Singer/songwriter Michael Stipe has often said that he would have gone into filmmaking had he not joined the rock group R.E.M., and in the late 1990s Stipe fulfilled his wish, asserting himself as a successful independent film producer.
Stipe first demonstrated an affinity for the moving image through R.E.M.'s music videos, employing photographers and painters such as James Herbert, Matt Mahurin, and Robert Longo to bring his ideas to fruition. In 1988, Longo recruited Stipe for Arena Brains, an extended performance piece in which the singer portrayed a sage "observer" character wandering through New York City in search of a cheese sandwich. His acting bug continued into the 1990s, as he made a memorable appearance on the Nickelodeon program The Adventures of Pete and Pete and took time out between tours to shoot a supporting role in the ethereal period film Color of a Brisk and Leaping Day (1996), director Christopher Munch's follow-up to The Hours and Times.
Also around the turn of the decade, Stipe and longtime friend and filmmaker Jim McKay created C-Hundred, a film collective devoted to producing videos, public-service announcements, and micro-budgeted shorts and features. Though satisfied with the work that C-Hundred was producing, Stipe longed to break into wider-release Hollywood productions, and in 1993 he founded Single Cell Productions. The company began to attach itself to several high-profile productions, and in 1997 Stipe inked a two-picture development deal with USA Films. Somewhat fittingly, the singer's first executive producer credit was for 1998's Velvet Goldmine, director Todd Haynes' florid, nostalgic examination of a fictional glam rock icon. Single Cell then delivered two of the following year's most acclaimed releases: American Movie, a documentary profile of a would-be horror filmmaker from Milwaukee; and the darkly comic fantasy Being John Malkovich. For the latter film, Stipe championed a colleague from his rock career, music video auteur Spike Jonze, to direct. Malkovich met with near-universal critical praise and garnered an Academy Award nomination for the neophyte feature director -- as well as supporting actress Catherine Keener and writer Charlie Kaufman -- though Stipe and the film itself were passed over for a Best Picture nod.
Despite Single Cell's increasing prominence in the industry, Stipe continued to support C-Hundred for smaller-budgeted niche features such as writer-director Tom Gilroy's Spring Forward and McKay's coming-of-age drama Our Song, both of which were featured at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival. Single Cell, meanwhile, had a hand in bringing Mary Harron's satirical interpretation of American Psycho to the screen -- and backed director Jill Sprecher's follow-up to 1997's Clockwatchers, titled 13 Conversations About One Thing.