Director Jay Bulger On His New Documentary, Beware of Mr. Baker
Jay Bulger's Beware of Mr. Baker tells the story of legendary drummer Peter Edward "Ginger" Baker, from hiding out during World War II air raids to playing in the supergroups Cream and Blind Faith with Eric Clapton; performing with Fela Kuti in Lagos and opening a polo club in Colorado; playing himself on a Hollywood cop show and settling down in South Africa with his decades-younger fourth wife. After Bulger, a former international model and amateur boxer, saw the forty-year-old documentary Ginger Baker in Africa and resolved to track down the drummer, which he did under the false pretense that he was a journalist from Rolling Stone. When that publication ended up running Bulger's piece, he returned to South Africa to shoot more footage, developing a rapport with the fiery drummer.
Baker, a longtime heroin addict and absentee father who beat up Cream bassist Jack Bruce onstage, comes off as something of a selfish prick. And that's not to mention the endless drum solos. But Bulger somehow makes this prickliness compelling, showing how Baker's nomadism derives from his love of music, and including testimonials from expert admirers. The film opens and closes with Bulger leaving Baker's compound to track down other sources; the drummer, demanding these people be kept out of "my film," wallops Bulger on the nose with his cane. In the end, Bulger interviewed Baker's several wives; his Cream bandmates; rock drummers Stewart Copeland (the Police), Chad Smith (Red Hot Chili Peppers), and Bill Ward (Black Sabbath); and one-time collaborator Johnny Rotten. The film also makes use of archival performance footage, and, when there isn't any, stop-motion animation. Beware of Mr. Baker won the Grand Jury Award for documentary feature at this year's South by Southwest festival. We caught up with Bulger yesterday at Film Forum, where the film opens November 28.
When you went the first time to interview Ginger Baker, were you filming him?
Yeah, I just recycled, I just dumped all of it and went back with more money and crew. It was really hard to shoot interview, do lights, do audio, and interview him, and he's a really difficult interview subject.
What were you trying to get when you went back?
A more professional version of the experience.
Did you have to go over the same material? Was that difficult?
Nah, it was okay, it was whatever. It was just making a film, you know. Paying someone and they do whatever the fuck, they participate. I paid him money. The first time I didn't, but then the second time I did. Maybe it was annoying that he had to say it again but he was excited about getting paid.
In the opening scene, Ginger warns you not to be putting his collaborators in "my film." How much is it his film?
I think it's my film that he's starring in. It's not his film, it's a film about his life. If it was his film, it would've ended up being like his book. Lacking objectivity. It's my film about his life. I took his life and decided what angles and parts of it I wanted to tell. If it was his film it would have been twelve hours long.
Did he try to control it more after that?
He hasn't even watched it. He didn't care.
How much Ginger Baker music do you listen to now?
How can you not listen to Ginger Baker music? It's defined music history. Cream, and Blind Faith, and Ginger Baker's Air Force, and Graham Bond. Fela Kuti. If you care about music, his story's important because he's always been at the forefront of experimentation. The bands that he's been in have gone on to define genres. And by that I mean there wasn't a genre or a name for it at that moment in time. In hindsight, you box them in with these other bands. You know, Led Zeppelin, they're not even the same conversation as Cream, but somehow in history they've been grouped together. [Cream] were way before them. Led Zeppelin watched Cream, Jimmy Page said, "I want to do that but it's gonna take having another member of the band." Three people? It's hard, to make that much noise and fill that soundscape. Cream is the best. But they're more of an improvisational band anyway. They never played the same music twice.
Why did you decide to use animations in the film?
Why did I decide to use the animation? I just did. It made sense. It was like out of my childhood, you know. Based on stuff that I grew up watching. The animation was like creating a through line, whatever, bringing it all together. There's the man and there's the myth. There's the legend. You've got all the different aspects. The animation was just one part of that. Showing him as a larger-than-life character. The juxtaposition of that versus the real-life version of someone who actually can get old and is destructible.
How long did you spend tracking down people?
Like a year? And a half? I don't know. It took me five years to make the movie.
Who took the longest?
Ginger, I guess. It took me a long time to find him. I thought he was dead. He's not.
How did you find him?
Just like in the movie, I googled and found this press thing about him being in this court case in Africa, offering to drop his pants in court. Demanding, rather. I just kind of stumbled into his still living, and then I spent a lot of time figuring out how to get in touch. Until I ran into Gary Clark, Jr., and Gary Clark, Jr.'s manager Scooter Weintraub, and he knew Eric Clapton's people, and the rest is history. I just called him up and was talking to him on the phone and shit for days. He wanted to talk, so I just went there and showed up.