Contrary to what is seen in most surf films, the act of wave riding does not happen in a cultural vacuum. After all, surfers are people too and with that comes heaps of colorful cultural baggage. Jason Baffa’s film Bella Vita cuts to the core of this truth by thoughtfully and beautifully celebrating the burgeoning Italian surf scene and a long overdue trip “home” by professional surfer Chris Del Moro. The film’s North American premiere is during SBIFF 2014 on Monday, Feburary 3, at the Arlington Theatre.
Bella Vita is anything but your typical surf film. Tell me a little bit about how this project got started.
After spending 10 years creating my films Singlefin: Yellow (2004) and One California Day (2007), I really wanted to focus on doing work outside of surfing. My goal was to grow as a filmmaker and be able to surf when the waves were good as opposed to sitting behind a camera when the waves were good! But I love surfing and I love movie-making so eventually I got the itch to do again within surfing…but I knew whatever the project was it had to be different.
I really wanted to push myself and create a film that has surfing at its center but touches on much more. And so, during a vacation to Bali, I ran into Chris Del Moro (who I met years earlier at SBIFF when I screened One California Day and he screened Sliding Liberia). He started asking me about film projects and ideas and I told him the above. As we chatted further, and got a bit deeper into the Bintang beer, we celebrated in the fact that we are both from Italian fathers. Chris told me stories of splitting time between California with his mom and Italy with his dad. I was fascinated. He also told me about this unique surfing culture that was blossoming in Italy.
At the time, I didn’t realize Italy could get good waves. I always pictured stormy wind waves in the Mediterranean but then Chris showed me some photos. That’s when my wheels really started turning. Eventually, Chris said, “You know, I’ve always thought there could be a really cool documentary about this growing Italian surf scene and all the beautiful experiences I’ve had there with my friends. You’d be the perfect person to direct it.” And that was it.
For me, the idea of three months in Italy with great food, good wine, friends, family, and the chance for surf was, well, It just felt like something I had to do. Moreover, I knew we would not get epic waves like a trip to Bali, South America, or even California so, for the film to work, it would have to have a strong story and be different than anything I’d seen in the surfing world. That challenge right there was super exciting for me.
Your films historically have captured views of surf culture that exist beyond the mainstream and Bella Vita is no different. What is it you are trying to show us about surfing and, well, life for that matter with this film?
Well, I’m glad you mentioned “life” because I really do feel that, at it’s core, Bella Vita is a film about life as seen through the eyes of these traveling surfers in Italy. “Bella Vita” in English means “beautiful life” and the Italians live life so well. The focus on family, community, food, and culture is palpable and I think it has really impacted how they have taken the surfing-lifestyle and made it very Italian. So, through Chris’ journey, I feel the audience is exposed to all these characters who, in their own way, are living a beautiful life. By experiencing their stories I feel we are reminded of simple things that are important. It is a message that I’m glad to see has resonated in other countries as we’ve shown the film.
My goal has always been to make a good movie. I happen to love surfing and so those “surf-stories” have fueled my filmmaking but, in the end, I just want to let the audience escape into something authentic that I hope is well made and entertaining, whether they are a core surfer or a movie lover.
With Bella Vita, I really hoped to do something intimate yet with a big broad movie feeling. So the film has some very real documentary moments and also some sweeping theatrical sections. I hope it takes the viewer on an emotional journey. Surfing has always been emotional for me. It is a passion that fuels my life as does filmmaking. It’s all very Italian really!
By exploring these themes, I think the film is a celebration of life. Surfing is a perfect complement and a connecting force for the most important human values: friendship, family, environmental respect, and true gratitude for our passage on this beautiful planet.
The search for waves enables the protagonists to find much more. For this reason I hope Bella Vita is perceived not as a beautiful surf film but as a beautiful film about life.
Italy is not really on many peoples surf maps but you guys sure found some oceanic bounty. Were you surprised by what you found in Italy?
The surf scene in Italy is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. If I had to sum it up in one word I’d say “energized.” Everything happens very quickly. You are in a relatively small area of water surrounded by land and yet the winds can howl in a matter of hours. I watched the Mediterranean Sea go from dead-flat to 8 foot chunky wind-swell chop in literally 30 minutes. It was amazing to see. Finding good waves is an art. The waves happen, the wind happens, there is fetch, the fetch creates swell and the topography rivals any world-class surf-zone on the planet.
That said, being at the right place at the right time is a bit like catching lightning in a bottle. The Italians are first-class meteorologists, far better than my friends in California but it is still tough. When things move that quickly you don’t have the ability to read buoys, or call friends for reports and, by the time you drive somewhere new, the swell may be gone. We had one pulse that lasted about two hours. We woke up, there were waves, the film-camera went down and we were trying to fix it. By the time we got the camera up, the swell was literally gone. It was a two-hour window. That is just maddening!
We got some very fun and sometimes good waves. But I have seen photos of some really impressive waves in that region. I was hoping the stars would align and we could capture them while we were there but it didn’t happen. That’s surf filmmaking. Those waves are a bit shy around cameras and maybe that’s okay. The locals can enjoy them when they happen. Ha, if they happen!
Furthermore, the Italian vibe in the water is energized. Every time I rolled film on one of the Italian surfers they had this huge smile on their face. They hang in the line-up, yelling, screaming in Italian to each other. It’s like a soccer match! And because it is wind-swell, the wave period is super short. Meaning that there are many waves close together. So you have this frenzy of people and waves, it is truly something unique. I think the Coffin Brothers were a bit taken back. Even on the most crowded day at Rincon all the surfers still sort of keep to themselves. Set waves come and people go. In Italy it’s a party scene. Boards are flying, hands are flying, people are flying, it was quite an experience.
Changing gears a little bit, why do you think Hollywood so often misses the mark when they try to capture the essence of the surfing experience on film?
When I see Hollywood projects about surfing that are obviously trying to serve the marketing agenda and the studio agenda it is a bit hard to swallow. Surfing is sexy and commercial but for many of us it is just part of our lives. That’s what I love about Bella Vita, it presents surfing as a focal point in Chris’ life yet his life experiences in the film go far beyond what happens at the beach.
I think the Hollywood films that focus on the people, their stories, and their journey, and use surfing as a character element are the ones that have been successful. I always look to the John Milius film, Big Wednesday. The film is about these characters and their journey through life, surfing just happens to be what ties them together. Milius really uses the surf sequences as story points and that has always really inspired me, I’ve definitely tried to infuse that into my films. When editing, I’ll ask myself, “What does this surf sequence mean? How does this surf sequence move our story forward? Is it entertainment? Character setup? A new location?” I like adding that subtle weight to it. Pretty pictures and good music only go so far.
On a technical note, there is the very real dilemma that a big Hollywood film has a lot of moving pieces. Because of this, it needs to be scheduled and contained. Surf filmmaking is anything but contained. You need to be nimble and flexible and have time on your side. Mother Nature is a tumultuous talent, she shows up when she wants to. So it is very hard to structure that into the context of a Hollywood production. The end result is sometimes things that seemed forced or need to be patched together and the core-audience calls bull-shit.
But that’s just it, I’m sure cops feel the same way about cop movies. Soldiers surely feel the same way about war movies, football players, baseball players, you name it. I’m sure they have their criticisms of how Hollywood shows “their world.” The big difference perhaps is that surfing has this beautiful filmmaking tradition within it’s culture so we know what is real and authentic and re-creating that for a mainstream audience can be extremely difficult.
My challenge to the Bella Vita team was to do an authentic “guerrilla” independent film that feels like a proper theatrical feature. It was a huge challenge. There’s a reason big Hollywood movies feel big. There is support and finances to keep things running well. We definitely bled for our final results but I’m really proud of the effort and passion everyone put forward to pull it off.
Describe the best meal you had in EAT-aly?
Two meals really stand out. The first was my first in the country. I was picked up by Piergiorgio Castellani who is the winemaker in the film. He housed us on his vineyard in Tuscany. Without the support of Piergiorgio this film could not have been made. The night I arrived his wife, Chiara, made me a simple pasta pomodoro with fresh tomato, basil, parmesan cheese, and a nice glass of their family wine. It was perfect and became a Bella Vita first meal tradition for anyone who flew in to visit throughout filming.
The second came at the end of the trip. My wife, her mom, my son (then 8 months), and my parents all flew over for the last weeks of the shoot. On Thanksgiving we wanted to treat ourselves to a big meal but it was hard to find turkeys. So my parents found these small game hens. We stuffed them and made potato gnocchi with truffle oil to sub for mash potatoes. Having my immediate family there and doing a Thanksgiving in Italy is something I will cherish forever. It was an amazing dinner!
So what’s next for Jason Baffa?
To quote Indiana Jones, “I don’t know, I’m just making this up as I go.”
Ha! I’ve been directing commercials and need to get back to that world and cover my 16 months off making Bella Vita. I guess it is the balance of art and commerce. But I love making features and I’m always looking for good stories so we will see.
Most importantly, I’m looking forward to the big celebration for the North American premiere of Bella Vita on February 3 at the Arlington. I can’t imagine a better town to premiere this film in. I feel really blessed to be a part of the 2014 SBIFF.