Jerry Bruckheimer: The Pirate King
'It's all about choices,' Jerry Bruckheimer likes to say. Film producers aren't exactly household names, and most people wouldn't be able to pick Bruckheimer out of police line up, but you'll recognise the lightning bolt on a desert highway that kicks off a Bruckheimer movie: blockbusters like the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, Armageddon, Con Air and Pearl Harbor. His pictures have generated more than $13 billion worldwide, and his TV shows are everywhere: CSI and its multiple off-shoots, Without a Trace, Cold Case, and The Amazing Race, they all bear the Bruckheimer logo.
In person, the sixty-one-year-old is trim, lightly bearded, soft-spoken and always on-message. His wardrobe leans toward Giorgio Armani, and has done ever since he produced American Gigolo back in 1980. Armani even supplied the gray felt for Bruckheimer's pool table. (If he did hairpieces, JB's immaculate coiffure would be an obvious suspect.)
The only son to a lower-middle class German-immigrant couple, Jerome struggled at school in Detroit (he has a mild dyslexia), but soon showed his natural flair for organization, assembling his own ice hockey team at the age of ten because he wasn't athletic enough to play for anybody else. Half a century later, he's still an avid hockey nut, regularly crossing sticks with the likes of Kiefer Sutherland, Cuba Gooding Jr and Tom Cruise.
A keen photographer, he went into the advertising business. Before he was 30 he had moved to Hollywood, a protégé of director Dick Richards. But it wasn't until he teamed up with producing partner Don Simpson that Bruckheimer began to ratchet up the hits: Flashdance, Beverly Hills Cop, Top Gun, Days Of Thunder.
They were the quintessential 80s success story: macho, arrogant, excessive… Bad Boys by nature. They were among the first producers to market themselves as aggressively as their stars - they figured that higher profiles and higher salaries went hand in hand. It worked. According to Forbes, Bruckheimer made more than $80 million last year, most of it from his syndicated TV shows. These days his producer's fee is approximately $5 million a picture.
At the time it was assumed that the more flamboyant Simpson was the real mover and shaker in the partnership, but the truth was more complex, and when the compulsive Simpson died in January 1996 (just a month after Bruckheimer severed their partnership) business went on unabated: The Rock, Con Air and Enemy Of The State all boasted the familiar hallmarks of Simpson-Bruckheimer productions: rapid fire MTV cutting, streamlined stories and sleek, slick action.
The formula didn't win over the critics, but these movies knew exactly what they were about, and if you're in the market for an audio-visual testosterone surge, you could do a whole lot worse. Bruckheimer has populist instincts, but he also has a real eye for talent and the tenacity to go after what he wants. (Director Michael Bay, who made two Bad Boys films, Armageddon and Pearl Harbor with Bruckheimer, likens his erstwhile mentor's production technique to Chinese water torture.) To persuade the young Tom Cruise to sign up for Top Gun, for example, Bruckheimer convinced the US air force to give the actor a ride in a fighter jet… Cruise threw up in the cockpit but discovered 'the need for speed'.
Cruise, Eddie Murphy and Will Smith all won their box office spurs in Bruckheimer movies. So did Keira Knightley. We can credit Bruckheimer for Nicolas Cage's transformation into an action star (a mixed blessing, admittedly), and for Johnny Depp's Oscar-nominated Jack Sparrow: Disney were unconvinced by the casting and only agreed when Bruckheimer and director Gore Verbinski threatened to walk. When studio executives saw dailies of Depp in his eyeliner, dreadlocks, gold teeth and sea-leg swagger they panicked and wanted to fire him, but the producer convinced them he knew what he was doing.
In Hollywood they talk about Bruckheimer's 'golden gut'. But he's a rationalist when you get down to it. He has a clear sense of people's value. Why was Depp so important to the Pirates equation? Because he gave a project based on a theme park ride the credibility of a real movie; that might not have been the case with Disney's proposed alternatives, Jim Carrey or Matthew McConaughey.
He's often stuck by those above-the-line collaborators who have done the job for him - stars like Denzel Washington, directors like Tony Scott - but that's a no-brainer in the blockbuster trade; he's also invested in writers and character actors.
The forthcoming National Treasure sequel brings us Nic Cage and Diane Kruger, of course, but it also boasts such talents as Helen Mirren, Jon Voight, Harvey Keitel and Ed Harris. There isn't a theatre company in the world that wouldn't envy such a roster. And bear in mind, Crimson Tide was ostensibly written by Michael Schiffer, but uncredited, Quentin Tarantino rewrote the dialogue, there was a scene by Robert Towne (Chinatown) and another by Steve Zaillian (Schindler's List).
That kind of talent doesn't come cheap, but Bruckheimer evidently considered it worth it. (And let's note in passing the supporting cast for Crimson Tide included Viggo Mortensen, James Gandolfini and Ryan Philippe long before they were famous.) In the end, it's this investment in creativity that redeems the mechanical aspects of the Bruckheimer formula. Like the man said, it's all about choices. He sure can pick 'em…
Jerry Bruckheimer FilmsPirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest
Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl
Bad Boys II
Black Hawk Down
Remember the Titans
Gone in Sixty Seconds
Enemy of the State
Days of Thunder
Beverly Hills Cop II
Beverly Hills Cop
Thief of Hearts
Young Doctors In Love
March or Die
Farewell, My Lovely
Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins
The Culpepper Cattle Co.
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