by Hank Isaac
Earlier this month my mentor and former teacher, Stewart Stern, passed away. He was 92. A gentle man with a kind heart, Stewart was much more than just the writer of the classic film “Rebel Without a Cause.” He was an ardent fan of Barrie’s Peter Pan, Paul Newman’s friend and biographer, and was never at a loss for captivating career anecdotes. Even when he told his stories over and over again [yes, my point exactly] you never got tired of hearing them.
We grew up not too far from each other. We attended rival prep schools in NYC, though about twenty years apart. Both our families had close ties to Loews/MGM.
There’s a whole lot I could say, but one particular moment will forever endure and so I thought I’d share it. Make of it what you will.
Stewart was teaching a course at the University of Washington in Seattle – two decades ago, now – and we’d stayed late to listen to some of his film production tales. He ended up losing his ride home, so my wife and I said we’d give him a lift.
At the time, I was kind of soured on the whole screenwriting business – not the creative part, the business part. I’d been sending out a feature film screenplay and getting mostly ignored. What a surprise, right?
So as we neared Stewart’s home – I was driving and he was sitting in the passenger seat next to me – I remarked that I was going to harden myself in order to survive the writing and pitching process. As he got out, I got out, too, to open the door for my wife so she could switch seats. As I stood up, I said, “I’m just not going to invest myself in my characters and stories. That way, I can’t ever get hurt.”
Stewart got out and stood up at that same moment. He stared at me over the top of the car. Now bear in mind: This is one of the greatest screenwriters in the history of the planet.
But he said nothing.
Instead, he just looked at me as if I’d just killed the thing he most cherished in the world. I remember the sadness in his eyes. I will never shake that look.
We said our good-nights and went our separate ways for the evening. But what I realized in a jolting instant was that I had to invest myself. That’s the price. That’s the cost. That’s the burden.
So from that moment forward, I’ve cared about my characters as deeply as if they were close family. And if someone reads my work or watches my productions and they don’t care the way I do… Or they criticize my writing or my stories or my characters… I just don’t care what they think. I care enough on my own to get emotionally upset when my characters have problems and to delight in their victories. My goal is to make you feel that way, too.
Except my “success” is no longer dependent on someone else’s opinion.
Try it. It’s incredibly freeing.
And Stewart… Thank you.
Lilac is here: https://vimeo.com/110297552