About a year and-a-half  ago, we visited with LDS Director MITCH DAVIS about the state of LDS filmmaking.  He was in pre-production on his next film at the time but, for reasons of security, couldn’t tell us about it.

Mitch recently completed that movie, A House Divided, which was shot entirely on location in Israel.  He also just announced his next project:  a major effort to assist Mitt Romney in his run for President called www.RunMittRun.org, and a related documentary called, Could A Mormon Be President?

We recently caught up with Mitch Davis and asked him to bring us up to date.  Our discussion follows.

MERIDIAN:  Where do you want to start?

MITCH:  How about with the thing I couldn’t tell you about the last time we talked?  

MERIDIAN:  Great!  The mystery movie.  Tell us about it.

MITCH:  It is a romantic thriller set in modern-day Israel.  It stars F. Murray Abraham, Tovah Feldshuh, Eion Bailey, and a wonderful French actress named Linda Hardy.  We shot the whole thing on location in Israel.  The good news is, the movie is in the can, and we got out of there in one piece.

MERIDIAN:  Congratulations!

MITCH:  Thank you.

MERIDIAN:  So. why all the secrecy about this project the last time we spoke?

MITCH:  It had been a long time since a U.S.-based movie had been filmed in Israel.  We had ambitious plans to shoot in places like the Wailing Wall, the Mount of Olives, and the Sea of Galilee.  There were significant security risks, and there was also the risk that someone could try to shut us down if they knew too much about our plans. 

MERIDIAN:  Did you have any incidents?

MITCH:  Our producers, Jim Abrams and Aldric Porter, did a great job of preparing for security contingencies, but it’s hard to play with fire as long as we did without at least burning your fingers.

MERIDIAN:  Go on.

MITCH:  There is a scene in our movie where a thousand or so Palestinians get into a riot at a martyr’s funeral.  We bused in several hundred Muslim kids from Arab villages for the day of shooting.  We took every security precaution possible, but it was very difficult to control a crowd like that once the guns started going off.  I mean, these kids knew exactly what to do when we told them to start a riot.  We gave them fake rocks to throw so nobody would get hurt.  Some of them got carried away and started throwing real rocks.  Then they got into a rumble during their lunch break.  One village attacked the guys from another village.  The Israeli police had to haul a bunch of them to jail, and a few had to be taken to hospital.  Luckily, nobody was seriously injured.

MERIDIAN:  All in a day’s work.

MITCH:  There’s a line in our movie:  “Another day, another shoot-out.”  That’s just the way it is sometimes in Israel.

MERIDIAN:  Especially now.

MITCH: Yeah.  This conflict with Lebanon is really tragic.  I got an email the other day from our Israeli producer.  He was the guy who got us access to shoot on the Sea of Galilee.  He said, “Mitch, you should come over here now to shoot your scene on the Sea of Galilee!  We have empty beaches and free special effects in the background!  Smoke and bombs and rockets!”  Then I got another email from him telling me that the son of one of our Israeli actors had just been killed in Lebanon.

MERIDIAN:  How tragic.  Tell us what the movie is about?

MITCH:  It’s the story of an American Jewish man who visits Israel for the funeral of his father, who has been killed in a bus bombing.  This is a man who has essentially abandoned the religion of his father, and he is forced to come to terms with that when he arrives in the Holy Land.  Then he meets and falls in love with a Palestinian woman, and things get very complicated.

MERIDIAN:  Is this a family film like The Other Side of Heaven?

MITCH:  No, it’s not.  It will probably be rated PG-13 for some violence and mild language. 

MERIDIAN:  Does it have a spiritual theme?

MITCH:  What I tried to do was put all three of the Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – into a particle beam accelerator and smash them into one another.  So, yes, there is a lot of spirituality in the movie, but it is not always the warm and fuzzy kind.  Imagine how Abraham must feel, watching Ishmael and Isaac’s children killing each other.  Imagine how Jesus felt when he cried:  “Oh Jerusalem, Jerusalem!  How often would I have gathered thy children together as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wing!”  I prayed that the Spirit of the Lord and the spirit of Abraham would both be in our movie, and I think those prayers were answered.  

MERIDIAN:  Did your family go with you on location?

MITCH:  Yes, my wife, Michelle, and all five of my children came to Israel with me.  We attended church at the Jerusalem Center and in Tel Aviv.  It was wonderful to be a part of the branch and district there.

MERIDIAN:  Were your family members ever afraid?

MITCH:  Certainly there were times when they were afraid.  But we were blessed to be in Israel during a remarkably peaceful time.  What is happening now is just very, very sad.

MERIDIAN:  So, what’s going on with the movie?

MITCH:  A major agency is repping our film, which is very exciting for us since we had to carry The Other Side of Heaven around on our own backs.  But this time Jeff Berg, the CEO of ICM, signed us in the editing room after watching a rough cut. 

MERIDIAN:  When will it come out?

MITCH:  We have no control over that since ICM is doing the deal for us.  My sense is we are about a year away.

MERIDIAN:  That long?

MITCH:  It only takes a few months to release a movie into the LDS market.  It takes much longer to prep a film for wider release.

MERIDIAN:  Speaking of the LDS movie market, what is your view on what has been happening there over the last year or so?

MITCH:  I think it has evolved pretty much as I thought it would during our last discussion.  There has been a bit of a shakeout and a transition away from quantity.  I don’t think the movement is dead by any means, but I think it is redefining itself.  It has been a painful process for some and there has been some unfortunate finger-pointing.  But I think this evolution was fairly predictable and inevitable.

MERIDIAN:  Where would you like to see it go?

MITCH:  I would like to see it go from our own backyard to the world stage.  I would like to see Mormon film makers defining Mormonism, rather than non-Mormon film makers maligning it.  And I would like to see Mormon film makers making movies about non-LDS topics for the broader world.

MERIDIAN:  No more niche movies?

MITCH:  No more “niche within a niche” movies. 

MERIDIAN:  What do you mean by that?

MITCH:  The Mormon market is a niche in and of itself.  If we try to break it down into smaller segments – the Mormon teen segment or the Mormon art-house crowd, for example – we get such a small piece of an already small pie that it proves inconsequential and financially untenable.  I think the more broadly appealing our movies are, the more they will succeed within the LDS niche, and the more likely they will be able to cross over to a mainstream audience.  Honestly, some of our LDS films have been so niche-specific, I don’t know how we could expect anyone outside of the Mormon world to understand them, let alone enjoy them.  But others have succeeded in being uniquely Mormon and universally human, and that’s where I get excited.  Because I think the single most important service LDS film makers can provide is to put a human, rather than an institutional face on Mormonism. 

MERIDIAN:  What do you mean by that?

MITCH:  I just commissioned a survey of the attitudes of South Carolinians toward potential presidential candidates based on those candidates’ religious backgrounds.   

MERIDIAN:  Your Mitt Romney project; www.RunMittRun.org.

MITCH:  Exactly.  One of the more interesting details coming out of our poll was that South Carolinians like Mormon people more than they like the Mormon Church.  Similarly, they dislike the Church a lot more than they dislike the people. 

If you think about it, it makes sense that people can dislike a large organization in a faraway state easier than they can dislike a friendly neighbor.  In the same way but to an even greater degree, I think it is all but impossible for an audience to dislike a Mormon character after laughing and/or crying with him in a movie theater for two hours.  Movies are uniquely powerful in their ability to communicate humanity. 

We had an interesting experience with that when we were testing The Other Side of Heaven in non-LDS areas.  We put audience evaluators inside theaters, and one of them reported that two middle-aged women sat down in front of them during a matinee.  After our movie began, they realized our movie was about a Mormon.  They gasped and turned to each other. 

“Should we leave?” one of them asked.  They decided to stay just a few minutes longer, then a few more.  When the movie was over, those two women were both wiping tears from their eyes. 

One of them turned to the other and said, “Those Mormons have great faith!”

If we can put our humanity first and our religiosity second, we will make great strides in building common ground with those not of our faith.  But it is almost impossible for an institution to do that.  Because the advancement of religion is the primary goal of religious institutions, not the advancement of humanity. 

MERIDIAN:  Pretty harsh words.

MITCH:  They are not meant as criticisms, only observations.  And I think our Church is a great exception.  For example, we are more than happy to distribute tens of millions of dollars of relief supplies through the auspices of Catholic Relief Services because we understand that humanity matters more than who gets the credit.  But I think suspicion of religious institutions in general is so high that it is difficult for a church as successful as ours to not get tarred with everyone else’s brush.

MERIDIAN:  What can we do about it?

MITCH:  Make honest, entertaining movies about honest Mormon characters.  And elect an honest Mormon character to be the next President of the United States.

MERIDIAN:  Now we’re talking!  Your Mitt Romney project.  Tell us about it.

MITCH:  Don’t you think we’ve worn your readers out by now? 

MERIDIAN:  To be continued?  Tomorrow? 

MITCH:  Good idea.  In the meantime, tell them to log on to our website and find out what we’re talking about.     

MERIDIAN:  Here’s the link:  www.RunMittRun.org.