Jonathan Baker: Making a Film Against All Odds

“Inconceivable” is a psychological thriller which stars Nicholas Cage, Gina Gershon, and Faye Dunaway
Jonathan Baker and Jenny Ljungberg got ready for a bicycle ride with Maddie, their daughter, outside the Maidstone Hotel in East Hampton, which they own. Durell Godfrey

Jonathan Baker is nothing if not resourceful. A film director and writer, he didn’t just wait it out when a writer’s strike crippled the industry in the 1980s. Instead he asked himself what he could provide for the citizens of Hollywood that they didn’t already have. 

A longtime lover of sulphur baths and road trips, he had relaxed for 30 years in the same hot tub at Esalen Institute in Big Sur as Steve McQueen. A photograph of the movie star in that tub hangs in the dining room in the Maidstone Hotel in East Hampton, which Mr. Baker owns with his wife, Jenny Ljungberg. 

“There were only 40 day spas in the entire country when I started,” he said recently in a conversation at the hotel. In 1992, he launched SkinSpa, which became one of the leading full-service day spas in this country, with locations including New York and Los Angeles before he sold the brand.

Mr. Baker was 6 when his father left his family in New York City. He said he became a self-styled street kid and “very smart beyond my years.” He then worked in various parts of the film business, including home video, but his goal was always to direct. 

“Inconceivable,” his first feature film as director, which stars Nicholas Cage, Gina Gershon, and Faye Dunaway, will be released nationally tomorrow. The culmination of his career so far, it did not come to fruition easily.

The project began when Lionsgate, one of the industry’s top marketing and distribution companies, offered him a pile of scripts. “I said, ‘I have my own scripts,’ and they said, ‘You have to do one of ours before you can do one of yours.’ But nothing they had resonated with me.” Finally, “Inconceivable” by Chloe King came off the shelf. Subsequently Ms. King rewrote the script twice while Mr. Baker did so nine times, three of them on the set.

“Everybody said I was crazy. Agents would say to me, ‘You want my client, but can you direct?’ After enough of that I decided to knock on the doors of the best filmmakers in the business and see if I could get something I was missing.”

The result was a hybrid documentary titled “Becoming Iconic,” which alternates interviews with top directors who talk about making their first features with footage of Mr. Baker strolling the streets of New York City and the lanes and beaches of East Hampton while reflecting on his life and career.

The directors Jodie Foster, Taylor Hackford, Adrian Lyne, and John Badham speak honestly about the difficulties they encountered at first, experiences that one might expect to deter most would-be filmmakers. Mr. Cage and Ms. Dunaway also testify to Mr. Baker’s talent as a director. 

At one point in the documentary, Mr. Baker says the most important advice came from the actor Warren Beatty, whose Beverly Hills house Mr. Baker and Ms. Ljungberg purchased in 2012. “Warren said, ‘The good director does one thing — makes a decision quickly and stands by it.’ And I can do that,” Mr. Baker said. “Becoming Iconic” will tour the world’s film festivals, starting in September.

Many battles were fought during pre-production of “Inconceivable,” Mr. Baker said. Directors are usually given anywhere from 40 to 60 days to shoot a feature film. He was allotted three-and-a-half weeks, which was subsequently reduced to 15 days. He was told to shoot 14 pages a day. “A TV show is seven pages a day, a fast movie is five pages, and a feature is three. My vision was big; theirs was small.”

Originally, Mr. Baker wanted to shoot in East Hampton. “I spend the summers here, I love the architecture, the landscape. I wanted to shoot in the hotel, I wanted to promote the Hamptons.” It didn’t work out, and production was moved to Ohio.

“Inconceivable” is a psychological thriller focused on the shifting relationship between Angie (Ms. Gershon), who has a child named Cora and is pregnant with another, and Katy (Nicky Whelan), a single mother newly arrived in town whom Angie befriends and eventually hires as a nanny. 

Angie and her husband, Brian (Mr. Cage), live on a beautiful estate and seem to have a bucolic life — except for four miscarriages that have thwarted their hope for a second child. Issues related to in-vitro fertilization, infidelity, and surrogate motherhood propel the twists and turns of the story.

“I wanted to make a movie about women for women,” Mr. Baker said. “I was asked, ‘Who’s the man?’ I said, ‘We don’t need a man.’ They said, ‘We need a man.’ So I had to find an actor who would work. It wasn’t easy to find one to play a character who was secondary to the two women.”

While several notable actors were approached, Mr. Cage was always Mr. Baker’s first choice. An Oscar-winner for “Leaving Las Vegas,” Mr. Cage once described his acting as “nouveau shamanic.” The late film critic Robert Ebert characterized his style as “operatic.” 

Quickly apparent while watching the film is Mr. Cage’s restraint. Brian is soft-spoken and even-tempered, leaving the fireworks to the female protagonists. “Nick got it really quickly. The idea about his character was to build up slowly, make him present but not too present, and give him a pop at the end.”

Though a first-time director, Mr. Baker said it wasn’t a problem working with two Oscar-winners, Mr. Cage and Ms. Dunaway, and Gina Gershon, an actress with 30 years of film and television credits. “A lot of directors hate the actors. I love them. It’s all about taking a moment of creativity and making it shine.”

Mr. Baker gave himself a secondary role in the movie as Angie’s gynecologist. “Was I stiff? Yes. But I was able to get the actors’ attention by putting myself between them. They knew I could possibly ruin their scene if I didn’t get what I wanted from them.” 

Mr. Baker and Ms. Ljungberg have been together seven years and have two daughters, one of whom, Maddie, plays one of the two children in “Inconceivable.” Their recent renovation of the Maidstone, previously called c/o the Maidstone, has included doubling the size of the bar and bringing back the piano. In what sounds like a nod to the Carlyle, he said, “We’ll have champagne at the bar and music that’s classic.”

Mr. Baker’s production company has also launched the Baker Film Fund for low and micro-budget films. “It’s not about developing new films; it’s about helping people finish their projects. We make decisions based on the filmmakers’ needs and what they’ve done for their communities. At the end of the day, it’s all about content. End of story.”

Gina Gershon, right, sends a quizzical look at Faye Dunaway, who plays her mother-in-law, in “Inconceivable.”