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Ratner’s long, strange trip to ‘Red Dragon’

When Universal premiered “Red Dragon” Monday in Gotham’s Grand Central Station for an A-list crowd, director Brett Ratner was in his element — bouncing from one conversation to another not with the detached coolness of most directors, but with exuberance and goofy charm.

That affability, coupled with his Sammy Glick-like ascent and the supermodels that always seem to be in his orbit, have often led to questions about Ratner’s skill level, even as he’s become a commercial force.

Judging by the industry reaction to his deft handling of dark material, Ratner’s for real. And he’s moving quickly from Hannibal Lecter to two more icons: Superman and the Rolling Stones. While he tackles the former, Ratner is eying the 40th anniversary tour Stones tour as the backdrop of a pic he wants to make at Universal, with Mick Jagger producing with Ratner and his partner, Jay Stern.

In the early 1990s, Jagger gave Ratner his first film meeting in Hollywood, telling him about a pic Ben Stiller tried to make with Brad Pitt about fans who try to crash a Stones concert. Fearing the Stones might be making their concert curtain call, Ratner hatched a project revolving around the band.

“This is my version of an Altman film — six characters revolving around the tour — and I’ve gone to Wes Anderson, begging him to write it for me,” Ratner said. That he’s open about cribbing Altman is pure Ratner, who said it’s not coincidence that “Red Dragon” is closer in tone to “Silence of the Lambs” than Lecter pics “Hannibal” or “Red Dragon’s” original, “Manhunter.”

“When I see movies by people my age like Paul Thomas Anderson or Wes, I can tell you which scenes in older movies they referenced for specific shots, whether it’s Robert Downey Sr. or Robert Altman,” Ratner said. “I’m very good at copying. When I made ‘Rush Hour,’ ’48 Hours,’ ‘Midnight Run’ and ‘Beverly Hills Cop’ helped me decide what to do. When Stacey Snider sent me the ‘Red Dragon’ script, I thought, why me? I don’t do dark, and there were voices in my head saying ‘you suck compared to Michael Mann, Ridley Scott and Jonathan Demme.’ But I decided this was about characters and should be like ‘Silence of the Lambs.’ Jonathan said, ‘I can’t wait to see your version, and if you’re looking for the Godfather’s blessing, you’ve got it.”

Ratner didn’t dwell on measuring up to the stylistic imprint Mann put on “Red Dragon” with “Manhunter,” even though the periodic trips a teenage Ratner made to the “Miami Vice” set persuaded him to be a director. “That movie did $6 million in box office, and in terms of the marketplace right now, nobody has seen it except fans like me and you,” Ratner said.

RATNER’S PLUCK COMES FROM the unlikely origins of his film career. He finished high school at 16 and went right to the admissions office of NYU because Scorsese went there. “I didn’t factor in academics, and I’d never gone to class because I was watching or making movies,” he said. Told to prove himself in community college, a dejected Ratner took one last shot before returning home. “I went to the dean’s office, said it was an emergency, and somehow got five minutes,” Ratner said. “I told him my dream was to be a film director and that if he didn’t let me in, I’d be living on my mom’s couch in Miami the rest of my life.” The dean surprisingly watched his films, and Ratner was accepted.

“Taking that chance was the defining moment in my life,” he said. “I never accepted no for an answer since.” So it wasn’t surprising that Ratner eventually charmed Steven Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy into funding his student film even though they only gave to USC students. He impressed Brian Grazer enough to get a job offer.

“Brian said, ‘Be my assistant for $22,000, and someday you’ll be a big producer,'” Ratner recalled. “I said, ‘You don’t understand, I’m a director.’ ‘Fine,’ he said, ‘$24,000.’ I say, ‘Brian, I want to be Ron Howard, not a producer.’ ‘$27,000,’ he said. Finally, he said, ‘I’ve got another meeting. Good luck. When I got my first movie, he couldn’t believe it. ‘You’re really a director,’ he said.”

The key, Ratner said, is that he’s got a voluminous knowledge of films and has no pretense about admitting he’s overmatched. “Red Dragon” scripter Ted Tally said Ratner was meticulously prepared and exceedingly collaborative. “People remember me as this little hustler, but I was always a filmmaker, always learning,” Ratner said. “When I got an agent and they wanted me to meet all these studio guys, I refused until I’d shot 100 videos and knew I was ready. If you watched my student film, you’d never believe the same guy did ‘Red Dragon.’ I am very aware of my limitations.”

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