In Conversation with Jonathan Baker – A Man of Film and Much More, Part II

Jonathan Baker and Nicholas Cage

If you missed part I, check this

Interviewer: So, you’ve worked with a number of great actors and directors and as you once said, “4 Oscar winners (now with 3 movies you’re an EP on I suppose more than that)” So do you want to tell us a little bit more about each of them?

Baker: So, I feel honored to have been able to work with Nicholas Cage, Faye Dunaway, Mel Gibson, Bruce Willis, and Al Pacino among others and whether you come in contact as a director or as a producer, you’re all on the same journey and everybody needs direction. And so everybody who is extremely talented who is has been in this business a long time, gives you, me, or the audience something to play off on, and for me, each one of them has taught me something about making movies. Collectively, all have taught me being a professional, and knowing your work, and knowing what you are trying to give the audience is really important because life is a character study, just as it is in movies. 

Jonathan Baker and daughter, Trease, on set,Credit: Brian Douglas

Interviewer: So, the three action movies on your slate this year: what do they have in common, and what makes them different? Are those big stars hard to work with? 

Baker: So, I’ve been working on these three movies for more than the last year and a half. SURVIVE THE NIGHT with Bruce Willis is really just an action movie. It’s a popcorn cruncher, it’s Bruce doing what Bruce does best. On FORCE OF NATURE, I was lucky enough to work with Mel Gibson, and Michael Polish—he’s married to Kate Bosworth–he’s a great director. He’s got a great eye, and I was really happy he was filming FORCE OF NATURE. Kate works with him. And then there is Emile Hirsch. Emile Hirsch started out in a movie called ALPHA DOGS and he really graduated last year with Tarantino on ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD. He is a great actor, so put them all together and you’ve got a really good popcorn movie—a popcorn movie that looks like it’s headed to good notices.

The last one I’ve been working on doesn’t have a release date: Al Pacino in AXIS SALLY. It’s about a woman in WWII who goes on the radio and gives enemy propaganda to the audience and gets put on trial for treason by the Allies. Al Pacino comes in as her lawyer. It’s an interesting film; it’s not an action movie, it’s a true. Pacino is an amazing actor, no matter what kind or size of a movie he’s in. We don’t have actors like that anymore. My movie stars were Robert Redford, Paul Newman, and Steve McQueen, Faye Dunaway–they were all 70’s and 80’s movie stars, and Al Pacino has outlasted them all, he’s still working. It was an amazing opportunity. 

Nicolas Cage, Becoming Iconic set, courtesy Jonathan Baker

Interviewer: Is there one experience that stands out among the many productions you have been a part of? 

Baker:  Well, directing INCONCEIVABLE has been the highlight so far because it allowed me to make BECOMING ICONIC, which I’ve been working on for eight years now. Sitting in the director’s seat is a hard thing to do. It’s not something I want to do all the time. I just brought on Hilary Shor to produce with me, who produced INCONCEIVABLE with me. It’s funny how people circle around in your life and how they get to you. Things happen by fate. So, to answer your question, INCONCEIVABLE was probably the most interesting thing I’ve ever done because it was seven months in the seat, re-writing, writing, directing, producing, then touring with the film, then right after that right back into producing. 

FORCE OF NATURE

Interviewer: What’s it like living in Warren Beatty’s old house? He’s not dead, so there’s no ghosts. Did he leave anything material or spiritual behind for you? 


Baker:
First of all, I changed his house. It’s a hybrid from his house and my house now. The entire format has been changed. How it looks and feels is completely different to when he lived here. But when I sit in the library, the living room where he used to screen films, his screen is still in my feelings, and his projection booth is now my art room. I have to say, I love this house. It is the most important place for me on the planet besides than Big Sur, California. The grounds feel like Native American spiritual grounds when I walk them. There’s two acres here in the middle of Beverly Hills. We’re the holiday tree-topper, the very tip-top of Beverly Hills. Every day that I walk this property, I can’t believe not only did I buy it, and it was Warren’s house, but again it’s not because I got to rebuild the entire piece of land from the ground up. Every pebble on top of each other. As far as Warren, a lot of movie stars, studio heads and famous politicians have been to this house. So it’s really their ghosts that move through here. Pre-COVID, we’d been hosting screenings every three weeks and parties every quarter, and that’s when it really comes alive. It always amazes me how many people can fit in here. I don’t have enough parking, that’s how many people can fit in here.

Mel Gibson Force of Nature, credit: Lionsgate

Interviewer: So why did you want to share BECOMING INCONIC with educational audiences? What do you think a student can take away from the movie?  

Baker: So, BECOMING ICONIC started out with studios asking me questions: “Can you direct?,” and, “Are you a producer?”, and I used to go to Warren Beatty and say, “What are they talking about? I do know how to write and direct!”  They would say to me “but can you do it?”, and Warren said to get a good team around me and I wouldn’t have to worry. So, to prepare myself, I then went to interview other directors and asked them the same questions and got their answers. That’s why I thought well this was a million-dollar education. I went to film school. That taught me the basics, but a lot of what I really learned came from DVD commentaries. Seriously. Those commentaries taught me how to direct and what a vision was. How to hold the vision from script through production. 

What the agencies were asking me was if I could handle the pressure. I remember at the beginning I said it was really hard to direct; it’s hard because you’re in a pressure cooker and there’s steam coming out the top and it doesn’t stop until you’re past post-production. So you ramp up hard creatively, and once you get to producing, you have a moment to tell your story, and if you don’t tell it at that moment then you don’t have any excuses. And that is what BECOMING ICONIC is. It’s there to tell everybody who wants to make films in film school, who’s in high school, or who’s in college that it doesn’t make a difference whether you are a writer, producer or director. At some point you have to be ready when the opportunity comes. I think Robert Evans said,  “Success is opportunity meets preparation.” That moment you only get a week, month or four months to do your job, to, tell your story, and everyone is going to make mistakes. I’m trying to give you information so that when you get there, you make as little mistakes as possible. 

BECOMING ICONIC also tells my story. There might be too much of my story in there, but it tells my story of learning to become a filmmaker and tells the other directors’ stories of helping me become a filmmaker. So when I go and sit in the director’s seat, all of their voices are behind me saying something to me that was so important that I took their information and hopefully made a good film with it. I hope that everyone who watches BECOMING ICONIC really understands it. We did a year of film festival play with it and those festivals looked at the movie as a master class for filmmakers. We filled up auditoriums for the Q&A’s, audience told us they got things from BECOMING ICONIC that film schools and DVD commentary would never teach them—in an hour and a half as opposed to two years!

Taylor Hackford, credit: Becomic Iconic

Interviewer:  So why do you want to be buried  next to Marilyn Monroe? You know, that plot could be worth a lot of money, what compelled you to buy it?

Baker: I wanted to be there because my good friend Hugh Hefner wanted to be next to Marilyn. And I thought, Marilyn’s name was Norma Jean Baker who died in 1962. And I thought, I was born in 1962. There must be some correlation because Marilyn was connected to Hugh Hefner and he had never met her. And he built an entire organization on her. Playboy in the centerfold was made because of Marilyn Monroe, and yet almost every week for more than 30 years, I played cards with Hugh Heffner. Every Wednesday and Sunday I would be by his pool, and on holidays I would celebrate with him. I had a kinship to him, and I admired him, so he is right below me, and Marilyn is right next to him. I wasn’t allowed to tell anybody that Hefner was below me until he died, so that is the real reason why I wanted to be in that plot.

Interviewer: So what would you like to share with the Splash magazine worldwide readers what we have not yet covered? 

Baker: I want you to watch BECOMING ICONIC and then I want you to watch INCONCEIVABLE. I want you to take the mechanism of the yin and yang of how those two films fit together. And understand that we live in a world today that is three dimensional, that we don’t go to movies anymore. We watch them in high technology on our phones, on 70-inch screens, but telling a story from 1940 to today is the same thing. You’ve got to understand the mechanics of telling a story, and need to understand the mechanics of tenacity. I am offering a master class in four hours, and I am available to help filmmakers tell their stories. Because that’s what it’s all about. I am the keeper of the story, master of understanding how to fortify or fix the journey of making films. And there are people who do it better and who do it worse than me, but we all love it the same way. And that’s why anybody who is at the end of this interview and is still reading it, well, they must love this industry as much as me. Thank you!

Watch for Becoming Iconic to become available digitally October/November.









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