“The Saratov Approach” is quietly making box office history. The real-life story of two Mormon missionaries who were kidnapped, tortured, and held hostage in Russia for nearly a week in 1998, continues to draw in movie audiences around the country.
Director Garrett Batty successfully controls and leads a film that is all together suspenseful, entertaining, and faith-promoting. This film should not be categorized as low-budget, cheesy Mormon-cinema. It stands alone as an excellent drama that just happens to be about Mormons.
The film opened on limited screens across the “Jello Belt,” in October, and grossed nearly $500,000 in two weeks on only 23 screens. Not too shabby for an independent film. During its opening period it averaged $11,000 per screen – the highest per-screen average for a limited release that weekend.
“The Saratov Approach” set another new record when it reached the million dollar mark in November faster than any other LDS-themed film has ever done. In fact, only a handful of Mormon-focused movies have made a million dollars at the box office: "God’s Army," "The Other Side of Heaven," "The Singles Ward" and "The Work and the Glory."
Another impressive milestone was reach just last week when the film began nationwide roll-out, and can now be seen in 21 states and in parts of Canada. And will be seen on hundreds of screens by January 31st. (See below for a list of cities and dates.) In fact, the nation’s largest theater chains including Regal, AMC and Cinemark are requesting the film have a wider footprint based on its early success.
The Antithesis of the “Book of Mormon the Musical”
The movie stars Maclain Nelson and Corbin Allred who play Elders Propst and Tuttle respectively, who served in the city of Saratov in the Russia Samara mission. The film shows missionary life, including Propst’s “hump day,” where the elders carry on the unofficial tradition of burning a white shirt.
The familiar missionary life comes to an end as the elders meet with a contact, where they are attacked and beaten. The real-life story escalates, and the elders are suddenly being held hostage for $300,000.
Director Garrett Batty first learned of the story as a film student at BYU in 1998. In his own words, he “was fascinated by the news coverage and how widely the story was carried.” He kept the idea in the back of his mind to make a film about Propst and Tuttle’s story. It wasn’t until the “Book of Mormon the Musical” came out that he was motivated to “share a better story” about Mormon missionaries.
Batty contacted Propst and Tuttle out of the blue via Facebook in 2011. Their initial reaction was very reluctant. Their experiences were very personal to them and not something they cared to broadcast. They didn’t want to be lumped together with the Broadway musical and mocked.
But Batty convinced them to hear him out. They got together for a weekend and he shared his vision. They opened up to him and shared their entire story, including passages from their journals, and much of their feelings during that time. It was the first time the former missionaries had done that together.
The three of them were all on the same page with the same goal in mind- to share an authentic story that shows missionaries in a true and positive light.
How to Make a Movie about Abducted Missionaries
“The Saratov Approach” is Batty’s first theatrical release. He’s no stranger to film-making or to Mormon audiences. For three years he was a producer of several “Mormon Messages,” and he’s directed one straight to DVD movie as well.
Batty wrote and directed the film. He says the script came pretty easy after he interviewed the missionaries. At times the Lord can work in mysterious ways. Not long after he met Propst and Tuttle, he had unexpected heart surgery which led to a lot of downtime while he recovered. Needless to say, no one wants to have heart surgery, but Batty made the most of it, and used his recovery time to write the film.
The next step was to find the funding for the film. It wasn’t easy. People were hesitant to attach themselves to the story of abducted missionaries. It took nearly a year to get the money, and was eventually funded by private backers.
Propst and Tuttle stayed in contact with Batty throughout the entire process, and were continually supportive. However, they did not have any say in the script or give official approval for artistic reasons. It was important to Batty to write the script for the audience, and not for the missionaries. And this was something Propst and Tuttle understood and supported. They trusted Batty and a storyteller. And in Batty’s words, “This was ideal as a screenwriter.”
It was important to everyone that the film stayed “true and faithful” to the missionaries’ authentic story. It wasn’t easy compressing a five day ordeal into a two hour film. Keeping with this goal, the exterior scenes were filmed in Kiev, Ukraine, to make it as real as possible.
Where Are They Today?
Propst and Tuttle were shown a rough-cut of the film in advance.But the first time they saw the finished product was at the premiere in October in Utah, along with their families in a packed theater. “It was a very neat experience,” to share it with them, Batty said.
Today Propst lives in Meridian, Idaho and Tuttle in Gilbert, Arizona. They continue to stay in touch with Batty and speak with him at least once a week. They each support the film attending premieres and special showings around the country as the film continues to roll out.