Jeff Baena spoke with Solzy at the Movies about the new Showtime anthology series, Cinema Toast, produced by the Duplass Brothers.
Baena created the series, which is produced by the Duplass Brothers. The anthology series is a post-modernist reinvention of older movies that turns pre-existing imagery from the public domain on its head to tell brand new unique stories. Cinema Toast directors include Baena, Jay Duplass, Mel Eslyn, Alex Ross Perry, Marta Cunningham, Aubrey Plaza, Numa Perrier, Jordan Firstman, Kris Rey, and David Lowery. Voice actors include Alison Brie, Nick Offerman, Fred Armisen, John Early, Christina Ricci, Megan Mullally, Chloe Fineman, and Chris Meloni.
Cinema Toast is now available on Showtime. How long into the pandemic did you first start to come up with the idea for the anthology series?
Jeff Baena: The first week. For me, I stopped doing stuff on I think it was March 9. I was out to dinner with a couple of friends and then that was pretty much the last time I was in public. It was pretty much mid-March. I was playing poker with some friends. We did a sort of online poker game because we had to make the adjustment, obviously, because of the pandemic. I was supposed to make a movie in Italy over the summer and obviously, that was one of the hardest places hit. I was like, I guess upset about that, and tried to figure out a way how we could still work and find a way to be creative during this time. I kind of just made a joke with my friends about What’s Up, Tiger Lily?, the Woody Allen movie, about how that could be sort of an interesting working model where you just dub an old movie and then you don’t have to shoot anything and everything could be remote. Everyone thought that was funny.
And then after, sort of at the end of the night, I was kind of reflecting and thought actually maybe that is a good idea. I sort of re-engineered it a little in my head where it wasn’t just the model that Woody Allen used for What’s Up, Tiger Lily?, where he got I think an early 1960s Hong Kong spy movie, and then just dubbed it in and made a joke—instead of it being about whatever nuclear secrets or wherever it originally was, he made about finding a recipe for a salad or a sandwich. Obviously, that’s super broad and ridiculous. I thought maybe there was a way to sort of use that model but also get a little bit more creative and actually have an effect on the visuals, too, so you’re not just dubbing but you’re also re-editing footage.
My first instinct was to try to get—maybe there’s some sort of licensing company that had a bunch of movies that we could work with and license them from that place. We ended up settling on public domain movies and finding a company that had access to them and would do all the legwork so that we could distribute it internationally so we had some form of distribution. We got something like 800 movies. I teamed up with the Duplass brothers because I’d worked with them on Horse Girl, had a really good experience, and so I teamed up with those guys.
We got these 800 movies, pulled together a list of friends and people we admire that are directors, and then just came up with sort of the overall model, which was take from this menu of, let’s say, 800 movies, the only thing that we required is that all the sound be stripped, all the sound being re-recorded, and telling the story based on this material. It could either be take one movie, and cut it up and find a new story within it or take as many movies as you want and sort of Frankenstein them together and come up with a whole new story. The other mandate was just to not sort of call attention to this process and sort of get to a point where it ultimately is a thing that works in and of itself without sort of being ironic about it. Other than that, just basically do your thing. We pulled together these directors, and I’m amazed at how everything came out because it’s all so completely and syncretically different, which is ultimately the intention, but it really kind of came together in a really fun cool way.
How quickly did directors and cast come on board?
Jeff Baena: We got probably half of them in April or May. We kind of pulled together a list so that we can then start coming up with a business model and a plan to go out and pitch it. That summer, we pitched it and Showtime ended up purchasing it. We had to go through all the logistics of it so we didn’t even really get going in earnest until probably October or something like that. That’s when we first started recording. There was a little bit of a build up.
From October, how long did production take?
Jeff Baena: Each episode had about a 10 day period from inception to completion before the next. A lot of this was moving target stuff because some movies would be on this list that were cleared and then three days later disappear and all of a sudden appear on Amazon Prime. Initially, I was gonna work off this movie called Invasion of the Bee Girls. And then just as I was about to begin, we found out that it got purchased and got distribution so it was no longer available. I had to pivot really quickly. I had two days or something to write the script. I sort of took the movie that I chose and kind of edited it myself, kind of cut it into, I guess, a format that would make sense narratively, and then just basically timed out the syllables and every lip flap there was in the in the episode and try to create a script based on that the flap. It was really painstaking and was pretty difficult but it was also really fun, rewarding.
I imagine with dubbing over an already filmed movie has to be challenging with the editing.
Jeff Baena: Definitely. My process was I didn’t watch the movies with sound. I just watched them without sound so I can kind of just project onto it what I thought the story was, or at least pick a scene and just find something in there that I identified with and assume what the characters were and what their relationships were without knowing. I didn’t want to give myself too much information because I didn’t want to have a reaction to the original. I want to sort of just imagine my own thing and find my way into it.
In looking over IMDB, this was your first TV project. Would you like to take on more TV projects going forward or do you want to get back to film?
Jeff Baena: Definitely. I like TV. I’d like to do more television. Also, doing film at the same time. Having gone through this experience, obviously, this was probably an anomaly in terms of television production in general but the whole process was so unique and I think the format is so different. Ultimately, it’s just storytelling but the way you do it is so distinct. I had a really good time doing this and I have a couple of ideas for TV shows so I’m definitely going to explore it but at the same time, movies are my special place.
When you worked as a production assistant for Robert Zemeckis, what would you say was the most valuable thing you learned from him?
Jeff Baena: I think more than anything, he was just a kind guy so I think probably just be nice to people. I’ve seen both sides of the spectrum with directors where they’re really kind and empowering and where they’re belittling and mega-maniacal. I think ultimately, the kind people get more stuff done. I think there is a calculus between how nice you are to people and what you get out of them. As much importance as we place on creating movies and I guess how important that is of a role as director, at the end of the day, it is just people and you’ve got treat people nicely. I think by him empowering people and treating them nicely, he got to do bigger, more interesting movies than those who don’t.