Jim Stern: From Stage Producer to Film Director

Although producer/director Jim Stern's professed role model is Hal Prince, he hopes for better luck in his freshman (and sophomore) efforts at film directing than his hero had. (Among Prince's few flops are his two '70s film disasters: Something for Everyone, starring Angela Lansbury, and A Little Night Music, Liz Taylor's one and only musical.) Currently L.A.-based, Stern lived in New York from 1982-92 before moving to Chicago, and his theater ties in each city are strong. Stern has produced such Broadway babies as The Sound of Music and The Diary of Anne Frank, in addition to Off-Broadway hits the likes of Stomp and Communicating Doors.

Logic deems his next step probably should have been to direct a stage production, but as Stern tells it, "I found the theater directing world to be more closed than that of film. People seem to be more open to first-time film directors." Even odder, he shot his two first films simultaneously this year, and his sophomore big-screen documentary project (Michael Jordan to the Max) reached the really big (IMAX) screen, even before his freshman feature aired on the small (Cinemax) screen this spring.

Stern is convinced the IMAX film came about because he's such a "hoop head, and knew people in the N.B.A." He relishes the irony that Peter Gilbert, his Rage co-producer, was both the producer and cinematographer on the highly acclaimed, yet Oscar-snubbed, basketball documentary Hoop Dreams. "There was the N.B.A. strike," he recalls, "and the players had no deals, but they just had to get Michael's last game with the [Chicago] Bulls on film. We shot at least half-a-million feet of film with three cameras, and later we shot another 100,000 feet for the interviews."

A far cry from his debut feature film It's the Rage, playwright Keith Reddin's screen adaptation of his own play,

Jim Stern directed Andre Braugherand David Schwimmer in It's the Rage.
Jim Stern directed Andre Braugher
and David Schwimmer in It's the Rage.
originally produced under the title All the Rage at Chicago's Goodman Theatre. Stern explains, "We only used 120,000 feet of film during the 25 days it took to shoot Rage." Its LaRonde-style story concerns several couples--one married (Joan Allen and Jeff Daniels), one gay (Andre Braugher and David Schwimmer), one disturbed siblings (Anna Paquin and Giovanni Ribisi)--plus loners--Gary Sinise, Josh Brolin, Robert Forster--and their collisions with each other and various guns. The star power on this low-budgeter is both dazzling and theater-based.

"Jeff claimed he's liked me ever since I produced Lanford Wilson's Redwood Curtain with him on Broadway," Stern laughs, "but I really think the drawing card was Joan Allen. Once we had Joan, everything else fell into place. Everyone wanted to work with her." Of course both Allen and Sinise have deep Chicago/Steppenwolf roots. And, ironically, Brolin is in the current Broadway company of True West, which was orginally produced at Steppenwolf, while Schwimmer continues to work with the Looking Glass Theatre Company that he co-founded in Chicago after graduating from Northwestern.

The Cinemax television debut deal insured theatrical release in New York, Chicago, and L.A, but it also blocked any possible Oscar consideration, which Sinise's portrayal of a Bill Gates-like software millionaire certainly merits. It's the Rage opens in New York on July 14--opposite 20th Century Fox's summer blockbuster X-Men. But Stern is sanguine about Rage's position as David opposite that particular Goliath. "Hey, we'll be in some of the same theaters, and a lot of people won't be able to get in to see X-Men."

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Brian Cox Does It All for Us This Summer

Brian Cox
Brian Cox
It's hard to believe that Brian Cox isn't a triplet--or at least a twin. During the next two months, the stage veteran shoots three films for the big screen (on two continents), while appearing on television in two mini-series, and making his television directing debut on HBO's prison series OZ. "I hadn't directed film or TV before, but I'd directed for the stage on and off over the last 20 years. Then I did Minus Man, which was [Blade Runner's] Hampton Fancher's directing debut--at age 60! And I decided it was time. [Cox is in his early 50s.] I'd done various pilots and presentations for Tom [Fontana], and he knew I was planning to direct a film, so he said, 'Come do ours.' My guest star is Jonathan Demme," he happily reveals. "So I got to direct the director."

He admits the OZ shoot was "a bit nerve wracking. You shoot 58 pages in seven days, with as many as 60 setups a day. And," he laughs, "we're a two-rape segment, with the very first female, heterosexual rape of the series."

The peripatetic actor, director-in-training, and essayist (he's written two books on his theatrical experiences and numerous articles for the New York Times, Vanity Fair, and The Guardian) is in Upstate New York, wrapping up the indie comedy State Troopers, as we speak by phone. "Being stuck in the middle of nowhere, working for no money, with young filmmakers, keeps you on your toes," he allows. He plays the curmudgeonly trooper chief. "Actually," he explains, "I play Margaret Dumont to these five guys who all wrote and act in the film. They're part of a comedy group called Broken Lizard, they're all the same age as my son, and they loved me in Rushmore. My own kids always found me a hoot, and I always had an inclination towards comedy--from Jerry Lewis to Jim Carrey."

But Cox is probably best known for his villains: He was the original Hannibal Lecter in Michael Mann's 1986 Manhunter. "Bonnie Timmerman cast me after she saw me down at the Public Theater in Rat in the Skull," he recalls, "where I played for the first 20 minutes with my head covered. I guess that clinched it.

On July 24, he begins shooting L.I.E., a black comedy set in Long Island, in which he's cast as a gay ex-marine. He'll commute between L.I. and Prague (!), where he's co-starring with Jonathan Pryce and Chris Walken in Father of the Bride-director Charles Shyer's first big-budget costume flick, based on Dumas' The Affair of the Necklace.

Then July 9 marks the premiere of A&E's mini-series Longitude (dubbed "lyrical" by TV Guide), co-starring fellow stage vets Jeremy Irons and Michael Gambon. (In the Los Angeles production of Skylight, Cox played the role that Gambon created). And on July 16-17, it's TNT's Nuremberg, co-starring Alec Baldwin and Christopher Plummer, with Cox playing (gasp!) Hermann Goering. Of his incredible ability to play villains, Cox once said, "Monsters usually aren't monsters. They're ordinary human beings." And that, perhaps, is the secret of his success in playing them.