As a Broadway producer, James Stern has won Tony Awards for “The Producers” and “Hairspray.” As a filmmaker, he has worked with everyone from Robert Redford to Cate Blanchett to Bruce Willis to Jennifer Aniston.
Stern’s latest documentary, “Giving Voice,” won the prestigious Festival Favorite Award at Sundance this year.
At his core, though, Stern is a political and hoops junkie. And the latter fix fueled one of his favorite projects, which just so happened to weave into his other life as a minority owner of the Bulls.
Stern co-directed “Michael Jordan to the Max,” which was released in May 2000. Narrated by Lawrence Fishburne, the IMAX documentary details His Airness’ greatness as the Bulls dynasty closed with their sixth championship.
In a recent interview with The Athletic, NBA Entertainment producer Andy Thompson revealed that one reason for the 22-year delay for the release of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” was because of Stern’s and Don Kempf’s IMAX film. Jordan coming out of retirement to play for the Wizards also played a role.
And NBA commissioner Adam Silver, then the head of NBA Entertainment, told ESPN that Jordan also controlled when Thompson’s footage could see the light of day.
Regardless, Stern’s film came first.
“What happened was I approached Adam and (then NBA commissioner) David Stern about this. And they said, ‘It sounds interesting. But we have this other film going,’” Stern said in a phone interview from California. “I said, ‘Well, they’re very different markets. One doesn’t preclude the other. Do them both.’ They said that’s possible and told us to shoot the last few games of the regular season in IMAX and show us a test. They said they wouldn’t guarantee at all that we’d go ahead.
“Don and Steve Kempf who had put the money together agreed to roll the dice. We had a screening for the NBA and their brass. And David said, ‘It really is great on IMAX. I think we need to go in this direction now. We have time to get back to the other film.’ I figured they were different markets. And it wasn’t my call. I was the director and producer, not the financier or the NBA. It was up to the NBA to make the decision. Andy had shot that whole season 24-7. I told Andy how terrible I felt as a filmmaker.”
Things have a funny way of working out. Thompson’s footage, directed by Jason Hehir, is now being seen by millions during a global pandemic.
Including Stern and his family.
“It’s an incredible gift. It’s the only moment that we’ve had as a family that we weren’t talking about the pandemic or politics or are we ever going to go to Broadway or to sports again,” Stern said. “We were just sitting as a family watching Michael Jordan and the Bulls. There was something so pure about this. And it reminded us of why sports matter and what they can do.”
Stern went on to direct “The Year of the Yao” with Silver and NBA Entertainment and Sport In America for HBO. But “Michael Jordan To The Max” represented his first sports-related project.
“From my standpoint, the key elements were the Pacers series (1998 Eastern Conference finals), because the Bulls almost lost. But more than that, it was how you tell a different story about Michael,” Stern said. “For me, I felt it was a father-son story. I had known James (Jordan’s Dad). We were part of a group that celebrated the first championship in Los Angeles the night they won in 1991. I always loved him and found him to be a charismatic guy. So my angle in a way was on the idea that Michael had sort of left the Bulls to sort of grieve for his father. And baseball was his grieving.
“What I love about the film is that people come up to me and say they were crying at the end and they don’t know why they were so emotional, because they knew who was going to win. I think it’s because the spine of the movie is about him and his Dad and his relationship with Phil (Jackson). It’s scenes where he’s playing baseball in Birmingham, Ala., and it’s like 6 in the morning and he’s out there alone. That’s why the movie works.”
Stern called Silver, who drew a producing credit, “a jewel and creative force” with which to work.
Still, the process created some difficult moments. For starters, camera operators shooting for IMAX use the larger 70-millimeter film, so the magazines run out quickly. Stern and his crew missed Jordan’s final, winning shot against the Jazz in the 1998 NBA Finals, forcing him to use a creative solution.
Then, Stern’s fandom came into play.
“I hated the shooting,” he said, laughing. “I’m so obsessed [as] a fan that I hated the distraction from the game. The fact I couldn’t just concentrate on the games made me crazy. Especially the games that were close. I didn’t want someone saying what camera we should go to. I just wanted the Bulls to win.”
The Bulls did. Stern did. And now “The Last Dance” is winning, as well.