Rock Baijnauth is a director who is best known for his hit movieBarista.” He is now following up that success with a documentary titled “Baristas” which focuses on the lives of four coffee professionals from different parts of the world who are participating in the National Barista Championship occurring in South Korea.

Rock discussed this film and more via an exclusive interview on May 24, 2019.

Films, coffee, and South Korea

Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you get into directing Movies, and how did you think up the concept for “Barista”?

Rock Baijnauth (RB): I was pre-med and took a film theory class as an elective in University.

The class was taught by a dude who looked exactly like Spielberg so I felt like I was learning from “The Beard” himself. It was awesome. It gave me a deep understanding of how stories were constructed and all the secret herbs and spices that went into making the movies I loved. I switched majors from bio to film the year after that (my parents yelled) and haven’t looked back. As for Baristas, I love films that romance you through food and drink. Alexander Payne’s Sideways was a huge influence. Every time the opening credits come on I get this Pavlovian response that makes me immediately want a glass of wine. I figured why not do something romantic like that with coffee.

MM: How did “Barista” turn into the “Baristas” sequel, and how would you describe the tone of the two films?

RB: Tonally, the two films serve as a metaphor for pursuing your passion in the face of whatever obstacles life hurls at you. What the second film illustrates is that no matter where you come from or what your circumstances, no one who is successful does it all by themselves. When you watch Baristas you can truly appreciate how many people are involved in an individual’s rise to greatness.

Apart from that, Baristas is just much grander than its predecessor. It covers the World Barista Championships, so each competitor is already the best barista from their country. There is this sense of national pride that all the baristas emit while representing their homeland and it makes the film feel less like you're watching someone prepare for a coffee competition and more like watching someone prepare for an Olympic sport.

MM: How much of a coffee fan are you and how did you first hear about the championships?

RB: I’m a coffee fiend. It’s hard to start my day without one and when I get a perfect cappuccino everyone that day hears about it. I had no idea these barista competitions existed until we decided to make a movie about coffee. While we were researching an interesting angle to take, my producers and I came across a small ad for a regional barista competition that was to take place in Santa Cruz. It was all very Fight Club like a flyer left in a copier that we weren’t supposed to see. We scraped a few grand together and a day later we drove six hours from LA to the competition (I got a speeding ticket… sorry mom).

We just had to see what it was for ourselves because this competition sounded so nuts… and it was. The movie was right there in front of us.

MM: The latest film follows four baristas to the competition in South Korea, so how did you meet them and narrow it down to four?

RB: There’s a very unsexy answer to this question: Research. We did a lot of scouting, internet combing, and talked to coffee people about who they thought the front runners might be. We then decided what travel would work for our budget and be the safest for the team. A lot went into picking the four baristas we followed but, ultimately, we zeroed in on this fab four based on their personalities and their unique stories that revealed themselves through our initial chats with them.

MM: What is your favorite part of “Baristas” and why?

RB: The overall vibe is something I love. My cinematographer Roger and I are 80’s kids, and we wanted to infuse every part of the film with that kind of whimsy. The Breakfast Club was a massive inspiration for the film's tone (we watched it like three times while editing). The soundtrack makes me giddy as well. There’s some really cool 80’s inspired tracks as well as a killer, synthy score by Cody Devilliers. I watch the film, and I’m just taken back to my childhood for a little while.

MM: What was it like to film a project of this scope and size?

RB: This was the biggest project I’ve done to date both from a budget perspective and a logistical one.

There is nothing like getting to a new country and realizing, “Oh wait, we don’t talk the same way.” I think we owe the Japanese subway system some money because we just couldn’t figure it out on the first day. Seriously, it wouldn’t accept our payment. After a good hour of trying to figure it out, we ended up hurling our gear over a barrier and forcibly hopping over the gate after it. One of the security guards saw us, but he just shook his head. I think he just felt sorry for us. Five countries over four months was a beast, but it was the most memorable time of my life. I had an amazing field team that helped me get through it that included my Executive producer, Phil Cha, my wife, Jessie, and my DP, Roger Singh.

We also had awesome producers on the ground back home holding it down for us and making sure we didn't cause any international incidents.

Competitions, documentaries, and other projects

MM: What was it like to be at the competition and did anything about it really interest you or surprise you?

RB: The competition in Seoul felt huge! Everyone is so emotionally charged and fired up, and that energy is infectious. There’s also so much coffee being prepared by the best baristas on the planet, so you need to prepare your heart literally. I got to try a few signature drinks, and yes, they do taste as good as they look. One that stuck out in my mind was this espresso that was suspended in this edible orb.

It was covered in a sprinkle of burnt pecan and was served to me on an elegant white spoon. The idea was to throw the entire thing back like a shooter and then burst it on the roof of your mouth which immediately surrounds your taste buds with something that simply went beyond coffee. It was like a dish you’d get at Noma or some Grant Achatz creation. How these Baristas are able to elevate a drink into something culinary, something that makes you question the idea of what food and drink is, will always amaze me.

MM: What are the most rewarding things about being the director of this documentary?

RB: It’s just an indescribable feeling anytime you get to tell a story on this scale, where this many people from all around the world get watch something you helped make.

A student from Emerson College in Boston came up to me at one of the screenings and at the end of the film told me that his professor studied the first Barista in their film class and then he asked me to come to speak at his college. It was the greatest compliment of my life, something that I just wasn’t ready for. I felt like Helen Hunt when Jack Nicolson told her, “She makes him want to be a better man” in "As Good as it Gets."

MM: Are you working on other documentaries (or fictional) films in 2019 and is there anything more you would like to discuss?

RB: The next project I am working on takes a 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 of customer funds locked away forever. It’s shot like a heist film and is full of twists and turns. I can’t wait to share it.