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Jonathan Decker
Friday, September 02 2011

Christian Vuissa: Trailblazers in LDS Film

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Editor’s Note: Christian Vuissa has produced, written and directed the new Joseph Smith/Volume 1: Plates of Gold feature film which has been playing in several locations in the United States and Europe and opens on many screens Sept. 2, in Utah. He is considered one of the most promising directors coming out of Utah having also produced, written and directed of Baptists at Our Barbecue (2004), The Errand of Angels (2008) and One Good Man (2009)  Besides being an award-winning writer/director/producer, Christian also founded the annual LDS Film Festival in 2001, which has become a major event in Utah Valley, with an attendance of 7,000 in 2009. He acts as the president of the festival and has a keen interest in helping young filmmakers succeed. This is Jonathan Decker’s interview with this trailblazer of LDS Film.

In the past decade there've been quite a few solid films chronicling the life of Joseph Smith, such as the new first vision video, The Work and the Glory films, Joseph Smith- The Prophet of the Restoration, and, indirectly, Emma Smith: My Story. What sets your film apart, or in other words, why should audiences give this a look if they've seen all the others? What led you to tell this story?

All the films you are mentioning are either films that feature Joseph Smith as a side character or that are produced by the Church (which are usually shorter in length and often serve a different purpose and are played in a different environment). I think this is the first independently produced motion picture portraying Joseph Smith as the main character. Additionally, we zoom in on a very specific period of time in his life and capture everything leading up to the publishing of the Book of Mormon and the founding of the Church. In that sense, the film is not only about Church history and Joseph Smith but also about the Book of Mormon itself. People who have seen the film usually confirm that. They draw closer to the prophet but also gain a deeper appreciation for the Book of Mormon.

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Other LDS dramas have had epic backdrops and extraordinary events to heighten their drama and add to a cinematic feel. Some examples are war in Saints and Soldiers, hurricanes and famine in The Other Side of Heaven, a serial killer in Brigham City, gang violence in States of Grace, terminal illness in Charly, and so forth. In contrast, your films One Good Man and Errand of Angels, on paper, don't sound much like gripping drama: a bishop tries to balance work, family, and church responsibilities; a sister missionary struggles with a foreign culture and a difficult companion. But the characters are so rich and the trials so relatable that I found myself connecting to those films in a big way. You have a talent for inviting audiences into the day-to-day lives of your characters. How did you bring those grounded sensibilities to the extraordinary events of Joseph Smith's life?

I believe the gospel is very much about the everyday experience. It’s that part that asks us to endure to the end. Maybe we have a tendency to belittle the day-to-day drudgery of our lives. But the real growth lies in those daily struggles. And in our interactions and relationships with others. I find it rewarding to search for these human elements and capture them on film. My goal is to use the screen as a mirror that reflects an image back to the audience in a way so they can recognize themselves. And for those who see their own reflection in my films, it can be a very emotional, even spiritual experience. The Joseph Smith story has a lot more drama, but the goal was still the same. Joseph had to be relatable in order to become alive as a human being. I had to find that human element that mirrors an image back to the audience they recognize as their own. And by doing so, people would come away knowing and loving the prophet instead of just admiring or revering him.

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It seemed that you were aiming to give audiences more of Joseph Smith the man, while other features have focused on Joseph Smith the prophet. Joseph here comes across as more human and grounded; he's not so much larger-than-life. He feels fear. He's overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task before him. He's nervous to speak to his future father-in-law. He's gets giddy, and dare I say a tad dorky, about falling in love the way a man in his early 20's would. Your opening scene, in particular, is brilliant in sending a specific message: "We're going to show Joseph for the great man that he was, but let's be clear, he was also just a man." In that scene he grieves, he makes an attempt at patience, he gets visibly annoyed and upset, and then he does something playful to vent his frustration. It felt very real to me, like something I'd recognize one of my friends doing. Tell us about working with Dustin Harding to create this portrayal of the young prophet.

Before I talk about Dustin I want to ask the following question: Why did God choose Joseph? What qualified him over others? As a filmmaker I had to find an answer to that question, at least for myself. We all have an image of the prophet and it’s probably impossible for any actor to satisfy everyone’s perception. But at the heart of this story is that one quality that qualified Joseph regardless of his youth and other shortcomings. And for me that quality was his deep sincerity.

If you look at the story of the restoration, you can track everything back to

Joseph’s deep desire to do the right thing before God. He had to decide which church to join. And he was so uncompromisingly sincere about it that it eventually led him to the Sacred Grove. And I think this same deep sincerity is eminent when receiving, protecting, translating and publishing the Book of Mormon. I felt Dustin had the unique ability to portray this deep spiritual sincerity that drove and guided Joseph. And this deeply nurtured desire to do the right thing before God is exactly the human element that connects the audience with Joseph and makes him human and relatable.

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You came into the church in Austria when sister missionaries taught your family. What can you tell us about how you gained a testimony of the restored Gospel?

I really think I gained a testimony of the gospel when I was a little boy, but my father didn’t want us to get baptized at the time, so my mother was for many years the only member of the Church in my family. But in my early twenties I had a spiritual homecoming when I started reading the scriptures and on several occasions felt that God was directly addressing me and telling me that it was time for me to repent and be baptized.


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