Jerry Bruckheimer: The Formative Years


Source: Jerry Bruckheimer: Showman of the Year issue

Date: 6/10/06 - 6/16/06


Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson were the salvation of the movie business in the 1980s, and their innovative formula of high-concept, high-octane film fantasy fulfillment helped define the tent pole strategy of summer blockbusters that continues year after profitable year.


Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson destroyed the spirit and adventurousness of the auteur-driven 1970s film landscape by churning out mindless, insipid, violent/sexual music videos-cum-inspirational stories that have saddled Hollywood with the cinematic albatross of the high concept movie, designed to keep film fare forever infantile and effects-driven.


So who’s right? Why do so many exhibitors, marketing and distribution executives love the legacy of what Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer created at Paramount Pictures in the 1980s, now considered an epochal decade in the development of today’s industry? And why do so many film critics and cultural commentators despise them, excoriating all the cinematic values (or lack thereof) embodied in FLASHDANCE, BEVERLY HILLS COP I and II, and TOP GUN, the emblematic Simpson-Bruckheimer hits of the ‘80s?


Jerry Bruckheimer has been carrying this baggage for so long his back must feel bowed. He has continued to wear the mantle of the blockbuster producer since Simpson’s sad but inevitable death in 1995, and his reputation has only grown (as has the vociferousness of his critics). Bruckheimer’s looking forward to one of his biggest summers of his career with the release of PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MAN’S CHEST, followed by Part 3 of PIRATES and a sequel to NATIONAL TREASURE next year. So it might be an instructive time to look back at the creation of Bruckheimer’s partnership with an individual who probably had a greater impact on his life than anyone else, Don Simpson.


They were friends in the 1970s, mostly through mutual friends, actors and other acquaintances tangentially related to the film business. They even shared a house in 1974, when Bruckheimer separated from his producer wife Bonnie and moved into Simpson’s Laurel Canyon home. Bruckheimer, the son of Jewish immigrants from Germany, had grown up in Detroit and become fascinated with still photography as a teen. After graduating from the University of Arizona with a degree in psychology, Bruckheimer went to New York and got a job in the mailroom of the BBD&O advertising agency. He worked his way up as a commercial producer, managing campaigns for Coca-Cola and other large accounts.


Some of these same friends helped him make the transition to feature producing, where he received his first credit on THE CULPEPPER CATTLE COMPANY in 1972. Bruckheimer had a keen visual sense, established through the eye of the lenses he had gazed through since childhood. He understood the realities of physical production from his commercial experience, and particularly the importance of character in selling a story or product; an actor’s emotional believability was critical for audience empathy.


Bruckheimer’s upward ascent in the movie industry came more slowly than he anticipated. He produced two middling films for director Dick Richards in the mid-1970s, FAREWELL, MY LOVELY and MARCH OR DIE    , but it wasn’t until he did two stylish Paul Schrader films, AMERICAN GIGOLO and CAT PEOPLE,  and Michael Mann’s  THIEF that Simpson began to take Bruckheimer seriously as a producer.


Simpson had started at Paramount in 1976, and immediately impressed his bosses Barry Diller and Michael Eisner with his strong story instinct and manic energy. They promoted him to vice president of creative affairs in 1977, a year later to vice president of production and then president, but by 1983 his public displays of alcoholic and drug consumption and his wild lifestyle led to Eisner firing him. Don Simpson needed a partner if the de rigeur production deal being offered him as part of his severance package was going to mean anything.


Bruckheimer needed a partner, too. He was seen initially as more of a glorified line producer, comfortable with the equipment that filmmaking required, but not given much opportunity to exercise his own creative equipment. Bruckheimer knew that if he was going to take the next step in his quest to be a powerhouse producer, he needed an ally. The big opening weekend that had eluded him in his career had become the mark of Hollywood success since 1975 with the first summer blockbuster, JAWS. Since then, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas had just kept upping the ante, from STAR WARS and E.T. to RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and BACK TO THE FUTURE. The mission of a 1980’s studio producer was clear: get the big opening weekend gross, or get lost.


Simpson-Bruckheimer Productions debuted in 1983, and immediately presented an Odd Couple even among the industry’s legendary odd couples (think Laurel and Hardy as bearded, black-garbed Hollywood hitmen). Both the press and the film business quickly characterized them as Mr. Inside (Simpson) and Mr. Outside (Bruckheimer); Mr. Above the Line (Simpson) and Mr. Below The Line (Bruckheimer); Mr. Crazy (Simpson) and Mr. Sane (Bruckheimer).


Simpson was burly and barrel-chested, Bruckheimer lithe and whippet-like. Simpson blustered, Bruckheimer listened. He was funnier than people gave him credit for, and he did enormous clean-up work of the detritus left behind by Simpson’s tornado-like energy, both constructive and destructive. Bruckheimer said of their relationship in a 1990 GQ interview, “If there’s a huge blowup, I’ll be sent in to tame the lion, whereas Don will come in and shoot him.”


Reality, of course, was much more complicated. Bruckheimer had paid attention when on the set with directors like Michael Mann, Paul Schrader and Dick Richards, and understood what had made those films work or NOT work. If Simpson liked stories that he called “clean” (no ambiguity, a straight narrative line, clear-cut character goals), Bruckheimer liked the shading: the moodiness that lighting can evoke, that music can emphasize, and that editing can accentuate.


So while Simpson argued about who got credit for getting FLASHDANCE made (there were a proliferation of candidates, proving the adage that success has a thousand fathers) or whether BEVERLY HILLS COP was his idea or Michael Eisner’s, Bruckheimer made sure that the movies looked and sounded great. Simpson put together the star packages, but Bruckheimer was always there to help cast the supporting roles. Simpson sent 40 page story memos, but when the crisis on the set happened, Bruckheimer was the avuncular presence who calmed everyone down and got the day finished.

Bruckheimer had learned that style and texture alone do not make hits, and if there was one thing Simpson understood, it was story. This was really the secret of their yin and yang pairing: Simpson’s hyper masculine brand of mayhem, crude humor and multiple explosions, paired with Bruckheimer’s ability to deliver cutting edge special effects, rich cinematography and pulse-pounding editing.


Simpson and Bruckheimer didn’t invent the high concept movie – JAWS did that. They just perfected it. Actually, the term high-concept was the mother’s milk of Paramount Pictures in the early 1980s; Barry Diller developed it when innovating the made for TV movie with successes like BRIAN’S SONG (1971) and THAT CERTAIN SUMMER (1972), and along with Michael Eisner, who worked under Diller at ABC, they brought the same philosophy to Paramount: a successful movie needed a narrative that was very straightforward, easily communicated and easily comprehended.


This led to the other revolution of the 1980s: the critical re-thinking in the ways movies were marketed and sold. Although the tension between commerce and aesthetics is as old as “show business,” this dynamic reached a critical point in the 1980s, when suddenly it was possible to make $30-50 million on an opening weekend in more theaters than had been conceivable when JAWS premiered just five years earlier. By focusing on pre-sold premises, concepts that tapped into national trends or sentiments, star casting and carefully designed hit songs and soundtracks (think Giorgio Moroder), financial risk could be reduced and financial gain could be increased. What’s the problem here?


The problem is that most incipient blockbusters quickly became formulaic and predictable, none more so than Simpson and Bruckheimer’s. The FLASHDANCE formula of high-concept fairy tale cued to modern sensibilities via extended music video sequences was recycled in BEVERLY HILLS COP (policeman fantasy) and TOP GUN (warrior fantasy), helping to invent the action comedy and the non-war war film along the way, and that was all in the same decade. In the 30 intervening years, the relation of image to soundtrack has become a dominant theme in popular culture, as has the high-gloss style that has come to symbolize Bruckheimer movies made with or without Simpson. And so has the vapid, synthetic content that remains the bugaboo of Bruckheimer’s artistic oeuvre, from COYOTE UGLY to PEARL HARBOR.


Bruckheimer and Simpson polished to a high sheen what has become the modern corporate formula for filmed entertainment: stories that can be “pitched” either to a studio or an audience in 30 seconds or less, sold almost solely on their visuals, effects or music, and virtually guaranteed to bring in an audience of 18-40 year olds with comforting regularity. For a brief glorious period, their personal Camelot, Simpson and Bruckheimer had a direct tap into the cultural zeitgeist of 1980s America. They also made almost $1 billion for Paramount Pictures in that same era.


In the process of establishing their creative hegemony at Paramount, Simpson and Bruckheimer helped redefine the role of the creative producer, an oxymoron to independent-minded 70s directors like Robert Altman, Hal Ashby and William Friedkin. Not since the heyday of David O. Selznick, Walter Wanger and Dore Schary had producers wielded such micro-control over the various elements of filmmaking. Simpson and Bruckheimer led a group of producers as diverse as Peter Guber and Jon Peters, and Menachem Golan and Yoram Globus, and now Harvey and Bob Weinstein  who felt that it was their right, nay, their obligation, to change every detail of the way movies were conceived, budgeted, cast, filmed, marketed and released.


Success also took Simpson down another path, a darker, more deadly descent. Simpson’s excesses have been well chronicled elsewhere, but his growing dependence on cocaine, painkillers and anti-depressants took an increasing toll on his personal and professional relationship with Bruckheimer as well. Simpson was largely absent from the sets of all the duo’s movies from the mid-1980s onwards, despite publicity shots that made Simpson look omnipresent. Bruckheimer became more than the front man; he took over every aspect of Simpson-Bruckheimer Productions, and kept the company running. He also had to do damage control on Simpson’s periodic memo, email and phone outbursts from his barricaded retreat in his Hollywood Hills home, where Simpson remained a prisoner of demons more sinister than any Hollywood villain he could have conjured up.


The partnership stumbled more often, with DAYS OF THUNDER and THE REF both falling well below expectations at the box office. There was a mid-1990’s recovery with four successive hits (BAD BOYS, CRIMSON TIDE, DANGEROUS MINDS and THE ROCK), but the latter finished without Don Simpson as even a nominal producer. Midway through production, he had died on the toilet at his home, reading a book about Oliver Stone, his body filled with prescription and recreational drugs, a victim ultimately of his own paranoia and narcissism.


Bruckheimer had read the handwriting on the wall much earlier; he dissolved the partnership six months before Simpson’s death, and 1997 witnessed a new logo, Jerry Bruckheimer Films, on CON AIR. There was no need for a hyphenated name now. Bruckheimer had proved himself to be the real producer, the guy who actually made the movie, and he was poised for another era of enormous success. The King was dead; long live the King.

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