"Out of Liberty," showing this week at the LDS Film Festival, recreates the story of Joseph Smith and several other early church leaders being imprisoned at Liberty Jail for four months in the winter of 1838-39.
Or so it would seem.
The somewhat surprising angle, after seeing the movie at its Wednesday night showing at the SCERA Center For the Arts, is that it mostly seems to be focused on the perspective of Samuel Tillery, the main jailer, who not only was charged with keeping the group incarcerated, but also protected from mobs who sought to kill Smith and his followers.
In a question-and-answer session following the screening, director and co-writer Garrett Batty said that while most of the information in the movie was taken from first- or second-hand historical accounts, he and screenwriter Stephen Dethloff had very little to go on when it came to fleshing out Tillery's character.
"His obituary is about all the information I have for him," Batty said of Tillery, who is portrayed in the film by Jasen Wade. "I had grown up thinking that the jailers were toothless villainous men, but (Tillery's) obituary says he was an esteemed citizen -- so maybe I could learn something."
Batty said Dethloff initially approached him with a script he had written about the life of Smith, who officially founded The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1830.
"This is a bigger story than I can tell," Batty said, recounting his conversation with Dethloff at the time. "But I thought there was a story in Liberty Jail. He came back with a great script and we workshopped that for a year."
The script is dotted with things most church members probably know about Smith's time in the prison, but also ignores some of the main things -- such as Smith, filled with righteous indignation, quieting some vile taunting by jailers.
One interesting perspective involved the depiction of Smith receiving the well-known, and often-quoted revelation making up sections 121 and 122 of the Doctrine and Covenants. The unique switch involved Tillery hearing Smith's pleading prayer and becoming aware of the answer.
"I love that Joseph, immediately after receiving that revelation, shared it with that jailer," said actor Shawn Stevens, who was on hand for Wednesday's screening. Stevens played a judge in the film who proved to be more concerned with public opinion than he did with justice.
One of the things the film did extremely well was depict the frigid, day-to-day conditions of living in the jail -- which was one main underground room, only accessed through the floor of the jailer quarters. Such day-to-day conditions included a shared bucket for bathroom needs that had to be emptied daily. That provided one moment of levity in the film, when one of the prisoners, hearing the floor hatch about to be opened, rushed the bucket and raised it to the opening so it was right under Tillery's nose and the first thing he smelled.
"Could anybody else smell that bucket?" Q&A moderator Stephanie Goodman asked audience members. "It was rank."
Filming took place in Utah during an unseasonably cold November, which helped recreate conditions in Missouri during the time depicted in the film. Batty's research into Liberty Jail turned up an interesting discovery.
"I can't imagine being in that jail in the (4) coldest months of the year," Batty said. "After they quit using it as a jail, they used it as a meat locker."
Batty, who previously directed well-known LDS-themed films "Freetown" and "The Saratev Approach," is currently working on a film about sister missionaries in the Philippines trapped in a flooding house. Filming will begin this year.
"Out of Liberty" will enjoy a repeat festival screening on Saturday at 1 p.m.