Backstage at the shooting of a “Mormon Moment” that’s being built for Christmas release. Actually, “backstage” is in Cannonville, Utah, near Bryce Canyon. Actually, “backstage” is more specifically The Grand Staircase Inn, which has a grand staircase both on the back and the front, leading to room 212, where there will be Hostess Ding Dongs and Fritos both tonight and tomorrow night, and from which the stargazing expedition will set forth. (The specific online network I’m using right now is called “Grand Staircase Inn Upstairs.”)

I may have mentioned elsewhere that if you read the ingredients list for Fritos you will find there only two words: “corn” and “salt.” This is a pure food. I don’t have glasses powerful enough to enable me to read the ingredients in Ding Dongs — I’m taking the purity of Ding Dongs on faith. (Woody Allen is reported to have said, “You can’t prove that God doesn’t exist. You have to accept it on faith.” I think there’s a lesson there. Or at the very least a launching pad for some fruitful psychoanalysis, which I’m told is a favorite pursuit of Brother Allen’s, and the basis for many of his films.) 

Speaking of films, the director was just in my room explaining that in this particular piece several interviews with seekers and finders of light will be played while I ride around and herd cattle, give a turkey to a widow, and see the Christmas star. Sounds good to me. I’m assured that it will make sense. Making sense of it may require the assistance of the Holy Ghost, but hey, what better reason to shoot some film?

Speaking of stars, boy did we ever come to right place, or what. I could easily walk (more easily if I weren’t wearing these cowboy boots) to where my family pitched a tent a couple of summers ago and watched stars that pulsed and danced and shot through the sky like flaming arrows and studded the dark like glowing grains of sand on a black beach, with the Milky Way spread out from horizon to horizon like silver powder. And don’t forget the Fritos and Ding Dongs. 

Speaking of Christmas, our Alpine Community Joyful Christmas Sounds choir cranked up last Sunday night. This has been happening for thirty years — I’ve conducted it for the last twenty. Among many blessings of doing this is that my early immersion in Christmas thoughts and expressions almost entirely distracts me from Halloween (for which we have never, in Alpine anyway, assembled a choir). This film only strengthens that early Christmas anti-Halloween fortification.

I have to get into my white shirt and tie now, because giving turkeys to widows is a holy thing for which you dress nicely. I’m not kidding. And the tie itself is holy, because of the following: A couple of weeks ago after Sunday School class I went up to the teacher, Bob Wilcox, and told him that I admired his tie, which was this muted plaid Pendleton Woolen Mills tie, whereupon he said, “Ya want it?” and without waiting for a reply pulled it off and gave it to me! This is a very formal guy, a distinguished insurance actuarial who would most likely jog in wingtips, and he went through the rest of the Sabbath Day’s meetings tieless. (I had to wonder what might have happened if I’d admired his suit.) So I’m putting his tie in a church film that will be you-tubed and lds.org’d and virally circulated to maybe three-quarters of a million people. Of course, this number is dwarfed by the incalculable myriads of people around the world (and other sentient beings around the cosmos) who, according to my Meridian Editors, read this column every single month. May you all rejoice in the generosity of Bob Wilcox!

(…They’re still messing with the camera, so I went into the Grand Staircase Inn office, which is also a store, and bought a T-shirt and a sweatshirt for two dollars and five dollars, respectively, which they’re selling for so cheap because they’ve been in a store window for so long that there are these unsightly sun-bleached blotches ((say it three times fast — “sun-bleached blotches, sun-bleached blotches, sun-bleached blotches” (((shoot, try typing it three times fast!))) )) on them which, if we weren’t in Cannonville, Utah, but in Beverly Hills, California, would be cause to sell them for three times the list price. They’re pretty dusty, and I had to evict a moth from one and a spider from the other, but then, I like the “lived in” look. (Okay, the moth and spider were both in the T-shirt, but it’s a better story if each shirt were to have been inhabited. Still, I cannot tell a lie. Or rather, I will not tell a lie. Or rather, I have not told a lie. In this month’s column, at least. So far.) These garments say “Oréopostale” (French for “cookies in the mail”) on them, which is a brand. I am given to understand that this brand is very popular with the young people. The T-shirt also has a bold Chinese character behind the brand name, which I’m pretty sure translates as “No signature required.” Also I bought a Hershey milk chocolate and almond bar. Because I’m away from home. And no one will know. And the crew said they wouldn’t tell. And everybody’s doing it. And besides, I can quit whenever I want.)

…So now it’s night and I’m back from the first shooting. It was of my fictional son and me driving in the very nice pickup to take the turkey to the widow. (There was no turkey in the truck — in fact, they’re driving back to Panguitch tomorrow to get a turkey because there aren’t any in Cannonville that aren’t walking around, and you just don’t take a widow a Christmas bag of frozen elk jerky.) The camera was suction-cupped onto the driver’s door and pointing in the window at the driver (the driver would be me — my “son” knows how to ride a horse, I know how to drive a truck) and we drove all over the (gorgeous) place. Finally they hiked the camera to the other side of a big alfalfa field (three times fast — “alfalfa field, alfalfa field, alfalfa field”) and shot the truck driving along a rustic fence with red-rock ridges (three times fast — “red-rock ridges, red-rock ridges, red-rock ridges”) in the distant background exactly at the time that we film people call “the golden hour,” which is really “the golden couple of minutes” just before the sun goes down when even the sagebrush looks like Meryl Streep at her best. I had the idea that some dust behind the truck would look good with golden hour light slanting through it, maybe a little like Meryl Streep at her dustiest, so we backed up a quarter-mile and ripped along the narrow dirt track at about sixty miles an hour. My “son” Jared, about Joseph-in-the-grove age, is a serious rodeo competitor, well acquainted with motion-based thrills in cowboy hats. He kind of involuntarily hollered when we ramped up a little rise and caught some air. (This is where your tithing money goes, to replace the shocks on innocent church vehicles that catch air when actors drive them.


)

…Just home from dinner over in Tropic, where everybody in Cannonville and, well, Cannonville goes for a good time. A salmon there in Tropic fulfilled the measure of its creation beautifully, faithfully. 

¡UPDATE ON THE TURKEY! The nice waitress in Tropic ferreted out the succulent intelligence that we are a film crew down here to make a film, mainly because we carefully looked for opportunities to say, “Hey, bet you didn’t know this, but we’re a film crew down here to make a film.” This waitress, a Latter-day Saint who loves church-made films, just the other day bought a frozen turkey for a family that her husband home teaches, simultaneously with her husband buying a frozen turkey for the same family, so she has this entirely extra turkey, which she will give us! And the really cool part (besides the turkey, which is so cool that it’s frozen) is that this gift turkey was, in real life, purchased to be given away in a charitable manner! So how can you beat casting like that?!

I’m going to bed now, because the moon will set at about midnight and I want to get up and walk (even in cowboy boots) to a hill above the dark campground where we saw the stars two years ago. Goodnight.

2:00 AM: Just got back from the stars. Holy Moley! I don’t write real well at 2:00 AM, but, I mean, Holy Moley! Just like I imagined, except there was even more twinkling, because I left my glasses behind in Provo. And, of course, twinkling gets magnified a bit through tears. (Lest you think I am that easily moved, there was a stiff, cold wind on the hilltop I chose.)

…Morning has come. But the stars are still there, I just can’t see them through the blue — that will be a sweet thought through the day, if I remember. Well, I guess they’re still there even between trips to Cannonville from urban-glary skies up north. Sort of like Heaven — still there even between trips to my knees. Or trips to the sacrament table. Or trips to the temple. Or trips to the top of Timpanogos. Or trips out to the garden. Or trips that pass beneath our colossal ponderosa overhanging the driveway. Or trips to the families I home teach. Or trips to anywhere my wife and kids are. Okay, I got it, already. Just have to remember it, like I promise every Sunday to do, and then forget.

Waiting for breakfast, where we will see if certain pancakes can match the faith and obedience of certain salmon…

(It was an inspiring match, though not as entertaining as the marksmanship of the crew with straw wrappers.)

While we were in Tropic, the crew asked the actors what kind of treats we’d like to have on set today. I asked in return, “What kind of performance do you want?” With no more discussion they went into the general store and came back out again with Oreos. “Wise Men” is the working title of this piece, and I can see why.

Today we ride horses. Since I only ride horses when somebody pays me to, I’ve never quite become Buffalo Bill. I thought Jared might have some tips for me — like when the horse trots it kind of jars my bones and shakes my teeth loose (walking is cake, and galloping is fun and easy ‘cause you just stand up ((well, I do)) in the stirrups and close your eyes). So I asked him yesterday in the pickup, “How do you ride a trotting horse without losing your teeth?” He said, “Well, you could keep your mouth closed.”

Wise boys, too. (There is also a woman among us, the lovely and, I fully expect, wise Marie Sharon, who is mis-cast as the shrivelly old widow, but will act her way out of that problem. Yesterday, though, her daughter rang Marie’s cell phone on the drive down here and sharply doubted the wisdom of driving with a whole bunch of guys she didn’t know to someplace she hadn’t heard of to play a character who hasn’t any lines. Would you trust your mother to do this?)

I could name all the wise crew members, but they’re all obscenely young (one is so young that he bounces on the bed) and they’ll all become famous filmmakers very soon and so we’ll just let time take its course, here.

Riding, riding, riding…passage of the day…riding, riding, riding…cows are stupid…riding, riding, riding…back at the ranch again.

I can’t work with this laptop on top of my lap. It keeps slipping off because I can’t keep my knees together. In fact, I can’t keep them any closer together than the width of a very large horse named Jedediah. (This is not exactly lying. This is exactly hyperbole.)

I think that any day in which one rides a horse for six hours should be preceded by a day in which one rides for four hours, which should be preceded by a day in which one rides for two hours, which should be preceded by a day in which one rides a horse for an hour, which should be preceded by a day in which one drives around for a little bit in some dusty field with all the windows down.

But it was worth the personal deformity, because the riding was pretty doggoned fun. First we took an hour to get me acquainted with the horses. They belong to the family of Jared, whose last name, it turns out, is “Noise.” (So at the culmination of our story, the lonely widow is comforted by Payne and Noise.) Anyway, yesterday I was driving around with this mild mannered youth whom I discover today is a bull rider, too! A Bull Rider! Someone on the crew was defining “extreme sports” this morning as “the kind of sport that if you fail, you die.” This would be bull riding in spades.

Back to getting acquainted. Jared and I and Jedediah and Paint-Be-Perfect rode down to the river and splashed a good way downstream, then imagined we might get back to the cabin which had become our base camp by riding up the bank and finding a road. There was no road, but we negotiated several ravines and thickets and washes and hills and Jedediah and I only ran head-on into one tree. But it was a very small tree and Jedediah pretty much mowed right over it. Neither of us bled much.

Then we made the rest of the film. (The horses were all “What? We have to ride up to these guys with a camera and then gallop off in another direction again? This is the fortieth time!” Welcome to the movies. I’m sure they went home and had very strange dreams.) It all ended with us looking up at the star, which was really the moon but they can fix that. Then we finished off the Oreos and went to bed.

It’s morning again and we’re bouncing along the road out of Cannonville, on our way home. I’ll miss the junipers with their praying arms and pale blue berries. I’ll miss the distant yellow towers with their striped golden skirts.


I’ll miss the red mesas and cliffs and bands of ponderosa forest. I’ll miss the vast sweep of sage with the occasional brave cottonwood. What I’ll miss most about this place is the quiet. The clacking of these keys is intrusive enough that I have felt all these serene features of nature arching their eyebrows and looking at me sideways.

We told a good story. A story of joy and kindness. The delivery of the turkey was as joyful as it could be — even more joyful than expected, because by the time they had the lights rigged the turkey had begun to thaw and drip gently on Jared’s cowboy boots and Marie’s lap, and nobody could keep a straight face.

Merry Christmas.