September 23, 2019

New Film Packs Heat

Two memories prompted James D. Stern’s debut feature film, “It’s the Rage,” a parable about gun violence starring Gary Sinise, Jeff Daniels, Joan Allen, Anna Paquin and David Schwimmer.The first involved a bullied 6-year-old who snapped and ran amuck with a butcher knife at Stern’s school in the upscale Jewish suburb of Glencoe, Ill. The boy didn’t manage to stab anyone, “but he would have hurt a hell of a lot of children if he had had a gun,” the director says.

The second memory was of the telephone call Stern received late one night in 1983 informing him that his old college roommate had been murdered. A teenaged assailant had shot Toby, a Columbia University graduate student, over $1 as he walked his fiancée home. At the funeral, the distraught Stern, then an employee of the Manhattan Theatre Club, helped to carry the casket, to recite the “Kaddish” and to shovel earth on the grave.

“It was a huge wake-up call for me,” admits the veteran Broadway and off-Broadway producer of shows such as “Stomp” and “The Diary of Anne Frank,” starring Natali Portman. “Gun violence became more of a focal point in my political consciousness. … And I vowed one day I would dedicate something meaningful to Toby.”

Stern, 40, a part-owner of the Chicago Bulls, got his chance after breaking into the movie business with “Michael Jordan: To the Max,” a successful large-format documentary film about the athlete’s final days in pro basketball. He quietly secured the rights to Keith Reddin’s play, “It’s the Rage,” which is now a film dedicated to Toby.

The black comedy is a cautionary tale about what happens when a group of people, some ordinary, some unhinged, pack guns; apparently it was Reddin’s screenplay, revised by Stern, that prompted the stellar cast to sign on with a virtually unknown director.

The topic didn’t hurt either. The story strikes a chord in the post-Columbine era, Stern suggests. “There are lots of guns in movies,” he says. “But the reality of how everyday people react when they have a gun has rarely been explored.”

“It’s the Rage” opens today in Los Angeles.