The Bruckheimer Paradox

Variety's Showman of the Year lets his blockbusters and hit TV series do the talking

If he were a character in a thriller, the book might be called “The Bruckheimer Paradox.”

On the job, Jerry Bruckheimer is Mr. Sizzle, the producer of some of the flashiest, most iconic films of the last 25 years, racking up more than $6 billion in box office receipts. Disney Studios topper Dick Cook calls him “our cleanup hitter,” and with “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” he’s all but assured of hitting another one out of the park.

In television, where he was a latecomer, he needed less than a decade to become arguably the most successful producer in the history of the medium.

Yet he could hardly be more low-key. He says little and speaks quietly. His clothes are sleek, his beard closely trimmed; Steven Spielberg’s billionaire-in-Gap look is not his style, nor is Brian Grazer’s spiky hair.

He hasn’t put himself on camera, as his one-time partner, the late Don Simpson, did. He has no nickname to rival Harvey Weinstein’s “Harvey Scissorhands.” Unlike David E. Kelley, he’s not married to a movie star.

If he throws lunches at his assistants, or has tapped someone’s phone, or was busted doing 160 in a Porsche with a bag of cocaine on the passenger seat, well, the word hasn’t gotten out.

Those who work with him call him rational and gentlemanly; the press complains he’s colorless, even boring.

Yet he is the only man in the business today to become famous strictly as a producer. He’s such a household name that in its coverage of the 9/11 attacks, the Onion ran a banner headline proclaiming “American Life Turns Into Bad Jerry Bruckheimer Movie” with the assurance that everyone would understand the joke.

Brand indentification notwithstanding, perhaps the biggest Bruckheimer paradox of all is that Variety‘s Showman of the Year is known for his low profile.

“I think there’s more in Jerry’s imagination than he may let on to the public,” says Nicolas Cage, who owes his action-adventure career largely to Bruckheimer. “Look at the movies he makes. They’re incredibly imaginative.

“He is a creative person, but perhaps Jerry knows the art of not defusing the energy by talking about it. He makes it happen; he makes what he sees in his imagination real.

“My guess would be, he doesn’t waste time talking about things, he does things. Jerry is a doer, and he knows there’s great power in silence.”

Bruckheimer himself avoids self-promotion, except in support of a specific project. “It’s not about who you’re having dinner with or the parties you’re going to. It’s about the work that you do. That’s the important thing for me,” he tells Variety in a rare extended sit-down in his expansive Santa Monica headquarters.

Disney’s Nina Jacobson echoes the thought: “He’s all about the movies or the television shows that he’s creating, so it’s not so much about personal flamboyance as it is about identifying with the audience.

“He’s the best stand-in for a movie audience of anybody I’ve ever met, in terms of anticipating in a very uncalculated but consistent way what it is that people want when they go to the movies. What makes a movie worth seeing from the standpoint of John Q. Public? I don’t know anyone who (anticipates that) better than Jerry.”

Bruckheimer honed that knack for understanding audiences very deliberately. He avoids industry screenings and makes a point of frequenting theaters in Santa Monica to see movies, as intent on watching patrons’ reactions as much as the entertainment on hand.

Neither side of the Bruckheimer paradox is an accident. He’s famous in part because he deliberately set out to build a Jerry Bruckheimer brand. His goal is to have the audience know that when they see his name, that “they’ll have some quality entertainment,” he explains.

If that means subjecting himself to the proverbial round of press interviews, so be it. “I’m shy,” he says, “so at first it was more difficult, but I’ve gotten used to it.”

On the other hand, he’s not looking for personal attention. “I’m not out promoting myself,” he says, “I’m promoting whatever we did.”

It’s typical of Bruckheimer to say “we” rather than “I.” “We’re a team,” he says. “You put together the right team, you’re going to win.”

Off a 10-year run of hits, his team is the envy of Hollywood. CAA partner David O’Connor calls the Bruckheimer collective (film and television) “incredibly strong.

“They have built a reputation in the creative community that (they) will always take care of you,” he adds. “That’s why you see an incredible number of return customers. Michael Bay making multiple movies with him. Will Smith, Tom Cruise in the early days, Nic Cage, Tony Scott. … There’s a reason for that: The quality of the experience is so high in terms of the process of making a movie from beginning to end.”

Scott, who’s made six films with Bruckheimer dating back to 1986’s “Top Gun,” says simply that “Jerry’s genius is packaging, packaging, packaging — not just talent, but personalities.”

But Bruckheimer is more than a packager. His movies bear too much of an individual stamp for that.

“He’s great at putting people in a room,” says Jerry Bruckheimer Films president Mike Stenson, “letting ideas bubble up and then being the arbiter of what gets through to the screen. He’s got that Golden Gut.”

In his early days working with Simpson, though, it was widely assumed that Bruckheimer was the line producer and Simpson the creative one.

He seems to bristle at that, even to this day. “It was always the same,” he says of his contribution. “Nothing’s changed.”

Whatever the partnership looked like from the outside, Scott always recognized that Bruckheimer was more than a bean counter.

“It was a misperception,” says the helmer, “because Don was the bouncing-off-the-walls ideas guy, but Jerry was the guy who honed it, not just moneywise but creatively, so it was a great combination. He always brought it together. Without Jerry, Don couldn’t get anything done.”

When he split with Simpson, says Scott, Bruckheimer seemed “a little nervous about going on his own.

“Now he feels he’s in control of everything. Before, it was a push and pull with Don, now it’s (with) the directors, and there’s one less person to deal with.”

The team builder who likes to be a lone wolf: It’s another paradox about Bruckheimer, one that goes back to his boyhood.

The son of German-Jewish immigrants, he spent his formative years in Detroit, a fan of Jack London novels and John Ford Westerns. When he went to the movies, he was bored by the mushy parts; to this day he isn’t much interested in telling love stories. But he always liked tales of adventurous, daring men: “The Great Escape” was an early fave, and he ate up the films of David Lean.

“They have enormous scope,” he says. “I was always attracted to directors who had a strong visual sense.”

Other interests he brought with him from Detroit: cars, cameras and hockey.

His boyhood interest in hockey was as a spectator and team manager; he has said that the experience was great preparation for movie producing. Today he’s an avid participant, having learned to play the game in his 40s at the urging of pal Wayne Gretzky.

The collective goal of hockey players might help explain Bruckheimer’s bent toward male-bonding themes, especially films that take the viewer into specialized worlds and show how teams of men operate — the commandos and flyboys of “Armageddon,” “Black Hawk Down,” “Pearl Harbor” and “Top Gun,” or the various detectives and forensics experts of his “CSI” shows.

For source material, he wants “stuff that’s unique. Fresh. And if it’s not fresh, we’ll make it fresh,” he says. “Find something that we haven’t seen for a long time. Give it a different spin.”

His films are not generally associated with social messages beyond a kind of can-do spirit, but he actually does have an agenda in one area: He avoids turning public institutions into villains.

“On the whole, I think people go into government with very idealistic things in mind to make this country a better country or to serve this country,” says Bruckheimer, an unabashed conservative for whom the word “patriot” is not necessarily a sign of blind allegiance.

In this regard he deliberately tells stories that promote public service, whether it’s the Armed Forces, NASA pros or the inspirational urban school teacher of “Dangerous Minds.”

“I want to make it look good,” he says, “because they’ll make your life better, and they’ll make my life better.”

He likes directors with a strong visual style, and when he finds himself without one, he’ll insist on a top d.p. to add the requisite flair.

As for stars, he expects “reality, honesty onscreen,” he says, “and then magic.”

Bruckheimer’s instinct for what works often involves taking chances by hiring up-and-coming musicvideo and commercials directors, or casting against type.

“It was not a logical conclusion to put me in ‘The Rock,’ ” Cage says. “If I’d gone to any other movie producer in Hollywood and said ‘I want to make an action film,’ they would have closed the door on me.

“He knows the art of counterpoint. He looks for something that seems to be incongruous but that turns out to work.”

Michael Bay, who cut his teeth on musicvideos and big-ticket commercials, is another example. The helmer, who claims to have gotten hooked on directing by watching “Top Gun” (“I said ‘I want to be Tony Scott,'” he says), first worked with Bruckheimer on a musicvideo for “Days of Thunder.”

Years later, when he met with Simpson and Bruckheimer for “Bad Boys,” he remembers expressing his reservations about getting the job due to his relative inexperience. “But I can tell you this,” he recalls saying to them, “I’m young, I can speak to my generation and I know I can do it better than the guys you’re talking to who are in their 40s.”

Bay landed the job, due no doubt as much to his moxie as his vision. “I think (Bruckheimer) liked my attitude, that I’d give my soul for this.”

Bay was subjected to the good cop/bad cop routine that one came to expect from the producing tandem, with Simpson the “super charmer,” albeit the “crazy” one. That dynamic continued until the eve of shooting, when Simpson surprised Bay with 80 pages of script notes. “Jerry said calmly ‘Don’t worry, Michael, we’ll work it out.’ You look to Jerry for stability, nothing flaps him.”

If Bruckheimer’s career has seen him survive considerable battles with that characteristic unflappability intact, those who know him caution not to judge him by that placid surface.

“Inside, Jerry is wound as tight as a drum,” Scott says.

He works long hours, and no amount of footage from dailies — whether from tentpole features or his numerous TV series — escapes his careful gaze.

“He’s tireless in his pursuit of trying to make something better,” says Chad Oman, president of production for Jerry Bruckheimer Films. “Even if the scene is good and everyone’s happy with it, he’ll want to go back to the well and see if we can make it better, long after the point where most people are ready to quit on something.”

True to his introverted nature, Bruckheimer sometimes gets his way by tweaking directors’ insecurities; rather than admitting he doesn’t like something, he’s more likely to say “You can do that … if you want,” and leave the room.

“Then you just sit there and stew,” says Bay, who refers to the tactic as “water torture.”

Scott has heard the same line: “When he does that, I go, ‘Oh, fuck, there’s something I’m doing wrong here.’ “

The producer’s quiet assertiveness has a way of taking people by surprise, no matter how consistently effective. Bay, for example, remembers how, while working on “Armageddon,” he read that “Godzilla” would be accompanied by a soundtrack release.

“I called Jerry and asked, ‘Why aren’t we going to have an album for ‘Armageddon’? ” recalls Bay. “There was a long pause and he said, ‘Let me call you back.’ By Sunday we had Aerosmith sitting in his office.” The resulting “inspired-by” LP, and Aerosmith’s single, went to No. 1.

CAA’s O’Connor says that “people have (underestimated him at) their own peril consistently over the years.

“I think television was a perfect example of that. At a time when the (show creator) was thought to be the sole driver of television, he became the most successful producer in television history in the space of a very few years.”

While the naysayers persist, Bruckheimer is philosophical. “I think everybody cares about how people respond to you, but I can’t change them,” he explains.

“Just look at the work. That tells the whole story. There are a lot of people in this town that can razzle-dazzle you and sell you something, but they can’t walk the walk. We don’t talk the talk, we just do it.”