If there’s any silver lining to the last year, it was how it compelled creators to think even further outside the box. For director/writer Jeff Baena, the idea for the Showtime anthology “Cinema Toast” came as the result of being unable to direct a feature film in Italy — and transferring his weekly poker game to the online sphere after COVID hit.
In chatting with his friends, Baena joked about doing something similar to Woody Allen’s debut feature — 1966’s “What’s Up, Tiger Lily” — by taking existing features and altering them. “Everyone thought it was funny…and later on that night [the project] started spinning in my head about how that’s actually not a bad idea,” Baena told IndieWire. Baena saw the opportunity to not necessarily dub over something, but use the features as a springboard to create a totally new story and genre than what was originally filmed.
Baena started working with a licensing service that brought them a large selection of films and television shows that have ended up in the public domain. He only had a few caveats for the directors and writers assembled for the project: All the sound, including dialogue and film score, would be created exclusively for the project; and the scripts couldn’t be ironic or make fun of the process (Baena didn’t want to recreate “Mystery Science Theater 3000.”) From there it was up to the directors and writers to create a totally original story.
The public domain gets a bad rap, Baena said, “because I think it’s sort of like an orphanage.” When it comes to classic films especially, existing in the public domain can often be because of a clerical error or legal battle. When Baena was looking at the clips already approved for use, he was shocked to see George A. Romero’s zombie classic “Night of the Living Dead” included; it’s the result of its theatrical distributor in 1968 failing to place a copyright indication on the print.
And because of the rise of streaming services, public domain titles are often gobbled up quickly. In Baena’s case, he initially intended to make his “Cinema Toast” feature off the 1973 feature “Invasion of the Bee Girls.” But in the time leading up to production it was sent over to stream on Amazon Prime Video, making it ineligible for the series. He quickly pivoted, he said, to use 1939’s “Made for Each Other,” a family drama starring Jimmy Stewart and Carole Lombard.
Courtesy of SHOWTIME
“I watched the movie without sound to get a sense of what’s going on, but then hopefully project onto it my own story so I wouldn’t be influenced by the original story,” he said. “I was really caught up by the performances [which]….felt pretty modern.” With that, all the directors had only 10 days between inception and completion of their episode.
“It totally tapped into the film nerd part of my brain,” said actress Aubrey Plaza, who made her directorial debut with the episode “Quiet Illness.” She transformed a series of movie and television clips starring Loretta Young into a deep psychological thriller about a woman and her manipulative husband. For Plaza, she said she had to be inspired by the material to do the project, and while watching the various pre-cleared material she kept coming back to Young.
Plaza admits she didn’t know much about Young or her career before embarking on “Quiet Illness,” but she ended up being shocked and inspired by the many hats Young wore as a creator during an era that wasn’t exactly hospitable to women. “This woman was starring in a television show for eight seasons in the ’50s as the lead and there’s 25 episodes a season,” Plaza said. “I was kinda blown away by her story and it just all started coming together in my head.”
Young being a powerful woman aligned nicely with Plaza’s plans for the story she’d be telling. “It came from a place of a female experience that I feel connected to,” Plaza said. She joked that the darkness and murder-filled story might have been connected to the year that was 2020. “I went into the project thinking ‘I’m gonna do a comedy. It’s gonna be hilarious. And I don’t know what it was, I just went down a dark path,” she said.
For both Plaza and Baena, the opportunity to re-contextualize old features and tell new stories was fun, but it brought up the way films are being made post-COVID. “I just recently shot a movie in Turkey, a Guy Ritchie movie, for three months,” Plaza said. She explained that masks and other protocols certainly put a damper on the filmmaking process but it’s necessary. “In some ways it takes the fun out of it because, at least for me, shooting is all about the people and creating that experience,” she said.
Baena expressed similar sentiments as he gears up to starting shooting a project in a few weeks. “It’s really exciting [but] at the same time it’s a little bit scary because it’s this new boogeyman that everyone is unconsciously aware of,” he said. In the meantime, he hopes “Cinema Toast” fills the void while also inspiring audiences to see new ways of engaging with classic cinema: “Ultimately, my goal was to reconnect with the past in a fun and engaging way.”
“Cinema Toast” airs Wednesdays on Showtime.