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EMPIRE BUILDERS: They green-light big-budget features
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'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

March 26, 2000|Allison Adato

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."

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