On the eve of the films DVD and Blu-ray release, we catch up with “Tower Heist” stars Eddie Murphy and Ben Stiller, as well as director Brett Ratner and producer Brian Grazer.
Q: What attracted each of you to this project?
Brian Grazer: I’m always prognosticating and picking ideas for movies, and this is an idea that Eddie Murphy brought to me. Eddie and I have done six movies together which I’ve produced, and five of them he gave birth to. This is the last one of the six. And there are six more to come. [laughs] In any event, what I like about it is it’s a story of underdogs. It’s a story of blue-collar getting even with The Man, and I just happen to like these themes. Based on the theme, it was something that I was attracted to.
Ben Stiller: I really liked the idea of the movie. I had never done a heist movie. It is the kind of movie I like to watch, and it reminded me of films I grew up watching. It was kind of like Blue Collar but obviously a much lighter film, but the idea of a bunch of guys trying to get some sort of payback who have been screwed over. I really liked the idea of working with Eddie, Brett and Brian. I’d never done a movie with Brian and Ron, so that was something that I really was excited about. There were a lot of reasons I wanted to do it.
Eddie Murphy: I wanted to get out of the house and do some stuff. Here we are.
Brett Ratner: I just wanted to be on an international panel with Eddie Murphy and Ben Stiller. I’ve dreamed of this moment since I was a little kid. Eddie invented the genre. I think Rush Hour, which is a big part of my success, wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for Eddie.
Brett Ratner: It’s not like there hadn’t been action comedies before, but Eddie did it better than anybody, so I have tried to duplicate that success. To do a movie with Eddie Murphy and Ben Stiller in a Brian Grazer production is just the coolest thing in the world that I can ever imagine doing, so I’m really proud to be here.
Eddie Murphy: I was a big fan of Ben’s and I’ve been wanting to work with him for years, so this all came together perfectly for me. I’m very happy to be here.
Q: What do you think of Occupy Wall Street, would you protest yourself and how would you react if your money was taken by somebody else?
Brett Ratner: We did not plan Occupy Wall Street. When Eddie came up with this idea, there wasn’t any financial crisis.
Eddie Murphy: Plus that stuff wasn’t part of my core idea. My idea was about a bunch of disgruntled employees getting together and trying to rob the building that they worked in. All that other stuff came in later in development with Brian.
Q: The economy is very strained throughout Europe and the world.
Brett Ratner: It’s a global issue. Like Eddie said, it wasn’t our goal. We wanted to make a great underdog story that was relevant to other movies from the past, like the Robin Hood story, and we didn’t know that the culture was actually going to catch up to it. We’re happy that it’s relatable. It’s great to make a movie that says something, but at the end of the day what I’m most proud of is that I made a fun movie that has characters that you can really root for and want to win, and that’s most important in my opinion.
Brian Grazer: I don’t know if any of us have been ripped off, but I think we know many people who have.
Ben Stiller: I think there’s a lot of frustration out there. That’s valid, and that’s what the Occupy Wall Street movement is an expression of. There is a lot of frustration of where we’re at in this economic situation, so I understand where it’s coming from.
Q: Could you tell us about the comedy interaction and what it was like working with other people who are used to being the funny one in the movie?
Ben Stiller: I honestly don’t look at it that way. What I was excited about with this film is that it was a movie first and a comedy second. It’s a good story. I love the idea that it was a realistic basis for the movie. The comedy comes out of the characters, so for me I wasn’t looking to see how funny I could be. I just wanted to be that guy in the movie, and of course when you have Eddie Murphy in the movie it takes a lot of pressure off, so I was really happy he was in the film because I’m never looking to be funnier because that just doesn’t work.
Brett Ratner: I want to elaborate on what Ben said, because the tone of this movie is very important. What Ben, Eddie and I all discussed early on is that we’re trying to make something that is grounded in reality. There are two sides to a heist movie in my opinion. There’s a dramatic heist movie like the movie Heist, and then there is the caper film, which is a broader type of movie. When it’s broader you don’t really care and are not really invested. I wanted to walk that fine line of something that was very real and very grounded. The comedy came from the characters and the situations that these characters were in. We were not going for the one-liners or the jokes. We didn’t hire a bunch of comedians to do this movie, we hired the best actors for those characters.
Q: How did you coordinate shooting the Macy’s Day Parade footage?
Brett Ratner: We got permission to shoot the Macy’s Parade, which is shocking. We could not shoot the actors because there are blockades on every street and we couldn’t walk across the street, so we actually put 20 cameras on Thanksgiving Day and shot the parade. The way we tied it in is that when the actors came out, we re-created six blocks of the parade, and it was the most exciting thing [to do] as a director.
What can you tell us about the improv on the set?
Brett Ratner: The actors actually wanted to stick to the script because we had a really great script. It’s not the type of movie where you can improvise in the scenes. It’s got a real narrative, and it’s complicated and has obstacles. There’s always improving that we love doing, but the truth is the best improv was between Eddie and Gabourey because there’s no dialogue in that scene. It was just a scene where she was supposed to show him how to open the safe. They were not going to say anything, but while I was shooting I realised that I was wasting the moment. So I whispered in Gabby’s ear, “Flirt with Eddie.” She said, “Really? Are you serious?”
Eddie Murphy: I look over to Brian and go, “What’s happening?” Brian’s like, “Just go with it.”
Q: What was the inspiration for the Ukrainian character?
Brett Ratner: She’s a Russian girl. Nina [Arianda] doesn’t speak like that normally. She’s a great Broadway actress, and my goal was to get theater actors aside from the known actors. Stephen Henderson, who plays Lester, is also a great stage actor. Nina is a great theater actor, and she’s on Broadway right now and in Woody Allen’s new movie. She said, “Do you want me to do this with a Russian accent?” I said, “Can you?” She said, “I’m Russian.”
Q: Can you describe the New Yorkers’ attitude towards life?
Brett Ratner: Ben’s a New Yorker, so…
Ben Stiller: I don’t know. I’ve lived in LA for 20 years, but I just moved back to New York. I think what you notice in LA is you don’t have to deal with the elements. Jerry Seinfeld said to me recently, “I like living in New York because it’s harder.” He likes that you have to deal with the winter, and life is a little bit tougher and more in your face. That’s something that I think shapes who New Yorkers are. There’s a lot of people in one place. I think that’s a good thing where people have to interact with each other on a daily basis, and obviously New Yorkers just do their thing.
Brett Ratner: Most people when they come to New York to shoot a film make a big mistake. They clear the street and put a bunch of extras on the street. We were shooting in Columbus Circle, and they said, “We’re blocking the street for you, Brett! We’re clearing everybody!” I said, “No, no! Don’t clear the people. You can clear the cars, but you can’t clear the people on the street. That’s why it has authenticity because we did not block the streets and let people walk through.
Ben Stiller: One of the hardest things that we had to do was when we were shooting right near Columbus Circle subway station. They were trying to hold the people back coming out of the subway at rush hour. Try doing that. It’s not easy.
Q: Can you elaborate about the popularity of heist movies and why it’s so appealing to you?
Brett Ratner: I’ll start off by saying I grew up with great French heist movies like Cirque Rouge and Bob le flambeur. They were movies from my youth that I loved. When Ben and I first started talking about this, even Eddie who tipped me off to the movie, [there] was a movie [we talked about] called The Anderson Tapes, and [also] Hot Rock and The Taking Of Pelham 1-2-3. The New York heist movies, which is a subgenre of heist movies. They stand on their own as the hippest, edgiest, most real heist movies that existed really in the ’70s. If you hear the music in the film, we have somewhat of a ’70s score but without retro. I think the composer Chris Beck did great job. So the ’70s New York heist movies are really the ones that influenced us in making this movie. And Eddie, who loves movies as much as anybody, knew all the films and passed the torch to us, and we kind of ran with it.
Eddie Murphy: For me, it wasn’t like I had an affection for this type of genre of movie. I just hadn’t done a film like this before.
Q: Brett, what do you love about ’70s movies? There’s a French Connection homage in this.
Brett Ratner: I think because I was a kid in the ’70s — but then when you’re in the ’80s you look back on the ’70s — I grew up loving those movies. It’s interesting, if you talk to Scorsese and Spielberg, their influences are Michael Powell Peeping Tom or Preston Sturges. You talk to guys who are my age, like Todd Phillips, Paul Thomas Anderson or Ben Stiller, we love the movies of the ’70s, and that just happens because of our age and what we grew up watching. They were the coolest films actually. They’re the most irreverent and edgy and the best era of filmmaking, in my opinion.
Q: You definitely had some logistical challenges in making this film, but were their comedic challenges?
Brian Grazer: There were many challenges. Creatively, we worked very hard on the script. Eddie, Ben, myself and a great writer, Jeff Nathanson.
Brett Ratner: Ted Griffin is here.
Brian Grazer: And Ted Griffin, of course.
Q: Brett, what creative challenges were there?
Brett Ratner: The creative challenge really was figuring out how do I make a movie that is grounded real, fun and funny at the same time. There’s a version of this movie where we could have done the car hanging off of the building with CGI and green screen. We couldn’t hang Ben and Eddie off of the building 65 stories high.
Ben Stiller: We tried.
Brett Ratner: We built four stories of the building on stage. They didn’t like it very much, but I actually put them in a car hanging off the façade of the four-story building, and I just remember Eddie looking at me going, “How long is this going to keep me here?” They did not like it, but you can it see in the movie, which is why it looks so real.
Ben Stiller: I thought we should actually have a shot of the actual the car hanging off the real building, and Brett assured me that he didn’t need to do that, which I was totally convinced when I saw the movie.
Brett Ratner: I used as much in camera as possible. It easily could have been all CGI, and the normal thing to do is to put them in a car with all green screen, and they pretend like they’re hanging off the building. But that never looks right and never looks real and in this movie it has to feel real.
Ben Stiller: That was the one part of the movie that I was always concerned about, because it is a movie that’s based in reality, but then the reality level has to shift a little bit because it’s a movie. I think you did a great job.
Brett Ratner: I was a little nervous, because Ben did to say to me a few times in preproduction, “How are you going to do this?” I said, “It’s going to work, trust me.” I was figuring it out. When I read it on the page, I have to be honest, I was thinking, “Am I going to be able to pull this off? Or is the tone of the whole movie going to completely change?” I’m happy with how we came out with the execution of it.
Ben Stiller: Jeff (Nathanson) and Ted (Griffin), who wrote the script, spent a lot of time figuring this out. They did an amazing job keeping that reality level there, and the believability that they could actually pull this thing off. The movie is a movie, and you want to be excited but also want to believe it is happening in the reality of the film.
How important was it to have a character played by Alan Alda with that believability?
Brett Ratner: I think the movie wouldn’t have worked, and Brian was really my partner in casting the movie. Every time that I thought about an actor, I would call Brian because his instincts are so great. “What do you think? Then I brought up Alan, and he was like, “Get him, just go get him.” Because what makes this movie really work is because it has a good villain. That’s another thing I learnt from Eddie. When you watch 48 Hours or watch Beverly Hills Cop, there are real stakes in those movies. They’re fun movies and are funny, but the villain…
Eddie Murphy: And the best villain… Who doesn’t love Alan Alda? He’s so lovable.
Brett Ratner: You don’t see it coming.
Eddie Murphy: He’s so different here.
Q: Eddie, you are involved with a film about Richard Pryor. What happened with that?
Eddie Murphy: We had a couple of conversations about Richard Pryor, but we never really got into it. It never really got past stage one. There’s a great script out there still that Bill Condon wrote. That’s something that’s in the air, and I would love to do it. I read the script, and it was incredible, but it never got past the first stage of conversations.
Q: Eddie and Ben, what is your favorite scene in this movie?
Eddie Murphy: I like the whole movie. Do you have a favorite scene?
Ben Stiller: I was asked this question yesterday. I like the scenes where we’re altogether. I love the bobby pin scene — “Here’s your bobby pin, here’s your bobby pin, here’s your bobby pin.” When we were shooting it, it was so funny right off the bat, and everybody started going, “Where’s your bobby pin? Where’s your bobby pin?” It was just fun, the group trying to be a team of criminals and not really being great at it. I like the scene outside of the safe place too. That had the vibe of those movies that Brett and I were talking about. One of the movies I really love is The Hot Rock. It was a comedy but had this tone to it. It was with George Segal and Robert Redford, and they were pulling off this heist. It definitely was a comedy, but it was based in this New York reality. Those scenes remind me of that.
Q: Eddie and Brian, you have worked together so many times before. Why do you think the two of you work so well together?
Brian Grazer: I’ve only done this [long-term pairing] with one actor, which is Eddie.
Eddie Murphy: Brian has a really good way of shaping my ideas into screenplays because we have really good communication. I can tell him an idea, and he will take it to the next level.
Brian Grazer: In the case of Eddie, he has directed and he creates these ideas. He has a vision about where they’re going to end up from the beginning. He’ll have an idea, and he has a sense of where it should end, so it’s just a great collaboration actually. It was really fun to do this with Brett. I’ve known Brett for 22 years, and I’ve always wanted to work with him. This worked out great. I’m so glad I got to work with Ben as well.