Noted LDS filmmaker Richard Dutcher recently addressed the Southern California-based Miller-Eccles Study Group. (If you live in Southern California, you really should find out about the group; their monthly meetings host an enviable line-up of guests.) His informal remarks dealt with his personal development as a filmmaker, with his forthcoming work, and with Mormon cinema generally. A precis of his comments follows. (Hat tip to my father, Russell Frandsen, for the summary notes.)
Dutcher, a family man with five homeschooled sons (ages one to thirteen), shocked his audience by admitting at the outset that the rumors are true: he has been caught in a long-term affair, a love-affair with the movies. He grew up poor, living with his grandmother in Southern Illinois, and he remembers the thrill of his first movie: his grandmother took seven-year-old Richard to see “Mary Poppins” at an ornate 1920s art deco theater. Young Richard was entranced–although he had watched television before, he had never experienced the big screen–and he talked about it as they walked all the way home. He decided his life’s work would be in motion pictures.
As a freshman at BYU, Dutcher saw “The Blue Angel” with Marlene Dietrich. For him it was a profound moment, being moved deeply by something made over 60 years earlier: the motion picture, he learned, has the capacity to send profound messages across time. Similarly, he remembers vividly seeing the Italian film “The Bicycle Thief,” leaving the moviehouse feeling a much closer connection to the rest of humanity and to God.
During his freshman year, Dutcher struggled with the prospect of serving a mission. He told himself that perhaps he should not go on a mission; he could better serve the Lord and the Church, he reasoned, by going to Los Angeles and becoming a famous LDS sitcom actor, influencing many more people than he could by knocking on doors. In the midst of this intense personal dilemma, Dutcher went with friends to see “Return of the Jedi.” He was particularly susceptible to this movie, he admits, because of his own (conflicted?) relationship with his father. As Luke Skywalker struggled with his father and finally chose between the dark and the light, Richard started weeping. He knew what was right; he decided to go on a mission right there in that movie theatre amidst the tension of intergalactic war. George Lucas, it seems, deserves credit for prodding Richard Dutcher toward a mission, which has proved one of Dutcher’s richest sources of narrative material.
Dutcher’s first feature, the 1994 “Girl Crazy” (eventually sold to HBO), was a piece of entertaining fluff that meant nothing (Dutcher’s words!). Yet the process of making of picture, particularly the fund raising, consumed four arduous years of his life. After this experience he decided he would never waste his time on a trifling movie like that again; he wanted to do meaningful work.
For Dutcher, movies are not just entertainment: he believes the cinema can be the most profound art form. Some of his most spiritual and profound moments have been in the motion picture theatre. Dutcher says he receives inspiration in the cinema: for him, the theater is like the temple (which itself prominently employs dramatized storytelling), as a context in which personal revelation can be elicited and received. And he’s not just saying that: at his home each night, he gathers his children and they watch a few scenes of a movie, like a Charlie Chaplin bit. He hopes in this way to convey to his sons the power of motion pictures.
Dutcher clearly understands his filmmaking as an act of consecration, one limb in our collective effort to build the kingdom. He spent two years in Mexico serving his mission, he said, knocking on doors and asking people to listen to him, often being turned away. But with “Godâ€™s Army,” he had people lining up to pay money to hear him bear his testimony. For Dutcher, then, “God’s Army,” was not only about missionary work–it was missionary work. As a Latter-day Saint filmmaker, he could make a film to tell our story and doctrine in a powerful and appealing way. When asked when “Godâ€™s Army II: States of Grace” will be released, he said it is a trade secret–but it will be toward the end of the year. He is very optimistic about the sequel, judging it “much better” than the original.
Dutcher’s optimism, alas, does not extend to Mormon filmmaking generally; in fact, he prophesied the death of Mormon cinema. When he saw “The Singles Ward,” he says, he wanted to pull his hair out. Was Mormon cinema already over, he wondered, with such films killing it artistically and financially? When he made his movies, he said, he was proud to call himself a Mormon filmmaker. But after films like “The Singles Ward,” it has become an epithet. Because these films have not been successful financially, Dutcher claims, LDS investors are now unwilling to step forward and fund good Mormon cinema.
His assessment of other recent Mormon films is kinder but no more hopeful: “The Best Two Years” and “The Work and the Glory” are nice, he said, but mainly good for family home evening. (I’d love to be a fly on the wall in his home on Monday nights!) Furthermore, “Saints and Soldiers” is a good movie, but not, he thinks, a Mormon movie, since unique Mormon elements of the story have been removed. Dutcher suggested that the more culturally embedded the movie, the greater the impact for others, citing “Fiddler on the Roof” as an example. (“FotR” seems to be a favorite cultural intertext for LDS filmmakers.) What kind of a movie would that be without the Jewishness, he asked? He argued forcefully that we cannot make profound Mormon movies without including Mormon culture.
When asked whether he has had any input from general authorities either officially or individually, he replied that he has not received any official input, but has received encouragement privately.
Dutcher has a script ready for his motion picture of Joseph Smith, and he has finally raised all the money it will take to make a quality film. (He didn’t specify how much.) However, he has not been able to raise the funds from LDS investors, and all of the funding will be provided by non-LDS investors. He hopes to start shooting this summer. Val Kilmer has expressed interest in playing the part of Joseph Smith, and Dutcher would be pleased with that casting. The question is whether Val Klimer’s schedule will fit with a summer shoot of the movie.
Dutcher intends the film to tell the Joseph Smith story in a profound way, respectful of the divine nature of his calling–but a profound film must also acknowledge Joseph as a man. He mentioned another film in the making about Joseph Smith from non-LDS filmmakers, one that would not be flattering or true. If insiders do not tell the story with our own depth and insight, he warned, then others will tell the story their own way: we can expect an R-rated movie from a non-LDS producer that will savage Joseph Smith and his divine calling. (My father raised the very good question of whether we can profoundly tell the Joseph Smith story, as man and prophet, without the PG-13 or R-rated movie.)
Dutcher believes that there is nothing that cannot be treated in film (i.e., sex and violence); in manner in which such themes are treated, he suggests, makes all the difference. Seeing good films can allow us to empathize with the problems and situations of others, to experience their trauma and pain vicariously, so that we can learn wisdom without actually experiencing pain. This works as an antidote to unrighteous judgment, he says: we have too much judgmentalism in LDS culture, and films can help us understand others better. A film like “Goodfellas,” which he praised, initiates the viewer into another culture, teaching him to sympathize with but not to imitate its elements. Film should tell real stories about real people, with their mistakes and their redemption. In this sentiment, above all, Dutcher reveals himself as a true Mormon filmmaker, perhaps our best.