La Jolla has its own resident Oscar-nominated filmmaker.
OK, it was for producing a documentary short — 2013’s Open Heart, about Rwandan children seeking high-risk heart surgery in Sudan — but maybe you were nominated for an Oscar?
The Light spent an afternoon with Cori Shepherd Stern — who, by the way, also won an Emmy for a virtual-reality film she produced called Collisions — on the roof deck of the stunning 1923 Rudolph Schindler house in El Pueblo Ribera Court that she shares with her boyfriend, Chris, his 13-year-old daughter and their dog, Andouille (“like the sausage,” she says, “because she’s a Dachshund”).
Among other things, we learned that Stern likes making zombie movies as much as documentaries, what Ryan Gosling was like as a kid and whether it really is an honor just to be nominated.
Where are you from?
I was born in Texas City, Texas — that’s double-Texas. My dad worked for the government, so we moved different places and ended up in Panama City, Florida. Then I moved to L.A. when I was in high school and went to college at University of Laverne, which is a place you either know about or you don’t. I dropped out because I didn’t have any money. Then I moved to Mexico for a little while, then Texas again, up to Vancouver, then back to L.A. and I moved down to San Diego 10 years ago. You got all that?
Is it safe to guess that L.A. is where you launched your documentary career?
Well, when I moved from Texas, I became a television executive first. I worked for Saban Entertainment. I worked on the Power Rangers. I cast Fergie — her name was Stacy Ferguson back then — as the host of one of my television shows, Great Pretenders, for five seasons. Ryan Gosling was a teen actor on a television show I created called Breaker High. He was 16.
What was he like as a kid?
He was clearly brilliant even then, even in a teen comedy series. He had incredible comic timing.
Did you like being a TV executive?
I had a lot of fun but I started to get burned out and I got really sick. Every time I would sit down to do a budget for a TV show, my eyesight would go. I couldn’t drive or anything. They couldn’t figure out what it was but then I just listened inside and I figured out that I didn’t want to be doing this. So I negotiated an exit. In the meantime, Disney ended up buying Fox Family Channel, so they bought out my contract and I ended up with a bunch of money.
Which explains the Rudolph Schindler house.
No. That money is all gone because I went to Nigeria in the middle of the AIDS crisis with AIDS drugs for a whole bunch of people. I went right from being a television executive to muling drugs to Africa. This was in the days when anti-retroviral drugs were available in the world -- people in West Hollywood and San Francisco and New York were surviving — but people in Africa were just dying. And when people here would change their regimens to figure out what the right cocktail for them was, they would have leftover pills. So I would collect those pills and take them to Nigeria — big suitcases full of them — and the Nigerian doctors would basically make a pharmacy out them. And I wasn’t the only one doing this.
After that is when I started producing. I wasn’t planning on producing anything about Africa, but I had been doing that exact same work (as depicted Open Heart). I had been bringing kids over for surgery to the U.S., and that was about kids going to Sudan for surgery.
Where were you when you found out you got nominated for that and what were you doing?
I was in Austin. I started a center in Africa, Strongheart House, that was a home for exceptional young people from extreme circumstances. And we had moved it to Texas. So I was with a group of Liberian and Palestian kids, at an Airbnb that we had rented for a Christmas retreat. I was following the press conference on the internet, refreshing every few minutes, just to see. I really didn’t think we would get nominated, but we were on the short list that the Academy announces beforehand.
So I found out and I freaked out. I tried to tell the kids about it, but they did not know what an Oscar was. When you’re trying to figure out how to eat for a few years, you’re not really focused on George Clooney. So then I went to Starbucks and I told the people there about my nomination, and they gave me extra whipped cream.
Did you get to go to the Oscars?
That’s the first thing people always ask! They go, “Were you part of the real ceremony, or the one with all the technical awards?” Yes, it was the real one. And I got to walk the red carpet.
So is it really an honor just to be nominated?
Yes. But more than that, it’s an honor just to get to do the work. Artists are lucky, lucky people. Seriously. That’s why people give up so much to do it.
So how did you end up producing a zombie movie starring John Malkovich?
Warm Bodies began as a short story I found on the internet by this guy from Seattle who posted it on his blog. He had never published anything before, but it was amazing. It was a super-short story called “I Am a Zombie Filled With Love,” and I loved it from the first paragraph. This guy had an amazing voice. And he put his phone number on his blog. It said, “Call me, I ain’t afraid of you.” So I did and he was like, “What? Who is this?” And I was like, “Ayy, it’s Hollywood, kid!” And so he turned the short story into an unpublished novel and we sold it to Lion’s Gate.
So why do you live in La Jolla and not Hollywood?
I first came here in ’93 or ’94 to stay with some friends. I was too nervous to move right up to Hollywood when I wanted to move. It just seemed so big and scary and people seemed so fancy and I didn’t know what to wear. I had this one outfit that I wore to everything. I got it at Buffalo Exchange in Pacific Beach. I just thought it was the greatest outfit on the planet. And finally, one of my friends in Hollywood pulled me aside and said, “Yeah, you might want to think about a different outfit.”
So then I lived in L.A.. I was married for 20 years to a music-video producer. And when we were splitting up, very amicably, I didn’t want to live in the same city and be split up. It just seemed too weird to me. I had already met Chris, my romantic partner, in 2008 and he lived here. So we got our first place in La Jolla in 2010.
When I was living in a Liberia, in a little village on the beach, I figured out that I am really a village person. Cities are too big and rural areas are too lonely. I like to walk to get coffee, know all my neighbors. I wanted that same thing back in the States but without the malaria and with running water. La Jolla is a village, truly. And I love that. I see the same people every day where I get coffee, I know the postwoman. I have literally borrowed a cup of sugar from the neighbor and taken them cake when I'm done.
What’s your next project?
I just finished a feature-length documentary called Bending the Arc, which is going to come out on a major distribution channel very soon that I can’t name. It’s about healthcare as a human right. It follows Dr. Paul Farmer and Dr. Jim Yong Kim, who was an infectious disease doctor who became president of the World Bank during the shoot. That was a huge deal, and none of us had a clue that it was about to happen.
I’m very proud of the fact that I work very hard to make sure that my films make a difference at the policy level. After I made Open Heart, the government of Rwanda announced a major public-private partnership to eradicate rheumatic heart disease.
So I make films that make a difference … and zombie movies.