Malcolm Gladwell dedicates a rather lengthy portion of his New York Times bestselling 2013 book, “David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants” — detailing how great adversity often leads to even greater success — to the irrepressibly contrarian notion that certain learning differences, such as dyslexia, may actually make for a more robust spirit in a person living with said aberration.
“An extraordinarily high percentage of entrepreneurs are dyslexic,” Gladwell definitively writes, zeroing in on the juggernaut career of one of Hollywood’s longtime top moguls, Brian Grazer, who is dyslexic, meaning his brain struggles to interpret what it is he’s reading in a cogent way.
And as Gladwell suggests, being a special breed of entrepreneur, Grazer as producer is not alone in succeeding so wildly despite — if not, as it’s posited in Gladwell’s book — perhaps because of his unique learning difference.
“Due to this learning difference, my passion for film came very early on,” said Baltimore’s own native son and producer on the rise Jason Michael Berman about the direct connection he too sees clearly.
Having grown up in Pikesville, where he attended Beth El Congregation (which dedicated the Berman-Rubin Sanctuary in his family’s name this past September), the 34-year-old Berman launched quickly as a bright, flaming comet from one coast to the other, exploding on the scene in Los Angeles, where he graduated from the University of Southern California’s nationally top-ranked cinema and television program in 2006, trained at one of the most prestigious talent agencies in the world (William Morris) and after a series of selfsame Sammy Glick-esque endeavors, rose to becoming one of the “Top Ten Producers to Watch” according to no less than the industry trade publication Variety in 2011.
Living in Los Angeles these days, Berman has produced a prodigious procession of projects, most notably 2016’s cause célèbre Oscar contender “The Birth of a Nation.”
“What I gained from being dyslexic was that I was an overachiever,” Berman said, in line with Gladwell’s and Grazer’s own assertions that struggling with typical schoolwork leads some dyslexics toward a brambly path they must blaze on their own in discovering a singular way through that will, in the end, teach them to be more capable of overcoming such hurdles in the extra-scholastic realm of the industrial rat race or, in this case, the unforgiving hurly-burly of Tinsel Town.
Berman’s indefatigable propensity toward cinema at a preciously young age was a radiant projection of his “wanting to be in film because it was easier for me to express how I felt through making movies than writing.”
Whereas reading and writing might have been challenging for Berman in his early years, making and watching movies was second nature just as early on, as though he was born with a video camera in hand and viewfinders sprouting from his scopophiliac eyes.
“I’m sure he’ll love it that I’m saying this, but because he’s so persistent and has so many ideas, Jason can be …” Berman’s dance and drama instructor at Owings Mills’ specialized Jemicy School Lisa Needle said, calculating the best descriptive before spurting out through a fusillade of laughter, “exasperating.”
It’s actually the second time she used the word — both times in a fit of laughter at the thought — during the interview in describing what might otherwise euphemistically be called the adamantine tenacity of her former student and longtime friend.
Needle, who’s been at Jemicy for 25 years and is now the lower middle school’s art department chair, said this is “one of those weaknesses that is really a strength,” chuckling that when Berman reached out for her to speak with the JT, if she hadn’t gotten back to him, he would have kept contacting her until she finally connected.
It’s not really a joke, but merely a character trait of Berman’s that he himself sees as integral to his impressive career built on the foundation of an almost inhuman perseverance that all but disallows him from taking “no” as an answer.
“I’m very grateful to have had the opportunity to teach him,” Needle said, her laughter having subsided into the audible sound of eyes watering with pride. “Jason has changed my worldview and the way I look at children, what they’re capable of.”
Needle went on to describe a series of telling anecdotes chronicling Berman’s blossoming at Jemicy: his constructing an elaborate crane system with his late science teacher Joe Chidester in order to film a student play (which, Needle was sure to point out, happened to star Berman’s sister); his writing a letter to Sony in aid of requesting video equipment donations that, to the surprise of many including Needle, turned out to be fruitful and helped to establish the film program Berman started; and, most revealing to Needle, the time when, while merely a second-grader, Berman essentially took over a student play involving a kind of “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” journey through history a la a flying time machine.
It was, in fact, the first instance in which Needle referred to Berman, lightheartedly as it may have been, as at times “exasperating.”
“Every single day, this little boy I had only known for about a year came in with new ideas for the time machine and the play,” Needle said.
As jubilant as Needle was by Berman’s innovative mind and exhilarating enthusiasm, she did finally have to pull the pint-sized filmmaker-to-be aside to remind him that one day he would be a director, but on this day, she was the one in charge.
Needle recounted how at the time, Jemicy didn’t necessarily hand out grades but would instead turn in “narratives” of a sort to parents, with Needle including in hers to Berman’s mother the fact that it was clear one day the shining prodigy would be a director or producer because “he has more ideas than I could possibly fathom.”
More than 15 films later, Berman stands at the forefront of what has been a most singular experience for an independent film in this country with his latest, the period piece slave revolt drama based on the life of near mythical hero (or villain, depending on the stories you read about him) Nat Turner, “The Birth of a Nation.”
Considering the provocative nature of the film and the roller-coaster ride the course of its release has taken from its record-breaking Sundance premiere sale to Fox Searchlight to today in which the film’s former stellar reviews have taken a turn due in large part to a cloud of controversy surrounding the director and co-writer’s past, there’s no question, as Berman himself contends, his role as one of five producers on the project continues to put his ever-developing chitinous mettle to the test.
“It was definitely an arduous process and pushed my limits as a producer,” Berman said. “But we put a great team together and were inspired by [director/lead actor] Nate [Parker] as a terrific leader of 400 people. We ultimately created a powerful movie we’re all very proud of.”
Needle shares in Berman’s and his crew’s pride, which she marvels at as “this incredible thing he has accomplished, this dyslexic kid who made a work that blows me away.”
Berman would meanwhile agree with Needle’s assessment that, “I do believe without a doubt, had he not gone to Jemicy, he wouldn’t have had these opportunities. Nobody else would have said, ‘Yeah, you can be a movie producer’ when he was in second grade.”
For an online exclusive on Berman’s take on the reception to ‘The Birth of a Nation’, visit bit.ly/2e5Mxb0.