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Balancing Act - James D. Stern Juggles A Panoply of Passions

Posted By Michael Ventre, Tuesday, August 27, 2019

On the afternoon of June 20, 2019, James D. Stern waited nervously until the moment the workday ended and he could get home, so he and his son could don their team gear, tune in to the NBA draft and wait until pick No. 7.  That’s when his beloved Chicago Bulls—Stern has an ownership stake in the club—would choose. And while the team’s selection of point guard Coby White represents a quality reinforcement for the Bulls’ backcourt, it’s likely Stern may have to keep waiting awhile for the Windy City’s next championship.

But he’s used to waiting. He’s a producer, after all—hardly an instant gratification line of work. Case in point: Murder Mystery, one of Stern’s very latest creative offspring, which debuted in June and became Netflix’s biggest weekend opening ever when it was viewed in 30.9 million households in its first three days. That project, featuring the superstar comic stylings of Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston, took about 10 years to get to the screen.

“You get lucky sometimes,” he opines about his business. “Then unlucky. Then you get lucky again.”

Murder Mystery, directed by Kyle Newacheck, is a fish-out-of-water comedy with an Agatha Christie setup about a New York cop and his hairdresser wife who go off on a fancy and long-promised European vacation, only to be ensnared in murder, intrigue and fine dining aboard a billionaire’s yacht. The one-sheet sums it up perfectly: “First-class problems. Second-class detectives.”

Jennifer Aniston, Adam Sandler in Murder Mystery

“I knew it was going to be huge, honestly, at the first preview,” says Stern, who is currently overseeing the Mike Cahill-helmed drama Bliss, starring Salma Hayek and Owen Wilson, and has several other plates spinning in film, TV and on stage. “It was a 500-seat theater, and nobody left. You can just feel it. When you do enough films and theater you don’t need something to open to know if it’s working or not.”

Stern first encountered the project about a decade ago, after James Vanderbilt’s script was put into turnaround by Disney. From there, the long journey began. It’s a familiar one for career producers: Sink your teeth into a project, and don’t let go until it reaches the screen.

James D. Stern and First Assistant Director
Dan Lazarovitz on the set of
Bliss

Murder Mystery wouldn’t exist without Jim Stern,” explains Vanderbilt, whose credits include Zodiac and White House Down.

“He just refused to give up on it. Refused,” he adds. “He got involved with it 10 years ago and put his money behind it just because he liked my script. The amount of times the movie came together and then fell apart was insane. Everybody gave up on it at one time or another. I gave up on it, and it came out of my brain. But not Jim. Every time another studio passed or we lost another actor or director, he just calmly put the thing back together.

“It’s like he and (producer) Tripp Vinson finally just willed the thing into existence. And I guarantee you if Netflix hadn’t finally come along, Jim would be on the phone today still trying to get Murder Mystery made.”

Like many projects, Murder Mystery came together when it came together. When Sandler and Aniston got on board for their first film together since 2011’s Just Go With It, the rest fell into place. The film was produced through Stern’s Endgame Entertainment, along with Happy Madison Productions and Vinson Films.

“Adam had been interested for a long time,” Stern says, “but because of schedules and whatnot, things did not align. But once he came on it went very fast. Then Jennifer came on and it was fast-tracked.”

Adding to the serendipitous turn was Netflix’s involvement. “For the last few years, we really wanted to do it with Netflix,” Stern explains. “It felt like the perfect Netflix movie. I knew the audience would coalesce around the movie.” Of the 30 million-plus who initially saw the film after it dropped, just over 13 million watched the streaming service in the U.S. and Canada, while another 17 million viewed from abroad.

Script supervisor Ronit Ravich-Boss, Jennifer Aniston, Adam Sandler, director Kyle Newacheck on Murder Mystery set

But it would be wrong to pigeonhole Stern as simply a purveyor of mainstream comedies and a basketball junkie. He owes much of his success to having a wildly eclectic palette.

Consider The Old Man and the Gun, released in 2018, which may have been Robert Redford’s swan song as a headliner. Co-starring Casey Affleck and Sissy Spacek, it was based on the true story of Forrest Tucker, a stickup man and escape artist whose career in crime lasted from his teen years to his sunset years.

“It is very much a movie about an artist who does not want to go gentle into that good night,” Stern says of the film, which was written and directed by David Lowery and based on a piece in The New Yorker by David Grann. “It was somewhat an homage to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting. It’s a small movie that went flawlessly. It was a dream for me to get to know Redford.”

Then there’s Stern’s theatrical side. He’s won Tony Awards for producing Hairspray and The Producers, a Drama Desk Award for Stomp and has had many other forays into the footlights. Recently he obtained the rights to Silver Linings Playbook and is adapting it for the stage.

 “Once you get the bug, you never lose it,” he says. “I love the theater. I started in the theater; that came first. The immediacy and electricity—I guess I’m a little bit of an adrenaline junkie. There’s nothing like Broadway. And you don’t have to defray the risks to different territories. It’s all there.”

Finally there is James Stern the political animal. A staunch liberal and brother of former Obama adviser on climate change, Todd Stern, he nevertheless told friends leading up to the 2016 election that he knew Donald Trump was going to win. He discovered more evidence to back up his assertion when making his documentary, American Chaos—which he directed—featuring interviews with Trump voters about why they felt the way they did.

He took flak from some friends on the left for that project, but he felt it was important to explore Trump’s popularity. “I told my daughter Trump would win, and she said I was insane,” Stern recalls. “I said, ‘Come with me and I’ll show you.’” The rest, as they say, is history, which is still playing out with dramatic twists almost daily. Stern also has written and directed other projects, including So Goes the Nation, another documentary, about the 2004 presidential election.

One of the problems with being James D. Stern is that he has a passion for the theater, film and television, a passion for producing, writing and directing, a passion for politics and a passion for basketball—and they are all competing for his attention.

“My ADD,” he says with a laugh, “has served me well.”


- production photos courtesy of Amazon Studios/Hilary Bronwyn Gayle

 

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