A Recent Conversation with Film Connection mentor Sandy Stern
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Sandy Stern is a producer, known for Being John Malkovich (1999), Saved! (2004) and Velvet Goldmine (1998). He is also a screenwriting mentor for Film Connection. Here’s an excerpt of a recent interview we had with Sandy.
RRF: Did you have any mentors when you were first starting out?
Sandy Stern: You know, I wish I could say there was but there was not. You know, my first job in the business was working for somebody who was known in his day. I was in New York. New York Magazine did their issue of World’s Worst Bosses and he was one of them. He was he was no mentor, okay?
RRF: Did you learn from that negative experience?
Sandy Stern: I made a very conscience decision after that experience that you didn’t have to be a jerk to succeed in the business. I have worked and managed in my career to be not that kind of person, to be honest, to be straightforward to look for the best in people, to encourage. I mean, that’s my philosophy as a producer and as a teacher.
RRF: When you’re working with apprentice Parushka Moodley does she seem very receptive of your approach, does that work well for her?
Sandy: She’s just been like. . .I mean she’s just super interesting, super smart and creative. Just sort of present and dynamic and I think she’s got a great idea for a movie. It’s been really exciting getting her to get the best version of this movie in her head and onto the page by challenging her in a collaborative way. I feel like we’ve made a lot of progress.
RRF: How do you go about challenging her in a collaborative way? Is it something where she hands on into you and you say, “Take this time and rework this section or this section”?
Sandy: Again, this is my general sort of approach to teaching as a mentor and I also teach at AFI and at UCLA, is that I pride myself in asking questions.
Sandy: What I always say to my students is, “I’m going to ask you a lot of questions. I do not know the answers and some of the questions may be the wrong questions but you’ll understand. It will start to make you think about things that maybe you have thought about but are not articulating or maybe I’m making you start to think about things that you haven’t thought about and need to be thinking about.”
RRF: Yeah, I like that. I like that a lot actually.
RRF: When you were first starting out, how did you know that you were on your way to making this a full time job for the rest of your life? Was there a particular moment where you got to take a deep breath and say, “Wow, I’m really. . .I’m doing this.”
Sandy: Well, I would have to say to you that probably that moment was when I made my first movie.
RRF: Pump Up the Volume?
RRF: Okay, confession here. We’ve geeked out on that movie. Many of us watched it over and over again when we were growing up.
Sandy: That’s the movie that moved me to Los Angeles. Okay. I was living in New York. I flew out here for a week thinking I was just making a deal on the movie and I never went back to New York. It was like of all the things I’ve done in my career, of all the things I’ve worked on, nothing has had such a charmed, easy trajectory as that movie.
Sandy: It was like I flew out to LA. I had lunch with the director and Christian Slater. He said yes at the end of lunch. Within three weeks, we had a deal on the movie at Newline. Within five weeks, I went back to New York, got a suitcase filled with clothes, took a furnished apartment in Los Angeles and kept my apartment for five years subsequent in New York, subleasing it but never moved and never was back in New York. It was like when I was making the movie everybody was saying to me, “When are you moving to LA? When are you moving to LA?” My answer was, “I think I have already.” It was great for me because it was never like. . .I have to never had to make a conscious decision of moving. It was like the movie moved me out here.
Then, when I was out here, it was like the movie business is in LA, newsflash. It was like, “Okay, now I’m here.” Again, once you get your foot in the door here, it’s a small town and you realize that this is where everything sort of happens and you meet people here: writers, directors, agents, other producers, other managers.
RRF: Would you say that Single Cell (the production company Sandy formed with Michael Stipe of R.E.M) came about because you were such an easy-going and good person to work with?
Sandy: The one is what’s really funny is listening to you talk about that movie is that Samantha Mathis is one of my closest friend. Okay? I’ve spent every holiday with her for the past probably 15 years for Thanksgiving. Okay? Christian and I still see each other. I’m reading a script that he just wrote that I have to finish today.
Sandy: Oh, but wait, wait, wait. Let me just back up. To answer your question, I met Michael Stipe socially, again through Samantha Mathis. That’s how that came to be. One of the things that it really liked about Michael was that he too seemed to be really, sort of a, you know, operate in sort of a lack of Hollywood kind of style so to speak and very sort of down to earth for who he is in the world. I think that the two of us together has like. . .it’s not just being nice. I think it’s a combination of having good taste and relationships. Again, making the conscience decision not to be sort of. . .you know, to be straightforward and honest in our business and sort of personal relationships has paid off. I think that worked for both of us.
RRF: That’s fantastic. So it’s not just being nice, it’s being positive. It seems like you are a very positive person.
Sandy: Well, let me just say this. My friends tell me I’m one of the most positive people they know. The answer is I know no other way to be a producer. I know no other way.
We at RRF know no other way either! Staying positive and having integrity are the marks of a real pro! Thanks to Sandy Stern and to all our amazing mentors for being such amazing guides for our students!