Depending on whom you talk to, Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer represented either the salvation of the movie business in the 1980s or the last nail in the coffin of 1970s auteur-driven American cinema, along with its adventurous spirit.
So who’s right? While many exhibitors and studio executives consider the legacy that Simpson and Bruckheimer created at Paramount Pictures in the ’80s an epochal turning point in the development of today’s tentpole strategy, scores of film critics and aesthetes lament the surge of high-concept, high-octane fantasy fueled by such early Simpson/Bruckheimer hits as “Flashdance,” “Beverly Hills Cop” and “Top Gun.”
Bruckheimer has been carrying this baggage for so long his back must feel bowed. But no matter what one’s view, one thing is certain: Simpson had a greater impact on Bruckheimer’s life than anyone else before Simpson’s sad but inevitable death in 1996.
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They were first drawn together in the early ’70s, mostly through mutual friends, actors and other acquaintances tangentially related to the film business. They even shared a house in 1974, when Bruckheimer separated from his producer wife Bonnie and moved into Simpson’s Laurel Canyon home.
Bruckheimer, the son of Jewish immigrants from Germany, grew up in Detroit and became fascinated with still photography as a teen. After graduating from the U. of Arizona with a degree in psychology, he went to New York and landed a job in the mailroom of advertising agency BBD&O. He worked his way up as a commercial producer, managing campaigns for Coca-Cola and other big-ticket accounts.
The transition to feature producing soon followed with “The Culpepper Cattle Company” in 1972. Bruckheimer’s keen visual sense had been established via the lenses he gazed through since childhood. His commercial experience primed him for the realities of physical production and an understanding of character in selling a story or product, and that an actor’s emotional believability was critical for audience empathy.
But Bruckheimer’s ascent in the movie industry came more slowly than he anticipated. He produced two middling films for director Dick Richards in the mid-1970s, “Farewell, My Lovely” and “March or Die,” but it wasn’t until two stylish Paul Schrader films, “American Gigolo” and “Cat People,” and Michael Mann’s “Thief,” that Simpson began to take Bruckheimer seriously as a producer.
It was Bruckheimer’s work with Schrader and Mann, at a time when Simpson was just entering the picture, that helped provide the visual template for much of what was to come. Schrader cites “Gigolo” production designer Ferdinando Scarfiotti, who worked with Bernardo Bertolucci on several key films — including “The Conformist,” “Last Tango in Paris” and “The Last Emperor” — as “the man behind the curtain” in the creation of “Gigolo’s” look.
“Both Simpson and Bruckheimer were interested in what ‘Nando was up to,” recalls Schrader, “as a new look to bring to films.” Along with Giorgio Moroder’s electronic score, “what Jerry came away with,” adds Schrader, “was this hard-driving techno sound with these Italianate visuals,” which were employed in “Thief” and put to full use in Simpson and Bruckheimer’s first film together, 1983’s “Flashdance,” which grossed more that $200 million worldwide.
Seven years prior to “Flashdance,” Simpson came to Paramount and immediately impressed his bosses Barry Diller and Michael Eisner with his strong story instinct and manic energy. They promoted him to vice president of creative affairs in 1977, a year later to vice president of production and then president. But by 1983 his public displays of alcohol and drug consumption, and his wild lifestyle led Eisner to fire him. Simpson needed a partner if the de rigueur production deal being offered him as part of his severance package was going to mean anything.
Bruckheimer needed a partner, too. He was seen initially as more of a glorified line producer, comfortable with the equipment that filmmaking required, but not given much opportunity to exercise his own creative equipment. Bruckheimer knew that if he was going to take the next step in his quest to be a powerhouse producer, he needed an ally.
The big opening weekend that had eluded him in his career had become the mark of Hollywood success since 1975, with the first summer blockbuster, “Jaws.” Since then, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas had just kept upping the ante, from “Star Wars” and “E.T.” to “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Back to the Future” (executive produced by Spielberg). The mission of an ’80s studio producer was clear: Generate the big opening weekend gross or get lost.
Simpson-Bruckheimer Prods. immediately presented an odd couple even among the industry’s legendary odd couples (think Laurel and Hardy as black-garbed Hollywood hit men). Both the press and the film business quickly characterized them as Mr. Inside (Simpson) and Mr. Outside (Bruckheimer); Mr. Above the Line and Mr. Below the Line; Mr. Crazy and Mr. Sane.
Simpson was burly and barrel-chested, Bruckheimer lithe and whippetlike. Simpson blustered, Bruckheimer listened. Bruckheimer was funnier than people gave him credit for, and he performed enormous cleanup of the detritus left behind by Simpson’s tornadolike energy, both constructive and destructive. Bruckheimer said of their relationship in a 1990 GQ interview, “If there’s a huge blowup, I’ll be sent in to tame the lion, whereas Don will come in and shoot him.”
For his part, Schrader cites “intelligence and tenacity” as Bruckheimer’s most distinguishing assets. “He was like a ferret — like one of those animals who, if you kept him on the leash, he would never stop until he got that thing,” says the filmmaker. “That’s what you’re looking for, particularly if you’re in a power structure like Paramount. You’re looking for that guy who’s on your team who is not only smart, but relentless.”
Bruckheimer had paid attention when on the set with directors like Mann, Schrader and Richards, and understood what had made those films work or not. If Simpson liked stories he called “clean” (no ambiguity, a straight narrative line, clear-cut character goals), Bruckheimer liked the shading: the moodiness that lighting can evoke, that music can emphasize, and that editing can accentuate.
So while Simpson argued about who got credit for getting “Flashdance” made (there was a proliferation of candidates, proving the adage that success has a thousand fathers) or whether “Beverly Hills Cop” was his idea or Eisner’s, Bruckheimer made sure that the movies looked and sounded great.
Simpson put together the star packages, but Bruckheimer was always there to help cast the supporting roles. Simpson sent 40-page story memos, but when the crisis on the set erupted, Bruckheimer was the avuncular presence who calmed everyone down and carried them through the day.
“Jerry could spot the challenge and could see the gap that existed and find a way to move into that gap,” says Schrader, “whereas Don would try to fill that gap himself. You would almost have to elbow Don aside to push through, whereas Jerry would open the door for you. That’s the way they worked together.”
Bruckheimer had learned that style and texture alone do not make hits, and if there was one thing Simpson understood, it was story. This was really the secret of their yin and yang: Simpson’s hyper masculine brand of mayhem, crude humor and multiple explosions, paired with Bruckheimer’s ability to deliver cutting-edge special effects, rich cinematography and pulse-pounding editing.
Simpson and Bruckheimer didn’t invent the high-concept movie — “Jaws” did that; they merely perfected it. Actually, the term “high concept” was the mother’s milk of Paramount Pictures in the early 1980s: Diller developed it when innovating the ABC made-for-TV movie, and, along with Eisner, who worked under Diller at ABC, they brought the same philosophy to Paramount: A successful movie needed a narrative that was very straightforward, easily communicated and comprehended.
This led to the other revolution of the 1980s: the critical rethinking in the ways movies were marketed and sold. Although the tension between art and commerce is as old as “show business,” this dynamic reached a critical point in the 1980s, when suddenly it was possible to make $30 million-$50 million on an opening weekend in more theaters than had been conceivable when “Jaws” premiered just five years earlier.
By focusing on pre-sold premises, concepts that tapped into national trends or sentiments, star casting and carefully designed hit songs and soundtracks, financial risk could be reduced and financial gain could be increased. So what’s not to like?
Most blockbusters quickly became formulaic and predictable, none more so than Simpson and Bruckheimer’s. The high-concept fairy tale of “Flashdance” cued to extended musicvideo sequences was recycled in “Beverly Hills Cop” (policeman fantasy) and “Top Gun” (warrior fantasy), helping to invent the action comedy and paving the way for future testosterone-addled, pyrotechnics-laden flights of fancy that would become their trademark.
“Top Gun” director Tony Scott recalls that at the time, “Flashdance” director Adrian Lyne told him, “My daughter is watching this new thing called MTV, and I’m going to do two hours of that.” Scott was just coming off “The Hunger,” and “couldn’t get arrested” after that. But Simpson had caught the film on TV in the wee hours of the morning, according to Scott, and arranged a meeting.
“I couldn’t see (what they wanted for) ‘Top Gun,’ ” recalls Scott. “I wanted to do ‘Apocalypse Now’ on an aircraft carrier. They said, ‘Get off of that.’ They were right and I was wrong.”
In the 20 intervening years, the relation of image to soundtrack has become a dominant theme in popular culture, as has the high-gloss style that has come to symbolize Bruckheimer movies made with or without Simpson. And so has the slick, synthetic content that remains the bugaboo of Bruckheimer’s cinematic oeuvre, from “Coyote Ugly” to “Pearl Harbor.”
Bruckheimer and Simpson polished to a high sheen what has become the modern corporate credo for filmed entertainment: stories that can be pitched either to a studio or audience in 30 seconds or less; sold almost solely on their visuals, effects or music; and virtually guaranteed to lure an audience of 18- to 40-year-olds with comforting regularity.
For a brief, glorious period — their personal Camelot — Simpson and Bruckheimer directly tapped into the cultural zeitgeist of 1980s America. They also made almost $1 billion for Paramount Pictures in that same era.
In the process of establishing their creative hegemony at Paramount, Simpson and Bruckheimer helped redefine the role of the creative producer, an oxymoron to independent-minded ’70s directors like Robert Altman, Hal Ashby and Peter Bogdanovich.
Not since the heyday of David O. Selznick, Walter Wanger and Dore Schary had producers wielded such micro-control over the various elements of filmmaking. Simpson and Bruckheimer led a group of producers as diverse as Peter Guber and Jon Peters, Menachem Golan and Yoram Globus, and now Harvey and Bob Weinstein, who felt that it was their right, nay, their obligation, to tinker with every detail of the way movies were conceived, budgeted, cast, filmed, marketed and released.
Success also took Simpson down another path — a darker, more deadly descent. Simpson’s excesses have been well chronicled elsewhere, but his growing dependence on cocaine, painkillers and anti-depressants took an increasing toll on his personal and professional relationship with Bruckheimer. Simpson was largely absent from the sets of all the duo’s movies from the mid-1980s onward, despite publicity shots that made Simpson look present.
Bruckheimer became more than the front man; he took over every aspect of Simpson-Bruckheimer Prods. and kept the company running. He also instrumented damage control on Simpson’s periodic memo, email and phone outbursts from his barricaded retreat in his Hollywood Hills home, where Simpson remained a prisoner of demons more sinister than any Hollywood villain he could have conjured up.
The partnership stumbled more often, with “Days of Thunder” and “The Ref” both falling well below expectations at the box office. There was a mid-1990s recovery with four successive hits (“Bad Boys,” “Crimson Tide,” “Dangerous Minds” and “The Rock”), but the latter finished without Simpson as even a nominal producer. Midway through production, he died on the toilet at his home, reading a book about Oliver Stone, his body filled with prescription and recreational drugs.
“I ran into (ex-Paramount president of production) Dawn Steel at Don’s wake,” recalls Schrader, “and she told me that Don had promised her before, ‘When I’m 50 I’ll stop doing coke.’ And he was 52 (at the time of his death) and still doing coke, and she had pointed this out to him and he just shrugged. I think in his mind, he was going to get it together. But when his own self-imposed deadline came, he wasn’t the man to do it anymore.”
Bruckheimer had read the writing on the wall much earlier; he dissolved the partnership six months before Simpson’s death, and 1997 witnessed a new logo, Jerry Bruckheimer Films, on “Con Air.” There was no need for a hyphenated name now. Bruckheimer had proved himself to be the real producer, the guy who actually made the movie, and he was poised for another era of enormous success. The King was dead; long live the King.
(Dale Pollock is dean of the school of filmmaking at the North Carolina School of the Arts and covered Paramount in the ’80s as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times and Daily Variety.)