Lawyer now dreams in Technicolor

May 31, 1994|By Katherine Richards | Katherine Richards,Sun Staff Writer

Here's how the plot for Michael Stern's life was supposed to unfold: Go to graduate school, get an M.B.A. and a law degree. He wasn't supposed to become a filmmaker.

But the 26-year-old Crofton resident has become executive producer of "Crimson Lights," which will be shown to an audience of Los Angeles film distribution executives on June 8. More than 300 industry bigwigs watched a recent screening in New York.

Those industry folks could put "Crimson Lights" in art houses and film festivals around the country, perhaps by the end of summer, said Mr. Stern.

A string of coincidences propelled Mr. Stern and his partner, John Brenkus, 23, to the brink of success while throngs of discouraged, would-be filmmakers pace the streets of New York and Hollywood, unable to sell their scripts.

Mr. Stern met Mr. Brenkus while dating Mr. Brenkus' sister. Mr. Brenkus had written a novel, "Crimson Lights." It shows how people are interconnected by tracking the effects of the HIV virus as it moves through a network of New Yorkers who are linked by their sexual relationships. Mr. Brenkus showed the book to Mr. Stern, who liked it, and passed it on to Eli Kabillio, a New York film producer and former college roommate. Mr. Kabillio also was impressed.

One December evening in 1992, while sitting around the kitchen table of the Brenkus family home in Vienna, Va., Mr. Stern and Mr. Brenkus decided to turn the novel into a movie. The idea so excited them that they found themselves walking around the neighborhood, planning, oblivious to the frigid cold.

Not everyone was as excited.

"People were constantly telling us, 'You're crazy . . . . This is never going to happen,'" said Mr. Stern.

As the movie's writer/producer, Mr. Brenkus provided the creative vision behind the film. He wrote his novel while attending the University of Virginia, and taught himself how to turn it into a screenplay by buying and studying the scripts of movies he admired, such as "Grand Canyon," "Body Heat," and "The Breakfast Club."

He sought out the advice of Steven Soderbergh, writer/director of "sex, lies and videotape." Mr. Soderbergh told him to get his hands on video equipment and learn to use it.

So, Mr. Brenkus got an internship in a video shop, with the understanding that he could use the equipment in off hours. He started experimenting, producing music videos and short films.

Mr. Stern joined the project and shopped the screenplay around New York. No one was interested.

"Every other person in New York has a film they're dying to make," Mr. Stern said. "But no one has any money."

The one alternative then was to go out and find the money. He raised $100,000 in two months, using his legal skills honed while putting together limited partnerships for real estate deals.

Some of the money came from family and friends. The rest, about 70 percent, came from two Tokyo investment bankers who were impressed with the partners' 30-page proposal. Mr. Stern convinced a Washington, D.C., sound studio to donate thousands of dollars' worth of sound effects and other post-production work. The partners also benefited from the advice of Mr. Stern's father, a certified public accountant.

Eventually, time spent on the film project ate into Mr. Stern's legal career, forcing him to choose between his day job and his cinematic dreams. "The decision was an easy one," he said. "My head was in [the law.] My heart was in this."

Mr. Kabillio agreed to produce the movie and was responsible for keeping the project on time and within its budget. He also organized the 20-member cast and the 60-member crew. Family members were used as extras, filling pews behind the main characters during a church scene.

The film was shot last June in New York during three weeks of 18-hour days. It finished on schedule.

"We would sleep on the floor of whatever set we happened to be shooting in," Mr. Stern said.

Since then, Mr. Brenkus and Mr. Stern have formed a company, BASE Productions, to produce film, music and video entertainment.

The firm is currently promoting emmet swimming, a Fairfax, Va., band that contributed six songs to the "Crimson Lights" soundtrack, scheduled to be released on compact disc.

The partners' goal is to earn enough respect with "Crimson Lights" to win financial backing for another movie with a bigger budget. They haven't settled on a story line yet. They also don't plan on moving to Los Angeles. They want to build a fledgling film industry in Washington.

Mr. Stern has no regrets about leaving the life of clocking hours at a law firm. He's now doing what he loves. He spent last Thursday night listening to a local band until 3 a.m. That's his job.

These days, he said, "Work is music and movies."

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