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Extra Content from the MORMONWOOD MAGIC Article from CityWeekly
HERE ARE BIG-BLOCK QUOTES I CURATED TO BACK UP THE ‘EVOLUTION’ section of this story.
BUT THERE’S NOW A BONUS LDS FILMMAKER!! KELS GOODMAN weighs in on MORMON CINEMA after all these years (see below)
BELOW THAT IS AN EVEN LONGER (and I believe funnier) VERSION OF THE ORIGINAL ‘CITY WEEKLY’ STORY from early November, 2023
GARRETT BATTY’S TAKE:
“I think we’ve seen ebbs and flows in the market perception, the audience reception to LDS themed films, I think, you know, rising tide raises all boats. And so when one does well, it sparks others and creates opportunity and a renewed interest in these types of films. And also, I think that there’s a somewhat of a cycle kind of a pendulum where there’s an increased awareness, increased audience in these films and then the pendulum swings the other way and there’s less of an interest in the making and investing and releasing this type of content. I think currently we’re in a, we’re not a good you know, a great state where the pendulum is swinging, but it will be swinging back our way and we will see an increased number of films and an increased interest in LDS cinema, called faith-based films…I know that my goal is to [continue to] create theatrically released films for a faith-based audience. I think that the genre is going to be influenced by the quality of a film and experience of a filmmaker. And I think that as filmmakers of LDS-based content are expanding their efforts to a broader audience that the specificity of the genre gets adjusted to be able to appeal to a broader audience. And then we have new you know, new young LDS filmmakers that are coming in and people like Barrett Bergen or Marshall Davis, who are very interested in it, continuing the efforts of LDS film and in positioning their work, to reach a broader audience, and I think that that is a great direction for the genre.
DARYN TUFT’S TAKE:
“Yeah, well, I mean, how do we even define LDS cinema [at this point], you know? Because––are we saying LDS cinema necessarily has to be faith affirming, or does LDS cinema explore people’s LDS experiences or LDS beliefs or LDS hopes and dreams? Or is it someone LDS who makes any movie? You know, which is a wide spectrum obviously for people. Some very beautiful, some very heartbreaking you know. But I would argue that what we saw with LDS cinema 20 years ago, I would argue that no––[it’s not dead] and not only is it still around, it’s just grown and evolved organically, you know, in many different branches. Because, I look at Jared Hess, who was assistant camera on Singles Ward…and then later [he] goes on and makes Napoleon Dynamite (2004) and…people say, well, is that LDS cinema? it’s like, well, it’s not. It’s not specifically an LDS story. It grew sort of from that movement. Now fast forward decades later, and Jared Hess co-produced Murder Amongst the Mormons (the Netflix documentary) right? And to me, that’s LDS cinema, you know, it’s definitely not, as you say, faith affirming. I mean, you could argue that one way to say “faith affirming” is propaganda. I don’t mean that negatively as much to say, like, that’s a very specific kind of film. It’s very astute with a specific kind of audience/purpose. And that’s like, if you want to, you know, like there’s an audience for faith affirming films. There’s obviously an audience for Murder Among the Mormons as well, you know, just like there’s an audience for the Hulu documentary series Mormon No More, and that’s obviously much more critical. And even the title is very critical, but I’m just sort of trying to find obvious examples of the breadth of how…the movement has just sort of quietly grown and evolved into many different voices across a broad spectrum of exploring the LDS experience.”
(note: Ironic that Daryn Tufts’ movies were never explicitly LDS or ‘faith’-based, a subject he never thought he’d work with, and yet the movie he’s currently working on is an LDS historical comedy called Pizarro, based on the TRUE STORY of the first LDS theater production of a play meant to raise money for Joseph Smith’s legal fees in 1844.)
JOHN MOYER’S TAKE:
John: Well, let me, let me tell you what I saw early on…Even before Singles Ward, we heard from members of the church, saying, ‘we want good, quality, wholesome entertainment…we want to be able to go to the movies and see things that reflect us, our values, our culture, et cetera, and so forth.’
But when Mobsters and Mormons (2004) premiered at the flagship theater in Provo, in the Riverwoods, the number one movie at the theater that weekend wasn’t Mobsters and Mormons. It was The Exorcism of Emily Rose. So it’s just kind of funny that on the one hand they [say], we want this. And then, um, then they would, you know, and then, of course, they would wait, you know, well, we’re not going to go see it in the theater. We’ll wait till it comes to the dollar theater.
And Singles Ward made a quarter of a million dollars at the dollar theaters in Utah alone. Yeah. Either a quarter of a million or $500,000. I think a quarter million. So now let’s take away, you know, 50 cent matinees, right? And whatever they would do. I mean, if you had 250,000 members of the church that went and spent $10 for a ticket versus exactly a dollar or less for a ticket. And at the libraries there was a waiting list to check it out. So it was humorous that there was a waiting list to get these movies, but we’re not gonna go spend our money.
You know, that was always humorous. And then of course, then, you know, the people would complain about the production quality. Well, you know, you’re making these movies for a few hundred thousand dollars. You’re not making them for, you know, 2 million. You’re not making them for 20 million or whatever the case may be. And of course, that’s what it always came down to…We know these movies are only going to make so much money, so we can only make them for so much money. We can only do so much. Now, now where it’s at, and of course, it was a very different time for us because there were two places you watched movies, you watched them in the theater and you watched them on video, or you watched them on DVD. There was no internet, there was no streaming, there was no, um, YouTube or whatever the case may be. Not even Hollywood theaters are what they used to be. I never thought we’d live to see that day. So now you don’t have to spend the money for a theatrical release. You don’t have to put all that effort into commercials on television and newspapers where, you know, You can just get people to see what you’re trying to do, you know, online and have it, have it, you know, be that way.
…So the opportunity to be seen has significantly increased. Now, whether or not, you know, there are people that are still plugging away at [making LDS faith-based movies]. I’m sure there are. I just, you know, it’s not showing up anywhere [that I’ve seen].
RICHARD DUTCHER’S TAKE:
Richard Dutcher, who remains a film guy’s film guy, characterizes the lack of Mormons seeing film as art not only as a Mormon problem. “It’s an American problem.”
To Daryn’s point, I’d like to ask, [if LDS cinema still exists in the way it did twenty years ago and has simply evolved], ‘Show me a movie from the Mormon community that delves deeply into faith and I’d be happy to agree [with him]. But I haven’t seen it.’
Further, he said:
I’d been so desperately wanting, you know, so desperately wanting to spend my life making films that mean something you know, films that dive deep into my singular obsessions: God and movies. Those are my obsessions. And that’s all I want to do. Honestly, you know, it’s like, that’s all I want to do. And I would be in heaven to spend the rest of my life just making movie after movie just digging deeper, you know, reaching higher, and the Mormon audience steadily, just wants to have a chuckle and a nice, warm, fuzzy and that’s something that I don’t want to and never did want to promote.
Don Marshall was a BYU professor who ran International Cinema for BYU for decades. A great cinema lover. And you know, he really got it. He got what was going on. But he was talking about his frustration and talking with BYU students over the years. You know, how frustrated he would get just trying to introduce [classic, artistic film directors of the past] to his students. And his frustration was how they think. It’s a big obstacle and it’s a wider problem than just in Mormonism. It’s an American problem. He found it so frustrating that people could not conceive, it never entered their mind to see film as anything other than entertainment. And he told me one time about a particular experience he had. I can’t remember which film he was showing. But the girl came up afterwards and he was saying, ‘Well, what did you think of this one?’ And she, a BYU student, said, ‘Well, it was kind of funny…’ And then it clicked for him. At that point, it was like, That’s all she could conceive of a film––that its only value was whether it was funny or not.
And that’s when he realized that was one of the hurdles that he had to overcome. And I see this now constantly. You know, a lot of people have no concept of film other than just mainstream Marvel movies, whatever. Yeah. Just through big Hollywood. Entertainment. And that’s what I think I ran up against in the Mormon community was people that saw a movie had no reverence or no appreciation for what film is as an art form. It was just––’did it make me laugh?’
KELS GOODMAN’S TAKE ON ALL OF IT:
It was originally a thrill to make a Mormon film back in the day. Probably because it was a chance to express our feelings of faith that was never allowed AND it became financially viable through the example of the success of “God’s Army” (you need both). There was now a market.
My first and only LDS feature film I directed was “Handcart” (2002). It was inspired by “Schindler’s List”. I figured since Gerald Molen (who happened to be LDS) can come and tell us to support an amazing story in a setting that has been honestly been retold over and over, why not tell the story of the only religion to be kicked out of the United States…right here at home!
One story. Right before “Handcart” released in theaters, A picture appeared in the newspaper talking about the film. It was of my two main cast in a scene where the man is carrying the woman across the Sweetwater River. In the shot, you can see the boot on the woman.
That same day, I got a call from a lady who ripped me for 30 minutes, telling me how the costumes look all wrong in the picture, focusing on the boot on the woman in the picture. She told me I should have hired her to consult with the costumes to make the film that much better (obviously she had not seen the film).
Not long after that, I did get a number of calls or emails from people telling me of all the petty things done in the film from the audience that I considered was my own.
A few years after that experience, I worked for the LDS Film Festival and then eventually bought the business from Christian Vuissa, the originator. All through these years, as I would hear from critics of the LDS Film genre, I came to the conclusion that we will never make those amazing LDS Movies because we are our own worst enemies. The members expected perfection without the budget and did not allow the movement to grow.
When it comes to faith-based film, I look up to the evolution of Alex Kendrick and his group. His early films have some terrible acting and predictable storylines. But his spirt was there. He was able to make enough money off of each early film to gradually grow into the next film, getting better and better. A dream of anyone’s film career.
It is that same “spirit” that was lacking in LDS Cinema. I admit that I was part of that problem. When you see the Behind-the-scenes of the early Kendrick films you see spirit. You see a desire to serve the Lord through film.
In LDS Cinema “behind-the-scenes” videos you don’t really see a desire to serve the Lord. You see people more worried about their performance and their “vision” and The Lord is left out. Sadly, the film business is an ego-driven business, which is not always friendly toward serving the Lord.
I can attest to the time I was directing “Handcart” I could see my ego puffing up and at one point I felt I could do no wrong because I had this power of attention. I let it overtake me for a short while and feel I didn’t do the best job I could. It was definitely a low point in my life. It has taken me years to repair that feeling.
But I still kept my testimony, and I don’t blame the church or the religion on my not-so-great film career in LDS Cinema.
Today, I consider LDS Cinema fizzled out. Not because the stories aren’t worth telling or that it’s not important. The audience has changed. It took an evangelical from Chicago to show us how to story-tell the scriptures in the form of The Chosen (but not without the start of some LDS Money, let’s be honest).
You can blame the end of LDS Cinema on bad storytelling, but Hollywood has had 100 years to practice and they STILL don’t get it right. Support is a big key and sadly Mormons are their own worst enemies.
AND HERE’S AN EVEN LONGER VERSION OF THE ORIGINAL ‘CITY WEEKLY’ STORY
THE EVOLUTION OF LDS CHRISTIAN (‘MORMON’) CINEMA
by Nathan Smith Jones
IN THE BEGINNING…
[say in the voice of an overdramatic-Charlston Heston-a-la-’Ten Commandments’] And it came to pass that yea, verily, the earth cooled. And then the dinosaurs roamed, and then America was found. And then yes, the colonies broke away from England, and lots of other stuff, and THEN the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints began in 1830, and then…MORMON CINEMA DAWNED in the year 2000.
Sounds dramatic, no? Well, that’s almost as dramatic as we all saw Mormon Cinema [when cinematic LDS Christian stories first showed up at the same place Mormons watched Hollywood fare]. It was a genuinely exciting time. How do I know? [say as the same over-the-top Heston with a thousand yard stare in his eyes] I was there.
Others were there, too. So, with the help of four filmmakers I’ve recently had the chance to interview (Garret Batty––The Saratov Approach, 2013, Freetown, 2015, Out of Liberty, 2019; John Moyer––The Singles Ward, 2002, Mobsters & Mormons, 2004; Daryn Tufts––My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, 2010, We Love You, Sally Carmichael, 2017; and Richard Dutcher himself––God’s Army, 2000, States of Grace, 2005) let’s look at Mormon Cinema. Its beginnings, its middlings, and its evolution since then.
I was living in Los Angeles at the time, one of many hopefuls seeking fame and fortune with movie star and screenwriter dreams. Like many of us in the Los Angeles First Ward (a singles ward congregation), I was inspired by Richard Dutcher’s film. Yet to call us “inspired” is akin to saying Leonardo DaVinci was a guy who could draw well. Every ward––especially in Los Angeles––was buzzing about it. Richard Dutcher had a vision in the late 1990s that LDS stories could find a cinematic home, just as those of Gay Cinema and African American Cinema had achieved during that time. After evangelizing this vision for the same amount of time a young elder serves a mission, he realized it in the form of the drama God’s Army (2000), the story of a Mormon missionary in Los Angeles. Think of it as a spiritual version of what Charlie Sheen’s character endured in Platoon (1986), only funnier.
I asked Richard if he had intended to create this movement. He said, “it was absolutely intentional. And I had zero doubts that it was gonna take off.”
For the Latter-Day Saint Christian faithful, it was a pleasant surprise to see a movie in theaters telling a decidedly LDS story. To LDS budding filmmakers, it was an absolute revelation.
“I remember seeing a poster for God’s Army hanging up in the Jordans Commons,” recalls Daryn Tufts (My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend). “I was shocked to see a movie poster with LDS missionaries on it. It was shocking to see that in the real world. And then I found out it wasn’t a studio film. It was an independent movie that somebody made. And so I knew I wanted to find out more about it and try to support it.”
I, too, was very inspired. Everyone in the L.A. First Ward and every other ward it seemed was talking about the implications of the advent of God’s Army. I remember it was even a bit controversial at the time––some openly wondered, ‘is having the name of Heavenly Father on a movie poster breaking the third commandment?’ If anyone cared about that, they were the minority, possibly because Heavenly Father’s Army might not have had the same impact. And perhaps the impact of the film was due in part by that very slightly controversial title.
Garrett Batty (The Saratov Approach) also remembered the moment well. “Richard Dutcher’s God’s Army…helped me make the realization that for the right budget and the right tone of film, these [movies] could do very well.” What attracted Batty to LDS cinema was not only loving Film, not only that he “always wanted to direct and make films.” What attracted him specifically to LDS Christian Cinema was that “within this genre, we had a very active and receptive audience and sort of the full resources for writing, producing, directing, and releasing films that could be profitable. And that’s not a common thing. So I was very attracted to that.”
Dutcher remembers when the vision struck him. He’d been living in L.A. One day, on his little apartment patio, BBQ-ing hamburgers on a little grill, he had the L.A. Times’ Film reviews section spread out in front of him. It was Friday after all. On that day he’d been reading that another movie by an African American had come out, which had followed a movie by a Native American. He knew with movies such as Go Fish (1994) that had gone to Sundance, the gay audience had their movies now. He was frustrated because “I was thinking, why can’t Mormons have their own films? …It’s like every other community has their own films. And it just hit me like a freight train…And then my mind just started clicking, clicking, clicking. And I remember years before, reading an article [in which Spencer W. Kimball said] ‘Where are our Shakespeares?’ And I went and dug that out, and that inspired me..I just had this vision for Mormon Cinema. And I knew it would work.”
And work it did.
Richard Dutcher was our Joseph Smith and Steven Spielberg all rolled into one, and we––those interested in a career in Film––were his apostles, whether any of us would have characterized it that way at the time. To our faithful readers, this analogy is not meant to be sacrilegious, only to convey the importance of our cause. To us, we were not only chasing our dreams. As Richard stated, we were fulfilling President Spencer W. Kimball’s prophecy/petition that we as a people have our Shakespeares and Tolstoys, our Truffauts and Tarkovskys, those brave enough to tell our stories truthfully.
IN THE MIDDLING…
The stories about the making of the films that flooded this brand new LDS movie market were great stories unto themselves, and their cultural reaction only underscored how many different ‘types’ of Mormons there always have been.
THE BRIEF STORY of MAKING ‘Singles Ward’ (THIS CAN ALSO BE A POP-OUT. See below)
John Moyer was a guy who had graduated from BYU in the Film program. He’d known Kurt Hale (director of ‘Singles Ward’). He was recently divorced.
John: I had been married. You know, I had had sex. I had all these adult experiences, but now I’m being thrust back into being treated like I’m in young men and young women’s again.
I started to write the script full on knowing that this was not going to go anywhere. Um, this was just for me, it was just for my own cathartic sh**s and giggles. And then of course, God’s Army comes out and then Kurt [says to me], ‘what do you got, man? There might be something there in Mormon movies.’
And I said, well, Kurt, here you go. Right? I [gave him the script] and of course the rest was, um, history. Yeah. So I mean, it’s kind of funny. You know, you ask what attracted me to the genre? There was no genre when I wrote Singles Ward.
Yeah. I wrote it as this, you know, this cathartic piece. But then of course, um, obviously there was, you know, a market for it and an interest for it…But it was also interesting to see the reactions.
[A woman who worked at the MTC sent an editorial letter to BYU’s newspaper,] ‘The Daily Universe.’ She had gotten pre-screening passes to go see God’s Army and she walked out of the middle of the movie [during] the missionaries-taking-the-pictures-of-each-other-on-the-toilet scenes. She said––and this is pretty much a quote––‘I left the theater sick to my stomach and prayed to Heavenly Father that nobody would see this movie.’ Because she was so offended at the reality––that this is what missionaries are really like, but we don’t want anybody to know that….Kurt [Hale also] forwarded me an email that somebody sent to Halestorm that said, ‘please stop making these movies. You’re making us look bad,’ blah, blah, blah. And that was the pushback from a small group of people…when it came to Mormon cinema, you had a group of members of the church that, um, you know, if all of the Mormon characters weren’t glorified celestial beings on screen, they wanted nothing to do with it because they just wanted to portray Mormons [only in a good light]––you know, this to them was a missionary tool, right? This was, ‘we want to put all our perfections out there and show everybody how we’re God’s true church,’ and you know, ‘we’re all these wonderful, saintly people’ [To them], anything that does not align with that of course makes the church look bad.
…So yeah, there was, you know, there was a bit of that, of course, out there, but the more that came up, the more I wanted to push back…I was always about that, especially being a standup comic. Your job is to call BS on BS. And I thought that that was my, I thought that that was my, my mission, I guess at the time.
A BRIEF STORY ABOUT THE MAKING OF The Work and The Story (2003)
I’d been living in Los Angeles, trying to break into comedy, since 1998. Though it took more than a year for the seed of Dutcher’s film to blossom in my head as the notion to make my own film, I thought, what story could I tell? One day, when visiting a very self-important acquaintance I’d known at the U of U on the set of his VERY low budget vampire film, I was struck by how many people were helping with his ‘vision.’ He kept saying the word ‘vision’ and his small gaggle of volunteers with a beatific, cultish gleam in their eye also kept talking about his ‘vision.’ I tried not to laugh in his face. It wasn’t easy. Suddenly, the main character of my movie (‘Peter’––the one I play) was forming in my head. I knew I could make my own Spinal Tap for LDS filmmakers. I spent so much time building this character who cared much more about the image of being a filmmaker than the work required to become a successful filmmaker, that even his voice changed. I tweaked my voice to sound almost Owen Wilson-esque. Soon, I had my own vision (there’s that word again) that I could spoof small town, small-budget filmmaking by way of Mormon Cinema. I could poke fun at our own culture’s self-seriousness through a Christopher Guestian mockumentary (a fictitious comedy done with a ‘The Office’-style storytelling).
For more than a year before filming, I had worked on the script and tried to raise money. No one cared. Once, as I was driving down the 405 in Los Angeles, I kept thinking of the ‘Kevin’ character in my movie, I thought, ‘if he refused to show all the R-rated violence in the Book of Mormon battle scenes, how would he get around the violence? The thought of white and brown eggs battling Book of Mormon style hit me in a flash. I knew I would film it stop-motion animation, though I’d never done that before. There I was, driving down the 405, laughing hysterically at my own idea for a short scene within my movie. I knew it would work. I ended up enlisting the help of USC cinematographer (who happened to be LDS) Tristan Whitman, who loved the idea. And that’s how the funniest, most ‘famous’ scene in my movie happened.
I wrote the screenplay, but what ended up on film I would say was half of what I wrote. The other half was donated by the funniest guys in Utah (Quinton Casperson, Scott Christopher, Kirby Heybourne, Christopher R. Miller, and Andrew Munoz––even Dutcher himself––to name a few.
Sadly, I found out too late that making MORMON CINEMA’S FIRST MOCKUMENTARY was not the most lucrative of choices. I got the sinking feeling at the premiere that despite all my efforts, despite the debt I was in, this movie would underperform. The sinking feeling remained, despite trying to mix in some mainstream humor with the subtle stuff in the editing room. Some friends had urged me to forget a theatrical release––that I’d have a better chance of recouping my investment going straight to video.
“NO,” I said. Richard had already set the precedent of what Mormon Cinema is. “An LDS film GOES TO THEATERS.”
It opened on five screens in Utah with a box office gross of $2,200.
I was crushed.
School of Rock opened the same weekend my movie did. It performed decidedly better than mine. The Arizona critics (in 2004) liked my movie a LOT more than the Utah critics. At least Scott Renshaw at the City Weekly gave it 2.5 out of 4 stars (thank you again, Scott).
Eric D. Snider of the Provo Herald blasted the movie with two stars. Interestingly, he said that the movie’s (most famous) “egg scene” (as it has been called) was “nearly genius,” I used that quote as if he spoke of the entire film that way.
He called me, angry.
“How could you misrepresent what I said in your marketing!?” he asked.
I shot back with, “how could you give my movie two stars AND you blasted Singles Ward with two stars!?”
“Yeah, so?” he asked.
“So I don’t recall you EVER describing a single scene in Singles Ward as ‘nearly genius.’
He backpedaled pretty hard after that. I truly did see his point. It was a cheap stunt I pulled. But hopefully he saw my point that what he’d done was equally unfair.
SOME OF THE OFF-SCREEN DRAMA IN THE MIDDLING YEARS (could also be a pop-out––see below)
[say as the over-the-top Heston-type narrator] Ohhhhhh, but there was drama behind the drama, my friends. Oh, there was drama. And it was epic!
In the 1990s, I begged a friend of mine who worked at an airline to give me Jerry Seinfeld’s home phone number. She said she had it, but was told to ‘burn it’ as soon as she left a message (an official one from the airline) on Jerry’s voicemail. As a writer/actor, I saw it as my chance to get a tiny role in one of the last episodes so I could be a part of TV history. Nervous, I dialed.
“Hello,” said the voice. It sounded exactly like Jerry Seinfeld.
“Uh, hi. Is this Jerry?” I asked like an idiot.
“Uh, no. This is his brother,” the voice said. (damn it. I should’ve done my homework. Jerry Seinfeld only has a sister).
“Oh. Okay. Well, could you give him a message?”
I begged for even the tiniest role. I never heard back. Shocker.
Somehow I found Richard Dutcher’s number years later, and when I called him, I wasn’t going to make the same mistake as I had with Jerry Seinfeld. I have a good ear, and when the familiar voice (familiar because I’d seen his movie and watched his interviews in the press) spoke into the phone, I said, “Richard!”
“Yes,” he said.
I introduced myself. He was pleasant and accessible, but not very impressed with me. It took a while to convince him to play himself in my comedic spoofing of Mormon Cinema. He was intrigued, thought it could work, perusing the idea like a carbuyer kicking tires, but he shot down every idea I had for the main plot. Finally, after many weeks of this, I sat down in his office, and said with resigned numbness, “Maybe you’ll hate this one too, but what if this is the plot: People think you’re dead, and there’s a race to replace you as the next ‘Mormon Spielberg.’
He gave a reserved smile. I had hope. Luckily, he liked it. Production wasn’t absolutely smooth sailing (is it ever?), but the critics loved Richard’s willingness to have fun with the genre/movement and his place in it.
After my movie left the minds and hearts of the seventeen people who watched it (okay, fine. That’s an exaggeration. It still stings! ;), I––assuming because Richard was in my movie, we’d become friends––started calling out some of Richard’s words and actions. In my mind, friends don’t just tell friends what they want to hear. Friends are honest. After a confrontation, Richard said, “let me make it perfectly clear. We were never friends.” Yes, it stung, but I backed off. Clearly my honesty in the name of friendship wasn’t wanted. Luckily, a few years later, we buried the hatchet and the AR-15s (figuratively speaking, of course).
But Nathan Smith Jones pissing off Richard Dutcher at that time was far from the biggest drama in those years. The biggest drama, opino yo, was the drama between those who created the first successful drama vs. the first successful romantic comedy to succeed in theaters.
Because Richard had started this movement of popular LDS movies shown theatrically, Kurt Hale (director of Singles Ward) had asked Richard to give them feedback not only on the script, but on the rough cut of the film as well. “I took it seriously,” Richard said. “[I was] writing all these notes, and was like, oh, wow. You got real problems here…you really need…two or three days of reshooting, but it’d be [good for the quality of the movie].” When Richard saw the movie, they had taken none of his advice. Richard was angry. Later, he talked to (producer) Dave, and asked, “Why didn’t you fix these things? And he said something to me––which he will probably deny, but it was burned into my brain and I would swear before God that he said this. He said, ‘Richard, we could crap on a paper plate and the audience would eat it up.’ And I was so offended by that…my jaw just hit the floor.”
When the movie made money, Richard had at first kept his true feelings about the general quality of Singles Ward to himself. But “after that, you know, I just let loose…I knew my comments are not going to influence that at all. But I posted my review of Singles Ward [on an email group of about sixty people], and I tore that thing apart….I should have been more diplomatic about it [but]…I made forever enemies. I was persona non grata to them….It was so bad that years later I tried to apologize [to producer Dave]. I said I mean all those things, but I apologized for the way I said them. And he was just not having it at all. So at that point, I realized, okay, well, that’s a bridge forever burned.” In our interview, Richard really wanted to make it clear that he has zero hard feelings toward any of the Mormon filmmakers. “We were all younger, and we were trying to figure things out…I don’t want to come across as angry or stir up old animosities that shouldn’t have happened in the first place…I have no bitterness towards any of that anymore. I have a little bit of bitterness about what happened to Mormon Cinema, because it was so important to me, you know, but yeah.
John Moyer told of other types of drama in the form of lawsuits levied against Kurt and Dave. When he mentioned it, along with “all kinds of crazy stuff,”, I asked, “lawsuits?”
“Yeah. There were lawsuits…There was a blurb in a national newspaper about Singles Ward. Maybe it was The R.M. I don’t remember which one, but there was a blub about the per theater average (box office gross) being so high. And then of course, you know, you had a guy calling up Kurt and Dave, you know, giving death threats against Dave if he doesn’t get his money, stuff like that. There was a lot of ugly stuff, but Kurt could speak to that stuff.”
NOT AN END, BUT AN EVOLUTION…
Having synthesized what all four of these filmmakers have said, coupled with my own observations through the years, Mormon Cinema has drastically changed because both Mormons and cinema have drastically changed. All four mentioned the differences in how LDS films are both perceived and the forms they currently take. Some are faith-based, some are LDS faith-based, some go to theaters, most don’t. Some are about LDS people, some aren’t stories of LDS Christians at all––they’re simply stories LDS filmmakers want to tell. It’s the entire spectrum. As John Moyer said, “we’re also competing with 14 year-olds making Tik Tok videos.” As the entire film industry has changed in the last twenty years, in this digital Brave New World––when grabbing eyeballs is the lifeblood of both Hollywood and Big Tech––so too have the Mormons eyeballs themselves. Moyer added, “it’s a different church now,” and he’s right; the church and its culture are different. Church membership has declined. And even those who have clung tightly (and culturally) to the iron rod of the LDS faith are not homogenized. Some have become more secular (30% openly admit to drinking coffee––something unheard of twenty or thirty years ago), while some have circled their wagons even tighter against Hollywood films and the evils of the world. Suffice it to say that LDS cinema has evolved into many different nuanced iterations than in the early 2000s due to these changes.
And all along the filmmakers have changed. Of the four I interviewed, two are still active in the church. Further, all four of their answers to the question, how has Mormon Cinema changed? had their similarities and differences. Garrett Batty (The Saratov Approach, 2013) unapologetically continues to make LDS ‘faith-based’ films, believing that the demand for these films will increase once more. Daryn Tufts (We Love You, Sally Carmichael, 2019) sees it as a spectrum, believing the sub-genre has simply (and complexly) evolved. John Moyer (Mobsters & Mormons, 2004; Screenwriter, Singles Ward, 2002) focuses on the fickle nature of the LDS audience: the claims of what they want despite the reality of where they spend their entertainment money. Meanwhile, Richard Dutcher (God’s Army, 2000; States of Grace, 2005) himself laments the promise of what Mormon Cinema might have been: an LDS dramatic arts renaissance wherein LDS films would push boundaries to explore LDS lives, doctrines, histories, and meanings, and the faithful would laud said artistic exploration. When asked what he thought about Daryn Tuft’s assertion that LDS cinema hasn’t disappeared, Dutcher questioned where these supposed films are that deeply investigate the LDS experience. “To Daryn, I’d love to ask, ‘Show me a movie from the Mormon community that delves deeply into faith and I’d be happy to agree,’ but I haven’t seen it.”
Yet perhaps the most glaring evidence to the assertion that LDS Cinema has indeed evolved in complex ways lies in the film project Richard Dutcher is currently working on. His interests have led him to the true story of an LDS missionary who converts to evangelical Christianity while on his mission. It’s called Jesus is Enough.
In his mind, the story puts him back on track to exploring faith through Film. “This is the first time since God’s Army that I’ve had a project that I just got the same feeling where it’s like, this is gonna work.”
No doubt evangelical communities will be excited by this movie. I asked him whether he saw this new film as doing for Christian Cinema what he’d already done for LDS Christian Cinema. “I’m not going to be focused on some movement, you know, like, I’m not going to try to redefine Christian cinema. I’m not going to try to start a movement. It’s just like, I’m not going to be so focused on Mormon cinema or Christian cinema. I’m gonna be focused on ‘Richard Dutcher cinema.’”
Lastly, he admitted that the movie would be very controversial to LDS Christian audiences. I asked him, “Regarding your new movie, Jesus Is Enough, what would you say to the good people whose testimonies of the [LDS] Restored Gospel were boosted by seeing your work, God’s Army twenty three years ago?”
“I would hope I mean, I know again, this is my idealistic side coming up,” Richard said. “But I hope they would think––again, nothing in that movie is going to be antagonistic [on purpose]––but it’s going to be challenging itself for Mormons because of the subject matter. But yeah, I would hope that people would come away thinking ‘Well, good for him. He’s still asking the hard questions’…I mean, yeah, they may think I’m off on the wrong track, but God is still the most important thing to me, you know? Yeah. God and movies are still the most important thing.”
When Richard said he no longer has any “bitter” feelings toward the other Mormon filmmakers as he did back in the day, it became clear during our conversation that he also holds no bitter feelings toward Mormonism itself. “It made me who I am,” he says. To those reading this article, most likely either interested in ‘Mormon’ or ‘Cinema,’ or both, we have this in common with Richard. We can all share in Richard’s obsessions: God and movies.
BIO: Nathan Smith Jones is a doctor of Media, Education, and Epistemology. A long time secondary English teacher, he also teaches English at Utah Valley University and SLCC. He has spent many years writing and producing films, novels, and novellas. He and his work can be reached at nathansmithjones.com
1. The entire SHORT HISTORY OF ‘SINGLES WARD’ (see above)–per Moyer
- The entire SHORT HISTORY of ‘The Work and the Story’ (see above)
- ‘SOME OFF-SCREEN DRAMA’ (see above—-RICHARD GIVING NOTES and then being angry but having no hard feelings––THESE CAN ALSO BE POP OUTS IF NEED BE)
JOHN MOYER ON ‘SINGLES WARD’ (if the ‘short history’ is a pop out, this would most likely be a part of the main article)
There were some…members of the church [who said, ‘that scenario would never happen.’] And ‘that’s ridiculous.’ And I was like, no, that’s a true story. That really happened to me. I came home, my wife smoking a cigarette, drinking a beer, saying she was, she was done with the church. And you know, the thing that makes that seem so funny for me is when he [responds], ‘but tonight’s ward temple night…’
That always got a big laugh. And to me, that of course was, you know, the, we’ve got to keep up appearances…When we were doing comedy, what was paramount was that we weren’t making fun of the church, but we were making fun of the culture. And there was so much there…these movies were essentially the things that I saw and experienced within the culture that I found to be absurd.”
- TALKING FILM AND CULTURE WITH JOHN MOYER (so many good things in this––BYU Film professor’s comments on the movement, mentions of other LDS members (older singles) whose stories have YET to be told, other noteworthy LDS-themed films, etc. Maybe I’m just tired. I don’t know what else to cut if this is included as a pop-out. No doubt some of this stuff can go on my website, I have a lot more, especially with Richard’s interview.
John: It’s like, Johnny Carson is a legend because he was that kind of that first one. And now there’s 80,000 different, you know, nighttime talk shows, and it doesn’t quite have the same, you know, the same meaning. So I was glad I got in. Glad to [have been] in on [the first few movies].
Nate: That’s an interesting way to put it. Like, Mormon Cinema as late night television. A friend who got a Harvard MBA said that they taught him, ‘the pioneers get the arrows and the settlers get the land.’
John: Oh, that’s actually––I like that. That’s so true.
Nate: Thanks. Yeah. The first Mormon to run for president didn’t make it, but maybe the next one will. I made the first LDS mockumentary––The Work and The Story (2003). It didn’t do well at the box office. But then Sons of Provo (2004) killed it. Even though the critics blasted it for being a scene-for-scene ripoff of Spinal Tap, but with an LDS boy band. But––you know what I mean? It’s interesting how, if there’s enough certain ingredients that the culture goes, Oh yeah, we like that. And I do think what powered Sons of Provo was the music because the music became way more of a hit than the movie.
John: Yeah…Kirby (Heybourne) and the band had a following. People knew them. You know, there was some name recognition there. Um, they didn’t have eggs fighting Book of Mormon battles, [laughter], (the most ‘famous’ scene in The Work and The Story) so, you know, they didn’t have that.
Have you––are you going to talk to Dutcher for this [cover story]? Is he still around?
Nate: I’ve reached out. Hopefully he says yes. Maybe he doesn’t want to revisit this. I don’t know. Maybe I’m the only one trying to bring it back into the public consciousness.
John: You know, here’s the thing I’d learned in terms of talking about it. I think this, what you’re doing here, could be a documentary. It would be a fascinating documentary to sit down and talk about the stories, you know, behind what happened and what goes on. Yeah. You know, that could be an, that could be interesting
Nate: Yeah. Yeah. Because nothing sells art like the story behind the story, like the story behind the art.
John: Yeah. Yeah. You’re exactly right. That’s a really good point. But again, you go, well, who’s going to watch? Yeah, I’d love to be involved in that. But then you have to go, is anybody going to watch this? Is anybody going to watch a documentary about, you know, an obscure genre of cinema, um, I mean, obviously the members of the church would, but then at the same time, if you’re going to make this doc, and it goes back to the same thing, though.
Nate: Is there a moment that jumps out at you as memorable––something touching? It could be funny. A personal moment that made you think you’re happy to have been a part of it all? Was there a specific moment that maybe speaks to that?
John: Um, you know, yeah, there’s, there’s, I just remember once after a comedy show, this woman had come up to me. Home Teachers had come out on video, and theatrically it was not well received. But it was on video. And this woman came up to me and she said, look, my, my father was terminal with cancer. And while he was on his deathbed, she said, he watched Home Teachers over and over and over. Oh God. She said, you have no idea how hard he laughed at that. So thank you for that, for giving this gift of levity and joy and laughter to my father on his deathbed.
John: And, you know, that of course could have been any movie. It doesn’t necessarily have to be an LDS film, but for me as an artist, you know, an artist, that’s all I ever wanted to do. I just wanted to do something, you know, make people laugh. You know, and have a, you know, have a good time. So yeah, we never tried to take ourselves, you know, too seriously,
[Another] woman came up to me one time, [said her] son was completely inactive, wanted nothing to do with the church. And then he watched Singles Ward and [she said her] son’s on a mission now because of Singles Ward. You know, you’ve got that extreme…I just appreciated the fact that something I was able to create resonated with people, um, you know, on a, on a, on a humorous level on a, you know, maybe in some regard a spiritual level.
Nate: BYU Film Professor Darl Larsen, wrote the following for this interview, and I’d love to get your response. He recently said, and I QUOTE, “I asked my students about it a few days ago. Most of them had little or no exposure to the subject. That’s how unsubstantial it has become. Non LDS faith-based filmmaking, however, is on the rise. I’ll expand on it. The RM sort of worked because it was fresh and new. It allowed a peak behind the beehive curtain. And into the peculiar world of cultural Mormonism, a peculiar people. [Richard Dutcher’s] Brigham City said that as well, although braver, because it set out to be a dramatic film that happened to be set amongst the Mormons. Too many lesser films followed, no surprise, inoculating audiences. The weaker films struggled for the right reasons, clever writing gave way to slapdash productions set on mining the audience’s pockets, as opposed to the characters or stories presented. They’ve not gone away of course, excepting the ill shaped LDS comedies, thankfully. Outliers like Pirates of the Great Salt Lake (2006) and Pride and Prejudice: a Latter day Comedy (2003) are worth finding. Some historically interesting films looking at moments of church history have been both sincere and watchable, and audiences can appreciate that. These kinds of films will always have a place and a certain level of success up and down the Mormon corridor.
“… And if you parse out what LDS cinema might mean, it can encompass films made by LDS influenced artists, including Jared Hess (Napoleon Dynamite, 2004), and Greg Whiteley, who did New York Doll, (2005) and Robert McCoy and Rebecca Thomas to name a handful. Recently, faith based non LDS film popularity has experienced a rise; films featuring soft religious messages and recognizable characters. These films aren’t trying to hurt or denounce, it seems, rather tell stories of people of faith enduring the straits of the world. These aren’t the kinds of films that Hollywood seeks out, but distribution through willing theater chain cinema owners want to sell tickets and refreshments. These have been on the increase and these titles tend to cost little and even pay for themselves.” UNQUOTE. Um, your thoughts on this?
John: I think the other thing too is we’re in a different time and place than we were twenty years ago…Audiences are watching stuff at home. That business model has changed. You never thought you’d live to see a day when a big star is in a big movie that doesn’t go to the theaters, but only available [on a streaming service]. You know, if you’re sitting around and you see a trailer for, you know, ‘Emma Smith: The Spiritual Sister’ ––only in theaters––you’re not going to go to the theater. I’m sorry. Unless the church itself put out a theatrical production. If the church did that, it would be a different story. You know, twenty years ago, if you wanted to see the Singles Ward or whatever, you had two places. You saw it in the theater…[or you waited] for it on DVD or video. Well, now you’re not just competing with other Hollywood movies out there, you’re competing with a 14 year old kid who’s making TikTok videos on his phone. The doors for that have been thrown wide open. You’ve got more places that need more content…So when it comes to LDS cinema, you know…the impact of that obviously has waned, because the landscape has changed significantly.
Because of the way things have become so overexposed. You’ve got everybody now doing something. So there’s a lot of incredibly talented people…Oh my gosh, so much other stuff out there, you know? And so LDS cinema has just gotten caught up in it. [What happened twenty years ago] was the perfect storm at the perfect time. But now there’s so much noise––of varying quality; so many people now, now especially, in the last twenty years, trying to grab people’s attention.
Nate: Yeah. And how getting attention has become the lifeblood of how many economic ecosystems in big tech and so many other companies today. It’s kind of astounding. And so, yeah, it’s all drowned out everything. So many things are drowned out in the noise. And yet you have things that kind of break through––if not ‘faith-based’ then ‘faith-in-humanity’ based. Take the Tim Ballard biopic, Sound of Freedom. Just wow. Who would ever guess that a Utah-based company (Angel Studios) could make a movie that––in North American theaters alone–– would make $10 million more than the latest Indiana Jones movie?
John: Yeah. And the reality of it is: Could Sound of Freedom have happened twenty years ago? You know, would The Chosen series be, you know, what it is today? I don’t think that could’ve happened––would’ve been impossible 20 years ago. So I think, you know, if you’ve got an LDS filmmaker, who’s passionate, um, and has opportunity, they’re probably not going to tell an LDS story. But, you know, could there be LDS themes? You know, I think so.
John: I mean, I, I can’t tell you how many people I’ve talked to that said, ‘we left the church. We threw out our scriptures. We threw out our, you know, Jesus the Christ. We threw out all of our stuff. But we kept all the movies. They still kept the movies. And, and it was because to them it resonated on a, you know, it resonated on a cultural level…
John: You know, probably, you know, maybe not. Kurt and I had joked about doing a reboot, you know, doing ‘Singles Ward 2023.’ I think what would be really interesting. [Like an] ‘Older Singles Ward.’ I did get an email from somebody a few months ago, and I never responded to it But they’re like ‘Brother Moyer, please. You have to make a movie about a mid-Singles Ward (which would be ‘older singles ward’)––people in their late 30s, 40s, 50s. Cause it’s such a freak show.
Nate: Oh, it is a freak show. I was one of those freaks [laughter]. I mean, I remember going to a dance for mid singles, which of course is like 35 years old to dead or something like that. Hadn’t been to a dance forever, right? And I remember going there with my now wife and the people there. I wanted to just hug some of them because they had this lost look in their eye, like, wasn’t someone going to love me by now? Can someone just love me? Can I be loved? Am I not worthy of that? I mean, dude, they wore it on their face so nakedly. They weren’t even trying to hide it––that desperation for someone to give a damn. It just broke my heart. And I’ve been there. I was thinking, oh my gosh. And it made me, it made me appreciate my wife. Might have been the reason we’ve been together ever since.
John: Oh, totally.