Mormon Filmmakers Balance Faith With Their Hopes for Secular Appeal
OREM, Utah — Two thousand feet below the crowds of mainly New Yorkers and Californians filling theaters at the Sundance Film Festival, a large gathering of mostly locals in this Mormon-majority city spends a few days at the movies. Unlike Park City’s Main Street, with its bars and boutiques rented by Intel and Volkswagen, this lower-elevation festival is centered on State Street, just down from the quilting store and the Curves gym, in a cheerful theater that, incidentally, has never shown an R-rated movie.
In Orem, there is no Justin Timberlake, and no paparazzi to trail him; you’re more likely to find a cluster of teen girls keen for a glimpse of Kirby Heyborne, star of the movie “The R.M.,” about a returned missionary trying to readjust.
Dark sunglasses and Ugg boots? Here it’s BYU (Brigham Young University) sweatshirts and hand-knit sweaters. And rather than queuing at the clipboard for the Beastie Boys party, audiences shuffle out while the credits roll to get home to relieve their babysitters.
Organizers scheduled the LDS (Latter-day Saints) Film Festival to coincide with the deal-making Sundance festival. It’s interesting timing in light of the question that some Mormon filmmakers are increasingly pondering: How do you make movies about Mormons or for Mormons that will also appeal to people beyond the Jell-O Belt (the self-referential term for Utah and Idaho, home to large Mormon families that consider the colorful gelatin a staple food for dinner and church socials)?
Perhaps no one knows the Jell-O Belt rut better than Kurt Hale and Dave Hunter, founders of Orem-based HaleStorm Entertainment. Sort of a Mormon version of the Farrelly brothers (although family-friendly Mormon films generally don’t feature profanity, nudity and the like), the pair are famous within LDS circles for their lowbrow comedies. Their 2002 debut, “The Singles Ward,” is about a Mormon man looking for love in a special congregation designed for matchmaking. Their dozen films since include “Sons of Provo,” a mockumentary about a Mormon boy band called Everclean.
But they realize their easy-laugh, comedic formula is beginning to wear on many Mormon moviegoers, and that with all their insider jokes, they have a slim chance of finding much of an audience beyond Utah.
“The novelty factor has worn down quite a bit,” Hale concedes. And so the two thirty-somethings from San Jose have a new plan: “We’re calling it ‘sanitizing’ our films. We’re taking the religion out of them,” Hale explains to a room of 40 people during a preview of their newest film, “Church Ball.” Instead of relying on easy Mormon digs, they are now trying to appeal to universal themes: “Broken-down athletes who are trying to relive their glory days. This is something that transcends religion — Mormon, Islamic . . . everyone’s going to love it,” Hale says.
The pair have doubled their usual production budget to almost $1 million for “Church Ball,” enabling them to cast better-known actors: Fred Willard (“Best in Show”), Andrew Wilson (brother of Luke and Owen) and Gary Coleman.
As part of the sanitizing, Hale and Hunter are building a new studio. And because HaleStorm has become synonymous with Mormon movies, they’re taking a new name: Stone Five Studios. “We don’t want the LDS baggage with us,” Hale says, when they go to look for backing in Los Angeles. (They’ll still produce Mormon films under the HaleStorm brand.)
Nearly 4,000 people turned out for the fifth annual LDS Film Festival this week, up from 2,800 last year. The increase is a testament to a growing community of Mormon independent filmmakers and the Mormon audiences who love them, or at least live with them, because Mormon cinema — or Mollywood — is better than the alternative.
“If Mormons will let other people tell their stories, they will end up with something very far from reality,” said filmmaker Richard Dutcher. Case in point: The March HBO drama “Big Love,” produced by Tom Hanks, about a fictional polygamist’s family is just the latest piece of pop culture to focus on the religion’s fundamentalist fringe.
It’s not surprising that there should be a growing film presence within the Mormon community: Film has long been part of how the Mormon Church teaches and converts, explains Randy Astle, a film instructor at the Mormon-affiliated Brigham Young University. “Since the 1880s, missionaries were carrying around big, bulky magic lanterns with slides on glass” before film had been fully developed, he says.
Most Mormons are exposed to this kind of media from the time they are young, and it can have a lasting impact on the way they think about film, Astle says.
Independent Mormon filmmakers often learn their trade at the Mormon Church’s own film industry. The LDS Mormon Studios sprawls on a 20-acre campus, with two soundstages and Avid editing suites with paintings of Jesus on the wall. This is where hundreds of church-funded TV commercials and educational videos are produced every year. It’s also where many of the new independent filmmakers got their start as interns while they were students at BYU.
“One of our main problems in the genre is that most of the people have a hard time stepping away from that,” says Dutcher. “When they go out and make a movie about Mormons, they have a missionary feel, [as if] they have an obligation to make more Mormons in the world,” he says.
One thing filmmakers have to figure out is how to tell stories that are more realistic, even if that means they are sometimes unflattering to Mormons, says Dutcher. In the mid-1990s he started thinking there could be a market of 5 million Mormons across the country interested in seeing images that were truer to their lives. His movie “God’s Army,” a story of two Mormon missionaries in Los Angeles, was released nationwide in 2000 and earned him $2.6 million at the box office, more than 10 times what he spent on the film.
Dozens of filmmakers followed the example, and within five years, the new Mormon Cinema has seen the release of “Napoleon Dynamite,” co-written and directed by BYU grad Jared Hess, which took in about $45 million; though the film isn’t overtly Mormon, the community claims both it and Hess, who worked behind the camera on some early HaleStorm productions. And then there’s Utah Jazz owner Larry Miller, who has put millions of dollars behind a series of movies called “The Work and the Glory” that tell the early history of the Mormon Church.
The Mormon indie scene continues to grow: Three years ago, the LDS Film Festival had no full-length feature films; this year it had 10, including submissions from Mormon filmmakers in England and Norway, said festival organizer Christian Vuissa. And up the hill at Slamdance — a higher profile alternative festival in Park City — four films showing this week were produced by Latter-day Saints.
But can Mormon filmmakers create mainstream, popular fare that still keeps the faith? Maria Elena de las Carreras, a visiting professor of film history at UCLA, says it’s safer to create films that can appeal to religious people by dealing with Judeo-Christian values, without singling out one faith.
“You can make a film about sacrifice and redemption and suffering, like ‘The Lord of the Rings’ — a film dealing with the human condition and the dangers of being human and how someone responds to a higher power,” she notes.
Many filmmakers disagree that they should have to mute the Mormonness to make a film that will appeal to general audiences.
Filmmaker Greg Whiteley says his Mormon viewpoint actually gives him an edge in the industry. “A lot of filmmakers here in Los Angeles don’t have a strong vision of the world. Religion helps you have that, ” he says. Whiteley’s first documentary film, “New York Doll,” about rocker-turned-Mormon Arthur “Killer” Kane, premiered at Sundance last year.
“The trick is to allow your view of the world to be shaped, in turn, by whatever it is you’re filming so that your characters don’t become two-dimensional and moralistic,” he adds.
Tasha Oldham, a Los Angeles-based Mormon filmmaker, says she’s found that people are fascinated with Latter-day Saints. She directed “The Smith Family,” a documentary about a Mormon family with a gay father and husband who dies of complications of AIDS, which was seen by 6 million viewers on PBS in 2002 and earned her an Outstanding Directorial Achievement award from the Directors Guild of America.
She says she’s rooting for the release of a Mormon-themed success that will truly translate some of their cultural idiosyncrasies to a wider audience: “We’re still waiting for our Mormon version of ‘Our Big Fat Greek Wedding.’ “
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