Producer Jerry Bruckheimer, The Top Gun Of Prime Time
Sunday, September 18, 2005
SANTA MONICA, Calif. Jerry Bruckheimer's world headquarters for the near-total domination of network television is a warehouse on a dead-end street. The giveaway: The valet parking lot looks like a Porsche-Audi-Benz dealership. Inside, it's exposed beams and youthful assistants in $200 dungarees, and the coffee table in the reception zone displays books on suicidal abstract expressionists. Bruckheimer's own office is power leather meets Zen monastery, laboratory clean but calming, filled with a rich ambient light. In fact, the personal set for the most successful producer in TV resembles the moody palette of his hit "CSI" shows, and one half-expects a crime scene investigator with tweezers to enter and start talking about hair pulp and stage-3 insect pupae.
The entertainment press is running out of monikers for Bruckheimer. For a long time, he was called Mr. Blockbuster, responsible for big movies with big stars, big budgets, big explosions: "Beverly Hills Cop," "Top Gun," "Bad Boys," "Con Air," "Armageddon," "Pearl Harbor." And then, five years ago, the son of a Detroit clothes salesman did something unusual for a wildly successful feature film producer: He turned his eye to television. Now they call him "Jerry Bruckheimer, the megaproducer," and, the most honorific of all: "the man with the golden gut."
This season, Bruckheimer had 10 shows picked up for prime-time network television, unseating yesteryear's Aaron Spelling. This is a record for an executive producer. It is 9 1/2 hours of TV. That is almost half of the 22 hours of prime time that a major network provides each week. Seven of the shows are on CBS, where Bruckheimer's output is largely responsible for that network's turnaround from last to first place. When he says his prayers at night, CBS President Leslie Moonves must say a special one for the golden gut.
Bruckheimer produces the original "CSI," its offspring "CSI: NY" and "CSI: Miami," the returning dramas "Cold Case" and "Without a Trace," plus the reality show "Amazing Race." Now he has four new programs: "E-Ring," a Pentagon drama for NBC featuring Dennis Hopper and Benjamin Bratt; "Close to Home," a crime show set in the suburbs on CBS; "Just Legal," with Don Johnson as a cynical lawyer mentoring a young legal eagle for the WB; and finally "Modern Men," Bruckheimer's first sitcom, about three bachelors and their life coach, which will air mid-season on the WB.
His returning shows are among the top-rated on television. Critics have applauded the writing, directing and acting talent he marshals, and in the industry he is credited with bringing the high-end production values of the movies to the small screen. Part of his success has come from luring feature film actors -- such as Gary Sinise and William L. Petersen -- to TV, as well as established movie directors. Taylor Hackford, director of the Oscar-nominated biopic "Ray," for example, did the pilot for "E-Ring," and Andy Davis, director of "The Fugitive," did the same for "Just Legal."
In his office, Bruckheimer steers a guest away from his long desk, which is as orderly as a spreadsheet, to the leather couches and sits for a relatively rare interview. He speaks softly, so you have to lean forward to hear him. If his former producing partner, Don Simpson, who died from a massive overdose of cocaine and prescription drugs in 1996, was the extroverted showman, Bruckheimer is all discipline, as studiously forthcoming as a Supreme Court nominee.
His title on his television shows is executive producer, so what exactly does he do for a living? "We are a content company," he says. "We sit here and we create content."
Over Bruckheimer's 25-year career, the Hollywood Reporter estimates, his films have combined earnings of $13 billion.
So how does he spend his day?
Bruckheimer says he wakes at 6 a.m. and will leave the office after 8 p.m., and then he hopes to swing by the ice rink for an hour to slap around hockey pucks before he returns home.
"As you know, we have six ongoing series and four more were picked up, and there's always little bits and pieces of all those things that need your attention, and you also have to focus on what's next. We're constantly in production. We're producing a lot of different shows, and the movies, of course. We have four movies in the works now."
On this day, he took meetings with lawyers. "I met with Michael Bay today to try to get him back, to get a movie going with him." Bay is the director most recently of "The Island."
"There were some personnel issues to deal with. We have some scheduling problems with 'Pirates,' " as in the sequel to Johnny Depp's "Pirates of the Caribbean." "I was also hearing some new ideas. And casting. I spent part of the day looking at some tapes. Right now, we have two things we want to bring to the networks" in the spring, "and we're making deals right now with the writers, and then we'll go and pitch them to the networks."
Does Bruckheimer do the pitch? Nope, that is for his executives and the show's writer-creators. One imagines that the megaproducer hears pitches all day long, but in fact he says he does not, that his fellow producers do most of the listening. "They know what the company does. They know what a good idea for a movie or a show is. And they understand the kinds of things that we do."
Peter Roth, president of Warner Bros. Television, who is partner with Bruckheimer on his TV shows, explains: "What does Jerry do? What he does is make choices. Thousands of them a day." Roth believes that one of Bruckheimer's strengths is "he makes entertainment that pleases himself. He is the man with the golden gut. He is a man of the people, and I'm sorry that sounds corny, but he doesn't experience these shows as a Hollywood insider, but this guy from Detroit who wants to sit back and be entertained." At 59, "he's at the top of his game, not at all elitist. So many people in this town, I'm sorry to say, are charlatans and pretenders, who just want to make the money, make an impression, but [Bruckheimer] comes to it as a viewer, a consumer, first and foremost."
Bruckheimer says he reads the scripts of all his shows -- that's like a small phone book a week -- and is not shy about conveying his feelings, but does not overwhelm writers with notes. He watches all the shows, too, views the dailies and gives special attention to pilots, what he calls "the template" for a show.
Hackford, the film director who did the pilot for "E-Ring," remembers sitting in the editing room with Bruckheimer. "I was thinking let's see how this goes. But every comment he made was smart. We had to trim and his ideas were right on the money." Hackford says that the Pentagon refused to assist with the TV show (unlike the military's help with the filming of "Top Gun"). "But Bruckheimer didn't wilt. He said just do it without them. The great thing for me is that Jerry Bruckheimer and his team gave me all the help I needed and then they left me alone."
Bruckheimer says there's a style of show he won't do. Take reality TV. His "Amazing Race" is, if you can say this, "quality reality." But eating bugs on "Fear Factor" or trying to hook fat bachelors up with models? "I wouldn't watch it. Somebody can make it, but I wouldn't watch. That's what I'm talking about. I wouldn't enjoy it. I don't want to make a show that I wouldn't watch. It would be too painful." He pauses. "Look, I've made enough money that I never have to do another show, but I love what I do, and I'll keep doing it as long as I enjoy it."
Anthony Zuiker, creator of the original "CSI" (who pitched the show when he was a lowly tram operator at a Vegas resort), describes his boss as "ferociously commercial," and he means that in a good way. "He has the best eye, the best taste in the business."
Zuiker describes the "Bruckheimer style" of television this way: "His colors are richer, the palette, the lighting, dark and edgy, and the speed is quicker." He says Bruckheimer taught him to pace his shows with "valleys and peaks," a writing and editing approach "where you slow down and embrace a moment," then the action rushes forward with quick shots, with scenes often ending in a trademark "white pop," a visual flash of bleaching fadeaway, "and you're keeping the audience on its toes." Zuiker says the producer suggested he watch the German cult film "Run Lola Run," filled with quick cuts and flashbacks and -forwards, which taught the "CSI" creator that "I was dealing with fractured time," which is another hallmark of the "CSI" series and its clones.
With so many of his shows on the air (and many of them, critics say, feel quite similar in tone and content), is it a good thing for one man to serve as a kind of gatekeeper to prime time? Bruckheimer dismisses the idea. "I mean, everybody has an equal opportunity with their shows." And if you make the right decisions, "and the decisions add up, and you have the right pilot, it's going to take off and maybe become this supersonic jet and you have the number one drama on TV."
As for the success of his "CSIs" and their related fare, Bruckheimer explains that they are not traditional male-dominated cops-and-robbers shows, but "mysteries." He points out that the bestseller lists for novels are dominated by mysteries and that their biggest consumers are women, and so his shows pull in a strong female demographic, "and fortunately, the women control the remote."
He thinks his shows plug into a zeitgeist for "process, and I love process. I love being put in a place I know nothing about and showing how it actually works." Before the "CSIs," Bruckheimer says, he would watch a crime drama and often think "this is BS," so he wanted to show how a crime would be actually solved -- albeit in 47 minutes.
Here's a last bit of insight into the way the golden gut works. One of his new shows, "Close to Home," is about a district attorney in the suburbs. "I was recently called to jury duty," Bruckheimer says, "and you see these young women, these prosecutors, bright, smart, and you know they have families, they have wedding rings on, and so how do they deal with this tough job they have, this really ugly world that they live in, and take that home." At the same time, he was thinking about the Scott Peterson trial, where the murder takes place not in New York or Miami, but Modesto, where life is all very ordinary, until murder most foul intrudes. So he put it all together. Women. Suburbs. Crime. Process. And finally: hit?