Brett Ratner Opens the Vaults with The Shooter Series
As one of Movieline's inaugural interviewees upon our relaunch last April, Brett Ratner shared his love of literature -- especially that of his own Rat Press -- with our new readership. Five months later, his further adventures in moguldom have piqued our interest once more. His new venture The Shooter Series compiles hits, swings and admittedly a few misses from his nearly 20 years of work, from his music videos for Madonna, Wu-Tang Clan, Mariah Carey and others to his rather staggering short film documenting Mickey Rourke's transition into boxing.
It's both hubristic (a short doc about himself, with all-star endorsees like Robert Evans and Russell Simmons) and self-effacing (rawer-than-raw NYU student films), and not just a little revelatory in its charting of how a hyperactive home-moviemaker from Miami became a reliable captain of Hollywood blockbusters. Ratner spoke recently with Movieline about The Shooter Series, Madonna before megastardom and coming to terms with mass appeal.
How did The Shooter Series come about?
Richard Brown, my partner on it, was the guy who produced the Director's Label -- you know, Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry... He was talking to me about doing one of those, and I said, "Why don't just come be my partner, and we'll start our own series?" He was like, "OK!" So I guess I enticed him to come over. But it was hard; the original plan was to do one every quarter, and mine took two years. I realized I have enough work for four volumes. So it was hard making decisions and putting it together. But now we have a system going, so we're on a roll. We got Shepard Fairey to design the box. We've got F. Gary Gray doing the second one. We've got the Hughes Brothers doing the third one. We're just going to keep going. We want the directors who kind of started out in music videos and then made their ways into feature films.
So how did you curate this collection from that four volumes' worth of material?
It was hard. It wasn't necessarily my favorites. I was thinking, "OK, what are people going to get out of this?" When I was a kid, I learned how to make movies from watching movies, of course, and from going to NYU film school. But I also learned a lot from listening to the commentaries on laser discs. So I wanted to put work that wasn't necessarily my best work. If you look at the NYU stuff, I didn't put Whatever Happened to Mason Reese? on there, but the NYU stuff is kind of educational because it can inspire young filmmakers to say, "He did this film, and then he was able to do X-Men or Red Dragon? That's unbelievable." So to see the beginning of it all, I think, is very helpful. It's showing where I started.
As noted in the documentary, however, you started way earlier than that: Shooting Madonna's Like a Virgin sessions as a teenager. Can you elaborate a little more on how that came about?
[Album producer] Nile Rodgers was a family friend, and he actually bought me my first movie camera when I was 8 years old. And every holiday, I would come up to New York and hang out with him in the studio. I was always filming in the studio; it made sense that went on to do music videos. Nile at the time was scoring movies, so I was watching him do that. I was really getting an incredible education and developing an ear for music. I never had an interest in being a musician, but I was developing a [knowledge] of music for the visual medium. It just so happened that I was in the studio when he was making Like a Virgin. I was filming Madonna, and I guess I was annoying the shit out of her. When she called me 20 years later and said, "I want you to direct my video [for 'Beautiful Stranger']," I waited until we were on the set to tell her who I was. I thought she might not hire me otherwise. So I said, "You know, I've met you before." She said, "Where?" I said, "I was in the studio with you during Like a Virgin." And she said, "You were that annoying kid who kept filming me? Who I told Nile to get this kid away from me?" So the irony of it is petty unbelievable -- for it to come full-circle.
So where's the footage from Like a Virgin?
I've got it. Maybe it'll be in Shooter Series 1.5 or something. There's so much. There's only so much time on a DVD.
The student films here are very raw -- kind of surprising considering your reputation for mainstream, crowd-pleasing blockbusters. How would you characterize or explain the creative trajectory in between?
Well, the thing that's missing in there is Whatever Happened to Mason Reese? I just couldn't do it; there were so many music clearances. That's my defining NYU student film that shows the jump I made. Those are like first-year freshman films. If you want to see something interesting I did before that, go to the Vault menu, and then click just to the right of the Peter Beard movie [Beard by Ratner]. There's a hidden short film there from when I was 13 or 14; I'm actually acting in it.
Then the Peter Beard one was the next step. I was able to grasp the photography then; I didn't understand how to light things, I was just thinking, "I'm going to direct! I'm not going to worry about the technical stuff." But by the time I did the Peter Beard short -- which was really just footage of him doing a photo shoot, set to the Rolling Stones -- I got a good understanding of photography. But storytelling was my focus. If you watch all my music videos, the one common denominator is that I was always trying to create a beginning, middle and end. I was practicing the skill of telling stories.
How did you get into the Peter Beard shoot?
I was in New York City; I don't remember where. Some lounge or somewhere. And I met Peter Beard. And he said, "What do you do, kid?" I said, "I'm a filmmaker; I go to NYU." And he said, "Do you have a film camera?" I said, "Yeah. I go to NYU!" He said, "All right, be at my studio tomorrow at noon." So I get there, and there's like 20 girls including Grace Jones there. I brought my black-and-white and color reversal film, but I couldn't afford more than six rolls. I didn't want to ask him for the money, so I went ahead and just put the film through the camera two or three times. That's how I got that superimposed look with all the flash cuts. I'd roll, stop, roll, stop, then put the film through the camera again. I actually think it's my best work. It's artful without being pretentious.
It's true. But a lot of these are kind of experimental, dark, even transgressive. It makes me want to see you do something like this with one of your features.
Yeah, but I wanna make movies that people see!
Is it really that black-and-white? No pun intended.
The thing is that if you have a sensibility where you know what audiences want, why are you going to limit yourself? I don't care who you are -- even the greatest filmmakers. Even Kubrick wanted people to line up to see his movies. There's nothing wrong with that. But it's not a strategic thing, it's an organic thing. Some people cater to the Academy to win an award for a movie about someone dying of cancer, you know what I mean? I do what I'm interested in. And I would say my optimism transpires through my work. That's why I think my movies are commercial or mainstream. It's no less artful to direct something that's commercial. Like I just did New York, I Love You, which is maybe the most artsy thing I've done since film school. Very personal, autobiographical. When you see that, I think it'll answer your question. You say I haven't done that, but I think I have.
I have seen New York, I Love You. [Ratner's segment features Anton Yelchin as a young man faced with a succession of surprises after replacing his prom date.] That was autobiographical?
Yeah! That happened to me on my prom night. Didn't that seem different than anything I've ever done? [...] And I produce lots of documentaries; I did one on Helmut Newton, I produced one on John Cazale recently. There's the public persona of me, with people thinking I'm just some Hollywood guy. But the truth is I'm a very serious filmmaker.
What do you hope people take from the package as a whole?
For me it's kind of a collection for posterity. But for audiences, I hope it's inspiring. I didn't go out and pick my best NYU student films, for example. I picked the rawest, kind of grittiest things so that people might go, "Wow. If he can do it, then I can do it." Hopefully it shows the path if you can sit through that stuff. People only know what I've done recently, but it took hundreds of short films and music videos and commercials and ideas and stills. So it's not really to fix anything that's broken or express anything I haven't expressed. The good thing about the doc is that people who really know me, like Quentin and Russell and Evans, really know me. Like Steve Wynn says, "He's a serious dude as a filmmaker." That's what I eat, sleep and breathe! It's my whole life. People think it's the Hollywood life, but my goal was never to be in Hollywood. It was to make films. If you're in it to get laid or have fancy cars or a big house, that's not really motivation enough. My only dream was to make movies, and that's why I'm still dreaming. Every time I go to make a movie, it's a new dream happening.