The first concert I saw in college was R.E.M.
I didn't follow R.E.M in high school. I proudly worshiped at the feet of Prince... and, not so proudly, at the feet of Journey, Wham, and Duran Duran. Despite my parents' AMAZING taste in music -- Jackson Browne, the Persuasions, Tom Waits -- my teenage musical tastes were shit!
Not Prince, mind you, I still contend that Prince is the greatest musician to ever live. Full stop.
When I arrived for my freshman year at the University of Vermont, the kid across the dorm hallway from me was named Jim Reinholz. I showed up at college having NEVER DRUNK A BEER BEFORE (yeah, I was THAT kid in high school), and day one at UVM, I watched Jim pee in the bathroom sink WHILE SIMULTANEOUSLY shotgunning a beer. He encouraged me to "shoot the boot" -- which was basically to drink a beer that he poured into his smelly shoe. I LOVED this guy! Yes, I know my initial description makes it sound like he was an alcoholic caveman, but he was a sweet, kind guy -- truly a wonderful human being with whom I enjoyed having deep philosophical discussions. And it was Jim who introduced me to R.E.M.
Now this was the R.E.M. before Out of Time and Automatic For the People. Before Losing My Religion and Drive and my favorite R.E.M. song Nightswimming. They had just released Document, and they were definitely still a "college band". The song I fell in love with was Superman. Jim and I went to see them play UVM's gymnasium on Halloween night, and I have this lovely image of Michael Stipe, holding a pumpkin over his head, while belting out Superman, burned into my memory. Before the end of the show, they also played their big hit off of Document... "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)". It was an amazing show and I became an R.E.M. fan for life!
Years and years later. R.E.M. became one of the most well-respected rock bands on the planet... Michael Stipe, one the most influential political activists in all of music... and I became a dorky kid in Los Angeles struggling to get my first movie made.
The movie I got made was called Kids In America.
I co-wrote the movie with a friend of mine, Andrew Shaifer, who also produced it. He also assembled an unbelievable cast -- just check out IMDb and then realize that we shot the film for less than the price of a ham sandwich.
Looking back on the film, I admit that the movie is waaaaay too earnest and it struggles with a million problems that a typical first film suffers from. But the little movie is incredibly special to me... not just because it was my "first time", but because when I made it, I wasn't jaded yet by Hollywood. I wanted to make a teen movie that "said something"... that made a difference. I freely admit that I hit the audience over the head with my message, pounding viewers harder than Kathy Bates hammered James Caan's feet in Misery, but I didn't know better.
One of the big plot points in the movie shows a gay student (played by the very funny Alex Anfanger) kissing another boy in the school's hallway, and this innocent act is seen by the tyrannical principal (played by the awesome Julie Bowen).
The gay student gets expelled, which starts a revolution amongst the student body, leading to a big rally where the leader of the teenagers (played by the fantastic Gregory Smith), convinces ALL the students to kiss a member of the same sex, "because she can't expel ALL of us!"
That's a photo of Nicole Richie kissing Caitlin Wachs, which is what I think earned us a spot on At the Movies with Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper. Richard panned us, but we got a thumbs up, and a very kind review from Roger, something that will forever make me happy.
Now, what does this all have to do with R.E.M.?!?!?
Well, when you're editing a film, you use all your "wish list" music in the cut, and one of the songs we used in one of those last cuts was the R.E.M. hit "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)".
Now, if you don't know how music works in movies, the rights to songs are often the MOST EXPENSIVE part of the process. The music business charges astronomical fees to license hit songs for films. So what happens when you fall in love with your "temp music" and then you find out it's going to cost 50 thousand dollars to use the song? Especially when you made the movie for peanuts and can barely afford to pay for a credit sequence? (By the way, we did our credit sequence "old school" by shooting the credits on a bathroom wall so we didn't have to pay to have them digitally rendered).
I was heart-broken when I found out that I'd have to sell my first-born son to get the rights to the R.E.M. song. (By the way, here's my first-born, Asher, riding the director's shoulders on the set of Kids in America! That's Greg with the black cap, Stephanie Sherrin in the curls, and Andrew behind me in the cap.)
So there was no way we were getting R.E.M. because we had NO MONEY.
But Andrew wasn't going to give up. He and his wife at the time (writer and magazine editor Jane Pratt), had a connection to Michael Stipe! It was a long-shot, but we set up a "friends and family" screening of the unfinished film, and invited Michael to attend.
AND HE CAME!
I still remember sitting in the audience as the film built to the moment where R.E.M.'s song kicks in, and I saw Andrew tap Michael on the shoulder (as if to say, "recognize this song?") and Michael gently shook him off, not out of rudeness, but because he was engaged with where the film was going and how the song was being used. It's no secret that Michael Stipe describes himself as "queer" and our film had a very pro-gay agenda (not something you typically saw in a teen film at that time).
When the lights came up, and people were chatting about the movie, Michael approached Andrew and me, and when Andrew boldly asked him if we could use his song, he nodded quickly... "yes, I'd like that." When we explained that we had no money to actually PAY for the song, he repeated, "you can use our song".
I'm no longer the unjaded filmmaker that I was on the set of Kids in America. But I'm also someone who deeply and thoroughly believes that most people are, inherently, good. I know it's hard to believe that, given all the breaking news about the rich and powerful taking advantage of others, abusing their power... but it's people like Michael Stipe who help me continue to believe that we can overcome the darkness.
He didn't have to help us. But he did. I still love R.E.M., and I will always try to pay good deeds forward when I can.
Two quick final photos...
First, my buddy Jim Reinholz in the first play I ever directed!!!!! It was called Juvie! He was there for the start of my directing career! He wasn't an "actor", but I convinced to him to come audition because I loved hanging out with him! That's him on the right, and that's my writing partner, Pete Goldfinger, on the center of the bench behind him!!!!
Second, the billboard outside a theater showing my movie "Kids in America". Notice the other film playing in the same cineplex... SAW 2. Everything comes full circle!