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Producer Joel S. Rice

"I started as an actor in the film industry," says producer Joel S. Rice over the phone, January 23, 2002. "I became a social worker because I wanted to do things like helping people and raising awareness. I missed the entertainment industry and the larger scale impact you could have, and that I wasn't having as a social worker. Though I had done some rewarding stuff. I had started a Big Brother program for disabled kids and I had a private therapy practice. So I developed some ideas for movies that were social work in their orientation. The ideas tended to be more movies for television rather than features.

"I had this idea for a movie. And I got the LA Times to write an article about this true story that I had the rights to. That brought the industry to me and that's how I got started. The movie was eventually released in 1998 - About Sarah - a drama about role reversal - a woman who must cope with her mentally retarded mother. It's similar to 2001's I Am Sam starring Sean Penn and Michelle Pfeifer.

"About Sarah is the most meaningful movie I've done. I grew up with a mother who was chronically ill. As a child, I was a parent in my own family. When I was a psychotherapist, I worked with many mothers and sons for Big Brothers. My mission is to help kids be kids and parents be adults.

"I first tried to sell the story of About Sarah as is. The network found it too soft. Then I attached talent they wanted and they were still not interested. At that point, it was just about the role reversal between mother and daughter. And then I brought a writer [Susan Rohrer] in. She would work on developing it with me if she could direct it. We came up with a new take on the story, adding mystery like the classic play The Inheritance. We still couldn't sell it. Then Susan got a company she worked for to pay her to write it as a screenplay. Then we tried to sell the script as an independent feature. Then I brought it back to the network and they told me if I got this one actor, they would probably do it, if I got a sponsor. That means the network doesn't have to pay for the movie, the sponsor does. So I got a sponsor. Then I had to rewrite it. They wanted someone other than the original writer, who was also the director, to do it. So that was uncomfortable. Then we added some more elements and it finally got made and it turned out well.

"The first movie I produced was 1993's Bonds of Love starring Treat Williams and Kelly McGillis. Treat played a man with mental retardation and Kelly was a normal woman. And it was a true love story between them. It raised such questions as what is love? How can two people of different intellectual levels come together? What would there be about him that would bring her into a relationship with him? And how the family reacted, and the struggles this couple had to go through to stay together.

"I try to do movies that raise awareness, that raise consciousness, that bring up subject matter that hasn't been explored. That's always been my goal as a social worker-producer. I did a [1995 movie] Dare to Love that dealt with the impact of schizophrenia on a family. My consultant was [A Beautiful Mind] John Nash's psychiatrist. I spoke to John Nash several times before he committed to doing A Beautiful Mind.

"You can't just do a straight mental illness movie and get an audience. It was a love story about a woman who became schizophrenic and how her boyfriend tried to stick by her. And after 15 years of illness, she found medication and reawakened to life and love. She was still in love with this man and she found him. And he'd never moved on because of the pain of the loss. You can't do a movie about a drug that helps mental illness. It has to be about more.

"A Beautiful Mind was a clever development of a book that as is would not have made for a movie that people would've gone to see. But finding a way to create a certain amount of mystery to it helped to make it a good movie. Like The Sixth Sense, it had a clever hook to it."

Mick writes on IMDB.com about Dare to Love: "Uplifting in a sense that it gives you the feeling true love is out there. This movie was sensational. I would love to have it on tape or to see it every week when I hit a low spot. This movie gives you a giddy feeling about falling in love and having someone there no matter what."

Joel speaks in a soft reassuring therapeutic voice.

Joel: "I've done this movie [1994's Cries from the Heart] on autism and this technique called 'facilitated communication' which helps some autistic kids communicate when they are not able to communicate in a normal way.

"I did [2000's] One Kill that dealt with women in the military, and how women are treated in a man's world. And it also dealt with the issue of guns. It was a military thriller but my reason for doing it was to explore the treatment of women in the military and the issue of guns and shooting and how that could affect your life. I'm smart enough to know that I just can't do a movie about gun control. You have to find a compelling entertaining story to tell these things in.

"I haven't gotten to do every single movie about something meaningful but 85% of the 15 films I've done have dealt with some kind of psychological or social issue.

"I became an actor when I left college and I was cast as the lead in the [1981] film Final Exam when horror films were popular. I continued to do a lot of theater and television but my career never took off. So I would always work in psychiatric hospitals. I taught acting to people with mental retardation. As an actor, I didn't have enough opportunity to express what I wanted to express. So then I got my Masters degree in social work at UCLA and eventually found my way back into the industry in a way that felt like I could have a greater impact.

"I now have my own company that deficit-finances movies, pays the difference between what the network pays you to do movies and what the movie really costs.

"When I didn't have kids, the driving force in my life was making movies. Now I have kids, I want to be with them. I'm more discriminating about how I use my time. When I was an actor, I remember inviting a casting director to my showcase. And she said, 'I never go out during the week. I'm with my children.' She said it as a hard and fast rule. But I have to say, now that someone wants to do something with me in the evening, aside from a screening or something I deem critical to be at, I don't do it. When I am making a movie, it usually takes me completely away.

"These days there aren't that many [movie] slots to fill for the networks. In the past two years, I've moved from just doing network movies to doing movies for the Disney Channel, Lifetime, Showtime, TV series and reality work."

Luke: "Isn't it hard to sell movies centering on mental illness?"

Joel: "Yes and it has gotten progressively harder. I don't think I could sell one now as I did these other ones. Mental retardation is not mental illness. Mental illness is more specifically something they're afraid of because it is harder for the audience to experience. While mental retardation has always been a subject, a la Rain Man.

"But it's especially tough to sell something like that now. The big thing now is events. Everything has to pre-sell itself. It has to be something that you know what it is immediately and there's not a lot of promotion needed. An example would be a Stephen King mini-series or a Judy Garland biography. Something that you know what it is instantly. So you don't need lead-ins or promotion.

"I did a movie about a deaf kid also. All those disabilities are hard. The networks are afraid it feels like some 1980s disease of the week movie. You have to find a compelling story, and if within that compelling story there's mental illness or disability, then it is ok.

"I did a movie about schizophrenia [1995's Dare to Love]. It was one of my best movies. We were careful to only have one act of seven in an institution. The protagonist got on a drug that was able to help. It was a love story. The opening was provocative. We did everything we could to get people to the table and we still didn't do that well, even though it was critically acclaimed. People are afraid. They want to escape in a movie though hour-dramas can do well exploring great issues. It's a bigger commitment to take that on for two hours than to do it for an episode of something where you already know the characters."

Luke: "What was it like working with Anne Heche?"

Joel: "She was easy. A friend to the crew. A great work ethic. Because I was an actor and a therapist, I can create an atmosphere where people can do their best work. I can't point out any negative experience with an actor. I've worked with actors who had reputations of not being easy to work with and I've never had a problem."

Luke: "How do you know when you've made a movie that's made a difference?"

Joel: "I often have 1-800 numbers on after my movies so people can find more information about whatever is at the center of the story. There's an organization NARC, which used to stand for the National Association of Retarded Citizens but they don't use those words anymore... I've gotten many awards from those organizations. But it's hard to know. I used to be in-house at CBS and NBC and people would call the network after a show.

"I try to hire people with disabilities in all my films."

Luke: "Working with them must be a real challenge?"

Joel: "It isn't really. I think people are afraid, that it is hard enough to make a movie. But it isn't any more of a challenge than any other challenge. It's just accommodating whatever the needs are, whether you're working with a person with a disability or not. In one film, we used seven deaf actors and 30 deaf extras.

"I've done two movies about mental retardation and I didn't cast a person with mental retardation in the starring role. But I made sure that the star's best friend was a person who was really mentally retarded. In I Am Sam, you could tell that Sean Penn's four friends really did have mental retardation. That's important for authenticity and for giving people opportunities.

"Marian Rees is my inspiration. She did the movie about the daughter of two deaf parents - [1985's] Love is Never Silent."

Luke: "How do your peers react to your niche?"

Joel: "As far as the people I sell stuff to, it's good to have a niche. It shows that I can be trusted. They know the project won't be criticized for inaccuracy. They don't need a consultant. One Kill was a compelling military thriller. Even though I have my own agenda, it isn't really what the movies are when you see them. I'm more typecast by my peers as someone who feels he needs to be on the set every second of every day. Some producers just sell it and move on."

2/5/02

"One Kill still meets my agenda for my movies, and that is to say something," says Joel Rice by phone 2/5/02. "One Kill speaks to how women are treated in a man's world and also to the use of guns and how that can impact your life. I always have something like that as my personal mission. The genre doesn't matter to me. One Kill had a lot of male appeal, and that was who I was trying to reach about the way women are treated. You don't need to reach women with the way women are treated. So that [thriller] genre was a good way to get that message across."

Luke: "We have a lot of movies about the terrible way men treat women, but not so many movies about the terrible way women treat men?"

Joel: "Primarily because the audience they're trying to reach is female. Historically, TV movies are primarily watched by women. Men don't come to the table in general for movies on television unless it is something geared towards them. Today they're trying to get audiences of men and women so they're doing less movies about how badly men treat women.

"One of the biggest rated movies for CBS, Men Don't Tell, which was about a man who was physically abused by his wife. And it did extremely well because we'd already seen enough movies on spousal abuse where the woman was a victim. Recently on Lifetime, they did a movie about an adolescent boy who was physically abusing his mom."

Luke: "As a heterosexual male, particularly in Los Angele, you just go through this bombardment of sexual temptation. You go to the office and often women are dressed provocatively. Why doesn't anyone tell this story?"

Joel: "I think they've explored that, more on one-hour dramas. I remember an Ally McBeal. It's not a big enough issue to be a movie."

Luke: "Do you ever get criticized for being too preachy with your films?"

Joel: "No, because I don't think I am. I have my own agenda, but I don't think anyone would say I'm preachy. If a movie feels preachy, you haven't done a good job. Nobody would come away from One Kill thinking that it had preached that men should treat women better. It's a thriller."

Luke: "What is your stance on gun ownership?"

Joel: "I'm not into guns in any way. I think guns are too easily accessed. Too many people have guns. Too much happens as the result of guns in the home. Kids can access guns way too easily. I don't believe in hunting."

Luke: "Jay Bernstein, producer of the Mike Hammer series, laments the decline of manly men on television."

Joel: "I think they've broadened the definition of a man but there are definitely shows with manly men at the center. Maybe they're manly men with more going on now? David James Elliot, who was in my last film, is a manly man and his show JAG is popular. He's more complex than the one-dimensional manly man. So I don't agree. But I'm not a manly man myself. I would not be interested if it was a one-dimensional manly man. I'm not interested in action and shoot-ups. "

Luke: "Has manhood changed since 9/11?"

Joel: "No. Because if you saw the [New York] firemen, you also saw them crying at the memorial service. The level of emotional access that these guys have about the pain of what they saw and losing their peers... We want to celebrate heroism but these men have more dimensions... Everyone was touched by September 11. We love heroes and firemen are especially seen as a heroic group. And always have been.

"In terms of Bush and the government stance, there's a certain kind of manly manness going on. I do think there's resurgence of machoism going on in the government."

Luke: "How do TV executives react when you bring them films about mental illness?"

Joel: "They're completely negative because they worry that people don't want to turn on the TV to watch something like that. It's hard to sell."

Luke: "How frustrating is the seven act TV movie structure?"

Joel: "Not at all. It's smart to have a certain number of dramatic high points in a piece. You can't meander in a TV movie with something that is just character oriented. You need to think that you're going to be within an act and on to the next act, and people are going to leave and come back. I find it easy. I've sold scripts that were not developed for television and I could just look through it and put the acts in without changing anything.

"The end of the first act is the same [on TV] as the [feature] three act structure. The only big difference is that you need a turning point in the middle of the piece. Features don't require a high point in the middle."

Luke: "In the early '90s, we had all these women-in-peril TV movies."

Joel: "In the '80s, we had disease of the week movies. Then women-in-jeopardy and then true crime. For several years, NBC did all these young adolescent issues. The market gets saturated. Everyone's right to try to brand the movie, so that people know what they're getting, but if you do the same movie every week, people will stop watching."

Luke: "Your 1995 movie Dangerous Intentions was a women-in-jeopardy type."

Joel: "It was about breaking the cycle of abuse."

According to the Imdb.com review: "This TV movie's heart was in the right place, I guess, but can't TV movies that air on Lifetime ever be CREATIVE? Donna Mills plays Beth, this battered wife and mother of a young daughter. Beth could have been played by any Lifetime actress. And this movie could have been any Lifetime movie -- it's more entertaining than some, actually, but if Lifetime movies disgust you, you'll want to avoid "Dangerous Intentions" ... and if you like them, you'll be quite satisfied with this one."

Luke: "Which of your movies have most surprised you?"

Joel: "I'm aware of every single step [in production] so it is not easy to be surprised. I can tell through the dailies whether we have something or not. I thought One Kill was going to be good, then it got so complicated that I feared it would not be as good as I hoped, but ultimately it was better than I had ever dreamed. In Cries From The Heart [1994], this phenomenal young actor Bradley Pierce surprised me with how well he captured this autistic kid.

"I did this movie, The Secret She Carried [1996], it was almost embarrassing that I was doing it because it was more of an assignment than my own idea. It was about a woman who was trying to get pregnant with her husband and then got raped and she didn't know who the father was. It was originally conceived she was being tracked by the rapist while eight months pregnant and held captive. My wife was pregnant at the time and I couldn't do a movie where the victim was going to be a pregnant woman running around. So I made it about what it's like for a couple dealing with rape and what it's like for the husband to feel powerless and not know whether he was the father of the child. The movie was directed so well [by Dan Lerner] that it became more powerful than I expected."

A critic on Imdb.com disagreed: "I did not find anything worth mentioning in this movie. Cheap production, no fantasy, routine script, bad acting and bad treatment of the stereotype of the outsider, 'the freak', who is threatening the security of the middle-class American family."

Luke: "Are there any topics you want to tackle that execs tell you are taboo?"

Joel: "I want to do a movie about guns, and kids and violence [like Columbine] but it is almost getting too late. Many of the series have explored it. Boston Public's doing it tonight.

"I have these books that are fantastic and explore issues but they're hard to sell."

Luke: "How are you going to handle your own children's access to TV and movies?"

Joel: "So far we don't allow our three-and-a-half year old to watch anything with commercials or adult content. She either watches videos or PBS or Nicklelodeon or the Disney Channel. I think TV is fantastic for young people in the way that these shows explore things that are hard for kids. Bill Cosby has this show, Little Bill, who has to go get an X-ray because he broke his arm. And my daughter had to go for an appointment, so I said she'd be like Little Bill. So all of a sudden she knows that it is not scary and that she'll be OK

"We were watching the Super Bowl yesterday and she loved it. Then the commercials come on and you have to stand in front of her. But we've never taken her to a theater. It seems like too much stimulation."

Luke: "When your kid turns 21, would you rather your kid was addicted to television or to cigarettes?"

Joel: "Television. I'm a big television person. It helped me through my adolescence."

Tim writes 1/1/03: Hi Luke; I just saw an interview on the Internet you did with someone I have been trying to find for years - JOEL S. RICE. He played RADDISH in FINAL EXAM in which I played the KILLER. I have been trying to locate Joel for a long time for a "reunion" of sorts between the actors.

Hi Luke; You asked about something interesting I remembered about Joel Rice (the actor) who played "Raddish" in FINAL EXAM. Well...I remember that Joel ran across the campus in several areas to get the right angles for the scene Jimmy Huston (the director) wanted. I can remember looking at Joel and saying to myself - "Man! That guy can run!" He was all "legs" -he reminded me of the "Road Runner" - body straight and "all legs" below! And fast!

Anyway - I'm not sure if Joel would approve of this story - since I haven't heard from him yet - though I imagine he's busy - but here's the story:

"When Raddish discovered the body of Wildman in the locker room - he runs across the campus to warn Courtney? Well - we did the scene several times. Raddish runs up to the door of the dorm and whips it open and runs inside. Well - as we were getting ready to do another take - Jimmy came over to me and asked me if I could do something to cheer people up - it was late and people were tired - cause a lot of the film was shot at night. I said "sure - have Joel do the scene again where he runs up to the door and whips it open without filming." So - they set up like they were going to do the scene again and Joel went around the side of the building to prepare for his scene - now remember - he had already done this several times - including running across the campus once. Well - Joel was ready - and Jimmy was ready. So I walked over to the door that Joel whips open and walked inside. I dropped down behind the door out of sight and grabbed a hold of the "emergency release bar" on the door and braced my feet up against the sides of the door. Jimmy yelled "ACTION" and Joel psyched himself up to do a great entrance. When he ran up to the door - and expecting it to open - he grabbed a hold of the door handle and pulled "hard!" So hard in fact that his hand slipped off the handle cause it wouldn't open and he went flying back several feet onto his backside! He didn't understand what happened until I stuck my head up in the window and smiled at him from inside. He broke up laughing as did the whole cast and crew. It was funny and I hope Joel doesn't hold it against me. :)