As early as 13 years old, Pikesville native Jason Michael Berman had a camera in his hand. He initially thought he wanted to be an actor, but he later discovered a knack for filmmaking.
“At a young age, I got really into making movies and teaching younger kids to use video equipment,” says Berman, who has dyslexia and attended Jemicy School and Friends School of Baltimore. He founded the student video programs that still stand at both schools today. “I was able to build programs around my passion. By the time I got into high school, I knew what I wanted my profession to be.”
After high school, Berman was accepted into the film program at the University of Southern California. Throughout his college years, he produced seven students’ thesis films.
“I found out really quickly that my skill set compared to all my other classmates was producing—bringing things to life, putting projects forward, and picking specific types of talent to work with,” Berman says.
Post-college, Bermanworked at talent agency William Morris before producing his first feature film, Dryland, which screened at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. In 2016, Berman returned to Sundance with Mandalay Pictures’ Birth of a Nation.
Ten years after his first trip to Sundance, Berman, now the president of Mandalay Pictures, went back to Park City earlier this year to screen Nine Days, a sci-fi epic starring Winston Duke, Zazie Beetz, Bill Skarsgård and Tony Hale. In the film, Duke’s character holds the power to interview prospective human souls as candidates for the privilege of being born. The film has received lots of positive buzz, and Berman hopes to return home to screen it at the Maryland Film Festival this spring.
“I love movies that have a coming of age component to them,” says Berman, who is in his fifth year at Mandalay, where he has also produced eight movies for Netflix. “[Nine Days] was just something we had never seen before.”
Late last month, on the heels of a Sundance Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award, it was announced that Nine Days had been picked up for distribution by Sony Pictures Classics—the same studio that screened the Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith-backed Charm City Kings at the festival.
Ahead of a long rollout for Nine Days, we spoke with Berman about his Baltimore roots, the process of producing the film, and his favorite local haunts.
Have you always known that you wanted to work in the entertainment industry?
I’ve always had a passion for movie making. I think it stems from the fact that reading and writing when I was young was tough. Having dyslexia gave me this outlet to explore the world through filmmaking and telling stories. So I went right towards it and made a career out of that passion. Now, I’m 12 years into my career. It was not easy to get to this place, and it will never be easy. It’s been a constant battle. Every time you get a movie made, it’s like a miracle.
How would you describe what a producer does?
Being a producer is like planning a party for a couple thousand people. We’re in charge of making sure everything goes right—helping find and develop material, working to find filmmakers, cast, and finances, and being present during movie making to make sure we’re staying with the vision of the filmmaker. We also oversee editing, hire the entire crew, and manage budgets and tax credits. I think I'm really good at putting the pieces of a puzzle together.
How have you grown in your job?
As a producer, I have grown so much over the last 11 years. I know how to develop and deal with talent, investors, and crew better. I know how to be a better producer to a director. Every movie you do is different. There’s so many unique components—locations, storylines, relationships, and training people. You just continue to learn with different types of people and different places and parts of the world, and I think that’s one of the cool things about making movies.
With projects that you pursue or work to get made, what are you drawn to?
We look at everything in all genres. As long as we find scripts that have really compelling characters that make meaningful transformations through the course of the narrative they’re in, with distinct roles and visionary filmmakers behind them, that’s what we go after.
You were at Sundance in January for Nine Days. What’s it like to attend—are there different levels of expectations based on what you’re showing?
Yes. I’ve gone to Sundance with movies that have distribution, and I’ve gone with movies where you’re trying to sell distribution. It is really intense and a wild rollercoaster of emotions. I’m 37 now, and I had my first movie at Sundance 10 years before. It’s a lot harder the older you get. You have more experience dealing with it. What becomes harder is managing the stakes—you’re more seasoned in your career and there’s more expectation on you and that you place on yourself. For me, Nine Days was the most intense, but also the most enjoyable.
Managers and agents of our actors loved the film. People wanted to get in a room with [writer-director Edson Oda]. Out of the 25 movies I've produced over the past 11 years, I've never had so many incoming calls from agents and managers for clients requesting to meet a director. And that was before it was even financed. But people loved the writing so much that they were willing to sit their clients down with the director even though financing wasn't closed. That is extraordinary. We were able to put together an incredibly talented group of actors to be a part of it. Everything just worked with this movie. It was meant to be, and that’s very rare in a film.
You’re hoping to bring the film back home for the Maryland Film Festival this spring. What are some of your favorite Maryland pastimes?
The most memorable place in Maryland for me is The Crab Claw in St. Michaels. I loved going there growing up. I’m a big Orioles and Ravens fan. I love Linwood’s in Owings Mills. I love boating the Chesapeake Bay—I grew up boating with my family, and we all love Kent Island, where we kept our boat. Most of my family is in Maryland, so it’s always great coming home