Producer combines conscience, creativity
(Originally printed in the Ventura County (Calif.)
Star-Free Press, Wed., Nov. 22, 1989)
by Jessica Gelt
Photograph by Genaro Molina, Los Angeles Times
Joseph Stern talks to Ventura College students about his
work as a theatrical and film producer.
Photo: Gary Phelps / Star-Free Press
When the final curtain comes down on producer Joseph Stern,
save your tears for the state of theater art.
He's one of the few producers who lets his conscience — and
not the almighty dollar bill — be his guide. Ole' Blue Eyes immortalized
"My Way," but Joe Stern lives those lyrics everyday at his Matrix Theater
in Los Angeles.
During a recent Ventura College visit, the 49-year-old gave
students an inside look at the creative process. Inadvertently, he
revealed the reasons behind his reputation as an uncompromising disciple
of change. To Stern, conscience and creativity are indivisible.
"If I'm producer of a certain theater that does 'X' number
plays, that theater is going to reflect my view. It says who I am,"
explained Stern, dressed in crisply pressed tan slacks and an Oxford
"I am not about dogma. Number one, I am not an
intellectual. What I do is instinctive. I respond on a gut-feeling level.
That's the way I make most of my decisions.
Stern is also about complicated issues, topics covered in
past work and dealt with today at the Matrix, off trendy Melrose Avenue.
Stylish drama it may be, but unlike most of the Melrose district, Stern's
99-seat Matrix is not a slave to fashion.
Mirroring previous contemporary themes - ("Are You Now Or
Have You Ever Been... ?" tackled Joseph McCarthy's House on Un-American
Activities Committee) - the theater is now presenting "Tales of the Lost
Formicans," about a lost tribe that spends Saturdays worshipping at the
Ventura College instructor Jay Varela, who studied with
Stern at the University of California at Los Angeles, appeared in "Are You
Now" in 1975. The production won national attention and had a 14-month
While outspoken honesty has won Stern staunch friends such
as actor William Devane and Oscar-winning actress Olympia Dukakis, he has
more than his share of detractors. Truth is neither a vice nor a virtue to
Stern, it simply is.
"Every piece of work, whether a play, film or TV series has
a spine, its own truth," said Stem. "I have a lot of problems with
statements of purpose. I don't tell the audience what to think. It's a
journey — the search for truth and how you make your way and cope with the
environment. That's what life is, whether you're at home or in the
On television. Stern first made his mark with the 1985 film
"Into Thin Air," starring Ellen Burstyn. Based on a real story, the movie
cast Burstyn as a mother who refuses to quit searching for the truth of
what happened to her son, who disappeared during a trip to Colorado.
"The bottom line is, as a producer, you put on a show in
hopes of changing the audience's lives, of changing your own life. Because
without growth you're not living," said the producer of the projects he
personally chooses to pursue.
This month, Stern oversaw the release of "Dad," with Jack
Lemmon, Ted Danson and Dukakis. He was brought in as producer of the movie
at the request of executive producers Steven Spielberg, Frank Marshall and
'The book was writen in 1979 by the guy who wrote "Birdy"
(William Wharton). No one could do this book. It was impossible to adapt.
It was extraordinary gritty, extraordinary dark. Spielberg went through a
thousand machinations to try and make it work," Stern said.
Another problem was Jack Lemmon, who wasn't available to
re-shoot scenes after the wrap. So Stern had to anticipate problems they
might encounter during editing. In addition, "Dad" was the first movie
made by director Gary David Goldberg, who wrote the screenplay.
Explaining the producer's role is easier said than done,
"We live in an age of so many production titles. You look at a show and
there are eight or 12 producers. Some titles can mean a variety of jobs. I
look at producing as an art form tantamount to conducting. I try to bring
people together to play music and the music is the show.
"As the producer, I'm the conscience of a film. I'm there
to keep it on track. Understanding the script is the key. It's very
important to put people together who — even at the level of carrying
cables — are interested in the script."
Stern said he's the morale officer as well, because without
solidarity among the cast and crew they can't do justice to the words of a
"And in my theater," he said, "I take the cleaning end,
too. I sweep the lobby. Even if there is someone else to do it, you're
sure no one else can do it as well. No one else has as much of a stake.
But it's important to get them (a theater company) to have an investment
The idea, he said, is to give actors and actresses the
willingness to lose, to feel so comfortable that they can take such a
personal artistic risk.
Los Angeles-born Stern spent his first 15 years in the
business as an actor in New York. There he met Bill Devane, and in the
late '60s they founded an organization called "Actors For Themselves,"
whose membership included Stacy Reach and Al Pacino.
"Our concept was actors should rule the world and should
become producers, directors and writers. We wanted to create an
opportunity for actors to display their artistry," Stern recalled.
Actors For Themselves lives on at the Matrix, though Stern
long ago left acting behind. His first non-acting job was with "Winds of
War," on which he worked for five years. Next came production duties on "Cagney
& Lacey." He then did "Into Thin Air" and a Charlie Sheen film, "No Man's
Land." Of that latter experience, Stern said with a grin, "We succeeded in
turning a general release into an art house film."
Thus far, critics have not been kind to "Dad," though most
of them say Lemmon's portrayal is Oscar-winning material. But does Stem
care? Taking Polonius" advice, he's been true — if not to himself — to the
Theater at all levels begins with a foundation, a base of
craftsmanship, said the erstwhile actor.
"Sometimes I do things I'm not in love with. That's how I
make a living. The fact remains that I'm a craftsman and I have to do it
right. You give it all anyways because you are going to build that house
right, even if you don't like the architect's plans."