the Ramparts with Richard Dutcher
the early summer of 1993, I picked up the phone at my apartment in Eugene,
Oregon and heard the news from my great and good friend Tim Hansen that he was
off to Los Angeles to appear in Dutcher's film, a.k.a. Girl Crazy,
a very pleasant little romantic comedy about a guy who loses his girlfriend and
tries to win her back. Tim played the part of a guy whom the protagonist meets
up with by chance, and who has also just lost his girl, and the two try to
figure out what the best approach would be to getting them back. (And Tim gave a
pretty good performance in the film. We miss you, kiddo.)
was Richard Dutcher, who wrote, directed, and starred in the independently-made
picture. Now, seven years later, he is back with a new film, God's Army,
about a very different subject altogether: the experiences of L.D.S. (Latter-Day
Saints) missionaries working in Los Angeles.*
men (and, in recent years, women) are encouraged to serve a mission in their
eighteenth or nineteenth year, after graduating from high school and before
attending college. It is voluntary work, and you have to save money to go, as
missions generally last up to four years. (Serving a mission is also a
non-paying job.) The experience tests both one's faith and one's ability to
communicate with people, as it involves a lot of knocking on doors and asking
total strangers if they would like to hear about the Church. Contact with one's
family, friends and the outside world is limited. Transportation is usually by
bicycle or on-foot. Dress and grooming is also regulated: white shirt, dark tie
and slacks, polished shoes, and hair cut above the ear and the collar.
must be determined, flexible, and able to take a lot of rejection. Daily study
is required to be able to remain focused and to answer any and all questions. God's
Army includes a scene where two non-members ask a pair of missionaries why
black men could not hold priesthood positions in the Church prior to 1978, and
why women cannot hold positions of authority. Missionaries cannot date, so
girlfriends and fiancées must wait until their men are finished working in the
field before they can get married.
missionaries are assigned to where they will be working. If they are to serve in
Germany, Brazil, or Japan, a crash course is required to learn the language well
enough to converse fluently. I have friends whose mission experiences were not
so terrific, and friends whose experiences were so profoundly spiritual that
they changed for the rest of their lives by them.
members may scratch their heads a bit over some parts of God's Army: What
is the Melchizedek priesthood, and why all this business about whether to drink
coffee or not? This should in no way affect one's appreciation of the film, as
it addresses aspects ranging from coming-of-age to striving to be true to one's
principals and beliefs. It is also very funny in parts, and a unique film that
has an ability to stick with you longer than many other films currently
appearing in the theaters.
Dutcher made God's Army through a new production company, Zion Films,
which has set its sights on making films about L.D.S. life, by L.D.S. members
and for both L.D.S. audiences and general audiences. (After the closing credits
for God's Army, I realized, to my surprise, that there was no profanity
in the film: about the strongest speech one hears is when one character reacts
by saying, "Oh -- golly,..." And, guess what: I didn't miss it a bit.)
I suspect that Dutcher may be a filmmaker-to-watch in the coming years.
recently had a chance to speak with him about the making of God's Army,
his own current mission as a filmmaker, what we may look forward to seeing from
him in the future, and the possible constructive uses for an Academy Award
I'll start with the inevitable opening question: How did you first become
interested in making films?
I first became interested in making movies when I was about six years old. It
was Mary Poppins that did it. I was sitting in the movie theater watching
what's his name, that little English boy in the movie who gets to float around
in the air and dance around with Dick Van Dyke. [Matthew Garber, who levitated
with Van Dyke, Karen Dotrice and Ed Wynn during the song I Love to Laugh.]
And I was thinking first about how much fun that little actor must have had, and
then second how that little kid couldn't act his way out of a wet paper bag and
why couldn't I have played that part. Someday I'll do a re-make (and play that
same part). So, since early childhood, I haven't really wanted to do anything
else. I tried a career behind the counter at 7-11, but it just didn't work out.
So I started acting early, then turned to writing in order to create some good
parts to play, then turned to producing and directing in order to get my scripts
produced so I could have good parts to play.
How did you first become involved with film production?
Girl Crazy was my first film, but I don't really want to talk about it.
Enough said. Okay, I'll say more. It was a huge undertaking. It taught me so
much about financing and making and selling films. I had to take it, start to
finish, for $50,000. By finish I don't mean just a finished answer print. In
this case, finish meant delivery of all materials: broadcast quality tape with
promotional materials and the works. So, I'm proud of the work I did. I consider
it my graduate school in filmmaking because I was there every step of the way. I
wrote it, green-lighted it, raised the money, hired all cast and crew, directed,
produced, starred, carried it through every step of post-production and
marketing. As for the film itself, there are parts of it that are really quite
good. Linda Bon was very good as Rachel. Tim Hansen's performance was wonderful.
All the Tim/Tommy scenes were great. Rob Sweeney, the cameraman, did a great job
with so little money. There are some funny lines and it's good-hearted, but the
lack of budget kept me from getting the locations and the coverage I needed. So
many of the scenes were filmed in one shot. But it wasn't worth spending four
years of my life on. And the screenplay was not worth making. It was really made
because [a] young director needed to make a film, any film, before he went nuts
and ran naked down the middle of the street (Oh, wait. That was in the movie,
wasn't it?). At the end of the day, it was just ninety minutes of pleasant,
low-budget fluff. I watched it again just a few months ago. I'm surprised HBO
picked it up. But I sure am glad they did.
How is God's Army currently doing in release, both in Utah and in other
God's Army is doing wonderfully. Well cross the two million mark in
domestic box office within the next couple of weeks. Not bad for a movie that
cost $300,000. The exhibitors are surprised at how well the film is doing
outside of Utah, but I'm not. We've still got [two-thirds] of the U.S. left to
cover, and video/DVD and foreign. So God's Army will keep us busy for a
good while yet. So, the film is a huge commercial success for us. As for its
critical performance, [there has been a] lot of good response from non-Mormon
critics. We have had a couple of scathing reviews, but it seemed pretty evident
in the reviews that the critics had a pre-existing problem with Mormons in
Was God's Army one of those filmmaking experiences where everything came
God's Army was incredibly difficult to finance. I spent the better part
of four years travelling around meeting with wealthy Latter-Day Saints trying to
convince them to invest in the film.
Did you initially conceive of this as a film that would speak to a wide
audience, since many experiences by L.D.S. missionaries -- first-time separation
from home, practicing one's faith while facing seemingly overwhelming odds, and
experiencing both acceptance and rejection from others -- contain universal
God's Army was made for my own people. I really didn't care whether
non-Mormons liked the film at all. I zeroed in on my audience and tried to block
out everybody else. Because I knew if I managed to satisfy even this one
audience, the film would be successful enough that I could make another film.
Also, I'm totally converted to the idea of specialized narrative/dramatic
filmmaking. We don't have to make films for the entire world. We can make films
for relatively small pieces of the total marketplace. And I think this is how
the most interesting movies are going to be made. For instance, I want to see
films made by black filmmakers primarily for black audiences. Those films would
be so much more interesting than movies made by black filmmakers for the
mainstream. And you could take the word "black" out and put in
"Mormon" or "Buddhist" or "gay" or whatever. I
believe the more specialized you get, the more honest you get and the more
universal your story and characters become.
To what extent did you draw upon your own experiences for this film?
God's Army is based on my own experiences as a missionary. I served two
years as a missionary in Southern Mexico. Write about what you know, they always
say. I don't know why it took me so long to take that particular piece of
Can you give us some idea of how you think commercial cinema has misrepresented
the L.D.S. Church? One example that came immediately to mind was how
screenwriter Paddy Chayevsky re-wrote the story for the Lerner and Loewe musical
Paint Your Wagon in order to introduce a jokesy depiction of polygamy,
and thus create a dramatic setup whereby Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood's
characters could set-up house with Jean Seberg's.
One of the main reasons I wanted to make this film is because I was sick and
tired of the way Mormons are portrayed in the mainstream:
almost always the butt of a joke. Either that or we are misportrayed to
the point that we're not even recognizable. Some examples: Goodbye Lover,
Donnie Brasco, Orgazmo, even a fleeting reference to radical
Mormons in Starship Troopers. Those references deeply offend me. So I
came to the realization that if we want our people portrayed accurately,
positively, truthfully, we are going to have to do it ourselves. Being a
filmmaker and a Latter-Day Saint, I saw myself in the perfect place to do
something about it. Not through the mainstream, but through independent film,
which can have a powerful effect in the mainstream. And I didn't see any other
LDS filmmakers doing anything to help. If anything, with [Neil] LaBute's recent
success, the LDS image was taking a good Bash, so to speak. [Neil LaBute, who is
L.D.S., lives and works out of Provo, Utah. His recent collection of short
plays, Bash, was performed last year off-Broadway, and was subtitled Latter-Day
Plays. - GA]
What do you do when you're not involved in the tangles and snares of film
I see every movie I have even the slightest desire to see. And I try to read.
I'm not too big on most mainstream writers, but I can get a kick out of a good
book about first century Christians. My favorite novelists are Tolstoy,
Dostoevsky, Chaim Potok, and Larry McMurtry -- go figure. And I spend as much
time hanging out with my family as possible. I have three young boys and another
child of undetermined gender on the way. And a sexy wife, so that keeps me busy
as well. Sometimes, if I really need some space and time to think I go on a
"driveabout." Last month I spent three days alone driving around the
Southern Utah desert. I highly recommend it.
Any favorite films?
Jaws, It's a Wonderful Life, The Bicycle Thief.
Are there any filmmakers whom you admire, past or present?
John Sayles, for his career more than individual films (although I thought Matewan
was brilliant). Scorsese, for his mastery of the medium (I thought Goodfellas
could serve as a textbook of the language of cinema). Charlie Chaplin, of
course, especially City Lights and Modern Times.
What films are you looking towards making during the next several years?
I see myself making all kinds of films that deal with faith, religion, man's
relationship to God and Christ, morality, human relationships, sin, repentance,
redemption, damnation, etc. Most of my movies will deal with Mormonism. My faith
and the human spiritual and religious experience are what occupy my thoughts,
almost constantly. But I think audiences will be surprised (L.D.S. audiences as
well as mainstream audiences) at what a deep well of material this will turn out
to be. The reason we haven't experienced much in the way of spiritual cinema in
the past hundred years is because our filmmakers have rarely been spiritually
inclined. I don't want to make any film that lies to people, that leads them to
believe something that isn't true or that encourages them to behave stupidly or
selfishly. I don't want to add to the world's pain. I hope that all of my movies
will help to lift and exalt the audience. All movies teach. All filmmakers are
teachers. As such, we're either teaching lies or teaching truth. I hope that all
my films are solid and true.
Are there any film performers or artists you would particularly like to have the
opportunity to work with?
As a director working with actors: William Hurt, Denzel Washington, among
others. As an actor working with directors: John Sayles, the Coen
brothers...actually just about anybody except John Waters.
Both Susan Sarandon and Elizabeth Taylor said that they keep their Oscars in the
bathroom at home, while Jack Nicholson uses one of his statuettes as a hat
stand. What would you do with your Oscar?
I have absolutely no idea. A problem I most likely will never have to confront.
Turn it into a lamp?
Finally, I must add that I very much liked the ad line for God's Army, Saving
The World -- One Soul at a Time. Whose idea was it?
Yep, that's mine.
God's Army has recently opened in California, Oregon and Washington, and is currently showing in 10 states. It will be opening on the East Coast later this summer. Information on current and future showings can be obtained through the film's website, http://www.godsarmythemovie.com.
Click here to read Gregory Avery's review.
*For those of you who are just coming in: I use the term "L.D.S." instead of "Mormon" because friends pointed out to me that "Mormon" connotes worshiping the prophet Mormon, which is not the case, whereas "L.D.S.," which stands for "Latter Day Saints," is technically more correct.