For the vast majority of people currently living on Planet Earth, perusing the pages of the recently-published Jerry Bruckheimer When Lightning Strikes: Four Decades of Filmmaking, (written by Michael Singer with a foreword by Johnny Depp) will feel akin to looking through a scrapbook of the Hollywood movie moments that have shaped their lives.
Bruckheimer’s movies and television series have not only earned 41 Oscar nominations, 77 Emmy nominations, landed him on the Forbes celebrity 100 list and given him a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, they have become part of our collective culture itself. I’m 39, and as I read the book and see images from Flashdance and Top Gun, I not only recall seeing the movies themselves, I see myself cutting the necks out of all my t-shirts in elementary school. I see bomber jackets on all my friends in middle school. I see Tom Cruise haircuts on the boys who wouldn’t dance with me in 7th grade. I recall imagining that one day I would grow up and wear leg warmers when I was alone and sleeveless tuxedo shirts on hot dates and have a dog that would pee on the beautiful hardwood floors of my enormous living space. These are the kinds of very personal associations every one of his films will evoke for readers (plus or minus the reference to boys in the 7th grade.)
The 300 or so pages of glossy color photographs, captured on and off the sets of Bruckheimer’s movies (many by Bruckheimer himself) represent a typical American life. What the book also offers, however, is a glimpse into the typical American life behind the movie mogul. Through Michael Singer’s words and a touching introduction by Bruckheimer, we get to know Jerry the boy, Jerry the dreamer, Jerry the son of immigrants and the solid C student whose parents feared he wouldn’t graduate high school.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Jerry Bruckheimer the magnate, or rather, Jerry Bruckheimer the man. I asked him to speak about growing up, what his mom and dad were like, and which moments he recalls as pivotal moments of childhood that shaped and defined who he is.
Bruckheimer grew up in the suburbs of Detroit. Both his parents were first generation immigrants from Germany, having come here sometime in the 20s. He says “I had a very close relationship with them. My upbringing was very European, very strict. As soon as it got dark outside I had to be indoors. My childhood was very nurturing but it was also with alot of restrictions.”
Bruckheimer discovered movies early on, the expansive form of storytelling they offered, and frequented the cinema. He says his childhood heroes of the screen were “Steve McQueen, Jimmy Stewart, Gary Cooper, and Clark Gable. And Roy Rogers.” When he was a little older, Bruckheimer says he remembers Hitchcock’s Psycho making a big impact. And ultimately David Lean’s particular visual style became a big influence.
The biggest and perhaps most important hero was closer to home, however. His uncle, Bruckheimer says, “was a camera bug. He had the means to buy new cameras frequently, so when a camera was two or three years old, he would give it to me. I started taking pictures at an early age.”
I asked what he was interested in photographing as a child. The fascination with telling human stories was always there. He describes a photograph he took as a young boy of a little girl holding a doll, talks about photographing domestic settings, animals, and portraits. In high school, he explains, he learned to work in a dark room. His pictures wound up winning awards (including a national award from Kodak in 1959), and after attending college he was able to find work in the advertising world. Singer’s narrative of Bruckheimer paints him as quite a plucky young man, with a work ethic that got him quickly out of the mail room and not terribly long after into making 60-second commercials.
Relating to the world through visual storytelling wasn’t too much of a stretch. Books and words were never so much his thing. Says Bruckheimer, “My parents were very big on education, but I was never a good student. It was a bone of contention. Coming from Europe, the only people that were looked up to were people with degrees. My parents felt that was the safest route to take. Turns out I’m dyslexic, but at the time we didn’t realize. I still have that problem.” He continues, “I see things differently than other people. I see things in a different light.”
Bruckheimer’s mother, that same immigrant of humble means whose son wasn’t meant to be a doctor or lawyer got to see her son in a different light as well. She lived until almost 104 years old, and was able to see him become the cultural phenom and mogul that he is now. Says Bruckheimer, “She was a stay at home mom, and put an enormous amount into raising me. It’s always nice when you get to do things that make your parents proud. Everybody has a gift, and you have to find that gift. I always believed in myself, and my uncle helped me find my gift. My mom got to see me achieve an enormous amount of success, and that was a real blessing for her and for me.”