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No Duds From This Producer

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Michael Stipe, who many say has long maintained artistic integrity as the lead singer and visionary head of R.E.M., set out for equally high standards with his film production deal between New Line Cinema and his own Single Cell Productions.

“I basically just want to make movies that don’t suck,” Stipe said recently from backstage at New York’s Madison Square Garden following a concert sound check.

While this may not sound like such a lofty goal for Single Cell, Stipe thinks it is.

“There’s so many dud roles and dud movies,” he says. “I know a lot of people who work in film and they’re constantly frustrated because if you’re a director or an actor and you want to work, you wind up working on these really crappy projects. I’m trying to give these talented people better avenues to work in.”

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Stipe’s 15-year job as rock star, which these days is full time thanks to the band’s current U.S. tour for its “Monster” album, hasn’t kept him from his now 8-month-old job as film producer. Under the two-year deal he signed with New Line in September, his company has films based on two original scripts in the works and is pursuing an undisclosed book to adapt for the big screen.

The first of Single Cell’s films, scheduled for production in autumn, is called “The Come-Up,” a heist film from “Werewolf in Compton” writer Devon Shepard in which a group of young African Americans work up the nerve to rob hotels and casinos. The second will be “Frigid and Impotent,” a dark, comedic love story about two serial killers. Drew Barrymore is in negotiations to star.

While these projects, which will be co-produced by Stipe’s Single Cell partner Sandy Stern (“Pump Up the Volume”), might suggest an MTV-style attitude, Stipe is quick to dispel any preconceived notions.

“They’re really vastly different films, and I like that,” he says. “I think it might be a little simplistic to think that just because of my background in music that the types of films that I’m involved in are music-driven and youth-oriented films.”

Earlier in his R.E.M. tenure, Stipe produced several short films and public service clips with director Jim McKay in a venture they called C-00 (C-hundred).

Stipe’s interest in film actually dates back to before R.E.M., he says. At 15, he took up photography as a creative outlet, and when R.E.M. and MTV simultaneously started making a splash in the music world in the early ‘80s, he took it upon himself to be heavily involved in the filming of the group’s videos. R.E.M. music videos have often been considered visually groundbreaking, particularly its 1991 “Losing My Religion” video, which took top honors at the MTV Video Music Awards for that year.

But music videos are a far cry from full-length movies, and Stipe knows that. This is why making movies for him doesn’t stem much beyond cultivating the talent and letting it go to work on what he deems worthy scripts. What that work entails mostly, he says, is reading scripts and making phone calls--responsibilities he can handle while on tour.

“I’m constantly on the phone anyway--I’m like Phone-zilla, so it’s really not that difficult of work for me,” he says. “I would never set up these projects with these directors and actors and then tell them exactly what to do. My ego is nowhere near that big.

“Some might consider it a handicap, but to me it’s totally advantageous that I have no desire to direct or act at all. It’s exciting for me to be behind the scenes. It’s exciting to just help other people along their ways because I’m so in front of the camera with my other job.”


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