“Can you believe this?” Even director Martin Brest was in disbelief as Mann’s Chinese Theater erupted with laughter over his third feature film, Beverly Hills Cop — which opened 30 years ago this month. The action was big. Eddie Murphy was bigger. The movie didn’t just work, it killed. Costar Judge Reinhold recalls standing in the back of the theater next to Brest at the premiere screening, as high as his fearless leaders. He calls it one of the peak moments of his career. “I’m not just saying this for your story,” Reinhold tells me three decades later. “But [the moment] was so pure, us standing there enjoying the audience, feeling so successful with what we’d done. What he had done.”
Beverly Hills Cop grossed over $234 million in 1984, making it the highest-grossing R-rated movie of all time (a title it would hold until 1999’s The Matrix). The movie put Martin Brest on the A-list, and yet his art was all but invisible to the public, carefully crafted to showcase star Eddie Murphy. Critics and industry players, though, could see its machinations. “[Murphy] comes closer than ever to being able to carry a film single-handedly,” the New York Times wrote of Beverly Hills Cop. “Although this one surrounds him with an excellent supporting cast.”
Brest would pull of the same unlikely stunt in 1988: “Whoever cast De Niro and Grodin must have had a sixth sense for the chemistry they would have,” Roger Ebert wrote of Midnight Run. 1992’s Scent of a Woman earned Brest an Academy Award nomination, a feat overshadowed by the performance that earned Al Pacino his first Best Actor Oscar. Then, six years later, Brest’s three-hour existential drama Meet Joe Black polarized critics and sank at the holiday box office. It took five more years for the director to shoot and release Gigli, quickly crucified as 2003’s worst film.
And then he was gone.
Gone gone. A decade without a detectable mention. No brief respite-to-comeback arc, no hired-gun job to show off his talents, no anniversary Q&As to bask in the glow of past successes, no “Produced By” credits to keep his name in front-end credits, no prestige television work. Despite earning the trust of Murphy, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Brad Pitt, and Ben Affleck, the already-intermittent director never bounced back. Brest went “full Salinger” — a task that, in the info-heavy age of the Internet, is on par with Buddhist vows of silence. The man who nuanced action-comedy for the modern age ceased making movies.
Gigli delivered a devastating blow. Compounded by Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez’s off-screen relationship, Brest’s film was a megaton bomb dropped on an evolving career. By the end of its run, the $54 million crime dramedy earned $6 million domestically and vicious reviews to match. Oscar-winning producer Mark Johnson, who knows Brest through industry colleagues and met with the director during early development on Rain Man (a film Johnson would later produce for director Barry Levinson), says Gigli stands out, even among Hollywood’s spectacular failures. “I have a sneaking suspicion it was really shattering for him,” Johnson says. “I’m not sure he was able to work up the energy or enthusiasm to go right back at it and found other things to replace it. He’s a talented filmmaker with a lot to say. I can’t believe he’ll stay disappeared.”
If Martin Brest is planning to mount a comeback, he’s slow cooking with the element of surprise. After Gigli swept the Razzies — salt poured directly on the wound — the director dedicated himself to a vanishing act. Internet sleuthing reveals…nothing. A publicity paper trail amounts to scraps of Gigli B-roll lingering on YouTube. The well of representative contacts is all dried up. A 2009 Variety report claiming that Brest was working on a new spec script and signed on with talent agency ICM Partners was already outdated — he’s no longer represented there. His only available contact is a Santa Monica-based law firm who gave the cold shoulder to any inquiries regarding its client. An old-fashioned search through the White Page turns up the address and phone number for the American Film Institute, where Brest earned his Master’s Degree.
This fogginess only provoked my inner-Axel Foley. Brest directed two of the best films of the 1980s, two fascinating films in the ‘90s and a single, albeit resounding, dud. Did Hollywood leave one of its finest stranded in the wake of failure or was Brest done on his own accord? Could a willing champion even find out the answers? Johnson offered sage wisdom that this faux-Detroit cop had to brush off: “The irony is, he’s probably not part of the industry because he wasn’t particularly interested in the industry.” Perhaps there’s a better question: How did Brest last as long as he did?
If Brest didn’t care for Hollywood’s rules, he found all the ways to break them. Born in the Bronx in 1951, the director honed his filmmaking skills in the late 1960s, first at New York University’s art-skewing film school, then the AFI, a program that routinely dropped off graduates right at the studio gates. Reinhold says when he met him in the early '80s, Brest was “the rock-star filmmaker” of a friend clique that included Fast Times in Ridgemont High director Amy Heckerling, History of the World: Part I producer Stuart Cornfeld, and Jack Rapke, an agent who would go on to rep Ron Howard, Robert Zemeckis, John Hughes, and Brest. His student films had the merit of today’s independent features; His 1972 short film, Hot Dogs for Gauguin, starring a then-unknown Danny Devito and Rhea Perlman, earned a slot on Jamie Lee Curtis’ 1980 episode of Saturday Night Live and was selected by the Library of Congress for the National Film Registry in 2009.
His AFI thesis film grew into 1977’s Hot Tomorrows, a black-and-white indie that transplanted members of The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo (including Danny Elfman) into a noir dreamscape, complete with musical numbers. The film played the New York Film Festival, Brest’s macabre sense of humor charming critics for the first time (New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael praised the film’s take on life and death, describing the surrealist exercise’s sharp writing as “a good, broad burlesque-house joke”). Brest’s first studio feature, Going in Style, introduced broader audiences to his somber sense of humor. The story of three elderly New Yorkers (George Burns, Art Carney and Lee Strasberg) who see bank robbing as a win-win situation — either they reap the rewards or land free prison accommodations — the film earned Brest a spot at the Venice film Festival and more raves.
There was never a dark, Kubrickian fog surrounding Brest, nor were there Bigfoot photographers vying for snapshots thanks to Terrence Malick-like mystique. He was a driven and idiosyncratic filmmaker, toiling over silly films deserving an ounce of sensitivity and serious films in need of not-so-serious touches. He sparred with his actors, made droll cameo appearances in Beverly Hills Cop and Midnight Run, risked his career overly publicly scrutinized choices (resulting, occasionally, in the dismissal of his crew or the dismissal of himself), and spun his own narrative to the press. He could work a room, and he could sell a story. Brest planted his flag between William Friedkin and Peter Bogdanovich’s territories — genre instincts blurring into genre-bending features. This didn’t work for everyone.
Brest’s career hit a speed bump in 1982 when, after two weeks of filming, he was fired from his Going in Style follow-up, Wargames. By all accounts, Brest joined Wargames after screenwriters Lawrence Lasker and Walter Parkes’ original script, The Genius, had been passed on by Universal for being steeped in impenetrable tech-speak. The original focused on a teenage boy befriending a Stephen Hawking-like scientist. Brest ditched the wheelchair bound astrophysicist character (his complaint: too much like Dr. Strangelove) and jiggered the script into a darker thriller that Lasker described as playing like “a Nazi undercover thing.” Despite the revamped script making it all the way to production and his shot footage accurately reflecting the grimmer tone, producers ditched Brest for Saturday Night Fever director John Badham, who revived Laser and Parkes’ lighter script.
Snippets of Brest’s footage remains in the film, though his greatest achievement is its backbone. There’s no Wargames without Matthew Broderick, a casting choice Brest fought for through an arduous casting process. Before appearing in his film debut, Max Dugan Returns, Broderick auditioned for Brest, who was immediately enthralled by the 20-year-old actor. Brest told New York Magazine in a March 1985 interview: “He had an enigmatic and sexy impishness, he had charm — he had a lot of riveting qualities in a soft and cuddly package. But when you’re building a $12-million film around an unknown, you get very cautious, so we had open calls in six cities and decided to screen test the five best actors. And Matthew was at the top of the list.”
Brest prospered at a time when studios sought intelligence and wit. Being removed from Wargames didn’t tarnish his star in Hollywood, though he was terrified that it would. Assessing the fallout, Brest told the New York Times that “suddenly everybody said there must be something wrong with me. The wunderkind had fallen.’ I was scared. My next film could have been my last. I wanted to make sure that the next job I took would be absolutely brilliant.” Which is why when Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson came to him to direct Beverly Hills Cop, he said no. Repeatedly. “I thought the tone was wrong,” he told the Times. “There were nuggets strewn throughout. But I thought it needed a lot of changes. I was concerned there wouldn’t be time.”
There wasn’t, but that didn’t stop the two producers from hounding him. In my search for Brest, I miraculously make contact with the busy Bruckheimer (working solo since Don Simpson passed away in 1996), who speaks to why a producer may employ a fallen director: Brest was the answer to Beverly Hills Cop. “[Marty Brest] bases his work in verisimilitude and character, and the results have been some remarkable and memorable cinematic moments,” Bruckheimer says. Beverly Hills Cop would be a mix-and-match action vehicle that needed comedy and drama. Who else could do it? In a profile on the making of the film, the Times reported that Brest’s involvement came down to a coin toss. When the quarter came up heads, Bruckheimer had a director.
Screenwriter Daniel Petrie’s original script for Beverly Hills Cop had the dose of comedy that made Brest an ideal choice. Those elements dissipated when the film landed a lead: Sylvester Stallone. The Rocky star tailored the picture to his aesthetic, delivering a script that was tough, action-packed, and, unfortunately, expensive. With two weeks before shooting, production scrambling to crack a shootable script, Stallone amicably bowed out of the film, leaving Bruckheimer, Simpson, and Brest without a lead. They wooed Eddie Murphy in under 48 hours and bumped production a month. Thinking he was out of a job, Reinhold heard from Simpson soon after the decision. He was safe, Murphy was in, but he had yet to exhale. The chips were still on the roulette table. As Reinhold recalls, “Don had this really tense moment where [Paramount Pictures CEO] Barry Diller looks at Marty in the room and says, 'You think Eddie Murphy can carry this movie? Because if you’re wrong, you’re gone.’ And Marty said, 'Yes I do.'”
The hurried schedule to transform Beverly Hills Cop back into an action comedy stressed all involved collaborations. Throughout his career, Brest was hands-on in the script development process, spending years tinkering with ideas and often scrapping several writers in the process. Working with Petrie on screenplay revisions on a condensed timeline while making directorial choices that would ensure the film’s completion turned the writing process into a creative maelstrom. Petrie tells me that Brest felt a little uncomfortable with the action and sussing out locations, but when it came to tone, he was like a clockmaker, each piece clicking into the whole in just the right way.
“Doing action is not that hard,” Petrie says. “Doing action that has a comic tone to it, while still being serious, is a harder thing to pull off. He did it like gangbusters.” The writer insists that any documented squabbling that emerged in the 30 years since the film’s release was a result of a pressurized frenzy. He uses the word “headstrong.” He was headstrong. Brest was headstrong. They had some natural bumps. “Years later, at a tribute honoring Jerry Bruckheimer’s works, Marty and I caught up with each other and I said, at one point, 'Marty, I apologize if I was ever an asshole.’ He said, 'Well, I apologize if I was ever an asshole, but I don’t remember you being an asshole. I remember you being headstrong,’ and I thought that was a good word.”
Everyone considers Brest a perfectionist. Maybe he was even a little obsessive-compulsive. The descriptor is never laced with insult. Reinhold has a memory for Brest’s Brestisms. During a particularly wide crane shot in Beverly Hills Cop, Reinhold says Brest cut camera, descended from the rig, walked over to him, straightened his tie, and jumped back on the crane for another take. A scene involving a falling cinder block became a strenuous stunt for the production, Brest wanting it to drop and crack in two with just the right split. Eventually, the director decided it would be easier for him to just drop the block himself. “As I evolved as an actor, worked with more directors, I realized if you’re not OCD, you’re not first rate,” Reinhold says. “The details are so crucial. For Marty, that’s it.”
Brest’s meticulous control enabled spontaneity in his actors. When nostalgic action buffs look back to Beverly Hills Cop and admire car chases infused with Eddie Murphy’s comic bravado, they wish today’s movies could revive vivid, personality-filled characters again. What they’re really dreaming of is the return of actor’s directors. Rewriting Beverly Hills Cop in a month provided Brest with the basis he needed for a good movie. He made a great one working with Murphy on set. Brest punched up the jokes with future Simpsons writer Sam Simon and let his Saturday Night Live recruit improvise his way through plot mechanics.
And Brest saw something in Murphy that would transcend stand-up shtick. He saw an actor. “Marty pushed past the dick jokes,” Reinhold says. “Tony [Scott, director of Beverly Hills Cop 2] loved the dick jokes. So did Eddie! They’re always funny. But Marty pushed him. When he was already good, but Marty pushed him into something else. Especially in the dramatic things.” Early in the film, Axel and his soon-to-be-murdered friend Mickey reminiscence about the past, when the two were stealing cars. “How come you didn’t tell on me when we got caught?” Foley asks. “You don’t know?” Mickey says, surprised. “Because I love you, man.” Axel cracks a smile, Murphy soaks it in. Beverly Hills Cop is filled with these moments of compassion. Hearing it from his friends, these were the Marty moments. The ones he fought to protect.
With each film after Beverly Hills Cop, Brest’s role as a protector became more and more pronounced. Everything was worth the fight and he had enough allies to enter the ring. Midnight Run marked the director’s first feature with Casey Silver, who went from development at Simpson-Bruckheimer (where he first met Brest) to Vice President of Production at Universal Picutres. Brest was ready to make Midnight Run, a script he had developed with writer George Gallo. Enamored by his “pop smart artist” sensibility, Silver went to bat for the director after Paramount passed on the script. “I said I wanted to make it. I championed, I persuaded my bosses, Sean Daniel and Tom Pollock, to make it.” Early tension developed over casting choices for the roles of a wiseass bounty hunter and his even wiser-assed bounty. Brest wanted Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin. “But Bob hadn’t done a comedy comedy and Grodin was great, but not exactly a movie star,” Silver says. “Grodin and De Niro weren’t exactly [Robert] Redford and [Paul] Newman back in those days. I think that’s where there was some soul searching.”
Fights to keep the pair, especially the lesser-known Grodin, were met with a practical counter: Grodin wasn’t available when the studio wanted to shoot, so they’d find someone else and move forward. That didn’t work for Brest. “Marty and De Niro had a pact,” Reinhold says. “They wanted Grodin. So they saw every actor in town to vamp. They had Sharon Stone reading for that role. They were blowing time. I was pissed when I heard it because Marty had me in too!” Reinhold laughs at the prank. “De Niro didn’t even look up when we were reading!” he recalls.
When Brest locked his cast and went to shoot Midnight Run, his priorities remained in check. He’d work the crew hard, earning him a reputation for shooting lots of takes and astronomical amounts of film. Today, with digital technology, it’s an indulgent trait we praise David Fincher for. Back in the days of celluloid, it was style that could wear out the faint of heart. Ashton tells me being a man of the theater helped him trudge through the repetition. Yaphet Kotto, who played FBI agent Alonzo Mosely, would later refer to Brest as “Herr Director,” saying he lost all joy of the job when it became “hard and tedious work.” Ashton and Silver both describe Brest as someone who values trust and commitment to his projects. If a discussion with Ashton turned a simple entrance scene into a skidding car stunt that demanded four more hours of setup, he’d do it (and he did). Which explains why, five weeks into a fourth-month shoot, his camera crew, assistant director, and several other members of the production staff quit.
“My job is to create an environment where people can do their best work,“ Brest told the Los Angeles Times. “Therefore, it’s essential you share a common attitude with your collaborators. Generally, my instincts about who I’m compatible with are pretty good. This time, I made a mistake.” Brest threw himself into his movies — and into their dangers. He set the bar for work ethic. When Charles Grodin worried about the film’s big river rapids stunt, Brest proved its safety by plunging into the rushing waters. Reportedly, he emerged from the river several minutes later, soaked and victorious, proclaiming, “Nothing to it.”
For being a protector, Brest still opened himself up to the testing process. Scent of a Woman and Meet Joe Black editor Michael Tronick remembers previewing at Universal’s screening rooms, “Or as Marty called them the 'dramedy rooms,’ because comedy went to die there,” the editor says. It was clear they had another success on their hands, audience laughter often obliterating dialogue. But the film was too long. Brest and his editing team spent the weeks before release chipping away, even if it meant losing a few frames to work it down to just over two hours. Midnight Run arrived to theaters amidst harsh blockbuster conditions, grappling with Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Die Hard and amassing $38 million. Profitable, but not widely profitable, says Silver.
David Wally watched Brest earn his first and only Oscar nomination. He joined Brest’s City Light Films just after Midnight Run, starting as the director’s assistant when the company acquired rights to the Italian film Profumo di donna (what would eventually become Scent of a Woman) and the 1934 film Death Takes a Holiday (to be remade as Meet Joe Black), and describes the off-set Brest as quiet and contemplative. Development on the scripts would take as long as it took and Brest’s next project would be whichever one came out of the oven first. With a deal in place with Silver at Universal, Brest was content with allowing City Light Films to produce movies while breaking his own ambitious projects. “We used to joke that he’d make one every four years, so it was like every four years you’d have Olympics, presidential elections, and a Marty Brest film.”
Shifting gears into “prestige” mode — a term that makes Silver laugh while being completely fair to the studio outlook — was a logical evolution for Brest. There were headier movies lurking behind his directing vehicles and working with the industry’s best actors meant tackling more straightforward dramatic material. Scent of a Woman is identifiably Brestian. The script Brest developed with Bo Goldman subverts and shades the plot’s tearjerker instincts just like Beverly Hills Cop did to action movies. Chris O'Donnell provides a Hollywood sweetness and Al Pacino’s roaring Frank Slade takes a hammer to it, shattering it like glass. Brest’s colleagues would attest to his R-rated sense of humor, self-deprecating and occasionally taboo, which is baked into Scent of a Woman’s DNA.
More than any of his films, Scent of a Woman feels finely sanded. Perhaps unsurprisingly, piecing together Pacino’s Oscar-winning performance (unfairly written off as a culmination win by both cynics and Pacino himself) and its surroundings was a hardship. “Marty has a wonderful wit and sense of humor — he knows he’s driving you crazy,” Tronick says of his collaborator’s edit room mentality. He points to the scene where Pacino plans to commit suicide in his hotel room and O'Donnell’s Charlie is acting hysterically, trying to talk him out of it. “The one scene where Chris O’Donnell cries, the focus puller missed and it was soft,” Tronick says. “Normally, Marty wouldn’t consider looking at something that’s imperfect that’s flatly out of focus. But it was the best take and we knew it. It had to be in the movie.”
Meet Joe Black was Brest’s most ambitious work: mature, experimental, and suffocated by control. Reportedly costing Universal over $90 million to produce, the Brad Pitt-led existential drama follows Death as he entangles himself in the affairs of the living, delaying his task to bring elderly media mogul (Anthony Hopkins) to the other side in favor of learning about Earth’s strange inventions and abstractions. During the shoot, Pitt told the press that Brest was “The Obsess-ator,” again playing into his scrupulous craftsmanship. "He’s got something that’s so fine-tuned. He’s like a conductor, directing an orchestra. He brings up the strings, holds them, then cuts them off like that, and boom! In comes the bass drum. He is so precise with the tuning, with the flight the story will take. He’s a maestro.”
Brest’s cut of the film clocked in a three hours, a palatable runtime for James Cameron romances with enormous ship-sinking set pieces, though not as easy a sell for deliberately paced dramas. In Meet Joe Black, time hangs in the air, each vacant second amplifying the film’s life-to-death themes instead of whisking the audience up on a Brad Pitt romantic getaway.
Tronick thought he could cut the film down into a brisker experience, but Brest believed in his cut. “Marty, and you have to respect it, said this is the movie he wants to make. Casey Silver agreed. Bo Goldman loved it. [Joe Hutshing, editor] and I could have put together an alternate version in a week. That was not the case. We knew it was long, but movies released pre-holidays, the prestige factor, there are a lot of long movies.”
If there’s one thing Brest knows about his films, it’s their length. When Universal decided to pare down Scent of Woman for television and airline use, Brest removed his name from the film, substituting the time honored “Alan Smithee” credit to tell aware audience members the cut they were about to see was not approved.
Brest fought for a fascinating, not-entirely-successful movie that the studio believed in. He had studio bigwigs on his side. Critics were mixed on the artistry, though many opened themselves up to its possibilities (and avoided looking at their watches). Audiences were less kind, the film playing theaters for a month before drifting out of public eye. Meet Joe Black was a lot of trouble for little payoff. In Hollywood, then and now, those pictures haunt you.
None of Brest’s former allies are quite certain why Gigli’s failure was the wrist-slap that cast him away from the movie industry. But looking back at his career, the film is one of the rare instances where he let his guard down, where he didn’t play protector. Gigli was Brest’s first original screenplay since Going in Style. Having been let go by Universal after Meet Joe Black’s disappointing box office compounded other problems at the company, confidante Casey Silver became an independent producer. The duo set the movie up at Revolution Studios, run by former 20th Century Fox and Walt Disney Studios head Joe Roth. From Roth, Brest earned final cut, allowing him freedom to make the picture he wanted to make.
And he did, the first time he shot it.
Gigli is a crass, Los Angeles romp that overstuffs itself with mobster tropes and eyebrow-raising romance. We’ll never see what Brest first intended, a film that still polarized test audiences with its decidedly offbeat approach to character. “It did not preview well, but it had people who absolutely loved it,” Silver says. “It was a departure. It had a surrealistic ending. The studio felt it was going along well, but they wanted to redesign what the movie was. They wanted to make it into a mainstream comedy [when Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez] were getting tons of attention.”
Roth couldn’t force Brest’s hand into recutting the film, but he could insist on reshoots. Silver says Brest felt the pressure of test numbers. There was an enormous amount of pressure to deliver something that played better with audiences. An original ending — Affleck’s lowly Gigli caught up in a sandstorm scenario that Silver describes as “esoteric” and “mystical” — was overhauled, escalating the budget to an amount that it wouldn’t trump at the box office. “If we had done it again, I would have said, 'Don’t do it,'” Silver admits. “We talked a lot about not doing it. And then we finally did it.” Brest couldn’t protect it.
Gigli wasn’t Revolution’s only bomb — 2003 saw Bruce Willis’ Tears of the Sun and the limp Harrison Ford-Josh Hartnett vehicle Hollywood Homicide — but it stung the worst. Affleck would later call the process “putting a fish’s tail and a donkey’s head,” adding a caveat: “ I’ll make more films with Martin … I believe in Martin Brest.” Before and after Gigli, Brest had a fan in Affleck. Silver recalls hearing the actor tell people that Midnight Run was his favorite movie. When Affleck directed his first feature, 2007’s Gone Baby Gone, he casat Beverly Hills Cop and Midnight Run actor John Ashton — who says that Affleck told Brest on the Gigli shoot that he wanted to be the director’s new “John Ashton” a.k.a. go-to actor — and added a special thank you to Brest in the end credits. And when Affleck took home the Best Picture Oscar for his thriller Argo, who did he thank on stage? Marty Brest.
But after Gigli, the “Bennifer” media storm swept in, the financial woes were scrutinized then swept under the rug, and all of sudden, Martin Brest was gone. Gone gone.
“I can tell him that I talked to you, but… if I know Marty, he’s not going to want to talk,” Silver tells me after I obnoxiously wonder out loud if there’s any hope to connecting with Brest. But everyone I speak to leaves me with hope that’ll we’ll see Brest again, on the big screen, sometime, eventually, hopefully.
Hollywood is dying for Martin Brest, even if it doesn’t know it. Last year, CBS tried to sequelize Beverly Hills Cop yet again in television form (and while unsuccessful, Bruckheimer and Brett Ratner continue to develop a Cop 4 feature). A Midnight Run sequel has been rumored for decades. And just this past month, producers settled on Zach Braff to direct a Going in Style remake.
Mark Johnson says you don’t see Brest out and about in Hollywood, and that maybe he moved to New York. John Ashton believes he’s writing a new film. Casey Silver vaguely corroborates the idea. “I suppose that Marty would like to make another movie,” he says. “He has to find material that’s worth it. He was never the most prolific guy.” Making a film that lives up to one’s high standard of perfection ain’t easy. Protecting it with every bit of strength, from start to finish, is even harder.
Matt Patches (@misterpatches) is a writer and reporter in New York whose work has been featured on Grantland, Vulture, and The Hollywood Reporter.