It seems as though Jonathan Baker has “done it all”. He has played a very important role in films, as a writer, actor, director and producer. He has a line of personal care products including pure aromatherapy products. He owns The Maidstone Hotel in the Hamptons, (which has just reopened.) And for something completely different, Baker bought Warren Beatty’s house and has meticulously renovated it. His biography (https://www.imdb.com/name/nm1642866/bio?ref_=nm_ov_bio_sm) shares that he is noted for saying ‘I can wave my hand and make the impossible happen”. Please read on to learn more about this fascinating individual who is devoted to “telling the story”.
Interviewer: So growing up in New York, what was it that attracted you to film rather than theatre?
Baker: I was always attracted to acting—film OR theatre—because I was stuck on an island! I always wondered what was going on off Manhattan, so it was movie theaters and five and dime stores that allowed me to explore other cultures and other people, and more importantly, to see what it all looks like through the lens of somebody else. You know, when I’d see something like in a James Bond film, an establishing shot of a multi-million dollar yacht on the sea and behind it is beautiful Changi on the South China Sea…so movies just allowed me to kind of dream.
Interviewer: What was there about USC that inspired you to move to LA?
Baker: Well, I originally took classes at NYU and then wanted to come to California because California when I came here was a much different place: it’s much more urban now. When I came, it was a lot more surf, sand, music and film. Going to NYU gave me a base to think about what I wanted to film, and when I got to USC and joined their famous film department, I met a lot of people in school that influenced me because, that’s the way movies evolved in school, through collaboration. There was a program there called the Peter Stark program, and I wanted to take it so bad but they wouldn’t let me take it. So, I took it anyway, uncredited, and it shaped my business sense of the movie world.
Interviewer: What was your goal when you headed to USC?
Baker: Well, I had my eyes focused on the Peter Stark Producing Program. And, I just got a lot out of it, doing a thesis on film and business was where my baseline was, and then went into writing and directing. But I always wanted to be a producer first. When I was around 22, my last year in school, Robert Evans told me that I need to own what I develop. I was playing poker with him at his house, and he told me, “You’re gonna need to own your property, or they’re gonna steal it right from under you” and this was my biggest fear. He continues, “You have two choices: you can either write your own stuff, or you can option other people’s stuff.” I thought well, I don’t want to option anybody else’s stuff; they’re just going to tell me what to do. That’s when I went searching for writing partners, and found Michael Buhlman. I’ve known Michael, who I wrote FATE and ICON with, since 1986.
Interviewer: So, tell me about your spa business.
Baker: So, Skin spa originated because I fell in love with hot springs on road trips. You know, this is before massages and facials were even popular back in 1994. I would take all these road trips and find the hot springs in California and found out where every single one of them were, and that was my go-to, three-day vacation. So, when I went to Italy, and I saw that massage had become the spa industry there in the hotels, I thought well maybe I bring it back to California, and when the writers’ strike happened, I wrote a brochure for a spa. And from that point on I thought, you know what? This is a great calling card for this industry, because if I give away some spa services to actors then they’ll want to work for you. A lot of celebrities went through the door of Skin Spa–maybe 100 or more. Well, some of them worked for me but most of them became my friends.
Interviewer: So, what’s it like being on reality TV shows? Are they acting in the traditional sense? And how has reality TV changed since you were doing it?
Baker: So, when I got into reality television—and I usually kind of don’t like to talk about it cause it’s kind of an ugly stepchild of my life—but here we are. I did it because it was like going to camp and being kind of the bad kid. When I saw Survivor in 2001, I just went crazy–did a lot of research on them, I wrote a lot of papers, I became an expert. I actually created a reality show media property called The Reality Minute (www.realityminute.com). We did Amazing Race, we did Survivor, we did The Apprentice—but it all stems from Real World. I wanted to be on Real World, but I was just too old.
So, when I got on reality television, the first thing I ever did was the Amazing Race. Before that, I’d had been E! Network and VH1 with the spa because all the celebrities were coming in and then I jumped to reality television when I saw Survivor When I tried to go on it, they just didn’t want me. They thought “you’re not going to win,” and I kept telling them I didn’t want to win, I just wanted to go on the show because I thought it was the adventure of a lifetime. Then I tried to put my then ex-wife [Victoria Fuller] on Survivor, and she got all the way up the ladder to Les Moonves and at the very last moment, something happened and they replaced her. I was really upset. So I then saw the Amazing Race was coming up. They had just filmed Season 4 and season 5 was taping at that point, and I went in and they loved me. I was playing a Survivor character on Amazing Race and it kind of bit me in the butt because in reality TV during my time, you never broke the fourth wall, you knew the cameras were there but you never ever looked at them. But when I got on there I did everything; I broke the fourth wall, which you’ll see in my episodes. They said, “We don’t do spitting, cursing, we don’t yell, we don’t do any of that,” and I kind of broke all that rule. And because I had a production background, I knew where every single camera was. I knew what was going on at every moment, whether I was racing or filming, because I had a business, producing and directing helmet, even thought I was the actor at that point. And so, they asked me, “Johnathan watch the message boards.” And I didn’t. And I said I didn’t, and I wish to this day that I broke that rule, and watched the message board, because they told me you can’t do it, or you won’t be able to go on the show. So, my best friend James Van Patten and I applied to be on the show, and they said, “You guys are too good, you’re too slick, we need a better story,” and that’s when we thought, “Okay Victoria, let’s give you a shot,” and that was it. She went on Amazing Race with me on Season 6.
Interviewer: Is there one aspect of the film work you do—acting, directing, producing—that you prefer to the other things that you have done?
Baker: I love every aspect of the movie business. I love producing because you get to put the best deals together, I love writing because I love to tell stories, and I really like to enter a world and exit a world of my own imagination. I direct because I’m more of a control freak. I’m afraid if I give up producing or writing somebody’s going to butcher my work or my imagination. I like film marketing, I like to tour with my films and promote them. Just last night I saw INCONCEIVABLE on Lifetime—and it’s been playing every week—and my phone blew up and I thought WOW I didn’t think it was going to get a third life, and here it is two years to the day after it came out, June 30th, and today FORCE OF NATURE comes out with Mel Gibson, which I executive produced.
Interviewer: So, you have so many irons in the fire, how do you maintain your focus and energy?
Baker: I’ve got a great imagination and I love to diversify, but more importantly it’s kind of like a white light. I love to create different things—like the Johnathan Baker beauty line I’m developing. I have a team of people, we work really hard, and then they go off and they instigate what it is that’s needed and then they come back, and we work for days on it and they go back again. It’s the same thing with movies, you know what, it all comes down at once, but it’s really years in the making, everything is years in the making. Every movie that I do, every deal that I make, everything that I do—including in my private life—is just advance planning.
Interviewer: So, from your current vantage point and with the experience with all the directors you’ve worked with on BECOMING ICONIC, what would have advised yourself as you began as a director?
Baker: Well, some of this advice is what I derived from the folks like John Badham, Jodie Foster, Taylor Hackford and Adrian Lyne. I would tell myself to be fluid and don’t get married to anything in particular besides the base journey that you’re telling the story from, and make sure that you listen to what your actors have to say. Film is an actors medium. If it’s the directors medium, you could get a bad movie because fifty percent of what’s on screen is performance and you know, don’t give up. Directing is really hard, it’s just a beautiful mistake if you get it right, and if you get it wrong, it’s just hard to sit in the saddle. So: be tenacious.
Be sure to watch for Part II – coming soon