Catching up with Maui Grammy winner Jason Baum
February 5, 2023, 7:10 AM HST
* Updated February 6, 12:25 PM
Maui born Jason Baum has been a presence in the music and film industry as a producer for more than a decade, with his work registering more than 4.5 billion views on YouTube.
He has been nominated for four Grammys in his career thus far, along with an Emmy for the Spike Jonze directed documentary “Beastie Boys Story.” His first Grammy nomination was in 2015 with Arcade Fire and in 2018 he won with the music video “HUMBLE” for Pulitzer Prize songwriter and hip-hop artist Kendrick Lamar.
The Maui High School graduate is up for another Grammy this year with Lamar’s “The Heart Part 5” in the category of Best Music Video.
Baum’s great-grandfather was a stevedore on the docks of Kauaʻi, and his grandfather and a granduncle fought in the Military Intelligence Service for the US Army in the Pacific against Imperial Japan. A street on Kauaʻi in Hawaiʻi – Inouye Street – is named after his granduncle Tommy Inouye who died less than a week before the end of World War II.
When he was a high school junior, Baum directed an award winning short film which he used to gain entry into the film program at New York University. He continues to work in Los Angeles as a producer-director and has recently expanded past music videos into feature length films, including the recent experimental project “The Seven Faces of Jane.” You can find all of his work on his website jasonbaum.com.
He was interviewed by Maui Now’s writer Gary Kubota*.
Maui Now: People Of Maui Interview
KUBOTA: What lies ahead for you?
BAUM: In my line of work, it is pretty hard to know what you’re doing tomorrow versus the next week or year. Most of my short form work comes up a few weeks to a month in advance. But, I would really love to continue exploring feature filmmaking which takes longer to come into fruition. I hope to have a new feature film in production by the end of the year and fit in any other interesting projects in between. It also would be a dream to make a feature in Hawaiʻi sometime in the coming years if someone would finance it.
KUBOTA: How did your participation in the film “The Seven Faces Of Jane” come about? Audience comments are very positive.
BAUM: “The Seven Faces of Jane” started with Roman Coppola who wanted to make a feature film using a game of “exquisite corpse.” Roman owns a production company called “The Directors Bureau” that I have worked for in the past, including a music video that he directed for Paul McCartney. This film was a tremendous producing challenge given the budget, time, and eight directors. I probably was the right choice for this project given that they needed someone used to pulling things off with little time and no money, but also someone with narrative long form experience.
The film is very experimental, and I think that is largely the charm of it. Gillian Jacobs plays the main character of Jane and is amazing at keeping the audience engaged. Exquisite corpse is a game that the Surrealists used to play, also known as “Consequences” or essentially what now is “Mad Libs.” The way this game is applied to a film is that the eight directors blindly collaborated with each other. They all shared the same main character, but didn’t know what the other directors were doing or what each other had written.
KUBOTA: How does your early upbringing in Hawaiʻi influence the way you work with people?
BAUM: I think my upbringing in Hawaiʻi influences every aspect of me and for that I’m really thankful to come from such a special place. I think it affects the kind of stories that interest me and how I interact with everyone every day. I maybe also know what is cinematic based on coming from an incredibly photographic place. Most of my co-workers tend to remark on how calm I am. So as cliche as that sounds, I guess it comes from living in the middle of the Pacific Ocean for so long. We have a different rhythm to how we handle things and think before we speak.
KUBOTA: Do you have a daily work routine to keep yourself creatively flowing?
BAUM: A producer isn’t inherently a creative position. There is a lot of creativity, but not in the ways which usually require a routine or maintenance, in my opinion. I think I strive more to create a routine that prevents burn out because making film or video projects can be draining and exhaustive. I can’t say that I have really figured that out just yet, but I’m trying. I think it is some ratio of exercise, diet, and non-work activities? Nothing is more rejuvenating than traveling — or even just finding an excuse to turn off your phone for an hour or two. That’s why I like watching movies.
KUBOTA: What films, film directors and producers do you admire and how has their practice influenced you?
BAUM: I have always admired directing that feels intimate, almost as if it couldn’t have been made by anyone else because it is that personal. I try my best to have a similar philosophy in the projects that I take on as a producer. I need that emotional or intellectual connection to the director or the material to stay motivated. Productions always require more time investment than you initially imagined and the only thing keeping you from quitting is usually that bond. If that doesn’t exist from the start, it makes it an excruciating challenge to lead your team to the finish line.
My favorite film of 2022 was “Bardo” which was written and directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu. It’s an epic semi-autobiographical film with enormous technical challenges. I admire him making a film with such a unique vision and Netflix for allowing him the space and budget to do it his way. I also just finished the last season of the FX series “Atlanta,” which has always been a delightful surprise episode to episode.
KUBOTA: What pursuits in your youth helped to lead you toward a career in music and film production?
BAUM: Growing up I had a lot of interests that overlapped with what I do now. I once wanted to be an author/illustrator, a photographer, a web designer, a graphic designer, etc. But, producing has always felt very natural to me. I’m very organized and have always enjoyed bringing people together to make something. I also was involved in student government and was my high school class treasurer for all four years so event planning on a budget has always been my thing.
KUBOTA: Are there favorite places you like to visit or eat, when you’re back on Maui?
BAUM: I always have lived in Makawao, but went to school in Kahului so I think my favorite thing is just driving down the hill and being able to see from Kīhei to Pāʻia on a clear day. It’s just unfortunately not as green as it used to be. My usual answer to favorite places to eat is Da Kitchen, but they recently closed. I adored Tokyo Tei as a kid and have a lot of memories of going to Sansei’s in Kīhei with my friends as adults.
KUBOTA: What makes you the happiest when you’re working?
BAUM: I think the happiest part of making art is after it is completed and out in the world. It’s gratifying to know when something resonates with someone. I love to be in a room or theater with people watching something I made or even just scrolling through comments on a YouTube page. Back in 2017, the “HUMBLE” music video made it into Google’s “Year In Search” video which was pretty mind blowing to me that I made something that noteworthy.
*Gary Kubota is related to Jason Baum through Jason’s great-grandparents who lived on Kauaʻi.