'The father of Mormon cinema' reflects on career, industry he created and why he left the faith - East Idaho News

‘The father of Mormon cinema’ reflects on career, industry he created and why he left the faith

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Richard Dutcher’s 2000 film “God’s Army” catered to an LDS audience and ushered in a wave of LDS-themed films. Dutcher shares his thoughts on the industry today and why he left the faith in our interview above. | Courtesy photos

IDAHO FALLS – Nearly two decades after leaving The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Richard Dutcher is still proud to be known as “the father of Mormon cinema.”

The 60-year-old Utah man behind the 2000 film “God’s Army,” and three other titles, is raising funds for his first faith-based film in 16 years. It’s called “Jesus is Enough” and is about a Latter-day Saint missionary who becomes a born again Christian. He’s hoping to begin production soon.

During a conversation with EastIdahoNews.com, the independent filmmaker reflected on his career and offered his perspective on the evolution of the Latter-day Saint film industry over the years.

His movie about a rookie missionary in Los Angeles wrestling with his own conversion was the first commercial film catering to an LDS audience, and it was a hit.

“Nobody saw it coming,” Dutcher says in retrospect. “For that year, it was the second-highest-grossing film in Utah, even among Hollywood films. Idaho was the first place we went after Utah and it played just as well there.”

Budgeted at $250,000, “God’s Army” earned more than $2.7 million at the box office and about the same amount in video and DVD sales.

A new commercial film market had been created and it sparked a wave of Latter-day Saint films, including Dutcher’s second project, “Brigham City,” a spiritual drama about an LDS bishop/sheriff involved in a murder investigation.

Hundreds of Latter-day Saint themed films have been produced since then. The latest is “Escape from Germany” — director T.C. Christensen’s film about a missionary from Rupert who helped evacuate 21 of his associates out of the central European country days before World War II broke out.

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Since its theatrical release in April, it’s earned nearly $2 million at the box office, according to Box Office Mojo.

The 2001 film “The Other Side of Heaven,” which tells the story of Idaho Falls native John Groberg and his three-year mission in Tonga during the 1950s, had box office receipts of nearly $5 million and remains the highest-grossing LDS film to date.

It spawned a sequel in 2019.

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From the beginning, Dutcher says his intent was to create a marketplace for filmmakers to tell meaningful stories related to the LDS Church.

He got the idea while looking at movie listings in the Los Angeles Times one day and noticed a common thread.

“There was a new film for the African-American audience, for the gay audience, for the Indian audience and I was frustrated. I thought, why couldn’t Mormons have their own film market?” Dutcher recalls.

“God’s Army” was released three years later.

Despite the success of many LDS films that have come along since then, Dutcher is disappointed with the way the industry has evolved.

Early on, films like “The Singles Ward,” “The RM” and “Baptists at our Barbecue” poked fun at Latter-day Saint culture. Dutcher says these movies failed to provide a meaningful portrayal of Latter-day Saints.

“It’s like black people finally getting the opportunity to tell their own stories and instead, they do cinematic minstrel shows,” says Dutcher. “People have been mocking and misrepresenting Mormons in cinema since the early 1900s and that’s exactly what these filmmakers were doing.”

He’s also disappointed in filmmakers “telling sentimental, polite stories” rather than asking meaningful questions or doing deep examinations of faith.

“States of Grace,” Dutcher’s follow-up to “God’s Army,” took an unconventional approach to a Latter-day Saint story. In the film, one of the missionaries is dishonored because he has a sexual relationship with a woman. Dutcher’s goal with the story was to pick apart a commonly held Latter-day Saint belief that “it’s better to return (from a mission) in a casket than be dishonored.”

“I always thought that’s a complete violation of the doctrine of the Atonement, and I found it ugly and repulsive,” Dutcher says. “Some audience members were put off because I didn’t care about the cultural expectations. I wanted to tell important stories and was willing to challenge (the norm) and go places Mormon films still haven’t gone.”

The cross plays an integral role in the ending of the film, another example of Dutcher’s attempt in looking at the faith through a different lens. Latter-day Saints place less emphasis on this symbol than mainstream Christianity.

The film received high praise among Christians, but LDS audiences were more critical. The $800,000 production earned just over $200,000 at the box office, according to IMDB.

Despite its financial failure, Dutcher still maintains it’s one of his best films because it gave LDS audiences a deeper exploration of their beliefs.

“That was 2005. We should be 16 or 17 steps beyond that now, but we’re not. Because of that, Mormon cinema is insignificant in its power and effectiveness. I really think that’s a shame,” he says.

Though there’s been a shift towards more serious LDS films in recent years, Dutcher says the “silly Mormon movies” after “God’s Army” put an end to the momentum it created.

“I wish my vision for what (Mormon cinema) could have been would’ve been realized. But maybe that’s still to come,” he says.

Hollywood’s history with LDS stories

Church members were the subject of numerous Hollywood movies during the silent film era. These films were inaccurate in their portrayal of Latter-day Saints, according to an article from Brigham Young University.

Sixty years before Dutcher released his independent LDS film, Hollywood producer Darryl F. Zanuck and director Henry Hathaway teamed up for 20th Century Fox’s production, “Brigham Young.” This movie told the story of church founder Joseph Smith’s successor and the saint’s persecution that led them to settle what is now Salt Lake.

Interest in the project stemmed in part from Vardis Fisher’s award-winning book “Children of God,” which had come out the year before. In this historical novel, Fisher — an LDS convert from Rigby who ultimately became an Atheist — explores church history up to that point.

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Heber J. Grant, church president at the time, wasn’t particularly fond of Fisher’s book, and he invited screenwriter Louis Bromfield to Utah to give input on the script.

Despite its numerous historical inaccuracies, church leaders were pleased with the film’s positive treatment of its people and praised it wholeheartedly. Many church members were critical of the film’s star, Dean Jagger, who they felt did not give an accurate portrayal of Brigham Young.

Historic records are inconsistent about its box office performance. While it was a hit in Utah — seven theaters premiered it in Salt Lake City, a record that still stands — it seems to have done moderately well in other states.

Hollywood’s $2.7 million production about Latter-day Saint pioneers quickly disappeared from theaters and America’s collective consciousness. It seems to be the only commercial film about LDS church members that was produced until “God’s Army” came on the scene in 2000.

Though it isn’t a particularly memorable film in Hollywood today, it did have a profound impact on its leading man, who ended up joining the church in 1972.

brigham young pic
“Brigham Young” movie poster from 1940, left, and actor Dean Jagger, who starred in the leading role. | Courtesy photo

Losing faith and finding it again

Though Dutcher had been a Latter-day Saint for many years when “God’s Army” came out, it was still a faith promoting experience for him. He’d found a way to be “a man of God” and a filmmaker without sacrificing either and he “was in heaven.”

Then in 2007, his journey from devotion to doubt happened almost instantaneously. Fans were surprised when “the father of Mormon cinema” decided to distance himself from the LDS Church.

In a moment of self-reflection one day, Dutcher says he asked himself, “What if (the church) simply isn’t true?”

“A voice that was so clear, so powerful — I’m sure it wasn’t audible — just said, ‘Of course it isn’t true,'” Dutcher says. “Thirty seconds before, I was a complete believer and 30 seconds later, the only thing I knew was that … everything I believed wasn’t true.”

Dutcher says it was the most difficult experience of his life and he was devastated.

The decision to abandon his faith came with great cost, both personally and professionally. He says it was a contributing factor in his divorce from his wife several years later, and he felt lost for a long time.

“I spent a good 10 or 12 years in a cynical (mindset),” he says. “I lost faith in my own ability to discern what was real and what wasn’t.”

His pivot point happened in 2015 when he met another former Latter-day Saint at Carl’s Jr. in downtown Salt Lake. He was a big man who looked like a hell’s angel, Dutcher says, but was actually a pastor of a non-denominational congregation in Murray.

The two hit it off and Dutcher started attending church.

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Today, Dutcher says he’s regained his faith in Christ. He frequently attends many churches but isn’t a member of any religion. The church in Murray, Utah is the only one he attends regularly.

“I am so much closer to Christ now,” Dutcher says. “Jesus is much more real to me and religion is much less important to me. I’m devoted to Jesus … and that’s something I never want to let go.”

He’s spent the last few years writing scripts for other filmmakers, but he has a renewed passion for faith-based filmmaking and is excited to see what happens with “Jesus is Enough.”

“It’s exactly the kind of film I want to spend the rest of my life making,” Dutcher says. “I don’t know when it’s going to come out because I haven’t succeeded in financing it yet. If anybody … wants to help me, find me (on social media).”