Christian Stella: ’12 Question Session’ With DP of ‘The Battery’


Unless you have a rock, and calling the space underneath it your home, you no doubt know the film industry is in bad shape. With less and less people buying media everyday, either opting to pirate their content (I really mean stealing, let’s call a spade a spade here) or only using that ole Netflix, it’s become harder and harder for filmmakers to get a project financed. Heck, even a $50,000 investment may not guarantee your backer will break even. But should that stop you from making art? I think not.

Enter Jeremy Gardner and Christian Stella. In 2012, the filmmaking duo, with a minuscule budget of $6,000 and the landscape of Connecticut as their playground, created one of the best films of all time. The film is The Battery (my review can be found here) and when I initially viewed the picture, I was floored and spent the remainder of the week re-watching the picture over and over again. Set on the back drop of a world ran by zombies, the film tells the story two former baseball players not only trying to survive their newly changed world, but also survive each other. The Battery is like if George Romero directed The Breakfast Club, and the results are magnificent. If you haven’t seen the film, change that, as you wont be disappointed. The film is currently available from that amazing genre-loving label Scream Factory I can’t encourage you Horror Heads enough to pick it up.

Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing Christian Stella, Director of Photography (and so much more) of The Battery for a 12 Question Session and found many interesting tidbits along the way. I present my interview with Mr. Stella:


JC: I know from the excellent documentary Tools of Ignorance on The Battery disc, you were a photographer before you got into the film business. Can you talk about your earliest memory taking photos and what ignited your passion for capturing images?

CS:  I suppose I have a history with cameras, but I don’t think it was any different than most kids. I had the toys like the 110 camera with the flash bulbs in a strip that you could only use once, and I had a Polaroid but almost never any film. I think everyone had those. I didn’t start getting into photography earnestly until I was already designing cookbooks. They needed food photography and I foolishly said I could do it. Then I HAD to figure it out. My first few cookbooks are rough! This is a theme with me… I say I can do something, then spend years trying to figure it out. By the time we made The Battery I had been a food photographer for about 6 years, so I’d learned a lot thankfully.

JC: Haha, it’s been a while since I’ve seen that doc, but now I remember that you did cookbook photography. Hey, man, I just woke up. All this talk is making me hungry!

Hard work pays off. I’m especially glad you did, because I’m not patronizing, but The Battery is honestly one of the best films ever made. And I’m glad you put in the work because I cherish that film truly.

I’m sure there is at least a slight difference between taking still photos and capturing the motion image, but I’m not educated on either. Can you inform the 1428 readers the difference between the two?

CS: I approached The Battery exactly like I approach still photography and that worked in the movie’s favor and against it. I was so busy with work that I only had a few days to run tests and learn the video side of my Canon 5D mark ii. I learned all the right settings, but we couldn’t afford fancy rigs… Or any rig at all. Jeremy and I talked a lot about static tripod shots for the first 2/3 of the movie, then handheld for the last 1/3… So we didn’t budget any steadicam or anything. I had a plastic photography tripod that didn’t even have the ability to do smooth panning! It helped the movie though, because it forced me to really focus on framing, as the initial framing of the shot was most of the setup for the whole scene. After that, the camera didn’t move! In post production, some of my photography background showed through, as I wasn’t used to how low quality video on a DSLR was. The sky is almost always overexposed in The Battery! The video just doesn’t have the range of a photograph, especially a RAW photo. So my background hurt me there… Thankfully the audience is more aware of story and maybe framing then the deeply technical stuff. Note: You can cut these things down if they are stupid long! Ha!

JC: Haha my readers will love this. Don’t worry! At the very least, this info is the greatest gift I’ve ever gotten.

I agree it helps The Battery a lot. I love the irony of how a lot of the scenery montages, and how beautifully shot they were, provided an amazing irony to the zombie-ran world Mickey and Ben are living in. The world kept going, but the human race basically stopped. It’s amazing work man.

Between the two, still photography and motion pictures, which do you enjoy shooting more?

CS: I certainly enjoy shooting movies more than food… there’s only so much I can do within the studio I’ve set up in my house, and there’s only so many photographs I can take of spaghetti before I go crazy. But on the flip side, I’ve done a few short films that have not yet been released, where I was “hired” thanks to The Battery and nobody was prepared, least of all myself. Those days are a nightmare, because you can’t get all of these elaborate, moving shots without a crew and with only 1 day to shoot. I’m going to keep things to working with Jeremy and Adam from The Battery in the future. We are terrible at planning as well, but we know when to scale back. We do A LOT of scaling back, but it seems to work for us!

JC: Being unprepared is never good, especially when you are requested to help another shoot a project. But I suppose it’s happens to everyone. Sticking with Jeremy and Adam is getting no complaints here, the world needs more films like The Battery!

I know you and Writer/Director/Star Jeremy Gardner have a long standing relationship, both personal and professional, can you talk about how you two met and the origins of your stellar creative partnership?

CS: Jeremy and I have been friends since high school. We made 2 feature films back then, but didn’t do any of the technical jobs, just writing and acting. He wasn’t planning to direct and I wasn’t planning to ever hold the camera. Then we spent a decade where we didn’t do anything with film as work/career got in the way. Jeremy always wanted to get back into filmmaking, but I was more hesitant because I would be taking on all these technical roles I had never done. We complement each other well. He’s got the writing and acting and I’ve got all the tech. We brought Adam from The Battery into the fold to help with the business side.

JC: Looks like you guys have a solid team in place! It’s always great when people are good in their jobs and then work on something collectively.

While the zombie genre since Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead has been a cultural staple for five years, it was relatively new (the TV show) when you guys shot The Battery. Do you think that was a factor in Jeremy deciding on a world ran by zombies as the setting for first feature?

CS: Absolutely. Jeremy wrote the script for The Battery before Walking Dead had even premiered. I was not excited to make a zombie movie and that was BEFORE the craze that now exists. It certainly helped us immensely though! It looks like we jumped on the bandwagon but we just lucked out on timing.

JC: Even if it looks that way, you guys delivered a quality product. I watched The Battery five times the first week I got it. And told everyone who would listen about its greatness.

Can you talk about your initial reaction when Director Garner told you the project was going to be horror related? Specifically zombies— you slightly stated, but could you elaborate please?

CS: Jeremy and I always wanted to make horror movies, though I’m really interested in bizarre or comedic horror personally. But when Jeremy started writing The Battery, I was dead set against shooting a zombie movie. Serious zombie movies were just so similar to me, and comedic ones were so popular (Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland) that I didn’t think we could do anything new within the sub-genre. Jeremy eventually talked me into it by pitching it as more of a slice of life movie like some of David Gordon Green’s more serious movies. That finally felt like something different to do with zombies. It’s funny, we always mention that this small romance movie by David Gordon Green called All the Real Girls was the inspiration for the tone of The Battery. After we released our movie Green made another movie called Prince Avalanche. If you watch Prince Avalanche, there’s a whole lot in common with The Battery, tonally. It’s another movie about two men bonding!

JC: Haven’t seen Prince Avalanche, but maybe I’ll have to check it out. One of the things that strengthens The Battery is how diverse Ben and Mickey are. How personality differences can inform one’s reaction to a given situation.

The Battery is a beautiful film, one that is extremely underrated in both the horror community and the film public in general, but you two have another film coming out soon called Tex Montana Will Survive! Can you elaborate on how that came about and when we can expect the film to be released?

CS: Tex Montana Will Survive! is a film that Jeremy and I co-directed together. We were on the festival tour for The Battery and the V/H/S people were asking filmmakers to make segments. Jeremy wanted to make one but I defiantly stated that I’d never make a found footage movie… Pretty much what I’d said about zombie movies. To me, a good found footage movie has no “cinematography” as you can’t be believably “found footage” and beautifully framed at the same time. So it wasn’t something I wanted to do. An hour later, we were scheduling the shoot for our found footage movie! It’s a movie about a survival show host filming a show for a Discovery type channel, so it was the perfect setup for a movie that is allowed to look and sound professional without the audience questioning the believability… Not that the movie is very believable anyway. It is an absurd comedy in every way. You’ve got a “Bear Grylls” type survival host who turns out to be a total fraud.

It’s a small, fun movie that we’re preparing to release next month. The process of releasing The Battery was so long and frustrating; taking almost 2 years… We made Tex to get out there and MAKE a film again. Everyone expected us to make a larger, more expensive movie, but we did the exact opposite, spending only around $1500. Our plan is to sell the movie to the Internet via crowdfunding. Once we hit our goal, release it to YouTube, Vimeo, torrents, everything. Let the crowd truly own it. Burn it. Share it. Then we’ll take the money from the campaign to fund our next movie… Maybe even a sequel to The Battery.

JC: You got my money when you guys set it up. After The Battery, I’ll help you anyway I can. No way! I love how The Battery ended and I was praying to see Ben get revenge (don’t want to ruin for the readers who haven’t seen it).

I’ve seen the trailer and Tex Montana Will Survive! looks epically hilarious. Will the film have any horror elements or is this strictly a comedy?

CS: Tex Montana is a comedy through and through. It’s about survival and filmed in the woods of Connecticut, much like The Battery, but it is not our “horror follow-up”. The concept for Tex started as a horror film with a television host alone in the woods, but as we were brainstorming what kind of “monster” could be after him, one of us asked… “What if nothing is after him and he’s just really, really inept?” After that, we knew it was a full-blown comedy. He’s this huge personality that tells his audience how to survive, but he can’t even start a fire.

Our next film will certainly be the bigger horror film we know our fans are waiting for. We love genre film and all of the people we’ve met along the release of The Battery.

JC: That’s too awesome. I anticipate the next horror film from you two, but can’t wait to see Jeremy in a full blown comedic role as well. And with you shooting , and now co-directing, I’m sure fans everywhere are in for a treat in Tex.

The soundtrack to The Battery is a huge part of the film, and really helps set the tone. Can you talk about how the songs for the film were selected and if any of the same artists are coming back to collaborate on Tex?

CS: It’s funny, I was initially against the music when were in pre-production because I thought it would make the movie less lonely. I’m glad Jeremy overruled me and I came around as we started assembling the bands. We lucked out with Rock Plaza Central as we were using their music without permission in our location scouting video and Chris Eaton, offered it for the actual movie. He had no idea that his music was actually in the script (the dancing sequence). He then introduced us to The Parlor. I once worked as a waiter with the lead singer of Sun Hotel. Then I met El Cantador at a Sun Hotel show. Adam was friends with Wise Blood. It was all pretty organic. I’m just really glad that the music has become such a talking point because we couldn’t pay for the music rights, so we were hoping it would bring them some new listeners. Tex Montana has one song in it by The Parlor, but it’s a great song and a great scene. The rest was scored by Ryan Winford. His score is much more front and center in Tex than it was in The Battery. It’s the glue that holds this movie together.

JC: That’s too awesome. I especially love the title track for The Battery. It’s so beautifully addicting. I’m really appreciate your time and if you don’t mind i just have a few more questions if that’s ok.

From viewing the same documentary on The Battery’s Blu Ray disc, which is now available through Shout Factory’s Scream label (which should be a must have for fans everywhere), I know you guys shot The Battery for a mind-blowing amount of $6,000. It’s absolutely impressive that the two of you made the film you did with that kind of money. Some might call it fate, if you will, that everything came together. In this day and age, where people buy less hard-copy media and often simply steal their entertainment, can you talk about how you feel pirating may have hurt your film and how that effected your and Jeremy’s plans to continue in the business? Did it inform the your decision to make Tex for the lesser sum of $1,500?

CS: Piracy and the market in general definitely weighs on us. It’s an inevitable thing at this point, but I don’t think we were prepared for just how bad the ratio is. There was one day where the movie was pirated 100,000 times in a single day and we sold 3 DRM-free copies for $5 each on our website. That ratio hurts and that was in one single day. Everyone assumes that there are enough people buying it to offset the piracy, but digital is a FAR smaller market than people think. There are more people leeching torrents of our movie at this exact second than we will sell all month and those leeches are constantly changing every few hours. It’s not all bad, it’s just a very complicated issue that no one has rightfully cracked yet. There is no touring, merchandise, or even a proper Spotify model like the music industry has. Movies have Netflix, but Netflix is paying out less for less films as they focus on original content. Our movie looks like it had decent success, especially for a $6,000 movie, but it took 2 years to just break even. The $6,000 budget is exactly what you see in the movie, but the costs once distribution comes into play start to add up. There’s distribution insurance, contract lawyers, traveling for promotion, market participation fees, encoding costs by the distributors, and all kinds of fees to just get a movie out there. If it takes 2 years for our $6,000 movie to break even, we have to ask if a $50,000 movie could EVER break even. And that’s a ridiculously slim budget that nobody works with as it is. For us, the most expensive part of making a film is taking the time off work to actually make it.

Tex was made so cheap because we were in debt after promoting The Battery and had no money coming in. I’d all but destroyed my food photography business by turning down too many jobs to finish working on The Battery… By the time the movie was done, most of my clients had found other photographers to work with. This is the only reason why Tex has taken 2 years to release. I had to step away from movies to rebuild my photography career or we’d never make more movies. Our release plan for Tex, where we sell it off to the Internet solves a lot of these issues. It sells the movie off at a fair price that we will use to make another movie, it allows the Internet to share it freely forever, and it eliminates most of the costly distribution expenses that come along with traditional distribution. People will be able to pay what they want, and when it hits the goal, everyone can watch for free forever. For us, it’s just about surviving through the next film, not getting rich.

JC: Yeah it’s a sad time for the arts. While it’s awesome that there is more distribution power in the hands of the creators, there’s less revenue and really artists can’t make their art. And I enjoy experiencing the art of others, when it speaks to me.

With being relatively new to the filmmaking game, are there any fellow cinematographers that you admire and look up to? Dean Cundey is an amazing DP, and Carpenter’s Halloween wouldn’t have been the same without him. Also, if you could shoot, or work in any capacity, with any actor you could, who would it be?

CS: The DP who had the most influence on The Battery was probably Gareth Edwards, though that is a cheat because he also directed Monsters. The special features on the disc were really helpful. The DP that I think is doing the absolute best work right now is Bradford Young. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is an insanely beautiful movie. I was thinking, can we get a budget to hire this guy please?! I’ll gladly step back. But then he was the DP on Selma, so that ain’t happening anytime soon. Out of the truly indie world, Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin) is a great DP/director. That was the first movie I saw that was shot on my new camera (that I went on to shoot Tex with). I’m still trying to squeeze that cinematic of an image out of my camera!

Out of actors, it’s funny, but I’m a super realistic guy that just wants to work with some of the great actors in the indie films around us. AJ Bowen has become a friend of ours and we are determined to get him in something soon. Larry Fessenden is a damn legend and we somehow convinced him to play a voice on the radio in The Battery. There can’t be a sequel without Larry in it, I just can’t see that.

JC: I noticed Larry! I knew I wasn’t crazy. And AJ is a staple of horror with his many roles including the massively underrated The Signal. Also, independent (especially on your level) has to be a task to get the images you want due to less hands on set.

As we close your 12 question session I have only one question left. And it might be the most personal and important question of all…what’s your favorite all-time film and why?

CS: Magnolia by Paul Thomas Anderson. I was 15 when it was released and it came at the tail end of what was probably the strongest year for movies in the last 20 years. You had American Beauty, Fight Club, Being John Malkovich, The Matrix, Blair Witch Project, The Sixth Sense… All in the same year. Even the less memorable movies were amazing: The Talented Mr Ripley, The Insider, Cider House Rules, Three Kings, Boys Don’t Cry, Office Space! Nothing will make you want to be a filmmaker more than a year of going to the movies and only seeing great, original movies. Magnolia was at the very end of that string and it still blew me away. It’s a 3 hour cancer drama and I saw it 5 times in the theater. It’s shot with such momentum that it never seems slow. It successfully juggles over a dozen characters with their own sub plots. There are several incredible scenes that are all in one take. It’s dead serious, but also funny when it needs to be. It gets away with a full sing along sequence AND raining frogs. I have the frogs tattooed on my arm… The movie has to convince people that that is something that actually happens, but as a filmmaker it is a good lesson that, in a movie, anything can happen. Jeremy actually bought me some of the actual rubber frogs from the movie last year! I keep waiting for a movie to “wow” me like Magnolia did, but it hasn’t happened. I think it was the perfect storm of me just getting into filmmaking, having the bar set so high by a stellar year of releases, and then still being blown away.

JC: That was a great year for film! Those are classics of film and ones that will never be forgotten. I feel the same way about Halloween and David Fincher’s The Social Network. My first and second favorite film, respectively, and no other film seems to come close. Sure I extremely love Jaws and Guardians of the Galaxy, not to mention countless others I adore, but I’m in love with those.

In closing, I’d like to say it’s been a really awesome time getting your thoughts on both the films you make and the ones you love. As it turns out, a film you made is one I extremely love as well and I tell everyone I can about its under-appreciated brilliance. I really appreciate your time, in this quick and ever moving world, and it was an honor. My readers will love eat this interview up. Also, I look forward to getting the word out about Tex and the ways he’s attempting to survive!

CS: Thank you sir.


There you have it Fright Fans. In my journalistic journey through cyber space, Mr. Stella gave us great response to my many questions. I hope you enjoyed reading the session as much as I did conducting. Don’t forget to pick up your copy of The Battery, now available from Scream Factory, and look out for Tex Montana Will Survive! coming very soon. Until the next 12 Question Session, stay safe creatures of the night.

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