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From UNCSA to Hollywood and Back

(Last Updated On: November 22, 2017)

Last week marked a homecoming for Zene Baker, noted film editor and 1998 graduate of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts School of Filmmaking. Originally from Raleigh, he spent time with family, then paid a special visit to his old stomping (and studying) grounds on the University of North Carolina School of the Arts campus in Winston-Salem.

But he wasn’t alone. With him came Thor: Ragnarok, the latest Marvel big-screen blockbuster, which has grossed over $700 million worldwide (and counting) and received solid reviews, many of which hailing it as the best Thor film and some as one of the best Marvel films so far.

After a special screening last Friday at the ACE Exhibition Complex, Baker fielded questions from students and faculty – and was gracious enough to consent to this exclusive YES! Weekly interview while driving from Raleigh to Winston-Salem before his visit.

Coming back to the school nearly two decades after graduation, and nearly eight years after he screened 50/50 there “is pretty surreal,” he chuckles. “I’m not going to lie – it’s weird! A few things seem just the same, but so much seems different.”

Baker and fellow UNCSA graduates Steven Gonzales (co-editor) and David Gordon Green (writer/producer/director) made their feature debut with George Washington, which earned critical raves, made waves in the independent film community, and brought considerable attention to the School of Filmmaking – to say nothing of launching their careers into orbit.

Baker and Gonzales would re-team with Green on All the Real Girls (2003) and Undertow (2004), and Baker would work with fellow graduate Jody Hill on The Foot Fist Way (2006) and Observe and Report (2009). Along with Danny McBride (another UNCSA grad), they’ve all remained friends, and Baker doesn’t discount future collaborations.

“I’m always open to it,” Baker said, “but the scheduling doesn’t always work out. I was surprised when I saw David and Danny were doing Halloween, but I’m certainly looking forward to see what they bring to it. They’re both so talented and creative. I’m sure it’ll be interesting.”

Having graduates visit the school periodically is “vital to the continued growth and reputation of the film school,” says Susan Ruskin, School of Filmmaking dean. “We love to watch their careers, because their success affirms the quality of our training. Alumni like Zene Baker leave here ready to walk onto any film or television project and contribute on a professional level. Many of them are eager to come back and share their experiences and insights with current students. That is gold. Their visits inspire and enrich all of us.”

Baker’s credits also include This is the End (2013), Neighbors (2014) and Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising (2016), the holiday farce The Night Before (2015), and the Seth Rogen/Evan Goldberg political satire The Interview (2014), notorious for “inspiring” the computer hacking that rocked Sony and sent shock waves throughout the entertainment world.

Ironically, during our telephone interview my power inexplicably went dead for 10 seconds, cutting us off in mid-stride. When we reconnected, I jokingly theorized that our conversation was being monitored. Laughed Baker: “Oh, no – not again! We’re being bugged!”

Having begun his career in the indie realm, Thor: Ragnarok might seem a change of pace – or was it? “All the principles are the same, only on a much larger scale,” he said.

Baker shares editing credit with Joel Negron (21 Jump Street, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and Transformers: Dark of the Moon). “Joel started first, two weeks into production, then I came on two weeks from the end of production,” Baker recounts. “This was something Marvel wanted to try on this particular movie. Joel’s definitely got some experience on me in terms of this kind of film, but he was really gracious and open – and also giving. It was a great team experience, and also a learning experience.”

The film also marks a departure for director Taika Watiti, the New Zealander who earned an Oscar nomination for his 2004 short Two Cars, One Night, and scored international hits with What We Do in the Shadows (2014) and Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016), the highest-grossing film in New Zealand’s history.

“He has a great sense of humor, he has a good eye, he’s intelligent – he definitely brings a lot with him,” Baker praises.” I liked him as a person, and he brought some of his indie sensibilities.”

Although Baker didn’t get the opportunity to be on the set for Thor: Ragnarok (Australia) or his previous film, Jonathan Levine’s Snatched (Hawaii), it is something he enjoys and finds useful. “Some editors hate being on set; they want to maintain that objectivity, and I can understand that,” he observes, “but I love it. I love the vibe, and it doesn’t make me precious in the editing. I know how difficult setting up a shot can be. I appreciate the hard work that goes into it. But sometimes things have to go.”

Editors can become typecast. Despite Undertow and the 2008 chiller The Haunting of Molly Hartley – a film that didn’t succeed for numerous reasons, Baker admits – he’s become a “go-to guy” for comedy. Not that he’s complaining.

“I am trying to broaden my genres, and I want to challenge myself, but I do love comedy – it’s one of my favorites,” he says. “And it’s very flattering when people ask for you because they’ve liked your previous work. I don’t take that for granted at all. With Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg and Nicholas Stoller and Jonathan Levine, I couldn’t ask to work with better people. They are awesome guys, and smart guys. I try my best to seek out people I like and their way of storytelling.”

Baker isn’t sure what comes next. “I have no idea,” he says with a laugh. “There’s definitely stuff swirling around, which I can’t talk about yet, but the last six or seven years I’ve gone from one project to the next, one after another, almost non-stop …  so it’s nice to take a little break and recharge.”

See Mark Burger’s reviews of current movies on Burgervideo.com. © 2017, Mark Burger.

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