The Curious Career of Martin Brest

by Dirk on October 10, 2010 · 34 comments

This week, during my interminable illness, I watched (among many others) the movie Midnight Run. A good-but-not-great “buddy movie” from the 1980′s it was entertaining and endearing in superficial and schmaltzy sort of way.

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.

{ 33 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Diane October 11, 2010 at 10:06 pm

Dear Dirk,

It was so interesting reading your article about Marty. I worked with him on “Midnight Run” and “Scent of a Woman” and grew to know him well. You managed to do some very astute research with little information available. I have to say that you were amazingly accurate.

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2 Jon October 26, 2010 at 11:14 am

Diane,

What more can you tell us about Marty Brest? What is his own take on his films and on filmmaking? I would love to hear him do a retrospective interview on his career, his highs and lows, and what he does today. He seems like a very, very interesting man.

- Jon

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3 Jon October 26, 2010 at 11:08 am

Dirk,

I also have long been fascinated by the career of Martin Brest. I actually must tell you that GOING IN STYLE is not an “okay” film, it is actually a borderline masterpiece… and that is something I don’t say often. It’s a genuinely moving – often sad – film that features George Burns giving the performance of his career.

I actually would like to hear Martin Brest tell the tale of his career and where he is now, I am sure he would have some fascinating stories to tell about the production of all his films. The closest interview I can find is a CHARLIE ROSE interview he did in 1992/1993 for SCENT OF A WOMAN. I have heard that he works in advertising/commercials and that he has always considered feature films more of a hobby then a profession. He definitely seems to be a reclusive filmmaker regardless, Diane I would love to hear more about him.

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4 Casey November 24, 2010 at 4:35 pm

Even though there seems to be very little on Mr. Brest, this blog is the most information that I could find on him. I was actually watching Meet Joe Black, much like you had watched Midnight Run and ran an IMDB search on him and noticed how very little there was about him. After Gigli (have never seen it), he seemed to have disappeared from the face of Hollywood.

I think my love of his few movies culminated at Meet Joe Black. I suppose he went out on a high note for me there. I may be one of the few that really enjoys this film. Granted it lost a lot of money, but the production was lavishly made in its sets. I personally think this is one of Hopkins’s best roles and the movie itself is one that I would classify as such a classy and quiet film. You rarely see these kinds come through. In fact I believe Scent of a Woman is one of the only other ones I can think of.

I do appreciate this article on what little you have gleaned from the internet on Marty. I honestly hope that someday he may try his hand at another film project, but I suppose it can be understandable if producers shy away from him given the information that he could be difficult to work with. I guess ultimately if an actor is hired to do a movie, it is not THEIR movie, but the directors. You end up working for them. And in Marty’s case you also work for the producer who has final say on if you can work on the movie or not…

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5 Will January 2, 2011 at 3:54 pm

To those who are interested in how the man thinks and works, check out the Director’s Commentary on the Beverly Hills Cop DVD. It’s VERY insightful.

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6 Kris June 5, 2011 at 11:52 pm

The Martin Breast scenes from War Games are the first scenes they shot on “Goose Island, Oregon” where the kids get a little bit romantic and sappy (“I never learned how to swim”), then were interrupted by the helicopter. This is referenced in the DVD commentary that the pathos was a little high for John Badham’s taste but he left it in since he felt the sudden switch to the helicopter made it work.

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7 Samantha July 16, 2011 at 2:24 pm

Very intriguing article, thank you. After reading information about Gigli I wanted to find out what else the director had done since, if anything. So I’m surprised that his filmography also includes Scent of a Woman and Beverly Hills Cop, two great films in my estimation. Small irony (probably bigger to Martin) that Ben Affleck the star of that infamous film that seems to have stalled Martin’s career indefinitely is now respected for directing his own films. If only he could help finance Martin in his next film (if he so wished). Bad as critics and the public viewed Gigli as, it would have at least garnered less attention if it hadn’t been for its actors and their public personas at the time. Shame.

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8 Jon July 18, 2011 at 9:04 am

Actually in 2004 a terrific website called THE DVD JOURNAL wrote a fascinating review of Marty’s first film – and my personal favorite – GOING IN STYLE that gives interesting insight to Brest as a director. Here is the link:

http://dvdjournal.com/quickreviews/g/goinginstyle.q.shtml

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9 Mitch August 4, 2011 at 4:07 pm

It was six years before Brest would return with Meet Joe Black, a remake of Death Takes a Holiday, starring Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins. The film received mixed reviews and while it had a disappointing domestic box office return of $44,619,100, it fared much better overseas, taking in an additional $98,321,000 for a worldwide total of $142,940,100.[2]

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10 Jonathan Goodson August 16, 2011 at 7:40 pm

Dirk,
Thanks for an interesting summary of Martin Brest’s work (there really isn’t much out there about him, is there) and thanks also to Jon for the link above. MB certainly seems to be an enigmatic character.
I was born in 1977 and am really not a movie buff. However I recently received the DVD of Midnight Run as an anniversary present, having divulged to my wife that this was my favourite ever film. Re-watching Midnight Run I found it even more fun than I remembered. I love the cast, the characters, the constant swearing and smoking, the brilliant dialogue and most of all the intricate plotting; the main arc of which is embellished with twist upon twist as the the bounty hunter, the feds, the mob – and all the double-crossing minions of each of these parties – do battle for possesion of the absconding accountant.
I too was drawn to looking up the director as a result and was profoundly shocked by two pieces of information. One that Charles Grodin’s character was originally to have been played by Robin Williams, an actor who I have never liked and who would surely have ruined it, for me at least. Two, that this genius of film-making was also responsible for the film Meet Joe Black. I saw it at the cinema once, hated every tedious, lingering minute of the thing, despised the waste of such a fantastic cast, and never even noted the name of the director, until now.
How can the same man have made these two films? One that is packed with plot like few other films I can think of, and one that has almost none. One that has funny lines and moments spilling over each other, and one that is completely devoid of any humour, as far as I can tell. One that conjures up a great rapport between two characters even though they spend most of their screen time in a breathless dash to evade mortal peril, and one that fails to produce any rapport between the main characters despite having them stand next to each other the entire film exchanging silent, meaningful looks.
I am baffled at the contrast between the two.
Jonathan

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11 Ger October 12, 2011 at 3:06 am

Just a quick thank you for your article. Wanted to add that Howard Stern, one of the very best interviewer’s, if not The Best, should interview Martin Brest. Meet Joe Black, perhaps in decades, will receive all of the accolades it deserves. Consider The Wizard of Oz and It’s a Wonderful life as examples that did not change the face of film when released, but arguably have since. I now have a list of movies mentioned above that I haven’t seen (Going in Style, Hot Dogs for Gauguin, Midnight Run) that I am looking forward to watching, and that is great because there seems like there are too few to look forward to these days.

All the best.

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12 Linda Brounstein October 22, 2011 at 1:24 am

I was a classmate of Martin Brest in the Bronx back in the 60′s. I was first flutist in the band and he was a drummer. We did not hang out with the same kids but we were in some of the same classes. When I first learned that he went on to become a director and was nominated for an Oscar for Scent Of A Woman, I was proud to have shared those days when we both were in the same band as teenagers.

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13 Allen Holzman January 19, 2012 at 11:04 pm

I think Martin Brest is a very, very underated Director. From what I can glean he was made the fall guy for Gigli when in fact, the disaster was not his doing. It is my understanding it was the studio that recut and re shot parts of that film then pushed him out of the plane with no parachute.
I’ve heard rumors he has things in the works. I really like his films so I look forward to seeing more.

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14 Guadalupe Lopez March 17, 2012 at 3:28 am

A friend of mine tango’d with Mr. Brest and I he sounds very interesting, genuine, and crazy-artistic. How can I contact him?

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15 saidi May 4, 2012 at 11:41 am

I was Martin Brest’s neighbor in the Bronx and was so proud of him when he fulfilled his dream of becoming a Hollywood producer.

I look forward to seeing his next endeavor.

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16 Idahoan June 1, 2012 at 10:03 pm

I was so elated to find this blog…

First off, as a child of the ’70s who spent a lot of time with the parental units watching great movies, I was utterly surprised to find that Marty Brest directed BOTH “WarGames” and “Beverly Hills Cop” (’80s classics), on top of the small cinematic wonder, “Midnight Run” (in everyday circles, many have not watched this wonderful flick; I agree that Williams would have made it cliche).

But as far as all the people dissin’ “Meet Joe Black” (and the cast), I am surprised. In my opinion, it’s a quiet, lovely, dark, dignified film with terrific character development and story-line. As well, the writing, and interaction between characters far surpasses such “Oscar winners” as “Monster” and “Hurt Locker”, where gruff, unhappy people never connect.

Anyway, I find it really sad that this man (even if “difficult”–what director ISN’T?) left his footprint on “Gigli” (thanks to a sick obsession with star romance gone bad) to end it all, when, clearly, someone like Tarantino, Ridley, or even Spielberg could pick up a phone and give him a ringy-ding to make us (finally) a movie worth paying $10/person in a theater again.

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17 Idahoan June 1, 2012 at 10:06 pm

P.S.

I find it rather fascinating that the same quote by YK led me to your blog. Cheers!

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18 Anticlick October 21, 2012 at 12:49 am

I am compelled to watch Scent of a Woman every single time it comes on. It doesn’t matter at what point – beginning, middle, end – for some reason, I sit down and watch it the rest of the way through. (I do hope he is well… that’s all).

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19 Scott May 18, 2013 at 12:15 am

Amazing… I feel the same way about Scent of a Woman and Meet Joe Black. I am drawn into those two movies whenever I stumble upon them. And I never knew they were both directed by the same man.

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20 Richard Messina February 1, 2013 at 12:18 am

I stumbled here while trying to find out what Martin Brest has been directing lately, and apparently not much, I’m sad to see.

In my humble opinion this director has given us (at least) 4 classics:
“Scent of a Woman” -Pacino finally gets his Oscar
“Midnight Run” – Grodin and DeNiro, it doesn’t get any better
“Beverly Hills Cop” – Eddie Murphy at the top of his game
“Meet Joe Black” – Bravo!

For years now I recognized that the same director was responsible for all of these treasures, so I’ve been a huge fan of Marty, though I know nothing about him. But I know this, this body of work puts him among the very best film-makers. I don’t know if he’s got anthing in the works, bit I certainly hope so. Either way, thanks for the hours of enjoyment you’ve given us, Marty! (HOURS! I have watched all of these films dozens of times. They are all that good!!)

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21 Scott February 10, 2013 at 8:49 pm

I just watched Meet Joe Black after avoiding it due to its disastrous reputation, and I was shocked to discover that I really enjoyed it. To me the pacing was not slow, but built like a lush novel that you settle into, investing in its characters, you sense everything setting up brilliantly and wait for the chips to start falling. After being so surprised, I looked up the director’s name and had the same reaction you did (both to his repertoire and curious lack of information on IMDB, especially since Gigli). Thank you for putting this all together, and also a quick thank you to the commentors above: I’ve suddenly become very interested in this elusive director.

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22 Sean March 7, 2013 at 12:35 pm

Excellent article. Just to note: in his Oscar acceptance speech for Argo, Affleck thanked Martin Brest. So, while Gigli may have ended his career, he and Affleck seem to be on good terms.

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23 Oliver March 9, 2013 at 3:14 pm

Both ‘Death Takes a Holiday’ and the original ‘King Kong’ clock in at 90 minutes or so; given that their remakes, by Brest and Jackson respectively, run close to three hours, how can they be anything other than pointlessly expensive vanity projects?

Martin Brest, Jan de Bont, Lee Tamahori, Michael Lehmann — yes they made an entertaining, enduring movie or two, but that was years ago. Stop making excuses for artistic decline and indulgence.

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24 Giovanuche April 27, 2013 at 8:20 pm

Marty really needed an editor smart enough and strong enough stand up to his indulgences.

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25 John May 5, 2013 at 11:38 am

“Both ‘Death Takes a Holiday’ and the original ‘King Kong’ clock in at 90 minutes or so; given that their remakes, by Brest and Jackson respectively, run close to three hours, how can they be anything other than pointlessly expensive vanity projects?”

Oliver, this statement, along with your second, is fairly obnoxious and definitely missing any basic form of logic. It would be easy to make the same sort of meaningless statement about any work of art while completely disregarding its actual content.

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26 Charly May 10, 2013 at 6:36 am

What a hauntingly lovely movie, Meet Joe Black, Hopkins was at his best, it was a great depiction of what losing someone to death is about, whether through timely or tragic circumstances, and the response of loved ones. I was shocked that this movie didn’t garnish greater revenues. I will forever be grateful to Martin Brest for this truly profound movie!!
Merci…

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27 Annie May 28, 2013 at 9:36 pm

I grew up with Martin Brest in Pelham Parkway, The Bronx. He was pretty reclusive, from what I remember. I was just talking to my friend Jeff about him and he found your website, so I checked it out. I loved Beverly Hills Cop, Midnight Run (he did a Cameo) and also Scent of a Woman.
I had no idea that he was a director, and while watching Going in Style in the middle of the night many years ago, saw his name, and weeks later saw an article in the New York Times about him so I realized he was the same Martin Brest. A very interesting person indeed.

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28 Razmik Hovsepian June 13, 2013 at 2:54 am

Martin Brest,

Come back. We miss your work.

Give us more actors like Yaphet Kotto, Charles Grodin, Joe Pantoliano, Gabrielle Anwar and Bradley Whitford.

Give us more characters like Jack Walsh, Marvin Dofler, Moron # 2, George Willis Jr. and Lt. Colonel Frank Slade.

They are all classics and belong among the best in movie history.

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29 Kieran June 18, 2013 at 1:47 am

Just watched Scent of a Woman again on cable in a Peruvian hotel room. It was really green because of a dodgy television but that’s a weird testament to how much I enjoy that movie. Thanks for writing the blog, really interesting. It’s sad that Brest hasn’t made a movie since Gigli – I wonder if he was scarred by the experience and his exodus is self-imposed. Scent especially is brilliantly unshowily directed, gorgeous.

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30 Isobel Noble June 19, 2013 at 10:16 pm

I was at NYU Film School when Marty Brest was there. I watched him work on “Hot Dogs for Gauguin” and at that time thought he was without a doubt the most talented student at the film school. He was friendly, smart, always willing to help a younger student, and helped me untangle the workings of the infamous moviola contraptions we underclassmen used to edit and sync our films. I’m not sure why anyone would blacklist this incredibly gifted filmmaker. I would be proud to have him make movies of the books I’ve written. Naturally I’ve followed his career through the years and have found myself baffled by those who didn’t appreciate some of his best work, like “Going In Style.” Wherever you are nowadays, Marty, I wish you all the best and hope you return to film soon.

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31 laurent September 7, 2013 at 10:59 am

HI everyone

Yes i do AGREE with the fact that Mr Martin Brest is an underrated director . I think Meet joe Black is a true GEM, not because of Brad Pitt :) but the whole art direction is so well made . The timing in the storytelling is so mastered .

Mr Martin Brest is a VERY TALENTED director, and nowadays Hollywood do miss SO MUCH inspirations, and GOOD ACTORS , DIRECTORS and merely STORIES to tell .

When you look what the Majors have been producing for 10 years, you can think that the movie Gigli was not so bad . Come on , MOVIES is NO WALL STREET with sawps, warrants, assets and ratios !

Sure there are investors, behind, and financials matters in every big production . Majors are in the stock market, but at the end, money doesn’t bring a story, nor talent .

But one can’t say Martin Best is a cheap director because the box office failed once !!! He directed Al Pacino and helped him to get an academy award, YES AL Pacino is AL, and on top of his art, but making movies it’s a WORK TEAM .

How come some producers who worked with Mr Martin Brest are still in the business as he’s not anymore …… yes maybe he’s smarter in some ways, or just got enough of this
waste of time , and energy

Life is tough, we all know that, especially in the INDUSTRY . But i’m sure Mr Martin Brest deserve a GOOD SCRIPT and come back from the shadows . i’m not saying to go back to the system, but i think he would be very welcomed in the INDIE NYC productions , or at the Sundance festival and Toronto .

Anyone has seen FRANCE.HA this summer ?
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2347569/?ref_=sr_1

or Detachement by TONY KAYE ( who by the WAY, came back after he’s been kicked out of Hollywood after AMERICAN HISTORY X, does it ring any bells to anyone ? ) and to add one thing about Tony Kaye’s last movie, it’s a moving, intense experience, and if you haven’t seen it go watch IT ( http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1683526/ ) , Mad men & Grey’s Anatomy are nice, but there are other things to watch !!! TV is not CINEMA

SO Mr Martin Brest, or Mr Martin Brest’s relatives, or Mr Martin Brest’s agent/publicist and ex co workers ….. you should ALL KNOW and MR BREST first that he’s a HIGHLY TALENTED DIRECTOR and there are ups and downs in every career, everyone of us know this, especially Artists, but it SHALL NOT give away our intentions to do and make what we are, what inspire us, MAKE MOVIES !!! MAKE THE WORLD A BETTER PLACE through pictures .

Please Mr Martin Brest if you read this or your agent, give the world a new story to watch and so we can smile, cry, get entertain in front of your unique a TRUE TALENT !

THANK YOU FOR YOUR MOVIES , BUT IT’S NOT OVER

Now we have easier production facilities with digital equipement, cost of INDIE productions is AFFORDABLE . There ‘s not only Hollywood in the INDUSTRY, World is BIGGER

come to France , here we love Artists even if our movies don’t make any profits, we keep producing just to remind people that before all, MOVIES is ART :) the 7th one with photography :)

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32 Gawon Lee March 15, 2014 at 11:59 am

I love his films, especially ‘Scent of a Woman’ and ‘Meet Joe Black’.
I want to know how he is getting along these days, so googled and found this blog.
I agree that Martin Brest is a talented director, as upper other replies commented.
I sincerely hope him return!!!!

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33 Michael March 20, 2014 at 8:24 pm

Just want to point out that while Meet Joe Black lost money in domestic theatrical release, overseas it took in much more, ultimately grossing more than $50 million beyond its production costs. Although we don’t always think of it as such in Hollywood terms, $50 million is a true fortune. Not a bad day for a mediocre movie (I actually enjoy it more than most, apparently).

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