Brett Ratner: 'Like Disemboweling a Ghost'
Say what you will about the Rush Hour franchise and anything else in Brett Ratner's cinematic oeuvre, but never accuse the guy of not having taste. The 40-year-old director recently plucked a handful of out-of-print film books from his home library, giving them a long-overdue revival under his new Rat Press imprint. Among them: Jim, filmmaker James Toback's 1971 memoir about his tense, orgiastic days living with football great Jim Brown; and Lawrence Grobel's expansive interviews with Marlon Brando and producer Robert Evans. Each approaches their subjects' legacies with wit, candor and unparalleled access, revealing perspectives that Ratner says have influenced him -- and should influence others -- for years.
"For me, part of my film education was reading these types of books that talked about life experiences in Hollywood," he told Movieline in a recent interview. "Like The Kid Stays in the Picture, I would listen to on tape. Or Picture, by Lillian Ross. There were all these books that were part of my collection that I would always buy multiple copies of whenever I could get them, and give them to my friends and stuff. If I didn't have a publishing company, then I'd probably still photocopy these books and give them to my friends."
The first three Rat Press offerings are a substantial step up from photocopies (and at $20-$25 apiece, they'd better be), but they still symbolize something of a personal mission for Ratner. "Rat Press is everything film is not," his Web site emphasizes. In a call last week to Movieline HQ, he elaborated why.
You've diversified quite a bit in the last year or two -- branding, TV, and now publishing. Is filmmaking just not keeping you busy enough?
It's keeping me too busy. It's crazy. But because I didn't shoot a film for a year and a half because of the strike and stuff, I was able to do things that I'd always wanted to do. I was kind of involved in doing branding because my friends are the CEO's of all these companies, and they kept coming to me saying, "Apart from directing the commercials, can you come up with an idea for the brand?" It was an organic thing to do. And because I created Prison Break and had a lot of success with that, I continue with that. I even have a record company and music publishing company. But I've always come up with these little things that serviced myself as a filmmaker; instead of being a guy who was just going out and pitching it around, I wanted to be part of creating it -- that process.
And if you come to my house, I have the most incredible book collection; they're just a big part of stuff I love to collect. But the Brando book is one that I've always loved, and when I met Lawrence Grobel, I told him: "I love your Capote book! I love your Brando book!" And he said, "You know, the Brando book is available." I said, "What? I want to publish it! Will you write a new outro for it?" And then he said, "And I interviewed your friend Bob Evans." I said, "Really? Can I read it?" That was a two-part interview for Movieline, actually, in the early '90s [Aug. and Sept. 1993.], around the time he was doing Sliver. So I read the whole interview, which wasn't quite enough for a book. So I asked Dustin Hoffman to give me the speech that he gave for him at the Producers Guild Awards when Bob won the David O. Selznick Award. It's such a brilliant speech, and I wanted to reprint it. And in the back of the book, I sent Larry back to see Bob Evans after 15 years. A lot has happened since then.
Of course, Evans and Toback and Scott Caan, whose photos you're publishing next month, are guys with whom you're intimately friendly. How much will your proximity to the authors and/or subjects guide your choices?
100 percent. It's because I'm such a big fan. These are books by people in film, but not necessarily about film -- stuff you can't see in a theater or anywhere else but here. It lets you get an insight into these guys who, to me, are very interesting, great characters. I'm fascinated with these guys not only because of the work they created, but because of the time they had while they were creating this work.
Ultimately, the reprints comprise some pretty great journalism. As a guy to whom the press has been spottily cordial over the years, do you perceive and maybe even offer these as a referendum on reporting -- film reporting, in particular?
I just think they're honest. Larry Grobel is an excellent interviewer, and of course, Toback being the brain that he is... Jim was initially written as an article for Esquire. But he said, "Fuck this, they're never going to let me write what really happened here." And he turned it into a book. So it's not really so much a statement. I just love great journalism, where the writer really captures the essence. There are very few people out there doing this kind of work now. I think Scott Foundas is one of those guys. And to have the access to a guy like Brando on his island for 10 days is unbelievable! Nobody would have more than a full day now with George Clooney or Brad Pitt. In recent times, no one is going to be able to get to know these personalities. It's a different time now. People are so protective, and with the number of magazines there are in the world and the way the Internet is, people are too scared to say anything. It's gets analyzed and criticized and judged on the Internet.
Then what's your interest, if any, in developing that kind of outlet for new journalists and journalism, either on the Web or in print?
I'll definitely continue this [series], whether it's with Larry or someone else. I have these relationships with these great guys, kind of like the way Peter Bogdanovich interviewed Orson Welles. I'm going to send someone to Paris for sure to interview Roman Polanski, who's a great friend of mine. I've read a lot of interviews with Roman, but I don't think they've been as in depth as they could have been. And they also went into areas of his life that were quite personal and unnecessary. It's just about having intelligence to the questions, and not being about gossip.
But if you have access to a guy like Polanski, isn't the imperative to get even the unsavory stuff on the record in his own words?
But what happens is that a lot of journalists are lazy. They come to conclusions based on what the bloggers' opinions are instead of doing true research. That's the difference between Larry and other guys I've come across: They read about the person they're interviewing. Say I sent Larry there. He would read every book ever written about Roman Polanski and know how to derive his questions from those vast volumes of material. Whereas a journalist who doesn't do that will go on the Internet and look at Wikipedia.
Or like Vanity Fair. I was so excited to get a story in Vanity Fair's Hollywood issue two or three years ago. But I was so disappointed in the time I spent with the journalist, because she was giving me stuff about people's opinions. "Well, Ain't it Cool News says..." Well, what do you say or think or feel or know about me? A lot of journalism has become gossip. I understand it's a business; people want to sell magazines. But I just think it's prattle. When I was sitting with this woman from Vanity Fair, I thought her questions were prattle. They were gossipy, they were shitty. It's like disemboweling a ghost -- that's what Brando called it.
The Rat Press synopsis for Scott Caan's Photographs Vol. I is kind of heavy. "Raw photojournalism." "Unapologetic photos." "Images that are, without question, inaccessible to the masses." That good, huh?
I love his photographs. You've gotta see the book, I swear, or I wouldn't have published it -- it cost me a fucking fortune, but Scott has such an eye. He's not trying. It's just his perspective from growing up in Hollywood as a child of an actor and then an actor himself. That's what makes him unique. Scott has such a specific point of view; he shoots what he's interested in.
It's a lot of naked girls -- which I like, too -- and a lot of actors that he's worked with. But there's also a section of stuff on the road: Kids in different urban areas and stuff. It's just him. He definitely has control of the material. A naked girl is not just a nude. Look at the lighting, the way the light hits her face. Look at the way he's having her pose. He sees something specific, and that's why I thought I would do it. And I call it Vol. I because he has so much work. If we sell out of these books, we can make a Vol. II.
And if not?
If not, well... There's only going to be Vol. I.
[Photo credits: Brett Ratner, WireImage; book covers, Rat Press]