Three Great Things: Jeff Baena

The writer-director, whose found-footage anthology series Cinema Toast just hit Showtime, shares some of the things that bring him joy in life.

Three Great Things is Talkhouse’s series in which artists tell us about three things they absolutely love. To mark the new Showtime found-footage anthology series Cinema Toast, its creator Jeff Baena – the writer-director of Life After Beth, Joshy, The Little Hours and Horse Girl – shared some of the things that have made his life more meaningful recently. — N.D.

Chocolate Chip Cookies
I make a lot of chocolate chip cookies, and for the last 12-ish years, I’ve been working on perfecting my own recipe. I started off with the basic Toll House recipe and then just got really experimental, trying different ingredients and different percentages. As of last week, I feel like I’ve gotten to the point where I’m not going to make any more adjustments and I’ve locked into my official recipe.

This all really started when my wife Aubrey was working on Parks and Rec, and the production designer, who had a farm, knew I made chocolate chip cookies from Aubrey bringing them into work all the time. They had a goose and some ducks, so they gave her a couple of goose eggs and a couple of duck eggs and said maybe I’d want to try something with those. That was my first experiment, and since then I’ve tinkered with every single ingredient to see what kind of difference small changes will make. It’s like some crazy science project that I’ve been working on, and now I just know it inside and out.

Through this 12-year experimental process, Aubrey has eaten a lot of cookies. She’s a very honest critic, and she tells me if they are underdone or they’re too sweet. If there’s something that she feels like just isn’t there yet, she’ll let me know. But over the last couple of months during quarantine, she’s said these are perfect, so I feel like we’re in a good place.

Click here to read Jeff Baena’s recipe for the perfect chocolate chip cookie.

Racer Trash
Filmmaker Harrison Atkins is a good friend of mine and we hang out all the time. During the pandemic, we’d get tested for COVID-19 and he would come over and we’d make music together using his Teenage Engineering OP-1 and my OP-Z or just watch movies. I found out this fall that he and a bunch of other film editors and directors, including Adam Wingard, are in a collective called Racer Trash. They take a movie every month and break it down into, say, 10 pieces, and all the members of the collective take their section, put filters on it, process it, add other media or footage from other movies and TV shows and do anything they want with it as long as it tracks for the right amount of time for that movie. It has a very strong vaporwave aesthetic and is extremely stoney. They did a version of Eyes Wide Shut called Vibes Wide Shut and a version of Jackass called Jazzass, where they took the movie and just added jazz to it and then totally fucked with the way it looked through data moshing and adding weird overlays and changing the color and polarizing it – just going buck wild on it.

Obviously none of this is legal and you can’t really show the films anywhere, so they stream them on Twitch, usually once a month. For 4/20, they had a full day of streaming stuff. For instance, they took the Japanese horror movie House and scored it completely with Beach House songs. It’s very stream-of-consciousness, crazy, super tripped-out, and incredible. They did also Abbadook, where they took The Babadook and used Abba songs as the score. And then one of their director/editors created an alt version of Showgirls which basically took out 45 minutes of filler and replaced the score with music from David Lynch movies, like Angelo Badalamenti or Rammstein. I love Showgirls – it’s one of my favorite bad movies – but this cut made it work on a level where it’s actually amazing now. The scene where Nomi is eating her hamburger, looking out at the lights of Vegas, had the ominous score from Mulholland Drive and it hits you on such a deep level.

Harrison and I actually did the music for the opening and the first seven minutes on It’s Band Time, which was Time Bandits, with all the editors creating their own score for their sections. It was a song that we wrote while jamming. Also, Harrison created the opening title sequence to every episode of Cinema Toast, and another Racer Trash creator, Ellie Pritts, edited and processed the trailer for it that Showtime released.

Racer Trash is one of the best things that’s happened during the pandemic – these guys are really on to something so cool and fun, and their aesthetic is so up my alley. If you go to Twitch, you can sign up so that you’ll get an email whenever their stuff is showing.

Green by Hiroshi Yoshimura
Hiroshi Yoshimura is a Japanese ambient musician from the ’80s. I was already a fan of his album Music for Nine Postcards. Last fall, I was with Ben Sinclair from High Maintenance up in West Marin, paddleboarding and hanging out, and I think this had just been re-released. Ben told me, “Oh my God, you’ve got to listen to this, it’s so great.” I love ambient music – Brian Eno is probably my all-time favorite musician, or at least tied with Bowie – and this is somewhere between Kitarō and Eno, without being too New Agey; it’s very gentle and sparse. The title conjures up images of plants and nature, but there’s also a very liquid, Amazonian feel to it; so, we were listening to it a lot when we were paddleboarding across Tomales Bay and through the little rivers branching off it. It was just the most calming and relaxing experience. It would also be great for getting a massage, going on a run, or just driving your car and being reflective.

It’s the kind of album that you just want to have on a loop. It’s so ambient that you don’t notice when the songs repeat themselves; you get tranced out and caught in a dreamlike state. I’ve really been in love with this album and have listened to it so many times. It’s also been really great to write to it and just relax with it while I’ve been stuck at home over the last year-plus. It’s nice to have music that’s atmospheric rather than intense, because it doesn’t feel like there is any need for resolution or closure. You can kind of drift in and out of it. It’s played a really big part in the second half of this pandemic for me and I would highly recommend it to anybody.

Featured image shows Jeff Baena on the set of Horse Girl. Photo by Katrina Marcinowski.

Jeff Baena is a writer and director currently living in Los Angeles. He grew up in Miami and studied film production at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Baena co-wrote I Heart Huckabees with David O. Russell. He made his feature directorial debut with Life After Beth (2014), and has since followed it up with Joshy (2016), The Little Hours (2017) and Horse Girl (2020). His latest project, Cinema Toast, a found-footage anthology series, started airing on Showtime on April 20. (Photo by Katrina Marcinowski.)