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.
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.