Friday, May 7, 2010

What I Learned From Brett Ratner

I'm enjoying writing this "What I learned from..." series. I've met some remarkable people in this business, people who it's no mystery that they became successful. And what they had was often something that if you paid attention to, was pretty easy to learn. Since I had the pleasure of learning firsthand, I figured I'd pass it on.

What I learned from Damon Dash (previous article) was an easy lesson for me having been a lifelong workaholic, but what I learned from Brett Ratner - Director of the Rush Hour Movies, X-Men 3 etc... was a revelation.

First the backstory of how I know Brett, it'll be short because it's not terribly interesting. Sophomore year. NYU. I introduced myself to Brett, then a popular music video director, and he said I should be his intern. The next day I showed up at his office (then a production company in Union Square) and told the office manager Brett said I worked there now. No one ever questioned me and from then on, I guess I worked for Brett Ratner.

He was shooting a lot of videos and when he got swamped, he'd let me write treatments for the tracks he hadn't gotten to, which then led to me writing treatments for everyone else, which ended up paying my bills through school. He was also tremendously supportive of me as a filmmaker often letting me use accounts and vendors for free to finance low budget shoots of my own. I still credit Brett with being one of the most instrumental people in my career.

So here's what I learned from him: It really is okay, not just okay, it really is imperative, to toot your own horn, and to do it with excitement because you shape the way other people perceive your work in a very active way.

In other words, the work can be good, but unless it is groundbreaking, then you better be your own best hype man and make sure people pay attention to exactly what YOU want them to see.

Example. Brett had just done a video for Mary J. Blige. He wasn't happy with it. He came into the office in a rage. He was mad at this one and that one, going on and on about how much he hated it. The phone rang. It was the label. I put them through. I was truly interested to see how Brett ate humble pie. Here's what happened next. Brett: Did you see my Mary video? She looks hot. I made her look better than anyone ever has. No one is gonna look at her the same after this. She's soft, beautiful, sexy...

The label agreed and hung up. For those who watch True Blood, you'll know that Brett had just "glamoured" them.

He could have started with a million excuses and apologies (and there's a time for that too), but instead he started by finding the one great thing in the video (and she did look good) and pulled their attention to that, then went on and on until what they left the call thinking was Mary has never looked better.

Now, embedded within this is Brett's natural talent for making people feel like he's with you. He's never defensive, he always acts like "we" are on the same team, no matter if the "we" is the head of the record label or the valet parking his car. So when he went on about it, the label felt like they were a part of making her look great too and walked away feeling good about themselves.

I remember once in a director's workshop, the teacher telling an actor who was trying to "play" charming, that a charming person is charming because they make the person they're talking too feel like they are charming. And when you speak to Brett, he listens as if you are the most interesting, fascinating person in the world, he is enthusiastic about having just met you - God's most amazing creation, and then you're with him, and he pulls your attention to what he wants you to see.

It's a tough trick to master, but it has made him one of the most successful directors in Hollywood. If you don't get it right and you try, well, you can come off as a bit disingenuous. And the truth is, I don't think it's just a trick in Brett's case. I think he really is interested when he meets someone new and it shows, whereas so many of us are interested in showing who I am, Brett is interested in learning about the other person and it isn't something you can fake. In any case, and back to the point... while you're learning that, start finding the great things about your work, and instead of showing it to people and starting off with, "we really didn't have much money, time, etc..." start out with what's great about it so that that's what they look for.

Glamour them.


  1. You rocked it again zing bling. I can only hope that brett and i cross paths one of these days so i can be a part of this it.

    I'm off to explore this big bad world of hollywood now...looking forward to making sure i glamour them!

    Love your blogs!

  2. Now that's some great insight! I definitely could have used this advice earlier this semester. Keep doing this "What I learned from..." series. I like it :)

  3. Great series! Truly inspiring :)

  4. Wow! Brett sounds like a truly amazing person!

    And by you sharing your valued and insightful experiences with us, really shows how influential Brett has been on you and you career.

    Once again, inspired:)


  5. Great write-up. Really enjoyed it.


  6. Hey Nzingha,

    Writing video treatments is a hobby of mine that brings me great joy. I love to hear a song and get an instant idea for a video. Can you offer any advice on getting a gig writing treatments for a music video director? I'll gladly work for free because it's something I truly enjoy doing!