Mitch Davis on Mormon Movies
Photo Copyright Excel Entertainment Group, Inc.

Other Side of Heaven Director Joins the Dialogue

As the readers of Meridian Magazine know, our publication has been an active forum for discussions regarding the evolution of “the Mormon movie movement.”  For the most part, that movement has consisted of low-budgeted films targeted primarily at the LDS audience.

Until recently, only one movie had dared step outside that business model.  While the average LDS film of the last few years cost $580,000 to make, the producers of “The Other Side of Heaven” spent $7 million to make their movie, the same amount reportedly spent on the soon-to-be-released film adaptation of The Work and the Glory.

We recently caught up with the writer, director, and executive producer of The Other Side of Heaven, Mitch Davis, who is on pre-production for his next film, and asked him to share his thoughts on the state of LDS filmmaking.  That discussion follows.

MERIDIAN:  What is your view of where LDS film is today?

MITCH:   I think there are several different versions of the LDS movie movement.  Some of what is going on is quite obvious and widely discussed.  Other aspects are less obvious and less discussed.

MERIDIAN:  What do you mean by that?

MITCH:  The most obvious version of the Mormon movie movement is the recent spate of low budget films targeted at the LDS market.  Less obvious are LDS things that are happening in Hollywood.  For example, a handful of BYU students have made a hit teen comedy that has transformed popular culture.  And, like it or not, the miniseries that dominated this year’s Emmy Awards, “Angels in America,” was LDS-themed.

MERIDIAN:  Where shall we start?

MITCH:  With the easy part – low budget films targeted at the LDS market.

MERIDIAN:  And.?

MITCH:  And I think that part of the Mormon movie movement has reached a crossroads.  I think LDS filmmakers have enjoyed an extraordinary incubator over the last few years and now they’re going to get nudged out of the nest.  I can’t think of anywhere else on earth where a filmmaker could make a movie on a micro-budget knowing they have the guarantee of a theatrical release for that movie once it is completed. 

MERIDIAN:  So, where’s the crossroads?

MITCH:  I think there have been so many of these movies lately that the market is growing weary, even wary of them.  I think the curiosity factor has played itself out.  I think there will be a flight to quality and a flight away from quantity.

MERIDIAN:  What do you mean by that?

MITCH:   Over the long-term, I think the LDS market should not be expected to absorb more than two or three movies a year.  Beyond that, I think the audience becomes saturated, maybe a little cynical.  I also think they begin demanding the same things mainstream audiences demand of their movies – movie stars, special effects, impressive production value.  I don’t think it is enough anymore that your movie has a Mormon theme.  The novelty has worn off, which means the novelty will no longer be able to be the star of LDS movies.  So the movies have to get better in and of themselves.  They have to get better and probably bigger. 

MERIDIAN:  Define “better.”

MITCH:  Better writing, better acting, better cinematography, etc.  The LDS audience is going to begin demanding that LDS movies look like other movies they would find in theaters or on the video shelf.  Often, but not always, better goes hand in hand with bigger.  Bigger budgets allow filmmakers to employ better writers, actors, cinematographers, and so forth. 

MERIDIAN:  How big can or should LDS films get?

MITCH:  That depends on how universal their stories are.  The average movie in Hollywood costs $80 million to make and market today.  Excluding The Other Side of Heaven, the average budget for LDS-themed movies over the last few years has been under $600,000.  Until now it has been possible for movies made on those low budgets to succeed because of the curiosity and hunger of the LDS audience.  But I think that curiosity is waning and the hunger is growing more selective.  I think the LDS audience is going to become more discerning and more demanding.

MERIDIAN:  Is that good or bad?

MITCH:  It’s great!  Because I think the only way LDS filmmakers are going to begin making movies that cross over is if they are forced to make that kind of movie.  If the LDS audience starts demanding that LDS filmmakers spend more money on their productions, those filmmakers will be forced to find additional audiences for those movies, which means they will begin to be more considerate of the cross over audience.  Until now, I think many of the LDS films have not made any real effort to be accessible to non-LDS crowds.  Personally, I think we set the bar pretty low when we make movies about ourselves for ourselves, show them to ourselves in our local theaters, then congratulate ourselves.  We can do better, and I think the realities of the market are going to force us to do better. 

MERIDIAN:  Did The Other Side of Heaven succeed in crossing over to a significant non-LDS population?

MITCH:  Around one million people saw The Other Side of Heaven in theaters.  As far as we can tell, about 200,000 of those people were not LDS.  That’s not a huge number, and it’s a function of advertising.  We tested the movie in a couple of markets and discovered that non-LDS audiences loved our movie once they saw it, but it was very difficult – and expensive – to get them into the theaters in the first place.  We just couldn’t afford to spend tens of millions of dollars mustering a non-LDS audience, so we relied primarily on LDS word-of-mouth advertising.

Fortunately, we did well enough in theaters that our movie was propelled into other distribution streams where it has crossed over very well.  The movie has been released theatrically in numerous countries around the world.  It has been shown on television in hundreds of countries.  Disney released the video/DVD and has sold more than 500,000 copies to date.  It has been shown on airlines around the world.  Most recently, Showtime and Starz/Encore purchased the movie for distribution on their cable networks throughout north America.  So, yes, The Other Side of Heaven has successfully crossed over.  Tens of millions of people have seen the movie and felt its spirit. 

But that doesn’t mean it was a better movie than other, less expensive LDS films.  It just means it was produced at a high enough level that major studios and television networks were willing to embrace it.  I guarantee you Disney would not have put their label on our video/DVD release if we had made our movie for ten cents and a stick of gum.

MERIDIAN:  Was it worth it?

MITCH:  That depends on your measuring stick.  We have made good money in many areas where most LDS films cannot expect to receive distribution, but we still have a long way to go financially.  The truth is, we probably need to sell another 500,000 copies of our video/DVD to make the finances work out.  I hope everyone reading this will do their small part and buy ten or twenty copies to help us on our way.  I’m serious! 

But if you’re more mission driven than financially driven, then, yes, absolutely, it was worth spending the extra money to make a movie that could travel the globe.  The Disney attorneys wouldn’t be happy to hear this, but you can buy pirated copies of The Other Side of Heaven all over communist China and in Vietnam, places where it’s otherwise illegal to talk about the Church.  Our movie has aired hundreds of times in Muslim countries around the world, and it has been extremely active in rental stores all over the U.S. 

I was camping with some of our ward’s youth at the bottom of the Grand Canyon several weeks ago and I ran into a Baptist from Georgia who told me he had rented The Other Side of Heaven at Blockbuster Video and watched it with his wife.  They were so moved by it that they invited several other couples over to watch it with them the next weekend.  This Baptist brother said to me, completely unsolicited, “You’ll probably never know how much good your movie did in the world.”  I was floored by that!

MERIDIAN:   What does it take for a Mormon movie to cross over?

MITCH:  A great story, a great cast, and a lot of money, in that order.

MERIDIAN:  Discuss those points for us.  Great stories first.

MITCH:  Okay.  There are hundreds of great LDS stories out there with the potential to be great movies.  We should begin telling those stories immediately.  Because if we don’t tell our own stories, someone else will. 

Take last year’s HBO miniseries, Angels in America.  While all of us LDS filmmakers were wringing our hands, wondering why nobody had ever made a major movie about Joseph Smith, HBO went off and did it, and they won a record number of Emmys for their effort.  Academy Award-winning director Mike Nichols directed Academy Award-winning actors Al Pacino and Meryl Streep in this miniseries about Mormonism and morality in the age of AIDS.  I guess nobody told Meryl and Mike and Al and HBO that it was a waste of time to make a movie about Mormonism.   

MERIDIAN:  Isn’t Angels in America a pretty controversial show?

MITCH:  Yes, it is.  The casting director for my new project had me watch it for a few actors she was recommending.  I would have never seen it otherwise, and it contains a lot of things that are not flattering toward the Church.  Nonetheless, without question, Angels in America was the television event of the decade.  It got nominated for 21 Emmys and walked away with a record 11, more than the historic Roots miniseries from the seventies. 

And what was the key scene they kept using to promote this show?  Meryl Streep as a devout Mormon woman telling the Joseph Smith story to a homosexual man dying of AIDS.  In spite of the profane outbursts of this bitter, dying man, it is a beautiful, compelling scene.  Emma bears her testimony to him and won’t back down.  And tens of millions of people will see that scene and feel its spirit, before the show runs its course.

So I get very frustrated when I hear people fret that there aren’t great Mormon stories out there that mainstream audiences will embrace.  That’s total nonsense.  We just have to be brave enough to tell them, and to tell them honestly. 

MERIDIAN:  Honestly?

MITCH:  Yes.  We have to be willing to put a human face on Mormonism, to show the world we have more in common with the rest of the human family than they – or we – might have thought.  We have to be willing to admit that we aren’t perfect.  We’re human after all!  When we tell the truth about ourselves, the Lord will bless us.  We should not expect the Lord to consecrate our storytelling efforts when we tell half-truths or otherwise gild the lily.  That doesn’t mean we should throw mud on ourselves to make ourselves fit in with the rest of the world.  But we can be human.  We must be human!  We can and ought to have a sense of humor about ourselves. 

MERIDIAN:  Okay.  Great, honest stories come first.  Then great actors?

MITCH:  Absolutely.  It is a fundamental fact of the movie business that a movie’s appeal and value are in large part determined by the quality of its cast.  That’s another break we got with The Other Side of Heaven.  One of our actors ended up becoming a movie star after she made our movie, which made our title that much more attractive to various distributors.  Anne Hathaway actually made our film before she made the popular Disney movie, The Princess Diaries.  Even though we made our movie first, we waited to release it until after The Princess Diaries, and that helped us quite a lot in ancillary markets.

MERIDIAN:  Do you really think major actors will be in movies with LDS themes?

MITCH:  If LDS filmmakers will search out truly great stories, and if they will tell those stories honestly, humanly, they will attract great actors with credentials that will help their movies travel the globe.  On the other hand, if LDS filmmakers try to tell their stories dishonestly, if they try to propagandize or proselytize at every turn, no major actor will get near their material and access to world markets will be denied.  It’s that simple.

I was interested in Meryl Streep’s acceptance speech after winning best actress for Angels in America.  She thanked the writer, Tony Kushner, for his beautiful words, and “for telling the truth, you know.  Because that’s all any of us really want or need, the truth.”  Now, there were a lot of scandalous, sacrilegious things in Angels in America, but there was also a lot of truth in it.  If LDS filmmakers can tell less scandalous versions of the Mormon story with equal amounts of truth, great actors will line up to say the words we put into their mouths. 

MERIDIAN:  Shouldn’t those actors be LDS if they are playing LDS characters?

MITCH:  Only if they are great actors.  Otherwise, non-LDS actors will do a better job of conveying the human emotions of LDS characters than LDS actors will. 

None of our movie’s leads were LDS and I don’t think anyone noticed.  If anything, the actors’ performances were more fresh and accessible because they weren’t taking anything for granted.  They weren’t playing off any clichs. 

An actor’s job is to pretend to be something he or she is not.  That’s what they do.

MERIDIAN:  So, if you were casting a major motion picture with Joseph Smith in it, what would you look for in an actor?

MITCH:  That would depend on what my primary objectives were.  Different actors bring different qualities to the table.  For example:

        Which actor would bring the biggest potential audience to a Joseph Smith movie?  Tom Cruise.

         Which actor would bring the most artistic integrity to the role of Joseph Smith?  Daniel Day Lewis. 

         Which actor most closely resembles Joseph Smith physically?  Hugh Jackman or Matthew McConaughey. 

         Which actor would get Hollywood pundits most interested in the movie because of his “bad boy” reputation?  Val Kilmer.  (Apologies in advance to Richard Dutcher for that one.)

         Which actor would be most worthy to portray Joseph Smith?  My High Priests’ Group Leader.   

MERIDIAN:  So, if you wanted your movie to “cross over,” which of those actors would you hire?

MITCH:  No question, I’d go with Tom Cruise or Matthew McConaughey.  Like it or not, movie stars are brand names with substantial power to attract hundreds of millions of viewers.   By casting the right movie star, you not only purchase instant credibility, you actually purchase an audience.  That’s why “franchise actors” such as Harrison Ford and Tom Cruise command salaries in excess of $20 million per picture.  You’re not just buying the actor.  You’re buying his or her built-in audience as well.

MERIDIAN:  Do you really think any actors of that caliber would be in an LDS-themed film?

MITCH:  They already have!  Al Pacino and Meryl Streep are at the top of the heap!  Granted, Angels in America did not address the LDS theme in a way most of us would have liked.  It’s a very turgid, perverse piece and I don’t recommend it.  But the words Tony Kushner wrote were so powerful, the actors couldn’t help themselves.  They had to be in it. 

So the answer is yes, I am sure we could attract top-drawer actors if we could bring top drawer writing to the table, and if we could afford to pay them. 

More to come.  Watch for the rest of the dialogue with Mitch Davis, coming tomorrow in Meridian.