Brigham City-The Murder Mystery
Why God’s Army director Richard Dutcher did a “who dunnit”
It’s the ideal Mormon town.
Everybody knows everybody else.
No one locks their doors.
There’s never been a murder-until now.
Editors’ Note: Maurine Proctor, editor-in-chief of Meridian Magazine, recently had this conversation with Richard Dutcher about the eagerly anticipated and soon-to-be-released Brigham City.
Brigham City is opening on 60 screens across North America on April 6. Information on how to see the trailer is at the end of the article.
Dutcher at work: he wrote the screenplay, directed, and acted the lead.
Q. What is the plot of Brigham City?
A. Brigham City is a murder mystery set in a small Mormon town where the sheriff is also a bishop. It is a spiritual movie masquerading as a genre piece, because it’s about much more than who commits the murder. It’s about how the murder affects the town and the loss of innocence experienced even by the adults. The setting lifts it far beyond the usual mystery genre.
Q. Where did you get the idea for the movie?
I was passing by a gazebo in a small park here in Mapleton on my way out of town, heading to Los Angeles to prepare the DVD version of God’s Army. I thought, ‘that’s a cool looking gazebo; what kind of movie could you do with that as a center piece?’ Then I started driving, and by the time I got to Victorville, California the story had been created. It was interesting because while I was down in California, I had been planning to kill two birds with one stone and cast my next movie. I had finished the script, but by the time I got to California I knew I had a different project based on that one glimpse of the gazebo. I am still planning to shoot the other film, but the timing seemed better for Brigham City right now. The other script was something I’d been working on for a couple of years and Brigham City was a fresh idea.
Sheriff Wes Clayton is also a bishop in the small town of Brigham.
Q. Why not call the movie Mapleton since that’s where the gazebo is?
A. I wanted viewers to get a sense from the title that it was about Mormonism-so that even if they walked by a video store in Arkansas and saw the movie, they would know it was about us. People who are used to hearing the name Brigham City all of the time in Utah, don’t hear how cool the name is.
Q. With the movie being about the spiritual concerns of Latter-day Saints, does it still work as a murder mystery?
A. Oh yes. I wanted to make a film that would appeal to 75% of the people who liked God’s Army, but I wanted to make a film that would appeal to a mainstream audience as well. I didn’t want to give away either audience. This movie definitely does it. I think you could take a western and make it a Mormon Western or a romance and make it a Mormon romance and if you did it right you could make it interesting to Mormons and non-Mormons alike.
They call in for help-they’ve found a body.
Q. How does the intrigue begin?
A. I won’t give away too much, but as the sheriff in Brigham City is out on his rounds, he comes across a crime scene. It’s a town where there’s never been a murder, there’s no real crime, and it’s separated from the rest of the world, so when there’s something this severe, it has a dramatic impact on the town and the individuals.
Q. So, once you had the idea, how long did it take to write the script?
A. My trip to L.A. was in July and by the first of October I was filming it. The fun of being an independent is that you have no bureaucracy, no process to wade through, no boss to yes and no. And of course, there’s no one to blame if it doesn’t work. Of course, that hasn’t happened yet.
It’s the first-ever murder in the small town of Brigham.
Q. What is the bigger idea, then, behind the murder mystery?
A. I want people to discover that for themselves. I can say this. One of the themes that I find creeping into my writing a lot is the loss of innocence, and that is definitely a major theme in this film. I find that if I only dealt with loss of innocence and repentance-those two themes could keep me busy the rest of my life.
Q. Was that a theme in God’s Army?
A. I refer to God’s Army as a coming of age story. It is about life becoming more complex than you supposed it was. Everyone comes to the time when we see the world the way it is, rather than the way we’d like it to be. The missionary, Elder Allen, grew up spiritually in the film. When the world does that kind of “growing up” film, it is usually about the character losing his or her virginity. Of course, Latter-day Saints would see that differently. Elder Allen’s experience was a growing up that really mattered, because it was the story of a young man finding his relationship with God.
Q. Why is this loss-of-innocence theme so interesting to you?
A. I don’t know. I’m peculiar in this. Adulthood is kind of a disappointment in many ways. There’s a change that happens when people go through puberty. You look at people differently. You look at the world differently and it’s a shame. You lose something pure. I think a lot of the rest of our lives are an attempt to regain the innocent period that we once had.
Q. You know you’re really talking about the major theme of mortal life, that is the loss of the Garden of Eden and that endless search to regain it again.
A. Yes. There’s an idealism that I struggle with also. I think in our hearts we are all striving for the City of Enoch or Zion-which has to be an adult re-creation of the Eden we lost. I think there are a lot of people who really want to be a part of that Zion. There’s a certain sadness that comes from being a part of a society where that’s not really possible.
Q. Are you talking about a sort of spiritual homesickness that many of us feel while we are in this world-that yearning for God and for home that never really leaves?
Q. Let’s talk about casting. The actor who played Elder Allen is in this movie. Why choose him again?
A. That’s easy. Matthew Brown is a very good actor. I’m still dealing with a low budget. As a producer I was looking for as much marquee value as I could get. I had a few actors that for the core audience meant something. The audience knows who they are and have some kind of relationship with them, and that’s something hard to find in an independent film. Jackie Gray, the sister missionary from God’s Army is in the film, too. She plays the town beauty queen. I play the sheriff who is also a bishop.
Terry, played by Matthew Brown from “God’s Army.”
Q. Are Matthew Brown and Jackie Gray LDS?
A. Everybody wanted Elder Allen and Sister Fronk to be LDS. She is, but he’s not-yet.
Q. What does he think of playing all these LDS roles?
A. He loves it. He loves doing the research. He enjoys going to church and watching how Mormons behave, how they talk, how they conduct meetings. He enjoys reading our materials. I think he loves being a Jewish Mormon. I didn’t particularly seek Latter-day Saints to play the roles in these films. I just found him through the regular audition processes in Los Angeles.
Q. Figuring out how to distribute a niched film like God’s Army must have been back-breaking. Doesn’t Hollywood have film distribution all sewn up for its own product?
A. The one thing I counted on was that theaters wanted to sell a lot of movie tickets. I knew it wouldn’t be wise to open the film in LA or NY. I started in Utah. The one sure place it was going to do well was along the Wasatch Front. Every theater has a booking agent. I told them I had a film that people who lived near the theater really wanted to see.
Fortunately, movie business is a business. As soon as the other theaters saw how successful we were, they were willing to put the film in their theaters, too. When the film continued to do well in places other than Utah, that opened the door. The booking agents could care less about what the film is about or what its teaching. All they want to know is if it will make money and they can sell tickets at the door.
Right now, there is a fortunate problem for independent film makers. There are more screens than there are movies. If you’ve got something that theaters think they can make money on, they’ll take it. God’s Army played in the best multiplexes in just about every major city. The multiplexes actually worked for us. If a theater had 16 or 24 screens, they were willing to try one on us. We didn’t go anywhere where there were no Latter-day Saints. We only went where the theater could justify a week’s end. Before we played the film, we made sure that the local newspapers saw the film. It worked well. We got good reviews from non-Mormon reviewers. One of the reasons it did well was because it was so different from anything else out there. It was about characters they’d never seen before.
Q. How did non-Mormons respond to God’s Army?
A. We got a lot of good response. One thing we learned early on, was just like what a missionary faces, there was no one answer to how people responded. Some people were very receptive; some people were friendly but untouched; some were negative or really hated the film. We found some anti-Mormon critics who were not so much reviewing the film, but using the film as one more way to take a swipe at the Mormons. On the whole, though, people of other faiths found it refreshing to find a film that dealt with religious faith. One Baptist youth minister thought it was a film made by his church, so he took a youth group of 15 or 20 kids to see it. He wrote me a rude letter.
Q. Were you surprised at the success of God’s Army?
A. No, but really pleased. I would have been really confused had it not done well, because I felt guided and inspired in the project. And it’s not over yet. I still have hopes to see God’s Army playing in Hong Kong and all kinds of places where it is so badly needed.
Miss Brigham, played by Jacque Gray — also from “God’s Army.”
Q. It’s good you had that kind of faith in the project because I’m sure it was sometimes tough to convince others-especially financiers.
A. Most people I never did convince–until the movie opened. It took me over four years to try to raise the money to make the film-to start shooting anyway. I felt inspired and prompted to do this. Again and again I met with potential, LDS investors who could see the value of doing something like this, but refused to get behind it. Fortunately, I found some people who were willing to give it a shot. It just took a long time to find those people.
Q. How about the fund process for the second film?
A. It took me four years to raise the money for God’s Army and four weeks for Brigham City, and it was a lot more money.
Q. Pioneering something like this must be really tough. Nobody has already made the path through the woods for you to follow.
A. I often mention to my wife that it would have been nice to have had some sort of mentor who could have shown me the way. There wasn’t anybody. The only advice I got along the way was: “Don’t do it. Do something else.” That’s one of the reasons I wanted to do God’s Army so badly is that nobody else had ever done it. I had some anxiety that after all my sometimes fruitless work, somebody else was going to beat me to do a film about missionaries. I was afraid the years would pass as I was trying to put the money together and that one day I would be sitting in a theater and see a trailer about missionaries, and I would spontaneously combust right in the theater.
Stu (Wilford Brimley), the former sheriff, and Terry help Wes find the killer.
Q. You must have had some hungry days.
A. The apartment that we got in Burbank had been the missionaries’ apartment. My wife and I and two children were cramped in together. Yet, don’t you think that it gives your work a kind of sincerity when you are not doing it for money or any kind of fame or personal glory? Then you get these compensatory blessings.
I hear a lot of people questioning why I still want to make low budget LDS films, when I could use the success I had with God’s Army to pitch a movie to the Hollywood studios. I say, anybody can do a horror film, or a western or a romantic film. Yet, not a lot of people are making films about our spiritual sense as Latter-day Saints. I’m looking forward to the day when there are six, eight or ten films a year that are good quality films about the Latter-day Saint experience. It will be fun. It will be healthy competition. I think someday we’ll have an amazing crop of movies out there. It’s possible. Yet many Latter-day Saint film makers still don’t see it, even after the success of God’s Army. So many LDS film makers are still chasing the Academy Awards, they are oblivious to the opportunity that is right in front of them.
Q. We have a huge need to create films whose standards Latter-day Saints could embrace. I walk into a video store, and I can’t find anything to rent. I love movies. It’s the great escape, but I walk up and down the aisles feeling assaulted by the video covers-let alone what’s inside. I want movies that I can watch-and be happy to bring home to my family.
A. I know what you mean. It is something we haven’t awakened to yet as a culture. Every day, every year, the movies that come from the Hollywood studios are less and less our stories and less and less stories that we want to or should see. If we don’t start to make movies as a people, we are going to be left without a movie to see.
I had that problem today. I looked at a newspaper and there wasn’t anything to see, and the reason that there wasn’t is because nobody is out there making movies. The world and the people of the church are going in such different directions, there will be nothing left for us on television or at the movies or popular culture in general. If we don’t generate our own movies, art, and literature, we will be left without anything. It is not just a luxury. It is a necessity.
As a creative artist, every time I write a story, it’s a spiritual exercise, a sort of public meditation. I’m sad to see that so few want to participate.
Creating great films takes a lot of hard work from a large group of dedicated people.
Q. Is that because it is such a high-risk venture? Look at your sacrifice. Everybody doesn’t have the courage to go there.
A. I think that’s true for a lot of people, but I also see many LDS directors and writers who are wiling to make the sacrifice for a mainstream career. Some people will give up just about anything to get their faces on the pages of a magazine, but aren’t willing to make that kind of sacrifice for an LDS angle.
I believed that as soon as God’s Army did well, that a lot of LDS film makers would come out of hiding and start making these films. I have been saddened that there are so few. They might think it was great to see good things happen for God’s Army, but they continue making their way in the world. I really believe a lot of it comes back to many are called and few are chosen because their hearts are set so much on the world. There may be a scarcity of great LDS art because too many of us are centered on the things of the world.
Still, as frustrated as I get sometime, things are not going that slowly in developing LDS art and popular culture.. They are really moving along quite rapidly. I know that God’s Army has inspired people. We may not see the fruits of that for five or six years. I’m really looking forward to that because there is going to be wonderful work happening.
Q. I think that is true to the degree that financiers will open their pockets.
A. One thing I learned about wealthy LDS people is that they are very much like wealthy anybody else. They are very practical. They have made their money because they have been smart in making investments. As long as we keep our budgets low and can make a return, there is no reason they won’t invest. You’ve got to be responsible and keep the budgets low. No matter what, you’ve got to turn a profit even if its only a dollar. There are some people trying to raise seriously large amounts of money for LDS films, and I think it is a foolish, foolish thing to do.
I think that comes a lot from everybody wanting to tell the Joseph Smith story or the Book of Mormon story. Those are great stories and someday those will be told and told well. Yet you can also make a great Mormon film out of a young mother dealing with her children or an attorney dealing with a tough case. These can be just as powerful and important and they won’t require that you spend $30 million. In some ways Joseph Smith and Boo k of Mormon stories are the easy ones. The hard thing is taking the small scale story, the every day, and elevating it to the same kind of power you get from a Joseph Smith story. I really feel like those are the stories that need to be told.
Q. Give us the particulars on the opening of Brigham City.
A. The film will open April 6 on 60 screens in the western states of Idaho, Utah, Arizona, Nevada and California as well as in New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles. This is considerably different than before when we opened God’s Army on 13 screens in Utah only. Two weeks after opening it will be on 100 screens. It is a much bigger roll out than God’s Army. We’ll continue to reach out aggressively. This is not a lot compared to the 1500 screens on which Hollywood films open, but we always remember that out of small and simple things great things come to pass. This is something we’re building just like any worthwhile venture. We’re building relationships across the world, and building up to the day when we can have big budget films. We’re doing this because Hollywood isn’t giving us what we need, so we have to create our own.
Dutcher and Matthew Brown laugh as they get ready for the next scene.
Q. Is Brigham City like God’s Army? Is it funny?
A. There is some humor, but it is definitely going for a different response. We showed it to a test audience, and they really enjoyed it. Once people couldn’t imagine how a movie about missionaries could be any good. Now, they are wondering how a murder mystery with Mormon characters could work. How could that be any good? You’ll just have to see it and find out.
2001 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.