Teamed with the late Don Simpson, Jerry Bruckheimer became one of Hollywood’s most successful producers turning out hits like “Flash Dance,” “Beverly Hills Cop” “Top Gun” and “Crimson Tide.”
On his own since Simpson’s drug-related death in 1996, the Detroit-born Bruckheimer produced this summer’s “Con Air ” for Walt Disney Co., which has grossed $104 million domestically and $121 million overseas to date.
An amateur photographer as a youth, the visually oriented Bruckheimer got his start at advertising agencies in New York and Los Angeles, where he produced commercials. Always interested in films, he segued into moviemaking, producing “American Gigolo,” “Cat People” and “Thief.” While working as a producer for Paramount Pictures in the early 1980s, he met Don Simpson, who was the studio’s head of production. The two teamed up and produced their first film, “Flashdance” in 1983, which was the beginning of their long relationship.
Currently, Bruckheimer is on the Disney lot in Burbank where he is producing “Armageddon,” a big-budget space thriller starring Bruce Willis, Billy Bob Thornton and Liv Tyler. When he is not at Disney, he is in the Washington, D.C. -Baltimore area, producing “Enemy of the State,” a political thriller starring Will Smith.
Question: Your films have grossed more than $3 billion. What’s the secret?
Answer: I love telling stories. It really all comes down to the idea, the story, the characters.
I also try to stay up with the culture. I read. I get 100 subscriptions a month. I watch a lot of TV. It informs you, it informs you about what kids are doing. You got to stay in touch. I love hiring young interns and asking them, “What are you doing, where are you going tonight?” It informs me about what I want to make and see.
Q: Some movie and TV executives use market research to make movies. What is your process?
A: If an idea crosses my desk, the question for me is: Do I want to see it? It’s really what I am interested in.
Q: What is a quintessential Jerry Bruckheimer film?
A: It is always about characters. We used to call it “the emotion of triumph” when Don and I made our early pictures together and I don’t think it has changed very much. It is people who struggle within themselves to overcome the odds, both externally and internally, to succeed. You try to tell a great tale.
Q: What’s your background?
A: I came from a lower middle class family in Detroit, no connections to the movie business. And I worked real hard, and had an aptitude for what I do, and I always knew I did. This is where I wanted to be as a young kid. I dreamt about it. I never thought I would be here.
Q: You dreamt about it?
A: Sure, but I just thought it would be a dream. It would never happen. It is all about focus you can’t let things get in the way. You make sacrifices along the way to attain what you really want. A lot of people lose the focus, create excuses why they can’t make it or shouldn’t make it or say it is always someone else’s fault. When I do something wrong it is my fault. When something goes wrong I don’t blame anybody else. I am the one who should have seen it coming. I am the one to blame.
Q: Why are you drawn to the action drama?
A: I enjoy action. I am a product of the films I grew up watching, the ones I loved as a kid. “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” and “Lawrence of Arabia,” are strong character-based stories, but they had action. My films all have heart to them, camaraderie among the characters which I think makes them different from just an action movie.
Q: Who is the quintessential Jerry Bruckheimer star?
A: Someone who doesn’t fall into a mold. When you hire a Tom Cruise, he has a look that people like, he has the great smile, he is this very open guy, terrific actor and he has the magic. You look for the magic.
Q: What movies do you watch now?
A: I open the paper and it’s what interests me. This past weekend I saw “Alien Resurrection” and “The Rainmaker.” I try to go to two or three movies a weekend. I don’t have them in my home. I go to the malls where everybody else does.
Q: Why malls and not Hollywood screening rooms?
A: Movies are a communal experience. There is energy in a movie theater. You go to those screenings around town and people go walking in wanting people to fail because they are jealous.
Q: Around the time of “Days of Thunder,” people were saying that you and your late partner Don Simpson were washed up. What was that like for you?
A: You just have to believe in yourself and then just go out and do it. The problem was, we weren’t doing it. We hadn’t made a picture in quite a while and a lot of that had to do with our own internal turmoil. There was a Writers Guild strike which crippled everything, and we had to regear our development and then “Days of Thunder” came out and it wasn’t the hit everyone thought it would be. But it was a very successful film. It made $80 million, when $80 million was still a lot of money, and a lot more in foreign.
Q: You and Don Simpson were a very successful team. What have you learned about yourself with him gone?
A: He’s here. He went to the Jerry School and I went to the Don School. There was a lot of camaraderie between us and a lot of knowledge I gained from him, and hopefully the good parts carry on and the bad parts go away.
Q: Don was a close friend. What do you say to people writing books about him?
A: I just hope they balance it. I am not cooperating with them. There will come a day when I will write the truth of what really happened. He was such a unique, interesting character. There is darkness in all of us and he certainly had a dark side. There is no secret about that (but) he also had a wonderful side.
Q: Talk about the wonderful side.
A: Don was the kind of guy everybody wanted to be around. When Don was Don, he had a wonderful sense of humor, very self-effacing. And he was so quick, his mind was so clever. I don’t think anybody turned down a Don phone call when Don was OK, when he was up. Sometimes you didn’t want to get the phone call when he was in a terrible mood.
Q: What Don put into himself, the drugs, must have disturbed you greatly.
A: You could talk to Don and rationalize with him, but there was a part of him that wasn’t going to change, no matter what. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink, especially for someone as smart as Don. He lived his life the way he wanted to live it and he made no excuses about it. He never denied what he did. It wasn’t a dark secret and he lived by it and died by it.
Q: You were always the detail-man at Simpson-Bruckheimer.
A: God is in the details. In order to make the whole interesting, you have to make all the little pieces work. It is like a puzzle when you get all the pieces to fit together just right, the picture is beautiful. It does to story telling, to the clothes you wear, to the house you live in it goes to the movies I make, it goes to the music I make. I break it down into the smallest, minutest detail. When I am doing a soundtrack for a film, I will break it down to bass line, the guitar line. Each one adds to the whole and if one of them doesn’t work properly then the whole doesn’t work.
Q: Do you think this comes from your Germanic background?
A: I think the Germanic background is more of a work ethic. The Germans have a long history of being industrious and working very hard. That comes from both sides of my family.
Q: What are your skills?
A: I was always artistic in what I did with photography as a young boy. I was always a great organizer. When I was 11, I kind of sponsored a hockey team. I got a whole bunch of the kids in the neighborhood together. When there was a baseball team, I always rounded up the guys and put it together. I was always good at making things happen. That is what a producer does.
Q: Do you like to test yourself physically?
A: I play hockey once or twice a week when I have time, I ski. I run, I work out. I challenge myself every day. I am up at six and I go to the gym.
Q: What’s the toughest part of the movie game?
A: It is always trying to convince the talent. There are so many good people making movies and they are all chasing the same people. You have to get in there and try to convince Tom (Cruise), Bruce Willis or Gene Hackman that what you have is better than what the next guy has. That’s hard and it’s very elusive. There is so much money at stake and your career is at stake every time you get out there.
Q: How do you lasso these stars?
A: It is always the material. If you develop good material, they will want to do it. Now I have built a reputation that actors know that I take care of them and I don’t B.S. them if it is not in the script. They know I will get it there for them. I don’t tell them anything I can’t deliver. We gave a script to Gene Hackman and he said, “My character is not on the page.” We said, “you are right.” Tony Scott said, “We are going to get it there.” We made “Crimson Tide.” My background is in marketing and they know that we, as a team, can make it bigger than life for them. They know when they work with me, the bang is going to be there.
Q: Can Hollywood continue to spend $100 million, $150 million to make movies?
A: Sure, as long as they make money. If they don’t make money, they can’t. Believe me, some of them aren’t going to make money they can’t, you can’t hit it every time. I much prefer making the movies we started out making, “The Flash Dances” with no stars. When we made “Top Gun,” Tom was on the rise but really wasn’t a movie star then. I much prefer that. It is much less of a risk.
Q: And if the movies don’t make money?
A: They have always had movies that were too expensive and lost money. They reinvent the wheel and go back and make smaller movies.
Q: You have moved into television with “Soldiers of Fortune Inc.” (a syndicated action series). Why TV?
A: I love the speed of it, I love the reach, you can reach so many people in one night. We are doing this series for $1.3 or $1.5 million an episode. It shows we can do other things than these huge, gigantic movies.
Q: What’s the best part of your business?
A: Watching an audience enjoy your work, standing in the back of the theater or sitting in the front row. I don’t know if you are making their lives any better but for two hours you take them away from what they are thinking about. The seminal movie for me was “The French Connection.” I didn’t want it to end. That’s what I want to give back.
Q: Toughest part of moviemaking?
A: Dealing with failure. The picture that doesn’t open. Or reading things about yourself that are inaccurate, that never happened.
Company: Jerry Bruckheimer Films
Hobby: Playing hockey
Career Turning Point: Partnership with Don Simpson
Personal: Married, one stepchild