STIPE’S SECOND COMING: R.E.M. singer follows passion to bring stories to the screen that ‘don’t suck’
BY DANIEL KUSNER
LOS ANGELES — Michael Stipe waits to enter a conference room while CNN cameras follow him for “A Day in the Life of a Film Producer” profile.
The R.E.M. singer is promoting his latest project, “Saved!” an independent film about Christian teens that opens today in theaters across the country.
I tap Stipe on the shoulder and tell him that I brought him a gift. I hand him a rainbow-colored bracelet, and stitched down the middle are the initials for “What Would Jesus Do?”
He slides it on his wrist and says, “Courtney Love gave me one that had WWMD written on it. She said it stood for ‘What Would Michael Do?’”
I ask him, “Does that mean you’re the new messiah?”
Stipe looks at me with exasperation.
I add, “Was Courtney’s bracelet in gay-pride colors?”
Stipe laughs and turns on his heel to follow the CNN producer to another room.
Hardly the anticipated savior, Stipe is a fascinating and prolific cultural figure. While singing for R.E.M. for 24 years, he’s cultivated the persona of Mysterious Rock God better than Jim Morrison and Prince.
Through his sometimes-mumbled articulation, Stipe will ultimately be recognized as one of rock’s most talented lyricists. For decades, R.E.M. fans have banged their heads against stereos trying to decipher his allegorical and rhythmic verses.
When he came out as queer in a 2001 Time magazine interview, the news sent no shockwaves through the media. Stipe explained that he was pressured — and “being made to be a coward” about his sexuality.
Instead of emerging as the gay-rights champion, Stipe came off more like a reluctant gay hero, which is understandable.
Like his lyrics, much of Stipe’s allure is about dropping small clues to unravel a sphinx.
Coming out wasn’t achieved entirely on Stipe’s terms.
In 2000, young author-poet Douglas A. Martin penned “Outline of My Lover,” a passionate story based on his six-year relationship with Stipe, which ended in a painful breakup.
When the book was released, Martin — still bitter — said in interviews that he resented the need to be quiet about his relationship with the famous, then-closeted rocker. So when the enigmatic singer finally confirmed that he preferred the company of men, some would argue that part of Stipe’s sexy riddle lost its charm.
But rock stars were never meant to age gracefully. The lyric “Hope I die before I get old” comes to mind.
Now in his mid-40s, Stipe’s role as a film producer seems more fitting than watching him jump around stadiums like Michigan J. Frog. And the films he’s helped bring to the screen (“American Movie,” “Velvet Goldmine,” “Being John Malkovich” and “Saved!”) are infinitely more refreshing than R.E.M.’s recent albums.
So why after 20 years did Stipe pick Hollywood as an additional career?
“It picked me,” he says. “I’m a huge music fan. I was drawn to music out of a very naive 15-year-old desire to make it myself. I was 27 when I started my first film production company with the desire that I wanted to make movies that didn’t suck. That has been my personal mandate ever since. And without sounding arrogant, I think I’ve got a pretty good track record.”
Bringing “Saved!” to fruition was a long and arduous path for Stipe and coproducer Sandy Stern — the team that produced the wildly imaginative “Being John Malkovich.”
Even with a stellar cast that included Cameron Diaz, getting that oddball film off the ground was no small task — especially with then first-time director Spike Jones helming the project.
Although “Malkovich” was a box-office hit and received three Academy Award nominations (including best director), Stipe says getting investors interested in “Saved!” was a hellish ride.
“This film was our problem child,” Stipe says.
Written and directed by Brian Dannelly, “Saved!” is an ensemble comedy that centers on Mary (Jena Malone), a seemingly perfect Christian high schooler with the seemingly perfect figure-skating boyfriend, Dean (Chad Faust). When Dean tells Mary that he might be gay, she attempts to “save” him by sacrificing her virginity.
But when Dean’s parents find his copy of Honcho magazine (featuring Dallas’ Chris Steele on the cover), he’s sent to Mercy House for “degayification.”
To her horror, Mary ends up pregnant and begins to question everything she’s believed in — especially when her group of upstanding Christian friends turn against her.
“Saved!” combines religion, sexuality, comedy and high school. Stipe saw the film’s potential when he read the script three-and-a-half years ago. And his own past might explain why the story resonated with him.
“I come from a very religious family. Going all the way back to my great- great-great-great-grandfathers. They were all ministers. My father kicked the traces of preachers in his line by joining to the Army. And I became a pop star,” Stipe says. “But like so many other people, I was an outsider in high school. I’ve read thousands of scripts, but I had never read a coming-of-age story like ‘Saved!’ which is about people who feel like outsiders.”
Stipe’s foremost concern was the cast.
“I refused to make a Hollywood film that was set in high school with 26-year-old actors playing 17 year olds. I just would not produce that. You see enough of that, and I find it intolerable,” he says.
With the exception of teenybopper Mandy Moore (who was an inspired last-minute addition), the ensemble cast was preselected long before the production schedule was booked.
In 2002, the cast and crew were only four days away from shooting “Saved!” in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Sets were built. Costumes were pulled. And all the actors had cleared their schedules for production.
“Suddenly, the financing fell apart. We were already on location, and the film had to be shut down,” Stipe remembers. “And we had this limited window of time for these kids to still be kids. We couldn’t regroup two years later, so there was a ticking clock.”
Five months later, Stipe and Stern were able to secure financing, and the production moved to Vancouver for a 28-day shoot.
As a celebrity producer, Stipe was able to pull some strings in the music biz for the soundtrack — even getting Brian Wilson to authorize the rights for “God Only Knows” to be revamped by Mandy Moore.
“One of the advantages of being an artist-producer is the trust factor of working with other artists,” Stipe says.
Getting the rights to a Beach Boys song is one thing. Getting the trust of Christian bands was impossible.
The prom scene in “Saved!” was to include a performance by a popular Christian rock group. But when the band’s management heard “Saved!” was a satire about teen spirituality, they pulled out. Attempts to get a popular Christian replacement act proved fruitless.
Jerry Falwell, who saw only a trailer, has blasted “Saved!” as a “hateful, politically correct movie” that “ridicules Christians.”
With faith-inspired films like “Passion of the Christ” and the rerelease of “Monty Python’s Life of Brian,” Stipe’s film seems to be in the right place at the right time. Ultimately, Stipe hopes that “Saved!” will win over the Christian conservatives.
“Any controversy may or may not help the film. Personally, I don’t see anything controversial or subversive about the film at all,” Stipe says. “I feel that anyone who is secure enough in their faith and has a sense of humor will not be offended.”