With the 2000 premiere of "God's Army," the story of the struggles of missionaries in Los Angeles, the nation was hit by a new genre of film -- the Mormon movie.
Since then, numerous movies with Latter-day religious undertones, including "The Singles Ward," "Brigham City" and "Charly," have graced the screens.
[Currently] On the big screen
- Charly, a movie based on the novel by Brigham Young University-Idaho physics professor Jack Weyland, is playing at the Centre Theater in Idaho Falls tonight at 6:45 p.m. The movie is a double feature with Tuck Everlasting. For more information, call 525-3340.
- Handcart, the fictional story of Samuel Hunter, a man whose faith is challenged as he makes an arduous trek to Utah with the ill-fated Martin Handcart Company, is showing at the Paramount Theater in Idaho Falls at 5 p.m. and 9 p.m. For more information call 523-1142.
Commercial LDS films of note include: "God's Army," "Brigham City," "The Other Side of Heaven," "The Singles Ward," "Out of Step," "Charly," "Handcart," and "The RM." Scores of LDS films are currently under production as BYU film graduates try to produce films fast enough to write their story on the plates of gold that Dutcher has unearthed.
SIERRA VISTA -- In three years, a growing list of theater-release films featuring characters who just happen to be members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or centered on church-related themes have hit movie screens across North America, including one such film -- so far -- that has played in Sierra Vista.
Film distributors say two more might follow suit soon.
Among the offerings are: "God's Army," "Brigham City," "Handcart," "The Other Side of Heaven," "Out of Step," "The Singles Ward," "Charly," "The R.M.," "Suddenly Unexpected" and "The Work and the Story."
Many have played across Arizona and the West from Washington to California and Nevada to New Mexico -- sometimes showing up in North American theaters as far away as Ontario, Canada, and in movie houses in sunny Hawaii.
Just as one needn't be Jewish to enjoy "Fiddler on the Roof" or a member of the Greek Orthodox church to relate to the humor in "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," one needn't be LDS, more commonly referred to as "Mormon," to enjoy LDS cinema.
In fact, some of the strongest local supporters of the burgeoning LDS film genre are not LDS.
"It's something of historical value, you don't have to be LDS at all," longtime Sierra Vista resident Lee Skinner said of Kels Goodman's "Handcart," which is currently playing in Show Low and opens in Safford and Mesa on Friday.
Skinner married into the Echave family, one that boasts 100 years of heritage in the area and about 300 extended family members from Sierra Vista to Bisbee.
He and the majority of the rest of the Skinner and Echave clan are Catholic, he said.
The exception to the rule is Skinner's son Pete, who embraced the LDS faith years ago and is now raising his family accordingly.
When the Skinners and Echave families learned that Pete's 21-year-old daughter, Shannon, landed a role in a film about the ill-fated Martin Handcart Co. that made the trek West in the mid-1800s when the "Mormon Pioneers" opened much of the West to escape religious persecution, they couldn't wait to see it.
"I watched it and I really enjoyed it," said John Skinner, Shannon's paternal uncle. "Clearly it is a movie about part of our nation's history. It's certainly a part of our history I was totally unaware of. I had no idea people made their way West using hand carts.
"In movies you typically see stage coaches, and wagons, and it is unimaginable the strain and stress and the courage it took to make the trek."
The Skinners came into possession of a videocassette version of a rough cut of the film last month when the film's director and producer agreed to grant Shannon's grandmother's dying wish during a 13-month battle with lung cancer.
The video arrived a few days after Nancy's death on Jan. 13. Within a week, a handful of family members gathered around to see what Grandma hadn't been able to view before she died.
"I know my mom was smiling in heaven," John Skinner said. "I know she watched it as well, because she was so proud of Shannon, as she is of all (eight) of her grandchildren."
While John Skinner admits his interest in the film began with pride in his niece, he said it is not where it ends.
"I think what impressed me the most was the hardship these people endured as they made their way to Utah," he said. "The weather conditions were extreme, and here they were with these little handcarts and what little belongings they had making their way across what is challenging terrain in the best of weather conditions."
John Skinner said he was impressed with "the commitment, endurance, and faith that inspired them to keep going."
"I am Roman Catholic," he said. "This isn't a movie about religion. This is a movie about endurance and faith and commitment."
Goodman, who handles his own distribution, credited Shannon Skinner's ties to Northern Arizona where she attended school for its appearance in theaters there. He said her large contingency of family members in Southeastern Arizona, along with an audience base of 1,500 members of LDS congregations, in the area might bring "Handcart" to Sierra Vista.
Goodman said he must take a "wait-and-see" approach depending on the film's performance in other Arizona theaters before committing to book it in local theaters.
John Skinner, who visited his mother shortly before she died and attended her funeral, said he would like to see "Handcart" play in theaters back home in Wichita Falls, Texas.
"The movie left me wanting to learn more about the handcarts and the companies that went to Utah, so I am, actually, as things settle down, looking forward to getting on the Internet and learning more," he said.
Goodman said he won't be able to accommodate John's request to bring "Handcart" to Wichita Falls.
Goodman isn't the only LDS film distributor considering bringing a movie production to Sierra Vista.
Mary Jane Jones, spokeswoman for Excel Entertainment, said there is a possibility that Sierra Vistans might get the chance to view Jack Weyland's "Charly" without making the trek to the Phoenix area, where it has been playing from Glendale to Mesa since Jan. 24. The movie is a wholesome romance between a New York artist and a college student from Salt Lake City. It is based on Weyland's best-selling novel originally set in the 1980s, but updated for the new millennium.
Again, the ability to convince local theater managers that local support exists will be key in whether or not the movie will be shown in Sierra Vista, Jones said.
Considering the support local congregation members awarded "The Other Side of Heaven" when it played here for 10 days last April, however, chances appear to be good.
Nancy Thornburg and her family, including her 17-year-old daughter Katie, attend the Sierra Vista Second Ward. The family was a major force behind building that support, as well as Brian Manwaring, who teaches the seminary religion class Katie attends daily across the street from Buena High School.
The Thornburgs and Manwaring, at the request of Excel Entertainment, handed out promotional handbills and flyers to friends and associates from Sierra Vista to Douglas to drum up interest. The movie is based on "In the Eye of the Storm," a book by LDS general authority John Groberg, who chronicled unusual missionary experiences in the South Pacific in his book, including brushes with death and a native temptress. A general authority is someone who is part of the church's main worldwide hierarchy based in Salt Lake City.
"I was so tickled we could do anything to promote that movie," Thornburg said. "It was so good. We went twice."
Soon, she'll be able to watch it at home, along with other LDS films in her family's collection. On April 1, Disney will release "The Other Side of Heaven,"starring Anne Hathaway (The Princess Diaries) and Christopher Gorham, on VHS and DVD.
Nancy Thornburg's loyalty goes beyond uplifting entertainment, which she whole heartedly supports. She roomed one summer at Brigham Young University with one of Groberg's daughters before flying back home with her to Hawaii where she worked for LDS Social Services (now known as LDS Family Services), and often filled in as a baby-sitter for the Groberg's 11 children.
"It is a really good movie," Thornburg said of Mitch Davis' "The Other Side of Heaven." As for the potential local market for "Handcart," "Charly" and any other LDS films that might come along, "People who like a movie with values who know they can sit back and be edified will come," she said, adding that in today's world, she is glad to be able to add LDS movie soundtracks to her daughter's CD collection to help keep Katie on track spiritually.
Manwaring said he hopes major movie houses will take notice of the growing proven market potential for uplifting films.
John Skinner agreed.
"It's nice to go and see a wholesome film with values that apply to all of us, without regard to what your beliefs are," he said. "You don't have to go and check the ratings on this film ("Handcart") to see if it is suitable for your children. Take everybody in the family. What a nice thing to be able to do."
In the 1850s, the Mormons were being persecuted in their own country. To escape further difficulties, their leader, Brigham Young, led them on an arduous journey to Utah. Because they did not have enough money for wagons, many made their own handcarts and loaded them up with their families and belongings. These they pulled behind themselves on a thousand-mile trek on foot.
In 1997, a group of Mormons re-created this excursion to commemorate the efforts of their ancestors. Among them on the three-month trek was a filmmaker named Kels Goodman.
"My job was to follow them with a camera. I had a motor home, so I cheated," Goodman said from his home in Orem, Utah.
The experience gave Goodman an idea for his first feature film. He decided to make a fictional accounting of the most disastrous of these journeys. In 1856, some 500 believers set out from Iowa City, Iowa, in a group that was known as the Martin Handcart Company.
No one knows why they started their journey so late in the year - August, instead of April or May. They were trapped in a fierce winter storm that hit Wyoming in October. This combination of bad timing and unlucky breaks led to a tragedy. One-third of the travelers died before Young learned about their situation and sent out rescuers to save the rest.
The movie Goodman made about this doomed expedition, "Handcart," opens today at the Virginia Center. The opening is a homecoming for the 35-year-old filmmaker, who spent the first 10 years of his life in Richmond. The family moved to south Texas, but his parents, Bob and Shirley Goodman, retired a few years ago and moved back to Powhatan County.
Goodman will be at the theater for a matinee performance tomorrow to talk about the movie.
"The Mormons were pretty much kicked out of the United States," he said. "That is one thing that is not brought up; they are the only religious group ever to be kicked out of the United States. The next place over was Utah. It was part of Mexico at the time. By the time the handcart companies came, it was known as the Utah Territory."
Goodman shot the film on a tiny budget of $350,000. Having worked on the crew of other films shot in Utah, he got many crew members who had made those movies to work on his. His camera assistant, whom he called "the best in Utah," was Mike Lookinland, who played Bobby Brady on "The Brady Bunch."
The camera assistant was especially important, because Goodman was using new equipment called Morph 16. This contraption took a widescreen 35mm lens that was made for Panavision cameras, and affixed it to a smaller - and much cheaper - 16mm camera.
"Morph 16 was a theory of mine. I wanted the wide, wide screen. I like 'Star Wars' wide, because when I shoot I want a lot of things in the frame."
Goodman got his filmmaking education at Brigham Young University, but he has been making movies since he was a child with an 8mm camera.
"That is how I stayed out of trouble," he said.
After college, he found work on films for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, mostly in lighting. He worked on the television show "Touched by an Angel" and for movies that filmed in Utah, including "Dumb and Dumber."
None of this prepared him for the other part of the job that he has chosen to take on, distribution. He is literally distributing "Handcart" by himself, storing the prints in his garage, calling the people who book movies and convincing them there is a large enough population of Mormons in the area to make a showing viable.
"Now, if I deal with a distributor, I know what they're dealing with," he said. "It's a whole 'nother art form."
What types of films draw attention to Latter-day Saints? In the last two years, Mormon film-makers such as Richard Dutcher have attracted large audiences to productions such as God's Army, Out of Step, Singles Ward, and most recently, Handcart.
It's July and our thoughts turn once again to our heritage and those who worked so hard to build the foundations of the good life we enjoy. Right on cue, several films focusing on that pioneer heritage have been released or are scheduled to be released in the next month. This week, I've chosen to focus on two of these films which were recently released on video/DVD: Kels Goodman's Handcart and T. C. Christensen's A Pioneer Miracle.
It's going to take a little bit of the music from Mission: Impossible to get us in the mood for this one. Dum, dum, da-da, dum, dum, da-da... Got it? Okay, here goes:
Hello, Mr. Goodman. I hope you are well. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to make a film based on the experiences of the ill-fated Martin handcart company. We realize that this may not seem like an overwhelming challenge - after all, many have wondered for years why Hollywood hasn't already made an epic motion picture based on the handcart companies. In fact, aside from Brigham Young: Frontiersman, (1940) surprisingly, the Mormon exodus has been largely untapped as a resource for potential major motion picture materials. (We're not counting Legacy and other such films produced by the church, since although they are excellent films, they have never received widespread theatrical distribution.) Of course, your task is not really as simple as it might sound at first.
First of all, you are to make the feature-length film with a paltry budget of just over $300,000 - including marketing. What's more, just as you are about to complete funding for the film and begin shooting, one of your major investors will back out, leaving you beginning shooting with only $30,000 in your pocket and scrambling to fill in the gap. Plus, you will find it necessary to adjust your shooting schedule around the weather and the 2002 Olympics, since it will be basically impossible to find any shooting locations or the extras you will need while the games are happening.
Because of the multi-national nature of the handcart company, your actors will need to pull off a variety of accents from various parts of Europe, but most of them must also be willing to work for free. Even with a large number of volunteers working on the film, you will run out of money before the film is completed to your satisfaction. Finally, not only will you produce and direct the film, but after the film is shot, you will be responsible for distributing the film - using your garage as a base for storing the prints of the film as you personally will need to call the various theater owners nationwide and convince them that Handcart will bring them a reasonable profit.
Should you fail in your mission (or be captured) the secretary and millions of Latter-day Saints worldwide will disavow any knowledge of you or your film (since you also will have basically no promotional budget to let them know about it). Good luck!
I have to wonder if Kels Goodman had known what he was getting into when he started working on Handcart if he would have ever undertaken this ambitious task. But he had to have had some kind of idea that he was attempting the near impossible - if only because of the expectations that accompany such a project. An epic film based on the trials of the Martin and Willey handcart companies has all the earmarks of a multi-million dollar epic studio picture, not an independently produced and distributed film with approximately the same budget as God's Army. It screams for a cast of hundreds (if not thousands) and gorgeous panoramic Dances With Wolves-like shots accompanied by the best, richest, fullest orchestral score money can buy. (Is John Williams or Jerry Goldsmith available? Have you reserved studio time with the London Symphony?)
I'm not going to kid you by saying that Goodman miraculously succeeded in living up to these expectations. Handcart has several glaring weaknesses. But it is safe to say that in several respects, Goodman and company have accomplished more than you would have ever thought possible looking at the project on paper.
Goodman comes from a background as a director of photography, and you can tell he's a good one. The film has a very good look to it, albeit a little different than the typical film. The film is presented in "anamorphic widescreen," which to the uninitiated means that they used a special lens (called an anamorphic lens) to allow them to shoot the film in widescreen while using 16 mm film (giving that epic widescreen Hollywood look without the cost of more expensive film). The result is that the screen is even wider than the typical theatrical release, and what this means for the DVD is that the black bars at the top and bottom of your screen are even larger than usual. Once you get used to it, this is not a distraction, and it does allow Goodman to use some impressive shots that he would have been unable to get any other way.
Jaelan Petrie (Missy, Domestic Dispute) stars in the film as Samuel Hunter, a young man from Iowa City who joins the church and the Martin Handcart company not because he is converted to the gospel, but because he is attracted to a young British woman named Abigail Shipe (played by Stephanie Albach in her first starring role). Both of the leads (especially Petrie) give admirable performances, if not up to the level of a Heather Beers (in Charly). The rest of the cast, in general, is not as strong as some of the other LDS-themed films released lately, but there are some very nice performances from Chris Kendrick as "Moose," Joel Bishop as "Edward Martin" and Scott Christopher (best known as the UPN "Movie Guy.") in a very small role as "Robert Quincy". Probably the biggest distraction in the film occurs whenever a character is given dialogue which is taken directly from pioneer accounts, such as Brigham Young's conference talk. The actual language in these talks is so different from the rest of the dialogue in the film and so foreign to the way that we talk today, that none of the actors seems able to make the dialogue seem a natural part of the movie. In fact, ironically, it is those events that are taken from real history that seem least natural in the film.
Perhaps the film's biggest strength is also its biggest weakness - and that is the ambitious nature of the entire project. It leads the filmmakers to do some amazing things that just make your jaw drop sometimes when you are watching it, especially when you realize that they really are making this film on a shoestring budget. On the other hand, there are times when perhaps they overstep their budgetary limitations and it comes back to haunt them. For instance, watching the film I never really felt like I got a sense of the truly freezing conditions and suffering that the handcart pioneers faced, as it would have taken a much larger budget for special effects or perhaps the blessing of a blizzard during shooting to pull some of that off.
Also, Goodman and composer Eric M. Hanson are to be commended for an admirable effort to provide an orchestral score for a film that really needed one, but because they didn't have the budget for first-class recording conditions and professional studio musicians, at times the score's weaknesses, including an occasional out-of-tune note and an overall amateurish sounding recording, are a distraction in the film and certainly do not measure up to the weight of the expectations for such a score built up by decades of Hollywood westerns from The Magnificent Seven to Dances with Wolves. In this case, they might have been better served to stick with acoustic guitar or something else less ambitious.
All of the film's budget-related weaknesses aside, this is a good story and an enjoyable film to watch. Having seen several versions of the film in its development, beginning with a rough-cut showing of the film nearly three months before its theatrical release, it has been fun and interesting for me to see how it improves dramatically with each version - the story made a little tighter, with subplots and elements of the film that don't work so well in the overall film being cut back. Goodman has totally re-edited the film for the DVD release, making about 100 changes including some added footage, so in some respects, this is a different (and better) film than the one that admittedly very few people had the opportunity to see in the theaters.
The DVD has several special features, including a "making of" documentary that is a real gem - worth the price of the DVD by itself. Instead of spending an inordinate amount of time going through all of the technical details of pre-production, production and post-production like countless other "making of" documentaries before it, this one focuses on the people making the film, revealing a fun and interesting side of the filmmakers involved. It is a very candid production and very enjoyable to watch. I just hope they don't use it to prosecute.
Other features include the usual director's commentary - featuring Goodman, who has a quirky sense of humor, eating ice cream while commenting on the film - deleted scenes, outtakes, trailers and various shots of the development of the artwork for the film's poster.
A Pioneer Miracle
A Pioneer Miracle is another film which is beautifully shot and told. It is a short film (14 minutes long) and as such, it is a direct-to-video release. T. C. Christensen's previous films as a director include Bug Off!, Touch of the Master's Hand and The Pump, but members will probably most be familiar with his work as a cinematographer for Kieth Merrill's The Testaments: Of One Fold and One Shepherd and for Lee Groberg's Latter-day Saint-themed PBS documentaries American Prophet: The Story of Joseph Smith and Trail of Hope: The Story of the Mormon Trail. The film is based on the real life story of Belle Richards, who at the age of eight, disobeyed her father and put herself and her baby brother in grave danger. Both were miraculously rescued and she never told anyone until years later, when - through another miraculous circumstance - her father learned the truth.
The film has a kind of reenactment feel to it - similar to what you might see in a documentary. Caitlin E. J. Meyer (Little Secrets) captures your heart as the eight-year-old Belle, and all of the acting is excellently subtle and very understated. The story is very lovingly handled, and you can tell that Christensen is very close to the story, having often heard this story about his Aunt Belle in his family while growing up. Many of the extras involved in the film are actual descendants of Belle Richards and one of the purposes of the film seems to be preserving her memory and heritage for the generations to come.
The DVD includes a documentary about the actual woman, "Remembering Belle," and a "Director's Notes" interview with T. C. Christensen in lieu of a director's commentary track. Even those viewers who aren't descendants of Belle Richards will appreciate its beautiful story and testimony.
About the Author
About the author - Film composer Thomas C. Baggaley received a master's degree in music from UCLA, where he studied film scoring with highly regarded composer, Jerry Goldsmith. He recently released a CD of inspirational music titled "Spirit of the Sabbath", which is available at Deseret Book and LDSVideo.com. Thomas is also the co-webmaster of LDSfilm.com, a research web site about LDS films and filmmakers. He is currently working on his next CD release, "Healing Showers: Music for a Rainy Evening" which is scheduled to be released in July. Thomas is a husband and father to three wonderful children and serves as the teacher development coordinator in his ward.
Films and television programs shot entirely or partially in Utah during the past year and their current video status:
...Other films, including "Out of Step," "The Singles Ward" and "Handcart" were released in 2002, followed by "The R.M." in January of this year...
Cost-to-gross earnings for LDS-themed films
* Cost includes marketing costs; gross is U.S. box-office earnings
- Cost: $300,000
- Gross: $98,666
...In the real world, Dutcher HAS disappeared from the movie scene (though he is alive and well), not having made a film since 2001's "Brigham City." And in his absence, sure enough, the market has been flooded with films ranging from the OK ("Out of Step," "Charly") to the bad ("The Singles Ward," "Handcart")...