This is the fifth installment of our reality series about Nathanael and Christina Matanick, young filmmakers who won Best Film at the 168 Film Festival, earning a prize of up to $1 million to make a feature-length film through EchoLight Studios. We’re following the filmmakers month-by-month as they try to create in a way that glorifies our Creator.
CARPINTERIA, Calif.—It’s 70 degrees and sunny on a January afternoon in this beach town as 4-year-old Layla Matanick plays on the front porch while eating a popsicle. A gentle breeze blows through the Matanick home, where Layla's 2-year-old brother Benaiah naps upstairs as their parents talk about how they never expected to live here, or in the United States at all. On their dining room wall they’ve plastered a map of the world, with small stickers on the areas where friends live. Their hope is to get back to the left side of the wall.
Christina and Nathanael Matanick, who grew up and met in Malaysia, where their parents worked as international teachers, have always felt a pull overseas, to other cultures and areas that haven’t heard the gospel. That desire influenced the script they’ve been writing about Muslims in the Middle East coming to know Jesus and in the way Nathanael talks about films: “A lot of films are entertaining, a lot of films are made for the sake of the message. … I want to tell stories with intrinsic artistic values that also help people who don’t know Jesus see Him.”
But things don’t always work out as planned. EchoLight Studios turned down their story idea, and for now, God has called the Matanicks to stay in Carpinteria. But that doesn’t mean the two are idle. Nathanael pulls all-nighters to create videos for a photo sharing site, while Christina takes care of the kids. And for the EchoLight project, they’ve settled on a different script that they’re excited to work on. Based on book rights the studio purchased years ago, the Matanicks will be working on a “love story,” as Nathanael calls it, shying away from categorizing it as a chick-flick or romance film. “I only make films I would watch and I’d watch a love story,” he said. While the film isn’t overtly Christian, it centers on forgiveness and portrays Christian characters.
The funding issue still remains. While the Matanicks have agreed to the adapted script, the $250,000 budgeted to the 168 Film Festival winner isn’t enough to create the film. EchoLight is negotiating with other studios to secure distribution for the film, leaving the Matanicks in another season of waiting.
All Nathanael asks is for a hand in directing the feature film. It’s been a dream of his since childhood, when he made home videos, recruiting his sisters as actors and using his dinosaur puppet as a recurring character. One film he submitted to his elementary school featured a velociraptor stabbed with a shovel. Teachers confiscated it for being too violent. In high school, he went on to create more films with his friend Theo Love, the director of recent documentary Little Hope was Arson. Nathanael eventually moved to Los Angeles to study filmmaking, leading him here to this condo in Carpinteria with his little girl in a butterfly tutu hugging his neck.
Christina’s focus has always been on the story, and after EchoLight rejected their idea, she’s content to take a backseat on this project and supporting Nathanael as he pursues his dreams. While she’s not sure if the original film idea will ever be made, she wants to keep working on it and following God wherever He leads. And that may mean a trip with the whole family to the Middle East to get a better understanding of the culture and their characters.
Every step of the process has been a learning opportunity for the new filmmakers. Through their festival win, they’ve met producers, studio executives, and directors they can pitch their finished screenplay to in the future. And they’ve learned they’ll need to spend more time fleshing out their characters and writing a compelling screenplay that others would be willing to invest enormous amounts of time and money into. To that end, Christina is taking an online screenwriting class and Nathanael is studying the greats.
“Filmmaking is the ultimate art,” Christina said. “It requires every other art—writing, music, photography—everything together. There’s so many things that if one is off, it’s no longer good.”
And that encompasses the difficulties facing Christian films. While critics are quick to judge the quality of the films in this genre, the work is difficult and filmmakers often lack the money, time, artistic freedom, and skill needed to create a work of art. While Nathanael has opinions on issues he finds problematic in faith-based films, he doesn’t think he has the right to offer up his opinion until he’s actually made one himself.
In the end, Nathanael wants to create a film that isn’t just an alternative source of entertainment for those in the church. That means in the current EchoLight film, he wants to portray the story authentically, and let the lives of the Christian characters come through.
So for now, the Matanicks will stay put in Carpinteria, noting that they can’t complain about their work, the weather, their church and friends, or their close proximity to the beach.
“I struggle with what I want to do,” Nathanael said. “Sometimes I think there are more important things than making films, like helping people who have never heard of Jesus. … But our call is based on obedience, not where you think the need is.”