empire through substantial investments in Macau and elsewhere. Before meeting Mnuchin, the 46-year-old Australian had teamed with his friend Ratner to form RatPac Entertainment.
Ratner says the two, who have a 50-50 ownership of RatPac, became friends when the director befriended a woman who would become Packer's wife around the time Ratner's 2002 drama Red Dragon had its Australian premiere.
Initially, RatPac was just looking to invest in one film at a time (it since has put money in Clint Eastwood's upcoming Jersey Boys, Cameron Crowe's untitled project set in Hawaii and Russell Crowe's directorial debut, The Water Diviner), but then the Warners proposal came along.
When Ratner saw a list of future Warners films, he was thrilled. "I knew every director, every actor in those movies, from the Lego movie to the Chris Nolan movie [Interstellar]," he says. "I called [Packer] and said: 'James! These movies are phenomenal!' "
With John Burke of Akin Gump representing Mnuchin and the new entity, and Skip Brittenham and Bryan Wolf of Ziffren Brittenham representing Ratner and Packer, the slate deal was cemented in late September, with $150 million in equity and $300 million in debt financed by Bank of America Merrill Lynch. (Two unnamed high-net-worth individuals also are part of the investing group, though Ratner says he and Packer have "the majority" of the investment.)
Sources say RatPac-Dune will fund 25 percent of Warners' share of each picture the studio makes -- with a few exceptions, such as a Harry Potter spinoff and the Hobbit films. It largely will make up for funding that dried up when Legendary Entertainment left for Universal.
Unlike Legendary and another long-term Warners-based financier, Village Roadshow Pictures, RatPac-Dune will have no ability to cherry-pick projects; instead, this is a "blind" investment across Warners' entire slate.
For Packer, "The [Warners] slate was a good opportunity," he says. But his more intriguing move likely is to be in China, where he'll spend time with Ratner and De Niro starting on Oct. 24. "There is going to be a RatPac Television, a RatPac Asia," says Ratner. "There will be diversified financing for film, television, publishing. James' goal and mine is to build a global, branded media company."
Adds Packer: "Brett and I want to develop this business brick by brick. I think we can build a business in China that is very valuable. China is a big play. But I am a huge believer in Brett. Brett is an extraordinary talent, and this is all about my belief in him."
Ratner's new role as mogul represents a remarkable, 180-degree turn for the man whose offscreen activities had threatened to dwarf his role as a filmmaker.
"I've been in the public so much, people didn't think of me as a filmmaker anymore," he laments over lunch Oct. 16 at a Hungarian-Jewish restaurant in Budapest. "I became a public person instead of a person who is just a serious director."
Partly that came from his association with celebrities like Michael Jackson, who for a while stayed at Ratner's house, the storied Hilhaven Lodge in Benedict Canyon, which once belonged to producer Allan Carr. "We weren't talking at the end of his life," he says with regret. "He wanted me to testify on his behalf [in Jackson's molestation case]. I didn't want to be part of the circus. [But] if he needed me, I would've done it in two seconds. He was the kindest, most gentle, genuine person. Our relationship was based on watching movies together. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, we watched it 100 times."
By contrast, he remains friendly with Williams, whom he dated for two years. "We were best friends, and we just ended up [dating]. You know how that happens. It wasn't something I was looking for." He says that ended because, "Tennis players, they're traveling around the world, they want their boyfriends or partners [with them]."
He says he also has spoken amicably with actress Olivia Munn despite a mini-scandal when he claimed he had "banged her a few times." (That comment was blurted out after she had disparaged an unnamed director's sexual antics in her memoir, Suck It, Wonder Woman!) He says that he and Munn have put their differences behind them: "We laughed about it. It was ridiculous." (A rep for Munn says simply, "That is not at all true.")
Ratner adds, as if aware that his pattern has yet to be broken, "You know, I've said several dumb things."
His dumbest remark, he admits, was his comment about "fags," which cost him the Oscar gig. (He since has given $1 million to the Academy museum.) "It's indefensible," he says now. "I immediately apologized. I couldn't say to everybody, 'Wait a second, I'm not who you say I am. I'm the guy who did all the PSAs before I was even asked.' It was just a stupid thing."
Born in Miami Beach in 1969, Ratner grew up the only child of a Cuban-Jewish immigrant who gave birth to him when she was 16. He lived with her and her parents in a middle-class home, sharing a room with his great-grandmother Bertha until he was 13. The family was comfortable but not rich; Ratner's granddad was a doctor. "I had zero discipline as a child," he recalls. "I could do no wrong. I never had to go to school if I didn't want to. My mother said, 'If you want to be an idiot, then don't go.' "
Noticeably absent was a father; and it was only when Ratner was in his late teens that he discovered the truth about his dad. Walking through Miami with his then-girlfriend, actress Rebecca Gayheart (they started dating when Ratner was 17 and she was 15 and remained together for 13 years), he was stunned when she pointed to a homeless man whom she had recognized from photos. "Look at that guy over there," she said. "He looks like your dad."
Ratner's mother had fallen in love with Ronald Ratner -- the son of a multimillionaire who made a fortune through rat poison and then real estate investments -- but her family was mortified when she accidentally got pregnant. They split up around the time of their son's birth, and Ratner only rarely saw his father as a child. He knew his dad had succumbed to drug abuse but did not know he was homeless.
Running into him with Gayheart, "I said, 'Where are you living?' He said, 'Oh, I don't have a place to live.' And I got him a hotel."
The fate of his father (who died in 2006 at age 62) sadly was ironic, given that Ratner already was involved with Chrysalis, an L.A.-based organization that helps the homeless, on whose board he currently serves. "What was poignant for me and what moved me so much was that these people, because they were ashamed, they never called their kids, they never contacted them, they never reached out. And I was one of those kids."
Ratner still was a kid when he managed to scheme his way into New York University's Tisch School of the Arts film school at age 16, having fallen in love with film while working as an extra on Scarface. After being cold-shouldered by an admissions officer who refused to screen his Super 8 movies, he talked his way into the dean's office and persuaded him to allow the budding filmmaker to enroll. Despite its improbability, Ratner says he got in even with weak grades. "The admissions officer said, 'You have the worst grades of anyone who has applied to this school,' meaning, 'How do you even dare to apply?' " he recalls. (The school would not discuss the manner of his admission but confirms he graduated in 1990.)
"I was so passionate," he continues. "And that was a defining moment in my life. 'Cause if I would've got a no, I still would have become a director, but I would have taken a different path."
Before graduating, he looked at a Forbes list of the most powerful people in entertainment and wrote each one a letter asking them to help fund his student movie. Only one replied: Steven Spielberg. Ratner remembers his shock when he received a summons from the university.
"The dean calls me: 'I need to see you right away.' I'm like, 'Oh shit.' I thought, 'I'm not worthy, they're gonna kick me out.' And I go in, and he goes, 'Do you know who called here looking for you? Steven Spielberg.' I go, 'Let me stop you right there. That's either my mother or my grandmother pretending to be Steven Spielberg.' "
Although Spielberg did send him a check, it was a different connection that led Ratner to find his first directing work -- Russell Simmons, whom he had met thanks to a university colleague. When Simmons screened Ratner's 1990 student film, Whatever Happened to Mason Reese? -- about the former child actor -- rap group Public Enemy attended and asked Ratner to shoot their music videos.
He went on to direct hundreds of videos for the likes of Madonna, Jay Z and Mariah Carey before making his first feature, 1997's Money Talks, with Chris Tucker. That paved the way for other movies including The Family Man, X-Men: The Last Stand and the Rush Hour trilogy -- and now Hercules.
Looking back, he says: "I was spoiled by success when I was very young. I had a lot of responsibility before I was fully, emotionally adult and didn't understand what it meant."
Those words hint at a more reflective Ratner than many might expect, and his close friends maintain he's not always the irrepressible cheerleader he at times appears to be.
"Brett is human just like the rest of us," says producer Michael De Luca, who gave Ratner his feature break when he was running production at New Line Cinema. "He expresses anxiety when he is anxious, insecurity when he is insecure. But he is always trying to self-improve. He is very, very human. He is a very sensitive human being, and he really reacts to all the slings and arrows that are thrown at him."
Adds Ratner: "I'm not ashamed of having any self-doubt whatsoever. I have self-doubt like any person. I have vulnerabilities."
He is hypersensitive to the way he is perceived in Hollywood, and it irks him to be considered a gadfly when his movies have earned more than $2 billion at the global box office. It equally bothers him that people talk about the great parties he throws rather than his great films. He talks about journalists who have slammed him: "People either love me or hate me, there's no in-between."
His critics may overlook the skill involved in making films like Rush Hour and its sequels, or underestimate his talent to inspire collaborators from cinematographer Dante Spinotti ("He works with Michael Mann and me") to Tucker, the actor he discovered for a music video then bailed out financially -- and who returned the favor by recommending Ratner for his first full-length film.
Ratner may no longer be the wunderkind who had a hit (Money Talks) straight out of the gate at age 26, then became the go-to guy for big-budget studio fare in his 30s. But nor is he quite the easy target so many in the media would like him to be. And he's doing his best to stay out of the crosshairs.
He no longer wants to be a cynosure for the tabloids -- though whether he is quite ready to step out of the limelight and give up his penchant for trouble is unclear. He says he is, both professionally and personally.
He even says he is finally contemplating settling down, no matter how difficult, given his peripatetic lifestyle. "I've grown up, I've grown up," he repeats over and over.
"I'm ready for a family," he adds. "I never got married; I never had kids. I feel like I'm at that age. I'm 44 now, and I'm starting to feel like, 'Wow. I'm ready.' I'm now becoming a man."