Ralph Fiennes, Ian McKellan, Phillip Seymour Hoffman — these are just a few of the acting titans Brett Ratner has worked with over the course of his career. But as he told MTV News, the only time he’s really had to pinch himself was his first day on the set of “Tower Heist” with Eddie Murphy (who has just signed on as the host of next year’s Oscars , produced by Ratner.
Murphy is just one of the many all-stars in the cast of “Tower Heist,” Ratner’s upcoming heist comedy that centers on a New York City high-rise building’s staff working together to rip off one of the residents, a wealthy businessman (Alan Alda) who lost all their pension funds in a Ponzi scheme. It’s a heavier comedy than some might be anticipating, Ratner said, and it didn’t come easily: The movie went through multiple incarnations over several years of development.
Now, with the “Heist” finally set to commence in November, MTV News’ Fall Movie Preview continues with an exclusive look at the film and a chat with Ratner, who spoke about the project’s difficult development process, working with Murphy and the dramatic weight this comedy carries.
MTV News: “Tower Heist” took a long time for you to pull off, but now we’re finally weeks away from release. Can you walk us through a bit of the process you went through in setting this movie up?
Ratner: I was actually developing “Beverly Hills Cop ” with Eddie. He called me at my house one day and said, “I have an idea for a movie.” He pitched me the idea of a bunch of guys who work in the Trump Tower going and ripping off Donald Trump. To the urban community, Donald represents wealth, and I thought it was such a good idea. We pitched it to Brian Grazer, who came on as a producer, and we sold it to Universal. But it became very difficult to crack. It became very similar to “Ocean’s Eleven,” just ripping off a rich guy for the sake of ripping off a rich guy. We went through a bunch of writers, just trying to crack it and crack it, and we couldn’t crack it. Then this guy Ted Griffin, who I’d hired to write “Ocean’s Eleven” before Steven Soderbergh did it — I’d been attached to it, but I never did it, and I missed my opportunity to work with Ted — I sent it to him and asked if he’d give me his opinion. He said, “I have good news and bad news. Good news: I’m going to write it for you. Bad news: I’m throwing the script away.”
He came up with this pitch about a guy living in a building who does a Ponzi scheme and loses all of the employees’ pension funds. We didn’t know the economy was going to get f—ed up. This all just coincidentally happened. We weren’t looking for [the Bernie Madoff connection], but we loved the idea, and we just had to do it. Ted wrote an incredible heist movie that’s reminiscent of the ’70s heists, which spend the first 40 minutes setting up the characters, which are different from the heist movies of today that tend to start with these big set pieces.
MTV News: Was Eddie still involved at this point, or had the idea moved so far away from what he initially imagined?
Ratner: Well, Eddie’s original idea was he’d do the movie with Dave Chapelle, Jamie Foxx, Chris Tucker, Chris Rock — all these guys together. [When Ben Stiller came onboard], Ben and I were talking about who we could get to play [the movie’s co-lead]. He went, “Wouldn’t it be the most incredible thing to have Eddie Murphy?” And I told him that this movie actually was Eddie’s idea. And he was like: “What? We gotta go to Eddie!”
But I didn’t know if Eddie wanted to do it anymore, because [his character] wasn’t the lead anymore. It was his idea to be the manager of the building, but there was always a character from the ’hood who’d go out and help with the heist. It was a completely different script. I didn’t expect Eddie to [be onboard], but I showed him the script and he said, “I’m in.”
MTV News: You and Eddie had been planning to work on “Beverly Hills Cop 4″ for a while, but obviously, this movie came first. What was it like getting to finally work together on set?
Ratner: You know, I’ve been around some big stars, some of the greatest actors who’ve ever lived. The only time I ever really had to pinch myself was the first day of shooting with Eddie Murphy. [Laughs.] This guy is a genius! He delivers the lines on point, and he brings so much. He’ll give me what’s on the page, and then he’ll give me stuff … for instance, the scene in the trailer with him and Gabby Sidibe, that was completely improvised. I just had the idea last minute to put those two together, having her show him how to crack the safe. It was supposed to be one shot, and then I told Gabby that she should flirt with Eddie and see what happens. [Laughs.] And, oh my god, it was just incredible. It was genius! The outtakes of that are going to be some of the funniest outtakes in the history of outtakes. There’s stuff I can’t even put in the movie of them just going at it.
For me, this cast, it was like a dream come true: Eddie Murphy, Ben Stiller, Matthew Broderick and all these actors … I was 12 when Matthew was the coolest movie star in the world, so directing him was like the ultimate.
MTV News: It’s interesting, because the film does have such a hilarious cast of actors and comedians, but when looking at the “Tower Heist” trailer, this doesn’t feel like an out-and-out comedy.
Ratner: It’s heavier. There are scenes in this movie that would never be in “Ocean’s Eleven,” and that’s what I loved about it. It’s like one of these ’70s cool movies where there are real stakes. And I really learned that from watching Eddie Murphy movies as a kid: great, real villains with real stakes, real drama, and Eddie does his thing. Eddie’s funny in the movie, but everyone is very real. It’s funny you bring it up: Eddie’s always said that his comedy comes from the characters and the situations they’re in.
You know, I kind of feel like “Rush Hour” and all my movies were really preparation for this movie, really. To me, as a filmmaker, I feel like I’ve done my best work. I took all my experiences of working with an ensemble like I did on “X-Men,” of doing comedy like “Rush Hour,” suspense like “Red Dragon” and brought it to “Tower Heist.” Growing up being a fan of Eddie’s, and later being a friend of Ben Stiller’s, it felt like I just knew what this movie needed to be. I’m hoping people come wanting more than just a comedy, which is what’s great about it. There’s funny sh– and people are going to have a great time with it, but people need to care about these characters and get invested. It’s not a false thing. You get to know each of these characters; they just all pulled it off. They have such individuality.
From “Abduction” to “Muppets, “Moneyball” to “Breaking Dawn,” the MTV Movies team is delving into the hottest upcoming flicks in our 2011 Fall Movie Preview. Check back daily for exclusive clips, photos and interviews with the films’ biggest stars.
Check out everything we’ve got on “Tower Heist.”
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