When I watch movies I spend as much time on IMDB doing meta-research about the movie and the people in it as I do watching the movie itself. So it was that, while “watching” Midnight Run, I read the following, acerbic quote from actor Yaphet Kotto, whom I generally like quite a bit:
That was another difficult shoot. DeNiro is very spontaneous and it always helps to work with an artist like that. But Marty Brest! He shot so many takes of the scenes that I lost all joy in doing the film. It became hard and tedious work. Then he stopped eating during the shoot and became thinner and thinner each day, until he looked like a ghost behind the camera. When I met Marty at the Universal Studios with DeNiro, he looked healthy and strong, but as filming went on, he began to turn into someone you’d see in Dachau (Concentration Camp). It was weird. I got sick and for the whole of the film I had a fever and was under the weather for most of it. I was shocked when it came off so funny. It sure wasn’t funny making it.
“Marty Brest? Who is that?” I wondered. As it turns out, Martin Brest is a fascinating, elusive, curious study in the creative complexity and oddness in the Hollywood elite.
Upon going to his IMDB profile, the first thing I noticed is there is almost no information on him. Whereas even marginal actors typically have pumped-up bios with trivia, quotes and other goodies, the director of Midnight Run had nothing, only his birthdate and the fact he was the original director of WarGames. While that second point was interesting – WarGames is a legitimate classic from its time – his complete paucity of biographical information suggested he was an irrelevant footnote in directorial history. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth:
1972 – His first credited film is Hot Dogs for Gauguin, a 22 minute short he made while attending NYU. Starring Danny Devito, Rhea Perlman and William Duff-Griffin is is supposed to be “hilarious”.
1977 – His next film, which aired at the Seattle Film Festival and was made during his time studying at AFI, was Hot Tomorrows. With an expansive and eclectic cast that ranges from Orson Welles as a radio voice to Herve Villechaize (what’s Brest’s deal with diminutive actors?!) the film was only screened a few times and then not seen again.
1979 – Starring legends George Burns, Art Carney and Lee Strasberg, Going in Style has an “OK” reputation but is not a movie I’ve seen. It is a comedy about three elderly friends deciding to rob a bank. Through his first three films, Brest had worked with impressive talent and obviously had strong connections and reputation throughout Hollywood.
His next film would have been the previously mentioned WarGames. What little information there is out there about his participation suggests he had a major falling out with the producers of the movie, so serious that he was “blackballed” from Hollywood for the next two years. It bears mentioning that WarGames, more than just a smash hit and cultural touchpoint, was a huge Hollywood blockbuster. The NORAD set was the most expensive set ever built in Hollywood up until that point. Brest had a major role in envisioning and executing that. Indeed, he was fired into production and some of the scenes in the final movie are his. I have not been able to discover which scenes those might be.
1984 – Brest was offered this movie and legend has it he flipped a coin to decide whether or not he should direct it. Apparently the coin said yes, and Brest found himself at the helm of one of the all-time biggest Hollywood blockbusters: Beverly Hills Cop. Researching Martin Brest I learned a lot about this movie that you might also find interesting, including:
- Martin Scorsese and David Cronenberg both turned down the director’s chair.
- While Al Pacino, James Caan and Mickey Rourke were all considered for the lead in the movie it ultimately went to…wait for it…Sylvester Stallone. “Sly” quit the production shortly before shooting began; legend has it the reason was a disagreement about what brand of orange juice would be stocked in his trailer. I’m guessing he wanted fresh-squeezed and they were making him drink frozen concentrate. Poor baby.
- The original script was written in 1977 and re-written many times as the possible lead actors in the movie changed. When Eddie Murphy, the first black actor considered for the role, took over the script needed an almost complete overhaul. The final movie thus not only includes major re-writes of all the primary characters, but the scenes in the movie are an odd tapestry sewn together from the many versions of the script over the years.
- Beverly Hills Cop was the highest grossing R-rated movie for over 20 years, finally eclipsed in 2004 by The Passion of the Christ.
While I don’t care for violence in films I confess to really enjoying Beverly Hills Cop. It’s a really entertaining film, and grossed all those monies for a reason.
1988 – Midnight Run, which started me on this whole Martin Brest mini-project. Notably, Brest hand-picked Charles Grodin to co-star opposite Robert DeNiro and Paramount dropped out of the project because Brest would not consider the more “bankable” Robin Williams. Universal bought the rights and allowed Brest to use Grodin as he planned.
1992 – The next movie for Brest was another biggie, Scent of a Woman. Earning a Best Actor Oscar for Al Pacino – and further diversifying Brest’s history of working with top Hollywood names – this was a very popular and well-esteemed movie. Continuing his reputation for being difficult, Brest formally disowned the movie as shown in edited form for television and airlines.
1998 – Meet Joe Black is not a bad film, but it’s certainly not a very good one either. Continuing his trend of working with Hollywood royalty, here Brest casts Brad Pitt, Anthony Hopkins and Marcia Gay Harden. Even though it was not a terrible film, Brest laid a huge and, in the eyes of Hollywood, unforgivable egg: with an estimated budget of $90,000,000 – the biggest-ever budget to that point for a movie without special effects – Meet Joe Black grossed less than half its budget. Yes, we’re talking about losses of over $40,000,000. Yikes.
2003 – Ready for the punchline? The final film – to this point – in Martin Brest’s star-crossed directorial career is the most legendary of them all: the Ben Affleck/Jennifer Lopez uber-bomb, Gigli. A near-consensus pick as the worst movie ever made, this improbably serves as the bookend of Brest’s directing career.
Maybe it’s just me, but I find Martin Brest’s career absolutely fascinating. He was seen as a Hollywood wunderkind and began on the highest of possible trajectories. He flamed out on WarGames and was blackballed. His return was meteoric and spectacular, with Beverly Hills Cop and Scent of a Woman being true smash-hits, and Midnight Run a respectable and well-made comedy. Then he lost tens of millions of dollars with Meet Joe Black and created the worst movie ever made. Today? He apparently doesn’t warrant a decent biography on IMDb, where even the most flaccid of stars are pumped up to near-legendary heights.
On one hand, Brest seems like so many habitants of Hollywood: talented, spoiled, strong-willed, self-destructive. On the other he has what seems to be a near-unique career arc, achieving the very highest of highs as well as the truly most spectacular of lows. In between he worked with many of the most important, interesting and capable actors of his generation and, in the end, all that’s left is a tiny footnote in movie history. I would like to know a lot more about Martin Brest but – apparently thanks to Meet Joe Black and Gigli and, no doubt, various behind-the-scenes studio shenanigans – Martin Brest is nothing but a shadow, with the headline “Director of Beverly Hills Cop and Scent of a Woman” stamped to the top of his resume and, presumably, the bottom of his tombstone.