As returned missionaries, my wife and I went into the theater with some apprehension about how LDS-Missionary Life would be portrayed. What we experienced was truth and light. The director (who we met after the showing) did a great job with the subject matter in a truthful and diplomatic way. An LDS Mission is not two solid years of bliss, but it isn't two years of wading through swamps, either. The film shows a truthful balance of the good and the bad. Even if you are not LDS, please see this film. You'll be glad you did. Favourite part: When the missionaries arrive at "Sister Abinadi" and her friend's door.
[More comments and reviews are available on the IMDB site.]
(1 hr., 47 min.; PG for a couple "h" and "d" words)
In speaking of Elder Dalton, the hard-working missionary played by Richard Dutcher in "God's Army," someone says, "He means well; I think he tries a little too hard."
I jotted that line down because I knew there was a chance that sentiment could wind up applying to Dutcher himself -- star, writer and director of the first major motion picture about Mormon missionaries.
Could it be that "God's Army," while full of good intentions, would come off as just another preachy, overblown seminary film?
Thankfully, no. "God's Army" is the real deal, a funny and touching fictional story about several Los Angeles missionaries, and it manages to be realistic as well as entertaining and uplifting, without (for the most part) becoming emotionally manipulative.
In other words, this movie is actually GOOD.
At the center of the film is Elder Allen (Matthew Brown), a brand-new missionary who, while a life-long member, is unsure of his testimony and whether he wants to be on a mission. His trainer is Elder Dalton, a 29-year-old former medical student, and a convert who is, as they say, "on fire" for missionary work. He has Allen tracting even before dropping his luggage off at the apartment.
They share an apartment with four other missionaries. The practical jokes and general levity among the six rings just as true as the "OK-let's-get-down-to-business" attitude that eventually prevails. Furthermore, the investigators' concerns, the reactions of people on the street, Dalton's never-say-die spirit and Allen's sweet-faced innocence all remind a returned missionary of specific people and circumstances he or she knew while out in the field.
It shouldn't surprise me that mission life is portrayed so realistically -- after all, Dutcher did serve a mission himself -- but it does. For the most part, "God's Army" portrays missionary life the way it is: You get out of it what you put into it, but even when you're doing what's right, you're still in for some heartache.
Missionaries aren't perfect, either. Here, Elder Kinegar (Michael Buster) reads too much anti-Mormon literature, eventually ruining his fragile testimony. Elder Sandoval (Luis Robledo) flirts with a cafe waitress. Sister Fronk (Jacque Gray) is haughty. Dalton loses his temper. Allen doodles in his notebook instead of writing in his journal. This ain't exactly the "Called the Serve" video.
While "God's Army" is realistic, it is by no means a documentary. A few bits of dialogue really are cheesy, Dalton's initial use of his "let's do some good" slogan being the most flagrant example. And most of the stories wrap up neatly -- a little too neatly, in fact, with almost no investigators left unbaptized. (The film focuses more on the missionaries than on their converts -- wise, since that's where the really interesting and true-to-life stories are.) The few threads that are left tangled seem to be left that way mainly so no one can accuse the movie of wrapping everything up nicely.
One event late in the film involving the healing of a young man could have come off as unbelievable. In context, though, and as crafted with finesse by Dutcher, it works perfectly. The Mormon side of me cried because it felt the Spirit. The film-critic side of me cried because of the beautiful way in which the film had set up the characters and led up to the moment.
Another major event, however (the one that is allegedly the emotional climax of the movie), seems not just unrealistic, but unnecessary. The tears there come because of emotional manipulation, not because of successful filmmaking. It's a shame a film this good would resort to something so amateurish in an attempt to jerk tears out of people.
Elder Allen's trial of faith -- seeing Kinegar lose his testimony while already unsure of his own -- is what gives the film its real emotional climax. For a while, Allen seems to exist merely so the other characters have someone to tell their backstories to. But here he finally takes center stage, seeking answers for himself.
The acting is solid all the way around, with Matthew Brown's sweet, understated performance as Elder Allen pulling more weight than you might give him credit for, since he spends a lot of time just standing around, watching. Look at him, though. There's more going on than you think. And Dutcher plays Dalton with amazing sincerity. By the end, his "let's do some good" line no longer seems trite, because you can tell Dalton really means it.
Will Mormons like this movie? Oh, yeah. Many of them would like it anyway, just because it shows Mormons in a positive light and doesn't have any nudity. But for those who actually want to discern good movies from poor movies, this one is good. It's a triumph in the category of "films about Mormons," and as a regular old movie, judged like any other, it gets a little awkward, fumbles here and there with its stories, but ultimately does extremely well for itself.
Whether you like the Mormon Church or not, whether you're a believer or a disbeliever, whether you know a mission to Guatemala from a mission to Mars, you've got to admire Richard Dutcher's new movie, "God's Army."
He never used the word "special." Not a single time.
I like to think of myself as a critic. I have disrespected my share of movies. Just this year I walked out of several, including a couple that are up for Oscars.
I was not above walking out of "God's Army." But I did not.
I loved it.
No, I am not an investor.
I just wish I were.
Two very big thumbs up. And two very big handshakes.
When I wandered into the Century Theatre in Salt Lake City this past Friday night to see "God's Army" I was apprehensive at best. A movie about a Mormon mission? Hey, I went on a Mormon mission . . . somebody's doing a movie about that! I cringed, I worried, I started out watching between my fingers. I was not confident anyone could pull this off.
As the movie opened with a new missionary flying into Los Angeles to begin his mission, I turned to my wife. I said, "Wonder where they're going with this?"
How about, Straight to a victory speech at Cannes?
Forget missions, forget religion, forget cinematic formulas. What returned missionary Richard Dutcher has done with his semi-autobiographical story that he wrote, produced, directed, starred in, funded, cast and distributed, is moviemaking at its pioneering best.
What are the two requirements of a really good movie?
1. You identify and have an emotional attachment with the characters.
2. It's real.
"God's Army" is so real I thought I was back in Gorleston-on-Sea, England, starting my own personal two-year tour of duty. The wind was blowing off the North Sea, the people were eating Cornish pastry and saying "Core, blimey," Elder Garry Whiting of Casper, Wyo., was sticking out his hand and telling me, "Hi, I'm your senior companion you do the dishes," and I was looking for a boat or plane or train or plausible physical disease or injury excuse that would someway, somehow, get me back home. I was cold, homesick, not sure what I was doing, couldn't understand the language . . . .
Let's see, where was I?
Oh, the movie. Could I relate to the characters? Hey, I knew them. I lived with them. I could give you their phone numbers. I could tell you where they live, what they're doing now. That was my district up there on the screen, including the good-looking sister.
It was amazing. A movie about the Mormon experience that ran right past all the usual suspects the conference voices, the primary voices, the authority fixations, the self-conscious self-deprecations, the jokes about Jell-O and got directly to the good, straight unvarnished, unsanitized, uncorrelated truth.
At last, a film about the people in the trenches starring the people in the trenches. This was like doing a movie on playing on the offensive line and getting it right; like when Francis Ford Coppola did "The Godfather" and the mafia sent its regards.
Out in the seven-dollar seats, which included a good number of former missionaries besides myself people who had been there and done that, and that, and that you could almost hear the audience saying, "Yeah!"
Like Bruce Brown with "Endless Summer," like Sylvester Stallone with "Rocky," it was obvious: This was personal.
Richard Dutcher, you did some good.
Utah audiences have welcomed "God's Army" with open arms, and, believe it or not, the whole motion-picture industry is sitting up and taking notice of The Little Mormon Movie That Could.
In its first 10 days of release, the independently released drama about LDS missionaries in Los Angeles has grossed nearly $275,000. And over the past weekend, the film finished ahead of most of the big national releases, coming in a strong No. 2 at local theaters to the Julia Roberts hit, "Erin Brockovich."
And while "God's Army" is, at this point, playing only in Utah having expanded to 18 locations since its March 10 opening out-of-state interest is high as well.
"We've gotten a flood of phone calls and e-mails from people wanting to know when the film is going to open in their communities," said Richard Dutcher, who wrote, produced, directed and co-stars in the movie. "We've even gotten calls from national theater chains wanting to book our film."
In fact, demand has been so overwhelming for Dutcher that he recently turned over distribution duties to Excel Entertainment Group Inc., a locally based distributor of music CDs and videotapes. Consequently, Excel will distribute and promote the film as it heads out of the state.
First up will be Rexburg, Idaho, with other Idaho theaters receiving the film in the following two weeks. And there are plans to open "God's Army" in Los Angeles as early as April 28.
That will require Excel to manufacture more prints of the film possibly doubling the current number (20).
Though he's less involved distribution now, Dutcher still oversees those efforts to make sure the film's release expansion isn't too dramatic and too drastic.
"One of the reasons why I signed this deal with Excel was so I could retain some control over that," he explained. "I wanted to keep this movie in the community that way, as well as make sure the reasons why the company was doing distribution wasn't just for the money.
"I mean, as things stand, we could try to open the movie around the country in Chicago for example," Dutcher continued. "But we probably wouldn't stand much of a chance right now."
Instead, he and Excel will continue their "grass-roots" efforts, which includes targeting areas with a strong LDS population base. "We know who's going to go see this movie, especially out of this state. It would be nice to pretend otherwise, but we can certainly live with the situation as it is."
Turning over distribution responsibilities also frees Dutcher to do what he wants to do which is make more films. He's already started work on the script for his follow-up film, which he enigmatically implied will "tie-in" to "God's Army" in some way, though he declined to get specific.
He is currently planning to shoot his new movie in Los Angeles this fall, with an eye toward a February theatrical release (in Utah first, of course).
However, even if he does get that film done in time, Dutcher doesn't plan to submit the movie to the Sundance Film Festival, the largest market for independent films in the United States especially since "God's Army" was rejected by this year's Sundance fest.
"Frankly, I wasn't surprised that it got rejected; I was expecting that," said Dutcher, who wasn't even planning to submit it until his wife talked him into it. "But it was very disappointing that the festival promotes itself as the great hero of the unheard, independent-film voice and then turns down something that fits that definition.
"I wonder if it would have gotten in if it had been about a gay missionary on a murder spree."
After hearing this, it's been suggested that Dutcher might want to submit his next film to one of the Sundance "alternative" festivals, such as Slamdance.
"That's an intriguing idea," he said.
One idea that Dutcher does reject is the notion that he should now expand his cinematic horizons. He said he has no plans to make films outside of his very specialized niche.
"I already spent time doing things the other way," said Dutcher, whose first film was the mainstream, made-for-cable-television comedy "Girl Crazy. "Why would I want to go back to that?"
Besides, he would like to expand the niche.
"The reactions to ("God's Army") so far have been very gratifying, but there's still a lot more that could be done," Dutcher said. "That doesn't mean that every movie I'm going to make is going to be about missionaries or strictly Mormon characters. But they'll be involved in some way."
[NOTE: The original web page for this article, in the online Meridian Magazine, has many photos, and we recommend you visit that page rather than read the article here.]
At last, someone has made a theatrically-released movie about us and for us.
Richard Dutcher, in his letterman-style jacket and iron-rimmed glasses, fields questions from the crowd which came to see his new film God's Army. A couple of years earlier he was standing over some coals barbecuing hamburgers on the back patio of his home in Southern California. He had taken stock in his life and didn't like where the Hollywood dream had taken him. He had stopped attending church weekly, and when he did go, he often sneaked out during priesthood to see what was happening at a nearby bookstore. He was rubbing shoulders with people who argued incessantly for inserting nudity into his low-budget romantic-comedy Girl Crazy so that it could get distribution.
At that point, Dutcher made a decision that he has since coined his Abrahamic sacrifice: he decided to leave filmmaking. After chasing this life-long dream, he realized he was not being the kind of Latter-day Saint he wanted to be. In his circumstance, he felt he had to make a decision between being a faithful member of the church or become a filmmaker. He would miss film, but the decision was made.
While minding the barbecue, Dutcher looked at the calendar section of the L.A. Times which was spread out in front of him. Like a penniless child staring in the confectionery's window, Dutcher noted the niche cinemas that had constant and reliable distribution: imported Indian films, gay and lesbian cinema, "black" cinema . . . Then the thought hit him with force, "Where's the Mormon cinema?" Surely there are enough Mormons to support a niche film distribution.
This solitary thought led Dutcher on a trek to produce a film specifically for a Mormon audience. After writing a screenplay for an historical epic, he found funding hard to come by. After numerous rejections, he reassessed his approach. He wrote a new story, much simpler and again sought funding. Eventually, through the process he made the film that would be known as God's Army.
God's Army is a fictional story about an LDS missionary, Elder Allen (Matthew Brown), in his first area in Los Angeles. His senior companion, Elder Dalton (played by Dutcher himself) is a straight arrow with a hard-driving feel for the work, which just makes the transition that much more difficult for Elder Allen. But, Dutcher doesn't sensationalize the story. He makes you understand the people, feel for their quirks and hardships, and then you enjoy their stories. Dutcher, who served a mission in the Veracruz region of Southern Mexico, clearly draws on personal experience to capture the ups and downs, and quirks of mission life. (See accompanying review in Meridian.)
Coming out of a showing of God's Army at the sparkling new Jordan Commons in the Salt Lake Valley, many people wanted to talk to Dutcher. He produced, wrote, directed, and starred in the film and could consequently answer any question about it. Many were curious to know which actors were members, whether anybody was converted in the making of the film, or whether he thought the world would accept it. Dutcher is unconcerned with the particulars of such a line of questions. He made this film for Mormons as entertainment.
Dutcher doesn't want God's Army to be a unique film. He wants it to be the first of many. "For me it's not just God's Army. It's God's Army as a beginning of an LDS movement." His tone of voice lacks pretension, aggressiveness, or even boldness. But, his words speak for themselves. He sees a new movement emerging and nothing in his mind will stand in it's way. "I'm going to continue making films somehow, someway, regardless of how [God's Army] does at the box office." Nevertheless, he does hope that it will prove what he's been trying to convince people of for the last several years, "which is [that] there's enough interest and there's enough of an LDS market to sustain our own little film community."
Dutcher is utilizing what's called a platform release for his film. This means instead of opening across the country simultaneously, it opens in one region, in this case, the Wasatch Front. As it gains an audience, he will spread it into new cities and areas of the country. Hollywood uses this distribution method for reaching niche markets, especially "art films," and relies heavily on the film's quality or audience demand. (Those interested in seeing God's Army can track which theaters it's in and request it to their city or region by visiting www.zionfilms.com.)
Dutcher's vision of the future of a Mormon cinema doesn't end with an infrequent distribution of Mormon-themed films. And he recoils at the notion that a G rating has become a quality stamp for our family entertainment. He's more concerned with stories that entertain, enlighten, and resonate with us. God's Army doesn't sanitize missionary life, but it also lacks skepticism or cynicism. This is a film by a believer. "I wanted to honor missionaries and missionary service. And really elevate it and hold it up, but I felt like to do that you had to be true to it." That meant including many things that might make some members raise an eyebrow, like the puckish behavior present in the elders' apartment. "One thing that I think is so impressive [is] that you do have these guys who are nineteen and twenty years old and they do behave like nineteen, twenty, twenty-one year olds, but when it comes time for them to do their job, . . . when it's time for them to become strong, they step up to the mark and they perform, these guys who a few hours earlier were goofing off and being kids."
While he doesn't say as much, it's clear that Dutcher also sees the instructional value of telling our own stories. He understands that many young people in the church have a hard time seeing themselves serving a mission because missionaries are portrayed as always mature, perfect individuals.
"I remember myself, when you put on the name tag and the neck tie and it doesn't feel right. You feel like you're pretending. All these other missionaries are these perfect people and you're going to try to sneak by and not let anybody find out that you're not. But, you know, that's the reality of it. The reality of it is that we're all human beings and the Lord uses us with all of our weakness to do His work. And so I wanted to show this, so an eighteen-year-old kid who thought, 'I can't be a missionary,' can see that 'Yes, you can.' In fact, you should be, because whatever your weaknesses are, the Lord can use those and your strengths to get His work done."
Dutcher figures that he can produce one film a year. This means that other filmmakers have to join the movement to support the latent demand that he's confident is there. The success of the movement is not in question. His only doubt is when it will come to maturity. For Dutcher, the LDS filmmakers in Hollywood are like the Israelites in Egypt. And perhaps because of his own experience, he reserves sharp language for calling them back to Canaan. "I think one of the reasons we haven't [started a Mormon cinema] yet, is because Mormon filmmakers have been worldly cowards. To be really honest. I think we've been really focused on worldly success and we've been really ashamed of Mormonism, of our faith. I think it's really criminal and I think we need to repent."
The New Mormon Cinema wouldn't ignore Hollywood completely. Instead, there will develop a more respectful and symbiotic relationship between the LDS market and the nation's mass media. Not only will Mormons be respected as a people that deserve representation, but they will be openly courted. After all, Hollywood, like any other business, cares only about the bottom line. When it sees that there's money to be had in the Mormon community, it will go after it. Dutcher believes that Mormons can enjoy their own stories and produce their own films, and not have to take everything Hollywood hands them. But, likewise, he sees a mature Mormon cinema as a potential producer for occasional mainstream movies.
Dutcher quotes a General Conference talk that almost all LDS artists are familiar with. "When President Kimball gave his great talk in 1977..." Dutcher emphasizes the 1977 with the incredulous surprise of how long ago that was. "[President Kimball] talked about all the arts, but also he singled out filmmakers, and said that tomorrow we should be able to make these films that will fill the world with our faith and our culture and they'll play in every movie center in every part of the world."
Clearly, Richard Dutcher believes that the Mormon community is on the cusp of just such a future.
[The world premier of God's Army will be Wednesday, March 8th at Jordan Commons in Sandy, UT. For tickets call Zion Films customer Relations at (801) 304-4576. All proceeds go to the Homeless Children's Foundation. General release across the Wasatch Front begins Friday, March 10th.]
Richard Dutcher is a Mormon who's tired of the way members of his faith are being portrayed in movies. Rather than sit around and gripe, he's decided to do something about it.
The result is the independently produced and financed "God's Army" -- a story of LDS missionaries working in the Los Angeles area. And lest you think this is just another puff piece praising Mormon theology, he says: Think again.
Dutcher admits his early drafts of the film were a little too sweet and, quite frankly, uninteresting. He realized that, in his attempts to be positive, he wasn't being completely honest. So he decided to include issues that members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are still coming to grips with -- such as blacks and the priesthood, and the effects of anti-Mormon literature.
Dutcher doesn't apologize for the fact that he made the film for people like himself. "I made this for Mormons," he says. "I didn't make it to be any kind of missionary tool or to introduce the gospel to non-members. I just got really tired of seeing others take potshots at us or make us the butt of a joke."
He cites films like last year's "Orgazmo," which was another film about missionaries working in Los Angeles. "It really bugged me," Dutcher says. "Here I was, trying to convince Mormon businessmen to invest in my project and out comes this Trey Parker film doing the polar opposite of what I was trying to do."
He says he simply wants to "honor the experience" of being an LDS missionary, something he knows about firsthand, having served in Mexico for two years beginning in 1984.
Dutcher doesn't have the typical Mormon background. His mother married a man who was a Mormon. The family moved through various parts of Illinois and Kentucky as his stepdad searched for business opportunities.
During Dutcher's teenage years, the family came to Utah, where he attended Hillcrest High School, graduating in 1982. He then went on to Brigham Young University and finally on to his LDS mission in Veracruz. He's married and has three boys, ages 8, 5 and 2.
The family recently moved to Mapleton, Utah, after spending the last several years in Los Angeles.
He says he got tired of the gunshots and the helicopters, and he wanted to breathe the air and see the mountains of Utah once again.
Whether he stays here largely depends on the success of "God's Army." He already has two other finished scripts, also based on the Mormon experience, that he would like to produce.
Dutcher says he's excited by the feedback he's gotten from those who have seen advance screenings of "God's Army." He was a bit afraid of the reaction of stake presidents and others who might frown on his "edgy" material, but, so far, they've all been positive.
For the record, Dutcher says, no funding came from the LDS Church, nor did the church have any kind of script approval.
The only negative reactions Dutcher has picked up are from what he calls "anti-Mormons," who have left messages on his company's Web site, www.zionfilms.com, that his film is just a veiled recruitment tool.
"God's Army" is expected to open in Salt Lake City, Provo and Orem today, and in Ogden, Cedar City and St. George on March 24. Why the two-week delay? Dutcher says he needs the money from the early box office receipts to open the movie to wider audiences.
If the film does well, he plans to take it to Las Vegas, Los Angeles and any other place he can find a receptive crowd.
Dutcher knows he's taking a risk, but he hopes that Mormons, with a member base of 11 million people, are going to want to see accurate films that truly reflect their way of life.
The question of faith, presumably, would not be very appealing subject matter for cinema. An individual's struggle with belief is primarily an internal dialogue among self, soul and God. There's the opportunity for external characters to take part -- the three associates of Job, for example, who come to give comfort but instead harangue the poor unfortunate as he sits, his life wrecked, covered with boils -- but this just makes for lots of conversation, which doesn't inspire potent visual imagery (although the boils might interest the f/x team). In the American mainstream, at least, a few people sitting around arguing about God isn't very cinematic. Jennifer Lopez in funky futuristic bondagewear is.
Yet directors have been fascinated by the topic of faith and religion as long as there has been a cinema. Other than the camp extravaganzas of Cecil B. DeMille and all those wise Irish priests played by Pat O'Brien and Bing Crosby and Spencer Tracy in the '30s and '40s, film depictions of human struggles with God, and the absence of God, have inspired some of the best, and most controversial, products of world cinema.
A film series sponsored by Fontbonne College, Shadow and Light, focuses on issues of faith, beginning Sept. 12 with Robert Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest and continuing through Oct. 17 with works by Carl Dreyer (Ordet), Luis Bunuel (Nazarin and Viridiana), Ingmar Bergman (Winter Light) and Roberto Rossellini (The Messiah). Co-curators Patricia Brooke and John Hodge didn't begin with the idea of faith as a central theme for the series (they originally conceived of a pairing of the "austerity of Bresson and the hyperbole of Bunuel," says Hodge), but once they arrived at that concept, it became more a process of selecting lesser-known works than searching to find films that fit the criteria. "There is a long tradition of faith on film," says Brooke, with controversy being part of that tradition, from D.W. Griffith's Intolerance to Kevin Smith's Dogma. "There's rarely a description of Viridiana that doesn't include the word 'blasphemous,'" Brooke says.
Neither Hodge nor Brooke expects controversy over these films. It's impossible to predict what might offend, however. "We never expect it," says Brooke. "It surprised me with Dogma. I just don't understand. I was raised Catholic. I always felt the church was about questioning and pushing and prodding. It wasn't about protecting and being easily offended."
Any compelling story of faith is about doubt, as Flannery O'Connor shows again and again in her fiction, and doubt brings unease to the orthodox. One thing the films selected for Shadow and Light have in common is the struggle of characters lost in the void of God's silence. Hodge notes that these directors made careers of turning internal human conflict into stunning cinematic representations. Dreyer, for example, is best known for The Passion of Joan of Arc, in which the righteousness of Joan, and the corruption of those around her, is presented with all the harshness, and loving detail, of the big-screen closeup.
All those St. Joan movies (the atrocious The Messenger notwithstanding) stand apart from the films of Shadow and Light -- and from many of the great European films that came out of post-World War II existential despair -- because their narratives center on God's voice rather than God's silence. They also have the advantage of battles and burnings and cross-dressing with which to fill the screen.
They further profit from historical distance. It's another matter to make a movie about religion and faith in the modern world that is sunny rather than bleak, hopeful rather than despairing, respectful rather than irreverent. For some, the very concept has all the appeal of a visit from Mormon missionaries.
So it's no wonder that Richard Dutcher -- writer, director and star of God's Army -- had a hard time finding funding for his independent film, even when the investors he tried to attract were Mormons themselves. His idea was a film about the Mormon missionary experience, a story familiar to Mormons but one that to non-Mormons would appear to be about eager white-shirted pests who show up earnestly on the doorstep just when you've settled in to watch the video of South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut.
Even though Latter-day Saints president Spencer Kimball made a call for a Mormon cinema in 1977, the response to that call hasn't been too inspiring in the intervening years. When Dutcher hears the name Brigham, a low-budget polemic about the LDS leader who brought the flock to Utah, he moans painfully: "Oh my God, yes, what an embarrassment. Those (movies) worked against me, too. There have been some LDS filmmakers who have been making movies for the past 20 years or so -- only a couple have had anything to do with real Mormon themes and real Mormon characters. And those that have been made were just abysmal."
Dutcher already had more credibility as a filmmaker than those who'd preceded him in the LDS genre. He'd made Girl Crazy, a light romantic comedy that, after he'd spent four years of his life just to get the funding, was picked up by HBO. But he figured if he was going to devote so much time and effort to get a film made, he'd better make films that mattered to him more than classic boy-meets-girl tales.
He chose to avoid the mainstream and pursue the niche market he knew best (and to him was the most neglected): the members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "As a Mormon myself and a filmmmaker, I definitely recognized the lack of representation, or the presence of misrepresentation. It seemed that before this film, whenever Mormons were mentioned in films or television, it was as the butt of a joke or total misrepresentation of who we are. One of the things that compelled me to make the movie was to tell the story the way it really is, because if we just allow other people to define us, then we'll just continue to get misrepresented and misunderstood."
He also decided to construct the film for this specialized audience, to focus a story about his own, and for his own, people -- a novel concept, but another that didn't attract wild investor interest. "I couldn't say, 'Last year a movie just like this made this much money,'" says Dutcher, because there was no such movie.
God's Army was made with a budget of $300,000, which allowed for a mere 18-day shooting schedule on location in LA. Dutcher plays the obsessive Elder Dalton, who guides the "greenie," Elder Allen (Matthew Brown), through the peaks and valleys of his missionary duties in the City of Angels, or, more appropriately, Sodom and/or Gomorrah to the upstanding Mormon youth. Dutcher chose the missionary experience because it is common to his LDS audience (a two-year mission is a requirement of the church faithful) and because it was a story that was dear to him. "I wanted to tell my own story," he says (Dutcher served his mission in Veracruz, Mexico). "That's really what it was all about -- communicating what's inside of me. I could have gone historically, but I think the key is to tell stories only you can tell. I'd lived those stories. I knew those people. I'd been through those situations. At first I toyed around with historical pieces or other people's stories, but I realized this was the one that needed to be told. This was the one that called to me."
God's Army follows Elder Allen as he joins his white-shirt-and-tie brethren, spreading the good word of the Mormon faith in Tinseltown. After his first day he tries to go back home to Kansas, but he's retrieved and lives the life of doors slammed in the face, of his roommates' Animal House antics, of spiritual doubt and spiritual awakening. At its worst, God's Army slips into cheesy melodrama -- a classic Hollywood brain tumor threatens the stern yet beloved Elder Dalton; God's intervention heals the handicapped -- and at its best it creates a compelling and earnest narrative. Dutcher manages to make those overly polite, overly decent folks on the front porch into sympathetic characters.
Dutcher also allows more problematic issues of the LDS Church to enter into the story. Blacks were once excluded from the church, and the African-American Elder Banks (in a strong performance by DeSean Terry) does not fare well trying to explain to an African-American couple how that's all changed. Elder Kinegar (Michael Buster) delves into literature that questions the foundations of the church and leaves his mission, and Mormonism, behind.
But Dutcher agrees that a story about faith is a story about doubt. When he listens to the list of films being offered at Fontbonne, he says they are some of his favorites. He believes stories about faith work well in cinema because it is such an internalized subject: "It's such a personal thing. It isn't a subject you talk about at cocktail parties, but everybody has this waxing or waning relationship with God. I think we all want to see that on the screen and see how other people are dealing with it, because it isn't a subject of conversation. But when you see it in a film, it's a filmmaker opening himself up and trying to be as honest and open and sincere as possible. You get a glimpse of what you don't get in conversation or you definitely don't get on television."
The niche audience has responded to God's Army. With limited distribution, the film has made more than $2 million. Dutcher
figures this is a sign to do more films for his own people. "I see so many different directions to go with it -- some that would be
more mainstream and some that would be more insular. I'm working on a film about a Mormon sheriff in a small Utah town
who's also the bishop. It's a contemporary piece, more a treatment of the community and the approaching influence of the
outside world. It's a fascinating little piece."