Richard Dutcher: 'Parting words' on Mormon movies

2007-04-11T23:00:00Z Richard Dutcher: 'Parting words' on Mormon moviesRICHARD DUTCHER Daily Herald
April 11, 2007 11:00 pm  • 

Good filmmaking is the only thing that will save Mormon cinema.

Six years ago, most of you were frustrated, aspiring filmmakers. You hadn't yet made a film. Thanks to the energy surrounding the Mormon cinema explosion, you've now made a film. Or two. Or three.

You've all had to endure the heat of criticism and the harshness of the marketplace. Hopefully, you've been refined by the fire, but not destroyed by it. I'll always remember the first scathing review for "God's Army." It was a blistering attack from a critic in Phoenix. You grow scars. It gets easier. Believe me.

Let's talk frankly: Some of your films were not very good. So whatfi My first film, "Girl Crazy," was not very good either. Neither were the early films of Martin Scorcese, Brian DePalma, etc. So much of filmmaking is craft. Craft has to be learned. We're all, hopefully, getting better with each film. That's the goal.

Those of you who have recently finished your first films have now been through a graduate school more demanding and more educational than that of any university in the world. Use it. Don't turn your back on it. Make more films, and show us all what you've learned. Mormonism needs excellent filmmakers.

Why is Mormon cinema dyingfi This is no great mystery. Diminishing quality has brought diminishing returns.

As you know, it's a lot harder now than it was in 2002 to book a Mormon film into a movie theater or to get the DVD on the shelf at the local media store. Have there been too many movies in the marketplacefi Of course not. Is the market gluttedfi Far from it. There have been too many badly-made films in the marketplace, too few good ones.

A sharp increase in quality will bring an increase in box office. Increased box office will breathe new life into Mormon cinema. It's that simple.

Your only job now: Create works of quality. Dedicate yourselves to the pursuit of excellence, to the highest degree of craftsmanship you can achieve.

You now know, by first-hand experience, how hard it is to make a good movie. You know the risks, the hardships, the dedication, the battles required even to make a bad film. Why not make a good one insteadfi If you want to play in the major leagues (or even in the minors) you have to be good at the game.

Film is the most powerful and most influential art form in the history of mankind. We must treat it with the reverence and the respect it demands. Very few in its entire history have cared to use it for any purpose other than to pass a few hours in harmless entertainment and to make a few bucks. Frankly, that's what many of you have tried to do. Who can blame youfi Perhaps you didn't understand its potential.

Wouldn't it be amazing if the Mormon community did what nobody else in the world seems interested in doing: exploring human spirituality, human truth in filmfi Expand the vocabulary of film, learn to do things on the broad white canvas of a movie screen that no one has yet imagined.

The church would never allow shoddy, inexperienced architects and builders to create one of its temples. In its sacred commitment to excellence, the church searches for and employs those with the necessary talents, non-Mormons and Mormons alike. Some day, church leaders also will understand the power and potential of film. The cinema of a movement as great as Mormonism must be directed by great artists, not by inexperienced committees. Imagine the potential of images to convey the deepest, most sacred doctrines of Mormonism.

Look at the movies that play on the screen of the theater in the Joseph Smith Memorial Building. These films are the introduction of Mormonism to hundreds of thousands of people from across the globe. Shouldn't these be the most powerful films on the face of the earthfi For whatever reason -- nepotism, ignorance ... who knowsfi -- this opportunity is squandered. Why not share with visitors the beauty and power of Mormonism, rather than treating them to polite, remedial and not-so-factual recitations of Mormon History and scripturefi Viewers should leave those films weak in the knees, their minds reeling, their spirits soaring. Film has the power to do that.

Mormonism desperately needs excellent filmmakers who understand the language of cinema, the eloquence of images.

As for commercial Mormon cinema, LDS artists sometimes complain that more church members should support their efforts. Nonsense! Mormon film should not be supported. It must not and cannot exist on the charity of the audience. And certainly not on the charity of investors.

No art should have to be supported. If it is high quality, if it is compelling, if it is something that people want, they will buy it. They will seek it out. If Mormon cinema has to be supported in order to survive, it shouldn't survive.

A few parting words: I urge you to put the moronic comedies behind you. If you're going to make comedies, at least make them funny. Perhaps you should leave the mockery of Mormons to the anti-Mormons. They've had a lot more experience and, frankly, they do a better job.

Reach higher. Don't just "make a movie." Make the movie. If you knew you only had two years to live, and that you could only make one more movie, what movie would it befi What do you want your children to understandfi What do you want to understand before you diefi

Family filmsfi Forget that nonsense. There are so many well-behaved people of every religion on the planet who are eager and capable of producing such films. Mormons have something different, unique, vitally important to offer. Dedicate yourselves to making substantial films of elevated craft, undeniable artistry and potent themes.

In my experience, those who wave the flag of "family films" are usually those who have discovered that they lack anything valuable to say, the talent to say it, and the ability to compete in the marketplace. They are looking for a popular cause to compensate for (and to excuse) their lack of ability.

Concentrate on the presence of positives in your films, not merely the absence of negatives. Focus more on the presence of good acting, writing and cinematography and less on the absence of profanity, women's breasts and gunfights. Passionately adhere to the guideline that it is better to tell an R-rated truth than a G-rated lie.

Stop trying to make movies that you think the General Authorities would like. General Authorities buy very few movie tickets. Make films that the rest of the human family will enjoy. Stop being afraid that if you put something "edgy" in your films then maybe you won't get any important callings. Who caresfi Someone else can be in the bishopric or the Relief Society presidency, but no one else can make those films, those very personal films, that only you can make.

Communities don't create great artists. Great artists, like great businessmen, are self-made. Recognize this. It will strengthen you against your community's occasional lack of understanding.

Grasp your potential. Begin the exploratory marriage of Mormonism and film. Combine the unknown depths of Mormonism with the untapped potential of film. The result will be the films the world needs.

I cannot tell you how much I have cared, and still care, about this movement. My love for the future of Mormon cinema has driven me to a passion that has expressed itself not only in my films, but (as you know) in bouts of public anger at filmmakers who, I believed, were killing a beautiful, unprecedented opportunity and a limitless potential. Miraculously, that opportunity and that potential still exist. It's just a little harder to see right now.

If this sounds like a farewell address ... well, it is.

Mormon doctrines are powerful and beautiful and have given great meaning to my life for more than 30 years. I'm sure they will always continue to inform not only my future work as a filmmaker, but also my private spiritual journey. But it does not appear that it will be my honor to make some of these films that the LDS community so desperately needs.

As many of you know, I am no longer a practicing member of the church. The private answers to the questions I have asked in my prayers, and in my films, have led me on an unexpected journey, a spiritual path which may ultimately prove incompatible with Mormon orthodoxy. This understanding has brought me some of the most profound surprises and also the deepest sadness of my life. It is very hard for me to say goodbye to something that I love.

Who knowsfi Maybe, like Oliver Cowdery (to whom I've always felt an uncommon kinship), my travels will someday lead back to Mormonism and to this effort. Such an end would be beautiful and, in a strange way, an answer to my prayers. But I don't know. One fundamental thing I have learned over the past few years is a genuine humility regarding my spiritual beliefs.

I know that some of you will not understand my decisions. Please know that I will always be not only a great friend to the Mormon community, but also one of its strongest defenders.

My brothers and sisters, I respectfully leave Mormon cinema in your capable -- and now seasoned -- hands. I hope that someday I will hear a few of your names mentioned in the company of the handful of filmmakers who have dared to explore human spirituality in film: Bergman, Bresson, Tarkovsky, Dreyer, Ozu, etc. One of my greatest hopes, of course (in true competitive spirit), is that one day my name will be at the very top of that list.

May God bless you in your individual and collective efforts. And may Mormon cinema one day achieve its powerful and beautiful potential. May it be "the praise and glory of the whole earth."

Richard Dutcher is the writer/director of "God's Army," "Brigham City," States of Grace" and the upcoming films "Falling" and "Evil Angel."

This story appeared in The Daily Herald on page A6.

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