Baker biopic has alumnus feeling ‘Blue’

Caitlin Cronenberg /// Special to Western News 'Born to Be Blue' tells the story of American jazz musician Chet Baker, who is portrayed by Ethan Hawke, above. With alumnus Daniel Abboud behind the camera, the movie was shot in and around Sudbury, Ont.

It’s the rare occasions of the extraordinary that make the ordinary worthwhile for Daniel Abboud.

“As a filmmaker – as a freelancer – it’s very difficult to say ‘no’ to a project, because you have to pay the bills. Projects more often than not end up being pretty mediocre, nothing special. But the reason we do those mediocre, not-so-great projects that fill time is to survive until we get to do movies like Born to Be Blue,” said Abboud, who graduated from Western in 1990 with a BA in Urban Development.

For nearly two decades, Abboud has worked as a Toronto-based camera person, and as a Steadicam operator since 2007, lending his talents to commercials, some daily series, network gigs and feature films. In between projects, he persistently pestered Canadian cinematographer Steve Cousins, looking to partner on a project. Abboud pressed on until his resolve bore fruit.

“I have harassed Steve over and over, for I don’t know how many years – this time I guess it just paid off,” Abboud said of his most recent project, Born to Be Blue, a 2015 Canadian drama film written and directed by Londoner Robert Budreau.

Born to Be Blue tells the story of American jazz musician Chet Baker, who is portrayed by Ethan Hawke. The movie, shot in and around Sudbury, Ont., premiered during the Special Presentations section of the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival. Its release date is set for March 11w.

Budreau’s team, which included Cousins as the cinematographer, needed a camera operator as they headed north to start filming. Abboud happily came on board, calling it one of “the best filmmaking experiences of my life.”

“I am a fan of Chet Baker, so to get on to something like that is a real privilege. I can’t say enough good things about it,” he said.

“To me, Chet Baker is such a mysterious figure. I only really knew of him through his music, the haunting sounds that he would produce on his trumpet. You could feel every note that he played. I’m also a boy that grew up in the 1980s – a big fan of Elvis Costello and Chet Baker performing a Costello cover of Almost Blue is one of the most beautiful things he’s ever produced.”

From small-town Oklahoma, Baker, a trumpeter and vocalist, garnered critical praise in the 1950s, particularly for albums Chet Baker Sings and It Could Happen to You. Jazz historian David Gelly described the promise of Baker’s early career as “James Dean, Sinatra, and Bix, rolled into one.”

Not much is known about Baker, or about his death, Abboud said, which added to the mystery of the man. Born to Be Blue came out of another short film Budreau wrote and directed, called The Many Deaths of Chet Baker.

Watching Ethan Hawke perform as Baker was a “holy cow” experience, he noted.

“On a set like this, you might get two cameras, an A camera and a B camera. A camera gets wider shots, and B is tighter shots, that add a bit of sweetness, extra quality or production value. I got a lot of the tights shots. There were times where I had some nice tight shots of Ethan Hawke while he was playing the trumpet, and he channelled Baker so well,” Abboud said.

“From chatting with Ethan, it was clear he did a great deal of research on the man. Being so intimate with him through the eye piece on the camera, getting the power of his performance through there, in between takes, I would truly have to take a second to recompose myself because the emotion was so strong. I really can’t say enough good things about him, and how great he was,” he added.

“And kudos to him; this was a relatively low-budget movie. Quite low budget. It’s obvious he didn’t do this for the money. He did it for the subject matter.”

What makes the movie extra special for Abboud – who was born and raised in London – is the local connection, he went on.

“Rob Budreau and myself, we’re London guys. What is it about London that has produced filmmakers? Paul Haggis. Jordan Prentice. Jason MacDonald. Ryan Gosling. Rachel McAdams. We have this little corner of the world where we spit out filmmakers,” Abboud said.

“It was interesting that a movie like this, that takes place in all different corners of the world, ends up being shot in northern Ontario – parts of Sudbury standing in for a house in California overlooking the ocean, or a beautiful little piece of art deco architecture suddenly turns into the front door of a record studio in L.A. Chet Baker’s parents’ farm in Oklahoma turned out to be a small town, just outside of Sudbury,” he added.

“In my 18 years of working in this business, there are maybe three or four movies that have achieved this status for me.”