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'Saratov Approach' director talks 'Freetown,' filmmaking

By Travis Poppleton, KSL.com Contributor  |  Posted Jan 5th, 2015 @ 2:03pm


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SALT LAKE CITY — The Flix Junkies podcast recently had an opportunity to meet with Garrett Batty, director of “the Saratov Approach,” about his upcoming film “Freetown.”

The project, which is set to hit theaters this April, follows a group of Latter-day Saint missionaries during the First Liberian Civil War, and was shot entirely in Africa.

Batty was kind enough to discuss not only his film on the podcast, but filmmaking in general and also how “Back to the Future” plays into every movie he directs.

The following transcript of the interview has been edited and pared down for this article, and co-hosts John Clyde, Travis Poppleton and Curtis Linnell have all been lumped in under the “Flix Junkies” heading.

You can listen to the interview in its entirety at the Flix Junkies website.

Flix Junkies: Garrett, thank you so much for joining us today.

Batty: Thank you, I am excited to be here.

Flix Junkies: It's fun to have you on because a little while ago we actually had Corbin Allred on the show and it was a blast talking to him about ["the Saratov Approach"].

Batty: Isn’t he great? Anytime you put Corbin on a show you know you're in for a good time.

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Flix Junkies: We loved having him on but thank you for joining us. To start out, I want to dive right in. We've been reading up a lot on “Freetown” and we're going to get into a lot of the really interesting stuff that you're doing with it, but first of all can you kind of give us a background of what the film is?

Batty: Yeah, so “Freetown,” first of all I'm most excited about it because it's easier to say than “Saratov.” That's one perk of the project. It is a story set in Africa; it is a true story about a group of Christian missionaries, again who get … basically the work that they're trying to do gets shut down because of the civil war that breaks out in Liberia.

In order to continue doing their work they rally together to travel across the country in a member’s vehicle. They pack the entire group into the car and head across the country despite some very, very, very intense circumstances.

Flix Junkies: How did you come across this story?

Batty: After the way “Saratov” was accepted and received, I started looking for other inspiring missionary stories but somewhat actiony or spiritual thriller type stories as I am calling them. I found this one in the [LDS] church history library in downtown Salt Lake. I went and started scanning archives and microfilms and there was a collection of letters that were all archived that contained this story.

Flix Junkies: I'm guessing you got really excited when you saw it because it sounds fascinating. Again, as I was reading up on it I got really interested in it and this is something that I had never heard about before.

Batty: It is interesting, and after researching I've found different sources where it has been printed. This was printed in some of the church history information, and also recently just in June it was printed and distributed in the Ensign church magazine. It's starting to become a widely known story, and I'm excited to be able to output it to film.

Flix Junkies: One of the things people are talking about is this being the first time a Utah based production is going international. I realize that "Saratov Approach" was set as an international location, but you filmed that locally.

Batty: It's funny, because we did. When we were filming “Saratov,” we filmed a lot of it in Draper and then we took whatever money we had left, which was most of the budget, and we went to Ukraine to shoot. We committed ourselves to never make a movie again that was shot on two different continents.

Now here we are 10 months later, and I guess we're keeping our commitment because we'll only shoot in one continent. We just didn’t know that that would be Africa. I am looking forward to traveling over there. We leave … Adam Abel, who’s the producer of "Saints and Soldiers," he’s producing with me, and we leave this Monday to shoot the entire film in Africa. We'll be using an entirely African cast and crew, and we're taking a total of three other people and we'll be gone for six weeks to do this.

Flix Junkies: I know that you're the director, but I understand that you're the writer as well, correct?

"Freetown" is out in theaters April 8. (Photo: Three Coin Productions)

Batty: For this one, no. Melissa Leilani Larson who is just a phenomenal writer, we met early on in this process and I showed her some of my notes and the stories that I had found, and she put together a script that is just phenomenal. We're very excited to have her be a part of this.

Flix Junkies: Was there a lot of research done with the people that were involved? How much were they involved in getting the script done?

Batty: There was, and this one takes place a little bit earlier than “Saratov” and so for many of the people involved in “Freetown” they've been very, very difficult to define. Those whom we've been able to contact have definitely been helpful. It's been neat to hear their firsthand accounts. We were also able to find transcriptions of their oral accounts of what they went through. We feel like we have real authentic sources to pull from.

Flix Junkies: Is there kind of a weightiness that comes along with telling stories like this to make sure to get them accurate and try to, in a way, pay homage to those who actually went through these experiences?

Batty: I'm not sure if there's weightiness, but that's certainly a concern. We want to say, “Look we want them to be on board. We want people that this happened to to be on board.” I think it's important to have enough distance from what they went through so that they can get a grasp of how to tell that story and where the impactful moments are.

Flix Junkies: Have you ever traveled to Africa before, or this is going to be your first chance doing it, and then basically hit the ground running?

Batty: We went over a few weeks ago to do locations scouting and to do some initial auditions. It was amazing. At that point, we felt like we were hitting the ground running. We definitely have a couple of people there that are very, very helpful, and we were very pleased with the beauty of the locations.

We could put the camera anywhere when we were over there and just take shots to look for locations. We were just amazed at what we were able to capture. Same thing with the auditions, we had over a hundred people show up to audition for these roles, and the talent was wonderful, so we were very encouraged.

Flix Junkies: The event itself that's kind of surrounding this more intimate conflict was known as the First Liberian Civil War. How much of that story’s going to be told, how much of that background is going to be in place that people are going to learn about when they see this film?

Batty: That's a good question, and what a challenge that we've been up against. There are certainly big films out there the document very well some of these events that are occurring, these wars or contentions that are happening in Africa.

Because of the size of our crew, and quite frankly our budget, we need to focus our story on very, very few amounts of characters. We'll be telling the story set in the backdrop of the civil war, but we'll be focusing more on the conflict of what these specific characters are going through.

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Flix Junkies: I'm curious again for a lot of our listeners who don’t really know. We've had the great opportunity to have some great screen writers on the show who have told us about some of their process, we've had some great actors like Corbin on the show that have been able to talk to us, but you're really the first director that we've had on the show.

I'm kind of curious if you could maybe explain to some of our listeners what it is that a director really does. Because everybody knows he exists on the set, and it's obviously an important part, but what is it that a director does that is so important for a film?

Batty: I would love the opportunity to work with other directors and get an idea of what they do. My answer might not be the same as their answer. But I can tell you that I feel my role as a director is to obviously convey what happened and convey the events of this story, but more specifically to convey what it felt like to experience these events.

I would like to create an emotional connection, my role is to create an emotional connection between the audience and this story, and if I can do that through camera placement. Through talking with actors about the performance, and having the overall vision of the story, how music is going to affect it, then I feel like I'm filling my role as the director by doing that.

Flix Junkies: Great, yeah it's actually been a lot of fun to have all these different people on the show to give us a better image of what it really takes to get a film made. I think sometimes people forget how many different people are in the process making sure that … even like you said; you have a smaller budget on this so your cast isn’t exactly that big, but people forget how many people are behind the camera to make sure all of it falls into place, and all of it flows smoothly.

Batty: Yeah, for sure, and for us it feels like a film is often, especially an independent low budget film is somewhat of a potluck, you're trusting that everybody’s going to bring their best dish, and then I guess it's the director’s job to serve it up and make sure that what they bring is presented in a way that's appealing to the audience.

Flix Junkies: Since we are a movie podcast, are there movies you grew up with, or a certain director that inspired you to get into this business?

Batty: Certainly I have my favorites; I've always enjoyed a lot of the work of Peter Weir, who was behind “The Truman Show” and “Dead Poet’s Society.” I've enjoyed the work of Robert Zemeckis, some of his early work, “Back to the Future,” and “Contact,” “Forest Gump.” All these films to me have a great feel and I've appreciated their work.

Flix Junkies: We love that you say "Back to the Future," we always get so excited about that, because we love that movie. Honestly between the three of us I think it's one of our favorite movies that we always go back to. What's amazing is almost everybody that we have on the show that we ask this question, I would say probably at this point, about 85 to 90 percent have all mentioned "Back to the Future."

Batty: They've all mentioned “Back to the Future”?

Flix Junkies: Yeah.


...Especially an independent low budget film is somewhat of a potluck, you're trusting that everybody's going to bring their best dish, and then I guess it's the director's job to serve it up and make sure that what they bring is presented in a way that's appealing to the audience.

–Garrett Batty, director


Batty: Here’ s an insider note on "Back to the Future." When we make a movie we have to start a little company, and nobody ever really sees the name of the company, but it's how the business is done for the movie.

My producer partner and I decided that we would always name the company something that has to do with “Back to the Future.” The first one is Capacitor Entertainment.

Flix Junkies: I do have to ask, I'm just really curious. I'm guessing, maybe I'm wrong, but between getting “the Saratov Approach” up and off the ground and running compared to “Freetown” which followed the “Saratov Approach,” have you seen a big difference in how things got moving forward and how quickly they moved forward and even how smoothly it went?

Batty: You’d think I would have, and it's amazing to me how difficult it is to make a film. I think one of the best examples of that is you get Clint Eastwood who makes "Million Dollar Baby" and he stands up to receive the Oscar on Oscar night, in front of a billion people at the podium says, “Please continue to give us guys a chance.”

I'm thinking, “This is an Oscar winning director and he is begging for the opportunity to make his next film.” I think every film starts just from scratch and you claw your way to try to get to get enough resources to be able to make it. One of the things that we do have though, that we didn’t have at the start of "Saratov," was that audience that now has "Saratov" and has supported it.

That is the driving factor behind the success of "Saratov," people got on board very early with Facebook and Twitter, and all sorts of social media and we have bloggers talking about that little film. We have been able to tap into them and we're seeing them get behind this one very early, which is very encouraging.

Flix Junkies: What would you say, because I'm guessing, most people I talk to that are actually in your position where they're making films, it's a dream of theirs, and I think when you have a dream you always have in the back of your mind you're like, “I'm going to do it, I'm going to make it.”

But I'm guessing there are probably moments in your life where you thought, “This is never going to happen, we're never going to get there.” What would you say to those people that this is a dream of theirs? Is there any advice you'd give them as they're working towards that goal?

Batty: Sure, if it's specific to filmmaking, I think we're all there together. It's been my dream ever since I can remember to direct films. For anybody else who has that dream, I would say, “Whatever is limiting you or stopping you from doing that, eliminate that.”

Fortunately we live in a time where we have access to very affordable cameras, very affordable equipment to edit, and very affordable distribution. Anybody can pick up a phone and grab their friends and then upload to YouTube. They have access to as wide an audience as any filmmaker in Hollywood has access to.

Flix Junkies: You made mention about bloggers and the social media support that you've received, I'm wondering based off what you just said, there seems to be, and you seem to be embracing this, a general democratization of film where almost anybody, can load something up to YouTube now. We have examples of people going to Kickstarter. For people who are just starting up would you say forego the traditional route, and just go to the people and be a filmmaker for the people?

Batty: I think so; I think as early as you can you need to start building your audience, because it is really the support of the audience that enables you to make your next project. As a kid in high school who wants to make a film, I think, “Do it.” Part of making a film is uploading it, and showing it to people. Then learning how they respond and what type of emotional chords you were able to pull, and then to adapt and apply those lessons to your next project.

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As you do that I believe that your audience will continue to support you and follow you. One of the things we saw with "Saratov" is an immediate response from our audience. We opened up Oct. 9, (2013,) in theaters, and we were only on 22 screens, but because the audience was very, very receptive and they came out that first weekend to see it, Hollywood took notice. It was because of them that we were written up then in some of the Hollywood trades and we were able to open in a 170 screens across the country.

Without that audience support, that never would've happened. I think that's key, as early as you can let the audience know what you’re doing and invite them to follow you, and share you, and blog about you, whatever they can to get you to tell the story to a wider audience.

Flix Junkies: One more question from me about “Freetown” specifically. Amongst the flicks junkies I'm kind of the godless, faithless one. I'm wondering since this is specifically about Christian missionaries, is this set for a very specific audience? Will people like me be able to enjoy it?

Batty: People would ask that about "Saratov" as well, and we had a variety of audiences chime in on what they thought. I think whether you are a church-going believer or not, we all have universal emotions, and universal themes.

You could say right here in Salt Lake the most popular movies are still the most popular movies across the country. When "Hunger Games" opens at No. 1, it opens No. 1 in Salt Lake too. If I can tap into that type of emotion, basically hopes and dreams or fears, then I think those are universal feelings that hopefully any moviegoer would appreciate.

Flix Junkies: Any idea how many theaters you're hoping to start out in this time?

Batty: We'll gauge that based on the momentum that we can build over the next six months.

Flix Junkies: Got it. No, I'm definitely excited. Me personally, and this is coming from a sincere place, I've talked to both Curt and Travis about this a lot, but I genuinely enjoyed the "Saratov Approach." I thought you did a really great job with it.

One of the things that I have to give kudos to you for is if there's one thing that can pull me out of a movie faster than just anything else is bad acting. When it's just so obvious, and it's just kind of blaring and you had such a small cast in this, principally with the four main characters. They all nailed their parts, and to me that was one of the biggest testaments to the film and how emotionally engaged I could get into it was with the performances. My guess is that's something that resonated with a lot of audiences.

Batty: Yeah, we could not have asked for a better cast on that. Everyone embraced their roles and brought their ideas to the table, and thank you. I'll definitely pass your compliments on to them.

Flix Junkies: Yeah, but with that said, truly I am looking forward to this film, I think it's a really interesting story and like you said I think it's something that could probably cross genres and beliefs, or non-beliefs, whatever they may be just a compelling story about survival.

Batty: Yeah, that's the way we're looking at it. Thank you.

Flix Junkies: Great, well Garrett, thank you so much for joining us. We were excited to talk to you, but now we're even more excited because you told us about the movie and you brought up "Back to the Future," so you're going to go up on our wall of fame here in the studio.

Thank you for everything, we appreciate your time and good luck to you. I know that's coming right up, you've got to be nervous and excited and all of the above. We wish you nothing but the best.

Batty: Thanks for taking the time, I appreciate talking to you.



Travis Poppleton has been covering movie news, film reviews and live events for Deseret News and KSL.com since 2010 and co-hosts the FlixJunkies podcast. You can contact him at tspoppleton@gmail.com.

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