ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, OCT. 28, 1999
By Steve Newton
NEW YORK—Michael Stipe is best-known as the singer for Athens, Georgia, guitar-rock greats R.E.M., the band he’s fronted since 1980. But he’s got another life as a film producer that only industry insiders and dedicated movie buffs are aware of. His mostly overlooked foray into film should become more apparent, however, with the release next Friday (November 5) of Being John Malkovich, a very bizarre, off-the-wall film produced by Stipe with his partner in Single Cell Pictures, Sandy Stern. It’s directed by Spike Jonze, noted for his work on award-winning commercials and music videos, including the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage”.
The film’s wild plot centres on gifted but out-of-work puppeteer Craig Schwartz (John Cusack), who takes a job as an entry-level filing clerk with a company located on a floor between the seventh and eighth stories of a Manhattan office building. The ceilings in the place are only four-and-a-half feet high—it was built for midgets, see—so the employees have to hunch as they go about their daily routines. One day, while trying to retrieve a folder that has fallen behind a filing cabinet, Schwartz discovers a freaky passageway that puts whoever crawls through it inside the mind of movie star John Malkovich—who plays himself—before dumping them off at the New Jersey Turnpike. With a cast that includes Cameron Diaz, Catherine Keener, Orson Bean, and Mary Kay Place, it’s the kind of film that has to be seen to be believed. And when a shaven-headed Stipe meets the press at a New York hotel, he does his promotional best to see that it will be.
“People are not aware that this is my sixth feature,” says Stipe, who’s been branching off into film since 1982. “Most of the films that I’ve worked on are so under the radar—with the exception of Velvet Goldmine, which I executive-produced. Hopefully, the success of this film, based on how the media portrays it to the world, will help me clarify in minds that if you’re known for one talent, you can also have other things of interest that you can pursue.
“This script had been around for three years, I think, as an unfilmable script,” he continues. “A lot of people thought it was very funny and very audacious, but nobody really had the audacity to actually make the call and take the lead. You know, could something like this be financed and cast? Could it successfully go out to a yearning public who are hungry for movies that aren’t just the same kind of baseball films with Kevin Costner over and over again? The answer is yes. I mean, the reason I’m producing films and the reason I got into it in the first place—outside of a love of the medium, and a recognition of the power of that medium—was to be able to present an alternative to what is the norm, particularly in Hollywood film.”
Stipe says that he has no desire to act in movies or direct them himself. He did direct some of R.E.M.’s music videos, but claims that was just him working through his “late-20s Messiah-complex thing”. And while his rock band is “on vacation”, he feels he can make a difference in the film world as a producer of movies that are off the beaten track. “I was in Athens last week, just ended the tour with my band, and wanted to do some collapsing at a theatre with my friends. And of the 30-odd films at the multiplex in Athens, Georgia, there was not one fucking movie that I wanted to see. Not one. I actually sat down with a friend of mine in the car outside the theatre and ran down every title, thinking, ‘Maybe there’s a good actor in this one and we could just appreciate their performance.’ No. Nothing.
“So in terms of what’s coming out now, this movie clearly is very different from the kind of general dreck. It’s very original and audacious. It just calls into question what is this identity that we all are so individually holding onto ourselves. And that, for me, is the underlying theme in music and in books and in film—in everything that comes at me, as a fan. I like stuff that has something going on underneath, that you can lock into if you so wish. This film is a very easy watch if you just wanna laugh and go along for the ride, but there’s also a lot to think about in the movie, and that to me was what really appealed about this film.”
Stipe is obviously enthusiastic about Being John Malkovich, but the initial reaction he got from the studios he took it to was the exact opposite. “They were just like, ‘What the fuck is this?’ ” he explains. “I don’t know if anyone else here will tell you this—and maybe I shouldn’t—but even with the cast in place it was still difficult finding financing. [Producer] Steve Golin and [executive producer] Michael Kuhn finally stepped forward and really went out on a limb for this movie.”
As for getting Malkovich himself onboard the project, that formidable job was left up to director Jonze. “Spike was the single-man mission that flew to France and convinced John that, as a first-time director, he could deliver a movie that read like the script. I mean, it took balls of steel for him to accept this role, particularly at the hands of a first-time director. I don’t know that there’s a precedent to this, in terms of someone playing themselves and doing so so viciously and so arrogantly. His performance is so unafraid and audacious—there’s that word again—but it’s applicable.”
Although all the films he’s produced so far have been small, independent works, Stipe—who claims that his favourite movies range from Shakes the Clown to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?—says that he isn’t totally averse to the idea of working on a Hollywood blockbuster one day. “If a huge blockbuster came along with a colossal cast and some dyed-in-the-wool 30-year veteran and a Chinatown director, would I produce it? If it was well-written, if I felt that the people that were attached were brilliant, absolutely. I’d love to do something like that. But I would never—and you can quote me and hold me to this—I will never do a baseball movie with Kevin Costner. That will not happen.”
Considering the scores of multiplatinum albums, radio hits, and sold-out concerts that R.E.M. has racked up over the years, Stipe is no doubt sitting pretty financially himself. So did he ever consider funding the risky Being John Malkovich with his own money? The question appears to catch him off guard and leave him flabbergasted. “No,” he replies in a confounded tone. “Excuse me? Security!”