The iconic man

Jonathan Baker on Becoming Iconic and Inconceivable

by Jennie Kermode

Becoming Iconic
Becoming Iconic

One thing one learns very quickly as a film journalist is that it's impossible to please everybody. One's first duty has to be to the truth as one sees it; then to the readers; then to the wider industry. With this in mind, it's impossible to go back and change reviews if filmmakers are unhappy about them. But we strive to be fair, so when Inconceivable director Jonathan Baker got in touch to say he was unhappy about my review of Becoming Iconic, a film about filmmaking, his career and the people who inspired him, I offered him the chance to talk about it and put his side of the story. I began by asking him how the project began.

"Warren Beatty was a friend of mine, a mentor, and I would use him as a sounding board," he says. "He would give me such crazy answers all the time, you know? That directing was easier than it really is, and being him and being a superstar with all that type of knowledge and experience, you don’t really look back and think, 'Well, how hard was it to get started?' Because he had it very charmed. So he and I would have conversations all the time and then I would get to the agencies which were the guardkeepers of this industry and they would always ask ‘Johnathan, can you direct?’ And I would be like, wait a second, you know? Warren’s telling me I can direct, I went to school, I should be able to direct. Why do you keep asking me if I can direct? And literally every agency would do this. So finally, I wonder if what Warren is saying is true.

"So I decided to go out and trawl the industry, you know, Jodie Foster, Adrian Lyne... I put out a very wide blanket to see who would want to talk to me about my journey – about what their journey was in relation to my journey. And what was more important was that I could actually get the answer, from these incredible talents, of what they thought directing really was.

"Obviously, technical directing, you go to school, you lens the camera, you set it up, you do some lighting – that’s obvious. You have to know the nuts and the bolts. But really, what is the perspective and the vision of directing? And so as I was doing these interviews I really was gaining all the knowledge I possibly could... Warren was telling me as much as he could and then all these other directors started to tell me where they were and I was like, wow, this is a wealth of knowledge. John Bedham was telling me about actors and Taylor Hackford was telling me about preparation and Jodie Foster was telling me about her experience of how she crossed over from being an actor to being a director.

Inconceivable
Inconceivable

"I just fell in love with the journey of their interviews and, you know, I think my mother would say ‘But are you ever going to shoot the film?’ and I’d be like ‘But I’m having too much fun.’ Really moving through the experience and learning and really taking these amazing directors’ knowledge and making it simmer in myself. I mean, obviously I don’t really need any of them to tell me how to direct, but all of them gave something to think about. And where you make a decision, you make a decision with a vision in mind. And what you don’t understand sometimes are the black holes like in any industry you might come up upon. And all of the directors gave me such infinite understanding of the black holes that I was able to try and sidestep some of them.

"It doesn’t make a difference if I was my directors that I interviewed or if it was 12 others... you know, I could have Francis Ford Coppola, I could have had Steven Spielberg, and they would have given me an entirely different palette to think from. And being, you know, experienced or not experienced, I think that when you go back and you look at, like, Steven Spielberg and what he did when he was first starting out – there’s a documentary called Spielberg out there and when I watched it, sometime after Becoming Iconic was in the can, he had his team of people that he did what I did. Mine was just the instinct to try to figure out how to find these black holes. He had George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, these were his Becoming Iconic people.”

I ask how he applied this knowlege when he came to direct Inconceivable.

“Everybody came with something that they loved the most... Taylor Hackfrod dealt with how to prepare for a movie. Adrian Lyne was about how to light the movie and how to get the movie done and sidestep the producers because they didn’t care about it, and how to be there at the end of the movie. I had a vision, and inside of my vision, I mean, Inconceivable was a very different movie. I believe that what was written on the page is what shows up onscreen but one of my big problems with Inconceivable was that the studio wanted to do it in a small house and I wanted to do it in a big house. The studio wanted to do it in a doctor’s office, I wanted to do it in a hospital...

"Directors don’t have the power that they once had. Today you have to be a person that truly understands why you want to make a decision. A lot of my decisions were made because of one, what I saw from the script to the screen but more importantly what I heard from the directors to the agencies, and what success looks like to them. Remember, what you see in the movie [Becoming Iconic] is just excerpts. I sat with them for hours in time. And so I have all that information on tape and we gave them the questions written so that they could respond that way to us.”

Something that Becoming Iconic doesn’t show much of, I note, is Jonathan’s own learning journey as he made Inconceivable. How much does he feel that he developed as a director during that film?

Becoming Iconic poster
Becoming Iconic poster

“You know I’m in the intimacy part of my own journey that took me a long time to get to ground zero. I think the next pictures that I do will have a different flavour to them because now I know what they mean by ‘Can you direct?’ Which is, really, ‘Can you hold the line? Can you create a vision and enforce your staff, who could be in the hundreds, to get that vision done, and not lose your mind at the same time. Because you have so many different moving pieces out there. That to me is what directing is all about. You gotta be a good multi-tasker. You have to be able to come up with an answer really quickly about a situation that, you know, probably is more due to having a conversation about, and it’s almost like a general in an army or a conductor in an orchestra. You’ve gotta know where exactly to place what you’re about to do and take full responsibility for it.

“Once you move into your journey, it all happens. Then you get what you’ve got... I was beat up by the press on Inconceivable because I didn’t make it really thriller, really drama, and I didn’t want to. What you see on Inconceivable is 95% what I wanted the movie to be.”

If he wasn’t wanting to approach it as a thriller, which were the most important aspects of it as a film, to him?

He pauses. “Well, being a first time director, it was the control. It was being able to step anywhere in the production and be able to expect and demand what it is that you are to execute. When you’re a first time director, you know, they want to give you what you want and say ‘You know what, it’s all on your shoulders, you’re doing what you’re doing but we’re just gonna put this safety net up here.’ And, you know, sometimes it gets too close to actually wanting to make the decisions. Because everything is a negotiation... with the producers, the studio, your crew, and, you know, they want to believe that you have the ability to make the movie but, you know, they’re putting their name on it too.”

Trying to get things back on track, I ask if there was a particular direction that he wanted to take the film in.

Again he pauses. “it’s a journey. It’s a journey of love in order to get to a point that, number one, they told me what their answers were, two, I showed what my answers were. It just so happens that I wound up in a situation with the studio where nobody was home. Literally, it was like the bond company became the mafia. Basically, they locked you into a bond company and the bond company says ‘Well, you must do this, this, this and this, this and this and this. And you’re like ‘But that’s not in my vision.’ They’re like, ‘Well, we need to bond that on the script.’ And I didn’t know that that’s how they were doing it, and so I let them lock the script with a little bit of vagueness, think ‘I’m the director, I’ll fill it in.’ And at the end of the day they’re like ‘Nope. If it’s not on the page you can’t do it.’”

I ask if he’ll be negotiating that more carefully before he goes into another film.

“Yeah. I mean, I’m pretty good at negotiating stuff. I guess it was the black holes that I ran into. But yeah, I will make sure that the bond company go into it in line with the movie that I wanna make. They knew what movie I wanted to make. That’s why this whole thing became kind of what it was and I turned the cameras on. Because I felt like, hey, if it’s gonna be my vision or it’s not gonna be my vision, I want the truth to be told. And I was very polite about the way that I told their story. Because the industry needs to be protected at some level.

“Working in this industry can only be about one thing, and that’s the vision of what you’re doing. If you take anything else into account, you lose not only your perspective but you lose your footing. And it’s really important that as a filmmaker you stay true to why you’re putting millions of dollars into a script and a vision.”

Does he hope that Becoming Iconic will help other new filmmakers in that kind of situation?

“I think that Becoming Iconic is like 101 for filmmakers that really want to know the truth. I think that every college in America and I think that every person with a fantasy of making movies, I think... sometimes you get a perfect storm and it all happens perfectly. Other times you’re the golden child. It happens perfectly. Sometimes you just make a movie and nobody ever sees it and it’s a brilliant movie. What I did was create a 360 degree of myself. It said ‘Here I am as a producer, as a writer, as an actor, and as an independent and a studio person. When you put that in the pot and you stir it all up, this is what it could possibly look like. Not everybody’s going to have my experience because they don’t have my temperament, but, you know, if there’s one thing that you have to stay true to, as a first time filmmaker, it is why you’re doing it.”

Jonathan is now working on a love story and another film about “a soul that comes into America in 1929 and it haunts four generations of a family until the last generation becomes a rock star.” He wants his films to have a message, he says.

“It’s amazing to me how much diversity is in the world when people watch a film and what they have to say about that film. Good, bad of indifferent, because me, I don’t care. They can hate me... Maybe this interview will give people something they can take away that will help them, something inspirational. It’s so important in the world today to be inspirational. And so few people are.”

Becoming Iconic is released in the US on 31 July.

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