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Times Staff Writer

BRETT RATNER was working on only two hours of sleep, yet fatigue was hardly the director’s only “Rush Hour 3" worry.

The long-delayed buddy cop sequel had been in production for three months, and on this February day it was clear it wasn’t going to come close to wrapping in 11 days, as the shooting schedule optimistically suggested. The conclusion of the film’s final chase scene was neither scripted nor budgeted. Ratner and producer Arthur Sarkissian were quarreling like an old married couple over the series’ origins. And the co-chairman of New Line Cinema was on the telephone, convinced that star Jackie Chan was out of control, that the movie was $6 million over budget and that Ratner was hiding in his trailer.

“Fortunately,” Ratner said, rubbing the previous night’s all-hours Oscar party exhaustion from his eyes, “it’s not a very complicated day.”

Some movie sets are watching-paint-dry boring. Others are so sprawling as to be creatively sterile. Watching the making of “Rush Hour 3,” which opens Friday, was like being backstage on the opening night of a Broadway musical: Every minute brought some new drama, but somehow the show went on.

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The last time Ratner directed Chan and Chris Tucker in a “Rush Hour” movie, the Iraq war hadn’t begun, Barry Bonds had hit only 540 home runs and Paris Hilton hadn’t made her sex tape. But 2001’s “Rush Hour 2" was such a big hit -- grossing $347 million worldwide, more than $100 million more than 1998’s first “Rush Hour” -- that New Line Cinema wanted at least one more buddy cop comedy.

As Ratner and the film’s producers would come to learn, wanting a sequel and actually lining up the key players were two dramatically different games. Thanks in part to the success of the first two films, the salaries of all of the key creative people had skyrocketed. Not counting any gross profit deals, Tucker’s new price tag was $25 million, Chan’s $15 million, Ratner’s $7.5 million and screenwriter Jeff Nathanson’s $3 million. That’s more than $50 million out the door before a foot of film passed through a camera.

“When the second one was a success, we all immediately said it would be great to do a third but that it would be very, very hard to do a third,” producer Roger Birnbaum said. “We knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but then it turned into something much harder than we ever imagined.”

Money was hardly the only obstacle: Tucker, the key actor in the movies, wasn’t itching to revisit the franchise. Ratner needed to help persuade him to come back. Getting along with actors is one of Ratner’s gifts: He and Edward Norton initially fought constantly on “Red Dragon”; now they are close friends.

Tucker, 35, makes very few movies on principle, preferring to work for AIDS orphans and others in need in Africa through his Chris Tucker Foundation. He hadn’t appeared in anything in the six years since “Rush Hour 2" came out; a one-day cameo for “Spider-Man 3" landed on the cutting room floor. In fact, Chan has made more movies since “Rush Hour 2" than Tucker has in his entire career.

Since Tucker had matured as a person and a performer, he was reluctant to reprise Los Angeles police Det. James Carter, especially if the character was stuck being a naive, fast-talking hustler. “I’ve grown up a little bit since the last movie,” said the soft-spoken Tucker. “Obviously, you change as a person. And you put a lot of that personality into that character.”

Tucker’s contract negotiations stretched over two years, during which plans to shoot two sequels back-to-back were considered and abandoned.

One script idea not by Nathanson calling for Carter and Chan’s Chinese Chief Inspector Lee to go to Hawaii was shelved in part because Tucker didn’t care for it. “I don’t stress about not working. I choose not to go out there and get the money,” Tucker said. “The script has to be true to the characters and the tone of the movie.”

Ratner called Nathanson, searching for a way to build on the franchise’s fish-out-of-water plots. “And I said, ‘Where can we have the most comedy?’ ” Ratner said. “And Jeff said, ‘France. Everybody hates the French.’ ” That idea stuck.

So on that February morning, Ratner, Chan and Tucker could be found inside the Jules Verne Restaurant. It looked just like the overpriced Alain Ducasse dining establishment atop the Eiffel Tower, but “Rush Hour 3" was filming not in Paris (where the production was located for three weeks) but in Culver City, where the restaurant’s interior, and some of the Eiffel Tower’s superstructure, had been rebuilt on a sound stage.

Amid the fine table linens and crystal stemware, Chan was battling the Triads, a French-Asian gang. They are led by Kenji (“The Last Samurai’s” Hiroyuki Sanada), who has a surprise connection to Inspector Lee, whom he nevertheless wants to kill.

The best fight on the set, though, wasn’t between Chan and Sanada.

It was down behind the cameras, where Ratner and Sarkissian were fighting over who was responsible for coming up with the “Rush Hour” idea. “That’s not at all what happened. Why do you keep saying that?” Ratner said to Sarkissian after the producer outlined his version of the film’s origin.

Sarkissian kept arguing his point -- that he had devised more than the gist of the movie -- but Ratner, his foot tapping on his director’s chair, wasn’t buying it. “What is wrong with you, Arthur?” he said.

Sarkissian started a new argument. “Roger Birnbaum deserves no credit for making these movies,” he said. “He screwed me.” Apprised of Sarkissian’s remarks, Birnbaum said he got Chan attached, and then Ratner brought in Tucker. “Everybody has something to do with it,” he said, “and that’s the most generous thing I can say.”

Box office magic

“It wasn’t me!” Ratner said. “That wasn’t a ring. That was a chirp, to show it’s charging!”

Ratner, 38, is famously attached to his mobile phone, talking on it sometimes even while filming, and to corral his and others’ cellular interruptions, the production devised a “Rush Hour 3" fine system.

Any time someone’s phone rang during a scene, the offender had to kick $20 into a kitty that would be donated to the homeless charity Chrysalis (Ratner is on its board). By late February, there was more than $600 in the pot; Ratner was leading with the most infractions (five), followed by producer Andy Davis and Sarkissian (three each).

From incessantly chatting on his cellphone to sending e-mail to entertaining a parade of jaw-droppingly beautiful visitors -- supermodel Petra Nemcova one day, background dancer and children’s clothing and accessories designer Anna Chiu the next -- Ratner appeared to have little time to direct the movie.

“But he sees his movies in his head,” said Davis, the producer Ratner relies on the most, having collaborated with the filmmaker on “Red Dragon,” “The Family Man,” “Rush Hour 2" and “Rush Hour 3.” “His remarkable ability,” Davis said, “is to have multiple focus.”

His detractors -- the website Defamer has made him a favorite whipping boy, calling him a “fauxteur” -- say his movies are pedestrian. As unlikely as his films might be to win awards or four-star reviews, though, they sell boatloads of tickets, having grossed more than $1 billion worldwide.

Ratner’s debut film, 1997’s “Money Talks” with Tucker, was a modest hit and he followed that a year later with “Rush Hour” ($141.2 million in domestic ticket sales), 2000’s “The Family Man” ($75.8 million), 2001’s “Rush Hour 2" ($226.2 million), 2002’s “Red Dragon” ($93 million) and 2004’s “After the Sunset,” his first real flop ($28.3 million).

With filming set to start in just a few weeks, Ratner replaced Matthew Vaughn on 2006’s “X-Men: The Last Stand.” The sequel grossed a robust $234.4 million domestically, and, like most of Ratner’s movies, did almost equally well overseas.

Ratner’s direction essentially can be divided into two camps. Either the actors aren’t quick enough -- “Move faster!” he told the gang members during one fight scene -- or aren’t funny enough -- “You need a better double-take” he told Yvan Attal, who was playing a French cabby. Between takes, he queued up on his video monitor a scene from Barry Levinson’s “Bugsy” because he liked how the director had blood run down a victim’s face.

Nathanson’s script for “Rush Hour 3" opens with Tucker’s Carter directing traffic while Chan’s Lee is working as a bodyguard. An assassination attempt on Lee’s client eventually takes the pair to France, where they battle the Triads, who are protecting a critical gang secret. (The Chinese government won’t allow the film to be shown in China.) After dodging bullets in a hospital, taking on a giant martial-arts teacher and racing through Paris, Carter and Lee end up atop the Eiffel Tower.

Ratner wanted to get one more shot of the reconstructed exterior, a sweeping crane shot, but first assistant director Jamie Freitag suggested Ratner move on, especially since lunchtime was approaching. A minor debate quickly devolved into a shouting match.

“I know it’s not on the shot list!” Ratner started yelling. “But I need to get it now.”

Freitag and cinematographer J. Michael Muro eventually acquiesced. “Guys,” Freitag beseeched the union crew, which could have penalized the production for encroaching on its meal break, “we may need a little grace to complete this shot.”

Fifteen minutes later, Ratner had his shot and the crew went to lunch, without assessing a meal penalty.

Method to the madness

“Brett’s genius is this,” Sarkissian said. “Anybody else would have said with ‘Rush Hour,’ ‘Let’s make a Jackie Chan movie with wall-to-wall martial arts.’ But Brett said, ‘Let’s put him in a buddy movie, where you are not bored by 700 chop-socky sequences.’ ”

Still, there’s plenty of fighting in “Rush Hour 3,” and by the time filming was nearly complete, Chan was nursing any number of injuries, including a cracked sternum and bruises to his shins. Chan was supposed to have wrapped “Rush Hour 3" in February, but at this point it was April and he wasn’t finished.

“The problem is that ‘Rush Hour’ and ‘Rush Hour 2' were too successful,” said Chan in his trailer. “So everyone wants to make ‘Rush Hour 3' better. ‘Should we do this?’ ‘Should we do that?’ ‘How can we do it better?’ And that makes everyone nervous. That’s the reason for the delay.”

Ratner was able to persuade New Line’s co-chairman Bob Shaye that he wasn’t hiding in his trailer, that Chan wasn’t out of control and that, at the time, he was only $3 million over budget, with much of that because of days lost to illness and injuries. (Originally budgeted at $133 million, the film ended up costing a little more than $140 million).

To save money, $2 million was cut from the film’s big car chase, costing it a showy stunt in which a car is launched onto a ferry going down the Seine.

“When your back is against the wall, you have to come up with something for no money,” Ratner said of how the production came up with a new Paris chase ending shot in Los Angeles, which utilizes the French cabby played by Attal. “This will be a lot more character driven.”

For a movie filled with so many characters, it seemed a fitting change.

“When you are making a movie, there are an incredible number of decisions you have to make, and all of these decisions -- hundreds of them -- add up to the tone of the movie,” said Toby Emmerich, New Line’s production chief.

“Even though you can argue that Brett is easily distracted and has a short attention span and likes to go out and party and have a good time, Brett is in his own way a perfectionist,” Emmerich said. “He wants his movies to be great.”

john.horn@latimes.com


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