A conversation with The Battery’s Christian Stella about the trials and tribulations of an micro-budget filmmaking.
Welcome to a new series where the folks at In The Mouth of Dorkness (including Film School Rejects own Brad Gullickson) and I sit down with small budget, indie filmmakers.
In our eyes, the small budget film is too easily overlooked. And that’s a goddamn travesty, because some of our best talents today are making great films with the catering budgets afforded to a modern day blockbuster. We plan to spend time with these folks and give you a chance to get to know the humans behind these projects and the challenges they overcome for their art.
We want this series to be a chance for these cats to talk about making that cool stuff. We want to tell the human stories of having to be scrappy and clever and determined to get these films made. And, when the worst happens, what it’s like to keep on keepin’ on. We want to add evidence to the case that small budget film making is as meaningful and powerful as Kubrick getting all Kubrickian.
First up to the table is Christian Stella, co-creator and Director of Photography for The Battery. These are his shots.
What is The Battery? It’s the story of two men caught in the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse. They’re a team, but they are also each struggling with the burden of finding a way to do more than survive. You know, they’re trying to figure out the same thing we all are in life: What is the why?
This flick is exactly the pure heart you tend to get in small budget films. It’s written, directed and produced by a small team which makes for an intensely unadulterated product. In this case, Jeremy Gardner wrote, directed and starred. Christian was on set as the Director of Photography and producer. With such a focused, close knit on-set team, you are main-lining the creators’ imagination. For better or for worse. In this case, for better. That’s a type of artistic freedom afforded to the miserably self-financed and the impossibly successful.
As cinephiles, we should embrace the joy that led to the creation of these films. And when they miss, we should laugh and have fun with them. It’s a wonderful thing for people to come together, driven by a love of film, to produce a thing for my entertainment. They’re dreamers and philosophers searching out the truths of humanity in the world through film. But, they’re also humans who like things like food, gas, shelter, and the occasional paid vacation. And they need eyes on their content to realize their real dream: Film Maker, but with Sweet Sweet Dollar Bills.
So, my name is Billy. I love zombie films and movies that are not cynical. I love seeing genuine characters make decisions and be impacted by them. And I don’t care if the movie cost $6,000 or $250,000,000. And that’s why, for my money, The Battery is one of the best zombie genre movies out there.
These guys went out to the woods in Connecticut with $6,000 and 15 days to shoot. They:
- bought a used car,
- built squibs out of condoms and Roman candles,
- fought a swarm of wasps living in their used car,
- recruited technical support off of Craig’s List,
- fought each other about whether Condom Squibs were dumb,
- found a sound tech who turned into one of the handiest folks on set,
- mourned the death of their used car,
- and were the beneficiaries of human generosity every step of the way
And it really is something special to watch. You’ll want to check out their behind the scenes, feature length documentary on the making of The Battery called (and I flipping love this title) The Tools of Ignorance. It’s attached to the Shout Factory Blu-ray of The Battery as a special feature. And it’s a legit great look at what it was like making the movie from conception to final product.
Last year, Stella and Gardner co-directed and produced Tex Montana Will Survive! For all its bleak humor – and I assure you it is literally full on winter bleak humor – it’s a lovely reflection on constructed identities and what it means to survive once they unravel. To what lengths would you go to preserve the artificial creation that feeds your fame?
Really, the release of this film was a fascinating experiment in the financing of independent film. Gardner has written at great, earnest lengths about their struggles to make films. I loved The Battery. As have all the people I’ve talked to who’ve seen it. So has the festival circuit. Unfortunately, their team is stuck working day jobs because that critical and fan success didn’t reap the monetary rewards necessary to allow them to transition to full time cinematic pursuits. And I think that’s devastating.
Film budgets are tighter. What’s the role of a million dollar film any more? Do they exist? Not so much. While Tex is a clever, (very) small film it’s also an important experiment. The worldwide release was run through a Kickstarter campaign. The terms, though, are where it got interesting. They had the film in the can. For the price of $50,000, they would release worldwide for free. That money would be rolled into the production of their next film. Now, I’m not sure how viable – or wise – it is to roll independent film into a host of Kickstarter run projects, but they are moving the conversation forward by putting their wallets on the line. The movie is very much like the reality of their situation. Independent film is out in the wilderness right now. And they’re trying to find out if they’ve got the right angle to survive. And, for that matter, to figure out what success will look like.
Take 80 minutes of your life and check out what Christian Stella has to say about this and more.