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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 pin-striped shirt.

"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 mall.

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 run.

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 theater."

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 Kathleen Kennedy.

'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, said Stern.

"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 writer.

"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 in it.

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 script.

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."

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