Monday, April 16, 2007

Richard Dutcher on Mormon Film

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 what? 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 dying? 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 marketplace?
Of course not. Is the market glutted? 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

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 instead? 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 you? 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 film? Expand the vocabulary of film, learn to do things
on the broad white canvas of a movie screen that no one has yet

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 earth?
For whatever reason -- nepotism, ignorance ... who knows? -- 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 scripture? 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

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 be? What do you want your children to
understand? What do you want to understand before you die?

Family films? 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 cares? 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 knows? 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
This story appeared in The Daily Herald on page A6.

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