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Trinity College Grad Stephen Belber Directs Jennifer Aniston in 'Management'


May 10, 2009

NEW YORK - When Trinity College philosophy professor Drew Hyland hosted a meet-and-greet for incoming freshmen, one student asked what he could do with a philosophy degree if he wasn't going to teach.

"I used Stephen Belber as an example," Hyland recalled.

Belber graduated from Trinity in Hartford nearly 20 years ago, but he wasn't the kind of kid a professor could forget. Belber majored in philosophy, played slot back on the football team and wrote and acted in plays. All of which somehow prepared him to make his film-directing debut in a comedy starring Jennifer Aniston.

"Management," which Belber also wrote, opens May 15. Belber had intended the project to be a low-budget attempt to prove himself as a director. When the former "Friends" star and tabloid catnip Aniston came aboard, it became something else.

"When the financiers come in, it creates a lot of pressure to do a movie that basically makes the Jennifer Aniston crowd happy and also makes the indie crowd happy," Belber says in an interview at a library near his Brooklyn home. "So that was hard for me."

"Management" chronicles the relationship of Aniston's saleswoman and Steve Zahn's motel manager. They're both stuck she emotionally, he geographically. Belber shot it in 35 days last year in eastern Oregon and Los Angeles.

"For better or worse, I know I created a nice sweet movie that was not far off from what I wanted to do, and I may know how to get there better next time," he says.

Belber, 42, waxes philosophical about his journey. He knew he would not be philosophical for a living. At Trinity, he says, "I had an 'a-ha!' moment knowing that I really couldn't be a doctor of philosophy. I didn't have the mental chops. I realized I wanted to combine my love of theater and philosophy. That became my self-imposed mission."

The renaissance boy caught the attention of his instructors. Arthur Feinsod, former Trinity theater department chairman, says Belder "was really following his own drummer, and I always respected that. He seemed to know what his muse was telling him to do." Offstage, the professor remembers, "He was always humble and friendly. He doesn't wear his talent on his sleeve."

Feinsod paid Belber the ultimate professional compliment by mounting one of his plays for a company that Feinsod runs near Terre Haute, Ind.

"Anybody could see that he was an unusual kid," says Trinity professor Hyland, who remains close with Belber. "I was amazed the first time I saw him in a play, how he transformed himself."

Belber still returns to Trinity when the school calls, just not this spring. The Washington, D.C., native is spending several weeks in France with his wife, a French theater director, and 4-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son. He plans to return briefly for the "Management" premiere. He will miss his 20th Trinity reunion, with mixed feelings. Belber expresses affection for his mentors and former teammates but was not enamored of what he called Trinity's preppiness.

Wesleyan, the alma mater of directors Michael Bay, Paul Weitz and Jon Turteltaub, is generally regarded as academia's premier Hollywood prep factory in Connecticut. Trinity's tradition is far thinner. "There's no Trinity mafia," Belber laughs, naming Mary McCormack of USA Network's "In Plain Sight" as one of the few Trinity attendees of any notoriety.

Now, the featuring of Aniston in her quest for artistic credibility has pushed Belber into her spotlight. The first-string slot back from Belber's Trinity team recently e-mailed him to offer congratulations, Belber says. It probably would not have happened if the filmmaker had continued his under-the-radar path of juggling theater, script doctoring and television.

About 20 months ago, Belber and his agent at ICM were shopping the "Management" script to CAA agents. To Belber's shock, Aniston's agent at CAA informed him after the meeting that he wanted to show the script to Aniston on the condition that she get the part if she wanted it. No audition. Belber hesitated because he felt the fulcrum of the story was the male lead.

He agreed to meet with the pop culture icon on his next visit to Los Angeles. When he did, he says, "It was a no-brainer." He got the best of both worlds: an A-lister with chops and without attitude. She was on time, and her security team kept the tabloid tumult to a controllable hum on location.

"I was impressed with how down to earth and thoughtful she is," Belber says.

While the commercial prospects for the film have brightened, Belber is keeping his hopes in check. "I'd like to break even to show that I don't waste company funds. And part of that is making the money back. It's a huge desire because I want another shot."

Writing-for-hire opportunities have expanded on the film front as well. Belber is fine-tuning a big-studio political fable he created for Will Smith's production company.

Belber used to be a dramatist of more modest goals. After graduating from Trinity, he moved to New York, wrote some small plays, got accepted to Juilliard, and wrote some bigger plays. He penned a motel-room drama called "Tape" and adapted it for the screen. He followed with a credit on "The Laramie Project," the 2002 Sundance opener that chronicled the beating death of Matthew Shepard, who was killed because he was gay.

Belber made his Broadway playwrighting debut with "Match," centering on an aging choreographer played by Frank Langella. He also had branched out into TV (" Law and Order: Special Victims Unit") and as a script rewriter one of the industry's more lucrative yet lowest-profile gigs.

He toiled far from Aniston's headline-strewn trail. Now he walks it.

Back in his Trinity days, it wouldn't have required any schooling in philosophy to understand the craziness of it all. Says Belber: "I didn't have my eye on directing, much less directing her."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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