Producer joins film school

by Mark Burger

Jordan Kerner had never visited the NC School of the Arts until last fall, when he presented a screening of his latest film, Charlotte’s Web, to the faculty and students. He was impressed by the faculty and by the students – and by the facility as a whole.

Flash-forward six months and Kerner is now the dean of the School of Filmmaking at NCSA. “Obviously, it left an indelible impression,” Kerner says with a laugh.

“This is something I’ve always wanted to do in my life,” he says, “but I thought it would happen in ten years.”

Kerner, 57, succeeds Dale Pollock, who served as dean from 1998 until 2006. Pollock succeeded Sam Grogg, who was the School of Filmmaking’s first dean. (The great David Elkins, who teaches cinematography at the School of Filmmaking, filled the position on an intermediary basis during the last school year.)

Like Pollock and Grogg, Kerner is a veteran producer with a long list of noteworthy films to his credit. The hit 1991 adaptation of Fried Green Tomatoes earned Academy Award nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay and for Jessica Tandy as Best Supporting Actress. When a Man Loves a Woman (1994) starred Andy Garcia and Meg Ryan; Up Close & Personal (1996) paired Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer; and George of the Jungle (1997), which featured Brendan Fraser in the title role, became a surprise blockbuster for Disney.

In addition, Kerner produced all three of the Mighty Ducks films, which not only became a lucrative live-action franchise for Disney but also became the name of Anaheim’s NHL team, which is owned by Disney. (Last season, the Mighty Ducks won the Stanley Cup.)

On the small screen, Kerner has produced such acclaimed films as the Emmy Award-winning Heat Wave (1991), a depiction of the Watts Riots that Kerner himself observed as a young man growing up in Los Angeles; Naomi & Wynonna: Love Can Build a Bridge (1995), a docu-drama about the Judds; Poodle Springs (1998), an adaptation of Raymond Chandler and Robert B. Parker’s unique novel, with James Caan playing an older (but no less tough) Philip Marlowe; and the 2003 adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time, based on Madeleine L’Engle’s best-selling children’s fantasy.

Even with a number of projects still in development – including a big-screen version of The Smurfs – “the Chancellor gave me the opportunity to re-imagine the film school,” says Kerner, so he moved with his wife and two daughters to Winston-Salem earlier this summer. “It’s a wonderful town, and the people are incredibly nice.”

Kerner noted that such film schools as USC and NYU, which have existed far longer than NCSA, “have a lot of financial support.” As the dean, Kerner wants to bring the level of support at NCSA up to that of those other schools. The school’s reputation is growing, he says, its rising visibility due in no small part to some of the students who have passed through its doors.

“The school has had some very good graduates,” he says. “David Gordon Green [George Washington, All the Real Girls] is a substantial director – and may well be on his way to becoming a great one.”

As a producer himself, Kerner has worked with a number of NCSA alumni, including School of Drama graduate Mary-Louise Parker on Fried Green Tomatoes, and he’s also known a number of the faculty members for years.

Born and raised in southern California, Kerner has spent almost his entire life there. Until a few weeks ago, he was breakfasting – as he did every weekend – with friends he’s known for 35 years. Now, he’s calling Winston-Salem home.

“It’s pretty extraordinary,” he says.