The Fresh Film director and Good Company Co-founder/EP on working with the likes of Beyoncé and Kanye, keeping big secrets and juggling several ‘shiny balls’ at once
Even a cursory glance at Jonathan Lia’s filmmaking credits is enough to blind you with star power. As a producer, he’s built a career on the back of his relationships with figures from Beyoncé to Kanye West and Madonna. He’s produced over 100 music videos and as Co-founder / Executive Producer at Good Company he also manages to run a business at the same time.
In recent years, he’s extended his filmmaking scope to directing too, helming films ranging from the Lonely Island comedy classic, ‘I’m On a Boat’ through to beauty films for L’Oréal and the music video for Bruno Mars, ‘That’s What I Like’. Earlier this year he signed to Fresh Film’s roster for UK and European representation.
Amazed by this prolific output, LBB’s Alex Reeves caught up with Jonathan to find out how he manages to balance all of these glamorous activities at once.
LBB> When did you decide you wanted to get into filmmaking?
JL> I got into it very early. I grew up just outside of New York City. I finished high school a year early and I felt compelled to pick a direction. On one hand, I wanted to be a painter and on the other hand, I wanted to go to Wharton and get into the money business. It came down to whether I wanted to live to work or work to live. I decided I wanted to live to work.
I met a kid at a rave who was an editor at a commercial production company. He offered to hook me up with a free production assistant gig. I remember it was a Sony commercial in Central Park with John Madden - a big NFL commentator, coach and former player. I thought it was fascinating and started PAing for that company. They were fairly helpful as time went on, letting me jump to other departments. I went to the art department, then became a production designer, then I was an assistant camera. When I was 20 I was a DP - I shot a bunch of commercials.
LBB> You got involved in the business side of things quite early as well, right?
JL> Yeah. All of a sudden there was a weird shift and I basically ended up running that same production company for three years. It was a production boutique, so the agency and production company. We’d come up with creative, pitch it to Fortune 500 companies and then produce the spots. I was quite naïve; I’d never hire a production manager because I didn’t know what they did. I never hired an AD. I was handed a stack of purchase orders on my first day and ended up throwing them in the garbage because I didn’t know what they were for.
I wanted to go into music videos because I was in my early 20s and was fascinated by music - I went to the University in Michigan because I wanted to see where techno came from. Nobody would hire me to make music videos because I came from the commercial world.
I remember the budgets for my first music videos were $5,000 or $10,000. I took anything I could get. Eventually, I built up enough work that my music video career took on a life of its own – producing a couple hundred videos for a wide range of artists and directors.
For a little while I produced a public access show about electronic music and culture called Flux, then I jumped over to a place called Pseudo - the largest producer of original content online; I produced the electronic music channel.
LBB> Your reel is full of collaborations with some of the biggest names in pop culture. Why do you think you’ve ended up doing that?
JL> A lot of it is that I’m a creative producer. It’s not just about the math, it’s about realizing a vision. I remember at one time I was the default producer for non-directors. So, if Marilyn Manson wanted to direct something I would get that call. Or if Scarlett Johansson wanted to direct a music video, I’d co-produce it with her.
That’s what happened with Kanye, more or less, as well. I was called in to save a project that was basically drowning. I was the only one who would tell him ‘no’. Not ‘no’ for no reason or ‘no, there’s no money’, but ‘here’s three ways you could do it’, or ‘here’s why you can’t do it, but here’s what you can do instead’. It’s that mesh of creative and production, not having an ego. I believe in people’s vision. Kanye came with a vision and my role was to help realize that. He appreciated that approach and asked me to help him make Runaway. It was the start of a collaborations that lasted a few years.
I’ve built up a few direct relationships with artists. That’s really a lot of our business. We still work with labels and commissioners but a lot of our business comes from the fact that we have established relationships with artists like Beyoncé, Madonna, Kendrick Lamar, etc.
We operated without business cards or a website for years. It’s just word of mouth as far as working with all these people.
LBB> What’s the key to making films with people who aren’t necessarily directors but who clearly have a creative vision?
JL> Not all of them have no experience. I remember working with Scarlett [Johansson]. When she showed up on set I was so impressed with how much she knew about the filmmaking process. You have somebody like Beyoncé who is a master filmmaker in and of herself. She’s been doing it for a long time. She’s so invested in every aspect of everything she does so it’s more about supporting, helping, being on the team and being willing to always figure out a way. We like to live in the solution.
LBB> These days you direct as well. How did you get into that?
JL> I guess after years of producing videos for all kinds of people at a certain point I decided to go direct a couple. I don’t remember where along the line I broke off and started directing things but I had a few years where I’d direct something occasionally and then go produce ten things.
I think the first two videos I directed were within 48 hours of each other. One was Asher Roth - I Love College and the other one was [when] I co-directed I’m On A Boat for Lonely Island. I’d previously produced the video for 'I Jizz in My Pants'.
Over time, and having worked with so many female artists, I mostly direct beauty campaigns for brands like L’Oreal and Maybelline.
LBB> You’ve worked with Beyoncé for so long. How long ago did she start seeing herself as a filmmaker as well as everything else?
JL> What I would say is I don’t remember a time when she wasn’t completely involved. She’s always been completely involved in every aspect. I’m a complete workaholic and there’s definitely been times where she made me feel lazy. It’s not an accident she’s where she is at all.
LBB> You work with A-listers on a day-to-day basis. Is it hard not to sound like you’re just name-dropping when you talk about your job?
JL> Yes. And with that has to come a certain awareness. Those core teams are always very protective of the artists. Of course, there are NDAs and this and that. On any given project typically there are a couple of outsiders that end up talking to the press. We don’t say anything while we’re working on these projects.
When we delivered Kanye’s seven-screen experience [Cruel Summer], that film played in Cannes a couple of times but then never again. It’s been a few years and not one frame of that film has leaked. We work with a pretty tight team and security is very important. That film was not on any computer connected to the internet, ever.
The visual album [for Beyoncé’s self-titled 2013 release] was a huge surprise. 17 videos. None of them leaked out before. It just came down to having a very tight, dedicated team who have the artists’ best interests in mind.
Right now, I’m working on three really high-profile things, but I’m not going to start talking about them.
LBB> Many of the videos you’ve made have been ambitious, massive productions. Do those challenges ever seem insurmountable?
JL> I remember when I was directing this Mika video ‘Boum Boum Boum’, I sold through this very ambitious concept of Mika playing all these different characters like ‘70s James Bond, Lawrence of Arabia, a spaghetti western cowboy, film noir detective, an officer from the 1700’s… I was sitting on a plane on my way to shoot this in Spain and just thinking to myself ‘how the hell am I gonna do this?’ It happens all the time and you just have to do it, not really think about it too much.
Early in my career the night before a shoot I would never sleep. I would always have such anxiety worrying about this and that. Over the years that’s shifted to the point where now I sleep like a baby… now it’s waking up that the problem!
Someone gave me a great piece of advice a long time ago. I was producing a music video and the artist showed up. He looked like shit. The night before his girlfriend had been arrested and it was all over the news and he came right from the police station to set. It was a big shoot with a big director. He got up in front of the camera and he couldn’t even sing the words. He couldn’t remember them. It was a disaster and the clock was ticking. I started getting really nervous because it was costing us a ton of money - five hours on a set that was supposed to take 45 minutes. I was stressing out. This executive producer came up to me and said ‘Jonathan, there’s only a problem if you act like there is. Watch this.’ He walked up to the record label and said. ‘Your boy looks like a dead fish up there. He can’t perform. It’s costing us all this money and you’re going to have to pay for it.’ They were like ‘OK’ and that was it.
There’ve been some hard lessons with a few of those. It helps to have had some of those lessons.
LBB> How do you balance your producing and directing careers, as well as having a personal life?
JL> It’s a lot of fun to come up with ideas and execute them, so I find the time for certain projects. My focus is running the company, but the balance is key. I’m a single dad with a seven-year-old. I’ve got custody of him and I’ve had to produce my life quite a bit in order to be able to not drop one of these many shiny balls I’m juggling. It’s a constant struggle.
It’s gotten trickier as my son’s got older. When he was little I could take him everywhere. I had to go do Cruel Summer in Cannes and he was with me. I remember he was five months old when we were prepping that seven-screen experience for Kanye. There were plenty of meetings where I had to bring him and I remember Kanye freestyling to him every day about what he was wearing. He had no idea.