Hollywood Producer: Army Bernstein -June 2012

by: Marianne R. Stanton

Armyan and Christine Bernstein, who call Sconset “home.”

Army Bernstein was looking for an actor to star in a film he was producing. Having seen close to 400 people, there appeared to be no one suitable for the role. Finally a friend recommended a new

face, an up-and-coming actor who’d just been in the acclaimed Costa-Gavras film “Missing,” with Sissy Spacek and Jack Lemmon. Bernstein saw the movie and liked what he saw in John Shea’s performance, and offered him the lead role in “All the Sad Young Men.”

Shea, however, said “No.”

“It was a great film, a great role, and we were going to shoot it over the summer. I went out to Stockbridge, where John was performing in summer stock, and offered him the role. He said, ‘I think it’s a great script. I’d love to do it, but I have my own group of guys I hang out with every summer, and it’s on Nantucket. I don’t work in the summer. Nantucket’s too important to me,’” Bernstein recalled. “I was incredulous. Here I was offering this guy a great film, and he was turning it down?”

Bernstein laughs today when he remembers that time, some 30 years ago.

“I said, ‘Why are you being so difficult?’ I tried to convince him that this was a great role, that it would be good for his career, but he was adamant. Finally John said to me, ‘Look. You come spend a weekend on Nantucket with me, and after that if you still think I should give up my summer to do this, I’ll think about it’,” Bernstein said. The Hollywood producer came to Nantucket for a weekend in June and the rest is history.

"We’ve been friends ever since and I’ve seen Army evolve into a rare combination of talents. He is a good director and a remarkable producer, one of the most successful in the history of Hollywood. What makes his Beacon Pictures unique is that Army is first and foremost a great writer. He works with every screenwriter and every director on every script, helping hammer the stories into shape. Beacon films are developed over years of thoughtful process until, having run the gauntlet of his intellect, they are ready for production," said his good friend and fellow Sconseter Shea.

The filming of “Windy City,” which the film was eventually called, was delayed until September with Shea starring opposite Kate Capshaw. The movie was well-received, and Shea and Bernstein ended up forming a friendship that has lasted all these years. No small feat in Hollywood.

That was how Bernstein, Hollywood producer and writer, ended up on Nantucket. It is his definitive “How I got here” story.

“We’ve been coming to Nantucket now for 20 years,” Bernstein said. It’s the length of his marriage to his lovely wife Christine, who every year has headed east with their four kids in tow for their summer on Nantucket. Bernstein calls this time “summer camp for the family.”

“Christine wanted to find a place where the whole family could be together as a family, and this is it – our magical place,” Bernstein said. “We have a literary and spiritual connection to the whole island. It’s become the place that comforts us when we’re not here. Some people go to sacred places for that. Nantucket is that sacred place for me. Every time I land here, I reach down and touch the ground,” Bernstein said.

The peace and tranquility of the island – and Sconset in particular, where the Bernsteins have their home – is central to Army Bernstein’s life. It is what restores him, along with his family, and what gives him a chance to renew, reflect, refresh and replenish his spirit, essential for a writer, which is what Bernstein, in his heart, considers himself. On Nantucket, while others are off in the social whirl, he retreats to his guesthouse to write.

“I’m always surprised at how busy everyone is when they’re here. I like to spend my time on Nantucket with my family, but also reflecting, just sitting quietly. I like to read and write and dream when I’m here and look out the window,” Bernstein said.

His great, true love, in terms of creativity, is writing, said Bernstein, who prefers to sit – not at a computer – but with a legal pad and pen when he’s in writing mode.

“There’s something about working with a piece of paper and pen that’s beautiful to me,” he said. “I’ve got callouses on one of my fingers from holding the pen!”

This winter he just finished writing the script for “Childhood’s End,” based on an Arthur C. Clarke science-fiction novel, which he hopes to move forward this fall, reuniting with actor Denzel Washington, whom he also worked with on “The Hurricane.” That film, about the life of boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, wrongly imprisoned for murder, was a powerful piece. Bernstein wrote the script and produced the film as well.

While he loves the writing process, his larger success is as owner of Beacon Pictures, where he has produced more than 40 films and television shows since he founded the company in 1990.

“Air Force One,” with Harrison Ford, who played a U.S. president whose plane was hijacked, was another Bernstein film with huge box-office success, bringing in over $172 million domestically and $140 million overseas. “Open Range,” with Kevin Costner, had a special showing at the Sconset Casino, with Costner present, and was a much ballyhooed event around the island at the time. There have been dozens more films: “The Commitments,” “End of Days,” “A Lot Like Love,” “Thirteen Days,” “A Thousand Acres,” “Trippin’,” “Tuck Everlasting,” “The Guardian,” “Sugar Hill,” “Playing God,” “Ladder 49,” “Bring it On,” “The Baby-Sitters Club,” “Spy Game,” “The Family Man,” “Firewall,” “A Midnight Clear,” Raising Helen,” “Princess Caraboo,” “Dawn of the Dead” and “Children of Men” are some of the more notable ones.

One of the secrets to his success is that he’s “genuinely one of the good guys,” Shea said.

“Investors trust him with their money because he’s honest. Movie stars trust him with their careers because he’s smart. Friends and lovers trust him with their hearts because he’s kind. In another life he walked with Buddha. In this one he works in show business and tries to tell stories with a touch of poetry to them,” Shea added.

Ambassador Elizabeth Bagley, who’s summered on the island for years on Eel Point, has known Bernstein almost as long as she’s been coming here and is another big fan.

“Army is a study in contrasts – a dreamer but also a pragmatist; a very creative writer and film- maker but also a great businessman; a natural net-worker and extrovert but also an introspective thinker who sometimes seeks solace in solitude, which is why Nantucket is so special to him, as it allows him the space to be all of those things,” said Bagley, at whose home he helped throw a fundraiser for the Dreamland Foundation last summer.

“My family and I have been privileged to celebrate two seminal birthdays in Army’s honor, a decade apart, with only family and close friends on his favorite Nantucket beach, where we ate and drank and swam and talked of past, present and future projects, politics, children and just everyday dreams, in no order but always imbued with Army’s natural philosophy that all things are possible – and so with Army as your friend, everything somehow is!” Bagley added.

Bernstein currently has a dozen pictures in development, including “SeaHawk,” a swash-buckling pirate story starring Hugh Jackman. There’s also the inspirational “Good Luck Mr. Anthony,” based on the true story of a South African man who traveled to Baghdad to free the animals from a zoo during the Iraq war. And then there’s the film tentatively titled “Gray Lady,” set on Nantucket, about a detective who comes to the island to solve a string of murders. Shea is his partner on that film.

So, what exactly does a producer do? “It’s a broadly defined role,” Bernstein said. Some producers just finance a project. Others assemble all the pieces and bring a creative idea to life. When an actor in a film is also listed as a producer, it often means he wants a larger say in his role and the film. Some producers do it all.

“Ideas incubate for a long time in the world, and then they find their moment. Can you take your dream and make it happen? That’s what producing is all about,” Bernstein said.

“François Truffaut once said that every film is like a patient in the ER, waiting for a doctor to breathe life into it. That’s what a producer is there for – to breathe life into a film.”

Bernstein is a busy man these days, with a core staff of 20-25 at his Santa Monica office, and then anywhere from 200-300 people working at any one time on a film or TV series he is producing, such as “Castle,” a comedic drama which airs Monday nights at 10 p.m. on ABC. On the air since 2009, it is heading into its fourth season this fall, and one of Bernstein’s many success stories.

In April, Bernstein was busy with an array of projects for film, TV and even Broadway, and clearly excited about one in particular. “The People’s Games,” which ABC/Disney had picked up after seeing the pilot, is a series which will run in early 2013. Bernstein sums up the concept as “ ‘American Idol’ for sports.”

A sports fan who grew up in Chicago, Bernstein is very high on this new endeavor, where teams in several sports are formed in major cities across the country and fans vote on their favorites.

“If you’re a young 18-year-old kid with talent, but not good enough to be a professional athlete, here’s your chance to participate in a league,” said Bernstein, who once envisioned a career as a pro basketball player. He went to Southern Illinois University on a basketball scholarship but once there found himself way out of his league and soon transferred to the University of Wisconsin, where he majored in film studies. It has all worked out for the best.

Now a very successful and well-respected producer, Bernstein has turned his sights to Nantucket and how the new Dreamland Theatre, set to open by mid-June, can be more than just a movie theater. He envisions the Dreamland as “the hearth” for Nantucket, where people from all walks of life can gather for entertainment, education, inspiration and community.

He’s had many conversations with fellow Californian and Dreamland president Wendy Schmidt about the subject.

“If you want inspiration for living and dreaming big dreams, sit down and have a conversation with Army Bernstein,” Schmidt said. “Army ‘got’ The Dreamland right away – the role it could fill in town, the way its programming could feed the imaginations of people on the island, young and old. He gave us the confidence to believe that our little island theater could indeed reach across the world to the studios in Los Angeles and performers on Broadway through all the amazing connections that happen – magically? – on Nantucket. We both believe there is a special kind of spiritual energy around the island,” Schmidt said.

Bernstein is not your typical Hollywood producer. When you talk with those who’ve worked with him – as collaborators, actors or staff – what you slowly learn is that Bernstein’s success has not come at the expense of sacrificing his soul or throwing others under the bus. He’s passionate about his projects, and will work hard to make them happen, but he’s also a very kind person who enjoys the collaborative process and infusing others with energy and excitement.

“Army speaks from the heart and mind. That is what is so fascinating about him. Unlike some other people in the entertainment business who can come across as shallow, short-sighted and self-seeking, Army has this graceful, thoughtful, patient character. It’s Zen-like. He really listens to people, and when you present ideas to him, he appreciates them. He spins them, turns them around and around, examining all the possibilities, and takes them with you to a new place that’s even better than when the conversation began,” Schmidt said. Bernstein has also been a big supporter of Theatre Workshop of Nantucket, the island’s community-theater group where Shea is the artistic director. He and Christine have signed on as producer-level supporters for the past couple of years and this winter, his 1991 film “The Commitments” screened as part of a double-header benefit for TWN along with Shea’s “Southie.”

“We all (year-round and summer residents) have to think of Nantucket as ‘our island,’ and more and more summer residents have to think as year-rounders and answer that question: How do we make Nantucket work for everyone?” Bernstein said.

He and Shea share a dream of bringing some film and television projects to Nantucket in the off season for two reasons: because the island is magic, a unique setting for stories, and because it will help stimulate the local economy as film making does wherever it happens throughout the world.

If anyone could be successful with that, it’s Army Bernstein. 

Marianne R. Stanton is the editor and publisher of Nantucket Today and The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.

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