Jason Baffa is an inspired California-based filmmaker and the creator of the popular 16 mm films Singlefin: Yellow and One California Day. We were fortunate enough to the chance to interrupt Jason’s busy filmmaking schedule to ask him a few questions.
Where did you grow up?
Well, I’ve lived in Los Angeles my entire life but most of my early beach days were spent in Newport and San Clemente. My good friend had a house down there and we’d trek south on weekends. I didn’t situate myself into the South Bay until college. I attended Loyola Marymount University which is just north of LAX.
What was your first experience in the South Bay like?
I remember my first time to the beach, I bodysurfed near a storm drain by Marina del Rey – midway through my session, a used condom floated up next to me! I was so freaked out – so, needless to say, life in the South Bay was a bit of a transition. The LAX noise, the Chevron plant, Hyperion sewage treatment, the storm drains – it’s not your typical beach scene. But then those solid northwest swells start filling in through October and the winds would turn offshore. We had about 6 years where it sorta got shitty but the last few seasons have been fun – so I guess you take the good with the bad. I find it hard to believe I’ve been living and surfing the area for about 18 years — it definitely feels like home. Luckily, I have family in Santa Barbara – so I’m on the road a lot to surf the points up north… and that’s probably what I like best.
When did you get your first surfboard?
My cousin Andrew Gable gave me a beater when I was a teenager but I wasn’t really into it – I was super into bodysurfing and would head down to Newport a lot – I guess it was late high school that my brother-in-law, Rich Coffin (now father to super groms, Conner and Parker Coffin – then dating my sister at the time), took me up Topanga Canyon and we bought this Greg Liddle from a really weird guy named Glenn. I’ll never forget it, he had a pencil thin WT mustache and he was wearing a red silk robe with a dragon on it – I actually recreated that character in a student film during college. Totally classic. A few years later, I bought my first legit stick, a 6’6” Bullit – from a small window shop in Hermosa Beach. The shop is gone now, but it was right next to the old North End Tavern. I got my ass kicked on that board during the El Niño winter of ‘91. Pure masochism.
What was the feeling you had when you first stood on a surfboard?
Rich and I were at Malibu on an old Velzy and it was amazing – when you spend all your time bodysurfing, you fall in love with the ocean – the rhythms, the experience. But there is a certain exhilaration to sliding on a board. I was hooked. It’s funny, lately I’m so burnt out on crowds, I’ve gone back to bodysurfing closeouts. Even the bad days are fun – I guess you get a bit jaded when you spend all your time traveling and searching for perfect waves. It’s good to remember what made you happy as a kid.
Who did you look up to and admire when you were a young man?
My dad’s been a huge influence. He’s a stand up guy and really dedicated himself to our family. He taught me to bodysurf and play other sports. Not known to many but before being serious about surfing, I was an all city and all valley CIF running back – my class almost took State but lost to Napoleon Kaufman, who ended up on the Raiders. I also, played baseball, soccer, beach volleyball and ran track – so, my dad was really supportive of my sports. But every summer I was super bummed to leave the beach and go to football practice. I think that is maybe what gave me a unique perspective on surfing and travel. My love affair really began a bit later in life.
My cousin Andrew was also a huge influence and as I mentioned earlier, my now brother-in-law, Rich Coffin.
Outside of family, I looked up to the filmmakers of my generation: Lucas, Spielberg, Coppola. And I was a Larry Czonka fan, too. Czonka was fullback for the Miami Dolphins, his team finished an undefeated 17–0 season, winning the Superbowl – I was born during that game and I played fullback. Czonka kicked ass.
Ironically, I used to watch the early Steve Sabol NFL films. I think those actually really influenced my surf films. He used a lot of slow motion photography, a lot of tight shots on the details of the game and he always portrayed the athletes as gladiators – heros. I always really liked that – letting things be larger than life. Ha! So I guess Larry Czonka really did influence my filmmaking career. Who knew?
Where were you educated in filmmaking?
I was weird, I decided I wanted to make movies at a very early age. Much of that credit goes to my other cousin, Christopher Baffa, ASC. He is now the director of photography for shows like Glee, Nip/Tuck and films like Running with Scissors and Suicide Kings. He introduced me to film when I was really young. I later pursued it at the Art Center in Pasadena and then I got my BFA in film production from Loyola Marymount University.
Explain how the idea for Singlefin: Yellow came about?
Singlefin: Yellow came out of me driving from Manhattan Beach to Irvine every day to work on a show called Bluetorch TV. I was a TV producer there and got to do a lot of the surfing segments. I also got to do a lot of the longboarding segments because at that time, I was pretty focused on riding traditional equipment.
Through my travels for the show, I met Devon Howard, Beau Young, Daize Shayne, David Kinoshita and Bonga Perkins. Making a TV show is a total grind and as much as I loved the creative part, i really hated the quick turnaround and inability to really let things play out in a cinematic way. I realized then that I really wanted to get into doing feature-length films and I thought, if I’m going to make my own movie, why not combine two things I really love, longboarding & filmmaking. My commute was about 2 hours round trip, so I would just play good music, drink a lot of coffee and let my mind wander about movie ideas and inspiration.
At the time, there were not many decent films about longboarding. The Seedling was the most notable and I always thought, wow – this genre really needs a definitive film that tells a story. Something that I can show to people who don’t surf and help them understand what it is we do.
Jason Baffa making cinema on canvas
I had toyed with doing a film that followed one object as the central thread for a while – all my early ideas were geared towards a narrative feature and not surfing. There were a few of them I developed for film school but never actualized. There’s a pretty cool 1964 movie called The Yellow Rolls Royce that follows a car as the central theme and I thought it worked great. At some point, I saw Thicker than Water and the light bulb went off. Chris did the really cool scene with the green board and I loved seeing those guys share one board – I actually met Chris on a shoot where he, Keith and Dan got to field ground balls at Angel Stadium. We chatted and I mentioned the idea. To this day he’s embarrassed for not remembering – we’ve since become good friends.
Anyways, after too much driving and too much coffee, I remember putting it all together – Tyler making the board, the places I wanted to visit. I remember walking into my edit bay and telling my good friend Carl Cramer (editor of both my films) about my idea. I saved up my cash – left Bluetorch TV and started shooting the first sequence with Beau Young about a year later.
What has been the reaction to Singlefin: Yellow and One California Day?
It’s been amazing. Both have gone on to international acclaim and people consistently reach out to say how much the films mean to them – it’s a very rewarding experience. These films are truly labors of love, the market place for surf films is pretty tricky and by shooting film and spending 3–4 years to make these projects, you sorta lose any potential in making good money – so the positive feedback makes them worth the effort.
Who was your favorite person you’ve gotten to work with over the years?
Everyone has been so cool. I’ve truly made some great friends. Locally, I see Tyler Hatzikian almost every day – I ride his boards and do some creative work for him and the shop – so he’s a good friend. I also really had fun working with Chris Malloy. We have so many shared experiences in making these films that we really hit it off – I see him a fair amount when I’m surfing in the SB area too. So, it’s just been cool to connect on a different level. We can joke about our various projects, the love of shooting film, shared interest in music – and we both drink a decent amount of beer.
Who/what inspires you?
Man, good filmmaking – that always inspires me. It is a challenging craft and I love seeing work that is well thought out and executed. Anytime I walk into Tyler’s factory I’m inspired and pissed that I can’t buy every board on the rack. And my wife is constant inspiration – she teaches yoga and is really a great positive influence. Physically, mentally, it’s good to stay positive – even when the world around us seems to be crumbling, we still have it pretty good.
What is the greatest thing you have learned so far in your life?
I think to follow my dreams – I continue to push everyday to keep doing the things I love. It’s a constant struggle. This world isn’t really set up for free traveling artists. But I can’t imagine doing much else – I learn so much every time I go down the creative path.
Do you have any regrets or wish you had done something differently?
Well, watching my nephews Conner & Parker Coffin turn into teenage touring pros, I guess I wish I started surfing when I was 2 years old like them! But more specifically, I had a chance to really pursue Hollywood and filmmaking at a young age and my love for surfing sorta sidetracked me. So, every now and then I wish I stayed focused just on making films – but my pursuit of all things surf led to Singlefin: Yellow and One California Day – so, it’s sliding doors. I don’t think I’d want to give up either of those projects and the journey I went down to create them for a career in Hollywood– which may or may not still happen.
What are you most proud of?
I’m really proud of the work. We really worked our asses off to pull both Singlefin: Yellow and One California Day off – I learned playing sports that you “leave it all on the field.” Give it 110% and you can go home happy – win or lose. I definitely feel like I did everything in my power to make those films as strong as I could – and that feels good, no one can take that away from me.
There are other filmmakers, who hire a bunch of people to travel around and gather footage and then they take all the credit for making the movie. I’m proud to say I made Singlefin: Yellow with one camera and the help of Scott Kassenoff shooting water & One California Day with Mark Jeremias and Scott Kassenoff. It’s a huge under taking but we metered, lit, framed and exposed every shot in those movies. Carl Cramer cut them and that’s it. It’s a huge amount of work but super rewarding.
Tyler Hatzikian getting well-heeled
What meaning does surfing hold for you and how has it changed your life?
Well, its changed everything – my focus is probably 80% surf based day in and day out. Ha! I’d probably be a lot more successful if I didn’t surf – I’d definitely be more focused on other things! But at the end of the day, it’s just really, really fun. A good day of surfing with friends is about as much fun as you can have.
What brings you the most happiness in the world?
A good day of surfing. Happy hour with good friends. Cooking with family. Those all rate high on the list. Seeing a good movie is up there and closing financing on one of my own movies may take the cake!
What is in your current quiver? What is your favorite board?
I’m pretty old school. I have a 9’ 6” Tyler Point Model (off of Singlefin: Yellow), a ‘62 Hansen, a ‘59 Jacobs, a 9’ big wave longboard shaped by Matt Calvani from a Joel Tudor board I broke a few years back, a 9’2” Takayama Model-T, and a 11’ and 9’ Skip Frye (on loan from Brad Gerlach). I also have a 9’0″ Calvani nose rider & a 10’2″ Tyler Nose rider. Oh, and I won a 6’ 0” custom Jack Johnson signed board last night at his concert movie première! But my favorite board is a 9’ 4” Tyler Wing Nose I snake from my buddy when the waves get good – one of the most progressive longboards i’ve ever ridden.
One of my biggest regrets is that I’ve met some of the greatest shapers of the world while making my films but all my money went into making the films, so I can’t hire them all to shape me boards. That would be an epic quiver! It would also be about a $20K investment!
What’s your favorite meal?
I make my dad’s spaghetti sauce that he learned from my Italian grandma. It is true comfort food, and my friends often request a night to come over to enjoy it.
What are you listening to on your iPod?
Ha! Jack Johnson, how cliché! We saw Emmett Malloy’s documentary last night, Jack Johnson En Concert – so, I guess I was inspired to get groovy.
The One California Day team, Mexico
What project(s) are you working on?
Well, I’ve been developing a documentary-based reality TV show about Brad Gerlach and Mike Parsons scouring the globe for uncharted big waves surf spots. Those guys are complete characters and far more entertaining than half the bullshit on TV – the tough part is convincing a network that surfing can attract viewers. So many people have completely screwed it up in the commercial space that it makes it hard for guys like us – who actually know what we are doing to produce it. We are waiting to hear back from a big international distributor any day now – hoping it goes, this winter could be sick.
I also have a film that was about ready to shoot, starring Dan Malloy and following him on a pilgrimage of sorts, tracking down some icons of surfing. Patagonia is super into it but we haven’t been able to close the private equity financing. So, if anyone is reading this and wants to help make a cool surf film – we are always looking for investors. You’d be amazed how much work beyond actually making the film, goes into making one of these films. It’s gnarly – kinda like taking a paddle out beating at El Porto or Ocean Beach on a big day. You just keep taking it on the head, hoping for a chance to make something special happen.
Either way, I’d like to push my work into a more commercial space – where it can live as a solid representation of our surfing subculture but also, can empower, entertain and inspire the non-surfer. It’s a tall order but I feel like that is the direction I need to evolve to stay relevant as a filmmaker.
On a lighter note, I’ve been working with Chris Malloy & Brad Gerlach, helping our Hawaiian friends reintroduce Primo Beer back to the mainland. Primo is Hawaii’s beer. It went away in the ‘80s and they just brought it back. I put together some mini-docs on our California road trips. The beer is available in bars throughout Hawaii and now California – I just saw it this morning at BevMo!
What’s next for Jason Baffa?
I really hope another film. I truly love making these films – without sounding like I’m on my soap box, I guess I just can’t stress enough to people how tricky it is to make these independent surf films happen. Without the audience support and people buying the DVDs, and telling their friends to buy the DVDs – we just won’t be able to keep making these films. Skateboard films sell about 100,000 units on a hot title – surf movies are lucky to do 30,000 units. Hard to believe when you think there are millions of surfers out there. Factor in distributor fees, shop markup, investors – there’s not a lot of financial wiggle room. I speak to guys like Mark Jeremias, and Chris Malloy about this often and we all sorta scratch our heads.
And with YouTube, and piracy and people sharing DVDs – it just makes it a tricky business. So keep supporting the titles you enjoy and tell your friends to do the same – independent film in general is really suffering. That trickles down to niche markets like surf films – so we all need to make the effort to go to movies and spread the word – and perhaps the filmmakers need to adjust as well. Shooting film is an expensive process and there are now new options. But in the end, I just want to offer my audience a really high quality experience, with a lot of production value. I think they deserve that.
More information about Jason Baffa films and art, check outwww.jasonbaffafilms.com. Information about Primo Beer can be found here:www.primobeer.com. The film One California Day is available at your local surf shop or available here.