Title: Becoming Iconic: Jonathan Baker
Director: Neal Thibedeau
Cast: John Badham, Jonathan Baker, Warren Beatty, Nicolas Cage, Faye Dunaway, Jodie Foster, Taylor Hackford, and Adrian Lyne
Movie length: 1 hours 25 minutes
The film industry – particularly America’s film industry – is notorious for being difficult to break into. Many have tried, and few have succeeded, but perhaps one of the toughest roles to succeed in is the director’s chair. Whether one’s background is in acting, producing, or something entirely unrelated to film, there will always be common struggles for the first-time director: troubles with funding, time constraints, and studio pushback are among the most well-known. However, many directors can and do testify to other severe and chaotic learning experiences they encounter during their first time in the chair, and Jonathan Baker’s Becoming Iconic is a documentary focused on the uniqueness of just that experience. Featuring lengthy, fascinating interviews with successful directors, Iconic tells a story that is both thrilling in its content and stunning in its frankness about the hardships therein. Baker uses his recent experience directing a feature for the first time (Lionsgate Premiere’s 2017 release Inconceivable starring Gina Gershon, Faye Dunaway, Nicolas Cage, and Nicky Whelan), as well as stories from a host of other film makers about their first times.
It’s incredibly easy to romanticize the idea of one’s directorial debut, but the reality is that there is distinct lack of material in academic or cinephilic spaces that expands on what it’s like to direct a feature for the first time. For those feeling the pain of that lack, this documentary is 1000% for you. Without spoiling too much, it’s very easy to identify desired audience for this film, and that is absolutely a compliment. Baker is deliberate in his attempts to open a door into the secret anecdotes of directors that expose how truly universal the fear, uncertainty, and exhaustion is during a freshman film venture. It’s clear that he hopes to inspire the aspiring and grant cinephiles or film students more access to The Greats, but it’s also apparent that Iconic is meant to encourage those who meet with the sometimes crushing responsibility that comes with being a leader on set. More importantly, he seems to understand that, by revealing how hard even the most privileged individual can have it as a director, a great swell of relief is provided to the inexperienced by providing them these stories. As Baker’s long-time friend Warren Beatty puts it in the film, all directors have to “eat shit,” and good gracious did Baker have to deal with a mountain of crap while directing Inconceivable.
Some of Iconic’s best moments are difficult ones for Baker to recall or retell. At one point in the film, amidst immense strain and unfair stipulations coming from the studio, he calls his mother after a year of estranged silence, and his stress bubbles straight to the surface while he cries on the line with her. Such a moment of vulnerability is something other makers might try obscure, but Jonathan leans into the struggle as the meat of his piece. He can’t point to any specific point of conflict that accounts for the difficulties he faced – he likely can’t blame racism or sexism for the egregious pushback he faced from studios. He can’t even blame the lack of faith he was met with on a lack of experience – Baker has been a successful producer for years, and one would think that such a history of success would afford some trust. Instead, the studio bombards him with bizarre time constraints, multiple babysitters, and some trite penny pinching.
Baker is a man who has had a significant career already, but he is also a perpetual aspirer – even now, having produced, directed, written and acted, he is in the process of moving into a fashion space as another form of artistic expression. Iconic differs from the rest of his work because it allows him to share the knowledge of filmmaking he has spent his whole life accruing up until now. In particular, it gives insight into the balance of blame that seems to weigh down a director with a double standard of responsibility. If a picture succeeds, it’s because the director and crew accomplished as a team. When a picture fails, blame regularly falls solely onto the director, and that outcome is the nightmare that haunts them all. Is it an unfair standard of gatekeeping that limits directors to one outing – the first and potentially weakest an artist can offer – before calling yay or nay on the possibility of a career? Or is it overwhelming oversaturation of artists that leaves so many in the dust after a single try? What does corporate influence signal about the potential Death of Hollywood? Is immortality achievable purely by nature of being a storyteller? These questions and more are addressed in the film, and though some may not have conclusive answers, the posing of the question seems to be Baker’s chief aim. Moreover, realistic advice, valuable philosophies, and simple mantras abound in the film. Film students, rejoice!
It’s also impossible to look at Iconic as anything less than a love story, especially given Baker’s statement in the film (and in person) that he firmly believes all film to be inherently romantic. It’s as much a type of biography as it is a chronology of his first directorial outing. We see the New York neighborhoods he grew up in, dissect his family life, and break down his modes of perception when he encounters the world around him. To Baker, the artist’s relationship to expression is nothing short of romance at its finest, and this reviewer couldn’t agree more. This documentary is so clearly about Baker’s love affair with storytelling. Even amidst all the educational gold in the film, there is an emotional through-line informed by Baker’s love for the film industry, for Hollywoodland, and for the many fabulous artists he’s been able to befriend.
Becoming Iconic’s easy nature of the anecdotes shared pairs well with the blunt descriptions of everything from difficult actors to, “being in a state of constant paranoia,” around crew, as described by Adrian Lyne, director of Foxes. In fact, there’s a delightful twist towards the end that reveals exactly why the interviewees may have been so candid about their experiences. A particularly fascinating section focuses on the chosen metaphors these individuals have for the first-time experience. For instance one of the directors interviewed said a director’s first time is very much, “like the first time you have sex.” For Jodie Foster, director of Little Man Tate, it’s more like learning to be a “good parent.” In Baker’s experience, an imminent storm on the horizon best describes the work; as the clouds draw nigh, so does the terror. And yet, what can he do but continue to pursue?
Love for storytelling is all-consuming, and even amidst the strain and stress, all of the directors featured seem to agree that they love what they do – even if the job has to come with eating some shit. Hopefully, someday, that won’t always be the case.
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