- Posted By: Times Editors
- Posted On: 3:50 p.m. | September 11, 2014
Filmmaker Jason Baffa, who previously made surf documentaries “Singlefin: yellow” and “One California Day” is set to release his latest film, “Bella Vita.” In an interview with Framework he describes how he came to discover the growing Italian surf subculture and the pressures he felt in making his third film.
Q: How did you decide to do a film in Italy?
I was interested in doing a third feature in the surfing genre but I knew I wanted to do something different. My hope was to develop a project that had similar sensibilities as my previous films, “One California Day” (2007) and “Singlefin: yellow” (2004) but also evolved and progressed in terms of story and scope. While traveling to Bali in 2011, I re-connected with my old friend Chris Del Moro. Chris is a traveler, an artist, an environmentalist and a great surfer. During that trip, we began chatting about film ideas and I expressed my interest in working with him. We connected on the fact that as Southern Californian surfers, we were both born to Italian fathers. Chris told me about his experiences as a kid, living in Italy and chasing surf and the fantastic surf culture that was emerging there- I was blown away. Surfing in Italy?
Chris shared the want to explore the culture as a documentary film. At first, I was concerned that the topic might be too niche to find an audience. As I learned more about him, his life experiences and the fantastic characters in the Italian surfing subculture, I got really excited.
I realized it was the perfect complement to my first films but also a really unique story I could dive into. It, in a way, checked off all the boxes I was hoping for in my third film. Obviously, we would not get waves like Indonesia or Tahiti – so the film would have to work on more complex levels. Plus, three months in Italy chasing surf with family and friends, re-connecting to my own family roots… good food, wine! C’mon, I was sold!
Q: What is the process you go through when deciding what your films will be about?
Well, first, I always try to think, what will make a good film, not a good surf-film or a good documentary-film but a good film, something that will be entertaining for a broad section of people. From there, I suppose a combination of things need to grab me. At the top of the list, I need to really be drawn to the projects I take on. In the past, these have been three or four year endeavors. Bella Vita will release Sept. 16 and that is almost three years from my first conversations with Chris in Bali. So I need to really be passionate about the film if I’m going to dedicate that much free time and effort.
Originality is important to me. Does the idea feel unique, has something like it been done before? These are common questions I mull over. I also have to be honest with myself about the audience for any given idea. If the project seems too niche or not broad enough to successfully reach an audience, I tend to move on to other ideas. In the end, if the work doesn’t have an audience, it can’t be successful and if I want to keep directing films, I darn well better do my best to make them successful.
Q. One of your previous films, “One California Day,” explored surf culture within the geographic framework of California. Does “Bella Vita” attempt a similar exploration of Italy or is it more of an exploration of family culture and heritage?
If “One California Day” was about the place and our connection to it and “Singlefin: yellow” was about the board and how surfing can cross cultural-borders, I think “Bella Vita” is about the people and how surfing fits into the fabric of life.
As I’ve grown older and become a father, I’ve realized that surfing can no longer be my main focus, it has to fit within my world of work, family, friends. Through Chris’ journey back to Italy, I think we get an interesting insight into the importance of being passionate about the important things in life. Yes, surfing is very important for many people – but equally important are often family, culture, tradition and protecting the things we care about. As surfers, we have a responsibility to protect the beaches and oceans that give us so much. Chris is a great steward for this. So the film touches on all these things – Italy is such a beautiful and culturally rich place, the people are so passionate, it really serves as an amazing backdrop to explore these bigger ideas and I’d say the word “passion” is a big part of the film.
The rewarding thing for me is that we’ve now been screening “Bella Vita” for one year in film festivals all over the world and I’m so happy to see these themes and ideas connecting with audiences, no matter what country we are in. Most of all, the people of Italy seem very happy. They are going through some tough economic times and I think our little film has been a ray of light- a little reminder of how many wonderful things they have. The simplicity of time spent with good family and friends goes a long way. That trumps any award earned from a festival.
Italian surfing pioneer Alessandro Forte shows off his first, homemade surfboard. Marina di Pisa, summer 1970. Credit: Forte Family Collection
Q: What is the surf culture of Italy like?
Surf culture is very real in Italy. But as the subculture has become strong and passionate, the corporations and big businesses have grabbed onto it and commercialized it. So I think the main population sees one thing, a very commercial, unauthentic version while simultaneously, the hard-core surfers in Italy- they are the real deal. They track weather, they chase waves, they live surf. It is awesome- and, yes, there is surf in Italy. It is wind-swell and happens very quickly but they have some very, very fun waves. Of course, anything Italian becomes “very” Italian. I love this- and their surf culture is stylish, communal, boisterous and loud, all the things you expect from Italians. Italy doesn’t import many things, if anything- but surfing and surf-culture have absolutely found a place in their hearts.
Q: What was the process of raising money through Kickstarter?
Well, first I guess the process of raising money was just hard. I enlisted three close friends to help me pull this off. Anh-Thu Le, Greg Schultz and Scott Griest. All have day-jobs and jumped on to Bella Vita after work and on weekends. They are heroes.
We were developing the film in 2011 and I was really feeling the financial stress of friends and family coming out of 2009 and 2010. So most of the people who supported my other films felt too uncertain with the world to help make a movie. This was tough. I’ve never had great luck with sponsors, I guess my projects are just hard for them to understand- but luckily Jeep offered three trucks for three months and gas money- so that was a start. Then, winemaker Piergiorgo Castellani offered up a free place to stay and food on the table at his vineyard in Tuscany, Poggio al Casone. Friends and family chipped in small amounts and Panalight Italy gave us a deal on 35mm film gear, in their words, “because we are surfers and love your movies!”
So it was all very rootsy and fragmented and scary. But we did it. We got enough support to shoot the film and capture the story. When we returned home and we had to regroup. I cut a film trailer with our raw-footage and we began working on raising the finishing money. Often, post production is more expensive than the production or shooting budget. I have followed Kickstarter projects and I have even supported a few, so we gave it a serious look. What I loved is that it allowed people who like my movies to shout out, “Yes, we want to support this, we want more movies!” So we did it.
It was a bit unsettling at first, because you are putting yourself out there. You might fail but in the end it was an amazing experience. We had over 300 supporters and raised over $34,000. I even met one of our future key investors on the film, who saw the Kickstarter campaign but wanted to be a bigger equity partner. So that was huge. A win-win, if you may.
We actually just got our supporters all of their rewards, so that was stressful. I felt bad making them wait so long but it took us a full year to figure out how we would distribute digital and fabricate DVDs and I didn’t want my first supporters to get bootleg copies of the film. I wanted them to have finished, finalized goods.
Q: What was the most surprising thing that happened while you were making “Bella Vita”?
I suppose for me, the most surprising part of this experience was the pressure. My other films were pretty under the radar and we just made them. They weren’t easy but they were fun. I didn’t need to please anyone but myself. This shoot was different. I felt the pressure of people expecting a film worthy of the other two. I felt the pressure from the Italians that I would show their surf scene to the world in good light. I felt pressure to tell Chris’ story well. I always want to raise my bar and the quality of work- so I shot 35mm film with my DP Scott Kassenoff on no money and no crew- that’s madness! I pressured myself to do more, to make a bigger, better film.
I suppose the biggest surprise is that it all works out. Chris Del Moro is very zen about things, in the gnarliest of circumstances he will give me a smile and say, “Hey, if it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be,” and he’s right. Things work out- pressure is something we put on ourselves and you can choose to live that way or not. Bella Vita has taught me to follow my passion and enjoy the experiences (good and bad). Riding a wave is no fun if all you think about is not falling- you’ve got to enjoy the ride!
For more information on “Bella Vita” see http://bellavitafilm.com .