You ended up at Brigham Young, so I assume you became a Mormon somewhere along there?
Dutcher: I was 8 when my mother married this Mormon guy, and it was like, "Well, we're going to be Mormons now." But whenever I was with my mother's family, we'd attend Pentecostal services. And my real father's family were Baptists. So we kind of hopped all around.
It's strange to be a part of different faith communities. Pentecostal preachers were trying to save me from Mormonism. And Mormon leaders thought any other religion was a waste of time. But as a kid, I didn't feel any need to really make a choice one way or the other. And I even feel less so as an adult.
But you ended up settling in the Mormon church?
Dutcher: My wife and kids predominantly attend the LDS church, but I'm so busy that I'm really not active in that community any more. I travel so much, and I find myself just choosing whatever service appeals to me that week. When I'm in Burbank, I attend a Catholic church. And I've recently noticed a Greek Orthodox church across the street, so I'll probably hit that too....
When you say "Mormon movies," do you just mean movies by, about, and for Mormons? Or are they for a wider audience?
Dutcher: Well most of the Mormon filmmakers are delusional; they think their films would appeal to a larger audience. Lifetime Mormons who've never been outside of Utah have no idea what would make a film cross over to another community. They have such a limited view of the religious world, they just don't have a clue how to make a film that might appeal to other people.
My idea of Mormon cinema would be films that take a deep, probing look into Mormonism—its history, doctrine, contemporary life, to explore things that were pretty much untapped. But that's certainly not what Mormon cinema became. It became something so much more superficial and meaningless....
God's Army did well in theaters, but States of Grace didn't. Why?
Dutcher: To me, it was by far a better film than God's Army, but we couldn't give tickets away. I think it's because people thought it was going to be just another crappy Mormon movie.
Sounds like you're up against quite a perception problem.
Dutcher: Yes, that's the battle I've been fighting in the Mormon community. Word's gotten out that my films are a little edgier than the others, and have a little more depth and are actually about something. And I think the Mormon community just doesn't have reverence or respect for art. It certainly doesn't understand film as an art form. So there's a big educational curve that has to take place before the Mormon community will start taking film seriously.
...I read a quote from someone who likes your films because you don't just do "movies about the Osmond twins." What's he mean by that?
Dutcher: I think most Mormon films are expressions of "the Mormon aesthetic," and have very little to do with anything at the heart of Mormonism. I mean they're really not about doctrine or history; there's really no thought put into it. It's just simply a trifle, a piece of entertainment, something that won't offend.
The Mormon community, by and large, judges their films based on what's not in them—if there's no nudity, no violence, and no harsh language, then it must be a good film. I try to point out the lack of logic to that, where we should be judging film based on what IS in it—good acting, story, craft, some thought, some theme. But I think most of the cinematic expressions coming out of the Mormon community are just, "Let's not offend. Let's do something the preacher won't get mad about," rather than telling the stories that have to be told, and exploring the territory that has to be explored.
Many evangelicals think Mormonism is a far-out sect or even a cult. Why do you think many evangelicals feel that way?
Dutcher: I think the problem is that a lot of Mormons don't understand their own religion. I think this film has been judged very harshly by Mormons whose religious outlook seems to be focused more on God's justice than on God's mercy. And I think that's where I think the real breakdown occurs between evangelicals and Mormons, because as much as the Mormons want to say they believe in the grace of Jesus Christ, there's still at the fundamental core of Mormonism this psychology of needing to earn salvation.
Salvation by works?
Dutcher: Exactly. It's very much there. A lot of Mormons who saw States of Grace rejected it simply because they felt that it preached easy forgiveness—which if they'd look, that's what their own doctrine teaches anyway. But that's where the difference is, between the actual doctrines of Mormonism and the psychology of contemporary Mormonism. It has crept into the Mormon psychology that if you sin … the idea of repentance … [Dutcher pauses.]
I'm trying to be very careful here. But I tried to address some of this thinking in the film—like when the father [of a Mormon missionary] says he'd rather have his son come home in a casket than come home dishonored. I mean, that is such an expression of traditional Mormon psychology—that it would be better to have a child dead than to have a child who made a major moral mistake.
In some ways, that's what this film was about. It's about saying, "If Christ is central to Mormonism, what does that mean?" That was something I was grappling with and studying.
Dutcher: He's talking about the rules for missionaries.
That you can't help a homeless person?
Dutcher: That you can't have anybody in your apartment except other missionaries.
There's nothing in the Bible that would imply that. Is there something in the Book of Mormon that would support such a rule?
Dutcher: Absolutely not. In fact, it would be quite the opposite. The Book of Mormon is right in line with the Bible as far as that. The idea would be absolutely, be a good Samaritan, take care of him. But if you follow the missionary rules, it often could prevent you from doing acts of Christian service. So it's one of those ironies.
Your publicist told me the label of "Mormon filmmaker" will disappear with your next movie, Falling, coming in 2007. Why would that film convince people to drop the label?
Dutcher: Probably because the Mormon community itself will probably disown me (laughs). But it's just a film with deeply spiritual Christian and Mormon themes, but it speaks that message in … Well, basically it violates the Mormon aesthetic in pretty much every way possible. It's on the street, it's violent, it's edgy. For those to whom their sensibilities are more important than the message, it's probably going to offend a large percentage of those people. It's about a lapsed Mormon, and I wanted to depict that truthfully. It will definitely be rated R.