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In a press conference on Wednesday, April 10, director Mitch Davis announced an initiative to revive his film, “The Other Side of Heaven” on multiple platforms in preparation for the long-awaited theatrical release of its upcoming sequel, “The Other Side of Heaven 2: Fire of Faith” on June 28th.
Below is an address given by Mitch at the recent LDS Film Festival about the critical importance of faith-based film and storytelling, which he agreed to share with our readers.
We all know we belong to the greatest church on earth. In fact, sometimes it may be a little too great. Our church is so good at doing so many things that we sometimes start to think it must do everything, or that, if an initiative doesn’t emanate from a specific building in Salt Lake City, it couldn’t possibly be inspired or important. The scriptures, as well as declarations from many of our Church leaders over many decades, make clear that is simply not true. Inspiration of the Lord comes to all of us, and we are duty bound to follow that inspiration wherever it leads.
I want to confess that I have personally been guilty of exactly what I’m talking about right now on many, many occasions. “If the church would just do this or that or the other!” I have sometimes grumbled to myself and others. “I just gotta’ go tell those guys…!”
I once had a meeting with a leader of our church during which I presented a movie idea. I thought it was a fantastic meeting and this beloved leader seemed sincerely interested. He told me how inspired I was, how inspired he was by the great idea I had given him. I left that meeting on a cloud.
I was so excited that I called a friend who happened to work at the Church offices and I said, “I just gotta’ tell you what just happened! Oh my goodness! I had the most amazing meeting with so and so, and he said this, and I felt that, and it’s all going to happen! It’s all going to be fantastic!”
My kind, wise friend listened to me patiently. After hearing me out, he said, “Okay, okay, Mitch. I appreciate your enthusiasm. I really do. But let me give you a little dose of reality. After you left that good man’s office, his secretary came in and told him he had three blessings to give up at Primary Children’s Hospital, followed by a meeting with a family whose missionary son passed away. After that he has to head to the airport and get on a plane and go do three stake conferences before flying to South America to tour missions for the next month.”
Realizing he had made his point, my friend stopped before saying rather emphatically, “Mitch, our church is a church, not a movie studio.”
So it was that my dear friend ruined my day. But he was right. He was absolutely right. It is not fair for us – in fact, it is lazy and inconsiderate of us – to sit around waiting for someone who is already busier than we are to get busier doing our work for us. This is our work.
Fear of Flying
The other dangerous by-product of thinking anything and everything that is important must be done for us by the institutional church is fear. Not only do we get lazy, but we get scared of being misunderstood or perceived as a commercial venture or any number of other things. And fear, in my experience, is the greatest enemy to innovation and inspiration.
Can I tell you how scared I was to make the first Other Side of Heaven movie? Can I tell you how frightened Elder John H. Groberg, then a sitting, serving General Authority, was to hand his life story over to a complete stranger? Can I tell you how much more frightened his wife Jean was? And how frightened Elder Groberg was of Jean being frightened? I’m just kidding.
But hey, fear is real and pervasive and crippling in our profession as well as, far too often, in our church. But I have to ask: What are we afraid of? That we might succeed?
So, I want to move into the scriptures. Let’s pretend we’re in church, okay? I want to talk about how the following scripture applies to our current situation. This is Lehi’s vision of the Tree of Life:
“And it came to pass that I saw them” – talking about his sons, Laman and Lemuel – “but they would not come unto me and partake of the fruit. And I beheld a rod of iron, and it extended along the bank of the river, and led to the tree by which I stood.
“And I saw numberless concourses of people, many of whom were pressing forward, that they might obtain the path which led unto the tree by which I stood.” (1 Nephi 8:18-21)
Every time I read those words – “numberless concourses of people” — do you know what I see? I see people wandering around inside movie theaters with their tubs of popcorn and buckets of Diet Coke, trying to decide which false god to worship. “What do you think, Honey? Should we go see that serial killer movie or the one with all the naked people in it?” What are they looking for? And do they really think they are ever going to find it inside a movie theater? But I digress. Back to the scriptures:
“I saw numberless concourses of people, many of whom were pressing forward, that they might obtain the path which led unto the tree by which I stood. And it came to pass that there arose a mist of darkness; yea, even an exceedingly great mist of darkness, insomuch that they who had commenced in the path did lose their way, that they wandered off and were lost.
“And it came to pass that I beheld others pressing forward, and they came forth and caught hold of the end of the rod of iron; and they did press forward through the mist of darkness, clinging to the rod of iron, even until they did come forth and partake of the fruit of the tree.”
Pay attention now. Here’s the important part:
“And after they had partaken of the fruit of the tree they did cast their eyes about as if they were ashamed. And I also cast my eyes roundabout, and beheld, on the other side of the river of water, a great and spacious building; and it stood as it were in the air, high above the earth. And it was filled with people, both old and young, both male and female; and their manner of dress was exceedingly fine; and they were in the attitude of mocking and pointing their fingers towards those who had come at and were partaking of the fruit.
“And after they had tasted of the fruit they were ashamed, because of those that were scoffing at them; and they fell away into forbidden paths and were lost.” (1 Nephi 8: 21-28)
What’s that last sentence about? And does it have any application to the current moment in our church’s life cycle? Do any of you know anyone who has partaken of the fruit of the Tree of Life and then been mocked and become ashamed and fallen away?
I get really frustrated when I hear people say things like, “The scriptures say that in the last days even the very elect shall be deceived,” as if that makes it all okay. “It’s not my problem, it’s prophesied.” For the record, Armageddon is also prophesied, as is the Apocalypse. I hope none of us imagine that gives us a free pass to sell nuclear weapons to rogue operators.
But let me get back to Lehi’s dream: We can go out and get those lost people! We can bring them back and we must! At all costs, we must.
Telling Our Own Story
So, you know where I’m headed, right? I’m about to tell you Latter-day Saint cinema is the solution to all the world’s problems. No no no; one better: I’m about to tell you my movie is the solution to all these problems. Well, you’re absolutely right.
However, I want to talk about one more thing first. I want to ask everyone here to think for a moment carefully and answer the following question: What is the number one Latter-day Saint-themed media product of all time? In the lifetime of our church, what book, song, or media production has had the greatest footprint and been the most successful overall? Please think carefully about your answer before I give you mine, which will probably surprise or even anger you.
There is no question that, from a number of standpoints, the two most successful LDS-themed media productions of all time are The Book of Mormon Musical and a critically-acclaimed HBO mini-series called Angels in America.
I know this is infuriating and humiliating for us to think about, but please consider for a moment that it might actually be true; that those two efforts are, in fact, the most successful, powerful Latter-day Saint-themed productions of all time, that they obliterate the impact of all the best books and pageants and choirs you and I would prefer to cite, and that they mop up the floor with us by using our own content.
Now, you probably all know about The Book of Mormon Musical. It is one of the top performing, most acclaimed musicals of all time. It’s happening all around the world in London, Tokyo, and even in Salt Lake City. Some of you may have seen it. Don’t raise your hands.
I have. I confess, I have seen The Book of Mormon Musical. I saw it in London’s West End when I was casting a movie there. And I have also seen this HBO mini-series, Angels in America. Because I do not believe ignorance is bliss. I want to know what we’re up against.
These are both turgid, dark, edgy, and not faith-promoting pieces of work. But they are powerful. And they are exquisitely, flawlessly produced – passionately produced. And they are chock-full of our doctrines and our most sacred faith traditions.
In this one scene from the Book of Mormon Musical, the cast is performing the musical number “Hello” which depicts LDS missionaries ringing doorbells and introducing the Book of Mormon. Following is an excerpt of the song lyrics:
“Hello! My name is Elder Price and I would like to share with you the most amazing book!
“Hello! My name is Elder Grant, it’s a book about America a long, long time ago.
“It has so many awesome parts; you simply won’t believe how much this book can change your life!
“Hello! My name is Elder Green, I would like to share with you this book of Jesus Christ.”
Watching this scene made me feel several things.
Number one: I felt jealous. That is such great music and such great choreography and such great writing! That number is awesome!
Number two: I felt embarrassed. Because there’s a lot of truth in there about the fresh faith of our young missionaries; the same kind of comedic stuff that was in the original Saturday’s Warrior.
Number three: I was enraged. They’re dancing around with our scriptures in their hands, ridiculing us! They’re using the name of the Lord in vain!
And number four: I was sad for all of our faithful missionaries — for every single Sister or Elder who will ever knock on the door of someone who has been exposed to any aspect of that production. I was sorry for the way they will likely be perceived and treated.
I felt that way because I have had the opposite experience with the first movie I made about Elder Groberg. He and his wife and I and the other producers, John Garbett and Jerry Molen, have all received emails and letters from people who threw open their doors to our missionaries saying things like, “Kolipoki! I just saw your movie! Come in!”
Unfortunately, the audience footprint for The Other Side of Heaven pales in comparison to the footprint of The Book of Mormon Musical, which I understand they are considering turning into a movie now. Imagine how many more people will be exposed to its corrosive content when tickets cost ten bucks rather than five hundred dollars.
Okay, let’s move on. But I’m not done depressing you. I’m now going to show you a little scene from Angels in America.
First let me tell you first about Angels in America because you probably didn’t even know it existed. This was an eight-hour stage play that won a Pulitzer Prize and four Tonys. After a great run on Broadway, HBO adapted it into a prestigious mini-series including performances by four Academy Award-winning filmmakers. It won a record 11 Emmys.
The playwright, Tony Kushner, started writing it while he was in Utah visiting the Sundance Institute. It was the middle of the AIDS crisis and he foresaw an inevitable collision between Latter-day Saint culture and the LGBTQ community. He studied The Book of Mormon and read up on Joseph Smith. And he created a masterpieceabout – are you ready for this? – an AIDS-afflicted gay man whose lover leaves him for a Mormon returned missionary who leaves his wife and Mormonism to embrace homosexuality. The AIDS-infected gay man is – wait for it – Joseph Smith, and one night a female Angel Moroni appears in his loft apartment and tells him there are golden plates buried in the floorboards along with a Urim and Thummim that will give him the capacity to translate them into scriptures that will save the world.
But wait! There’s more! The Utah Mormon mother of the returned missionary who has left his wife for a gay lover is played by Meryl Streep. She is, as always, fantastic, and she plays a devout, dignified, faithful woman who bears her testimony of Joseph Smith in the middle of Angels in America.
Did any of you know Meryl Streep won an Emmy for playing a devout Mormon woman and bearing her testimony of Joseph Smith in the most awarded television mini-series of all time? I didn’t think so.
As I describe this scene, I want you to ask yourselves: Whose story is this? And if it’s our story, why aren’t we the ones telling it?
The scene takes place in the hospital where the Joseph Smith character tells Meryl Streep’s character about his experience seeing an angel. He thinks he is crazy and she responds by describing the Joseph Smith story:
“A hundred and seventy years ago, which is recent, an angel of God appeared to Joseph Smith in upstate New York, not far from here. People have visions.”
He interjects, “That’s preposterous – “
“It’s not polite to call other people’s beliefs preposterous. He had great need of understanding, our prophet. His desire made prayer. His prayer made an angel. The angel was real. I believe that.”
The scene continues with the Joseph Smith character accusing Meryl Streep’s character of being bigoted against his homosexual lifestyle. Streep’s character strongly rebuffs him:
“You don’t make assumptions about me, Mister. And I won’t make ‘em about you.”
As you have seen, this is a more serious, thoughtful work of art than The Book of Mormon Musical because it’s really trying to tackle, in what ultimately turned out to be a prescient way, the tough, tough issues the playwright realized were ahead for our church and the LGBTQ community.
But again, what I felt when I saw it was, well, I was really jealous; and I was enraged; and I was embarrassed; and I was like, “Holy cow, how did I not know about this?!” Meryl Streep playing a powerful Latter-day Saint woman bearing testimony of Joseph Smith in a mini-series that otherwise tramples on a lot of things we hold dear and sacred.
What is Our Answer?
So, what do we do about it? What is our answer? More specifically, what was our answer to these two broadsides? What did we do?
Now I want to be clear that I’m not saying this in any way to make light of what we did. But I think we need to be honest with ourselves about our response. There was no response to Angels in America I’m aware of and the only response to The Book of Mormon Musical is that we started buying ad space in the Playbills handed out inside the theaters. We also put a few of our wonderful missionaries outside the theaters, handing out copies of “the real Book of Mormon.” And then we declared victory.
And again, I want to be very clear: I’m not talking to the institutional church when I address this issue. I’m talking to us, here in this room. What else could we have done? Trotted out a movie by Mitch Davis? Yes! Surely that would’ve surely solved it!
But no. We didn’t have an answer. And I want us all to think about that alarming, sad fact.
And I also want us to think about the four missionaries outside the theater with their copies of the real Book of Mormon. I’m going to call them Sister Finlayson from Idaho Falls, Sister Wright from Panguitch, Elder Fitisemanu from Western Samoa, and Elder McArthur from San Diego. They’re out there alone. And it’s cold. And it’s dark. And they’re there all night. Some passersby take a Book of Mormon. Some scoff at them. But these elders and sisters know millions of people have seen their beliefs ridiculed compellingly inside that great and spacious theater and will never look at them the same way again.
So, way to go, Mitch. More doom and gloom. Gosh, I’ve been so depressing, haven’t I? I’m really sorry if you think I’ve been depressing. But I want us to be real and honest with ourselves. Because this is an extraordinarily delicate and pivotal time in our church’s life cycle.
The institution of our church – this is the one time I’m going to reference the institution in this talk – has been extremely bold the past several years. In relatively short order we’ve seen the publication of a courageous, seminal book called Rough Stone Rolling as well as The Joseph Smith Papers and the Gospel Topics Essays, all of which address challenging, complex aspects of our history. And now we’ve got this new series of books, Saints, that tells the history of Mormonism’s early members, warts and all.
The institutional church has done remarkable, bold things. What have we filmmakers done? And what have our audiences rewarded? It’s pretty clear to me we haven’t kept up.
What do I think we should do? Funny you should ask!
Unrefuted Distortions are “Truth”
I was briefly involved in an independent expenditure campaign related to Mitt Romney’s first run for president. Along with a few others, I created an unaffiliated PAC that explored the question, “Could a Mormon ever be elected president?” I hired some very respected political consultants, and one of them drilled into me the veracity of the statement you see on this next slide: “Distortions or untruths left unrefuted come to be accepted as truth.”
Those are hard words. If you believe them, they place a great responsibility squarely on our shoulders. I think sometimes we all just hope those distortions and untruths will go away; that the dogs will bark, but the wagon train will roll on. But sometimes those dogs are really big. And sometimes they don’t just nip at your heels. Sometimes they consume you and leave a trail of bones behind.
“Distortions or untruths left unrefuted come to be accepted as truth.” Think about it. Because there are a lot of distortions and untruths about us in the world right now. And if we – again, I’m not talking about the institution, I’m talking about us – don’t correct them, who will? Who?
And I think that is the role of LDS cinema. I think that is our mission. We need to create truthful, honest content within a faith-affirming context. I think that is the sum and substance of our mission. And it may well be that my total contribution to that work is going to be two modest movies.
A Prompting in Argentina
The first movie was the direct but delayed result of a spiritual experience I had on my mission to Argentina. One afternoon in 1979 I was walking with my companion at the time, Elder Anderson, to visit a family we were teaching in the city of Cordoba. That is the Cifuentes family there in that photo with Elder Anderson kneeling next to them on the grass and another great missionary, Elder Hayes, standing with me and them in front of the chapel. If I remember correctly, my other companion, Elder Haynie, took this photo of us.
At any rate, I was walking to visit this family with Elder Anderson when, from out of nowhere, I had a spiritual experience telling me I was to someday make a movie about what it meant to be a Latter-day Saint missionary.
The Spirit might as well have prompted me to become an astronaut and fly to Mars. Because I had no inclination to become a filmmaker at that time. I wanted to be a sports writer for my local newspaper, to get paid for going to high school football and basketball games.
“No no no, you’re going to be a filmmaker and you’re going to make this movie about – wait for it – Mormon missionaries!” Say what?!
Please keep in mind that, back in 1979, no such movie had ever been made or imagined. It was a deranged idea and nobody had thought of it. Except the Lord.
A Charge in the South Pacific
Because, at about the same time I was having that spiritual experience in Argentina, Elder Groberg was working with Elder Thomas S. Monson in the South Pacific, and Elder Monson was imploring him to write their experiences down. “Write them down, John!” Elder Groberg delayed and delayed until, finally, Elder Monson gave him a deadline: “I want that manuscript on my desk one year from today!”
And then he said something to Elder Groberg that I think applies to all of us here. He said, “If you don’t record these stories, this is a portion of church history that will be lost forever.” In other words, “If you don’t tell this story, John, who will?”
So I’m off in Argentina on my mission and the Spirit says this, they’re off in the South Pacific and the Spirit says that, and we had no idea that, 21 years later, that same Spirit was going to cause our lives to intersect in a most meaningful way.
But first I had to qualify myself, to prepare myself to make a movie worthy of Elder Groberg’s amazing story. And I want to take just a moment on that topic:
I may or may not be a qualified and competent filmmaker. That all depends on which critic you ask and what mood they were in when they reviewed my last film. But there is no question I have tried to prepare and qualify myself, and there is also no question that my efforts to prepare myself came at considerable cost to my wife and children.
That is my wife there, the angelic, amazing, lovely Michelle Haynie Davis, on the day of our sealing in the Salt Lake temple. There is no sacrifice I have ever made to become and remain a filmmaker that she has not made tenfold. And if she had any idea what she was in for when we were standing outside the temple that day, she would have run for the hills.
We sold our house and moved to Los Angeles to go to film school at USC, we ran up credit cards to finance my tuition, as well as my first few jobs in Hollywood. We sacrificed precious time with each other and our children. Etcetera, etcetera, and so forth.
I don’t share that synopsis of our travails in the wilderness because I want sympathy or admiration. I just want to commend that example to all of the young Latter-day Saint filmmakers who are impatient to make their first film: Don’t give up but, please, don’t take shortcuts either. By the time I finish distributing this new film, my wife and my children and I will have spent the better part of 40 years getting these two movies made and released. Please don’t try to build a box for the pearl of great price if you’ve never been a carpenter and never been taught to properly finish a piece of wood. Please don’t. Please pay the price first.
To Sequel or Not to Sequel?
So The Other Side of Heaven was our first movie, and it took us 21 years. So then everyone came to me and said “Hey, that was a huge success! We’ve got to make a sequel!”
And, truth be told, if I’d been in it for the money, it would have been the smartest thing I’d ever done. Because we spent a lot of money making the first film at a high level, and if we could have made a sequel for much less, I could be retired right now. But I’m not. Trust me. I’m not.
But there was a lot of pressure to make a sequel and there were attempts by others to make a sequel, but I didn’t want to be involved because the first movie was big. It looked and felt like a studio film. Disney released it. Anne Hathaway starred in it. It was what some people called “a real movie.” So that’s why I continued to resist the idea of a smaller, less expensive sequel.
But President Monson was quite fond of the first film and inquired of Elder Groberg about the potential sequel a number of times. Shortly after President Monson died, Elder and Sister Groberg invited Michelle and me to their house for lunch.
I want to go on the record that the Grobergs make a mean bowl of soup. Michelle and I had a lovely visit with them, catching up on each other’s families and the like. Then Elder Groberg started talking about President Monson and how he had always been disappointed we hadn’t made a second film out of the second book. And then he said, “I thought perhaps when President Monson died he would become less active in advocating for the movie but, frankly, he’s been more insistent from that side of the veil than he ever was on this side. He wants this done.”
That was two years ago and I don’t want to bore you with all the details. Suffice it to say that a number of miracles occurred and we found the means to make a major motion picture based on Elder Groberg’s second book, Fire of Faith.
A Major Motion Picture
So we’re opening the movie nationwide on June 28th. I hope you’ll see it with five hundred of your friends at least ten times, and I’m really only saying that with half my tongue in cheek. And that’s not because I care about anyone, myself included, making money on this film. That’s not my or Elder Groberg’s motivation. The number one reason this movie needs to perform at the U.S. box office is so it will be deemed worthy of worldwide distribution into foreign territories by international distributors, which is the miracle that occurred with the first film.
Most LDS-themed films are released on 10 to 20 screens along the Wasatch front, then sold in DVD form at church bookstores. Sometimes they have limited foreign distribution, but that is rare because LDS-themed films are usually produced and distributed for a fraction of the cost required to compete for a place on the world stage. They usually have no recognizable cast and usually perform at such low box office levels that foreign distributors don’t take them seriously and don’t add them to their programming rosters.
The original version of The Other Side of Heaven was produced for $11 million in today’s dollars, rather than the usual few hundred thousand dollars that are spent on LDS films. Several million dollars were also spent releasing it inside hundreds of theaters throughout the U.S. and Canada. It is widely regarded as one of the first “faith films” ever produced and a precursor to such subsequent Christian-themed films as The Passion of the Christ.
Even though most of the people who went to see The Other Side of Heaven in U.S. theaters were LDS, foreign distributors were impressed enough by its performance that they pushed it out in multiple formats all over the world.
That movie was either legally distributed or pirated in virtually every country in the world in dozens of languages and multiple formats. It was distributed on television in virtually every Muslim territory in the world, places where our church has never been allowed to set foot. Another more dubious accomplishment is that it was pirated all over China in DVD for years.
Our vision for The Other Side of Heaven 2 is to accomplish much the same thing – to spend big and make a big, epic movie capable of performing well at the U.S. box office such that it will be given a voice to shake the earth. But that will only happen if the LDS audience shows up and makes a statement; if we put down an indelible, undeniable marker.
The stakes, I think, are very high. Not only are the youth of our church’s rising generation being bombarded on every side with messages that tempt them to walk away from the Tree of Life, but smartphones and satellite-based internet delivery systems are blanketing the earth as with a flood.
As a result, Mongolian peasants on the steppes of the Caucasus Mountains or Masai herdsmen on the Serengeti are almost as apt to have seen the last episode of Game of Thrones as our teen children and grandchildren who we hope against hope are doing their homework in the other room, rather than voyeuristically perusing popular culture.
For good or ill, narrative filmed entertainment with movie stars and high dollar production value has become the modern world’s ubiquitous lingua franca. And it is our mission as filmmakers to speak that language fluently to those who most need to hear what we have to say. It is our mission to speak it persuasively and with power to those “numberless concourses” Lehi saw in vision who “wander to and fro…seeking but not finding.”
Which leads me to one final scripture (D&C 123:12-15) that becomes most poignant in the context of what we have been discussing today:
“For there are many yet on the earth among all sects, parties, and denominations … who are only kept from the truth because they know not where to find it.
“Therefore, that we should waste and wear out our lives in bringing to light all the hidden things of darkness, wherein we know them; and they are truly manifest from heaven. These should then be attended to with great earnestness.
“Let no man count them as small things; for there is much which lieth in futurity, pertaining to the Saints, which depends upon these things.”