Remix culture found new life during the pandemic as creators searched for ways to express themselves while quarantining themselves at home. Enter Jeff Baena, whose new “Cinema Toast” show on Showtime remixes public domain film footage into all-new stories using voice overdubbing and new edits. Each of the ten episodes has different directors, including independent favorites. Jay duplass, Numa Perrier, Alex ross Perry and David Lowery. The episode “Quiet Illness” features footage starring Old Hollywood star Loretta Young and marks the emotional debut of Aubrey plaza.
Aubrey Plaza spoke with RogerEbert.com about his directing of the episode, his discovery of a new creative freedom, his inspiration from Loretta Young, his plans to make a feature film, etc.
How did you get involved in this project? How did Jeff Baena present him to you?
We were forced into the pandemic, like everyone else. It was that interesting time after a few months of quarantine, and just getting used to. We both really wanted to create new things, even though we were doing it from the confines of our own home. All we do is watch movies together, mostly old movies. I think he got the idea from a game of poker he was having virtually. We went down to this rabbit hole about this idea. When he told me, he described it as an overdub-type project. But it’s more than that because the rules are limitless and you can use whatever images you want, do whatever you want. It sounded very harsh and very him. It’s that very cerebral exercise. Very film school nerds, but we’re both film school nerds at the core of our lives. So I really liked it. He asked me if I wanted to do one and I was kind of “I don’t know!” I don’t know if I could do it. But it seemed really fun and kind of like a new art form. There was nothing to really understand, it was just this new idea of how you could possibly put something together with an entirely new sound design. It was interesting for me on several levels.
Did you look at the pictures first, then create the story, or create a story after looking at the pictures?
So my episode was kind of a combination of the two. I’ve heard other directors this season take different approaches. Like Jeff picked a movie and re-edited a movie, and some people wrote their story first and then went on a police ride to find footage that fits into their story. My story sort of unfolded at the same time. I was very inspired by the source material. I came across a psychological thriller called “Cause For Alarm!” Which starred Loretta Young. I didn’t know anything about Loretta Young, but I noticed in the movie library we had available to us that she was playing in her own 1950s TV show called “The Loretta Young Show”, and there was many episodes in the library that we could use. So I started to think like I was just focusing on an actress. I don’t need to focus on a movie per se. If I just focus on this actress, I will have all of these different things at my disposal.
So I watched “Cause For Alarm!” First, which had some great stuff, which got me going. Then I watched this movie called “Eternally Yours”, in which she plays David Niven. Which quite coincidentally has the same director as “Cause For Alarm!”, Tay Garnett. There were images in “Eternally Yours” that I think were all inspiration to me. It was this magical sequence where she is in this bubble and she sort of comes out of the bubble. There’s this really haunting imagery that I just couldn’t get out of my head. I kept coming back to it. So I started to create the story at the same time as I watched endless hours of footage of her.
I love “Cause For Alarm!”. Black is one of my favorite genres. So there’s also “Eternally Yours”, and then I think “Three Guys Named Mike” comes up?
Yes! “Three guys named Mike!” It was the other movie, with Barry Sullivan. We couldn’t choose all the movies in the world, just the movies that Showtime licensed for us, but this movie I watched and thought there were things in here that I could use.
I was really struck by the sequence of follies. Where does this come from?
It was a pre-coded movie. There were some pre-coded movies in the library which I thought were really cool. It was the oldest film of the group. It was called “The Dance of Life” (1929). It’s this random movie that I stumbled upon and loved the footage.
I used to work at Turner Classic Movies so it was fun trying to figure out which movies were all used. I think you did an exquisite job mixing them together. What was the editing process like?
It was so crazy because we had no plan for anything. My editor’s name is Amelia Allwarden. We were twinned. I had never worked with her before, but I really wanted to work with a woman because I felt like the story had this female experience. What I did was in my crappy iMovie program on my laptop I was putting together a really crass piece. I started editing it myself in a rough version of what I thought it might be, alongside a transcript of what I thought the script might be. Then I gave it to Amelia and she tried. Then it was just the two of us for hours on Zoom, just hacking it. It was a mixture of spirit. We really had to get our pillows out and make sure our donkeys weren’t on fire after sitting in one place for so long. It was an endurance test, but it was really fun. It was uniquely, purely creative. It was totally artistic. We weren’t trying to please anyone or anything.
I noticed that the story you created is a mix of melodrama and film noir. Did the inspiration come from the images?
My story was partially inspired by the source material, and specifically “Cause For Alarm!” Because it was the meat of what I had in terms of cohesive footage. It’s a combination of things. When Jeff asked me to direct an episode, I assumed I was going to do a comedy. I was like “Yeah, I’m just gonna do something hilarious!” I don’t know what happened, it just flowed out of me. Do you know what it was? It was really Loretta Young. I started reading about her and started reading some really disturbing stuff. There are all these stories about her rape by Clark gable and she adopted her own daughter and she had to cover it up. She was this very conservative actress. I am so obsessed with her and she is so beautiful and stylish. There’s just something about her and then knowing the backstory of what she might have been going through at the time. It really got me.
I had this weird moment of this being a story about a woman’s self-esteem. It sounds like a narcissistic love story, but it’s really about a woman’s self-esteem at the end of the day. There was a lot about it that helped me get to this place and tell this story. In terms of melodrama it started out as a psychological thriller and then it turned into melodrama because I leaned into the beautiful imagery. As for the voiceover, I don’t think I ever thought I would be someone who would use voiceover narration. I remember that at film school it was a no-no; It’s a cheat. It is a cheat to tell your story; just show it. But I thought there was something in the midrange that made it feel like it needed it, so I just leaned over it. I decided I would be really dramatic here. I do not care. I don’t give a fuck.
How did you express the vocals for your episode? Was there a stable of talent to choose from?
There were no rules. It was totally up to us. I knew soon enough that I wanted to ask Christina ricci to do it because I love the sound of his voice. I grew up watching her so it’s just crazy that we’re friends now as adults, but she just has a honey kind of voice. She also has that timeless, Old Hollywood-like vibe where I just felt like it would be this great match for Loretta Young. I just felt like she would get the melodrama in a way. There is a country side that I really love and it just is for me. I love it. I knew I was going to use it very early on. Even when I was editing it, I did the temporary tracks myself, the voiceover, just to put it together. I was like, “It sounds terrible, it’s going to sound so much better when she comes in and does it.” And it did. It was totally different when she got there.
What do you hope people take away from your episode?
Hope they like Loretta Young on some level. This is what inspired me the most about the project which showcased and shed light on films, actors and performances that could have been lost in time. Stuff young people these days may not have seen or known. I hope people will go away and enjoy the old movies. In terms of history, I don’t know. My mom thought it was incredibly sad. It makes me very sad. But I hope they think it’s beautiful and that it lets people feel something, anything.
Do you have any future plans to lead a feature?
I do. I always wanted to achieve. I have a project that I was writing during the pandemic that I finally managed to finish because I really had time to do it. I’m doing it now. Hopefully by next year you will see some sort of announcement coming out. I’ll give it a whirl. I’ve been a little precious about this so far, but it’s time for me to go out there and do it.
I totally agree. She is always right.
Cinema Toast is now on Showtime.