Stewart Stern: The Storyteller

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By Sean Axmaker

"I figured it shouldn't take any longer to write one than to see one."

Stewart Stern is a storyteller. I'm not just referring to his screenplays. When he speaks to you in his measured, deliberate manner, quietly but powerfully reaching back into his past, he is spellbinding. Whether in interview or simply in conversation, it's impossible not be moved, not just by the story, but the compassion, the fear, the joy, and the horror he brings to his life stories.

Two-time Oscar-nominated screenwriter (for Teresa and Rachel, Rachel), Emmy-winner for the acclaimed TV movie Sybil, and writer of the groundbreaking drama of teenage crisis and alienation, Rebel Without a Cause, Stewart Stern is the nephew of famed old Hollywood mogul Adolph Zukor and cousin to theater chain mogul Marcus Loew. A career in Hollywood may have been fated, but he took his own unique route to get there, a journey that gave him his voice and the anxiety that plagued him until he dropped out of Hollywood over 25 years ago. He moved to Seattle, started teaching screenwriting courses at the University of Washington, and became a volunteer at Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo. He has also taught courses at USC, the AFI, the Sundance Institute, and most recently at Seattle's The Film School.

His story is told in the recent documentary Going Through Splat: The Life and Work of Stewart Stern by Jon Ward (still making the film festival rounds) and Stern holds the center of that production with his stories and remembrances. It's a story of becoming an artist, but it's also a profound portrait of an artist so plagued by anxiety - and so aware of it - that he had to leave his career to free his life from depression. We only talked for an hour, but in that time, he talked about his life - both his social/professional life and his inner life - with the same naked honesty that you see in his best screenwriting.

Going Through Splat: The Life and Work of Stewart Stern

In the documentary Going Through Splat, you never talked about how you made the transition from art school to writing, and especially from writing stories and then writing screenplays. Had you been taking writing classes, were you writing for yourself at the time, or were you even writing at all?

I loved writing in high school. I went to a wonderful private school in New York called the Ethical Culture School. Our English teacher was, I think, head of English at The New School as well as at our high school. I never got to read in college the required things that I did in high school. He had an amazing sensibility about the students he wanted in his seminar class, and we had an outstanding bunch, all of whom could have been writers including [photographer] Diane Arbus, who could very well have been a writer. He really encouraged me; he said he had a feeling I could do it, but it was the last thing I wanted to do.

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