Rising Star Rock Baijnauth: “Don’t worry about what everyone else is doing, you’re on your own path”

I would tell them “Don’t worry about what everyone else is doing, you’re on your own path.” It so easy in the film industry to pick up the trades and read about this deal or that deal and ask, “Why not me?” Or “Why hasn’t it happened yet?” That kinda mentality doesn’t breed creativity, often […]

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I would tell them “Don’t worry about what everyone else is doing, you’re on your own path.” It so easy in the film industry to pick up the trades and read about this deal or that deal and ask, “Why not me?” Or “Why hasn’t it happened yet?” That kinda mentality doesn’t breed creativity, often times it makes you churn out work you aren’t happy with because you’re trying to get the next big thing. I think if you just stop and take a beat, you realize that you’re hopefully doing the thing that you’d want to do no matter how much money or fame you had. If you slowed down you’d see that you were already on that journey.

I had the pleasure to interview Rock Baijnauth. Rock is a Los Angeles based writer, director, and producer who got his start in filmmaking by writing comedy spec scripts for Hollywood heavyweights such as John Davis (Chronicle, iRobot) and David Friendly (Little Miss Sunshine). After receiving his Bachelorʼs Degree in film from the University of Toronto, Rock sold his first documentary, The Pirate Tapes, to HBO films. In 2015, Samuel Goldwyn Films acquired the worldwide distribution rights to Baijnauthʼs feature length documentary, Barista. The film served as a launch point for the much grander sequel, Baristas, that was shot in five countries and was acquired in 2019 by the Orchard. Rock looks forward to directing his first feature length narrative film later this year. Spinning off of his two coffee-centric films, Baijnauth has teamed up with his sisters, Ramona and Ash, to create a coffee line called Lovecraft that will be available early summer 2019.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I remember watching Ben Affleck and Matt Damon winning their Oscar for writing Good Will Hunting, their joy was infectious and I thought about what it would be like to be on that stage one day. Until that moment filmmaking was just a hobby. I was pre-med and for most of my life I had told my parents that I was going to be a pediatrician. Then, a film theory class I took as an elective changed all that. It was taught by a dude who looked exactly like Spielberg so I felt like I was getting even more knowledge than I had paid for. The class was amazing and made me enjoy films in a way I never thought possible. It was like seeing how your favorite toys worked by looking inside them. I switched majors from Bio to Film the year after and haven’t looked back. I don’t know if my parents are still angry about me not becoming an Indian doctor, but they sure are proud when they see my name on screen.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started this career?

Working on my first documentary was a trip to say the least. As a young filmmaker, you dream of having something you made get acquired by a major studio. For us, that actually happened. It was a Friday afternoon and I got the call from my manager, Will, no pleasantries, he just said, “We sold your movie! HBO bought it!” I left out a few emphatic expletives because I’m in polite company, but just know that they were said in joy. I hung up the phone and went kinda numb before telling the rest of the team. That was just the beginning. It turned out the star of that documentary had some serious behind the scenes beef with the production company I was hired to work with at the time. We had a huge screening scheduled at Hot Docs that year, sold out crowd, easily over a thousand people. I remember arriving at the theatre and the line went around the block. My sisters, Ingrid and Juliet, were the first people in line. It was one of the proudest moments of my life, then after a really successful screening came the Q and A. I was co-directing the project so I took the stage with the other directors and producers… that’s when it happened. The star of the documentary got up on stage and called out the production company for not putting him in a better light in the film. As documentarians it’s not our job to make all the subjects look good on camera, but to present something authentic. Also, keep in mind that this was not the first time he had seen the film, but in his mind was the perfect time to air his grievances like George Costanza’s dad on Festivus. He even criticized the audience for supporting the film. People flooded out, angry. If anyone reading this has footage of that night I’d love to see it because it was, for the most part, an out of body blur. I just remember a very real argument had broken out on stage between the star of our movie and the production company that had hired me. HBO was in the audience. All of our family and friends were in the audience. This single screening was supposed to be the launchpad to my illustrious career, but after that night a lot of the plans for the wide release of this film had been scrapped. A year or so later, I stopped thinking of what could been, I dusted myself off and started making films again, much more cautiously this time mind you. I had thought that night was the end of my career and when I look back now I see that it was the beginning. It was the night that defined whether I quit or kept going in this industry. I’m glad I kept going. On a side note, the star of that film called me the day after the screening and apologized. He said he gave it some thought and realized we had made great movie and that he overreacted. I still laugh about that call.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When I first came to LA (from Canada) I got this interview to be a writer’s assistant on a pilot that was at FOX. I wanted to make a great impression and I thought the only way to do that was to wear my three-piece, gray wool suit that I also wore to my high school convocation. The meeting was in Burbank and it was easily 100 degrees outside. Suffice it to say I was overdressed. Throughout the entire meeting I was sweating like I just came from Soul cycle. The person conducting the interview asked me if I was okay several times and offered me tissues so that I could wipe down my saturated brows. She was lovely and way too kind. I didn’t get that job, but it’s okay because the pilot didn’t get picked up either. Nobody won that day, but now I wear much more breathable fabrics to meetings.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

I’ve got two really interesting things on the horizon on the doc front. The next project I am working on takes huge departure from coffee and moves into the cryptocurrency space. I’m currently filming a documentary that focuses on a crypto exchange called Quadriga who’s CEO passed away in December and took with him a password that keeps $250 million dollars of customer funds locked away forever. Our goal is to shoot this doc as though it were a Michael Mann heist film. I feel like we are succeeding based on subject matter alone. We are also in preliminary talks with children’s author, Robert Munsch (I Love You Forever , The Paper Bag Princess) to make a biopic about his legacy and life’s work. He’s been a hero of mine since I was little and I’ve been bugging him and his camp to let me tell his story for about seven or so years. One of his publishers told me that she admired my persistence and really got the ball rolling on things last month. So it pays to be pesky.

Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?

My current executive producer, Phil Cha, is probably the craziest dude I’ve met in this industry. He’s basically a vodka and Redbull come to life. I feel like he’s found a way to manufacture extra hours in his day. He never sleeps, runs marathons on all different continents, owns several successful businesses, climbs deadly mountains regularly and does TED talks on world travel. The dude is ridiculously accomplished and makes me feel like a real schlub. The first day we met he asked me if I knew how to “blow fire” and looked at me questionably when I said “of course not.” He vows to teach me one day. In spite of our differences, Phil decided that he would back the Barista sequel and help me get it made by any means necessary. He was true to his word and showed me so much blind faith that it made me feel like I could achieve pretty much anything. I want him to know that the only reason that I’m allowed to touch my dreams right now is because he put me up on his big ol’ shoulders. Oh, I’ve also met Randy Jackson who was incredibly nice as well.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

I would tell them “Don’t worry about what everyone else is doing, you’re on your own path.” It so easy in the film industry to pick up the trades and read about this deal or that deal and ask, “Why not me?” Or “Why hasn’t it happened yet?” That kinda mentality doesn’t breed creativity, often times it makes you churn out work you aren’t happy with because you’re trying to get the next big thing. I think if you just stop and take a beat, you realize that you’re hopefully doing the thing that you’d want to do no matter how much money or fame you had. If you slowed down you’d see that you were already on that journey.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

Healthcare. I think about it a lot. I come from Toronto, Canada where access to quality healthcare is a given. It’s just something you don’t need to think about. You get sick, you get help, you get better. That’s the way it was for most of my life. When I moved to LA and became a resident all that changed. It was scary knowing that if I were to get into an accident or needed my appendix removed that I wouldn’t be covered. I know there’s a ton of people in the US right now struggling to pay their medical bills or having to make a difficult choice between buying meds or buying food. That needs to change ASAP. There’s gonna be some people out there thinking “What does this socialist, Canadian hippie know?” But having been on both sides of it I’m gonna say having universal healthcare was just way, way better. I also think that a more productive life is one where you aren’t constantly thinking about whether or you can afford to get sick. Maybe I’ll make a doc on the current state of healthcare in the US. I thought Michael Moore did a good job of explaining the shortcomings of the US healthcare system in Sicko, but now I’m thinking perhaps I can do an updated version, maybe the world just needs to keep being reminded.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. You don’t have to have all the answers before you get to set. Yes, be prepared, have an idea of what the shots are gonna look like, make sure your batteries are charged. These are things you have control over. I can’t count the amount of sleepless nights I’ve spent worrying about how the next day’s shoot was gonna unfold. It never goes according to plan anyway, shots run long, locations rarely look like they do in photos, the sun is never where it needs to be and on your shoot day there are always 8–10 helicopters flying through air ruining life for your sound person. You just gotta adapt to what gets thrown your way and improvise. Some of the best stuff we’ve ever filmed has been the result of something we just came up with on the spot because Plan A fell through.
  2. Go out and make something. I started my career as a writer and I would hang my dreams on the idea that someone was going read something I wrote, think I was a genius and give me millions of dollars to make a movie that I was gonna direct. It doesn’t happen like that anymore, who knows if it ever did, but if you want people to really see your work you just go out and make something, scrape together what you can and make something. It’ll not only give you an amazing creative outlet and a sense of fulfillment to see your idea come to life, but it’s also the best calling card you can have to gain yourself fans and hopefully future work. I know a lot more people that would rather sit through a 3–5 minute short film than read a 120 page screenplay. There really is no reason not to go out and get your hands dirty. We are fortunate to be living in a time where the camera on the iPhone is arguably better than the camera used to make Star Wars Episode 1. The playing field has really been leveled out and tools to make a film are more accessible than they’ve ever been, so go out and do something with them.
  3. I wish I had learned how important the skill of pitching a project is before I moved to LA. When I was back in Toronto I thought all I had to do was write a good screenplay, land an agent and they’d sell it for me. Not the case. What I didn’t know was that each production company gets stacks and stacks of scripts everyday. You need to sell your project at every step of the way. Convince your agent or manager or friend who’s a budding producer that this is the project. They will take your energy and zest for your film to the next chain of command and hopefully that energy sustains until it’s on the desk of a buyer or financier. It’s no easy task and if it’s not your forte you can always team up with someone who possess that skill set. The bottom line is that you need to be enthusiastic about your work and prove up and down the chain of development why your film out of hundreds is the one they should make.
  4. Do not chase trends. Early in my career, I did this as a writer and as a director… often. An R-rated comedy would have a $30 million dollar weekend opening and I’d be pounding the keys trying to write the next Hangover. Or Twilight would smash at box office and I’d be thinking what if we did that… but with ZOMBIES. I’ve made those short films, I’ve written those screenplays and at best they are rushed, contrived knockoffs with very little heart, something that no one has time for. Chasing trends is a losing game because by the time you’ve written or made something that is so very hot right now, it probably won’t be. Do something that really speaks to you, take your time and make it good. Tell a story that you’re burning to tell. Tell a story that needs to be told. It’ll serve you much better than trying to play a numbers game with Hollywood.
  5. If you want to make movies, live and work in a place where they make movies. If you don’t live in LA or New York (or maybe Vancouver) you need to move. I can’t stress how important being in a place with like minded professionals is. It fuels your creativity for one. You meet people with similar goals and those that are willing to work with you to help get your art out into the world. I was living in Toronto during a frigid winter, working a parking lot. It was a job and it gave me a lot of free time to write my screenplays. One of the older employees there, Moosie, came up to me one day and said, “What are you doing here? You went to school for film. Why are you not in Hollywood trying to make films.” He was right. I packed up my stuff and left for LA a week later. I wish I had done it sooner. I know we live in a time where people do business from all parts of the globe, but I think to really make a mark in film you need to be in a place where the deals are happening. You need to have face to face time with development executives and attend networking events, mixers, and screenings. The more people see that you’re worth working with, the more they’ll want to work with you in the future. But you can’t show them how awesome you can be when you’re sitting in a room somewhere several thousand miles away. Literally, be present. You’ve chosen this career, that was the hard part, so move out there and really see how you stack up.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

There are two quotes that I really try to live life by. Funny enough they both share a similar theme. The first is by David Bowie who said, “I don’t know where I’m going from here, but I promise it won’t be boring.” And the second, is from the last line of the famous Robert Frost poem, The Road Not Taken that goes: “…I took [the road] less traveled by and that has made all difference.” I’m always looking for the unorthodox path, something that infuses my life with a sense of adventure. I’d much rather choose that road, no matter how uncertain, than the safe and comfortable path. I want people to say that I knew how to live life and that I did things my way. I guess there’s some Sinatra in there also.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

It’s funny, Baristas sort of highlights how no one is an island and how it often takes a team to help an individual attain a certain level of success. In my case, of course, my parents, my family and my wife are constant sources of light in my life that guide my way forward. But in terms of people who aren’t legally obliged to love me I would say, my first ever Executive Producer, Christopher Kao, really set my life on a different course. He was my boss at an app company we were both working at and he saw that I was a bit listless with my current job. He asked me what I wanted to do and I said “make a film”. The next day he brought me a signed check and told me to go make it. I made the first installment of Barista with it and really started my career as a filmmaker. Up until then I’d never had anyone outside my family believe in me like that.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?

Dave Chapelle. Hands down. The guy’s a genius and I want to belly laugh while eating Eggs Benedict.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

We can be found on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook @Baristafilm and the film can be found here: http://radi.al/Baristas

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