Director's skills includes high-energy creativity, joie de vivre

It’s easy not to take Brett Ratner seriously. But there’s more to this gifted helmer than meets the eye.

Since his 1997 feature debut, the Chris Tucker comedy “Money Talks,” the Miami-born director’s seven released movies have grossed more than $1 billion worldwide. But while artistic cred has eluded him, Hollywood insiders view the 38-year-old Ratner as a talented filmmaker with visual style, an eye for comedy, serious action chops and a deft touch with difficult actors.

His movies are accessible, entertaining, fast-moving and never dull. His third “Rush Hour” action comedy, which drops bickering fish-out-of-water buddies Tucker and Jackie Chan in Paris, is no exception.

Ratner boasts canny commercial instincts, a strong work ethic, actors who adore him and the lowest-grossing of his picture, psycho-thriller “After the Sunset,” nonetheless making $25 million. So what’s not to like?

Well, when it comes to critics and journos, Ratner can’t get no respect. His average Rotten Tomatoes rating is a rotten 39%. Ratner’s neither an intellectual nor the sort of filmmaker whose movies get celebrated by critics at Sundance or Cannes

(“X-Men: The Last Stand” screened outside the Competition on the Croisette). But Ratner is no studio hack either.

Fact is, Ratner is playing the big-studio moviemaking game better than most.

“He’s a kid on the outside,” says one of his many father-mentors, legendary Paramount mogul Robert Evans. “But underneath that kid facade is the most well-oiled machine to ever enter our town. He’s an original. Everything he’s done has been successful. He made a global star out of Jackie Chan. His TV show (“Prison Break”) is a big hit on Fox. Everyone in town is jealous of success. That kind of success is hard to get.”

But Evans wishes Ratner would pull back on his media profile.

Ratner’s recent cameo on “Entourage,” filmed poolside with bikini-clad babes at his storied manse Hilhaven Lodge, did little to dispel his image as a womanizing party boy. His March Vanity Fair cover story celebrated his latenight revels with the rich and famous, including a list of model girlfriends.

“He’s out there too much, too publicity-conscious,” Evans says. “It hurts him. He should be more legitimately accepted and praised for his work as an artist instead of being seen as a flamboyant butterfly. He lacks mystery; directors far less capable are embraced by actors because of their mystery.”

“I don’t think Brett gives a shit,” says Universal producer Mary Parent, who first met him at New Line Cinema, then hired him to direct the “Silence of the Lambs” prequel “Red Dragon.” “He’s not mean. He’s a sensitive guy. When he sets out to do something, he does it. These are not easy films by any means. He has consistently delivered. It’s not just luck. I’d place my money on him. He’s going to cross the finish line.”

For better or worse, this cheeky kid from Miami Beach boasts the perfect skill set to thrive in today’s studio system. An aspiring young director could do a lot worse for a role model.

Don’t take no for an answer

Ratner still dines out on the story of how NYU Film School initially rejected him at age 16 for his puny grades. But he had been making shorts since he was 8, and not only talked himself into the dean’s office, but persuaded the guy to accept him into the program.

That’s Ratner, Parent says: “His energy and passion are infectious, you could tell this guy was a force. He’s got a determination about him. He’s going to win. It’s ingrained in his DNA. … He’s relentless. That’s an important quality.”

When he wanted to put together the first “Rush Hour” with Tucker and Chan, Ratner, who was 27 at the time, hopped a 23-hour-flight to South Africa to lure Chan, knowing the Hong Kong action star had pointedly given up on Hollywood. Ratner told Chan he had found a script that would work for the high-concept buddy comedy, but actually it was lousy. Then Ratner turned around without stopping over and flew back. Chan trusted him and agreed to star, even though he had no clue that Ratner was concocting a thriller/ comedy hybrid with Chan as the cool action straight man playing against Tucker’s wild and crazy comic foil.

It took patience and friendly persuasion over five years to slowly push “Rush Hour 3″ into production. “Chris is older,” Ratner explains. “… He travels the world with Bono and Bill Clinton. He’s changed as a person. But his character hasn’t changed, although he’s less shrieky than he was on ’1′ and ’2.’ ”

“Rush Hour 3″ was a more intimidating assignment for Ratner than even following behind the likes of Ridley Scott and Jonathan Demme on the Hannibal Lecter prequel “Red Dragon” and Bryan Singer on the last “X-Men” installment, he says. “This was the hardest one. Jackie, Chris and I put so much pressure on ourselves: ‘How do we top this?’ ”

Some of that pressure may have come from justifying their mega-salaries: It took years of coaxing, many Jeff Nathanson rewrites and starting salaries of $25 million for Tucker, $15 million for Chan and $7.5 million for Ratner before the sequel finally started shooting on location in Paris with a whopping $140 million budget.

When he first arrived in Hollywood, Ratner turned down an entry-level job as producer Brian Grazer’s assistant, protesting: “I’m a director!” Seven years ago, Ratner sent a ’70s-era Playboy pinball machine to Grazer to alert him that he desperately wanted to direct his Hugh Hefner biopic. This year, having watched many writers and directors come and go, Ratner finally landed the gig. While Johnny Depp is a real possibility to play the Playboy founder, Paris Hilton will not be in it. “That’s rumors on the Internet!!!” he cautions in a text message. “Please don’t believe what you read!!! I also heard she is running for president!!!”

Suck up to your mentors

When Ratner solicited finishing funds for his NYU student short “Whatever Happened to Mason Reese” from 40 directors, he got one check in the mail: from Steven Spielberg. Years later when he met the director, they had something to discuss. Ratner started directing hip-hop musicvideos after he befriended Russell Simmons, co-founder of the Def Jam label. Ratner went on to direct some 100 musicvideos with artists such as Mary J. Blige, the Wu-Tang Clan, Lionel Richie and Madonna, whose award-winning “Beautiful Stranger” from “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me” grabbed Hollywood’s attention.

Ratner admits to having a father fixation, partly because he barely knew his own. Ratner is unfazed by celebrities but fawns over movie directors. “I was envious that Paul Thomas Anderson was friends with Jonathan Demme and was hanging out on the set with Stanley Kubrick,” Ratner confesses. “After ‘Rush Hour,’ I heard from Demme, Warren Beatty and Roman Polanski.”

He instantly booked a flight to Paris to meet Polanski, bought up all the directors’ posters he could find, and asked him to sign them at their lunch. At a later rendezvous while Ratner was scouting Paris locations for “Rush Hour 3,” he impulsively offered Polanski a part in the movie. When he evinced interest, Ratner quickly called screenwriter Nathanson to write a role for Polanski to play. He came up with a sadistic French cop. “Can you see me running lines with Roman Polanski who I’m about to direct in a scene tomorrow?” he recalls. “I was freaking out.”

Evans allowed Ratner to spend two years sleeping on his couch while Hilhaven Lodge was being renovated. For years, Ratner tried to convince Beatty to star in his remake of John Cassavetes’ “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie.” Ratner also talks frequently to Robert Towne, Quincy Jones and James Toback.

New Line Cinema chairman Robert Shaye first met Ratner in 1996 when the younger man switched airline seats to sit next to the mogul. Now Ratner flies on Shaye’s jet to Cannes. New Line has backed five of Ratner’s films.

Ratner likes the nonbureaucratic simplicity of getting a yes or no answer from the boss. “New Line is my home, they’re like family,” he says. “Bob is good to m
e, supportive. He’s always written the checks. Then he bitches about it.”

Learn your genres

Thirsty for knowledge, Ratner knows what he doesn’t know. He has managed to gain experience in a wide range of genres.

Few know that Ratner first developed “Ocean’s Eleven” with writer Ted Griffin; George Clooney tried to talk him out of making it. Ratner withdrew to shoot “Rush Hour 2,” and Steven Soderbergh eventually asked him to remove his “Ocean’s” credit. Instead, Ratner eventually took on the heist caper “After the Sunset,” which failed to grab much attention.

When Ratner and screenwriter J.J. Abrams’ script for “Superman” did not come together, Warner Bros. went with Bryan Singer instead. So Ratner, wanting a comicbook franchise, took Singer’s place at the helm of “X-Men 3,” probably his least satisfying film to date. But the pixel-packed pic was a blockbuster, and Ratner gained valuable experience with big-budget f/x action. Next time an action franchise comes up, Ratner will have more juice. (His name has been linked with “Spider-Man 4.”)

But Ratner’s franchise is the one he created himself. “Rush Hour” was inspired by hip-hop and kung fu movies. “When I first put (Tucker and Chan) together, they acted like they understood,” he says. “But they didn’t understand a word. We used that.”

Defer to movie stars

Tucker recommended Ratner for “Money Talks” after he couldn’t get along with the first director; Ratner had plucked him from a comedy club to star in a musicvideo for $500.

Now Tucker is so spoiled from working with Ratner that he won’t do any other movies.

“I want him to go work for someone else,” Ratner says, “so he appreciates me a little more.”

Ratner insisted that the superstitious Chan cut his hair and dressed him in chic black suits. “Everyone else treated him like a goofy foreigner,” Ratner says. “His dream was to be an American star. I’m happy I did the mitzvah and helped Jackie’s dream come true.”

Ratner keeps his stars on track, take after take. “I’m the keeper of the story. I’m making sure the plot is progressing. Because it’s a thriller, not a broad comedy, you have to hold them in. But you don’t stifle them. Because Jackie could easily design a $20 million fight sequence. If I put a camera on Chris, he could talk for 20 hours without stopping.”

Cut to the chase

“He seems to know and is able to find the nerve of scenes,” says Grazer. “And he follows the narrative line as well as any filmmaker today. He’s able to satisfy the expectations not only of the mainstream audience but people with taste, because he has a unique understanding of the epicenter of a film.”

“I try to tell a story in the simplest way possible,” says Ratner. “I don’t overcomplicate it, it’s about how to use the lens, camera, dolly and frame to tell the story in the simplest way possible.”

Have a heart

The “Rush Hour” movies rise above screeching cacophony because the mismatched cops adore each other. “He brings a level of humanity so that you become emotionally invested in the characters,” Parent says.

Have fun

Ratner knows how to enjoy himself. He travels, likes to talk to strangers, sends out playful holiday cards of himself dressed as Superman. He collects such movie memorabilia as the silver gloves on a key chain given to the “Raging Bull” crew in 1979 by Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro. He shoots musicvideos as well as ad campaigns for the likes of Jimmy Choo and Jordache. Evans started him on this sideline by introducing him to photographer Helmut Newton in 2004.

Ratner produced an HBO documentary with Newton’s wife, “Helmut by June.” He shot Edward Norton for French Vogue and composer Gustavo Santaolalla for Vanity Fair.

Just say no

While Ratner loves to throw parties at Hilhaven Lodge, once owned by Ingrid Bergman and Alan Carr (who built a small orange-mirrored disco in the basement), truth is he doesn’t drink, smoke or do drugs. He does like to hang with gorgeous women. “Sex is healthy, there’s nothing wrong with that,” Evans says.

“My big weakness is dessert,” Ratner says. “I drink milk and water, and I don’t sleep a lot. I watch a movie every night before I go to sleep. It inspires me.”

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