Brett Ratner, the director of the “Rush Hour” films and, most recently, “Tower Heist,” isn’t someone who you would imagine as being BFFs with Roman Polanski, the arty filmmaker behind such classics as “Chinatown” and “Rosemary’s Baby.” But this is exactly the case. The two have been great friends for a very long time (Polanski even co-starred in “Rush Hour 2“) and their latest collaboration is “Weekend of a Champion,” the commercial re-release of a 1971 racing documentary that Polanski produced and co-starred in but was barely released at the time. The doc follows racing legend Jackie Stewart at the height of his racing prowess (and in the midst of his intense friendship with Polanski), and the results are kind of like a documentary version of Ron Howard‘s recent drama “Rush.”
Stewart was an F1 racer from Scotland who was racing during the sport’s most dangerous period (in a taped epilogue, featuring both Polanski and Stewart, the racer talks about the safety inroads he made following the film’s release), a man with both the passion and intellect to get out of these races alive (unlike some of his colleagues). Polanski, of course, pries for the existential meaning to this flirtation with death, and comes out with a few provocative answers. As a sports documentary, it’s amazing, but as a story of friendship it’s even stronger. In that way, it makes perfect sense for Ratner to be spearheading the film’s re-release.
We got a chance to sit down with Ratner in New York and talk to him about his relationship with Polanski, whether or not there’s going to be another “Rush Hour” movie, how badly he wants to make a musical and what he thought of Zack Snyder‘s “Man of Steel” (you’ll remember, Ratner toiled away on his own Superman project).
How did you and Roman first hook up?
1998, “Rush Hour” comes out. I get a call. It’s Roman Polanski. I’m in shock. I don’t believe it but I recognize his voice because “The Tenant” is one of my all time favorite movies. Of course “Chinatown” is a masterpiece, of course “Rosemary’s Baby” is a masterpiece. But “The Tenant” he starred in. He loved “Rush Hour,” which I was surprised [to hear]. At that moment I realized that it doesn’t matter if anyone else likes this movie, Roman Polanski likes this movie. It’s over. This is it. And he made me realize that directors were not snobs. The critics are snobs. Directors love a great movie, no matter what the genre. They know how hard it is to make a comedy or an action comedy, probably a lot harder than it is to make a simple, pretentious art movie. He said what a big fan he was of the movie and he said to me, “Do you ever come to Paris?” And I said, “Yeah of course all the time.” Meanwhile I had never been in my life.
So two weeks later I book a ticket. I check into the Royal Monceau Hotel. James Brown was in the elevator when I got there, it was the coolest thing ever. I check into my room and I sit there and I get the nerve and call his office and go, “Could you tell Mr. Polanski that Brett is here?” And then I leave. Because I know my mom is going to kill me if I go to Paris and sit in my hotel room waiting for Roman Polanski to call. So I go to the Louvre and the Rodin Museum and a couple of other places. As I’m walking around, I come back to my hotel room and there was a note. It’s handwritten on a piece of paper, and I framed the note, it says, “Mr. Polanski would like to meet you tomorrow at noon at Chez Andre.”
I go to the front desk and say, “Is there a poster store anywhere in this city?” They say yes. So I go down the street. I buy every Polanski poster. In Paris, the posters are the size of this carpet—they’re fucking giant. I said, “Before we get to know each other, I just want you to sign my posters. Because I don’t know if we’ll ever see each other again.” He’s asking me what to write and I’m telling him, “To Brett, My favorite director.” And we became fast friends. So he invites me to the sets for all of his movies. I go out, hang out for a few days, and watch him work. It’s great.
So how did “Weekend of a Champion” come about?
I was in Paris visiting Roman and he said, “Do you want to see this documentary I just finished?” And I watched it and was blown away, and said, “Who’s seen this?” He said, “It only came out in Paris in 1971 and a few theaters in Germany.” I’m like, “Jesus Christ Roman, let me try to get you distribution in the United States.” He makes films on his own and in 1971 there weren’t outlets for documentaries. The print was on film.
Were you responsible for shooting the wraparound?
No, he did it. The way it happened was, the lab called him, this is 40 years later. They said, “We have this film what should we do? Should we destroy it?” He says, “No, don’t destroy it, send it over.” And he starts watching it and getting caught up in it and he went back to the exact same hotel room and shot that scene, which was totally poignant for me. It was so beautiful.
Is this literally the movie he showed you in Paris?
Nobody gives Roman Polanski notes on movies! What I did, which I was very proud of, was cut the trailer. It’s a great trailer. You have to watch it. We’re going to see how it does but it’s going to be released on home video; people are going to see it. It’s going to get seen! This movie was in a lab, nobody was ever going to see this. And it was groundbreaking.
You worked so long and so tirelessly on a Superman movie. What did you think of “Man of Steel?”
I think Zack’s a great director. It’s different than anything I would have done. Mine was J.J. Abrams‘ script. It basically took place on another planet, on Krypton. Back then they were trying to decide whether they were going to make J.J. Abrams’ script or the Wolfgang Peterson‘s “Batman vs. Superman.” I’m a big fan of the franchise. My version was completely different. I was upset. I went to do “X-Men” and Bryan did “Superman Returns.” I was happy that Bryan didn’t do the J.J. Abrams script, because then it would have looked like I failed. And he just did a new version of the Dick Donner Superman.
Do you want to return to that superhero world?
Well, I think “Hercules” is close to it because he was the original superhero. There isn’t supernatural stuff, but there is some mythological elements. Because in order to demystify it, you’ve got to show some of the myths. The story is the demystification of the Hercules myth, so it’s closer to “Gladiator” or “Braveheart” than the superhero movies.
Is another “Rush Hour” in the cards?
This is the thing. We were all a little burnt out on it, I think and now I’m starting to see a little bit of excitement about it because of the fact that China, there’s a huge Chinese thing going on. [The Jackie Chan film] “Chinese Zodiac” was huge in China. It did $100 million. It would be worth it to do another “Rush Hour” for China alone. Even if it was only released there.
You produced the “Mother’s Day” remake from a few years ago and are buddies with Eli Roth. You think you’ll do another horror movie?
No. You know what I’d love to do is a musical.
Do you have anything picked out?
I wanted to do “Jersey Boys.” I couldn’t do that. They gave it to Clint Eastwood. The only movies I haven’t done are musicals and westerns. I’ve done pretty much every other genre if you think about it. That’s why I’ve done a sword and sandals movie, which is why I did “Hercules.” It’s closer to “Ben Hur.”
Would you do a smaller movie?
Yeah. I’ve produced a bunch of documentaries, including the Woody Allen documentary.
You seem to have a very strong interest in the way movies are made. Would you do a biopic?
You know what! That’s right! That’s the other thing I’d love to do—a musical or a biopic. Biographies are the only books I can read and really relate to and enjoy.
What draws you to classic films?
Look, Scorsese and Spielberg will reference the same movies, like “Peeping Tom” by Michael Powell, because they’re the same age basically. So if you ask Paul Thomas Anderson, even if we’re completely different filmmakers, all of his favorite movies are my favorite movies. It just is. So it’s because we grew up in that era. The ’70s, to us, was the end all. We saw the movies of the ’50s and ’60s but they didn’t mean as much.
Would you like to do a smaller movie set in that period?
Sure, but the problem is that I’m one of the few directors who can do tentpoles, so I’m getting hired to do these giant movies still. So I’m going to keep doing it. Michael Bay was doing four “Transformers” movies back to back so he chose a small art film to him, to him, with “Pain & Gain.” And I loved it. I could do a small movie. The movie I wanted to do desperately was a movie on the Milli Vanilli scandal that Jeff Nathanson, who wrote all the “Rush Hours,” wrote for me. And it’s brilliant. I wouldn’t say that it’s not going to happen in the near future but it could happen sometime. I love scandals, true stories. I’m developing [a movie] about the creation of MTV, which is like “Social Network” but with sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll.
Do you still consult with Roman?
Yeah, he’s still my mentor. I show him my movie before I finish it. My last movie, “Tower Heist,” I flew over and showed him. I said, “I’ll show you my movie, you show me yours.” Showed him my movie. Then he gave me the three best notes I’ve ever gotten. They’re indistinguishable but they were a music note, a picture note, and a … But just so brilliant. And I watched his movie, “Carnage,” and I said, “Oh I have a few notes for you.” And he said, “No. My film’s locked Brett.” But I wouldn’t expect him to take my notes. He’s a master. There’s Stanley Kubrick and then there’s Roman Polanski. He’s a genius. Look, he took me to his school in Poland, showed me all his student films, one by one … It’s such a blessing. I show my movies to James Toback, who sleeps through half of it because he’s so fat. And then I show it to [Warren] Beatty and sometimes Robert Towne and they have pages and pages of notes and take the ones I like and don’t take the ones I don’t like. I learn a lot.
So even “Hercules” will have a bit of Roman in there?
He’ll give me an idea. Hopefully it’s good. They’re always brilliant.
“Weekend Of A Champion” opens today in limited release.