Motion Picture Academy President John Bailey: The Variety Interview

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Cinematographer John Bailey has been a member of the Motion Picture Academy since 1981. He has served off and on as representative on the Board of Governors since 1996. Now, he is the 36th president of the 90-year-old institution.

A passionate supporter of film preservation and history, Bailey didn’t expect to become a cinematographer after leaving film school at the University of Southern California in the late 1960s. He fancied himself a “film theoretician,” dreaming of bearing witness to an imminent American new wave of cinema innovation. A Westwood viewing of Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1970 film “The Conformist” drove him to pursue a career behind the camera. Some 50 years later, he takes the reins of an embattled organization that finds itself quickly moving forward on diversity initiatives while struggling to bring a long-planned museum to the heart of Tinseltown.

Three days after his election, Bailey spoke to Variety about stepping into the new post.

Variety: There are a lot of things going on at the Academy and we want to make sure we touch on all of them. But let’s first begin with the museum project. There’s obviously been a lot written about its trials and tribulations. What are your priorities with that?

John Bailey: I’ll do everything I can to support that. The museum is not something that I have been intimately involved in up until now, but it’s something I’m definitely going to get involved with. I’m well aware of cost overruns, the change of the contractors, but we have a couple of new elements that I think are helping a lot. Rich Cherry as the COO, I’ve met with him several times. He’s a no-nonsense guy and he really knows what he’s doing. He’s very good at controlling budgets, he knows construction, and I think he’s a huge asset to keep this thing running the way it should be and moving it forward within the budget. I have a very good feeling about him. I also have a very good feeling about [managing director] Kathy DeShaw, who has come in and has presented to the board some really good ideas on fundraising and naming galleries and things like that. So these two people are going to be very important in moving this thing forward on schedule. I’ve only been here two days. Very high on my priorities is meeting with museum people, with Rich Cherry again, walking the site — the last time I walked the site with my wife Carol was about two and a half months ago. It had already started to come above grade.

Beyond questions of budget and timeline there is also the ongoing question of what is going to be in this museum. Your passion for film history and the various crafts is apparent, so is that going to be your point of view as you talk about what should be on display and given prominence?

No, I think it’s more comprehensive than that. It will be a destination because people will want to go there for different reasons, to see different things. I see it as a very multi-tiered institution. It’s going to be a home for film scholars, film historians, filmmakers from around the world, and it will also represent a sense of film history and technology, contributions and guidance and ideas from members of the 17 branches. As the physical building starts to get higher and higher, that question of what’s going to go in it becomes more and more relevant. I want to work with [museum director] Kerry Brougher and [planning committee chair] Kathleen Kennedy and the various branch governors to start thinking about, “What is the narrative that we want to supply? What story do we want to tell?” We want an engaged experience.

There has been some concern about funds for the Academy’s various peripheral programs, many of them educational, being diverted to the museum to keep it on track. Obviously you are very passionate about those initiatives. Are you at all concerned about that?

Oh, not at all. Quite the contrary. In my chair position for preservation and history, one of the things I went to [former president] Cheryl Boone Isaacs and [Academy CEO] Dawn [Hudson] with was, I said we have the Herrick Library over there in Beverly Hills on La Cienega and we have the Pickford Center in downtown Hollywood and they’re both incredible institutions. Let’s find ways to bring their assets together. So I proposed this Films on Film program where we would take 35mm prints from the Academy film archive and have a program where we would look at these movies on film projection and bring supporting material from the Herrick Library — photographs, memos, lobby cards, parts of scripts — and present them in the lobby so that it would be a synergistic kind of thing, where the assets of both facilities would be used, and it’s been very successful. I see that as a template for some of the programs we can do at the museum, not just retrospectives but an engaged collaboration between the archive and the library. There are a lot of things we can do.

Turning to the issue of diversity — obviously this has been a major push in the last couple of years, and there might be a perception that the Academy electing a 75-year-old white man as president flies in the face of that.

What you’ve just said is bulls–t. What does my being 75 years old and a white man — I was born a white man, and I can’t help that I’m 75 years old. Is this some sort of a limiting factor? That’s a stupid question. I’m sorry. Does the fact that I’m a white male 75-year-old mean I have a set position against diversity? So we had an African-American president for four years. The next president happens to be a white man. Does that mean we’re backpedaling? Of course not! And I kind of resent that you would suggest that. So let’s talk about diversity and not the fact that I’m a 75-year-old white guy.

Let’s do it.

Let’s talk about what I just did this morning. I was at the Dunn Theater, and as you know we’ve had this Academy Gold intern program, where we’ve had 69 or 70 interns. A lot of ethnic diversity — a lot of women, a lot of black women, have been involved in this program for eight weeks since the middle of June. Today was their graduation and I was lucky enough to be there. They one by one went up and were given a diploma and it wasn’t like seeing an anonymous class of diverse people. It was 70 highly individual and unique people completing this program that is a jump-start for them. That is diversity. That is something that has been done. We have the A2020 program, which the goal was to double the diversity membership of the Academy by 2020, and those goals are being met. I could tell you about another program that the Academy is involved with in conjunction with the Getty — it’s part of that Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA exhibition and it’s dealing with Latino filmmaking in Los Angeles.

Here’s what I know about diversity: We took in something like 770 new members last year. I can’t speak to all the branches but I can tell you what we did with the cinematographers. We had 14 people invited. Ten have accepted. One of them was a Danish woman named Camilla Hjelm who did “Land of Mine.” We took in a French woman cinematographer named Crystel Fournier, who did this great film a few years ago about transgender identification called “Tomboy.” We took in Chung-hoon Chung, who did “The Handmaiden,” one of the most beautifully photographed films of all time. And here’s something. You want to talk about age? We have a Spanish cinematographer named Jose Luis Alcaine. He has shot a number of films for [Pedro] Almodovar and he is now doing a film with Asghar Farhadi, the great Iranian director. Jose Luis is older than I am. He’s 79 years old. And he’s out there. The guy has something like 155 credits, but he’s been under our radar.

One of the things about the diversity program is not just going out and taking in young and ethnically diverse people, but looking for international people. Why the hell haven’t these people been in the Academy before? Well, we haven’t been looking hard enough for them, or they never thought they would be in the Academy so they never pursued it. We are now looking for these people. It’s not about recruiting new people in the established industry. It’s going out and saying, “Who out there around the world should be enriching the motion picture Academy with their gifts and their history?”

Speaking of the recent robust class of new invitees, and the one before it, there have been some complaints from Academy members about a perceived lowering of standards. Some have suggested the actors branch in particular has been too lenient. What do you have to say to those concerns?

You know, I can’t speak for the actors branch but of course I now feel a responsibility as president to take a look at that. I can hope and believe that we’re all acting in the same interests and with the same set of values, that the people we have let into the cinematographers branch are representative of the kind of quality of people that are being let into the other branches. There are anomalies and people who may be questioned, but I have to tell you, the sense that I have had is none of us have taken this lightly, whether it had to do with diversity or not. This is not a club where I want my friend, my lodge brother or something, to get in. I can’t say that there’s been any lowering of standards. As a matter of fact I think there has been a tremendous focusing of it. But I’ll be looking into it.

The blog you maintain on the American Society of Cinematographers website, “John’s Bailiwick,” is a unique window into an Academy president’s mind. And there are some very outspoken correspondences there. One post where you decried “the mindless recycling of vacuous action movies” stuck out in particular. Do you think you’ll be able to maintain that kind of a public-facing exchange in your new role?

I think around the time Oliver Stone came out with “Natural Born Killers,” which was by far the most violent movie I had ever seen and for me even more shocking because it was so sophisticated and so well done, I wrote a piece that was then put into an anthology called “Bang Bang Bang Bang Ad Nauseum,” and I basically attacked what I thought was a developing aesthetic of ultra-violence in studio films. And on a personal level I still feel the same way. I have my own personal feelings about the kind of movies I’m interested in, but I’m also well aware of what feeds the studio coffers. People have every right to see the movies they want to. As Academy president I certainly have no perspective or agenda, but that doesn’t prevent me as John Bailey, a filmmaker, from talking about what matters to me in films.

The blog is what I write as John Bailey, ASC. The Academy has nothing to do with it. I wouldn’t expect anybody at the Academy would want me to deal otherwise with that. I do not engage in any kind of larger issues regarding the politics or the business of the Hollywood industry. I’m interested in writing about the arts. And as you know, I write about a lot more than movies. Most of my blogs are about still photography. I love opera. I’ve written pieces about Alban Berg’s “Lulu” and the recent Met premiere of the Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, her new opera “Love From Afar.” I have very eclectic taste.

Turning to the day-to-day running of affairs at the Academy, we’ve heard you’ve been very engaged with the subcommittees and making sure there is a lot of engagement between the board and the staff.

All of the committees have staff liaisons who help administrate it and formulate agenda items. Most of the chairs are filmmakers and the staff are our go-to people. The staff are not just employees. They are the beating heart of the Academy. They’re our institutional memory. We have people who have been there for decades and know Academy history better than I do.

Would it be fair to say you’ll be a pretty hands-on president? That raises the question of whether that would set up any sort of conflict with the CEO.

I don’t think it’s a conflict at all. I’m not interested in telling Dawn how to run the administration of the Academy. I’m interested in representing the Board of Governors. I said that in my speech. And I feel that because I’m a filmmaker and I know so many of these people and I’ve worked with so many of them that I have an ability to listen to and understand and help execute their directives. I can do that in conjunction with Academy administration. I’m going to have the best relationship with Dawn you can imagine.

On that score, the Academy has been very much in the news the last few years. Would you say it’s a goal of yours to sort of get out of the headlines?

To be honest with you — and I said this when David Rubin and I were presenting ourselves as candidates, I said, “Look, the trades and the press are going to write what they’re going to write.” You have people that are interested that you want to give information to. But what I’m not interested in, and nobody on the Board of Governors is interested in, is encouraging a kind of divisiveness that doesn’t exist. You’ve got 54 very high-energy, very successful, independently-minded men and women who are at the top of their respective crafts. You’re going to have 54 people in a room and you’re going to get a diversity of opinions. If you want to focus on the differences of opinion because you feel that that serves your interests more, you’re going to do that whether we want you to or not. My feeling is the Board of Governors needs to communicate with integrity and honesty within itself and to Dawn Hudson and the administration and we need an open and honest flow of information back and forth to do our respective jobs. I’ve been president of the Academy now for two days and I’m starting from ground zero.

Wednesday morning I walked into my sixth-floor office and I met with Dawn and we sat there and we talked for a couple of hours, and here’s a metaphor: There was nothing in my office. There was no phone. It was just hours after I had been elected. It was an empty room. It was like a tabula rasa. And I thought that was the perfect metaphor. Here were Dawn and I, who had known each other in different roles, sitting in this room with nothing in the room except her and me and we sat there and we talked about what we wanted the Academy to be moving forward. It was a beautiful discussion.