Johnathan Baker’s films ‘Becoming Iconic’ and ‘Force of Nature’
Jonathan Baker is a film producer with two notable new projects Force of Nature and Becoming Iconic. Becoming Iconic has played at both a Santa Barbara film festival and a Whistler festival with planned digital distribution for this autumn.
Becoming Iconic is a documentary about how difficult it was for Baker to make his first ever feature length film Inconceivable. The film is said to be a master class in directing.
We had the wonderful opportunity to ask Baker some questions about his various projects, his career, and a little bit more. Here’s what he had to say.
Tell us about your movie Force of Nature, where did the concept come from?
Force of Nature came about as a part of a multi-picture development deal between EFO Productions and Lionsgate. While I don’t know the back story, honestly, Baker Entertainment Group, Emmett Furla Oasis (EFO), and Lionsgate had been developing it for about eight months before it went into production.
They asked me to direct it, and I declined. Then Michael Polish came on board to direct and I moved to executive producer. Then development went on from there. Because it was a development deal and not a production deal, EFO produced the film and Lionsgate distributed it, and I was just a part of the development of the cast, crew, and story.
Every production is different, what is something you learned while working on Force of Nature?
Well, I think it was one of Mel Gibson’s first movies where he wasn’t first-billed, but he really was the biggest star of the picture. The greatest thing about Force of Nature was that nobody expected it to be the hit that it is.
I mean if you look at iTunes, Amazon during this pandemic, it was in the top ten for weeks since it came out June 30th. As much as it is an action film, it definitely has more character than most.
Becoming Iconic is a documentary about filmmaking, why was it important for you to make this movie?
So, Becoming Iconic was a journey of self-discovery, it was also a chance for me to ask the major stars and personalities that are in it – from directing to acting, how they transition, how they started, and what advice they would have for me. This all started when the major [talent] agencies would ask me if I could really direct, and I really thought that I could.
I didn’t really have an understanding of why they kept asking me the questions that they were, so I went to Warren Beatty and I asked him, why do they keep asking me if I can direct or not? And he gave me his answer, and I thought it was interesting, and he said to get a good team around you, have a good vision and you will succeed.
Maybe that’s old school, but I thought, you know, if he is giving me this type of advice, maybe if I go to each genre or category whether it be acting, directing, or producing I would get all this information, and I did. I used it – every day from everybody. I learned something from Taylor Hackford all the way down the line to Warren Beatty. I think the most important part of the journey was really dividing it up to my background so that people could see where I came from, where I was at that time in my life, and where I was going.
Then, kind of cut in all the different directors and their points of view and share that with the film community. Share that with the colleges, share that with the high schools, and share that with the film schools. I know that if I was in class and I had seen that film, I would have learned something. I think that everybody who is on their way up will learn something, whether it’s from me or from the filmmakers.
What was one of your most memorable experiences when working on Becoming Iconic?
You know, this sounds fanboy of me to say, [sic] but the whole entire project was my favorite. We morphed so many times from being a documentary, to being a live-stream show like Project Greenlight, to doing a story or documentary about me.
I just really enjoyed interviewing all of the directors. So, it was a case of me asking the questions to hear their stories, but that I was the direct beneficiary of their advice and stories. And then at the end, each one of the people that we interviewed realized that I was the person asking the questions, so that I could learn from them. And I think that was my favorite part, when everybody realized that it was me who they were giving advice and talking to as I was in the same room with them.
Becoming Iconic is a documentary, however you usually work on fictional movies. What were some of the biggest differences between the two?
When you’re doing a narrative movie talking about story lines, and talking about character arcs and story arcs versus documentaries – which is revealing and sharing information – you’re actually searching for something to teach you to really manifest what the dream is that you’re asking about.
In a documentary you are more yourself, and in a narrative you really have to own what’s in that lens. You really have to have an understanding of what the characters are doing at all times and what story you’re really telling because if you lose sight of that, then you lose the sight of the movie.
You were able to interview a number of big Hollywood names in Becoming Iconic. What interview was the most important for you personally?
Each actor, or director, producer in Becoming Iconic taught me something. Jodie Foster taught me don’t get married to the movie that’s in my head, but rather to be flexible, and to really understand how to move the emotions of the actor around and not get stuck on anything in particular; to be malleable.
Taylor Hackford taught me that everything is in preparation, and you can ask for forgiveness later when they are coming out of the movie. That you really have to be able to understand what your decisions are and how quickly you make those decisions.
John Badham really taught me about how to deal with the actor. How to prep that actor for their performance, how to talk to them while they’re in their trailer versus on set. I got so much because when you are with movie stars and people with that type of experience for years and years and years, they’re not going to respect you unless you have a technique that will include them, and that’s what John Badham gave me.
Adrian Lyne, I loved his information about lighting, one-directional lighting and how he would be able to get a look from the picture whether it’s his first or 50th picture and really tone down on the look, the overall look of the picture.
Warren Beatty really taught me how to gather a group of department heads and how to bring each one to the vision that I had, and work with them all so that they are making a movie that is 50% actor, 50% production. Warren taught me how to be a good leader.
Faye Dunaway had so much interesting information about acting, and she really taught me how to work within the character of each character and how to flush out their emotions . . . how to take the scene, flesh out the emotions and really end up with something that they, the actor, wanted but in my vision.
Nick Cage, you know what? He was a consummate professional. He came prepared. I couldn’t be prepared as much as he was. He knew everyone’s role. He knew everything about the other actors that were in the film and anything that I told him he really had an understanding about. And it taught me that, or Nick Cage taught me that; you know, you really need to pick your actors that are professional and are in the business because they come with professionalism and an experience that is the most important part of making a movie. Show up on time, be humble, do your job, get your character straight, and flesh it out, and then hopefully it shows up on the screen that way.
Did we miss anybody?
Interviewer: That’s everyone.
Is there anything you want audiences to know before watching Becoming Iconic?
Well, I really want people to watch Becoming Iconic and then watch Inconceivable. They’re meant to be a yin-yang. They’re meant so that you actually watch Becoming Iconic, and ask yourself, well, what type of movie did he make after talking to all those people? And then you can go and see the movie that I made and you can pick everything apart.
You can pick me apart. You could pick the film apart because you know nothing is perfect. You can see the mistakes in Inconceivable. But I’ve seen a lot of bad movies out there. Nobody wants to make a bad movie; they just happen. I think Inconceivable, you know, is a popcorn thriller for women.
I think it handles IVF [in-vitro fertilization] really well and I don’t think there’s ever been a movie about IVF, you know, in this type of genre. So really, they go together and because they go together, it’s an interesting introspective into me, the actors, the advice I get, and the movie I shot.
Tell us about your history as a filmmaker. How did you start your journey?
Well, I started my journey as a filmmaker when I was seven years old. My mother was an actor. She studied with Lee Strasberg and she used to take me to class while she studied. And I used to be involved with all of those people doing method acting and really learning technique. I never really wanted to be an actor. So, it just kind of . . . it morphed into “I wanted to tell a story” because I kept seeing all the actors perform all the time and they would take such different perspectives.
So for me, it was really interesting to watch them do character study and character build. So, I took away how to build a story from that situation. And I loved movies myself. So I would go to the movies and I’d go to the matinees and see lots of movies in theaters, many more than I do today. And there would be “climate movies” for me and people would say “what’s a climate movie?” and it would be a movie that would take me all over the world and I would be able to study the character and its backdrop and get off of the island of Manhattan where I grew up.
And so, yeah, whether I go to China or I go to Italy or James Bond (who went everywhere) [sic] or it would be a drama in the middle of Kansas, I would always be able to take something with me from all of that.
You know, as I got older, I went to school and I learned filmmaking. But I think the most interesting part of my whole education was watching the DVD commentaries of some of the most famous actors in the world. I mean, I think that type of learning was the most helpful for me because I had already known how to do it technically, and I had already tried to just be a writer. And it morphed into production, directing, and producing, because I really wanted to tell the story my way.
I wanted to tell the story the way I envisioned it and every time I would leave that vision to somebody else, I was disappointed. So I just felt that I needed to try it myself. But the DVD commentaries really showed me that we’re all human. We all make decisions, we all have a vision and what the different visions look like.
What is your creative process like?
I love this question. Creative process for me is to fantasize, to really think in a big scale, epic fashion with everything that I read. So I start reading and I try to envision what choices I would make. And if the choices become really small, and get smaller and smaller and smaller, I know the film’s probably not for me. But if I’m able to build on that storyline that I’m reading in the actor’s words and really gather enough information within my own body, mind and spirit, then I know that I’m on the right track.
From there, I start to colorize it. So if I can really envision the world, I start to really throw colors in there and really ask myself: Where does the drama come from? Where does the reality come from? Where does the fantasy come from? And then I try to compare it to other directors’ works that are like it or that have been out there in the field. And if there hasn’t been anybody, then I kind of stand away from the project and I look back on it, give myself days or weeks until I can actually see how clear the information is to me.
For the most part, when I get and commit to the film, then it’s really a repertory moment for me where I want to prep everything. I want more time to prep than I do to film because I really want to understand what I’m filming before I get there. When I get to production to set, I don’t really want to have to do too much. I want to make sure that I can correct a little bit. I can say a little less, a little bit more.
But really, I want everybody to be prepped. I want everything to kind of fall into place. I don’t want to make it seem like I’m not fluid because I am very fluid, but I’m not fluid in preparation. In preparation, I’m actually very strict. I want things the way I want them. I want to see it. I want to build it.
And then we get to the set and then I become very fluid. I can be completely the opposite. I become fluid and I make sure that everybody gets a little piece of what they need and want in order to correct what happens through the lens. And when you get to the editing process, which could be days later, could be weeks later. I think I’m good at seeing the vision that I started with and whether I have to add voices or music or other elements to bring it to the screen.
For me, the vision that I started with, hopefully, is in the editing room and, because I prep so much, it comes out amazing. And I, unlike most directors, like to take it to the next step. I love the studio process. I love marketing. I love advertising. I love the poster. I love to be involved as much as I possibly can. And the reason why I put myself in my own movies as an actor is so that I can go on tour as an actor, not just the director with the films, and really talk about the films from the standpoint of being in front of the camera, being in back of the camera, and more important – really, what the movie is to the audiences.
And then, I love to hear the audiences. Whether they’re critiquing the film, whether they love the film, whatever ideas they have and whatever they got out of the work, that’s the reward. That’s why we’re all doing this, and once again, I’m the keeper of the story, so I tell the story and the audience tells me the story that they actually got to experience and what they got to absorb. And their story back to me, is why I make movies, why I tell stories.
Can you tell us any upcoming projects you’re working on?
Well, I’m working on Axis Sally with Al Pacino, that’s in post-production right now. Again, that was me in a development fashion. I’ve been trying to cast Fate, we ran into the pandemic, we were almost cast one-hundred percent, and the pandemic blew the industry kind of apart and now we’re recasting Fate.
I’m guessing it’s going to take another eighteen months before we’re back where we were, which is the sad part. And then my other movie Icon, which is waiting for Fate to get done. Those are the two films I would really like to see happen over the next five years of my life.
What is your five-year plan?
Well, I just got done developing and executive-producing three films, Force of Nature, Survive the Night, and Axis Sally. My five-year plan included those films, I hope to do Fate and Icon in the future. It’s all about casting and timing, and sometimes you have to wait.
When I’m not doing films, I have the Johnathan Baker skin and beauty, EST. 1962, that is now on the market. It’s currently at The Maidstone, a hotel in East Hampton, NY. Between the two, they keep me pretty busy when I’m not doing films.
What’s your favorite film of all time and what did you learn from it?
If I had to tell you my favorite film of all time, you know what I’m going to say: I love Robert Redford. I love his movies, and I really love the way he directs, I love the way he acts, I love what he’s done socially, so I’m going to go with a person instead of a movie, because there’s so many movies out there that I love and I could list them off to you.
From Out of Africa to The Matrix, Inception, I mean I could just go on and on and on and tell you what I learned from Martin Scorsese, from Casino, from The Departed. It’s just . . . I love it all, but Robert Redford really taught me about how an actor comes into a character one way and leaves another way.
He taught me really how that actor can walk softly and carry a big stick. I really liked his choices in films, I liked his choices as a director. I would say the same thing about Tom Cruise, I love his choices in film, I think he’s a true movie star. I wish that he would direct a little bit, and that’s why he’s not in the same league with Robert Redford, but I truly think he’s a movie star and I love the choices that he has made in his career.
What’s your filmmaking mission, and name the most important thing you want viewers to experience when watching your movies?
Well, my mission is to tell stories – whether it’s products, whether it’s films, whether it’s my own life, my own personal journey. We live in a society now with Instagram, Facebook, websites – we are all telling stories to each other.
For me, it’s teaching people how to bring the camera a little bit lower, to get a little bit more depth, to color something, so that in their story, that they’ve learned something from me in order to tell their story. I’m on my journey, so that I can tell stories, that’s what I care the most about. We are in a different world today because of television, because of Netflix, Amazon, and HBO being almost what television was twenty years ago.
Filmmaking is not the same anymore, you know you have to make an epic like Tenet which is coming out – or maybe it isn’t, yet – or Top Gun 2, which really tells the story of a big personality in an epic world. And that to me, excited me and I would love to be able to do that. Out of Africa was like that, it just was amazing, Robert Redford was amazing, his character was amazing, but really the directing was phenomenal because you really got a sense of the world that they lived in and what Africa was like back then. You know, the greats get the opportunity to be better, maybe one day I’ll get to do that or be part of that community.
What tips do you have for new filmmakers?
Best tip I have for new filmmakers is to understand your vision, hold your vision and understand what you’re doing. What movie you’re making, understand the choices that you make them, don’t second-guess yourself, and make sure that by the time you get to the editing room, you’ve collected what’s in your head enough information that’s in the box, that’s in the lens that you’re going to be able to tell the story that was on paper.
At the end of the day, you’ve got to start with a great script to have a great movie. There’s no way that you can take a bad script and make a good movie out of it, so make sure that your script is telling a good story.
What part of filmmaking do your geek out about the most?
Oh, I mean I geek out the most about franchise films. I’m a fan of the two-hundred million-dollar films that are out there because I’m just blown away that so much money has been spent on those movies, good or bad. I will see the worst two-hundred-million-dollar investment and I’ll see the best two-hundred-million-dollar investment, and they’ll both look the same, and guess what? The difference is the story and character arcs and so, I just love films.