In the following interview, Jason Baffa, creator of Singlefin: Yellow and One California Day, catches up with Chris Nelson of the London Surf Film Festival, delving into the trials and triumphs of his latest cinematic venture, Bella Vita.
It’s reassuring to know that away from the glossy veneer of brand clips and live streams, there is a group of passionate filmmakers who are striving to produce feature length movies that push beyond the air reverse and strive to explore the rich vein of culture our lifestyle possesses across the globe.
Baffa's Bella Vita is a beautiful and uplifting documentary that follows comrade and surfer, Chris Del Moro, back to his Italian homeland; surfing and exploring, revisiting not just the landscapes, but the meaning of family and friendship. Shot on 35mm, the movie finds the Mediterranean offers surprisingly good waves, but more than that – a culture where the bonds of amicizia and la famiglia still run deep.
The film has it’s UK Premiere at the London Surf / Film Festival on Thursday 31st October. Grab a ticket HERE
How did the idea of making the film come about?
One could expect the idea would be born from copious amounts of pasta pomodoro and Chianti but in fact, Bella Vita was first discussed over cold Bintangs and Nasi Goreng during a game of Jenga in Katut’s kitchen on the island of Nusa Lembongan, Bali. It was there that Chris del Moro and I first bonded on the fact that as two blonde-haired, blue-eyed traveling surfers, we were both, ironically enough, the sons of Italian Fathers. We shared, as every Italian can, the warm memories of Nonna’s kitchen on a Sunday, big family gatherings and an eager desire to return to the homeland.
I spent a year developing the idea with Chris and a passionate producing team, aligning ourselves with a core group of Italian locals, without whom this film could truly never have happened. We also enlisted a surrounding cast, all of whom have special connections with the region. My goal was to document their journey through Italy in a way that takes the viewer on a fantastic ride. In this current interconnected world, where you can watch jaw-dropping footage on the Internet in real-time, I wanted to create something that was intimately experiential. Something like the aforementioned pasta – that the audience could really sink their teeth into. Let’s call it a documentary film about surfers. A film filled with passionate characters, beautiful scenery, culture, adventure and life, beautiful life - Bella Vita.
Shooting any project based around surfing involves a lot of strategic and planning issues revolving around unpredictable conditions. In Italy this is even more of an issue – how did you overcome / work around these?
I cried a few times. It was definitely the most challenging thing I’ve taken on in my career. Not just the un-predictable and fast moving conditions, but wanting to “raise-the-bar” from the previous work also played a large role in adding stress.
Gratitude is perhaps something we’ve lost in some other places where surf happens. We get picky, oh, the tide is too low, the wind isn’t just right, that sand bar will be better in an hour. You don’t hear these statements in Italy. In Italy, if there is a surfable wave, people are on it. It is just a different mentality and that was a really fun energy to be around.Jason Baffa
Shooting the 35mm film, I didn’t get to see a frame of our film footage until a few months after the trip. So the whole time in Italy, I’m just praying the cameras are working right and all the film footage is good. We even had a few cameras jam during the best days of surf. When you only get to shoot a decent day every few weeks, one can only imagine how heart-breaking it was to have something technical go wrong. It was just that type of project and it was extremely emotional. But as my friends in Italy said, it is very Italian to suffer for your art. So, I tried to do my best to keep my chin up and focus towards the end goal, which was to make a unique and different film.
But man, it was really, really hard. The weather changes very quickly in Italy and finding great surf is a little bit like trying to capture lightening in a bottle, mix that with the difficulty of any film production and you have a recipe for stress. I drank a lot of really good red wine to curb the anxiety!
Were you surprised by the size and passion of the Italian surf community?
I was definitely surprised by the stoke level. It’s rare to see an Italian riding a wave without a smile. The people who have focused on it love surfing so much and I think the fact that they have to really work to get waves, and be patient to get waves, makes them that much more grateful. Gratitude is perhaps something we’ve lost in some other places where surf happens. We get picky, oh, the tide is too low, the wind isn’t just right, that sand bar will be better in an hour. You don’t hear these statements in Italy. In Italy, if there is a surfable wave, people are on it. It is just a different mentality and that was a really fun energy to be around.
The film steps away from the usual surf film narrative. At times it becomes an intimate, personal story – is this something that you and Chris were keen to do from the start, or is it the way the film evolved over the shooting and editing period?
I really wanted to push the boundaries of what a surf-movie is and just make a good movie – one that is about this journey Chris Del Moro is on. I think at first, Chris was more focused on the idea about a documentary that captures the Italian surfing sub-culture. As we discussed the project more and more, I really felt strongly that the film should be about his personal and emotional journey. If we told a good story about his journey and all the people he meets along the way, we had the potential for a story that could captivate audiences all over the world. In a way that I think transcends a niche’ story about a specific surf-scene.
So it was always my goal to capture “real” moments during our 108 day shoot. At the same time, I was hoping we’d get a few world-class waves that we could show-off as the potential for this surf zone and really surprise people.
Both of these goals were lofty and perhaps why the shoot was so frustrating at times. Anytime in life, when we drift out of our comfort zone, I think things are unsettling. Making this film definitely felt scary at times. As my good friend, shaper, Tyler Hatzikian has always said to me about his craftsmanship, “If you’re not pushing your self, you are not learning and if you’re not learning- what is the point”.
What was the main thing you took away from the project and what aspect of the film are you most proud?
I’m definitely proud of the quality of the film, considering the crew was myself, my D.P. and an assistant. To accomplish a film like Bella Vita with such minimal production support (and budget) is a great accomplishment and my producing team in Los Angeles did a great job making it all happen. I also love the sequences in the film that I dreamed up late-at-night that we brought to life. I enjoy that part of filmmaking, as opposed to the documentary style of shoot everything and find it in the edit. We did plenty of that too, but I’m proudest of the sequences that I really planned out- like the film’s open, the motorcycle sequences and the ending.
It’s hard to say the main thing I’ve taken away from this film because it is all very fresh and new. I’m still a bit too close to it and probably need some time away so I can reflect. It has literally been a non-stop 24-7 adventure for the last 15 months (since I jumped on a plane to Italy). I suppose all of my films somehow capture a personal time or place I’m in while making them. The interesting thing is that both SFY and OCD were four-year projects. So, I spent close to ten years between those two films. Bella Vita, by choice, was an intense and compressed approach, another challenge for me. So, my head is still spinning a bit. If anything, having spent some time directing commercials, since they are what really pay my bills, I’m reminded that I really love filmmaking in long form. I like the pacing of the media and I also like the intense focus that goes into all the details of the project. It’s draining and I thank all my family and friends for their support on the journey.