Most people would be happy with either an Oscar nomination or a big-budget studio feature. This month, Cori Stern gets both: not bad for a first-time film producer. So how did the Austin-based ex-playwright end up with a February most filmmakers would kill for? "Everything in my life comes about because I'm procrastinating," she says.
The only link between her two movies is beating hearts. In zombie rom-com Warm Bodies (opening Feb. 1), restless, undead R (Nicholas Hoult) finds his blood flows again for survivor Julie (Teresa Palmer). Stern's Oscar-nominated, consciousness-raising, short documentary "Open Heart" follows eight children from Rwanda to Sudan's Salam Center for Cardiac Surgery, seeking treatment for rheumatic heart disease – a preventable condition but a major killer in Africa. Stern says, "I can't even stand blood, so it's hysterical that I've got two bloody films."
Stern did not plan on making movies. A former Fox Family TV producer suddenly jobless after Disney bought the channel in 2001, Stern was unsure what to do next – or what to do with a big severance package. She says, "It was actually an amazing thing, because it was this opportunity to do something else." By what she calls "a long, weird story," Stern found herself delivering flu vaccinations and candy in Nigeria when a child in cardiac arrest was wheeled into the hospital. She says, "It made me feel completely inadequate. My lollipop and my little flu shot were not going to do anything. This is life or death." This was her introduction to the shortage of advanced medical care in much of Africa, and she found a new direction as an advocate and fundraiser. At a lobby day in D.C., she met documentarian Kief Davidson. Stern was traveling with a young bomb survivor, and Davidson was with the star of his film Kassim the Dream, ex-child soldier and boxing world champion Kassim Ouma. She says, "I had seen [Davidson]'s pitch trailer for Kassim before he had even shot it and was so impressed by his visual style. He paints with film."
The pair started collaborating on "Open Heart." Well, not quite. It started as part of their bigger planned documentary project on medical nonprofit Partners in Health, when Davidson called Stern to say that the Rwandan kids were becoming their own story. She says, "And I told him, you're right – they're totally different films. We should pull the children's story out. We should make it into a short film that's about having an impact on this issue."
So, wait – how does a crusader documentarian end up making a horror comedy like Warm Bodies? Blame her addiction to StumbleUpon. "I was Stumbling, which is what I do when I'm procrastinating, and I came across this short story called 'I Am a Zombie Filled With Love.'" Even though she's not a horror fan, she was blown away by Isaac Marion's one-page story. She says, "On his blog, he had his phone number, and it says, 'Go ahead, call me, I ain't afraid of you.' So I called him." She convinced him to turn it into a novel, which they could then sell as a film. "Worst-case scenario, you've got an unpublished book, and with e-publishing, you can always publish it yourself."
While a big opening weekend would be great, and an Oscar would be amazing, Stern's biggest concern is still changing lives. She says, "This is what I love to do, and it's true for heart patients or Isaac Marion. I like knowing that people are in the right place."
Warm Bodies opens on Friday, Feb. 1; see Film Listings for review. The 85th annual Academy Awards air Sunday, Feb. 24. For more on Stern's "long, weird story" and her Austin-based Strongheart Fellowship Program, visit austinchronicle.com/blogs.
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