Director Martin Brest Speaks!

September 3, 2021 Jeff Goldsmith


For your reading pleasure, please enjoy this free excerpt from our 3,5000 word coverage of the recent Q&A screening where writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson interviewed director Martin Brest at the American Cinematheque’s Aero Theatre about his classic comedy films Beverly Hills Cop and Midnight Run in Backstory’s brand new issue #44!

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Cinematheque Tales
Beverly Hills Cop & Midnight Run Q&A
Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson interviews director Martin Brest about his two iconic films during a double-bill presentation at the American Cinematheque’s  Aero theatre.
By Jeremy Smith

Whatever happened to Martin Brest?

Though hardly prolific (only seven movies over a 26-year span), Brest had a spectacular four-film run with the helming of Going in Style (1979), Beverly Hills Cop (1984), Midnight Run (1988) and Scent of a Woman (1993)—the latter of nabbed him Oscar noms for Best Picture and Director and earned Al Pacino his long-overdue first Best Actor Academy Award. A notorious perfectionist, Brest had a reputation for piling up takes to provide him with as many options as possible in the editing room. He often went over schedule, but as long as the movies were critical and commercial successes, studios gradually granted him leeway. Then came 1998’s Meet Joe Black. When Brest’s swooningly romantic drama starring Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins reportedly soared $30 million over its $60 million budget (for a variety of reasons, including pricey locations, expensive antique props and a lengthy postproduction), it seemed the director had pressed his luck one too many times. Mixed reviews and a lower-than-anticipated $143 million worldwide box office take didn’t well up any excitement for the studios. Five years later, the town went cold on Brest’s Ben Affleck-Jennifer Lopez caper comedy Gigli. The reviews for the $75 million fiasco were savage, and the box office was nonexistent. Based on a variety of metrics, Gigli is today considered one of the worst movies ever made, and Brest subsequently disappeared from the Hollywood scene. No interviews, no rumored comeback projects—just complete and total radio silence.

Eighteen years after his career-pausing debacle, the reclusive filmmaker finally reemerged on July 23, 2021, at an American Cinematheque event at the Aero Theatre for a Q&A moderated by Paul Thomas Anderson. The hourlong discussion, sandwiched between screenings of Midnight Run and Beverly Hills Cop, was a warm, friendly affair. Anderson approached his moderating duties as an admirer (if not an outright fanboy), while Brest repeatedly expressed wonderment that a filmmaker of Anderson’s stature would deign to interview him (Brest joked it was “like having a Bugatti deliver a pizza”). To maintain the effervescent tone, and ensure nothing filmed past Scent of a Woman came up, Anderson never went to the audience for questions. This was to be an extraordinarily rare celebration of a great press-shy filmmaker, not a warts-and-all career retrospective, and everyone in attendance seemed fine with that.

Before PTA could ask a single question, Brest waxed nostalgic about Midnight Run being the repayment of a “debt” to his mother and an homage to Stanley Kramer’s 1963 comedy It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, which she took him to see in Cinerama when he was 11. Aside from being raucously entertaining, the film taught Brest an early lesson in regards to managing a big cast with multiple character arcs. “That was my only cultural experience,” said Brest. “At that time in my life, I never saw anything—no plays or anything. It was a parallel action story with tons of comedic characters, and before [the movie] went to intermission, in order to keep the audience charged while they were out getting popcorn, [Kramer] started intercutting all the different stories and the score started to swoon. I remember that as a child, and I felt that again when I saw the restoration. I felt an ecstatic religious experience of comedic delay, that this was like the debt paid off.”
In the context of Brest’s unique career, Midnight Run is less a lump sum repayment than the last piece of an installment plan that began in 1973 when he matriculated to the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. This was at the height of the New Hollywood revolution—led by the likes of Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg—and Brest, still in his 20s, was champing at the bit to make his first feature. Anderson was prompted by a mutual friend offstage to ask Brest about an incident from that time involving legendary producer Stuart Kornfeld, actor Hervé Villechaize and a barracuda. Brestobliged, but, in his meticulous way, cautioned it wasn’t a story so much as an image. “There’s no punchline coming,” he told the audience and then provided the setup: Villechaize, an acquaintance from the director’s NYU days, was in town to play a part in the director’s student film written expressly for the actor. “He was living in my place,” Brest continued, “and he was, like, suicidally depressed. And he had a Bowie knife that he would wear for whatever reason.”

Being poor, hungry film students, the group (which also included character actor Ken Lerner) hatched a plan to rent a rowboat off the Santa Monica Pier for the purposes of catching fish, reasoning they could write off the expense of the rental as food. As the quartet of amateur seamen hit the ocean, fog rolled in, complicating their mission tremendously. “And somebody caught a barracuda,” Brest said. “Fucking crazy-ass fish, and we pulled it into the rowboat. We were terrified—first of all because it was cold and damp. We couldn’t see 20 feet in either direction. We didn’t know where land was. It was already a little Buñuel.” As the sharp-toothed fish flopped about in the rowboat, panic ensued. Cue Villechaize. “Hervé pulled out his Bowie knife, jumped on it, straddled it and [killed it].” A natural storyteller, Brest couldn’t help but turn this “image” into a three-act adventure that went over great with the crowd.

These are two-thirds of the Brest method: Nail down the story, and embellish it in the moment. The third factor is the ability to cut the tale like a diamond in the edit. He stumbled into this process on his second feature, Going in Style (Brest considers his debut film, Hot Tomorrows, a “Jewish Ed Wood movie”). Brest was 27 when he shot the caper comedy about three bored retirees (George Burns, Lee Strasberg and Art Carney) who decide to rob a bank for kicks, and mindful of his easily revoked privilege, he stuck to the script. “I was trying to be professional,” he said. “I was very anal about making sure everything…was very stiff and dry.” Nevertheless, Brest was short on time when he reached the final scene, wherein Burns and Carney strike it rich at a Vegas craps table, and this was an epiphany for the young filmmaker. “I just put up a lot of cameras. We were shooting so fast. George Burns, who was like a great improviser—and I’d never used his ability to improvise, right? Because I was a schmuck. We just started flying. Every take was different. I thought, Okay, fuck it. It’s the end of the shoot. I’ll just shoot all the film and figure it out later. That scene took as long to cut as the rest of the movie, and it was totally based on little pieces of dialogue juxtaposed against other pieces that had no relationship to each other that were written together to look as if it was an actual scene. And it had a life that the anally proper scenes didn’t have.”

Brest wouldn’t get to hone this newly acquired skill until 1984’s Beverly Hills Cop (after being fired from 1983’s WarGames). The Eddie Murphy blockbuster remains Brest’s biggest hit, and the secret sauce is a collision of structure and improvisational chaos. The project nearly went before cameras as a non-comedic Sylvester Stallone vehicle. When Sly dropped out, Murphy stepped in, causing Brest and his collaborators to rewrite the script on the fly. “Beverly Hills Cop had sort of a dopey structure that was…passable just to glue all the fun onto.” To Brest, Murphy was a turbocharged George Burns, a riff-happy virtuoso who could turn any scene into an explosion of belly laughs. The trick was to get him to the set on time. As the star of blockbusters 48 Hrs. and Trading Places and the wunderkind who’d single-handedly saved Saturday Night Live, Murphy knew his value. But from Brest’s viewpoint he wasn’t a superstar yet, so when he showed up an hour late to shoot the men’s club scene (where Murphy bluffs his way into a confrontation with the villain by posing as his herpes-stricken lover), the director called him out in front of the entire crew.

“I said, ‘You’re not allowed to do that. All these people were here, and you’re not allowed to do that shit. It’s disrespectful,’ ” Brest told the enthralled audience. “ ‘It’s not going to be good for you. It’s going to hurt the day, it’s going to hurt your performance.’ ” Murphy was stung, he explained. Though he spent the rest of the day hitting his marks like a professional, he refused to speak to his director. Had Brest mishandled his volatile lead? The answer arrived on the last take of the day, an establishing shot with no dialogue wherein Murphy leaves his blue, beat-up Chevy Nova with a snooty valet. So Murphy hands over his keys and ad-libs, pointing to the car, “Can you put this in a good spot? ’Cause all this shit happened the last time I was here.” As the audience roared hearing this account, Brest was overjoyed. “It was so funny and so appropriate and out of the blue and unexpected. Luckily, we had a boom just to get the door slam there. It was a great line.” Murphy looked at Brest and said simply, “I gotcha,” and the director summed it up: “It was really sweet and touching, and we made up after that.”

Brest proved he could handle a temperamental movie star, but did he have the directorial chops to guide Method-acting maestro Robert De Niro through his first flat-out comedy? Before that question could be answered, Brest had to get the movie to the starting line, which wasn’t easy. Midnight Run began its life at Paramount, the studio that reaped the bountiful, franchise-launching harvest of Beverly Hills Cop. To hear Brest tell the story, the idea could’ve died in his first meeting with screenwriter George Gallo, who was pitching the director on a completely different project. “He struck me as being the totally wrong person for whatever idea I had,” Brest recounted. Gallo was almost out the door when he stopped and said, “You know…a friend of mine’s a cop and he had to go somewhere to extradite a prisoner, and the prisoner wouldn’t fly so they had to take the train back or bus back.” Brest lit up. “I said, ‘Come back in.’ ”

After the loosey-goosey filming of Beverly Hills Cop, Brest was determined to have a crackerjack, “anal” structure in place prior to shooting Midnight Run, thus allowing him immense latitude to utilize his “fuck-around skills.” Ergo, he put Gallo, whose only prior credit was the Brian De Palma mob-comedy lark Wise Guys, through his paces. “This was the first movie where somebody really put [him to the test],” said Brest. Midnight Run’s dense plot branches out from Robert De Niro’s bounty hunter Jack Walsh and Charles Grodin’s righteous embezzler Jonathan Mardukas (whom Walsh must escort to Los Angeles within five days) to include the mobsters from whom Mardukas has stolen, the FBI (led by Yaphet Kotto’s Alonzo Mosley), Walsh’s shady bail bonds employers and rival skip tracer Marvin Dorfler (John Ashton), and they all must come together at Las Vegas’ McCarran Airport for the film’s tense finale. The film, as Anderson pointed out during the Q&A, has a “Swiss clock structure.” It also nearly broke Gallo, and according to Brest, the screws tightened something fierce as they neared their deadline. Overwhelmed by the complexity of their plot, Brest recalled arranging for the pair to set up shop over a weekend in the “garden area” of Paramount, where they could lay out every piece of their narrative puzzle across eight folding tables. “George actually said, ‘I can’t take the pressure!’ ” It was rough going, but the director credits Gallo for sticking it out. “He wrote version after version after version after version after version, and we finally kind of figured it out.”

–End of Free Excerpt – another 2,100 words await you in the FULL ARTICLE in Backstory issue 44!

In the rest of the article you’ll learn what it took to bring Midnight Run to life plus more insight from Martin Brest about working with actors and directing these comedy classics!

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