ABOVE: JAY BULGER. PHOTO COURTESY OF SNAGFILMS
When we arrive to interview filmmaker Jay Bulger on the second floor of the Film Forum in Manhattan, he's excited to learn Courtney Love has seen his new documentary, Beware of Mr. Baker. "I guess she liked it," he says as he reads her stream of colorful tweets endorsing the film. Considering the subject matter, it's no surprise that Love is a fan.
The Mr. Baker of the film's title is Ginger Baker, the legendary drummer of Cream, and one of the most explosive figures of rock-'n'-roll history. "He's very ornery and cantankerous," says Bulger, which, if you've seen the documentary, is a laughable understatement. But Bulger, a former Golden Gloves boxer, male model (he was photographed for the cover of Vogue), and cancer survivor, can roll with Mr. Baker's quite-literal punches. Over the course of the film, Baker tells the story of his short career with Cream, his time with Fela Kuti in Nigeria, and his stint as a Hollywood actor, and his continuous copious substance abuse. When Bulger says "I don't think there's another greater musical adventure than his life," he just might be right.
To make the film, Bulger had to convince the famously hermetic drummer, now 73, to let him come stay on his South African compound where he lives with his current wife and 38 polo horses. To do so, Bulger fabricated a story about writing a Rolling Stone profile that he eventually published under the name "In Search of Ginger Baker." Along the way, he was forced to contend with Baker's unending verbal tirades (which Bulger enjoys), and a knock to the nose by Baker's metal cane (which Bulger did not enjoy one bit). "He's a polyrhythmic human," says Bulger, as if that explains everything.
NATHAN REESE: Were you a big Cream fan growing up?
JAY BULGER: You know, I grew up watching my dad hit the steering wheel to the classic rock station in D.C., and "White Room." It was a huge part of my upbringing—those records, my dad's record collection. There was always something about Cream that was different. I'm 30, how old are you?
NATHAN REESE: 26.
BULGER: Yeah, so I feel like our generation is conditioned to think Led Zeppelin is the greatest band of all time. But then I gravitated more toward Cream. The Beat poet lyrics, Clapton's guitar is so idiosyncratic—the wah [guitar sound]. You could tell they were just these three masters.
REESE: When did you know you wanted to make a film about Ginger Baker, specifically?
BULGER: I knew his name but I didn't know the context. Over the last decade I got really into Fela Kuti. I think I saw Music Is the Weapon, and then I downloaded all his music. When I heard his story—the Malcom X meets James Brown thing—I was really amazed. Then my friend was like, "You're into Fela, you gotta see when Ginger Baker came to play with him." And I was like, Ginger Baker? And my friend was like "No, no, no, they were honored to have him there. You know, Tony Allen's good, but Ginger is the best."
REESE: That's when you found out about Ginger's trip across the Sahara?
BULGER: Well, there's this really obscure film about Ginger getting off of heroin where he decides to drive across the desert. You know he first tried to do it in some multimillion dollar sports car of the time, the Shelby GT? Anyway, he ended up driving off a cliff. I was like, this guy's fucking crazy!
REESE: So, his story hooked you from the beginning?
BULGER: I started learning about him—Animal from The Muppets [being inspired from Baker's image], the Bill Laswell connection, all these things. I was like, "Fuck, too bad he's probably dead." I put a Google alert on my phone, and I got this thing that was like: Ginger Baker is in South Africa, and he's vowed to drop trou because he's been screwed over by this woman. He's taking on the biggest bank in the area and some voodoo priest chick; there are assassins trying to kill him and this and that. When I connected with him, it was like talking to Jack Palance in City Slickers or something. Right out of Charles Dickens' asshole. [Bulger does an impression of Baker's Gravely voice]. Eventually he was like "I hate talking on the phone. Just come here." And he hung up. Was he serious or what? Maybe he was just challenging me?
REESE: Was that for your Rolling Stone article?
BULGER: I wasn't going to write a Rolling Stone article. Like, when I called him up, I called him under the guise of a Rolling Stone journalist wanting to make a documentary. Months went by of filming where I was shooting his everyday life, and then he remembered that part of it. Eventually he was like, "When is this article coming out and why is there a video camera?" He was like, "You're not doing anything until this article comes out." Fair enough—I had said I was doing an article. So I met with Rolling Stone and got them to publish the piece. It was a step in the direction that led down a several-year-long path of getting back there, raising money, getting all those people involved, and living with him again.
REESE: He's this incredibly hard guy to deal with, but there are moments where he's obviously enjoying the attention. What was your relationship like with him? Would you call him a friend?
BULGER: Never would I ever say that I'm his friend. And he would never say I'm his friend either. His friends—the people he would define as friends—are the people he plays music with. I think he sees me as an antagonistic nuisance and the great annoyance in his life. I'd tend to say he respects me. He has hit me with a cane, and I called him the next day and I was like, "So, what are you doing?" I can take it. I don't take offense to it, and I can give it back. I find him really funny, pushing his buttons, and laughing at his jokes. We just have a good back-and-forth.
REESE: When he hit you, did you immediately realize it was going to be great for the film, or were you just pissed?
BULGER: No, I was super angry. The police came, it was totally nuts. He had a total melt down. It was insanity. The wife wanted to kill me... it was awful. He winded up giving me an apology, which I deserved.
REESE: Out of all the people who you talked to—Santana, Clapton, Johnny Rotten, etc., who do you think was the most revealing?
BULGER: Clapton. Especially when I look back at the film, I don't find him to usually be as revealing as that. I think it brought Clapton back to a very specific place in his life, and I was honored to be able to open up some floodgates I think he had closed himself. I felt like we connected as people who had been in that car with Ginger. I felt like he and I had shared the Ginger Baker experience.
REESE: He's done so many things that are so awful to so many people, but everyone also has this fond way of remember him.
BULGER: He's a deeply complex guy. You can't put his music into a box, and you can't put him into a box. He's pissing people off, but at the same time, he's building an animal hospital down the street. I think he's like Captain America: the Nazi's killed his dad in battle, he was living in a bomb shelter for his formative four years on earth. I think they created a monster. He's like a superhero.
REESE: The movie is driven by that animation of Ginger beating a drum on a slave ship. What were you trying to show there?
BULGER: That's the myth. The juxtaposition of that, and the reality that we build up to. Someone so defined by his physicality, when faced with aging that is unavoidable—how does he accept that? The myth is birthed from these bajillions of stories we heard, like injecting heroin into his eyeballs, but I'm looking at a guy who may never get off the couch again. The myth isn't exactly the reality.
REESE: When the credit roll, what do you want the audience to take with them?
BULGER: The ending is everything. He can't be killed. He's made a deal with the devil.
REESE: When's the last time you saw him?
BULGER: I saw him two weeks ago in London. It was so traumatic. It was so fucking intense. The movie was about to start, and he was smoking inside, and the head of the BFI was like, "Ginger, can you please not smoke inside?" and Ginger was like "Do you want me smash a barrel over your fucking head? Do you think these fire alarms go off from one fucking cigarette?"
BEWARE OF MR. BAKER WILL BE PLAYING AT THE FILM FORUM NOVEMBER 28 - DECEMBER 11.