Leaving Eden – With Creator/Director Greg Batiansila

Leaving Eden looks at the struggles of a pastor as he and his family deal with the incredible demands of his job.  On the verge of losing sight of what once pulled him to this calling, he struggles with balance between a calling, a job, and life.

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Greg Batiansila

Greg, what is your filmmaking background?

I started in the film industry years ago as a production assistant for a local production house in Milwaukee. I loved it, and my job title soon evolved to working as a PA/Location Scout/Set Dresser.

I left the set for a number of years and only was involved in the industry as a freelance writer until I began working at an ad agency with an in-house video department. Through just a few years, we produced hundreds of videos for lots of high-profile clients around the country: everything from corporate talking head podcasts to b to b promotional videos, television commercials, animations…really almost every kind of video possible.

It was a rapid, deep-reimmersion into the life on set, into thinking through things as a film storyteller, this time at the top of the set’s ecosystem. It was also a deep dive into the incredible technology and equipment used to make today’s films.

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What led to the idea behind “Leaving Eden”?

My father was a Lutheran pastor for over 30 years, and he shared many stories of all kinds about his calling with me. As a pastor’s son, I know what it’s like to live in a parsonage, and I understand the pressures and politics that are a constant part of serving God as a pastor.

I’m convinced it’s a life few consider and even fewer realize is as arduous as it truly is. As a writer, the goal is to describe tension on every page. When telling these stories, I think tensions are intrinsic to the calling.

Over the years, I had written and rewritten the first scene of a feature about a pastor, but hadn’t really gotten past the opening scene. One night, my wife and I were on a walk, discussing future creative projects, and I started to pitch the idea of a web series centered on a pastor. I remember I essentially pitched episode 2 to her. We both really felt like it could be something.

By the way – that first scene I kept writing and rewriting – was the opening scene in the series.

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Why a web series rather than a feature film?

Three reasons. One, as creative, we didn’t feel like we could undertake something as huge as a feature without first understanding the demands of shooting, assembling cast, and post-production needs. In other words, we wanted to start with something smaller and use it as a testing ground for our team and our gifts. I see that tactic used over and over by people I admire – using a creative project as an actual learning environment for a bigger project.

Two, distribution is essentially free. With a feature film, we would have many masters, and we’d have to please them, along with begging and cajoling people to go spend money to view our project. Frankly, it would have turned our model upside-down. With Leaving Eden we have sought, from the onset, to make something beautiful. If people view it, awesome. If they don’t, we don’t have to guilt them into doing so. We end up making art for beauty’s sake instead of to turn a profit or recoup our investment.

I’ll throw in a 3rd reason we didn’t realize overtly, but which is true: I just read in Ad Age that YouTube reaches more U.S. adults ages 18-34 than any cable network. We’re at an interesting stage in the world of film and video, and there’s a chance we were blessed to choose the right platform.

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Jennifer Batiansila

What kind of filming schedule do you have for a web series?

Season 1 was very demanding. It’s funny, because I just got done explaining that we were going to try a smaller project instead of a feature – and then we went out and shot footage for ten 10-15 minute episodes (basically, a feature!). We shot episode one on day 1 – and then spent the next two and a half months of summer shooting whenever we could, given the incredibly complex schedules of an ensemble cast.

Season 1 had an enormous number of set-ups and locations. We shot inside an actual jail cell, along the side of a country road, during an actual worship service…we were able to get our “hospital” shots at a local university’s nursing department. We’re absolutely blessed to have a church that supports our project and gives us access to their halls and offices for shooting.

But it was a long, long grind finding the locations and then finding time when location availability intersected with cast availability and other, completely uncontrollable events – last season our area faced a drought, so our lantern scene was delayed for over a month because of a burn warning.

We’ve just started shooting season 2.1. We’re planning on a five episode season – much more manageable, but still, we’ll have some intensely long days with multiple locations and set-ups.

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Describe a typical day on set.

Having been on all kinds of sets, these are super-scaled down from those with a truck full of lights and lots of hands on deck. Our talent on hand, by far, outnumbers our crew. I work hard to try and keep the mood right and stay open to creativity and suggestions. On almost every set I’ve worked, there’s been at least one idea that popped up while shooting that ended up being a signature element to a scene.

Our cast is comprised of mostly stage actors, so they come really prepared. It’s a real blessing, and something I’d advise other indie filmmakers to consider. Stage actors know they’re “naked” without knowing their lines, so they tend to struggle less with them when we turn the cameras on.

Many of us have known each other for years, and so our ability to communicate and share is fun, sometimes raucous.

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What is the greatest challenge with doing a web series?

While it’s obvious the internet is a burgeoning platform for delivering a show, no one knows anything. No one knows who will watch, or when they will watch, or even on what they will watch. It’s a great thing, in a way, because you can just navigate your own path – on the other hand, it’s sometimes hard to create and distribute in a vacuum.

It’s a great question about art – and in particular, film – is it beautiful if we don’t hear from the audience? We all believe that with Leaving Eden, by the time we got to episode 3, we had figured some things out and were excited about the story we were telling. But creating without feedback from our audience is hard.

Tell us about your decision to go with a “Friday Night Lights” style of filmmaking.

We’re emulating the FNL multi-cam style for a number of reasons – as a homage, certainly, to a show that found truth and honesty in its shooting style – but also, because FNL had similar time (in one interview, a cinematographer boasted about how many pages and locations they’d shot in a single day), casting (a large ensemble), location (rarely used sets – a lot of real homes used), and budgetary (FNL stayed on the air longer because it could be created for less) constraints. I think I’ve read almost every article and interview regarding their shooting style, and it was a multiple location/day, zone-lighting style that eschewed practice and encouraged actors to create on camera.

The cinematographers for FNL are all brilliant shooters who have gone on to do amazing things – it wasn’t that they didn’t have the skill to do a lock-down, truly cinematic shoot – it’s more that in this style, there’s a different energy about it.

We like the idea of rolling camera and discovering beauty – of finding emotional range, or just discovering something interesting while we’re shooting that might not be completely “relevant” to the scene the actors are portraying. I give a lot of credit to our cinematographer Teia for really finding beauty while the scene is playing out.

For the actors, multi-camera style requires that you’re always acting, even when you’re just listening to the other person deliver lines. It really pushes the actors to become a part of the scene, to behave the way you would in a true conversation, and gives the actor delivering lines emotions to react to. I find it really powerful for them.

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David Sapiro

What has been the response to “Leaving Eden”?

As mentioned earlier, it’s been a bit tricky to determine a response. Obviously, blip.tv thought the series was something when it recommended the show to its viewers. We heard from a few pastors and a pastor’s wife that the series was eerily close to their real life.

But, without a uniform platform for display, or a set of sites that would promote or critique web series, Season 1 has been tens of thousands of views (we’re currently over 31,000), but not a lot of feedback.

I chalk it up to an audience in flux, with media in flux, and no one really knowing how to react, what to do. My advice – if you have a thought, say something about it. Write a Facebook post, tweet, write a blog. We’d welcome criticism, we’d (of course) love positive feedback…whatever the reaction, it helps us create, and helps others discover the show.

I’ve said it before in other interviews – I’m surprised that Christian sites opining on the state of entertainment and culture, which have spent significant time bemoaning the lack of soul-feeding content and Christian storytellers, have been the least accessible.

We’ve been getting some really great feedback lately as we’ve swung into preproduction on Season 2. Several of the bands we’ve recruited for the soundtrack have been very complimentary. One artist in Arkansas is actually working with me to compose music for the show, and a band out in California just wrote us to tell us they really liked our work and agreed to have their music featured this season, which we’re really excited about.

What is your goal for the show?

Create something beautiful. Tell some good stories about interesting people. Move people with our art.

Anything else?

Pray for folks like us with projects like ours. We’re going to submit ourselves for nominations this year in web series festivals, and we covet your prayers for that, pray for a unity in the community so that we can grow as artists and that folks searching for something different in film find us. Finally, pray that those with the audiences and followers –the thought leaders- learn about folks like us so that we can work together instead of separately.

Season 2…out in JUNE!

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