Blow It Up and Start All Over Again
United States Navy, via Reuters
Jerry Bruckheimer supervised the cinematic devastation of the Navy during “Pearl Harbor” in 2001.
By LAURA M. HOLSON
Published: November 13, 2006
Peter Mountain/Walt Disney Pictures
This year, he was on the “Pirates of the Caribbean” set with the director Gore Verbinski, left, and the actor Johnny Depp.
PALMDALE, Calif. — “It’s a wonder, isn’t it?” the producer Jerry Bruckheimer
asked rhetorically, looking up at a three-story reconstruction of the ship the Black Pearl on the set of “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End.”
He wasn’t talking about the three-masted square rigger, or even the 1,400 ceiling lights, which became so hot one day during filming some burst into flames. Nor was he referring to the 60-foot-high blue screen wrapped around the ship like a shower curtain hung from an oversized rail. What was a wonder, Mr. Bruckheimer mused one recent afternoon, was that the sequels to the first successful “Pirates” movie were made at all.
“They almost got canceled many times; money, budget, you name it,” Mr. Bruckheimer said as he walked up a flight of wooden stairs to the deck where director Gore Verbinski
was rehearsing a scene with Johnny Depp
for the third “Pirates” installment, which is due out this May.
Such challenges getting movies made are increasingly common in Hollywood these days. But what gave it a twist here was that Mr. Bruckheimer was referring to the Walt Disney Company
’s biggest franchise in years, “Pirates,” and that cost-cutting was an issue even for him, the most powerful producer in Hollywood.
In an era when producers, directors, and even popular actors are required to toe a stricter line, Mr. Bruckheimer, too, is feeling the squeeze. His contribution to Disney cannot be underestimated; he has produced 17 films for it since 1991 which have brought in $5 billion at box offices around the world. Of those, he is best known for his action-packed adult thrillers like “Enemy of the State,” “Armageddon” and “Gone in 60 Seconds,” where car crashes, sexy leading ladies and explosions abound.
But as part of a corporate shift under the new Disney chief executive Robert Iger, the studio pledged this summer to make fewer films and focus on family-friendly movies that are marketable across all the company’s businesses, including theme parks, plush toys and television. That meant Mr. Bruckheimer was now in the onscreen amusement park business — a far cry from the highly stylized, color-saturated movies and television shows that made him famous.
Indeed his formula has been so successful, the producer’s foray into television in 2000 with “CSI” (an idea rejected by Disney executives) has become the cornerstone of a series of gritty procedural dramas that now make up about one-third of the CBS
network’s prime-time lineup.
But while Hollywood producers often leave when a studio changes direction, Mr. Bruckheimer still has a few years left on his five-year contract with Disney. And many in Hollywood who know him suggest that it is Disney who will have to accommodate its star, not the other way around.
Terry Rossio, one of the writers of the “Pirates” trilogy, explained it this way, recalling a recent conversation with Mr. Bruckheimer about the blockbusters he produced during his 30-year career.
“I was standing on the deck of the Black Pearl with Jerry and I had to make small talk which is hard to do because he doesn’t talk much,” Mr. Rossio recalled. “Out of nowhere I asked him, ‘How do you get to be Jerry Bruckheimer?’ He replied, ‘Most people don’t understand the nature of power.’ His sentiment was you fight along the lines of what people already want. You put yourself where your agenda and the agenda of the people you are working with are the same. The reason Jerry rarely has to dig in his heels is because he doesn’t set up a situation where he has to.”
One coming Bruckheimer movie that will not fit the new Disney mold is “Déjà Vu,” a science fiction thriller directed by his longtime collaborator Tony Scott
, to be released Nov. 22 by Disney’s Touchstone Pictures. “That wasn’t a typical Disney movie,” Mr. Bruckheimer said. (Among other things, a gas-soaked body is charred by fire.)
Disney would not want to lose Mr. Bruckheimer. The studio has made new deals with other producers, including the New York-based Scott Rudin
, who is known for literary fare like “The Hours” and “Closer.” But since Mr. Bruckheimer began making blockbusters in the 1980s with Don Simpson
, his late business partner — including “Top Gun” and “Beverly Hills Cop” — few others have matched his record.
“Our bread and butter, and where Jerry’s ultimate value is, is he is our Disney home run hitter,” said Richard Cook, chairman of Walt Disney Studios. “And that is what we want him to do.”
As such, Mr. Bruckheimer has the same status commonly conferred on celebrities like Denzel Washington
, the star of “Déjà Vu.” So much so, AskMen.com
, a men’s lifestyle and fashion Web site, recently ranked him No. 6 on its “Top 49 Men” list ahead of Mr. Depp, Bono and Mr. Washington.
And he is afforded a similar lifestyle. Mr. Bruckheimer owns homes in Brentwood and New York City, a 1,500-acre farm in Kentucky and another farm near Ojai, south of Santa Barbara. While he is loath to admit it, he owns a Gulfstream IV jet which he keeps at the Burbank airport near Disney’s headquarters. And he won’t reveal his age, though friends say he is 63.
Mr. Bruckheimer often travels with an assistant, Daniel Camins, who works as a personal schedule minder. On an afternoon in August, Mr. Camins drove Mr. Bruckheimer in the producer’s BMW 745il, to the Burbank set of “Pirates.” In October on another “Pirates” set in Palmdale, Mr. Camins not only carried a BlackBerry
and cellphone for messages from Mr. Bruckheimer’s Santa Monica office, but also a plastic bag filled with almonds and dried fruit, which Mr. Bruckheimer’s nutritionist recommended he eat.
Mr. Bruckheimer, it is clear, likes things just so. At a charity dinner on Oct. 30, where he and the CBS chief executive, Leslie Moonves
, were honored, the music from a video segment sounded achingly familiar. It was. Mr. Bruckheimer had commandeered the tape and replaced the planned music with songs from the scores of “Pirates” and “Armageddon.”
“It was so bad,” Mr. Bruckheimer said of the planned music, exhibiting a rare roll of the eyes. At the dinner, the actor Anthony LaPaglia
, who stars in the Bruckheimer-produced “Without a Trace,” called him a “Hollywood zen master” and “true perfectionist.”
Tony Scott, who has known Mr. Bruckheimer since the 1980s and has directed six movies for him, including “Top Gun” and “Enemy of the State,” had another take. "The calm is on the outside,” Mr. Scott said. “But inside he’s humming."
Robert Zuckerman/Touchstone Pictures and Jerry Bruckheimer
Denzel Washington and Paula Patton appeared this year in “Déjà Vu,” produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and directed by Tony Scott.
The 1990 film “Days of Thunder” brought together, from left, the director Tony Scott, the producer Don Simpson, the screenwriter Robert Towne, the producer Jerry Bruckheimer and the actor Tom Cruise.
And that attention to detail is greatly appreciated at Disney. “You don’t have to worry,” Mr. Cook said.
In October, ago Mr. Bruckheimer attended a music meeting for “Déjà Vu” at a studio in Venice. The meeting was to begin at 4 p.m., but he and Mr. Scott were late. The producer had spent the morning at a screening of “Déjà Vu” and, midday, had been whisked to the El Capitan Theater in Hollywood, where he introduced Mr. Scott to an eager crowd of Disney movie executives who had gathered for their annual meeting. (Later that night he attended a charity event honoring Mr. Iger.)
Mr. Scott and Mr. Bruckheimer were to review music composed by Harry Gregson-Williams for several movie scenes. Mr. Bruckheimer tends to work with the same people; this was his fifth movie with the composer. Mr. Scott, dressed in a sweatshirt and shorts, sat in a chair and tapped his foot nervously, while Mr. Gregson-Williams fiddled with a few keys on a monitor to bring up the scenes on a large screen. Mr. Bruckheimer, prone to long silences, sat quietly on the couch.
The composer showed a car chase where Mr. Washington followed a killer to a hideout. The music was loud and unrelenting. "It would help us if we had a melody, maybe his melody," said Mr. Bruckheimer, referring to a leitmotif that signaled when Mr. Washington’s character was onscreen. “You zone out. You need something over it that distracts you.”
The exchanges were polite — Mr. Bruckheimer rarely spoke above a loud whisper — but Mr. Gregson-Williams seemed unnerved.
For another scene, Mr. Gregson-Williams had created a haunting melody, but left out the last notes. "You didn’t finish it and if you did, I’d be happy,” Mr. Bruckheimer said.
“All right," said Mr. Gregson-Williams, dejected. "I’ll have another go at that."
As Mr. Bruckheimer and the crew were leaving, the composer turned to a guest and smiled meekly. “Welcome to my life,” he said.
Mr. Bruckheimer said afterward it was up to him to remind the composer of the audience. “I know what I felt it should be, and when he got it there, he loved it,” he said. “You don’t just not do it.”
Mr. Scott said Mr. Bruckheimer’s exacting standards come from a deep-seated need to remain relevant. "There is a confidence that comes with age, but Jerry is still insecure, as I’m insecure,” Mr. Scott said. “The insecurity comes from the fact you think you might lose it. Not the 10 houses or 4 Jaguars. It’s that your confidence might have gone."
Few would think the producer lacked confidence, although Mr. Bruckheimer himself admitted to a “fear of failure.” But Disney in many ways is a comforting home: most studios cannot rival its marketing prowess.
This year Mr. Bruckheimer has been consumed with the second and third “Pirates” movies. And with good reason. Industry executives estimate the combined budget of the two movies at nearly $475 million, not including marketing costs. (“Dead Man’s Chest,” was released in July and brought in more than $1 billion in worldwide ticket sales.)
While visiting the set in Palmdale in October, Mr. Bruckheimer slipped quietly behind the director’s chair with barely a hello. “He’s a genius,” Mr. Bruckheimer said of Mr. Verbinski. “What can I tell him? If I’m in his face, I hired the wrong director.”
Of course Mr. Bruckheimer isn’t always so deferential. Anthony Hopkins
, who starred in “Bad Company,” told reporters he sparred with Mr. Bruckheimer when he was asked to learn new lines given to him by the producer on the day a scene was to be shot. In August, Mr. Bruckheimer met with the “Pirates” script writers Ted Elliot and Mr. Rossio, who wanted to give Will Turner more dialogue to develop the character. (Mr. Turner is played by Orlando Bloom
.) Mr. Bruckheimer resisted, fearing moviegoers would be confused.
“He is willing to go with us down the road of complexity,” Mr. Rossio said. “But at times we feel he is constraining us from doing things for fear they are too complex. It’s common for us to polarize, although we end somewhere in the middle.”
Mr. Bruckheimer said of the exchange: "I understand what they were saying but, the difference is this: I am the audience.”
And that sense of what moviegoers want should put him and Disney on the same page, at least most of the time. If not, he has options.
If Disney does not want to make the movies he produces, Mr. Bruckheimer said, “We’ll make them someplace else.”
“We are going to serve it up to them and see if they like it.”