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Producing Films, by Way of Jersey


Seeing him sitting in a cramped trailer on a film set, dressed in all black except for a pair of purple-flower patterned socks, his cell phone constantly chirping, it's hard to imagine that Michael Shamberg has ever been anything but a movie producer. If you were making "Get Shorty" today, you'd cast him as the producer--until you remember he actually produced the original movie.

But when he was fresh out of college, Shamberg worked as a police reporter for Chicago's fabled City News Bureau, where he spent his days and nights covering fires, murders and car crashes. "You learn to be willing to do anything to get the story," says the 56-year-old Shamberg. "It's perfect training for being a producer, where you have to do anything to get a movie made."

In Hollywood, there are plenty of producers who get movies made. Shamberg, Danny DeVito and Stacey Sher, the trio of partners who make up Jersey Films, do something with a higher degree of difficulty--they get good movies made. When it comes to regularly making movies that make money--and make critics' Top 10 lists--the Jersey team has few equals. As they celebrate their 10th anniversary together this month, they can point to a decade's worth of provocative films such as "Pulp Fiction," "Reality Bites," "Get Shorty," "Out of Sight," "Man on the Moon" and "Erin Brockovich," which is up for a best picture Oscar on Sunday.

"What you usually find is producers who are hip but shallow, and producers who have classic tastes but are a little stodgy," explains Stacey Snider, chairman of Universal Pictures, where Jersey has a first-look deal for all its film projects. "Jersey is both. They have classic taste, but they're interested in tomorrow's culture, so they tell the story and cast the material in a cutting-edge way. And that makes them a magnet for smart creative people."

When I caught up with Sher and Shamberg, they were on the set of "How High," a hip-hop comedy starring real-life rap stars Method Man and Redman as two Abbott-and-Costello-style jokers who scam their way into Harvard. In the day's scene, the two leads cram for a big test by digging up the bones of a "smart dead guy"--John Quincy Adams--and smoking them.

The script is raunchy but also sassy and smart. Still, Shamberg worries that my watching all this lowbrow humor might take a little of the edge off a story devoted to Jersey's high-class reputation. The film is a lot closer in spirit to the '70s pothead classic "Up in Smoke" than it is "Erin Brockovich."

"I can see the headline now," he jokes. " 'They Won't Be Up for an Oscar Next Year.' "

Actually the movie's funky hip-hop sensibility neatly illustrates Jersey's grasp of today's culture. When I first met Sher, the team's pop culture maven, she was predicting that her then-boyfriend, an unknown screenwriter named Quentin Tarantino, would be the next great film director. It seemed like a crazy boast at the time, but when "Reservoir Dogs" came out the next year, Tarantino was an overnight sensation. Everyone wanted to work with him, but he made his next film, the groundbreaking "Pulp Fiction," for Jersey.

Jersey's best films are like great pop songs--they are of the moment. "Reality Bites" captured the twentysomething "Friends" vibe just as TV popularized it; "Get Shorty" gave us the gangster as Hollywood producer; "Out of Sight" and "Pulp Fiction" pioneered new narrative techniques; and the futuristic drama "Gattaca" dealt with genetic engineering issues that are no longer science fiction but scientific fact.

Jersey has nurtured and has continuing relationships with such top talent as Steven Soderbergh, who received an Oscar nomination for directing "Erin Brockovich" (as well as for USA Films' "Traffic") and who also directed "Out of Sight"; Scott Frank, who wrote "Get Shorty" and "Out of Sight"; Richard LaGravenese, who wrote and directed "Living Out Loud" and did a pivotal rewrite on "Brockovich"; and "The Truman Show" screenwriter Andrew Niccol, who directed "Gattaca."

Jersey has had a few bumpy stretches along the road, largely because the producers have never made the kind of genre movies, such as an "Austin Powers" or "Lethal Weapon," that can be turned into sequel-style franchise films. In the late '90s, it hit a slump when films such as "Feeling Minnesota," "Living Out Loud" and "Man on the Moon" failed to connect at the box office. But its reputation rarely suffered, because as Shamberg puts it, "If you aim high and you miss, you can still hold your head high. If you aim low and miss, you're [in trouble]."


The Jersey team aims high, but not so high that its movies go over everybody's head. When Soderbergh started work on "Brockovich," he jokingly referred to it as "my Ken Loach movie," a reference to the director of noncommercial socially conscious British dramas. Sher had a frank exchange of views with Soderbergh to "make sure he was going to make a film that was funny and entertaining too."

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