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What are your favorite classic Church films? For me, Christmas isn’t Christmas without watching Mr. Kreuger’s Christmas and I will always remember the witness of the Spirit the first time I saw “How Rare A Possession.”
Well, lucky me! This week I spent an hour interviewing Peter Johnson, the award-winning LDS filmmaker of both of these classic LDS gems along with many other memorable movies (LDS and non-LDS). This kind and talented man recently spent the time to tell me a little bit about how he became a filmmaker and all about his newest movie that he would love our help with!
Brother Johnson has spent over a year writing the script for “All God’s Children,”a docu-drama about the 1978 Revelation on the Priesthood for all worthy male members of the Church. It’s all too fascinating not to share word for word with Meridian readers as we celebrate the 40th anniversary of this Revelation.
CA: What got you into filmmaking? Were you a young man? A student? At what point did you realize you loved to tell stories on film?
PJ: I grew up in a little town in Idaho with the population of 106 when we moved into it. We lived quite a ways out of town, but it had a little movie theatre. I went 3-4 times and didn’t have much exposure to the movies, unlike my contemporaries who lived in the cities. I didn’t have that background. But whenever I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I always answered “I want to make movies.” That was my answer from my earliest childhood on up.
I eventually went to BYU where I got my Bachelors degree in film and theater. I was then drafted for the Vietnam War. I was not sent to Vietnam, but to Germany where I worked at a hospital in the emergency room and learned about medical facility administration. I received training there in both managing a medical facility and for some medical procedures.
I had already graduated from BYU, so was a bit older than those I was working with. I began to feel that this was a much more stable career path than making movies and I was pretty good at my responsibilities at the hospital. I began to wonder what the realistic chances were for a stable income and to make a living for a family as a filmmaker.
So I decided to pursue medicine. I submitted my application for pre-med and a program. I was accepted into it and THEN I asked the Lord about all of this. The answer was very clear and very emphatic: “You are to make movies.” And that was that.
I returned to BYU to pursue my Masters Degree. During that time, for a special event at BYU, the actor Karl Malden came as a guest performer where he presented scenes from a number of classic plays. He was an Academy Award winner and a big man in Hollywood. I was assigned to be the assistant director of that event and we became very good friends. When I graduated, he invited me to come to Hollywood and work with him. And so I did. I learned the business from him.
CA: So BYU was the golden ticket to Karl Malden and Hollywood!
PJ: Oh yes, absolutely. But for anyone in Hollywood who ever asks who my agent is, I always tell them, “The Lord is my agent.” It is amazing for me to look back and see the journey the Lord set me on. The projects, the people, the opportunities. The leading Hollywood people that I had been fascinated with as a student at BYU were part of Karl Malden’s circle and so many things “just happened” that allowed me to do what I have done.
CA: I know my favorites of your many films but what are yours?
PJ: Well, they’re all my ‘chilluns,’ so I like ‘em all! They each presented different challenges and they each presented different stories. And that’s one of the reasons I love being a filmmaker! Every time you start making a film, it’s new. New characters, story line, setting. That’s fascinating for me.
With every movie there’s something to learn. I always ask myself the question. “What can I personally learn and gain from this experience?”
For example, when we made “The Journey of Faith.” This was a documentary about I Nephi. I had several top scholars of the Church with me and we traveled the area that Nephi and his family followed after departing Jerusalem. While there are not the exact trails, it’s not too hard to have a good feel for their journey. The geography for this part of the Book of Mormon is much more established than other parts of the Book of Mormon.
It was absolutely stunning. That presented a whole new experience for me.
“Mr. Kreuger’s Christmas” was fascinating because I got to work with one of the great men of Hollywood (Jimmy Stewart) and a wonderful storyline with a very fine moral. You learn from that.
My newest film, “All God’s Children,” is particularly fascinating for me because I wrote the script. It took over a year with the complexity of it all. It’s socially complex and it’s spiritually complex. It’s just a very, very complicated film to figure out how to do.
CA: How did this project arise?
PJ: Some relatives of mine, Dana and Linda Hansen, had the idea after they met Ed and Wanda Willis at a Gladys Knight concert. Their story reads like a book, and is actually currently being written into a book, and will be titled “From Panther to Priesthood.”
The story starts in the 60’s. They were in love. They had both grown up in ghetto areas of California. She in Los Angeles and he up in the Oakland area. They connected romantically and were searching for reasons for why life was so difficult for African Americans. At the time there was police brutality, riots, poverty. They were unable to live the American dream and were searching. In their search they ended up at a Black Panther rally.
They were encouraged and became involved. There was free breakfast and schooling for children. It felt good, but the more involved they became, the more militant the organization became. They were willing to become militant themselves for the cause. But they were not happy with the way things were going. Wanda was especially unhappy and left Ed. Ed left the Black Panthers soon after. It was not leading them toward the goals that they had shared at the beginning.
They were apart for 30 years. Ed really hit bottom. Drugs, women, alcohol, guns, the whole thing. Finally one day he realized that his life had descended into the deepest pit of humanity. He wondered what to do. He went to a quiet place and yelled “God help me! I don’t know where to go!”
A strong spirit came upon him. He knew that God had heard his prayer and wanted to take care of him. Right after that his sister called and said, “I’m going down to see Wanda in Los Angeles. Do you want to come?” He replied that he did. Mind you this is 30 years later. But they immediately reconnected.
Wanda, during those 30 years, had her own story of continuing to search for life’s true meaning and had joined the Church. She introduced the Church to Ed. He loved it! It all came together! Life made sense again.
So the movie is a love story. It’s a story of redemption. It’s a wonderful, wonderful story. Their Ward just took them in and loved them. They became very strong members of the Church and were sealed in the Temple.
Now, going back to the 60’s! While the fires were burning all across America with riots and distress over the Civil Rights movement, there was a fire burning in the hearts and minds of young men in Africa. There was no LDS Church in Africa at that time. No formal, official Church. But they knew there had to be something more, and they were searching for it. Joseph W.B. Johnson, Moses Mahlangu and Anthony Obinna were among others in the early sixties who were Africa’s pioneers, and about the same ages as Ed and Wanda. He discovered the Church through a friend and a Book of Mormon. It’s a bit like the “How Rare A Possession” story with Vincenzo, who had the Book of Mormon but no cover. This book had the cover and the title, but no publisher information.
They had dreams with ancestors coming to them in their dreams saying, “This is the true Church! Don’t leave it! All your ancestors are rooting for you.
All of our descendants need this Church! This is another wonderful story of how they found the Church headquarters. Slowly over time the Church was able to send them tracts, but nothing formal or with set-apart missionaries. So the film takes us from the Black Panthers in California to these wonderful young men in Africa! (You can read the details of their stories HERE)
In another dimension of the film we must deal with the banning of the Priesthood. This aspect never bothered Ed Willis. He didn’t know about it before being baptized, and afterwards his feeling was that if it was the Lord’s true Church, it didn’t matter. Whatever had happened in history was acceptable because he trusted the Lord. Ed just has this enormous faith!
In Africa they were OK, although they were anxious. They knew it was the Lord’s Church.
There are a lot of misconceptions about the Priesthood ban. So we deal with that in the film.
This is a docu-drama. At least half of the film will be acting scenes as we go back into early Church history with Joseph Smith and his relationship with Blacks. And then Brigham Young and his relationship.
We don’t know what motivated Brigham Young to say Blacks could not have the Priesthood.
We do know the tenor of the times. And this is fascinating. We need to remember … what are the times? Our nation was very young during the period of the Church’s Restoration. There was a gradual building up of prejudice, slavery in the South and this constant bubbling and butting that would eventually lead to the Civil War.
This was such an intense period of the Church. Joseph Smith was receiving many revelations, including the one on the Civil War. In Nauvoo, they were starting to experience Blacks being baptized. Some of them were run-away slaves. Some of them were free Blacks. Some of them were there because their white owners were converted to the Gospel and they brought their slaves along. Even before Nauvoo, there was so much Black history in Missouri, which was a slave state. But the Church was friendly towards the Blacks.
At the request of President Gordon B. Hinckley, I wrote a full screen-play on the life of Joseph Smith, so I’ve done a great deal of study. The more I studied, the more I understood that there were many reasons why the early Saints were rejected by the Missourians. I didn’t realize that the Saints’ attitude towards the Blacks was pretty favorable, and most of the members did not agree with slavery. But they were living in Missouri, a slave state and this became a huge issue. The other issues were also there, but this was a very big issue as to why the Saints were rejected by the Missourians.
It was such a violent period – murders, rapes and so much destruction. The Black situation was a major factor. The Brethren, later on in Nauvoo as more and more people of African descent were converted and baptized, became very concerned. It was frightening. They wanted the Church to thrive, not be massacred. It became a really interesting and difficult situation.
There were some things that happened that were good and there were some wonderful Black men who did receive the Priesthood and who served missions. The movie will go into their lives.
CA: In my reading of this period, I marvel to the point of tears, as we all do, at the sacrifices and the accomplishments of these early Saints and the Church!
PJ: One of the things we want this film to do is to celebrate the great contribution that the people of African descent have made to the Church. They’ve made a lot! From Joseph Smith’s time to our time.
The faith of these people is amazing to me. The faith of these men and the people they converted in Africa – without the Church in any formal organization. But they had the truth. They read the Book of Mormon. They taught the Book of Mormon. They lived the Book of Mormon. These people were just filled with faith.
I think of an example of faith is also the growth of the Church in Brazil. When there were so many convert baptisms in Brazil, a great many of them were Black and were of African descent. They could not hold the Priesthood. When the Church announced the Temple in Sao Paulo, they worked diligently to help that Temple get built – yes, so diligently – while knowing that they would not be able to go into it.
That’s faith. Isn’t that wonderful?
One of those members raised his family in the Church. They couldn’t hold the Priesthood, but when his son turned 16, he said, “You need to learn how to bless the Sacrament. You need to learn how to administer ordinances.” His son replied “Why? I’ll never be able to do it!” The father told him “Because that’s what men your age do in the Church. So it’s important for you to just learn the spirit of it and how it’s done. Learn everything you can about it.”
When the Priesthood Revelation came, this boy was able to say, “I am ready. Because of the faith of my father, I am ready.” Isn’t that a moving story?
CA: That alone makes me want to sit and weep. To be able to say “I am ready.” What an amazing thing to be able to say at the end of such a long trial. Any trial.
PJ: There’s another dimension of the film that I’m so excited about. I discovered that Ed played the saxophone. When he went into the deepest of despair, he ended up performing with a jazz group. These were good people who did well and recorded music.
CA: Real musicians?
PJ: Oh, yes. So I just knew that music is a very important element of the movie. During the melancholy times of Ed’s story, I have him playing a soulful song on his sax in the park. People of African descent are wonderful musicians. They’ve got music in their souls that is unique to them.
I’ve always believed that about my films – it’s critical to have the best possible music. So in addition to the normal musical score for the film, we will have 6-8 set pieces featuring contemporary, professional musicians who have already agreed to be in the film. One of them is Conlon Bonner who performs in the Broadway Musical “Hamilton.” I’m so excited about him and several other pretty big names.
In the end I’m going to bring them all together in a glorious piece that we’re writing as a finale.
Elder Holland gave a conference talk where he talked about music and all of God’s children. The finale will be in the spirt of that. That we all have a part of the whole. These songs will advance the story.
We’re so excited about it all.
CA: Will this be a full-length feature movie?
PJ: At least an hour, but probably more like 90 minutes.
CA: What phase of production are you in?
PJ: The script is done, although it is still evolving, of course. I’ve had wonderful resources, including a marvelous book by Russell Stevenson, who is a noted historian. He wrote a book called “For The Cause of Righteousness: A Global History of Blacks and Mormonism from 1830-2013.” This was invaluable information as we’re trying to make this movie as authentic and historically accurate as we can.
Presenting this Church history in this movie will help people to understand the times and the struggles of Church members and the Brethren. These early leaders of the Church were faced with many unique problems which were exceptionally difficult based on the period of the time for both the young nation and the young Church. It is unfair for us in this day to impose our attitudes and social situations. Back in the early 1800s was not now. It was an entirely different world.
CA: What else can you tell us?
PJ: We’re in the middle of raising money for the film. People can donate through the Pure Light Foundation. Our contact is a wonderful LDS man by the name of Ed Snow in Provo, Utah.
CA: What do you see as the biggest challenge at this point?
PJ: Oh, getting the funds in place. That’s always a filmmaker’s big first challenge with almost any project. No matter how great the idea or script is, without the money, the movie will never be made. We could start within a week if we had the funding.
CA: What does a feature film like this cost to produce?
PJ: The cost depends on the movie. A low-budget movie can be in the $5 million range. Others are $200 million, depending on what the production demands are. We want to make a really beautiful, world-class, professional film. We’re projecting a cost of about $2 million, which is a bargain by Hollywood standards.
CA: I see this as being very different than many entertainment-focused LDS movies that have a limited audience within a prominently LDS locale. I see this being very popular for general release. Don’t you?
PJ: I think the audience for this film is going to be absolutely huge. Members are going to want to see it because it addressees head on, in a faith-filled way, a lot of the misconceptions that people have about the Priesthood ban that have hurt people’s lives and oppressed people’s souls. The notion that they were “not valiant in the pre-mortal life” or “the curse of Cain” – the Church has completely separated itself from those doctrines.
It’s going to be able to help to understand much of this in the context of the times and early history of the Church. We really want to help us as a Church to put this behind us and allow us to move forward. That’s what we want the film to do. That’s why the film ends with a big celebration.
It’s a film that people all over the world will want to see. In Africa, where they have the theatres to see a movie, there will be great interest. We will work on ways to make it available for areas without theatres. They will be fascinated with it in Brazil. And, of course, members and non-members throughout the United States will be interested. I know it will be very popular. It will be beautifully made. It will be beautifully shot on location in Africa and Church history sites to get really gorgeous photography and will be cast with great talent, of course.
CA: Thank you so much for sharing so much of your time and this information with us! What is the best way we can help?
PJ: Well, you can contact Ed Snow, who is helping with the administration of the fund-raising. (See contact information below).
Carolyn Allen is the Author of 60 Seconds to Weight Loss Success, One Minute Inspirations to Change Your Thinking, Your Weight and Your Life. She has been a columnist for Meridian Magazine for 11 years, providing mental and spiritual approaches for weight loss success and happy living both online and in the Washington, DC community since 1999. She has presented for Weight Watchers, First Class, Fairfax County Adult Education and other community groups. She and her husband, Bob, are the parents of five children and grandparents of a growing number of darling little ones. They are now happy empty nesters in Jackson, Tennessee, close to Memphis, where they center their online business for an amazing herbal detox. CLICK HERE