Brett’s mother was only 16 years old when he was born in 1969. He grew up with his mother, uncle, grandparents and great grandmother all living under one roof in Miami Beach. The patriarch of the family, Brett’s grandfather (who he called “Pipa”), was a doctor and someone he looked up to. Naturally they thought Brett would follow in Pipa’s footsteps and eventually become a doctor… they thought wrong.
When he was only 10 years old, Brett saw “Raging Bull” by Martin Scorsese and everything changed.
I don’t know why I was watching these kinds of movies back then but in my house you could watch whatever you wanted and my mom wouldn’t care. She was a totally cool mom… more like a big sister. I asked someone… how did this guy Martin Scorsese become a director? They told me he went to NYU Film School. At that moment I decided that’s where I would go.
But then I realized… I’m only 10 years old and you don’t go to college until you’re 18. 8 more years seemed like an eternity to me. So I came up with this plan… I’m going to go to my mom and tell her I’m too smart for the kids in my class and that I’m not learning anything… maybe they will let me skip a grade or two.
She went straight to the school and complained on my behalf. I was moved up 2 grades and ended up graduating high school when I was 16 years old. The downside was that I was the shortest kid in my high school but my plan worked.
Since I was so sure I would be a director I stopped doing my regular homework. Why would I do homework if I’m going to be making films??? So I convinced my teachers to let me make a film instead of taking the tests. After school some of my friends would come over to my house and we would make movies… I would even use my mom and grandparents as actors. I made dozens of these short films. I was determined… I talked about becoming a director every day and told everyone I met I was going to go to NYU Film school and become a director.
Everything I was doing was building up to the moment when I would graduate high school and go to NYU. When that time finally came I was only 16 years old.
Finally the day came when I went to New York for an interview with the NYU admission office. I thought… this is my moment! I’ll bring my best film (one of the dozens that I’ve made) and use it to show them how much passion I have for directing and they’ll let me right in.
I brought a little portable film projector and started to set it up in the admissions office so I could show them my film. As I’m setting up, the woman who I’m there to see for an interview walks in and asks, “What are you doing?”
I told her I was going to show her my film, “Am I in the wrong building? This is NYU film school right?”
She looked at me like I was crazy and said, “Yes it is but we don’t look at films here.”
I was shocked, “What do you mean you don’t look at films here? Isn’t this the Film School?”
She looked me right in the eye and said, “We look at your grades, we don’t’ have time to look at everyone’s films.”
My heart sank, “No no no you don’t understand.”
She said, “No, you don’t understand.”
As she opens up my academic file she says, “Young man you have the worst grades of any student that’s ever applied to this school. Go to Dade community college and get straight A’s for 2 years then maybe we’ll think about letting you in.”
I pleaded with her, “It’s going to be fine just watch the film and you’re going to let me in, trust me.”
She didn’t budge; she told me I wasn’t getting in and asked me to leave her office.
I was devastated… I saw a dream that I literally had since I was 10 years old disappear in front of my eyes. This was supposed to be my moment … this was the only college I applied to. I thought they were going to watch my film and say, “This is amazing. Welcome to NYU”
It didn’t happen that way.
I walked outside totally devastated… I thought my life was over. I think to myself… I’m not going to let this person decide my future. So I asked the next person I saw wearing an NYU t-shirt where the dean’s office was and headed that way.
When I got there, I see the dean’s secretary with a giant appointment book in from of her and I say, “Hello, my name is Brett Ratner I’m here to see the dean”
She asks me, “Do you have an appointment young man?”
I obviously didn’t. She told me that 3 months from now on the 3rd Thursday of the month I could see the dean for 15 minutes. This wasn’t going to work because the admissions decisions were being made now and I wasn’t going to take “no” for an answer. I told her it was a matter of life and death.
I think she could tell I wasn’t going away any time soon and she gave in. She goes into the dean’s office and leaves me there. I felt like Charlie Sheen in “Wall Street” waiting to see Gordon Gekko.
She comes out and says “come on in young man, you have 2 minutes.”
I told the dean what the woman in admissions said to me. I told him I thought it was ridiculous that she wouldn’t watch my film and that it didn’t matter to her how talented I was as a filmmaker. I told him that if he didn’t let me in, I’d be living on my mom’s couch for the rest of my life but I’d still be making films.
I go back home and told my mom what happened. She is a pathologically positive person and assured me that everything was going to be fine. After 2 or 3 weeks I get this letter in the mail…
YOU HAVE BEEN ACCEPTED TO NEW YORK UNIVERSITY TISH SCHOOL OF THE ARTS
…And that’s when I became the youngest student ever to go to NYU Film School
Getting in was the moment I decided not to ever accept no for an answer. I could have accepted that no and I would have probably still ended up becoming a director. Getting in at an early age gave me a tremendous head start and making the decision to go to the dean’s office changed the entire path of my life. Not every choice you make in life is important, but the choice I made to go to the dean’s office became a defining moment in my life.
NYU FILM SCHOOL
So I went to NYU and I felt like a total outsider. Every kid in the class was the son of a studio head, the daughter of a famous director or the nephew of a big producer in Hollywood. Every last name belonged to the biggest names in the film industry. They were all privileged and I was a regular kid from Miami Beach with no connections in the movie business whatsoever. I was just 16 years old and I had no clue how I was going to make it but that didn’t stop my perseverance or passion to do what I love.
Then I saw my fellow student’s work. Even to this day one of the films I saw in class keeps coming back to me… this one kid was so brilliant but he never became a director. I’m sure he’s a stockbroker or a lawyer now. I remember thinking… how am I going to survive here? I felt like quitting a lot of the time because I thought I would never be as good as they were. How am I going to compete with these kids that were so naturally talented??? Then I remembered what it was like for me in my high school math class.
MIAMI BEACH SENIOR HIGH SCHOOL
I knew I wasn’t good in math. I was the one in class always asking the math teacher Mr. Bearman to slow down so I could take notes and follow. I would write down everything the teacher said because I wanted to try and get a good grade if I could.
The kid next to me was literally reading comic books under the table… he was doing everything but paying attention. I was thinking he would probably get an “F.” What’s wrong with him? Why isn’t he paying attention? Why doesn’t he care?
I would go home and study my notes for hours… wake up in the morning and study my notes again. When the day finally came to take the test all my hard work paid off when I received my grade… an “A.” I thought for sure the kid next to me would probably get an “F” but when I looked over to see what he got… it was an “A” as well.
What the Hell? How did this kid get an “A?” It turns out I was sitting next to a mathematical genius who didn’t need to study to get a good grade. That’s when I realized that I could also get the same “A” as the kid that was more talented than me but I just would have to work harder.
THAT MEMORY INSPIRED ME TO WORK HARDER THAN ANYONE IN FILM SCHOOL
At NYU Film school you only get the equipment for a specific amount of time and never on the weekends. The rule was that all the equipment you use, needs to be returned by the end of the day on Friday. On the weekends all the other kids would go off and get high or get drunk or whatever else they were doing. I, on the other hand, would not show up with the equipment on Friday on purpose. I would keep the equipment and work over the weekends. I was trying to make films as good as these kids in my class. While they were off partying, I was working. All those weekends I was perfecting my craft and that’s how I became the most successful student to come out of my film class. I worked harder than the most talented kids in the school ever did… I then realized someone with 90% talent and 10% effort will not be as successful as someone with 10% talent and 90% effort.
Film school teaches you how to make a film, but it doesn’t teach you how to get a job in the real world. One day I got a copy of Forbes magazine that had a list of the 40 most powerful people in Hollywood.
I didn’t want to become a radiologist like my grandfather. So I decided to send a letter with a copy of the film I was making, to all 40 people on the list asking for money. I didn’t really need the money… I wanted the relationships. I got 39 rejection letters. I didn’t feel like I was getting rejected… I was making connections with important people in the business. I felt like I had a relationship with them or now at least a direct line of communication.
Then one day the dean called me to his office. I thought I was getting kicked out of school for not returning the equipment on so many weekends.
I didn’t have a famous last name, my parents weren’t in the business and I already didn’t feel like I belonged.
I walk into the dean’s office and he says to me, “Sit down, Brett.”
I sat down and immediately asked him, “Are you kicking me out?”
He looked confused. “Why would I kick you out?” Then he told me… “You won’t believe who called looking for you.”
I said, “Who?”
Then he tells me, “You got a call from Steven Spielberg’s office.”
I didn’t believe him; I told him it that is was either my mother or my grandmother pretending to be Steven Spielberg’s secretary because they wanted me to do well in school. I apologized for wasting his time, took the number and went straight back to my dorm and called (still thinking it was a hoax). A woman answered the phone and said, “Steven Spielberg’s Office.”
I said, “This is Brett Ratner, can I speak with Mr. Spielberg?”
Immediately the person on the other line said “hold on, he’s expecting your call.”
My heart was pounding. He couldn’t come to the phone but they said he would call me back. I stayed up all night waiting for his call. In the morning I got a call from Kathleen Kennedy who said she was calling on Steven’s behalf… I didn’t know who she was at the time and that she produced all of his films.
She explained to me “We don’t finance student films. There’s really no market for short films, but let us know when you’re ready to make a feature film and good luck in the future.”
I had to seize the opportunity. I told her, “You don’t understand… I’m a Jewish kid like Steven Spielberg and I’m going to be a big director like him one day… you have to believe me.”
I reminded her it wasn’t about the money; it was about the film. Then I made my final plea, “you won’t regret helping me.”
A week later I went to the mailbox in my dormitory and there was a letter with a check from Steven Spielberg.
I guess whatever I said to Kathleen Kennedy was persuasive.
The check was from Amblin Entertainment (Steven Spielberg’s production company). I blew it up the size of my dorm room wall and hung it over my bed. I carried a copy of it with me everywhere and showed it to girls to try and impress them. When I finished my film I was proud to brand it with…
“SUPPORTED IN PART WITH FUNDS FROM AMBLIN ENTERTAINMENT”
The story became urban legend amongst film students around the world.
Brett’s film “Whatever Happened to Mason Reese” (1990) ended up winning the NYU film festival. It had been developed, written and filmed while he was an undergraduate student at NYU Film School. Russell Simmons, of Def Jam fame, and a friend of Brett’s hosted a screening of the film at the Tribeca Film Center… the only people who showed up were rappers.
After seeing the short film, Chuck D of Public Enemy said to Russell, “We want Brett to do our next music video.”
As luck would have it, when that Public Enemy video aired, it was the first day MTV started putting the Director’s name on their music videos. All of a sudden Brett’s name was shown on MTV 20 plus times per day… what luck! After that Brett started to direct all of the biggest rapper’s music videos. As Brett was preparing to do a video for Heavy D, he met a stand-up comedian named Chris Tucker.
Chris was 18 or 19 years old at the time and I went up to him after a showcase of comedians for the Def Comedy Jam and said, “I’m Brett Ratner, a friend of Russell Simmons and a music video director. I’m doing a video for Heavy D and I would love for you to be in the video. It’s going to be a like a mini-movie and I would love for you to play a “pimp type” character.”
Chris immediately asked, “How much are you going to pay me man?”
I didn’t have a lot of money so I told him, “$500.”
He goes, “no no… I need $1,000.”
I told him, “I don’t have it.”
Then he asks me, “Can I keep the wardrobe from the shoot?”
I said yes and he agreed to do it. The video ends up being the biggest rap video on MTV at the time. All of a sudden I started doing all music videos for the biggest artists… Madonna, Mariah Carey, D’Angelo, Jodeci, just to name a few. My career was taking off as a music video director and I recognized that it was because of the Heavy D video I did with Chris Tucker. So I decided to send Chris the other $500 he originally asked for. He never called me to thank me but I know he cashed it because I got a copy of the check from the bank with his signature on the back.
Shortly after the Heavy D video, Chris does a small movie called “Friday” for which he only got paid $15,000 to star with Ice Cube. Next he gets to star in a movie called “Dead Presidents.” Then Mike Deluca, the head of New Line Cinema at the time, hires him to do a movie called “Money Talks” (also starring Charlie Sheen) and pays him $500,000… a huge payday for a young comic.
One week before filming; the director of “Money Talks” goes to see Mike and tells him there is a problem. Apparently Chris won’t listen to him… he doesn’t want to say any of the lines in the script… all he wants to do is improvise. Mike asks the director, “What do you want to do?”
The director says, “I think that we should fire Chris Tucker.”
Mike tells the director he’s fired and immediately calls Chris in for a meeting. He explains to Chris that they are supposed to start shooting in a week and for every week the movie isn’t shooting it is going to cost the studio one million dollars.
I guess when I sent Chris the $500 he really needed the money because he never forgot me. Chris tells the studio head, “I remember this cool white boy named Brett Ratner.”
They brought me in for an interview, immediately hired me to direct the movie and a week later I was on the biggest set of my entire life. By this time I had done a hundred music videos… I was prepared. Was it luck? Probably. But my hard work had paid off…
LUCK IS WHEN OPPORTUNITY MEETS PREPARATION
I learned a valuable lesson… When someone does a great job for you, it’s important to reciprocate and show your appreciation. It doesn’t have to be money; just a thank you can go a long way. That check I sent Chris Tucker came back to me many millions of times over. Never forget the people who help you on your way up the ladder. Just a few years later I came up with the idea of putting Chris in a movie with Jackie Chan. We made 3 “Rush Hour” movies together and had incredible success. Chris made close to one hundred million dollars on Rush Hour 2 and 3 and that was just a few short years after paying him $500 to be in my music video.
Q & A
Favorite Director (living): Roman Polanski
Favorite Director (deceased): Hal Ashby, but I love every director… including the ones that make bad movies.
What he looks for in a script: It has to speak to me personally. It has to be something I can make my own. There have been incredible scripts that I’ve turned down (that ended up being great movies) because I couldn’t relate to them or find something that I could make special about them or make my own.
The Brett Ratner signature: Vulnerable characters, great human relationships and humor that has irony. My films are all entertaining, even if they’re serious. I try to bring a lot of fun and energy to the movies I direct. Even “Red Dragon” was an entertaining movie with some fun moments. Sometimes I have a character singing in my movies… it tells the audience immediately who that character is as a person.
Opinions he trusts: Whenever I make a film I show the movie to the people I consider my mentors. Roman Polanski, Warren Beatty, Robert Evans, and mostly other film directors… I show them my movies to get their creative input and just to hear their honest opinion and critiques of my work.
Advice for aspiring Directors: The most important thing is to make films. Working on a set doesn’t get you the type of experience you need… making a film gets you the experience you need. Just go out and make a film. Also, find a mentor! Find someone that you can rely on that you can ask questions of. Don’t just pick their brain… eat it!
The 10 films directed by Brett Ratner have grossed over $2 billion at the global box office
Brett, along with his business partner James Packer formed RatPac Entertainment a film finance production and media company in 2013. Since inception, RatPac Entertainment has co-financed 55 theatrically released motion pictures exceeding $10 Billion in worldwide box office receipts. RatPac’s co-financed films have been nominated for 51 Academy Awards, 20 Golden Globes and 39 BAFTAs and have won 21 Academy Awards, 7 Golden Globes and 17 BAFTAs.
Brett Ratner’s 10 Favorite Films
- Being There (1979) Directed by Hal Ashby
- The Tenant (1976) Directed by Roman Polanski
- The Last Emperor (1987) Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci
- The Godfather (1972) Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
- The Godfather II (1974) Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
- Chinatown (1974) Directed by Roman Polanski
- Raging Bull (1980) Directed by Martin Scorsese
- Goodfellas (1990) Directed by Martin Scorsese
- Enter the Dragon (1973) Directed by Robert Clouse
- The Kid Stays in the Picture (2002) Directed by Nanette Burstein & Brett Morgen
10 Films Directed by Brett Ratner
- Money Talks (1997)
- Rush Hour (1998)
- The Family Man (2000)
- Rush Hour 2 (2001)
- Red Dragon (2002)
- After the Sunset (2004)
- X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
- Rush Hour 3 (2007)
- Tower Heist (2011)
- Hercules (2014)