'Poof! You're A Puppeteer'
For R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe, the Behind-the-Scenes Satisfaction
of Producing Films Such as 'Being John Malkovich' Is as Seductive as Pop's Spotlight

photo by Al Seib for the Los Angeles Times

     Did I just say 'passionate' on TV?"
 Michael Stipe, marble cool in nearly every aspect of his professional life, appears momentarily mortified, then amused by his word choice. He is walking the red carpet press gantlet before the Golden Globes and it's his first film industry awards show as a nominee. So perhaps he should be forgiven if the wrong word, a sort of affected word, escapes his lips on live television.
     To begin with, not everyone thrusting a microphone at his face knows why he's here. Most recognize him as frontman for the pop band R.E.M. But a quarter of the press folk seem to have no clue that he is also a film producer. They assume he's here in connection with "Man on the Moon," for which R.E.M. composed the music. Except that "Man On the Moon's" soundtrack isn't nominated--an awkward fact to point out during a live worldwide feed, which leaves interviewers fumbling for a tactful way to ask, "So, what are you doing here?" when they appear to be thinking, Why am I talking to you? Look! There's Ally McBeal!
     Several times, Stipe gently answers that he's here as a producer of Being John Malkovich, a nominee for four awards, including best comedy picture. And then he lets slip that music and film are both mediums about which he is. . . well, passionate.
     Once inside the Beverly Hilton he relaxes, surrounded by his "Malkovich" pals--director Spike Jonze, producing partner Sandy Stern and the film's stars, Cameron Diaz, John Cusack and Catherine Keener. Out of nowhere, he is approached by a man who says he represents the Prince of Norway, who is in attendance this evening. Would Stipe mind having his picture taken with the prince? Of course he wouldn't. The photo is shot, and the Prince of Norway and his man disappear. Moments later the envoy returns, clearly agitated. "Is your name Mr. John?" Confused, Stipe, whose first name actually is John, answers yes, but adds that people know him as Michael. Damp at the brow, the man begs his pardon. "I'm so terribly sorry," he says. "I thought you were John Malkovich."

     Having achieved international fame through two decades with one of rock's most lucrative and critically beloved acts, Michael Stipe, at 40, is again working to establish a name for himself. With little fanfare, he co-founded the film company C-Hundred, based in New York, and later, on his own, Single Cell in Los Angeles. The latter was responsible for 1998's "Velvet Goldmine" ("the first movie I worked really hard on that made it out into the world beyond film festivals") and "Malkovich," which is up for three Oscars: director, original screenplay and supporting actress (for Keener).
     Stipe is equally proud of lesser-known pictures, such as "Girls Town," directed by his C-Hundred partner Jim McKay, which took the 1996 Filmmakers Trophy at the Sundance Film Festival. They have two features in competition at this year's festival, McKay's intimate study of three Crown Heights teens, "Our Song," and "Spring Forward," starring Liev Schreiber as a reformed felon. It will be a busy few days as he flies from Los Angeles to Park City to New York, then home to Athens, Ga., where R.E.M. will begin recording its 14th album.

    The morning after the globes and before he leaves for Sundance, Stipe runs into video director Mark Romanek in a hotel lobby. He greets him by making an "L" with his fingers held up to his forehead. "Loooo-ser," he says. "Being John Malkovich" didn't win in any of the Globe categories for which it was nominated. His tone suggests that on one hand he couldn't care less, but on the other he might not have entirely hated winning. For one thing, it could have put an end to the perception that he is merely a rock star loitering in Hollywood. Or that, with the millions his records have earned, he can simply write a check and make a film.
     That couldn't be further from the truth, says McKay, who, despite his business affiliation with a wealthy pop star, lives like most small filmmakers in New York, which is to say modestly. "He has put money in C-Hundred over the years, but we pull our own weight." They met long ago, when McKay was contemplating film school. Just make a movie, counseled Stipe, who had abandoned his own art major at the University of Georgia in 1980 to play music, and two years later had a record deal. In 1987 they formed C-Hundred and produced creative public service announcements, funded by making music videos for other Athens bands. Since then, C-Hundred has produced or executive produced eight feature-length films, including last year's Grand Jury documentary winner at Sundance, "American Movie."
     As the R.E.M. member who recorded the band's tour life with a Super-8 camera and who most cared about the look of their videos, the singer's move into filmmaking was fluid. "This is not a whim," Stipe says. "This is not something I decided last Tuesday. It wasn't like, 'Oh, there's something available to me because I'm famous, so I'll do it. Poof! You're a puppeteer!' Maybe it seemed like I just wanted to be part of this sexy industry and be surrounded by all these sexy people. But I already was part of that. It's easy to dine and wine with those people as a pop star. It's harder to immerse yourself into the business and try to make something."
     He learned that lesson with "Desperation Angels," the first script he and McKay had hoped to produce. Oliver Stone's company tried to help find financing but, Stipe says, "Nobody wanted to make it. It was way too political, too dark. The experience pushed Jim even more into wanting to do guerrilla independent film, into saying, 'I'm not willing to do this dance.' But it pushed me a little bit in the other direction, into subverting from within, becoming a tapeworm in Hollywood."
     By then, Stipe was already spending a lot of time in L.A. Many of his friends are actors, and they invited him onto the sets of their movies. Among them was the late River Phoenix, who often complained about the scarcity of decent material and suggested he start a more commercial production company. Single Cell Pictures was born out of a 1993 deal with New Line Cinema. Producer Sandy Stern joined shortly after. Almost overnight, recalls Stipe, Single Cell's offices were flooded with submissions from every film student and agent who had a music-driven script. "We had truckloads of paper."
     The last thing he wanted to make was a faux rock bio--until he read Todd Haynes' proposal for "Velvet Goldmine," the story of a fictional 1970s glam rocker who disappears at the height of his fame. The film made a respectable box-office showing, giving Single Cell the momentum for its next feature, "Being John Malkovich." That script had kicked around Hollywood for three years, more as a showcase for first-time screenwriter Charlie Kaufman than as a property likely to be filmed. "I don't think anyone thought I would read it and say we have to make this movie," says Stipe, who remembers calling Stern at 11 p.m., ecstatic over what they had found. But the story of a puppeteer who discovers a portal into actor Malkovich's brain was not so easy to place with a studio. After New Line got cold feet, Stern says, they brought it to Propaganda Films, which gave the green light only after the stars had all agreed to work for a fraction of their normal fees.
     "It takes months to close a deal, and I think that was difficult for Michael at first," Stern observes. "The music world is much more immediate: You put it down, and it's a song. But he has relaxed into the flow of how time travels out here." He adds with a smile, "We broke him down."
     The films that earn Stipe's enthusiasm might surprise fans who view him as an alternative rock icon. After they attended the premiere of "Little Women" together, Stern recalls, "I took him aside and said, 'Would you have made this?' And he said yes. He saw it as a potential commercial success and also an interesting movie." He doesn't want to make only fringe movies that no one else will touch, though he does consider both companies a home for projects that might be overlooked elsewhere. "For what it's worth," Stipe says, "there are people working in this industry who recognize in me, or in how I've carried out my career as a pop star, something they trust. I know a lot of people who are frustrated by this system. For them, we're a little oasis of good taste."
     His bicoastal companies mirror Stipe's twin interests in being an accepted entity in Hollywood while preserving his independent status. That duality--wild commercial success paired with artistic integrity--is one that, against the odds, he and his band mates have long maintained. "R.E.M. are, like, sainted," says Stipe's friend Courtney Love, the actress and lead singer of Hole. "If you've started a band in the last 15 years, you've looked at how R.E.M. did things."
     As rare as it is in music, the marriage of art and commerce is even trickier in Hollywood. Stipe does not pretend to be a natural at it. "I'm really lucky in that Jim and Sandy are both brilliant at the day-to-day of working in this industry. I don't know every agent. I don't know every director's work, and those guys do," he says. As for his contribution, "I've got a good eye for talent; I'm good at working on stories and taking something to the next step." Because many of the people he produces were his friends before they became his directors or screenwriters, he initially found it difficult to impose his choices on their visions. During the pre-production on Tom Gilroy's "Spring Forward," Stipe says, "I finally worked up the nerve to call and say, 'Tom, it's Michael. I love you. Lose the dream sequence.'

     Understanding Stipe's partnerships with Stern and McKay is a little like trying to simultaneously picture Ava Gardner's marriages to Mickey Rooney and to Frank Sinatra. Two households, both alike in dignity, but with way different vibes. Where McKay jokes darkly that he "could fill many therapy sessions with the pluses and minuses of being friends with an international pop star," Stern uses his nights out with Stipe as the inspiration for a television pilot about the music industry. Over breakfast in New York's East Village, McKay, in his soft-spoken way, struggles with the idea of putting films into competition. With "Girls Town" four years ago at Sundance, "I won two awards, and I felt great," he says. But when he has lost, "I felt horrible. Once you're in the pool, you buy into it. But art isn't supposed to be competitive."
     Consider, also, how each feels about Stipe's omnipresent cell phone. "Oh, my God, the cell phone. That's a whole article in itself," says Stern, who arrives for his interview at an outdoor cafe on Doheny with his mutt Sally in tow. Stern is a fan of the phone. "This is a man who doesn't turn his phone off even to sleep. He is always accessible. I'll say, 'What are you doing?' 'Well, I'm just about to go on "Conan" now.' I'll say, 'Oh, I'll call you later.' And he'll say, 'That's OK, what do you want?' "When he was on tour, we'd be on the phone, and I could hear in the background, 'Ladies and Gentlemen, R.E.M. . . .' " McKay, who uses a cell phone only at film festivals, isn't as appreciative. "The idea that you can and should be reached at any time is hurting humanity," he says.
     For Stipe, the phone is a necessity that must occasionally supersede courtesy, a trait he otherwise values in himself. "I was raised a Southern gentleman," he says. "I thank, therefore I am." But, he admits, "I'm on the phone a lot." There were days when he and his band had "kind of throw-down therapy sessions about me being in the studio, and I'm on the phone, you know, trying to ensure that Cameron Diaz will be able to play this part." Though his bandmates, Peter Buck and Mike Mills, have been only supportive of Stipe's film ventures, it was tough going the year he had three films in production and R.E.M. was recording its first album since drummer Bill Berry quit in 1997. "I just completely fell to pieces; I wasn't much good for anything." He visited only one of the three film sets. Still, he says. "I was calling in every day."

     At Sundance, Stipe and McKay share a condo with, among others, two of the "Our Song" actors--unknowns who showed up at an open call in New York and had never been on a plane before now. The producers' days are filled searching for distributors for that movie and for "Spring Forward." Later, McKay passes a quiet evening, while Stipe attends a series of parties that will end in the early hours of the following morning. At a party thrown by a gay and lesbian filmmakers group, he shows up with model Helena Christensen, her boyfriend, actor Norman Reedus, and the couple's 3-month-old son, Mingus. The improvised clique expands to include actors Kate Hudson and Tommy Perna. Shooting instant photos of his friends with a Polaroid i-Zone, Stipe slips into a Warholian dual role as the group's alpha-star and its documentarian.
     Between chatter and drinks, he furtively scribbles down lyrics for the new record that they will soon be recording in Athens. Later he hooks up with Courtney Love and her boyfriend at a party for her film, "Beat." Love, who is in talks with Single Cell to produce a film that she would direct, greets her friend with a warm hug, then mugs for the Polaroid with her tongue out. "There are," she says, "four people that I look to in different situations, when I ask myself, 'What would so-and-so do?': Helen Mirren, Drew Barrymore, Kevin Spacey and Michael. When I know I need to be polite and diplomatic, I ask myself, 'What would Michael Stipe do?'
     Stipe has been listening. "You added Kevin Spacey?" he asks with feigned disbelief. "When did you add Kevin Spacey?"
     Back at the condo the morning after the reel of parties, Stipe brews Chinese tea and checks his phone messages. The movies didn't win any awards. But for him, the satisfaction of leaving the pop spotlight to work behind the scenes in film comes from "working with amazing people who have a vision that they want to see through." His coffee table is littered with the business cards pressed into his hand by people who hope to be among them. "Being in the proximity of creativity--that's the jolt," he says. He pauses. "You know, I've got my day job."

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Allison Adato last wrote for the magazine about ballerina Misty Copeland.
Copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times  March 26, 2000