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The S.B. Questionnaire: Jason Baffa

Talking Surf, Movies, and Wine with the Filmmaker of 'Bella Vita' and 'Loopers'

“Grown men need projects to keep us together, building relationships,” explains Jason Baffa, paraphrasing a friend of his. “Otherwise we just get together once in a while to get drunk.”

Jason is a renown filmmaker of the modern surf classics Singlefin: Yellow and One California Day. In 2013, he made Bella Vita, which transcended the surf film genre by following surfer-artist Chris Del Moro on trip to Italy searching for his roots as well as waves.

Out of this experience — which also involved fifth generation winemaker Piergiorgio Castellani — emerged another unique endeavor for the three friends: Ziobaffa Organic Wines. “We’re now exporting throughout the world,” says Jason, who was given the nickname “Zio Baffa,” which means Uncle Baffa, while filming Bella Vita. “I’m the ambassador. I do the marketing. I take care of the creative contribution.”

Under the guidance of Piergiorgio, winemakers in Tuscany produce a sangiovese-based red blend called Toscana Rosso. “We also source a Pinot Grigio from cool farmer hippies in Sicily,” Jason says. “And we make have a Prosecco from Veneto. We’re representing the north, middle, and south of Italy.” They sell about 10,000 cases of wine annually in the United States and are also available in Europe, Japan, Canada, Brazil, and Mexico.

At this year’s SBIFF, Jason premiered his latest documentary, Loopers: The Caddie’s Long Walk. The engaging film takes an outsiders’ approach to golf by examining the somewhat secret profession of the caddie. Jason convinced Bill Murray to do the narration for the film, which was no small feat. “I enjoy juggling a lot of things,” Jason explains. “With Loopers, I could do a trip and then it was a month before we did another shoot. There’s an ebb and flow.”

He grew up in San Marino, California. “I felt landlocked growing up,” Jason shares. “Any chance I’d get, I’d go to the beach.”

Richard Coffin Jr., who eventually married Jason’s sister, Krista, introduced him to surfing and to Santa Barbara. After graduating from San Marino High in 1991, he chose Loyola Marymount for college, as it had the best film school closest to the beach. Upon graduating in 1995, he got a job at the production company New World Entertainment. He recalls that Marvel Comics had an office in the basement, but he regrets not spending more time with Stan Lee.

His focus was always to make features, and a first attempt failed after the money fell out. “I was left confused, disillusioned by it all,” he admits. “So I started traveling and surfing.” From 1997 to 1999, he traveled, hitting all the major surf zones: Mexico, Hawaii, and South America. “It was imperative to me as a storyteller to get out and see other cultures,” he explains. He paid his way by selling surf paintings he’d created. While in college, he’d spent a semester in Spain and had taken up painting courses.

In the late 1990s, Bluetorch, the first daily action sports magazine TV show, hired him to produce their shows. “I was hanging out in Manhattan Beach and they grabbed me,” Jason says. “They hired people who knew the lifestyle from the inside out. We put out 170 shows.” He did this for two years.

“I was going to turn 30, and I realized I wanted to make films,” says Baffa who started shooting Single Fin Yellow in January 2002. “I didn’t know what I was doing. It was fun. Halfway through I ran out of money and my sister told me I needed a business plan. It’s amazing what you do winging it.” Single Fin Yellow was shown at SBIFF 2003, and my friendship and admiration for “affable” Baffa started.

After many years of pretending to be from Santa Barbara, Jason and his wife, Linda, moved to our city four years ago. “We wanted a place to raise kids, and we’d come here so often,” he says. “When you paddle out at Manhattan Beach, you still feel the weight of the city looming behind you. When you’re in Santa Barbara, there’s so much open space, a beautiful coastline.”

In between passion projects, Jason does commercials. “I’m selling my soul to the advertising devil,” he says self-deprecatingly. “I’ve always worked on things I’ve believed in. I’ve been an independent artist my entire career. Anyone who knows me understands I’d be miserable locked down.”

As he tells me this, the chair in which he’s been sitting across from me literally breaks down. We share a good laugh.

Jason Baffa answers the Proust Questionnaire.

What is your current state of mind?

Hopeful and maybe a bit uncertain. We just premiered our new film Loopers: The Caddie’s Long Walk at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, so I’m coming off the high of finishing and releasing a four-year project. So it is an exciting time, but there is also anxiety: How will it be received? Will it connect with audiences? What should I do next?

Which historical figure do you most identify with?

Only a filmmaker would submit a fictional character, but maybe Indiana Jones. Stubborn, sometimes masochistic, he explores the world carefree with a knack for landing on his feet. He seems as comfortable polished, wearing a suit and tie, as he is battered, covered in dirt and blood. He isn’t perfect and appears open to the lessons learned by failure. All that framed through the lens of a life spent on the road of adventure, I like that. Perhaps T.E. Lawrence is my real-life version of similar traits.

What is the quality you most like in people?

Inspiration. I love being around people who are inspired, who don’t take life too seriously, and enjoy a good laugh. This whole journey is one of discovery and there is no easy path. I try to remind myself that everyone is going through the same thing. So, seeing people come together and support one another in good times and bad with positive energy, this seems essential.

What do you like most about your job?

Well, it never feels like work. That’s a big one for me, I really love what I do. There is also a very special satisfaction about taking the spark of an idea and seeing it through the many phases of production. The process of nurturing an idea’s growth into something tangible that you can then share, and eventually, the satisfaction of seeing how it affects those who receive it. In the end, I just love creating things that I can share with the world.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

My wife, Linda, teaches yoga in Santa Barbara and we talk a lot about happiness. She sent me a great quote, “You don’t chase happiness, you create it.” For me, happiness is a life of creativity and inspiration shared with family and friends, good food, wine, and a lot of time surfing in warm water!

What is your greatest fear?

I guess, not being good enough. Since I was a kid playing sports, I always wanted to be the best. You get older and you realize that there is always someone better. So I just try to focus on doing great work and being a good person. But at the end of the day, I’m a freelance artist. I have two small kids. There is pressure. I would never want to let my family down which means I need to constantly be “on” and that can be scary. Am I making the right decisions? Am I putting my energy into the right things? These are some of questions that keep me up at night.

Who do you most admire?

I really admire my parents. They have been married for nearly 60 years and set a fantastic example for us all to follow. They have always put family first but, simultaneously, built a world for themselves filled with close friends, successful work, and a loving relationship. As a parent, I now realize how difficult that all is and yet, they’ve made it seem effortless. I’m sure they’d say it wasn’t easy but I think their support for each other really resonates.

What is your greatest extravagance?

My friends say I have Champagne taste on a Bud Light budget. I love nice things but great food is probably at the top of my list. My colleagues know, if we are traveling, I’m gonna do my research on the best places to eat or drink. I feel like cheating yourself with bad food is just a wasted opportunity. Not that it needs to be expensive, there are plenty of great places that won’t break the bank. But I truly do love a high-end culinary experience.

What is the quality you most dislike in people?

Negativity. There’s plenty to get bummed about in the world but one can’t sit in it. At least, I don’t enjoy spending time with people that do.

What do you most value in friends?

Loyalty, and not in a loyal-to-me sort of way, but just loyal to their friends and their values. I have been blessed with a life surrounded by fantastic, supportive people. People who drop anything to help their friends. A group of us still gets together once a month for dinner and these are people I’ve known since kindergarten, grade school, and college. To have that kind of support has really helped me take creative risks. They know me, for me, good or bad and that’s what every person needs: friends who love them for who they are.

What is your most marked characteristic?

I hope, consistency, and that goes for the good and the bad! But at least people know what they are going to get. LOL!

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

I’m sure my English teachers would cringe at the overuse of surf vernacular like “cool,” “rad,” “stoked,” “bummer,” and “epic.”

Which talent would you most like to have?

Guitar. I love music. It’s a huge part of my work and I really wish I could play. Unfortunately, my sausage fingers can’t seem to work a scale. At least I rip on air-guitar.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

I’m pretty hard on myself, kinda my own worst critic-type scenario. I would probably enjoy many things a bit more if I could let that go. Cue meditation music as my work begins….

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

At age five, I told my parents that I wanted to make movies for a living and I’ve been able to do that. The real success is somehow navigating some 25 years as a freelance artist. It hasn’t been without sacrifice and I often question some of my decisions. But when I step back, it is kind of amazing. The new journey is doing it with a family and their support has been paramount.

Where would you most like to live?

Making films and commercials, I’ve traveled the world and I’ve seen some of the most beautiful places. Santa Barbara remains one of my favorites. I love it here. Maybe, someday, we can share time with Hawaii, but for now, I’m right where I want to be.

What is your most treasured possession?

My sense of humor. Because the other stuff, is just stuff. The local fires reminded us all of that. But laughter, and a sense of humor, that’s something I can take with me anywhere and it’s also something I can share.

Who makes you laugh the most?

These days, our three-year-old daughter, Briana. This child may have a career ahead of her making people laugh. Mom, big brother, and I are happy to be the first audience.

What is your motto?

If it was easy, everyone would do it…and if everyone did it, it would be lame.

On what occasion do you lie?

I will lie if it is protecting someone vulnerable. Especially if the lie isn’t going to cause harm to someone else. Perhaps “creative answering” is a better term. Parents are really good at this!

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