(L-R) Michelle Satter, Stewart Stern, and Gyula Gazdag at the 2010 Screenwriters Lab. © Sundance Institute | Jill Orschel
On February 2nd, our beloved Creative Advisor Stewart Stern passed at 92 after a battle with brain cancer. According to his family, he was “surrounded by the next generation of filmmakers and screenwriters he had mentored and inspired, as well as friends and family who came from all parts of the country for a two-week vigil before his death.”
Stewart passed into the unknown world but his profound contribution to the Sundance Institute Labs and the art and craft of screenwriting will indeed live on forever.
Stewart is best known as the writer of the seminal Rebel Without A Cause starring James Dean in his most iconic role. He went on to work closely with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward on the beautiful, evocative screenplays Rachel, Rachel (nominated for an Oscar) and Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams and the unforgettable film The Ugly American (WGA nominated) with the young Marlon Brando. Stewart earned an Emmy Award for the television film Sybil starring Sally Field as a woman with multiple personalities, a role that changed her life.
Stewart often talked about his life-long obsession with Peter Pan, a key to many of the most indelible characters he wrote and to his own psychology as one of the lost boys. He believed strongly that writers needed to go deep and explore their inner demons, including their relationship with their parents (especially their mother), to get to the messy, emotional truths of human behavior and relationships. He would talk about this process, which he called “Going Through Splat,” being as essential for him as it was for other writers.
In his earliest years at the Lab, Stewart had one-on-one sessions with our fellows that could never be replicated and have continued to resonate. In subsequent years, Stewart led a Writer’s Workshop, giving our fellows exercises that asked them to draw on the hidden secrets of their own lives to inform the characters in their screenplays. After his five-hour session of exercises, Stewart guided the writers in a meditation, visiting the homes where they grew up, recalling the sounds, smells and feelings of their early years. These sessions were always a transformative experience for our fellows and created windows into their inner lives that led to deeply personal work.
Stewart was probably the most sensitive man I’ve ever met. He had a stunning fragility and the most generous spirit. His stories of his early life and work were gorgeous, circular and always ended with an unexpected button.
At 92, at a Writer’s Intensive Workshop in Seattle (Stewart’s home and where he mentored so many aspiring writers,) he noted, “I believe that all good writing comes down to love, I believe it’s what good teaching comes down to also. Finding the subject that needs you, needs your gift and commitment and heart, then deciding to be responsible for it, making it important that it’s all the treasure you want, makes life love”.
He was a true storyteller and educator and he will be forever missed. Sundance will dedicate the 2015 June Screenwriters Lab to the memory of Stewart Stern and honor all that he did to inspire and transform the writers who have been a part of our Labs over many years.