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Discover Bert Stern - the Original Mad Man - In New Doc

by Bill Biss
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Monday Apr 1, 2013

Photographer Bert Stern took Madison Avenue by storm with his ads for Smirnoff Vodka in 1955. Overnight his "Driest of the Dry" campaign, set against the Egyptian pyramids, helped make the martini the go-to drink of the Mad Man era. He was just 25 at the time, a staff photographer at Look Magazine, where he befriended another staff member, Stanley Kubrick.

Over the next two decades, he joined Irving Penn and Richard Avedon as one of the leading fashion photographers of his time, bringing to the pages of Vogue images of some of the most beautiful women of his generation - Jean Shrimpton, Suzy Parker, Audrey Hepburn, Twiggy, Bridgette Bardot and Elizabeth Taylor.

But it is one Hollywood legend he will be best-remembered for having photographed: Marilyn Monroe. His session with her is now known as "The Last Sitting;" and these photographs are culturally and historically significant to this day.

Director and Producer Shannah Laumeister in her documentary film Bert Stern: Original Madman (in limited release on April 5, 2013) not only showcases his photographic brilliance but goes into the darkroom of Stern’s life and with accurate exposure creates a phenomenal life story.

Laumeister first got do know Stern when he photographed her as a model when she was a teenager. Little did he expect she’d turn up at his studio with a camera wanting to make him the subject of a doc.

Her film follows Stern’s childhood, his meteoric rise to prominence, his glory days and his frenetic and emotional upheaval at the peak of his success. With astute detail, in her interviews with Stern, she also gets to the heart of his genius and his rebirth in the 1980s as a man who came close to losing everything but survived intact with a photographer’s instinct that has never left his side.

Really serious

EDGE: After watching ten minutes of your film, I wrote down this thought, ’It’s easy to note that what was a simple idea to Stern was considered ingenious to others.’

Shannah Laumeister: Yeah...that’s a good line. I think that it’s accurate.

EDGE: What ultimately led to him agreeing to do this documentary?

Shannah Laumeister: Well. (Laughter). He didn’t want to do it at first. At first it was a progression and it started because we were so used to having a relationship through the camera because he did really creative shoots when he took pictures of me.

So, when I showed up with a camera, he thought it was a joke (laughter). Then I think he completely realized it was real, when I was constantly showing up with a camera. He thought it was ridiculous.

Then, he started to see my views and he would turn it around and say, ’I’m gonna make a movie about you!’ But, I kept going and he realized ’I’m really serious’ and he didn’t want to do it. But at some point, he seemed to really start to enjoy it. It was a bit of a transition and it was causing us to have a continuation of a relationship through a camera even though it was in reverse.

I was really getting in to him and his life and all the things about him. It was a way to get to know each other even better than we already had. We’re forced to... you can know somebody really well, right?

EDGE: Uh-huh.

Shannah Laumeister: If you make a film about them, you really have to not just be an expert about that person and know everything but you have to embody them almost. You have to emotionally and psychologically understand them. You’re conceptualizing the story of their life, which obviously has all kinds of elements.

But, there is one story that is always dominating in somebody’s life. There’s one thing that is always dominating that has to do a lot with their drive or their demise or their destruction. Whatever it is... wherever they end up, I really had to understand him so there is a way for us to get connected back.

Amazing journey

EDGE: It was definitely an amazing journey then for both of you.

Shannah Laumeister: Now, that the film is coming out in theatres and has been to festivals all over the country and the world and so on... it was shocking to him. (Laughter) It was very shocking. I don’t think he ever thought that that would happen. I would say it was a slow progression from very much a non-reality for him into a way to take our relationship and connection to a whole other level. I was also obsessed and very, very driven and the realization that it’s a story worth telling and is now on the screen. It’s a progression.

EDGE: Bert Stern so deserves this... warts and all. He’s deserving of this just for posterity and history alone.

Shannah Laumeister: Yeah, that was one of the reasons I wanted to do it because I believed that. He didn’t think that. Even though, somewhere inside, he knows that. He didn’t think that he was worthy of history and interest in that way. Clearly, he is and maybe he does know deep inside.

Also, he is a lot of things because he has the ’history’ part and he also has this amazing life story. Everybody has a story but it’s not true. I’ve listened to a lot of stories and yeah, they’re great and you can’t believe it... but very few people have a story worthy of telling. He really does and he has all these really incredible iconic images that are so unique - that stand-out and stand apart. There are a lot of elements to this and also a very good reason to do a movie about him.

Photos speak for themselves

EDGE: The timeline for your documentary footage is quite extensive. It goes back to 2009, I think.

Shannah Laumeister: It goes back to 2007, believe it or not (laughter). It’s now archival footage.

EDGE: There is a moment at the beginning of ’Bert Stern: Original Madman,’ where he is at a gallery showing and he autographs ’Marilyn Monroe: The Complete Last Sitting,’ and the woman says about his book, ’Isn’t there any writing in this? Or is this it?’ I found that so wrong, as the photographs he took totally speak for themselves.

Shannah Laumeister: Right.

EDGE: In interviewing Stern’s former wife, Allegra, and one of his previous loves, Dorothy, was there any precarious situation in regards to presenting their side of the relationship? There are so many candid observations from them.

Shannah Laumeister: Right. So, when you say ’precarious’ you mean?
EDGE: Like, ’Did she say that about me? Or did he say that!’ during the filming.

Shannah Laumeister: Oh, you mean like when Bert watched the film?

EDGE: Did he know you were going to go there?

Shannah Laumeister: Bert never saw the film until it premiered at The Telluride Film Festival. So, he didn’t know what they said. And, they didn’t know what he said. When he did see it, he loved it! Bert is a guy who has been around beautiful women his whole life. He was in love with Dorothy, he was madly, madly in love with Allegra. He doesn’t know the difference between a woman who is crazy and a woman who isn’t (laughter) He just loved all these beautiful women. So, he can’t see that they’re saying all these things about him that could be conceived as flaws. All he could see was their gutsiness or their edge or whatever. He never even mentioned it.

I was worried about what he would think. With Allegra, he said all these things about her... but his comment was, ’Isn’t she great.’ But, it’s funny. There was a scene with Laurence Schiller where he said some things about him that isn’t nice. He noticed that! That he noticed.

Just do it

EDGE: Wow, Allegra didn’t pull any punches and was extremely candid, I thought.

Shannah Laumeister: (Laughter) But he wouldn’t notice Dorothy and Allegra, you know. I was worried when I went and shot Allegra that I would deal with some precarious stuff possibly. I was there alone. A lot of this I ended up shooting alone. It was just me and her in the apartment. I don’t know what she felt really but she did a very candid interview with me. I had a lot of questions and she just... I don’t know, I feel lucky I guess. They would tell me when I was going to be shooting Allegra to ’watch out’ and all these things.

EDGE: Oh, no.

Shannah Laumeister: There’s more drama between all the women and Bert doesn’t notice and he doesn’t badmouth them. He’ll say things but it comes from love. He won’t talk bad about anybody ever.

EDGE: That is so commendable. You also cover his groundbreaking independent documentary ’Jazz on a Summer’s Day.’ That’s just another incredible aspect of his talent, directing this film. Having Judith Crist talking about the film is an awesome touch. Then for Bert to say, ’I don’t think about it. I just do it.’

Shannah Laumeister: She wrote a review for ’Jazz on a Summer’s Day.’ It’s just a love letter... truly a love letter and she really believed that and loved that movie.

For Bert Stern and his ’I don’t think about it. I just do it’ - mantra. It’s really true. He told me this story from the 1960s about the George Eastman house, which by the way, he loved. He has a lot of respect for The George Eastman House Museum. They asked him to do a speech in front of all these students. There were thousands of students there and he basically got up and said, ’You’re all learning wrong. You’re all going to school to learn to be a photographer. You’re learning to be bad photographers. Just get the camera and do it. Just get out there and start shooting.’(Laughter)

Apparently, it was a big hit by the kids... by the students. It was very controversial to say that. He honestly believed it. He believed that it’s an instinct. He’s also very visual and terrific. He was just trained in his own way.

No changes made

EDGE: So the film is in theaters on April 5?.

Shannah Laumeister: Yes, knock on wood... we just got in to four more theatres today. It’s an amazing accomplishment. Initially, we had no distributors that were interested, then we had eight distributors that were interested and then we had a couple. Now, we are in thirteen or fourteen theaters. We’re in Boston, Washington, Minneapolis, Chicago, San Diego and L.A so far... it’s always nice to know that you’ve exceeded expectations.

I fought very, very hard to keep this movie the way it is. Initially, every distributor who saw it wanted to change it.

EDGE: Oh really.

Shannah Laumeister: Every single one. They told me to change it in a way that would have ruined it. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how these people could tell me to make a movie that was never gonna work and that it would be a better movie. Because I was a first-time director, I should listen to them. Okay, this seems impossible... but I actually know more than you. How? I don’t know.

EDGE: Such bullshit.

Shannah Laumeister: If I would have made those changes, we wouldn’t be where we are now. I confidently know that. If anything, let that be an inspiration for people out there who are up to things... film, art, whatever they do. It’s really, really true. There was a point I was The Lone Ranger, I stood alone fighting every single person in my camp for my vision. For me, it’s just moving to me because I got to the point where I was like, ’I could be wrong’ but I just have to stick to my guns. If I make your movie and I fail, I can’t live with myself. I could never forgive myself. But, if I make my movie and fail, then I could. I’m incredibly moved I got my film made. I’m humbled and at this point, whatever happens, happens. I was the biggest believer in this vision I made. It totally exceeded everybody else’s expectations. I think there’s a good story in that... that’s a good story.

EDGE: The film is beautifully done and fascinating and you do realize, ’Why didn’t someone do this earlier?’ Then, you find out in the film and in his life course and his relationship with you. It’s quite magical. Like you said, it’s your vision. I didn’t find one thing wrong with it.

Shannah Laumeister: Ahhh, thank you. That’s so cool. Thank you.

Bert Stern: Original Madman opens in select theaters across the country on April 5, 2013. .


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