They dress like Giorgio Armani, talk in the cadences of a magician with a creamy line of patter, and look like two Chekhovian landowners volleying ideas through the yellowy air of a Sunday afternoon at the dacha.
They are brothers in movies and brothers in gold, the twin Midases of Melrose Avenue: Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, the producers of "Flashdance" (a hit), "Beverly Hills Cop" (a humongo-hit), the new "Top Gun," which opens here Monday (a hit in the making) and "Thief of Hearts" (well, let's not talk about "Thief of Hearts").
"We're right brain and left brain," says Jerry.
"I'm verbal, I'm abstract," says Don, out of the left side of his brain. "Jerry is linear and mathematical."
One of the semantic anomalies of Hollywood is that those who call themselves producers produce nothing but schemes, meetings, ideas stolen from other movies, big MasterCard bills, a market for vanity license plates, chatter, chutzpah, fraudulent friendships, tax shelters for dentists, bigger American Express bills, and ringing, burbling and chirping telephones, for which they are paid exorbitant fees by studio executives who hope someday to become producers.
So somebody ought to tell these guys to stop calling themselves producers. After all, they actually make movies, something no self-respecting producer would ever do.
"There are a lot of people who make movies to keep busy," says Simpson. "They want to feel that they're working all the time. You won't see our name as executive producers, or on three pictures a year as 'Presenters of.' Because I think the movies get lost in the process."
So this is about how a movie gets made, how a magazine article that one producer found on the coffee table of his partner's office became, three years and a million decisions later, a $15 million shot at a blockbuster filled with planes, rockets, romance, tragedy, hunks (including Tom Cruise), starlets (including Kelly McGillis) and the dreams of a studio hoping to retrieve its former glory. The Idea
It was May 1983. Jerry Bruckheimer, who had just formed a company with his longtime friend Don Simpson, sat in the waiting room of his partner's office while Simpson, who is to talk what Krakatoa was to lava, a fluent, funny, bullying and endless talker, held forth into his telephone.
Each year the studios make roughly 110 films, but they develop hundreds more -- currently, Warner Bros. alone has 400 scripts in development. So the town is hungry for stories, and like many in Hollywood, Don Simpson subscribed to dozens of periodicals, which were stacked and scattered on the coffee table in his waiting room. Bruckheimer began leafing through an issue of California magazine when he hit upon an article called "Top Guns," written by an Israeli writer named Ehud Yonay, about the Navy's elite dogfight school in Miramar, Calif., also known as "Fightertown, U.S.A."
"I came across this visual that struck my eye right away," says Bruckheimer, whose visual sense was molded in his years as an advertising executive, "of this helmet with a visor down, and a plane reflected in the visor. And then two airplanes beside the helmet, and the guy's in a cockpit. I went in and flipped the article over on Don's desk."
"We gotta buy this! We gotta buy this! We gotta buy this!" said Simpson.
And that's what they did. At this point, they had only the vaguest idea of what they had. They called on Chuck Yeager, who blew into the Burbank Airport in a supersonic F20 Tiger Shark, came over to see Don and Jerry on the Paramount lot, and advised them to talk to the Pentagon. The Pitch
At the beginning of every movie is The Pitch.
It is an elevated form of what goes on at used-car lots every day all over America. The studio has the money, maybe $200 million to spend on production and development each year; you have the story. The studio is the buyer; you're the seller.
So you deliver The Pitch, sketching the story and the characters, and the studio executive sits there like Buddha, and you compare it to other hit movies -- "it's a rock 'n' roll 'Rambo' meets 'Risky Business,' although the hero's more like Eddie Murphy" -- and the studio executive says, "Just tell me the funny parts," and then you pitch a little more and stomp around the room and your voice rises with the thrill of it all, and maybe at the end you get the $100,000 or $200,000 or $500,000 you need to hire writers and develop a script.
When Bruckheimer refers to Simpson as "Mr. Inside," he means that he's the master of getting a project to the production stage, of the inside politics of the studio -- specifically, Paramount, where he was long the head of production. For 10 years he was the buyer on the other side of the desk, and it left him with an uncanny ability to shift and shuffle and skew the elements of a story so the studio would buy it, left him the Sugar Ray Robinson of The Pitch.
He had never, however, pitched at the Pentagon.
"As we were driving up, I said something that was totally inane. I said, 'It looks like the goddam Pentagon.' Natch, it was the Pentagon! So we go up to the third floor, and we're ushered into this capacious corner suite, and there's this sea of ice cream suits, just as far as the eye can see, extremely fit 50-year-old guys in white suits and gold braid, with a smattering of 30-year-old guys who look like bodyguards.
"They wanted to know what the movie was going to be. Well, here we are, sitting there, and we didn't have a clue."
"What happened was Don just started to spin a tale," continues Bruckheimer. "He told the story of the movie. At this point there was no movie, so he made it up. What's interesting is that the movie ended up very close to the story he told, but he just told it off the top of his head. And after Don was done, they said, 'God, that's a terrific story. We'll cooperate.' "
It was not, however, the last time Simpson would have to deliver The Pitch. But more about that later. The Script
If an idea for a movie originates with the producer (as "Top Gun" did), his next, crucial step is to choose a screen writer.
From his years as a studio executive, Simpson knew who the writers were, and knew what each one could do, and after five years developing ideas with Simpson, Bruckheimer knew it, too. They finally offered the project to five, but the only ones who would be available when Don and Jerry wanted them were the writing team of Jim Cash and Jack Epps.
If you weren't Don Simpson, you'd have never heard of them. Until "Top Gun" and, later this summer, "Legal Eagles," their names had never appeared on a movie screen anywhere.
"Interestingly enough," says Simpson, "these guys were fairly high-priced writers who had never had a movie made, but they had seven major scripts out in the public forum. Each one was different, and we saw the quality of their work.
Epps, who lives in L.A., and Cash, who lives in Michigan (they haven't seen each other in years, and write via computer), came up with a script in six months. Which is when the problems began. Simpson and Bruckheimer didn't like it. Neither did Paramount.
They thought the first draft of "Top Gun" was overlong and overexpensive. They thought what Simpson calls the "narrative arc" was wrong. And they objected to the character of the girl.
"We wanted this girl to be independent and contemporary and unique," Simpson says. "They wrote her as a gymnast, and we said, 'What's this?'
They ordered a second draft. To their minds, it was worse.
"Jim Cash, in particular, was enamored of the female character -- he didn't agree with our assessment," says Simpson. "But Jerry and I are nothing if not strong willed. Plus -- we're the boss."
In the "Top Gun" script that finally got made, the girl is an astrophysicist. The Pitch Redux
Paramount, which was run then by the Three Wise Men -- Barry Diller, Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg -- wasn't crazy about the second draft, either. They began to get cold feet.
"They called a meeting with us," says Bruckheimer, "and we were tipped by one of the young executives that they were going to put it in turnaround." In Hollywoodese, "turnaround" is the long form of "no."
It was time, once again, for Mr. Inside.
"I put in a personal call to Eisner and said, 'You know we're having this meeting with Katzenberg today.' I made it clear I wanted him to be there," says Simpson. "Since I was there for 10 years, and Katzenberg used to work for me, and I used to work for Eisner, I know the game." Which means he knew Eisner didn't want to be in the meeting because, in all likelihood, he didn't like "Top Gun" any better than Katzenberg, but didn't particularly want to be the one to tell that to Simpson.
Katzenberg told them that since "Call to Glory," another Paramount project about aviation, was on television, audiences wouldn't be interested in "Top Gun." In Hollywoodese, this is an even a longer form of "no."
"I was biding my time till Eisner walked in," Simpson remembers, "because if I knew one thing, I knew I could sell a movie to Michael Eisner. I had been doing it for a decade. When he walked in, I jumped from my seat."
And he delivered The Pitch Redux, in its most passionate form, maybe the best pitch he'd ever made, watching Katzenberg out of one eye and Eisner out of the other to see how they were reacting, ideas spilling out of him faster than the F14s he was talking about, ideas that had only been inchoate till then jelling in an instant, ideas that solved the story problems he knew Eisner had, and for a few minutes it was like the old days, back at Schwab's Drugstore, when he was spinning out the story of the first "Cannonball" movie to director Paul Bartel.
And Eisner turned to Katzenberg and said, very matter-of-factly, "Jeff, these guys are so passionate about this, we have to do it." The Star
The reality of the movie business is that every movie needs a star. Even a little movie like "Kiss of the Spider Woman" would never have gotten made if William Hurt hadn't wanted to make it.
Another reality of the movie business is the youth market. Kids make up roughly a quarter of the movie-going public, and if you want to make a big summer blockbuster (and who doesn't?), you have to get them into the theaters.
"Mentally, before we had a script, we went down to Miramar and met the pilots," says Simpson. "And they look like Tom Cruise and act like Tom Cruise. They have the same bravado and yet innocence."
So they approached Cruise, a young fellow who virtually glistens with good looks, and guess what? He didn't like the script! So Simpson pitched away all over again, and told him they'd let him participate in rewriting the script, which was very important to Cruise, who wants desperately to be taken seriously.
And they pulled out their ace in the hole.
"He went down to Miramar and we got him in a jet," remembers Simpson. "He still hadn't committed to the picture. We arranged to send him up in an A4.
"He got on the ground, and he committed." The Elements
Now it was time for Mr. Outside.
Part of Bruckheimer's expertise lies in his ability to cast a movie -- not the people on the screen, but the even more crucial ensemble behind the camera. It is in the alchemy of this process that the characteristic quality of a Simpson-Bruckheimer film -- striking visuals, exciting music, straight-ahead narrative drive and texture around the edges -- is created.
The essence of Bruckheimer's work in this regard is a precise sense of the nature of filmmaking collaboration -- what a director's weaknesses are and how, say, a certain kind of cinematographer might compensate for them -- as well as a certain daring in discovering new blood.
"That's part of the thrill we have as filmmakers," says Bruckheimer. "To give people who are talented a chance to show the world they're talented. Because part of our talent is knowing they're talented."
Director Tony Scott had developed a number of projects for Simpson at Paramount that never got made. Like his brother Ridley, Scott started in television commercials, and he had the highly refined visual sense Bruckheimer was looking for.
And then, since nothing succeeds like success, he and Simpson set about reassembling some of the crew from "Beverly Hills Cop." They matched Scott, an art school graduate who could essentially be his own cinematographer, with inexperienced cinematographer Jeff Kimball, who had done some of the second-unit work on "Cop."
They brought in Billy Weber, "Cop's" editor, as one of the editors, and Harold Faltermeyer, "Cop's" composer, to do the score.
And in casting the actors, Bruckheimer and Simpson -- who, as a former actor, takes a particular interest in casting -- once again chose Margery Simkin, a New York casting director who has become known, in a few pictures ("Baby, It's You," "Mrs. Soffel" and "Cop," among others), for her innovative, even dazzling work. "Marge kind of prides herself on being combative," says Simpson, who kind of prides himself on being combative.
Finally, in choosing Bill Badalato and Mike Moder as production managers -- the people who run the set day to day -- Simpson and Bruckheimer made a choice that illustrates the shrewdness with which they manipulate the chemistry on the set. Simpson and Bruckheimer are known as tough guys; Badalato and Moder as nice guys. Good cop and bad cop, a game that Simpson and Bruckheimer like to play themselves.
"Jerry's point of view is that there's no problem that doesn't have a solution," says Simpson. "My point of view is that there's no problem that deserves to live." The Lunch
Sometime in the middle of all this, the script never got done, and Paramount once again began to cool on the movie. At which point the musical chairs of Hollywood saved the day. Eisner and Katzenberg went off to run Disney, and Ned Tanen came in to be Paramount's head of production.
"Tanen had lunch with us," Simpson remembers, "and he said, 'What do you guys want to make?' "
And Simpson, who at this point could recite it backward in Gaelic, went into The Pitch.
Immediately, Tanen said, "Shoot the movie."
There are three words you need to know to understand this lunch: "Beverly Hills Cop." The Shoot
Once shooting began, Simpson and Bruckheimer, who had since hired another writer named Warren Skaaren and finally gotten the script into some kind of workable shape, went to the set every day, which is unusual for producers. They were there to participate in the thousand decisions that go into filmmaking -- even something as minute as what knickknacks to put on a desk in the "Top Gun" classroom -- and they were there to ride herd on the budget.
They like to make movies cheap, or at least cheap for Hollywood. They do that by saying "no." Not "no" in Hollywoodese. Just "no."
"It's our job to decide what's important to the drama of the picture and what's not important, where to spend your money and where not to spend your money," says Bruckheimer. "The director's job is to want everything."
They also do it in the script stage. "Don and I have very, very lean scripts," Bruckheimer continues. "A lot of times you end up spending an enormous amount of money shooting a 140-page script. You look at the floor of the editing room and there's all this film lying around, and that's money you'd spent on sets, and actors you've hired and days that you've shot."
Finally, they had the idea to divide the movie into two movies -- the movie that takes place on the ground and the movie that takes place in the sky -- and shoot them separately, which made things not only easier, but cheaper, since the people who were in one movie didn't have to stick around while Scott was shooting the other.
The result of all these decisions, Simpson says, is "full-tilt boogie rock 'n' roll in the sky." The Magic
As "Top Gun" opens today in 1,000 theaters across the country (the Washington opening has been delayed by the gala premiere at the Kennedy Center Sunday night in honor of the 75th anniversary of naval aviation), Simpson and Bruckheimer, who work out of sleek, spacious offices on the Paramount lot, are virtually the only vestige of the studio's glory days, the decade or so when Paramount reigned over Hollywood, unstoppable, producing hit after hit after hit.
The Three Wise Men have gone on to other things. Eisner and Katzenberg have made Disney a nouveau replica of the old studio system; at Fox, Diller is forging a grand scheme of vertical integration, including movie theaters and the planned creation of a fourth TV network.
And back at Paramount, the atmosphere is skittish, negative and nervous. Without any coherent overall strategy, the studio is still wedded to the economics of the blockbuster, yet it hasn't had a major hit since "Beverly Hills Cop." So the studio is counting on "Top Gun" to be a huge hit, for Simpson and Bruckheimer to bring back the Paramount magic.
And what is that magic?
"I don't know if I know the exact answer, I don't know if I ever will, and I don't know if anybody ever should," says Simpson. "But I do know that our pictures are about the emotion of triumph. They're not about succeeding, they're not about winning, but they're about the emotion of triumph. Jennifer Beals in 'Flashdance': What she was doing was tilting against major windmills, and ultimately she was experiencing that moment of triumph that's so important to her. Eddie Murphy: We structured that whole picture thematically so that it was a movie about loyalty, and about the Eddie Murphy character finally experiencing that emotion of triumph at the end.
"And lo and behold, 'Top Gun.' What is Tom Cruise about? The emotion of triumph."
In the end, though, the magic stems not from a formula, but from the chemistry between two people: Don and Jerry, a bearish third-generation Alaskan and a son of immigrants whose father was the favorite tailor of the Purple Gang (he left room in their suits for their guns). As kids they were a self-described "fictionhead" who whipped through a novel a day and a photography buff who won prizes from Kodak, as adults a shouter and a whisperer, a big-picture guy and a detail guy, a lone Hollywood cowboy (even if his life style, everyone agrees, has calmed down) and a family man.
And only the coming weeks will determine whether, in "Top Gun," that chemistry has worked again, whether Simpson and Bruckheimer and Paramount Pictures will once again enjoy, themselves, the emotion of triumph.