Richard Dutcher, writer, producer and director of "God's Army," will be speaking and answering questions about his movie in the HFAC's Nelke Theatre March 2 at 11 a.m.
Dutcher, who earned a film degree from BYU, said his experience as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Veracruz region of southern Mexico helped him in the making of the movie. "God's Army" is a drama that focuses on the lives of LDS missionaries serving in present-day Los Angeles.
"Usually a film will have a technical adviser. For instance, if the film portrays a police officer, there will be an actual police officer on set to advise the actor," said Dutcher. "I could be the technical adviser according to my experience as a missionary."
According to the movie's news release, "God's Army" is told through the eyes of recent arrival Elder Brandon Allen, an apprehensive and troubled young man still struggling with personal and family matters that have followed him into the mission field. Dutcher co-stars as Allen's companion, Elder Dalton, a passionate convert and former medical student whose unique spiritual perspective affects all with whom he comes into contact.
Dutcher said he has had two loves in life -- the gospel and filmmaking -- but that his experience writing conventional stories started leading him away from a closer relationship with God. This inspired his decision to write "God's Army."
"I was used to writing mainstream stories, but as I was writing this film I found that I was connecting with something different than I'd connected with before," said Dutcher. "(LDS Church members) don't realize that we have something truly unique because, to us, it all seems so ordinary, but it's not. For the rest of the world, a glimpse into the everyday lives of devout Mormons is a rare and fascinating thing."
Dutcher said the film was originally designed to tell a story, not to convert people, but he agrees that the film will spark interest in the church.
"Return missionaries will take their non-member friends to see the film just to show them how life was as a missionary," said Dutcher. "Many people think that the missionaries just go out on weekends; they don't understand the sacrifice that missionaries make. The film will help to inform the public."
Dutcher has spoken to several non-members that have been impressed with the film, but he was especially intrigued by what a movie critic from Salt Lake City told him.
"He said that you can deal with anything in filmmaking except faith. Faith is the last taboo, he said. He told me he was impressed with how the film dealt with the issue of faith," Dutcher said.
Gwen Yuill, publicity director for "God's Army" said it is groundbreaking and accessible to moviegoers of all faiths and cultures.
"It is an intelligent, well-crafted and serious examination of the LDS faith and culture through the eyes of true-to-life Mormon characters," Yuill said.
"God's Army" will open to the public on March 10 at the following locations in Utah Valley: Scera Theatre, 745 S. State, Orem; Spanish 8 Theaters, 790 Expressway Lane, Spanish Fork; Provo Towne Center Theaters, 1200 Towne Centre Blvd., Provo; and Water Gardens Cinema 6, 912 W. Garden Drive, Pleasant Grove.
Life as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints isn't quite what Brandon Allen expected.
Sharing an apartment with five prank-loving missionaries in unrepentant Los Angeles, dealing with a harsh mentor and surrounded by rejection every day is a real eye-opener for the 19-year-old Allen.
But as his character progresses through "God's Army," a dramatic film focusing on the lives of missionaries from the LDS Church, Allen finds faith he didn't know he had and the courage to become not only a man, but a man of God.
"God's Army" has played to sold-out crowds at theaters in Salt Lake City and is playing at the Holiday Theatre in Rexburg. It is scheduled to open in Idaho Falls April 7.
In the movie, which LDS filmmaker Richard Dutcher said portrays Mormons in a more realistic light than most mainstream Hollywood films, Allen is ready to hang up his necktie after just one day. His strict 29-year-old mentor, played by Dutcher, doesn't give him a break. Another missionary finds himself doubting the depth of his faith. And Allen learns that saving souls is much more difficult than just knocking on doors.
Dutcher, who lives in Mapleton, Utah, with his wife and their three sons, based the skeleton of the script on his own experiences as a missionary in Mexico. "I was used to writing mainstream stories, but as I was writing this film I found I was connecting with something different than I'd connected with before," Dutcher said. "We're always told, 'Write what you know,' but as Mormons we don't think that way. We don't realize that we have something truly unique. Because to us it all seems so ordinary, but it's not. For the rest of the world, a glimpse into the everyday lives of devout Mormons is a rare and fascinating thing."
Dutcher was so emphatic that the film's portrayal be true to reality that he intentionally selected non-LDS collaborators for several key positions. The director of photography, the editor and the composer are all Jewish and the first large financial investment in the film came from a member of the Christian Science faith, he said. In addition to acting in the film, Dutcher wrote, produced and directed it.
Dutcher said he is not surprised that the film has been most positively received in communities with large LDS populations, but hopes that "God's Army" will prove to be the beginning of a new movement in the film industry. "My hope is that the LDS community will recognize this film as something new and wonderful, and that enough people will come out and see it that I can keep making more of these kinds of films so that other LDS filmmakers can make these kinds of films. And I'm also hoping that gradually, we'll start to cross over into the mainstream audience, that while we're still focusing on our core Mormon audience, other people will start to recognize the quality of what we're doing. Then, finally, we might see more positive portrayals on television and in big-budget films," he said.
WHAT: A new motion picture about the struggles of a modern-day Mormon missionary.
WHERE: The Holiday Theatre, 26 S. Center in Rexburg.
WHEN: Showtimes are 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. daily.
The film opens at Edwards Cinemas in Idaho Falls and Plaza Twin Theatres in Blackfoot April 7.
SALT LAKE CITY -- For the past week, Richard Dutcher has visited a dozen different cinemas just to watch the movie trailers. Or, more specifically, his movie trailer.
"God's Army," which Dutcher wrote, directed and stars in, may be the first feature film about contemporary life among Mormon missionaries.
In the trailer now playing in about 60 Salt Lake and Utah County theaters, missionaries can be seen distributing materials from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to hookers on the streets of Los Angeles, on their knees in prayer, pouring salt in each other's cereal, falling out of bed, knocking on doors and anointing the sick with oil.
"As soon as the audience realizes it's about Mormon missionaries, people go completely silent and stare at the screen," Dutcher said. "They don't know what to think of it. They're afraid it's going to be anti-Mormon or just a bad seminary film."
Yet "God's Army" is a departure from traditional fare where Mormons are either almost invisible or the object of scorn, as in Trey Parker's "Orgazmo," the slapstick tale of a Mormon missionary turned porn star.
"I've always been irritated by the way Mormons are portrayed in the movies," Dutcher said. "So negatively and one-dimensionally, if at all. We never see real, true, flesh and blood Mormon people in a film."
Dutcher hopes "God's Army" will help launch a whole new genre of films aimed primarily at the nearly 11 million members of the church.
The movie is slated to open March 10 in 12 Utah locations, then it will move to Ogden, Layton and Logan, St. George and Cedar City. Within the first eight weeks, the movie will open in Los Angeles, which has a sizable Mormon population.
The ensemble drama tells the story of Brandon Allen, played by Matthew Brown, a newly minted missionary who arrives in Los Angeles from Kansas and is assigned preachy, no-nonsense 29-year-old Marcus Dalton as a "companion."
The two share an apartment with Elder Banks, a black man who was disowned by his family when he joined the Mormons, and Elder Kinegar, a fifth-generation Mormon who struggles with doubts created by church critics.
Dutcher, who studied filmmaking at Brigham Young University, had his first success with a romantic comedy called "Girl Crazy," which he sold to HBO.
During that period, one distributor who told Dutcher to "go back and cut in some nudity every eight or nine minutes. ... People will only sit around and wait for nudity for about 10 minutes," he said.
In that moment, Dutcher said he felt that "as much as I loved filmmaking, I was probably in the wrong business."
He worried that he would have to find another profession until he noted the many gay films advertised in the newspaper.
"The gay community came out in force," Dutcher said. "When others saw there was money to be made, they followed suit. Now, almost every weekend, a new gay-themed movie was coming out."
"Why can't Mormons do that?" he asked himself.
"As a people we have many stories that have never been told," Dutcher said. "Being a Latter-day Saint in the United States in the year 2000 is not an easy thing. I want other LDS filmmakers to wake up and stop telling comic book stories."
Only a handful of the actors are members of the church, and Dutcher chose non-Mormon experts for many aspects of the production, especially the editing, cinematography and music.
Miriam Cutler, a Jewish composer he hired to create the film's score, said "God's Army" deals with universal themes even though it is immersed in Mormon culture.
"His characters are so likable and interesting, and his subjects so universal," Cutler said. "If people can get past their own prejudices, they will quickly forget that these are Mormon missionaries and just see them as young people struggling with big questions."
Given the nature of most films dealing with Mormons over the past years, my expectations were not high for "God's Army." Just the title alone suggested something unattainable.
The reality is -- the film is a pleasant surprise.
The story centers on an LDS missionary sent to Los Angeles. Elder Allen (Matthew Brown) has basically gone on a mission because it's something most Mormon boys do at this age. He has issues with lack of faith and commitment.
He's assigned to Elder Dalton (Richard Dutcher), whom the other elders refer to as "Pops." Elder Dalton is in his late 20s and in ill health, but vehemently wants to serve.
Elders Dalton and Allen live in an apartment with four other missionaries working in the same area. The film profiles the usual hijinks that go on behind the scenes in these missionary apartments, including the ever-popular pouring of salt in another elder's cereal while he's praying over breakfast.
Although the film examines the lighter side of missionary work, it also reveals the problems that can face these young people so far away from their families. You have the elder who believes he's made a mistake and wants to go home. Or you have the guy who reads all of the anti-Mormon literature so that he can "do battle" with his Bible-thumping opposition.
At its strongest, "God's Army" takes direct aim at the issue of blacks and the priesthood, through the thoughts and mind of an African-American missionary, played brilliantly by DeSean Terry.
Another highlight includes the Elder Allen character trying to connect with his spiritual side. The struggle rings universal for all that might find themselves in a similar situation, regardless of their particular religion.
On the negative side, some of the acting reminded me that this was a low-budget, independent film. The mission president comes to mind. His stoic, lame initial treatment of the "greenie" Elder Allen was a total misstep. I also thought the "arise and walk" scene was a bit too much, especially if the filmmaker was hoping to make non-members feel comfortable seeing this movie.
Which brings us to the point: Who is this film for? It's certainly for Mormons who will appreciate an honest portrayal of themselves. It should do well in areas of LDS concentration like Utah and southern California, but it also might interest those outside the church who have wondered what the Mormon missionary experience is about.
Filmmaker Richard Dutcher should be praised for mostly avoiding the temptation to toss in a bunch of extra cheesy drama in this movie, although he slips a couple of times. It's a good first effort that should be a success within its sphere of influence and could lead to other projects along similar lines.
At the very least, "God's Army" has tapped into an anxious audience looking for acceptance in a medium that has seldom been kind.
THE FILM: "God's Army'
OUR RATING: ** 1/2
STARRING: Matthew Brown, Richard Dutcher, Jacque Gray, DeSean Terry, Michael Buster, Luis Robledo and Jeff Kelly
BEHIND THE SCENES: Written, produced and directed by Richard Dutcher. Only 10 percent of the actors are Mormon. The project was developed and financed independently of the LDS Church.
PLAYING: Several locations in Salt Lake City. Opens in Ogden on March 24. Runs 107 minutes.
MPAA RATING: PG
If you don't live in Utah, I'm sure you've gotten an e-mail about it: God's Army, the missionary movie. Mormons have waited for weeks with baited breath to find out what exactly this film will do wrong. How good could it be? they ask. Filmed on a shoestring budget in downtown Los Angeles, God's Army has the potential to be the worst disaster that ever hit Mormon culture. For years now, offended by the vulgarity that has become the trend in the modern cinema, Mormons have clamored for someone, somewhere, to make a decent film for the LDS community. Now that someone has stepped forward to try, we are terrified. If our first attempt is a failure, then will all be lost?
God's Army is the story of Elder Allen, a new missionary in the California Los Angeles Mission. His stepfather is in prison, his mother has left the church, and his own commitment to the gospel is teetering. His first district of ten missionaries (whose areas stretch across downtown Hollywood and the ghetto) run him through a gauntlet of difficult, inspiring, hilarious experiences that resonate with returned missionaries and members alike and transform Elder Allen into a strong, committed servant of the Lord. The film is simultaneously faithful and brutally honest about mission life, which inevitably raises several questions.
Is it Legacy?
The first fear that naturally arises is, Will this be another Labor of Love? Many of us were raised on Church-sponsored educational films (like Johnny Lingo and Mountain of the Lord) which despite their good intentions, are incredibly limited by the needs of the public Church. We know by sad experience that anything that comes out of Salt Lake City will always be taken as an official declaration of doctrine, and will be subject to immediate and intense scrutiny by doctrinal hobbyists, church critics, and anti-Mormons alike. Which forces the Church to "dumb down" anything that is officially Church-produced, removing any element that could possibly be taken as negative or controversial. Which leaves us, sadly, with an extensive library of bland films that try to make up for their lack of brutal honesty by substituting dramatic sunsets, heartstring-tugging music, and over-the-top emotions. Legacy reached an all-new low with the "I can't pull the wagon!" scene that today elicits more laughter than tears among Mormons who have seen it one too many times.
Thus many of us were terrified that God's Army would descend to a similar depth. Richard Dutcher, the director and originator of the project, held a similar fear. For that reason, he hired a primarily-Jewish crew and a cast that included very few Mormons. His expressed reason was to avoid the "Legacy look" By excluding the involvement of anyone who had worked on a Church production, he hoped to ensure that his film would not bear the mark of decades of overwrought Mormon films.
The result was a startling success. As a returned elder from the California Anaheim mission, I was really surprised, even terrified, at times by Dutcher's honesty. This was no Labor of Love. The missionaries I saw on the screen were the same ones I knew in my own mission. I could even point out specific parallels. Elder "Pops" Dalton, the 29-year-old convert, was a carbon copy of the Anaheim Mission's own Elder "Grandpa" Holland. Elder Allen reminded me absolutely of one of my mission buddies, who learned the Joseph Smith story in the MTC. Elder Banks, the black elder who is frustrated by criticism of the 1978 revelation, perfectly echoed Elder Blue, an elder from my own MTC district. As I was recognizing these characters, I heard other returned missionaries around me doing the same thing. When subtle sparks seemed to fly between Elder Allen and a sister missionary, the guys seated next to me started shouting, "It's Nordberg and Uzelac!" referring to a pair of missionaries they knew who had recently gotten married.
But the parallels to reality were not always so fun. It pained me to watch as Elder Kinegar, a member of Elder Allen's district, became obsessed with anti-Mormon literature, lost his testimony, and left in the middle of the night to take a bus home. It was hard for me because Kinegar wasn't painted as a bad guy. He had his own problems with pride and hypocrisy, but they were no worse than the problems I saw in his fellow elders. And I remembered some of my own struggles with anti-Mormon propaganda. I know how hard it is to work through, and I really sympathized with him. He wept when he realized he had lost his faith. But he still went home, and we never saw him again. It was brutal to watch.
Is it Orgazmo?
But Dutcher didn't leave it there. We know that sometimes, when a storyteller has decided to be brutally honest, he can be tempted to descend into cynicism. That was the problem that afflicted that bane of the LDS community, Orgazmo. For those of you lucky enough to have missed it, Orgazmo is a movie by the creators of South Park about a Mormon missionary who gets a side job as a porn star. The film mocks the innocent Mormon for his conscience, and does its best to embarrass the church.
But while God's Army is honest about the struggles, hardships, and sometimes failures of missionary life, we are always held back from despair. Kinegar may have lost his testimony, but Dutcher refuses to let him have the final say on the subject. Through brief stories told by Banks and Dalton, we learn that such doubts can be overcome. But not without hardship. After Kinegar's disappearance, we watch Elder Allen spend all night praying and studying, through all kinds of distractions and difficulties, until he gains a testimony of his own. From that sentence, I know you are imagining a really cheesy scene. When he got out his quad and started reading, I groaned inside. Here it comes, I thought.
But I was surprised. There are not many good ways to depict the gaining of a testimony, but Dutcher found one of them. Allen's doubts had little to do with Kinegar's books, and had very much to do with his father, who baptized and ordained him, and then betrayed his family. So when Allen's witness came, it wasn't a primary-child's testimony. It was an acceptance of God as his true Father. An incredibly personal experience that echoes my own and those that I have heard from the strongest converts I know. Faith is not something you can gain from a brochure, because no two people experience it in quite the same way. Elder Allen was a real person, finding his answer and no one else's. And once he had his witness, once he had developed real faith, he was willing to work and do whatever it took to serve the Lord. His testimony was the kind that God really wants -- the kind that you live. In that one sequence, God's Army taught me far more about faith than I could learn from a thousand Legacys.
Do we want non-Mormons to see it?
God's Army had a very limited release that did not stray far from the Salt Lake and Utah Valleys. I saw it at its best -- the midnight showing on opening night at the Provo Cinemark. Virtually every member of that audience was either a recently returned missionary or the fiancée of a recently returned missionary. Matt and Marshall, my friends who sat with me, epitomized the general attitude. The first time Elder Dalton stuffed a blue planner in his pocket, they cheered. Whenever they recognized an elder from their own missions, they gave each other a high-five. They cheered for conversions and groaned at failures. This movie was already a part of their lives and mine, as though we had seen it a thousand times already. The only time I've seen anything like the response we gave to God's Army was at a midnight showing of The Princess Bride.
God's Army was released to a pre-existing fan club. California missionaries in particular are keenly aware of every inside joke (I recognized the missionaries' beds, for crying out loud), and though we are also more free to criticize (How exactly did a Los Angeles sister get transferred to Costa Mesa? I served in Costa Mesa, and it's two missions away!), we and the rest of the LDS community have a unique capacity to appreciate this film.
For example, about halfway through the story, Sandoval (an hispanic elder) stands atop a wall, annouces, "I am Sandoval the Lamanite!"and proceeds to call the city of Los Angeles to repentance. The rest of the zone throws food at him. It's a hilarious scene, brilliantly executed, but who outside the church would ever get it? To a nonmember, the reference to the Book of Mormon is completely lost, and it just looks like one of the missionaries is a little flamboyant. Lacking any comprehension of the joke, someone might think that the scene is wasted and strange.
Plus, there is one scene in particular that Mormons will find very familiar, but that strangers to the church might see as unrealistic or fanatical. Towards the end of the film, Elder Allen and Elder Dalton perform a miraculous healing. It is handled very tastefully and well, and resonates beautifully among Latter-day Saints. But outside the church, "faith healing" is often seen as a very fringy, bizarre branch of new age or fanatical religion. Instead of striking a familiar chord, that scene might easily shatter a non-Mormon audience's suspension of disbelief. Dutcher handles this to some degree, emphasizing that it is the faith of the man who is healed that makes the miracle possible, not necessarily any power belonging to the elders. And I am probably not giving the "secular" audience nearly enough credit.
But it is worth questioning. Can a film that has such power to affect me in a specifically Mormon way have anything like the same power in the world outside of Utah? As a homegrown Mormon, I can hardly say. But I know this much: I would be proud to take any of my nonmember friends to see this movie. Even with all of the brutal honesty and serious faith, God's Army is never once embarrassing. It never once attempts to proselytize. It is neither heavy-handed nor skittish about the issues. Instead, it tells the true story of the struggle that the faithful face in a secular world, and does so with such skill and honesty that you cannot help but leave the theater inspired.
Will there be more?
This is a question I cannot answer. Today I am a part-time film major, with a few prospects here and there. I'm not sure if the rest of the LDS film community is willing to take Richard Dutcher's lead and carve out a new genre in the independent movie business. Is God's Army merely a one-shot phenomenon, or is it the first step in a new direction for Mormon culture? Are we ready to create and support an LDS film industry that tells serious, honest stories about our people? In a few years, we'll know. I, for one, am ready to try.
** 1/2 [2 1/2 stars out of 4]
-- The missionary experience is brought to life in this LDS-themed melodrama.
-- Rated PG for thematic elements and some language; 107 minutes.
-- Playing everywhere.
How many movies are out there about Mormon missionaries?
According to the Internet Movie Database (IMDB), there are only two: the 1922 anti-Mormon propaganda tract "Trapped by the Mormons" (a k a "The Mormon Peril"), in which a missionary hypnotizes young women to drag them into polygamous marriages in Utah; and 1997's "Orgazmo," with "South Park" creator Trey Parker as a missionary turned porn star.
So with the low-budget "God's Army," writer-director-star Richard Dutcher pretty much has the field to himself. And he does a fair job of depicting daily life on an LDS mission, before succumbing to the siren's song of a sappy and artificially uplifting finale.
(Incidentally, Dutcher might want to submit his film's credits to the IMDB -- its only entry for "God's Army" is as the European title of the Christopher Walken heaven-vs.-hell horror film "The Prophecy.")
Dutcher's "God's Army" begins with new missionary Brandon Allen (Matthew Brown), fresh off the bus at Los Angeles. He is assigned an apartment with five other missionaries, where pranks are the order of the day. But the one guy who isn't laughing is Elder Allen's companion, Marcus Dalton (played by Dutcher).
The 29-year-old Elder Dalton wasn't raised in the church, but thoroughly researched LDS doctrine before converting; he's that rare figure in any faith, the true believer who has put his religion up to intellectual scrutiny. Dalton -- his faith as heartfelt as it is hard-won -- is a rock-solid influence for his young companion, who finds his faith wavering when another missionary (Michael Buster) reads some anti-Mormon tracts.
Those familiar with LDS culture probably get a kick out of Dutcher's depiction of missionary life: the foot-wearying grind, the doors slammed in the face, the exhilaration when someone actually lets you engage in the First Discussion, and the underlying tension of talking to a cute female missionary. (Non-Mormon audiences who don't know what a Lamanite is may be lost, though.)
The central weakness of "God's Army" is a desire to cover too much ground. It's as if Dutcher was afraid nobody would ever get another chance to make a Mormon-themed movie, so he crammed in every missionary experience he could. (This is a common problem with independent productions that focus on a particular minority group. Examples range from the American Indian film "Naturally Native," which came through town last month, to many of the African-American or "queer cinema" entries at the Sundance Film Festival a decade ago.)
Dutcher also lays on the melodrama in the movie's second half, with the "miraculous" recovery of a badly beaten young convert and Elder Dalton's noble battle for his health. As an introduction to a potentially rich sub-genre of Mormon movies, though, "God's Army" is a strong step forward.