From Wall Street to film and Broadway, Jonathan Baker is making moves throughout the entertainment industry. As a former Sony executive, he’s worked on numerous box office hits, now he takes the plunge into independent filmmaking.
Q: You worked on Wall Street in asset management and then made the switch to the world of entertainment, how did you make the jump into Broadway stage and film?
I grew up on stage performing but stopped when my mother passed away from a stroke when I was twenty. When I graduated from college, I needed to pay the bills and knew I wanted to move to New York because that’s what you do when you love theater as much as I do. I got the job on Wall Street because I was an absolutely terrible waiter and didn’t mind wearing a suite and keeping banking hours. It allowed me to make enough money to survive and then some. I used the extra to put up one-act plays off-off Broadway until I was about to be promoted at the bank. Then my Uncle Tom, my mother’s brother, gave me some great advice. He said, “You start making that kind of money when you’re twenty-three years old, you’ll never leave, you’ll never follow your real dreams.” So, I answered an ad in the New York Times to be the assistant to a famous Broadway producer, and I got that job primarily because I had the bank on my resume. They needed someone who was creative, knew theater, but also wasn’t afraid of math. That was one of my first real breaks in the business.
Things were good until the attacks of 9-11. I had started producing some projects out of the Tribeca Film Center. Needless to say, those fell apart that fateful morning, and I was actually lucky to survive the attacks. It felt like as good a reason as any to give Los Angeles a try. So, I packed up my bags, landed in LA with a place to crash thanks to my Uncle Tom, and applied to all the studios. Sony responded to my resume because they saw banking and Broadway; I had a creative-business hi-bred thing going on. I started as an intern in television research worked my way up. That Sony internship was my second big break in the business. Those two jobs, Broadway theater owner and then the studio, where incredible training grounds for what I do now.
Q: What inspired you to leave your position at Sony to produce on your own?
This goes back to the reason I stopped performing. About five years after my mom passed away, I was in the middle of a breakup and sat down to write a song about it at my piano and realized I had lost my voice. My singing voice… I know it sounds weird, but when I was growing up, that’s all I did. I was that uber musical theater nerd doing show choir and every stage show I could get in my schedule growing up. So, that moment of not being able to hold a song in tune was a really surreal moment for me. It felt like one thing to lose my mother, but it was an entirely different thing to lose the talent she supported the most in my life. So… I went to Time Square, bought a guitar and started to get my voice back by writing songs about what I was going through at the time… and that was a lot. I was in the middle of medical bankruptcy for an accident I had when I didn’t have health insurance. Fast forward about five years. It appeared I had written a musical journal of my experiences in my late twenties, and by the time I was a few years into Sony, that journal had turned in a lot of songs. Writing music at night literally got me through the hardest years of that job. I would go home after a crazy day at the office working on all these huge films and would sit at my rented piano and compose.
Then I was going to be promoted again, and my Uncle Tom’s voice came back into my head. “If you start making that kind of money…”. Well, I took the promotion, I needed the money, but I decided I was going to put it into one of these songs to make a short musical film. I started to build that project and it quickly grew into a tough decision, one job or the other. I left Sony and two weeks later, with Sony’s help, I was shooting a massive musical scene at the studio, running around half naked. (The film’s a self-satire about a guy who has that re-occurring nightmare that he wakes up in public naked… I think we’ve all had that one.) So, that choice was kind of made for me, and it was truly a jumping off point. No net. Total survival instincts from there. And it was one of the hardest and best moments of my life, for sure.
Q: What’s the most challenging part of breaking out on your own?
That’s easy, not knowing where the next paycheck is going to come from. And in this business, you have to spend a lot of your own money to prove yourself. It took me pretty much all the savings I had, twice, to develop what I do. And, even today, I really am a very small part in a very large collaboration, most of the time. Sacrifice and determination are a major part of doing what you love. I don’t know if it’s really for everyone. I don’t have a family; I barely have a social life. But I love what I do, and I’m truly blessed to be able to work on things today that I’m really passionate about a majority of the time.
Q: What has pushed you to keep going in your career / to keep expanding in different areas?
Curiosity. I feel like I’m always learning something new. It’s really never ending. Each story is like that because there’s a new world to dive into, to investigate. And with each project comes new challenges, new parts of the business to learn about. And then there is the relentless pace of technology. That above all else is just mind boggling. When I grew up, I played trombone in orchestra every morning for eight years. It was a big group of about eighty students working together. Now, that work is done on the computer by one very talented composer or producer a lot of the time. Technology effects every layer of the business and while it’s exciting, it can be exhausting to stay current. For that reason, I like being a producer. It’s okay to be a jack of all trades, but a master of none. You have to work with experts who know way more than you do about so many crafts within the business. Hiring people who are the true craftsman and being able to manage personalities or workflow is much easier than diving down any one technology rabbit hole.
Q: What do you believe is the reason for your success is?
I don’t give up. If I say I’m going to do something, I do it. And if I doubt, I’m going to be able to complete something, I don’t put it out there to begin with. I also readily admit when I’ve messed up. I think making mistakes is a big part of learning who you are and playing the odds of any business. I’ve seen a lot of people in this business fail up. They took a risk, and it didn’t work out, but they learned a lot. And that experience is often rewarded more so than what looks like success in this business.
I also came from truly wonderful parents. They definitely stacked the deck in my favor. I never really suffered, outside of being dyslexic. I had a great education, in a safe place in the Midwest to grow up, and really never worried about anything until I had to support myself. And when I did have to do that, it was pretty much one disaster after another, for a while. So, I try to tell anyone that will listen, this artistic thing, takes time to figure out. Sure, some get really lucky right out of the gate, something special happens. But for the vast majority of us, it’s a whole different game. Having mentors who teach you the right information is a big part of it, and I had some very, very special teachers along the way, and still do.
Q: Tell us about your new film Manifest Destiny Down: Spacetime. What inspired this film and what is the backstory?
I spend a lot of time with young creative minds that need a big break. They show up in Hollywood, get into a machine that’s often predatory. They often get churned up and spit out with less money in their pockets then they came with and their hearts broken. As an artistic coach, it’s hard to know when to be encouraging and when to show tough love. Some will make it, some will not, that’s the market and what business isn’t hard core like that? Life isn’t fair. When I met the two stars of this film, they came to see me for vocal coaching. They were each unique and incredibly motivated. Thanks to some special circumstances due to my job producing – an angel financier took interest in my wild first self-satirical musical film Naked: A Guy’s Musical. I had been waiting, with my thumb out hitch-hiking on the road to capital for my ‘first time feature director’ opportunities for ten years. By the grace of this angel, I was offered the trust and just enough capital support to make a small feature… a very small feature. I thought, I’m not going to make the same mistake I made the last time. I need to make this movie about somebody else. And Lexie Lowell and Jeff Kenny were the perfect subjects at the perfect time. They had natural qualities that I felt might make something truly unique, if I could just figure out what it should be.
Lexie Lowell reminded me of Goldie Hawn with the potential of so many colors, expressions, moods, and man – she could really sing. Her original songs on the guitar are melodious and her voice – crystal clear. The fact that she plays the harp, well, that’s all you have to know. She just didn’t have that much experience acting in front of a camera, and she desperately needed a break. Jeff, on the other hand, had been studying all kinds of film and acting for many years and was truly pursuing the American dream. He moved to Hollywood from Russia, was deeply concerned about his accent, and oddly enough was quite a weirdly talented rapper. A speed rapper, no less. I was unfamiliar with the Russian genre, but I wasn’t that into rap to begin with, so what. But somehow, that was the spark. A Russian rapper and a folk singer – stuck together against their will.
Now due to the budget constraints I knew we had to get creative. There was no way we were going to get very far with the money we had and have it be anything interesting without thinking WAY outside the box. So, my mind went into standard operating territory, producer brain. We needed to contain the story to as few locations as possible. A dorm, a car ride… can it go nowhere? and… yeah, back to the dorm. Sure… But why? Oh, and we need it to just be them. We can’t afford any other bodies on camera. Then the concept dawned on me. Two kids missed the evacuation of earth due to Trump’s policies (he wasn’t even elected at the time, so this was an unimaginable doomsday farce at first). The kids have to figure out how to get caught up with society and, oh yeah, what happened along the way. It being a two-hander, I thought it was best to build off of Jeff and Lexie’s personalities and backgrounds so they could easily connect with the material and characters. They were totally different to begin with. While they are each brilliantly smart, they were just on the opposite sides of reality, sort of speak. Jeff’s father was a physicist in Russia and that led to months of discussing Jeff’s personal fascination with Quantum Mechanics, which I knew nothing about. Lexie’s Catholic school upbringing turned USC sorority hottie, while the more extreme plot details in the film are truly exaggerated and some not true at all, for her personally, felt like satire central. So, the awkward theoretical physicist loses his virginity to a hot sorority girl idea was born. And then, from there, the writing became more personal for me…
I grew up in the Midwest and was raised by two parents, one agnostic and one very devout Christian. I went on to study religion in college and have been fascinated by mankind’s search for the meaning of life ever since. It wasn’t until interviewing Jeff that I was introduced to Quantum Mechanics and the most current physics that is so mind boggling it defies logic. From Einstein’s general theory of relativity to the particle physics making headlines today, what I missed in school growing up being a musical theater nerd was just embarrassing. Is it me, or does science and religion actually sound closer to getting along than ever?!”
So, Jeff and I set out to make a Quantum Physics for Dummies movie. The science defies logical. Like: “Time in an illusion.” And, “your observation effects the outcome…” It feels absurd and satirizes our very sense of reality. I thought it would be an interesting challenge because cinema itself, and especially our Hollywood western rules of story seemed at stake. So, MDD Spacetime sometimes spoofs Hollywood, sometimes it is the actors that inspired the script itself. I was taught by Don Richardson that comedy is serious stuff. The philosophical nature of the QM science reminded me of postmodern theatre, like Waiting for Godot. Painfully existential. So, this crazy film will be painful to watch for some, funnily enough, that’s actually on purpose. I’m sorry. It’s not normal hero structure, definitely on the fringe, a mix of mini and anti-plot for those who take story seriously and I fully accept a lot of people won’t get most of it. QM as they say, isn’t meant to be understood, and if you think you do… you don’t. Don’t worry, I know I don’t get the real science either. Rather, I hope a few in the audiences can just give into the absurdity and have a little fun. Laughing at ourselves is good. Our pursuit of the unknowable stuff is admirable, and we definitely need the real scientists to save the planet. I think the only thing we artists can really do while the serious lifting is done by those with particle physics knowledge is, try to help humanity not miss the point. Without love in our hearts towards each other… we’re all kind of lost to repeat the lessons of life again and again.
Q: What excites you most about producing / directing a film?
It’s such a huge collaboration and feels like riding a bucking bronco most of the time. Every day is different, every project is different. So, it isn’t boring, I’ll say that much. Every part of the process is its own exciting challenge as well.
Q: What’s the most challenging part of producing / directing? – And how do you get through those challenges / what do you to overcome those challenges?
It can be hard to keep perspective on what’s most important at any given moment. There are so many creative decisions stacked on top of each other, with so many creative thinkers running with their own departments and their own expertise. I am not a micro manager and like to have a team that can really work in sync to create something special and unique. Telling stories at this level definitely brings up Aristotle’s “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” So, there’s a tricky balance between letting go, and staying on top of things that really need to get done and done well.
My producing partner and I like to go with the flow. We definitely live by the axiom whatever happens is meant to happen. And we’re both athletic types. I try to work out every day even when we’re shooting. Without some exercise to take my mind off of things I would drown in all the noise. Working out helps me get into a meditative state and stay calm in the middle of the storm.
We also don’t rush things. After all this time in the business, I really value taking as much time as possible to try to do things right the first time. Anyone who is in a rush to do something, I tend to let pass me by. That frenetic pace is just not the way usually.
And then there’s capital. Getting familiar with how ideas and capital find each other is a big part of the way. Having a sense of who you are is key. Are you the talent or the money, or do you represent both in the equation? I think a lot of us feel like we spend a lot of our time dealing with business deals a majority of the time and less on the craft itself. This is challenging and can be tiring. So, having creative outlets that don’t really fall into the business is important. Also, having partnerships that don’t get stuck in the negotiation mire is really helpful. Choosing your partners based on integrity first often saves you a lot of money in lawyers. Make fair deals, good for all parties involved, and things tend to work out for the best. Money is not everything. Often it can be more of the issue in getting anything meaningful done.
Q: Can you explain the alias “BoD”?
BoD is a spiritual reference to Buddhism’s Bodhi Tree and Bodhisattva. It was the name of my puppy that was hit by a car while I was finishing Manifest Destiny Down: Spacetime. He alone kept me company when I was editing the film for about a year. When he died, I decided to use his name because I felt like the movie was one giant lesson for me: put other’s interests first. This film was really a work meant to showcase the two stars – and explore the absurdity of our existence. I wore so many hats it started to feel ridiculous and I didn’t want it to be about me. I rarely do all of those jobs at once. But, for this project, it also felt like a way to hint at the deeper side of the film’s spiritual message. I think the name is going to stick around now.
Q: If you could tell yourself something 10 years ago to remember going forward in this industry, what would it be?
Relax. This is a marathon, not a sprint. And whatever you do, do not betray yourself.
So many young people are so driven, and so ambitious, they often put the cart before the horse. I was one of those types. I was also lost, mourning the loss of my mother for years, and not quite sure how to be myself anymore. Life has a way of knocking you so hard you lose your bearings and then forget who you really are, or who you always wanted to become. I stressed out most of my twenties. When I first arrived in LA, I had to grocery shop at the 99 Cent store because between 9-11 and my previous injury, I was completely upside down. I thought I was a total failure, and in many ways, I was. But that didn’t define my value as a human any more than it does today that some people think I’m successful. The lessons I learned during that time truly carved my character and I wouldn’t trade them for anything in the world now, a painful as they were.
I think our view is often too short. Look long, like really long. And that will help in the middle of things when they really, really look bad. What’s happen right now does not define you. Don’t let it.
Q: What is the best advice you have ever received for your career?
Don’t go to school for something you’re already doing. Experience matters more than anything.
This is a funny truism and a bit of a paradox today. I started producing and directing shows in high school. The only difference now in a lot of ways is just the amount of money on the line. But getting good mentorship is everything to grow your craft. So, education becomes a question.
There are a lot of educational programs out there that are really not great. They don’t teach what they really should for the degree that they’re doling out. There are some that are good. Those can be wildly expensive. I find the entertainment education business truly predatory a lot of the time. There’s false information, people who claim to know something that they’re only marginally good at, or have some talent at, but were never really professionals. It’s a very, very dark side of our sector because young people’s dreams are truly on the line and their age and time horizon is actually the most valuable part of the equation.
I teach at two reputable universities myself that work hard to make sure there is real value in the lessons and the professors are professionals. But beyond that, one of the greatest values is the internship placement programs. The industry has really shifted in the last ten years and most big firms will not hire interns who are not in a graduate program, for liability reasons. So, talk about paying your dues… It’s a tough job market to say the least.
Some things in this business also tend to work best if you just go right to the person doing the job you want to do and ask to work for free just to get experience. On the job training in this business can be everything.
Q: Now that you have three upcoming Broadway shows and three upcoming films, what is next?
I have some television shows in development that I’m excited about. I still have an album I’ve been working on for years that I’ll probably drop when I’m dead. My next feature film project Private Sky is starting up which tells the story of my NY twenties and early Hollywood days. It’s an animation which is really liberating. I met the artist doing the animations that are in Manifest Destiny Down: Spacetime. This film is definitely special territory for me, in the works for almost twenty years, and is now in two parts.
Q: What advice do you want to share with aspiring producers, directors, and actors?
These jobs are all surprisingly interconnected. In order to succeed at one of them, you need to know about the others, and vice versa. So, educating yourself about each lane on the highway really makes you a better driver overall. Nothing should really be off your radar of curiosity. The more you see it from other people’s perspectives, the more you can help them do the best job they can do for themselves and the greater good of the project. Everything in this business is a team sport. No star stands alone without a giant group of talented professionals behind them.
Jonathan Baker is making his way through the world of entertainment. A man of many talents, a creative type, he is a writer, producer, director and performer. He recently wrapped the feature film Sylvie, starring Tessa Thompson, he produced The Banker starring Samuel L. Jackson and Nicholas Hoult, which just sold to Apple, with his partner Nnamdi Asomugha. And his directorial debut Manifest Destiny Down: Spacetime (which he directed under the pseudonym BoD), will be released this October.With three new Broadway shows in the works, including August Rush, The Harder They Come and Spamalot it is evident that Jonathan is one of the most multifaceted individuals to breakthrough in film and theater.
Prior to independent filmmaking, Jonathan was an Executive at Sony Pictures Entertainment having worked on large scale franchises such as Resident Evil, Underworld and Spiderman. He’s executive produced the Sundance Award winning film Crown Heights along with the musical feature Basmati Blues, with Brie Larson. Additionally, he worked on the #1 box office sellers Boogeyman and You Got Served. Outside of industry work, Jonathan explores academia as an adjunct instructor of feature film entertainment economics through a Master’s program at Carnegie Mellon. He also teaches at GIOCA, a graduate program at the University of Bologna, Italy.