This April, as school finishes for Erin Chambers, filming begins. She will play the part of Emily, a friend of Joseph and Emma Smith, in Richard Dutcher's new movie, The Prophet. Then, on June 10th, rehearsals begin in Santa Maria, California, for the musical, Sweeney Todd, in which Erin becomes Johanna, and finds herself hitting high Gs in every other song.
Erin's acting career began at the age of eight when she was a royal child in The King and I, but, according to her parents, when she was only two years old she could sing I Am a Child of God with perfect pitch. The director of The King and I, recognizing Erin's ability, engaged her again two years later to play Amaryllis in his production of The Music Man.
Erin continued developing skills in singing, dancing, and piano; and High School years brought leading roles in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and 42nd Street. Then came BYU, and parts such as Irina in The Three Sisters, and Roxane in Cyrano; together with off-campus work in movies, including Disney's Free Willy II, and Don't Look Under the Bed. She has also appeared on TV as a Disney Channel presenter.
"Back in High School," says Erin, "I was usually cast as the ingenue, never as a character actress. The first time I broke out of that mold was in auditions for A Midsummer Night's Dream. I wasn't familiar with the play but had heard that the part of Hermia was a good one, so I decided that was who I wanted to be. The day the cast list was posted, I saw another girl had been chosen for Hermia. I was really upset. I looked for my name and saw it under Puck. A friend standing nearby, noticing my disappointment, exclaimed, 'But Erin, Puck is the best part in the whole show!' And it was. I played a totally wild Puck, pulling pranks and tearing around--it was so much fun."
Although she thoroughly enjoys performing, Erin admits it is hard work. "When I'm doing characters that are difficult or complicated it can be emotionally draining," she says. "But on the whole it is an outlet for me. Many people like to write, paint, draw--I act and sing. And the thing about acting is that you work really hard for three months or so, whether you're filming or doing a play, and then you take a break for a while before jumping into a new project. I love that. And the time out allows me to pursue other interests, such as writing plays, memoirs, and novels. I'm also getting into photography."
Despite heavy involvement with the world of drama, Erin Chambers is not a star struck Hollywood hopeful. She comments, "I don't have dreams of becoming a famous actress. I would prefer to be a working actress who does good, solid work, whether in film or on stage. I also want a family--I want to be a good wife and a mom. My work will slow down once I'm married because I really want to be committed to my family and that's hard if you're working all the time."
Erin also has firm ideas on keeping high standards while surrounded by today's 'anything goes' entertainment philosophy. "I think the best thing an LDS artist can do today," she says, "is have a firm, solid testimony of the gospel, and an enormous amount of faith. I think it is possible to be a successful actress and still be a good church member--an active member. I constantly remind myself that I will only do art that is good. As long as I am involved in projects with a message, a desire to change humanity, then I know I'm on the right track."
Many times in the past Erin has had to face negative remarks from other Latter-day Saints when they discovered her ambition to go on stage.
But Brigham Young once told his people, Upon the stage of a theater can be represented in character, evil and its consequences, good and its happy results and rewards, the weakness and the follies of man, the magnanimity of virtue and the greatness of truth. The stage can be made to aid the pulpit in impressing upon the minds of a community an enlightened sense of a virtuous life, also a proper horror of the enormity of sin and a just dread of its consequences. The path of sin with its thorns and pitfalls ... can be revealed, and how to shun it. (Discourses of Brigham Young, sel. John A. Widtsoe, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1941, p. 243).
"That is what is so amazing and powerful about theatre and film," adds Erin. "We watch others make mistakes so that we don't end up making them ourselves. It will sometimes be hard to stand up and be an example, but I really feel I can do it."
Erin's example to others has so far proved beneficial to her career. She recalls the last night of shooting Disney's movie, Don't Look Under the Bed, in which she played the lead role. The producers brought in alcohol for the celebration party.
She explains, "One of them came and told me, 'I've got you a special bottle.' It was expensive wine. I turned to him and said, 'You know I'm Mormon. I'm not going to drink that.' He was upset. 'Yeah, but wouldn't you drink for a special occasion like this?'
"I looked at him and said, flat out, 'No, I don't drink alcohol. But thank you for thinking of me,' and then explained about the Word of Wisdom. He stared for a moment, and simply said, 'okay.' He seemed to respect me more after that.
"Last year, the same producers from Disney were doing another film and sent me a script saying they wanted me to play the lead role again. I read it but didn't feel good about it. There was a lot of sexuality and nothing really worthy going on. I called one of the producers and told him I wasn't interested. His reply was, 'Yeah, I thought you might have problems with it. We totally understand.' The fact that they remembered my standards means a lot to me."
And so will her standards mean a great deal to countless others as she continues in the field of drama. It is no easy thing to stay committed to the gospel of Jesus Christ when your profession broadcasts the opposite. But Erin Chambers will have many opportunities to stand firm as she moves away from Brigham Young University and appears on stage and in movies nationwide.
Richard Dutcher, the Moses of LDS filmmaking, is excited, but he can't really talk about it.
"We should have a talk in a couple of weeks," Dutcher said over the phone from his Utah County offices recently.
Dutcher is deep into pre-production on "The Prophet," a movie biography of the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints, Joseph Smith. The project has had its ups and downs -- the potential of a government strike in Canada (where he will shoot principal photography), and having to scramble to find investors after support from one Utah bigwig fell through.
In the meantime, Dutcher is touting the DVD release Tuesday of his last movie, "Brigham City," and casting a fatherly eye on the explosion of LDS-themed movies that have followed in the wake of Dutcher's "Brigham City" and "God's Army."
"The Other Side of Heaven" opened regionally last December, and went national a week ago (the reviews were excoriating -- Stephen Holden of The New York Times, for one, wrote that "the movie's vision of a white American zealously spreading a Puritanical brand of Christianity to South Seas islanders is one only a true believer could relish.") Two more hit Utah theaters in February: the romance "Out of Step" and the comedy "The Singles Ward." (Dutcher made a cameo in "The Singles Ward," but has requested his scene be removed from the movie's video release.)
"Last month, there was one weekend . . . I opened up the paper and saw these three LDS movies playing at the same time," Dutcher said, not without some pride.
"At the same time, I seriously question the wisdom of releasing them all at the same time," he said. "They're all going for the same audience."
Dutcher is concerned about the quality of other LDS filmmakers' movies. "My hopes for Mormon filmmaking have changed," Dutcher said. "I had the hopes that they would all be intelligent and there would be a real depth and substance to them, and a certain level of technical quality. The reality is that those are going to be the highlights. . . . I want all of them to be 'Lawrence of Arabia' quality movies, and they're not going to be."
Dutcher fears a parochialism could creep into LDS filmmaking. "I don't want Mormon cinema to be Utah cinema. I want Mormon cinema to be very diverse," he said. "Whatever the story is, if you're telling it honestly and with sincerity, even though it may have Mormon particulars and may be saturated with Mormonism, then it can become universal. It can transcend the regional specifics."
He cites "Out of Step," about a Mormon girl following her dancer's dreams in New York, as an example of a good movie with crossover potential. It fared poorly in its limited February run, but Dutcher said, "I'm hoping that film will get another shot at it."
Dutcher is supportive of other LDS filmmakers. "I've always had this open-door policy, as far as sitting down and sharing whatever information I have," he said. "People are very guarded about distribution information, exhibition information, how you actually get movies into theaters. . . . I'm always very open about that, and will continue to do so because I want to see these movies made."
But Dutcher is learning to be more careful about letting his name be used for dubious projects. "I'm becoming wiser about this," he said.
The DVD release of "Brigham City" is testing the limits of marketing an LDS-themed movie. The distributor, Spartan Home Entertainment, will have two video-box covers for the movie: One features Dutcher's sheriff character holding a gun, next to images of costars Wilford Brimley and Matthew A. Brown; the other, which Dutcher calls "the B-movie horror approach," includes a sinister eye, a gnarled hand on an ax handle, and the movie's title dripping blood.
"I see the reasoning behind it from a marketing standpoint," Dutcher said of the slasher-movie art, which will be available at major national chains. (The tamer cover will be more prevalent in Utah stores.) "I do have concerns that the people who would really enjoy this movie may not rent it. . . . and the people who rent the movie based on the cover art may not enjoy it."
The DVD will include a director's commentary, but Dutcher looks forward to having enough time to create deluxe DVDs of "Brigham City" and "God's Army." "I will someday, probably when they don't let me make movies anymore," he joked.
"It's fun to see them continue on," he said. "Now it's interesting, just because we're having 'God's Army' about to open in Latin America in theaters, and we're watching that happen at the same time 'Brigham City' is coming out on video and DVD and making foreign sales, and being on heavy preproduction on 'The Prophet.' They don't go away. I guess they're like children -- you have to keep watching them and seeing what they go out and do in the world."
Principal Role in New Feature Film "THE PROPHET"
New from filmaker Richard Dutcher (God's Army) is a movie based on the life of Joseph Smith Jr., the founder of The Book of Mormon and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The film is a period piece set in the 1800's, revolving around the controversial life of Joseph Smith Jr. Set to film in May in Canada, Midwestern U.S and New York with a budget of $10 million.
Duff [MacDonald] will play the role of Robert Foster, a radical [apostate] mormon.
Written and Directed by Richard Dutcher
www.zionfilms.com For More Info
SALT LAKE CITY -- Joseph Smith Jr. and his brother, Hyrum Smith, wore sunglasses.
It's true, said Richard Dutcher, director of "God's Army" and "Brigham City."
In what Dutcher said may be his contribution to history, the Hollywood filmmaker who focuses on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said his upcoming film on the church's first president will feature a scene with Joseph and Hyrum Smith wearing sunglasses.
While doing his own hands-on research, he said he discovered the eyewear was worn by early church leaders. He was going through some belongings of Hyrum Smith.
Modeling a similar pair of antique glasses, Dutcher encouraged future moviegoers to stand behind him when they hear skepticism about the glasses.
"Say 'No. No. It's true. Hyrum had them. I saw them.' Then trust me on the other things," he said.
Dutcher spoke Saturday at a panel discussion featuring himself and four authors working on biographies documenting Smith's life. The discussion was part of Sunstone Symposium, an annual intellectual gathering of members as well as those who study the LDS Church.
Dutcher was joined by his colleagues in stating that Smith's unique life and accounts of it pose difficulty for biographers to portray accurately.
Dutcher said much of the church's first historical accounts are influenced by a style of romanticized writing at that time.
For this reason, Dutcher said he questions the truth of some long-held stories told in the church. For instance, because of forensic evidence taken at the scene in Carthage jail, he doubts Hyrum Smith really had the time after he was shot below his eye to say that he was a dead man before he died.
"We have a way of telling our stories, and they did in their time too," Dutcher said. "They were romanticized stories of what was actually witnessed."
Also speaking were Richard L. Bushman, history professor at Columbia University and author of "Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism;" Robert V. Remini, a professor emeritus at University of Illinois at Chicago and author of biographies on Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay and Daniel Webster; Richard Van Wagoner, author of "Sidney Rigdon: Portrait of Religious Excess" and "Polygamy: A History," and Scott Kenney, editor, "Wilford Woodruff's Journal: 1833-1898" and founder and first editor of Sunstone.
Bushman said one aspect of Smith's life that has attracted criticism was his ego.
He said while some have questioned Smith for not being more humble, he believes his having an ego was an important element to his success.
"He was not only a visionary but a CEO," he said. "If you go to Harvard Business School, they will tell you that you have to have big egos."
He said Smith was hated because he challenged the beliefs that Americans hold most dear by claiming to have had visions and having his followers stray from democratic practices.
"He thus overturned the basic idea of Americanism -- the idea of democracy as its fundamental element."
He said Smith was hated because he went around telling people that their religion was false and that the St. James version of the Bible was incomplete.
Remini said Smith, who at one point ran for president of the United States, was anything but anti-American.
"Joseph Smith was the embodiment of what I see great about this country," he said. "He was not afraid to speak out and tell people what he thought whether they liked it or not."
He also said the United States was built around achieving greatness -- something he believes Smith was able to reach.
Van Wagoner said poverty at a young age, his parents, an illness that kept him on crutches for years, great linguistic abilities and a restless intellect all played important parts in the formation of Smith's success.
The author said he found it interesting that while Smith brought forward the Book of Mormon, he rarely referred to any scriptures in the book in his sermons or writings. Instead, Van Wagoner said the church leader often quoted the Bible.
Kenney said there was much about Smith that he found intriguing such as three different versions he offered about the first vision, his ability to motivate very new converts to serve church missions and questions about whether Smith conspired to murder an outspoken anti-Mormon man.
The author said while he couldn't help but pick up on Smith's spirituality while reading his letters, he found them uniquely strange.
"He has a tendency to really shred people -- he just takes them to task -- and then he turns around and just gushes about how much he loves them," he said.
[NOTE: Richard Dutcher is mentioned at the end of this article. Also, Richard Bushman, the research consultant for Dutcher's movie, is quoted.]
Mormon founder Joseph Smith was a polarizing figure, reviled by his enemies, revered by his followers. The 19th century leader was visionary, revolutionary, ambitious, energetic, enigmatic, possibly manipulative and deceptive.
No one could know his history, Smith said. He would not have believed it himself, if he had not lived it.
In short, the Mormon prophet is an irresistible subject for would-be biographers.
Five of them -- two professors, two writers and one filmmaker -- spoke on a panel Saturday during the concluding session of Sunstone Symposium, an independent forum for LDS intellectuals.
Each member of the all-male panel acknowledged a fascination with the original "prophet, seer and revelator" of the now 11-million member Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"Joseph was a man of immense dimensions and complexity," said Richard Bushman, emeritus professor of history at Columbia University. "How did he do it? That is the question every biographer must face."
The man dubbed an "American prophet" was clearly a "prophet," who, like all visionaries, challenged the social, political and religious status quo, Bushman said.
Smith had enough confidence to declare he was speaking for God, said Bushman, a Mormon historian who has written one Smith biography and is now writing a cultural history of the man in time for Smith's 200th birthday in 2005.
But was the Mormon leader truly American?
Smith may have been open to new experiences and pragmatic. He believed in the common people enough to ordain all men to the priesthood. But he and his followers were also seriously alienated from American society, Bushman said.
Mormonism is not a democracy, he said. "They would rather follow Joseph than the American government and that scared people."
Robert Remini, an emeritus professor of history from University of Illinois at Chicago, disagreed.
"Mormonism is the most democratic religion I know. Everybody -- well, almost everybody -- gets to heaven," said Remini, a non-Mormon, to much laughter from the large audience.
People hated Smith because he had the audacity to say God told him their religions were all wrong and their clergy were corrupted. "Did he think the ministers would say, 'Oh thank you for telling us?' " Remini asked.
Smith was successful in part because he offered a new scripture, The Book of Mormon, "that connected them with the divine," said Remini, who has just finished writing a Smith biography.
Richard Van Wagoner and Scott Kenney are two of three authors working on a three-volume biography of Smith that will also be published in 2005.
Van Wagoner is dealing with Smith's formative years from his birth until the end of 1830, when he founded the LDS Church.
Van Wagoner is analyzing the importance of several factors in those early years: the Smith family's poverty and its effect on Smith's later economics; the influence of his parents, particularly his mother, on Smith's use of language; his early illness and leg injury that left him using crutches for some time; and his restless intellect.
As a non-believing Mormon, Kenney, who is looking at Ohio and Missouri during the 1830s period of Mormon history, said he is trying to strike a balance between a strictly secular approach which offers naturalistic rather than religious explanations for Smith's actions, and recognizing the spiritual components of the man.
Kenney is exploring Smith's understanding of truth-telling, how he might have understood the nature of divine revelation, and the dynamic between the prophet and the church he launched.
On that last point, Bushman added that "Joseph was not a prophet who comes out of the wilderness and called people to repentance. He was a church and kingdom-builder. A CEO. And CEOs have to have big egos or the movement doesn't get off the ground."
Richard Dutcher has taken up the nearly impossible task of bringing Smith to life on the big screen.
"I admire his hunger and thirst for knowledge, understanding, light and truth," said Dutcher. "He left no stone unturned. He was never satisfied with his current understanding. He followed every clue and then held fast to that which is good."
Dutcher, who directed and starred in "God's Army," would not give away any details of his forthcoming film.
"Those who think Joseph was a devil or a god will both be disappointed," Dutcher said.
"I worry only about what I will think and Joseph will think and what the Lord will think."
LDS Cinema marches on, again.
A genre that scarcely existed two years ago, when Richard Dutcher's "God's Army" hit Utah screens and spread across the country, now is popping up everywhere.
Two more LDS-themed movies arrive in Utah in the next month: the romance "Charly" on Friday and the pioneer drama "Handcart: The Movie" on Oct. 11. The current issue of Newsweek has a short item, headlined "Mormons: They're a Laugh Riot," that mentions how the success of "The Singles Ward" has spawned eight more LDS-themed comedies -- including Nathan Smith Jones' in-the-works mockumentary of the genre, "The Work and the Story," which (if the film's Web site is not itself a spoof) also stars Dutcher...
Step 3: Think digitally. If you have a limited budget (and everybody who ever made a movie had a limited budget), the new high-tech cameras may help you spend it more wisely. Think about this: If the bulk of your revenue will come from video sales, and digital-to-film transfers are cheap, why spend a lot of money on pricey 35mm film?
Step 4: Think cinematically. On the other hand, if you're shooting in the South Pacific (like "The Other Side of Heaven") or a historic epic (like Dutcher's in-the-works Joseph Smith biopic), only film will do.
Shortly after the release of God's Army, Richard Dutcher mused to me one day that he was surprised a cluster of LDS movies had not followed in the wake of his success. He need wonder no more. There are more new "Mormon genre" movies in release or being made than the market can likely support. Some will be great. Some will be OK. Too many will be disappointing. A few are likely to be awful.
From a really wonderful web site, ldsfilm.com... comes an almost shocking list of "Mormon movies" announced, in production, promised or being created in the most fanciful of day-dreams kept afloat by nothing but faith. Here is what Mormon movie goers can look for in near future -- presuming of course they get funded, finished and finely made.
Richard Dutcher, LDS filmmaker, discusses the recent LDS-themed movie trend. He said the films have had a critical lack of quality in the last few years... Dutcher told more than 800 BYU-Idaho students and faculty Thursday during a speech on the LDS film industry...
Dutcher's next project is to bring the life of Joseph Smith, founder of the LDS Church, to the big screen, he said.
The $10 million project has been stalled because of a lack of money.
Dutcher is now concentrating on getting funding for the film and he is keeping a backlog of other stories he has to tell.
"I really think Richard Dutcher has the perspective of where we need to go with Mormon cinema," BYU-I student Spencer Stapleton said. "He's out to make an impact through his film's content."
Dutcher is just one of many high-profile names in the LDS community to recently speak on the BYU-I campus. Others include Sheri L. Dew, chief executive officer of Deseret Book, and Rear Adm. Richard B. Porterfield of the U.S. Navy.
More LDS movies are slated in 2003, including "The R.M.," Hale's follow-up to "The Singles Ward" (due in January), and a mock-documentary, "The Work and the Story," in the offing next fall. Meanwhile, Richard Dutcher -- the guy who started this boom with "God's Army" -- is still trudging away at "The Prophet," his epic biography of Joseph Smith.
Other movie news in 2002: