Two time Oscar nominated screenwriter (for Teresa and Rachel, Rachel), Emmy winner for the acclaimed TV movie Sybil, and writer of the groundbreaking drama of teenage crisis and alienation Rebel Without a Cause, Steward Stern is a storyteller. I’m not just referring to his screenplays. When he speaks to you in his measured, deliberate manner, quietly but powerfully reaching back into his past, he is spellbinding. Whether in interview or simply in conversation. It’s impossible not be moved, not just by the story, but the compassion, the fear, the joy, and the horror he brings to his life stories.
I had an opportunity to interview Mr. Stern in 2005, when Going Through Splat: The Life and Work of Stewart Stern, a documentary about his life and career directed by Jon Ward, was making the festival circuit. Among the topics we discussed was Rebel Without a Cause. I resurrect that discussion in light of the Blu-ray debut on Rebel Without a Cause, both singly and in the box set James Dean Ultimate Collector’s Edition, from Warner Home Video (reviewed on Cinephiled here).
Sean Axmaker: Can you talk about the gestation, the genesis of Rebel Without A Cause. How you came together with Nicholas Ray and developed the original story and what kind of input the actors had, if any, in helping you develop it.
Stewart Stern: I met Jimmy [Dean] through Arthur [Loew] because I went out for a Christmas vacation. I was writing live TV in New York and I’d already met Paul Newman and had written a play for him for television, so I was out there for Christmas and he introduced me to Jimmy Dean. We got along, liked each other. And Jimmy was constantly coming to Arthur’s at night after he did whatever he did in town. He would always knock on the window and come in and talk and play the drums and just hang out. And then we went to a party at Gene Kelly’s. Arthur and Gene were very close, and it was there that Nick Ray, whom I never met or heard of — I’d seen his film, I’d seen Knock On Any Door that I had loved — he came over and introduced himself. He said, “I saw a movie of yours last week. I ran Teresa and I really thought it was wonderful. Why don’t you come and see me at Warners on Tuesday?” So I went, not knowing what it was about, but Lenny Rosenman, who had composed the score for East Of Eden, and Jimmy, who I had that brief relationship with, and Jimmy and Lenny were very close friends, they went to Nick, I think, separately, and suggested that I come on. The had owned the book Rebel Without A Cause, which was by a psychiatrist named Robert Limner, and it was about the psychoanalysis of a young prisoner but had nothing to do with this, but they loved the title. Nick Ray went to them with an idea about doing a story about juvenile delinquency in middle-class homes. He felt all this kid violence was not a result of economic degradation, but of a different kind of acting out and that it was very important to tell that story. He had done a lot of research on it and went in and pitched this them and they said, “Pitching is fine, but we want something on paper.” And think overnight he wrote something called “The Blind Run,” named for something they did. The kids would go up to Mulholland Drive, which had a tunnel way up at the top of Hollywood, and they’d each have a junk car and they’d go at each other in the tunnel and the first one to swerve out of the other’s way was chicken.