At Cinema Faith, we’re not too fond of Christian movies. Truth flows naturally from good stories, but gets suffocated by an agenda. Sermons are different than stories – Christian filmmakers need to understand the distinction. Today, we’d like to present two that do.
Meet Greg and Teia Batiansila, a father-daughter duo reversing the stigma of Christian films. Their most acclaimed project came in 2012 with the online web series Leaving Eden. The series spanned three seasons and was an official selection at the Independent Television and Film Festival.
Their latest collaboration is the short film Runner based off the parable of the Prodigal Son. We caught up with them three days before the premiere.
Cinema Faith: Hi Greg and Teia! The Runner premiere is coming up fast. How are you feeling?
Teia Batiansila: I’m definitely excited. It’s good to finally share it. It’s been coming for a long time.
Greg Batiansila: I’m a little more anxious than I was with the premieres we did for Eden. We spent a long time putting this together. And this time, there are higher stakes in that we’re trying to achieve a more cinematic look and feel with this piece. Eden was built to feel as if we snuck into a room – the camera was a character in the show. In Runner, the scenery is instead. Right, Teia?
TB: Yes. We spent more time planning this out, but in different ways. I love the way Eden was shot, but we were able to play with it in different ways.
GB: We actually shot an episode of Eden in the past week. And I think for both of us, it was like having an old friend over.
CF: Are you bringing the show back for another season?
GB: It’s likely that there will be some episodes. We are hoping to get the full cast back together for a few episodes, but it has been harder than we anticipated to get it all to work out. I feel like it’s a story I’d like to continue to tell. I don’t know what God has in store there.
TB: Definitely a fun story. And the cast is family now. Always will be family since Eden.
GB: Yes. For sure.
CF: And you two are literally family! What’s it like working on a project together as father and daughter?
GB: For me, I’m not sure I notice it until Teia is gone.
TB: Working with Dad is awesome. It’s fun and different. I don’t know anyone who works on projects or anything like this with their dads. We talk a lot about different projects and everything else. It’s really special. It’s hard to fathom what we did before these types of projects or work together.
CF: How long have you worked together professionally?
TB: Well since Eden started, so 2012?
GB: Yeah, I cringe at professionally. Feels like we should get a check first. I take that back – I did get $73.00 from blip.tv. So yes, we are pros. By the way, I gave Teia none of it.
TB: Yeah, I missed that…
GB: We rolled that into purchasing our first slate, which was a kind of an “arriving” moment.
TB: That thing saved us.
GB: It truly did.
CF: I know Eden is close to both your hearts. What’s the main difference between shooting a web series and a film?
GB: Well, shooting multi-cam without a slate made my life in editing miserable. I spent an extraordinary amount of time syncing audio. So it really saved us. Multi-cam is a really intense experience.
TB: Right. We really had to think about where everyone was while shooting because of the 2+ cameras in the room. And sound.
GB: We shot runner single-cam in 2:35 to 1. Eden was 16:9 and multi-cam. Eden requires ultimate trust that we are tacitly understanding each other and what we are getting.
TB: Shooting with one camera was different in Runner, because I had to focus more on the big picture vs small details as in Eden.
GB: With Runner, we got to create the shot together.
TB: Exactly. And we’d talked about those shots for months. Well, actually about a year.
GB: And with Eden, we sought to find beauty as it just kind of sparked up organically. If Teia saw a windmill in the wind or a cat peeking through a window, she caught it. But with Runner, we sought to kind of create the beauty. We really worked to use space to create bigger, bolder shots.
TB: Yeah, that was fun. You just turn the camera on and go with Eden. In Runner, we spent a lot of time making sure we were getting what we had imagined and spoke about.
CF: Which style of shooting do you prefer?
TB: It’s hard to pick a favorite.
GB: I would say as an indie person, without the right toys, shooting single-cam is arduous.
TB: They’re both really different, but finding that beauty in both was fun.
GB: If Marvel dropped out of the sky and asked us to shoot a Marvel universe movie, I honestly don’t know which I’d choose. I know that Peter Berg, who we are honorably as we can mimicking, shot his superhero film with his handheld style, single-cam. So he kind of negotiated a middle ground.
TB: Peter Berg is the man.
GB: I would never do a Marvel movie though without paying Teia’s huge premium.
CF: I know you’ve both traveled the festival circuit extensively. What’s a film festival like?
TB: The festival was different from what we had expected, but that’s because we didn’t know what to expect.
GB: At a film festival, there’s a lot of trying to determine how, or if, you fit in. Teia befriended some really cool filmmakers that we both have stayed friends with. They were kind about the show. I have to admit, film is a unique art because unlike a painting that I could hang on the wall and look at every day, I feel it’s not completed until an audience sees it and reacts to it. So to go to a place and kind of watch people watch it, to hear people reacting to it, was a huge moment for us.
TB: I guess I didn’t expect how much it was about support between artists. And friendship. Not only about what awards you’ll win.
CF: Are there differences between a Christian and secular film festival?
GB: We don’t know yet. Here’s a funny: the Christian festivals didn’t accept Eden. ITVFest, which brings in executives from New York and LA, and spawned several people who have cable contracts, recognized us as a drama selection. It was cool to be there. I think Christians struggled, and still struggle, with what is going on in Eden.
TB: Because as much as they want it to be Christian, it doesn’t have enough Christian aspects. And watching it otherwise as a non-Christian, it’s too churchy and has too many Christian values. We are right in the middle.
GB: I get it. We chose a difficult style to ask people to enjoy.
CF: What are your thoughts on Christian film in general? War Room just came out. Are Christian films headed in the right direction?
TB: I tend to be more critical of Christian films.
GB: I think anytime someone does more of something, it will improve, even if it’s just technically. So yes, I would comment that Kirk Cameron’s last movie is better (even if only technically) than his first. And I think I have to give those folks credit for making films that do hit with their audiences. So good on them for that.
CF: What do you try to do differently?
GB: I would say, right off the top, I write it differently.
GB: I take a good amount of pride that the actors who work with us…they just flat out say – call me. Anything. Just let me work with you guys. And that, I think, in large part, is the characters and the writing.
TB: They definitely like the parts and add to them. Or ask if they can continue to add to their characters.
GB: So whereas, if Marvel did ask us to shoot a film, I’d really work hard to bring in an awesome shooter. Like I’d bring in a murderer’s row of talent there.
TB: Definitely. How can you not?
GB: I really am confident in what I can bring to it as a storyteller. Jesus says he can make sons of David from stones. He doesn’t need me or my films. What he needs is for us to create something beautiful and honor him with what he’s given me.
CF: What roles do each of you take on the film set?
TB: I’m the reminder.
GB: And the keeper of the vision, even if it’s mine. Like I get on set, and I start reacting to things and thinking of new ones, and Teia will insist we stick with the original vision.
TB: Because that’s what we had decided on.
GB: Teia also will veto me if she likes a shot. I think that’s from her experience on other sets. She really has grown as a shooter.
TB: And then usually we go back and add another shot if we think it makes sense or has improved our original vision.
CF: Let’s talk some more about Runner. I know you were inspired by the Prodigal Son story. How did the project get off the ground?
GB: I saw Louis Giglio speak. And if you see him speak, you cry. That’s just the way it goes. He said that the word “prodigal” is not in the bible, not in the Greek. Prodigal means “extravagant.” So it’s a western term added in by us, and we’ve altered the story to be about someone who invested their money poorly. When really, it’s about a dad who lost his son and found him. We changed it into a cautionary tale about bad investing. So if you watch the film, I hope you gather that I am turning the story back into what i hope is closer to the original intent. How Grant lost her money is immaterial. What’s important is what it means to lose someone and what it means to get them back.
CF: Wait, the Prodigal Son is a girl?
GB: Ha ha. Teia?
TB: Yes. We played with the characters and if we wanted it to have two sons, a son and a daughter, or two daughters.
GB I was worried about two daughters.
TB: When we had finally said okay, two daughters, Dad hadn’t changed the script yet. So during the read it had “Grant.”
GB: But we brought the cast in for a table read…
TB: And he liked it. We all did, and didn’t want to change it.
GB: They wowed us. Hearing them call her Grant just worked.
TB: I think it’s a cool girl’s name.
GB: Not as cool as Teia.
CF: Did the script come easily?
GB: Well. yes. The first draft came quickly, and it’s largely like what you’ll see Saturday (premiere night for all you readers). But, as we built our cast, I really was taken with how much I wanted to expand the role of The Father’s right hand man, Paul. I really started going back and building around them, for them, and what they did was really fun and cool, if you ask me.
CF: How long did it take to shoot the film?
GB: Our original casting and shooting schedule was built with a huge break in the middle so the actor who was going to play Grant (a male) could lose weight. He was actually going to drop a bunch of pounds! Total dedication, and we were so honored at his dedication. So it was a hard two weeks, a break of six to eight, and then a tail end two or three. When we came back with a different cast, we didn’t need the break in the middle. But because we had always envisioned the break in the middle, we kept it. It helped to show time passing. I don’t know if the audience will catch it, but we wanted to show time passed, so they’d feel she was gone a long while.
TB: It snowed that one day of the first shoot.
GB: Yes, we have a behind the scenes shot of them on the roof huddled under a blanket.
TB: Rain and snow mix. I was playing with the camera, and it snowed. And then I was catching rain in slow motion.
CF: When I visited the set, I noticed the rapport you both had with the cast. That’s special.
GB: Well I take a lot of pride in all of us working together. I have a friend who has risen in her career to heights beyond really anyone I know. She travels to Milan and Paris to work on shows, and lives in New York and does fashion work there. And she told me her favorite sets were mine. She could be lying, but Lindsey isn’t a liar. And I think it’s because I work hard to get everyone to a place to feel like they want to give everything, share the passion, the vision.
TB: It’s good to have awesome relationships with the actors.
GB: They trust us.
TB: It usually turns out to be silly and fun. And you all know what goal you’re working towards.
GB: When you can get them to that point, some wonderful things happen. Good story along those lines. So we shot this scene – and you’ll see, we used the actual language from the NIV version of the story of the lost son. So in the parable Jesus told, the father tells his son, “And he said to him, ‘Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.'” Well when we shot it, Tim and Aussie really wowed us. It was beautiful. So we wrapped, went home for the night, and shot again the next day. Well Tim came back and he said, “Greg, we have to re-shoot the scene.” I said, “What? It was perfect.” He said, “I didn’t say ‘you are always with me’ and that’s so important.'” And I got goosebumps. I don’t know if Tim is a Christian. And honestly, he’s a gifted man who I love. So whether he understands why he needed that in there…
TB: He knew we needed that line.
GB: He understood his part needed it, that The Father had to say it.
TB: Which was awesome.
GB: And that means he bought into our story and the way we were telling the story.
CF: What are your plans for the film now that it’s finished?
TB: Hopefully start on the next one.
GB: We entered the film into a number of film festivals. I tried to choose people who honor the rebel spirit and pray that they understand it to also include Christians.
CF: Do you have any other projects in the works?
GB: It’s funny, Teia and I were just talking about this. First of all, we have an episode of Eden we shot, and it’s remarkable. Stunning. I think, even if we can’t get the band back together, I might release that episode. Maybe we’ll show it Saturday night for fun.
TB: We have an idea.
GB: We have a couple of ideas. I think I hear God saying to keep going, something beautiful is happening.
TB: Yes. Always.
CF: Alright, that’s all I’ve got. Anything else either of you want to add?
GB: Oh yes. I have to say something, and it just occurred to me – music. Teia, right?
TB: Oh yeah.
GB: It’s a character. I’m super proud that what we have is just unparalleled music in our stuff. Take five web series and listen to what they have. It’s beautiful – most was written just for us. I created relationships with indie musicians and artists and fostered those relationships. And they are my friends, part of my repertory that help create our work.
TB: It’s definitely wonderful and amazing the way it changes the scenes.
GB: You’re going to hear a guy in Runner named Harrison Storm, and you’re going to fall out of your chair. It’s amazing music. He lives in Australia. He’s 23, a singer/songwriter with a four-song EP, and his music makes the film.
GB: In Runner, we also chose a different path. We knew that people would consider our film “legitimate” if we had a song that people knew. So we were blessed to get dollars to pursue music from the radio. or at least a cover of a song from the radio. The process is honestly humbling, and just makes you realize what kind of pond scum you are in the ecosystem. They just abuse you. You have to keep asking, keep commenting, keep writing. Sia’s people at Sony approved use of “Chandelier.” And Teia, it kind of sets the bar for the film in terms of showing this ain’t Eden, right?
TB: Oh most definitely. Everyone knows the song.
CF: Final thoughts?
GB: I would say that right now there are chances to grow for artists. My hope is that we can support them. This particular art is a massive undertaking. And I hope that everyone can watch our brother and sisters’ art, understanding that they may have missed on, say, storytelling, but the acting was good. Or that the acting sucked, but the shooting was fine. There is a way to really appreciate this art on a number of levels.
TB: What we found was that we couldn’t give up. Each time we worked at it we improved in one way or another. Or thought of ways that we needed to improve. It’s always growing and learning.
GB: And we’re grateful that there is beauty in everything we did, including the pilot of Eden, and that God keeps opening doors for us to create. So back to your first question, I’m nervous because I believe strongly in this piece. And I’m praying I’m not nuts, that it is what I think it is. And praying that I have peace with reactions, no matter what they are. And just waiting on that call from Marvel.