SALT LAKE CITY – It’s a classic family movie storyline: daughter tells conservative dad that she’s going to get married, dad doesn’t approve of the groom, the groom desperately wants to please, and the new in-laws get weirded-out and want to call the whole thing off. But in One Good Man (2010), the usual climactic wedding scene has a twist – the in-laws aren’t even allowed inside the church to see their son marry. The conservative dad is a Mormon and, in accordance with the laws of the Church of the Latter-Day Saints, he makes them wait outside. A family movie with a Hellfire slant, One Good Man wasn’t produced in Hollywood, Los Angeles. It was made in Mollywood, Utah. And it shows.
In the last ten years, Salt Lake City has been home to a thriving movie industry that few outside the LDS Church know about. There are plenty of Mormons working in mainstream Hollywood, like Neil LaBute (Nurse Betty) and Jared and Jerusha Hess (Napoleon Dynamite). But there’s also a subculture of people making movies exclusively for members of the ultra- conservative LDS Church – a religious community that sometimes seems to be living in a different century.
LDS cinema was the brainchild of independent filmmaker, Richard Dutcher. As a kid, the cinephile Dutcher used to sneak into his local cinema to watch movies condemned by the Church. He graduated from Salt Lake City’s Brigham Young University with a degree in film and made his first feature, Girl Crazy, in 1997. It was flop. Low on cash and desperate to get noticed, he hit upon the idea of making a movie marketed at Mormons. Dutcher went from door-to- door soliciting funds. “The LDS people thought it was a poor investment,” he recalls, “so barely any money came fromthem. The biggest donation I got was from a Christian Scientist.”
The result was God’s Army (2000), which tells the story of a Mormon mission in Los Angeles. All Mormon males between the ages of 19 and 25 are expected to spend two years knocking on doors and spreading the good word. They go all over the world in their unmistakable uniform of white shirt, black tie, and copy of the Book of Mormon. With its tongue-in-cheek tagline –“Saving The World: One Soul at a Time”– God’s Army explored the private lives of boys uprooted from home and family and dumped in a strange suburb among hostile nonbelievers, or gentiles as the Church calls them. Screened across Utah, it became a sleeper hit, grossing ten times its $250,000 budget.
When they saw the returns that God’s Army had generated, the LDS Church and big money Mormons swooped in for a bite. One guy offered theatre director Scott S Anderson $500,000 to turn his play about a mission in Holland into a movie. “The early 2000s were the golden age of LDS cinema,” Anderson remembers. “Investors suddenly realised there was a captive market to exploit; that you could produce a movie for barely anything and get a guaranteed return on it.” Richard Dutcher made a film about a serial killer targeting Utah residents and then a drama about missionaries who bring peace among black gangs in Los Angeles, a kind of Mormon Boyz In The Hood.
Utah entrepreneur Dave Hunter hit on the fact that no one had made a comedy yet, so he threw his savings behind a movie called Singles Ward (2002). “In the Mormon Church, when you come of age you have to join asingles ward, which is like a parish for unmarried people in their 20s,” he says. “Everyone’s been through this slightly strange experience but no one had made a movie about it.” He turned the premiere into a must-see Mormon event by casting famous coreligionists – Steve Young (a quarterback), Wally Joyner (a baseball player) and Gordon Jump (a sitcom star): “I didn’t know how to distribute, so I just went to the local cinema in Salt Lake and asked. The guy in the ticket office gave me the parent company director’s phone number and I called him. That’s how it got started in 25 local theatres.” The movie eventually appeared in 30 states and made three times its budget. But with many distribution companies financially backed by the LDS Church, directors have to play by the Mormon rules. Bob Ahlander of Excel Entertainment – a Church owned distributor – explains what they will and won’t fund. “There are two kinds of Mormon movies – culturally relevant movies that are about life as a Mormon and family movies that our people will feel comfortable about going to see… If a movie isn’t relevant then we won’t back it and if it lacks moral value then that’s out too.”
The disciplined self-censorship means no sex, no alcohol, no theological inquiry, and tension that, as a rule, is only resolved in good feelings and a church barbecue. Tim Threlfall, an actor who played the lead role in One Good Man, remembers the strain showing on set. “My character was arguing with his wife. I broke from the scene and asked the director if I could at least swear,” he explains. “The director said no… Believe me, Mormons do swear in real life. There is some tension between how they portray themselves on the screen and how they really are.”
That tension got too much for Richard Dutcher. In 2007, he shocked Utah polite society by quitting LDS cinema and the Church. “It’s too artistically limiting to say you can’t do certain things,” he decided. “Good filmmakers can’t be restricted in that way… I remember I went to see a Mormon war movie and it was like something 50 years old starring John Wayne. The soldiers never swore, or said anything unpatriotic, or even got cut up with bullets. It was like the director had never seen Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, Saving Private Ryan… It’s difficult to make movies, or even live, with integrity while ignoring the social changes since the 1960s.” The problem wasn’t just the censorious distributors: “A lot of these directors have never even been to an R rated movie. They’ve missed anything important made in the last 30 years.” The result is a genre that is anachronistically innocent – The Pajama Game meets The Book of Mormon.
Dutcher got out at the right time. The Mormon market has become saturated with low-budget movies, and returns are dwindling. Dutcher is now working on a horror movie, and he’s not the only one finding that life after Mormonism can be artistically rewarding. Avant-garde director Trent Harris made a parody that combined LDS theology with Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space. The resulting Plan 10 From Outer Space (1996) starred horror legend Karen Black and imagined Utah being invaded by intergalactic sex fiends. C Jay Cox directed Latter Days (2003), a movie about a gay Mormon missionary who finds love in the fleshpots of Los Angeles. It was a “personal film” as Cox had himself come out to his Mormon family. The LDS Church did not like Latter Days and some lay people organised an independent boycott of cinemas that showed it, but Cox is convinced that the movie was widely seen. “There is an underground in Utah…” he trails off for a moment. “Gay people are part of it, but there are also people who like a drink once in a while – men who are happily married but who are starting to ask, ‘What if it’s not true?’, women who want to get a job…”
Even the more religiously orthodox David Hunter is now making a TV series with Jackass star Johnny Knoxville, called Nitro Circus. It’s quite a leap from puritanical teen comedies to daredevil dirt biking, but the Mormon community has a long reach. “One of the founder- creators of [Jackass] is an LDS kid and a best friend for 15 years, and when he got started on this project he called me up and asked if I wanted in.”
As Mollywood adapts to survive, we’ll see more and more committed Mormons in the mainstream. But Utah probably won’t produce a real box-office hit until it makes a movie that is totally honest about daily life in this desert theocracy. “A bishop once asked me when we were going to make the Mormon Fiddler On The Roof,” recalls actor Tim Threlfall. “I told him that people engaged with Fiddler On The Roof because it showed the Jewish community warts and all. Mormons haven’t found the courage to do that yet.”
Co-written with Timothy Stanley. Photography by Danielle Levitt.
Published in Dazed and Confused Magazine.