The following is a transcript of a conversation I had yesterday with LDS writer-producer-director-editor-actor Richard Dutcher. Mr. Dutcher spoke very frankly about his excellent new film God’s Army 2: States of Grace, filmmaking, and the state of Mormon cinema. The transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Some of your recent press has referred to you as the â€œFather of Mormon Cinema.â€ How does that title feel on you?
Well, I suppose that would have been true at one time, but the father may be leaving the family soon.
You mean you might be charting a new direction now?
Well, I may not really have much choice.
Depending on how States of Grace doesâ€”itâ€™s exactly the kind of movie that I want to make, and the kind of film that I think should be made in the LDS community. So if itâ€™s not accepted by the LDS community, then Iâ€™m going to still make the kind of films I want to make. If I canâ€™t make them here Iâ€™ll make them somewhere else.
Have you felt a little confined in what the audience is accepting, regarding films you might want to make?
Not yet. I was disappointed after the lack of financial success of Brigham City. I was very disappointed for a while because that was the kind of film that I wanted to make, and so I was hoping for the support of the community so that I could continue to make films like that. In making States of Grace, I wasnâ€™t ready to give up on that. But there were a lot of marketing and distribution mistakes made with Brigham City, so one thing I wanted to do with States of Grace was to return with a similar kind of movie. Naturally you canâ€™t make all the right decisions on the release, but at least give it another try and see how it would go. So I guess weâ€™ll watch and see how States of Grace performs.
Well at least critically youâ€™re doing very well. Are you pleased with the buzz so far?
Yes, very much so. The film definitely works for the audience. But itâ€™s always just a challenge of getting an audience into the theater. So weâ€™re getting very good word of mouth, excellent reviews. In fact, I couldnâ€™t ask for better reviewsâ€”couldnâ€™t pay for better reviews.
Well, I thought the bar was set pretty high by the reviews, but this show lived up to everything Iâ€™d heard. It seems like in this movie youâ€™ve condensed into a single narrative a lot of the fundamental elements of a very Mormon story, but at the same time it does come off as pretty relevant to everyone, beyond just Mormons. Is this a Mormon story for Mormons, or a story for everyone, or both?
I would see it as a story coming out of Mormonism thatâ€™s accessible to, if not all people, then all religious people. Naturally someone who doesnâ€™t believe in God at all, this isnâ€™t a movie that theyâ€™d respond to. But hopefully theyâ€™d respond at a human level. I was trying to tell a very true human story. Hopefully on that level, others can relate to it regardless of their own background.
That was my first reaction to the movie-â€” how human it is. To me itâ€™s almost a surprise to see that in a Mormon film because so much of LDS cinema is so self-conscious. This movie has no defensiveness, and also no self-mockery. Thereâ€™s no need to explain or laugh at Mormon quirks, etc. The upshot is that the religion and the people come off as less strange than in works that try harder to defend Mormonism. How did you get to a place where you could portray it that objectively? Is there something in your background that gives you a more neutral perspective?
I donâ€™t know. My early childhood of course wasnâ€™t LDS. I didnâ€™t grow up in Utah. You know, my fatherâ€™s family was Baptist, and my Motherâ€™s family is Pentecostalâ€”and they still are. When I visit my grandmother, I attend Pentecostal meetings with her. When Iâ€™m in L.A., I attend Catholic Mass. I think in my life Iâ€™ve been exposed to, and Iâ€™ve participated in, other religious communities. So I definitely have a respect for all of those belief systems. And real affection for the people tooâ€”itâ€™s not just that I tolerate their beliefs. There are things I appreciate in those cultures that I want to bring into my own life. And I think that does come across in the film, where there are things like Baptist and Pentecostal music, since there are characters that are Baptist and Pentecostal.
I liked how that kind of Ecumenical view seems to come out in the film, in that everybody doesnâ€™t have to be converted at the end. So you have one theme on the one hand where redemption is available to everyone. But on the other hand you have a very strong recurring motif in all of your movies of the importance of Priesthood ordinances. So in saying that everyone can find grace, how does the special-ness of Priesthood ordinances, that are just for the LDS people, play into that?
Hmm- thatâ€™s a good question. I think in this film I wanted the ordinance to play into the story as part of the cultural environment. But I didnâ€™t emphasize it as I did in the first Godâ€™s Army. I didnâ€™t make any statement on itâ€”I just observed it. And I think thatâ€™s the direction Iâ€™ll continue to go in the future, as more of an observational approach than making a value judgment on the ordinances, whether they be Mormon, Catholic, Baptist, whatever. I think Iâ€™m finding that Iâ€™m becoming more comfortable just letting them be what they are, and not making statements on them.
Hereâ€™s what I see as the central problem in Mormon art: Often the artist wants to bring the audience to a moment of redemption, but you often have to show some sin and grief leading up to that. The choice is to be honest about the ugly stuff and risk alienating a sensitive audience, or soft-peddle the sins, and get to a redemptive moment that often lacks weight. I notice a progression in your films of becoming more and more confident in the former option. Did you consciously make that choice?
This is something I really hold myself to when writing and directing. Iâ€™m just trying to tell the truth. And that gets difficult, as there are a lot of different interpretations of the truth. So I take it from my point of view, and my experience. And that plays out in so many ways, not just the kind of story that I choose to tell, but where the story goes, and what happens within the story.
Does that analysis take any account of what the audience is willing to accept? Is that a confinement for you in writing?
(Laughs) No. Especially not when Iâ€™m first going through it, I really donâ€™t think about it. And this is what I think is the main problem in the LDS arts, and specifically in LDS filmmaking. Itâ€™s that with LDS filmmakers, all theyâ€™re thinking about is the audience. Only in a few instances has it even begun to be an art form of personal expression. Nobodyâ€™s expressing anything personal, nobodyâ€™s exploring anything personal or meaningful in the doctrine, the history, etc. I refer to it as a Burger King way of making filmsâ€”special orders donâ€™t upset us, if you donâ€™t want pickles on it, okay, weâ€™ll take the pickles out. That really disturbs me and I think it handicaps our cultural and artistic progress. And thatâ€™s what produces this kind of art that talks down to an audience. When a filmmaker is judging what the audience is going to wantâ€”they will take this and they wonâ€™t take thisâ€”he doesnâ€™t even know. Heâ€™s doing a lot of supposition. So I think thatâ€™s a real problem, and something I try to avoid. It may work, it may not. Thatâ€™s where I am right now. Iâ€™m giving the audience a lot of credit, and saying I hope they take this. But if they donâ€™t, Iâ€™m not going to change it, and Iâ€™m not going to go make Halestorm movies if it doesnâ€™t work. Iâ€™ll just go find an audience that will take it.
Do you feel any sense of affirmatively trying to challenge the audience?
No. I donâ€™t have a cause. Iâ€™m not trying to lift Mormon arts or anything like that. Hereâ€™s a story thatâ€™s important to me, and Iâ€™m going to tell it as honestly as I can. And because Iâ€™m Mormon, and Mormonism is such a fundamental part of my being, Mormonism is going to come out in it. But Iâ€™m not trying to change the audience. This is my story, thatâ€™s it. You see, I know thereâ€™s an audience for my kind of films. And my approach is different. I donâ€™t see an audience and then make a film for that audience. I make a film, and then try to find the audience that will like it, or hope that it will find itâ€™s own audience. The difficulty is of course that maybe the audience that is there for it isnâ€™t quite big enough to justify the budget you need to make a movie. But still, my investors know what theyâ€™re getting into. And they invest because theyâ€™ve seen what Iâ€™ve done before, and they know what Iâ€™m doing. We all know that it may or may not work. But even if it doesnâ€™t work financially, Iâ€™ll be proud of States of Grace til the end of my days. Thereâ€™s two parts to it, and Mormon filmmakers often just think about the one partâ€”is it going to make money. I think thatâ€™s unfortunate, because as much as Iâ€™d love to make a profit for my investors and to make money, Iâ€™d much rather have spent a couple years of my life on something Iâ€™m proud of.
This is the first time youâ€™ve done a film that you havenâ€™t starred in. How did that change your approach to directing?
Well, I liked it more in some ways, and less in some ways. I noticed it freed me up to play a little more, as a director, which is a lot of fun. But I also noticed it was very much a different experience, because when youâ€™re acting in something you connect with the material and with the other actors in a different way. It gets inside you more. When youâ€™re a director, youâ€™re like the chef, putting it together and adding the ingredients. And when youâ€™re acting, youâ€™re eating it. So I noticed that I had a different relationship with the film than I would have had if I had acted in it. And I had a different relationship with the actors and characters in the film than I would have if I were in it. So I definitely enjoyed it, but it was a less complete experience.
As weâ€™ve seen a gradual increase in talent and sophistication in Mormon cinema, do you think you might be tempted to be more collaborative in future projects, or will you stick to the writing-directing-producing- editing-acting thing?
Iâ€™ll probably be less collaborative as time goes by, unfortunately. Although I did a rewrite on a script called Fly Boys last year. And that was interesting to take their script, rewrite it, give it to them and walk away. I saw the film recently and it was such a gratifying experience to just be able to write something and see somebody else go out and go through all the hell to get it made. So I can see that, I can see writing and walking away from things, or acting and walking away from things. But when it comes to the films that Iâ€™ll direct and produce, Iâ€™ve found that you put yourself so much at risk, and it takes so much of your life that I canâ€™t anticipate being passionate enough about somebody elseâ€™s script. I certainly wouldnâ€™t produce for anyone else, because I donâ€™t enjoy producing. So to go through that kind of hell it has to be something that I really, really believe in.
People have misinterpreted my way of filmmaking as some kind of egotistical exercise. But to me, if I can do something, I want to do it. If you paint a big canvas and then have someone else paint this little corner, or someone else come paint this because I donâ€™t do figures very well, thatâ€™s what this feels like. If I can do it, I should do it. I leave the things that I donâ€™t do well to others. I let somebody else do the music composition, etc.â€”put the frame on the canvas. But I think every film would benefit from the filmmaker doing absolutely as much he can. I guess the trick is recognizing what you donâ€™t do very well. If someone can tell you that though, youâ€™re okay. Like Mel Brooksâ€”somebody should have told Mel Brooks â€œstay out of the movie, just stay out of it!â€
This year would have been a pretty good time to release your Joseph Smith epic, â€œThe Prophet.â€ Has it been bittersweet for you to be releasing States of Grace this year instead of â€œThe Prophet?â€
Well, I would have loved to release â€œThe Prophetâ€ too. But Iâ€™ll get to that one.
Is that up next?
Thatâ€™s up whenever I can get it made. I keep referring to it as my â€œGangs of New York.â€ It may take 20 years, but Iâ€™ll do it. And when I do it, itâ€™ll blow everyone elseâ€™s version of Joseph Smith out of the water. But thatâ€™s been an incredible experience over the past four years trying to get that going. And yes, Iâ€™d love to have done it by now. But every year that goes by I get to develop it a little bit more, the script gains a little more depth, a little more truth.
Is financing the main problem? Has the financing picture in LDS films gotten any better in the last five years?
Itâ€™s all financing problems. And no, the picture hasnâ€™t gotten better. Itâ€™s gotten very bad. The films are just not performing very well at all right now. If Mobsters and Mormons had been released two and a half years ago, it would have done much better. Even though that film has some technical problems, itâ€™s by far the best of the LDS comediesâ€”by far. But because of where itâ€™s coming in the timeline, itâ€™s performing far below what the other films did.
Is this just a problem of saturation?
Yes. Well, not so much saturation, but that thereâ€™s so much crap thatâ€™s come down the pipeline.
So we need a winnowing?
Well, itâ€™s worse than that. Itâ€™s not going to be so much a winnowing. Itâ€™s going to make it very difficult for anyone to get films made in the near future. The Work and the Glory, the new one, is performing far below what the first one did, and what it needs to do in order to come close to being profitable.
And thatâ€™s despite some pretty decent reviews.
Yes, and I thought Sterling Van Wagenen, the director, did a wonderful job with it. Itâ€™s interesting to me, because I was out of it for a while after Godâ€™s Army and Brigham City, where all these films have come out in the meantime. And when I came back with States of Grace, and started jumping into the marketplace, there was such a dramatic difference in the energyâ€”the interest of media, the interest of audiences, the interest of everybody. Itâ€™s been a real uphill battle. Itâ€™s not so much saturation. If weâ€™d had great movies, the excitement would have built. The audience has become very jaded, and they have such low expectations for Mormon film that they donâ€™t get too excited about going out and seeing one. Thatâ€™s something Iâ€™ve really been battling.
Returning to this â€˜elder statesmanâ€™ role of yours, tell me your broad prognosis and prescription for what you think is going to happen in this genre.
I think over the next year things will fade away. And there will be a real dry spell for several years until an audience starts to want to see these films again. Hopefully there will be another generation of filmmakers, or the current group will have honed their skills a little better, and there will be a resurgence. Next year, you wonâ€™t notice it so much because thereâ€™ll be leftovers of things that were made this year, but I think itâ€™s really going to trickle away.
Do you see any solutions?
The only thing that could work is a successful box office for the films that will come out over the next six or eight months. But from my vantage point, I donâ€™t see it happening. I see what happened to Mobsters and Mormons, and I see whatâ€™s happening to The Work and the Glory 2. And again these are two of the best films weâ€™ve had in their respective sub-genres of our genre. I see whatâ€™s happened there, and I see the uphill battle Iâ€™m fighting with States of Grace, and itâ€™s tough to know what to do.
But a film like States of Grace has some pretty broad themes. Is there a chance to cross-market it to other audiences?
Iâ€™m doing my best to do that. We tried to make inroads into the non-Mormon Christian community. Unfortunately we havenâ€™t had much success there because thereâ€™s such long-term prejudice there to overcome. And weâ€™re trying to go the independent road as well. We just take it day to day, trying to see where a new audience might be. But it’s an interesting film in that respect. We submitted it to the L.A. Film Festival and the director of the festival loved it-wanted it in the festival. Then he submitted it to the selection committee and every single one of them came back with a reject on it. And the reason, he told me, was that they said it was â€˜too Jesus-y.â€™ So that gave me an indication of how the independent community would take it. And itâ€™s too Mormon-y for the Christians. So it may take a while. Weâ€™re trying to do something thatâ€™s really difficult, and thatâ€™s the sad thing about the Mormon audience becoming less enthusiastic and less supportive of LDS film.
Well, regardless of how it works out financially for States of Grace, youâ€™re to be congratulated on making deeply moving film. This is the first time I’ve considered a Mormon movie to be art, and I loved it. I appreciate your time. Good luck with all of the campaigning to get this film out where it needs to be.