Greetings Passage Fans!
Before I get into any updates, I need to confess that for many purchasers of the DVD for "Passage to Zarahemla" there is a glitch with the "surround sound" feature. The Dolby surround sound, indeed, may not work. To tell if you have a flawed DVD, just look at the DVD disk itself and see if the "DVD" icon on the left side of the disk is colored white. If this icon is white, you need a new DVD. If it is red, then you're okay.
We want to make switching out this problem as easy as possible with as little trouble or expense to the customer. So here's the plan:
1. Send your flawed DVD to the following address:
Passage to Zarahemla, LLC
497 E. Willow Haven Cove
Draper, UT 84065
2. DO NOT SEND THE WHOLE CASE. Just send the DVD disk. You are welcome to scratch it, break it in two--whatever you gotta do. These DVDs are being taken out of circulation.
3. Include your return address. We will then send you a new DVD with the correct "surround sound" application. We will also include a free postage stamp to help offset the cost and inconvenience of you having to send your DVD to us.
If you don't have a surround sound system in your home, this offer may not matter. Your DVD should work perfectly fine. But if your home system can play surround sound using multiple speakers, you will WANT the new, fixed DVD. We deeply apologize for this problem. This glitch was a mistake of the authoring house, and doesn't cost our production company any money, so have no fear sending this in ASAP!
Many people have asked questions about the new Tennis Shoes book, new websites, etc. So here's the skinny: I am busily writing Tennis Shoes 11, which is tentatively titled "Thorns of Glory." Next year is the 20th anniversary for the whole Tennis Shoes Adventure series, so our goal is to have this 11th volume released in 2009. All I can tell you about the plot is that it deals with the last week in the life of the Savior as well as the battle at Cumorah, and many other twists and surprises. I will renew the offer that anyone who makes a purchase from www.HeimerRecords.com can request to be sent the first chapter of the "Thorns of Glory" as a thank you for your purchase. Just state this request in the special instructions area of the order. It doesn't matter what you order. Your order can be as small as downloading a single song from the album "Whispered Visions: Songs From the Motion Picture Passage to Zarahemla." This only costs about a dollar. I highly recommend downloading "Sons of Fire" or "Good Vs. Evil." These songs are only barely represented in the actual film, and they are two of my favorite compositions.
As far as other websites for my fans, this project is a bit stalled at the moment. I would like to launch FrostCave.com, which will have forums and every other feature that people would enjoy, but getting it launched will cost around 4K, and my funds have other priorities for the next few months. It's kind of a shame. FrostCave.com is entirely formed and ready to go, but that last hurdle is quite expensive. In the meantime, fans can always contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. And I will always try to post updates here on passagetozarahemla.com. Bear with me. There never seems to be enough hours in a day. But I know that the best way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. Rest assured that I am chomping away. :)
In the meantime, may your testimonies grow and flourish. This is indeed the only true Church on the face of the earth, and even in the midst of the most trying times in our lives, there is great joy always to be found in the wisdom and comfort received through our Gift of the Holy Ghost. Here's the key:
Stay close to the Lord,
Monday, October 13, 2008
Greetings Passage Fans!
Tuesday, September 30, 2008
Sales of the DVD for "Passage to Zarahemla" continue to be strong. We have been the no. 1 selling LDS movie in the LDS market since early June--that's nearly four months! Though we may soon be replaced in the top spot by Emma--another fine LDS film--we cannot complain to have found ourselves at the top of the heap for so long.
Some personal information to keep my fans in touch. Currently I am working on the new Tennis Shoes novel tentatively called "Thorns of Glory." In the future, I plan on writing more books, as well as making additional movies, and writing more music. I love so many art forms that it's sometimes difficult to choose. But rest assured that Tennis Shoes Book Eleven is next. I like to express that the object of my life and my art is always to celebrate my religious and spiritual convictions as taught by Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Since this has been the focus and thrust of my career for over 20 years, it is unlikely that this will ever change. Next year marks the 20th anniversary of the Tennis Shoes Adventure Series! No better way to celebrate that than with the release of the next novel in the series.
Many have asked about my current life and circumstances. I presently live in Draper, Utah with my four children who are under the age of 18. Though currently single, that won't be the case for long, and I anticipate a temple wedding to my fiance', Emily, before the end of the year. My oldest son, Steven, who recently turned 19, is soon headed on a mission!
Perhaps also of interest, after being a member of the Church for more than 25 years, I finally baptized my mother, Anna Cecelia Bartz, into the Church in May 2005. I also accompanied her in her first attendance at an LDS temple in Alburquerque, NM in December 2007. My mom also has a bit part in my film, Passage to Zarahemla, as the "laughing old lady" during the scene when all the Gadiantons walk through town.
More updates will be forthcoming. For now, back to writing!
Thursday, August 21, 2008
I felt I ought to finally post on a subject of a more doctrinal/philosophical nature. Maybe I'm overemphasizing this growing problem, but since some guy brought it up in Sunday School last week, and since I read where someone tried to push this doctrine on an AML blog, and since some might misconstrue that this doctrine is also supported by a new book by Alonzo Gaskill called, Odds Are You're Going to Be Exhalted, I felt it was worth bringing up.
"Universalism" is the doctrine that eventually, whether it may take billions of years, ALL of our Heavenly Father's children will be exalted in the Celestial Kingdom. The idea is that even though many on earth will inherit the telestial kingdom, or the lowest of the three degrees of glory, over time they will have the opportunity to progress to higher kingdoms. Usually this doctrine is couched with the emotional philosophy that a loving Heavenly Father could NEVER introduce a plan of salvation wherein only a portion of His children would receive exhaltation and be permanently reunited into His presence.
The idea that souls can progress from kingdom to kingdom, over time, was batted around by various Church figures in the late 1800's and early 20th Century. But the concept was sent to the trash heap with a great deal of dramatic flourish by Elder Bruce R. McConkie in the early 1980's with a popular talk that he gave entitled, "The Seven Deadly Heresies." One of these "deadly heresies" was the notion that souls could progress from kingdom to kingdom.
It's easy to fall into this error. Our mortal understanding of fairness and compassion is lulled and comforted by the idea that God could NEVER condemn ANYONE to a state less than their full potential. Gaskill, in his book, points out the doctrine that many general authorities have espoused that children who die before the age of accountability, the mentally handicapped, and several other prominent categories of souls are assured exhaltation because of their station in life. It even references a little known doctrine taught by Joseph Smith and others that celestialized parents who have wayward children in mortality will, through their own faith and determination, have the power to influence a child to change their attitude in the afterlife and eventually rejoin them in an eternally exalted family. Gaskill is not immune from the emotionalism inherent in our mortal understanding as he writes on page 17 of his book, "The thought that God would promote something that would ensure that the vast majority of His children would never again be able to dwell in His presence is incomprehensible. And the assumption that our mother in heaven would idly sit back and allow such a guaranteed flop to eternally strip her of any interaction with her spirit offspring is equally unfathomable. Such could not-and did not-happen!”
Yup. Based on our mortal understanding of the eternities, Gaskill's argument has a gut reaction that is quite pursuasive. Our earthly comprehension of "fairness" seems to scream out to the carnal mind that this MUST be the case. But the fact is, we have no revealed doctrine that supports this. It is a supposition based on the logic of mortals. And we have so little understanding of anything about our Mother in heaven that assuming any state of mind for this sacred figure might actually be inappropriate. Whatever else it may be, the interpretation that Gaskill presents is a doctrinal stretch.
To give Gaskill his due, his book mostly tries to highlight the fact that we are saved by the grace of the atonement of Jesus Christ. This is certainly true, and oft forgotten by Latter-day Saints who are sometimes overprone to bouts of guilt and (mental) self flagellation. But if one seeks comfort by gaining a full understanding of the overwhelming power of the Atonement, I would much more heartily recommend Robinson's book, Believing Christ. Gaskill's book, though seemingly innocent in its motives, and though he tries to support his argument with many scripural and GA resources , is too easily interpreted to support the notion of "Universalism." Or in other words, to support the idea that God does not punish anyone. That there are no eternal consequences for choices made in mortality. And that very few will ever be condemned to live in the eternities in any permanent state that would keep them cut off from the presence of God the Father.
As I already mentioned, Bruce R. McConkie specifically condemned such ideas in his talk "The Seven Deadly Heresies." In this talk, he states that the belief of eternal progression from kingdom to kingdom "... lulls men into a state of carnal security. It causes them to say, "God is so merciful; surely he will save us all eventually; if we do not gain the celestial kingdom now, eventually we will; so why worry?"
He then enlists some powerful scriptures. Of those in the telestial world it is written:
"And they shall be servants of the Most High, but where God and Christ dwell they cannot come, worlds without end" (D&C 76:112).
Of those who had the opportunity to enter into the new and everlasting covenant of marriage in this life and who did not do it the revelation says: "Therefore, when they are out of the world they neither marry nor are given in marriage; but are appointed angels in heaven; which angels are ministering servants, to minister for those who are worthy of a far more, and an exceeding, and an eternal weight of glory. For these angels did not abide my law; therefore, they cannot be enlarged, but remain separately and singly, without exaltation, in their saved condition, to all etemity; and from henceforth are not gods, but are angels of God forever and ever. [D&C 132:16-17]
To the mortal mind this just seems unfair, right? If God really loves us, how could it be true?
The answer to this is simple: In the end, as we receive our eternal estate, none will ultimately view themselves as being "punished." This is God's eternal mercy at work. We exist in the eternities because of our choices. In essence, we choose our kingdom of glory. It is not given to us as punishment. I emphasize the word "glory". These lower kingdoms are never referred to in the scriptures as states of sorrow and anguish. There's an old axiom that states that if men could see the glory of the telestial kingdom, they might readily commit suicide just to obtain it because of how glorious it really is. Ever since I joined the Church in 1981 this has been a popular axiom, thought I have not found a particular statement from the scriptures, or from a GA, that might be the axiom's source material.
Personally, I've reconciled all of our understandings about the "fairness" and mercy of God without, I believe, changing basic LDS doctrine. In essence, we must assume that our lack of understanding regarding "fairness" (such as the "luck" of children born with certain physical limitations, or who die as infants and getting automatic exhaltation, and our own lack of "luck" that we did NOT die as infants) might be resolved with a great "Oh, duh!" if we could simply remember our pre-mortality. We would then fully comprehend the whys and wherefores of things that occur in mortality and utterly eliminate any thoughts of unfairness regarding opportunities and consequences while residing on planet earth in its mortal probation.
Once again, what if telestial glory is actually total and complete bliss for those who inherit it? I believe we receive our kingdoms by choice as a result of our actions. It is a consequence based more on principles of math and physics than on any kind of punishments. Such preserves the basic doctrine of the Church without introducing "universalism."
Have we ever considered that maybe there are those who don't WANT to return to God's presence? That it's not necessarily high on everyone's priority list? Getting back to the presence of the Father and Mother of our spirits sounds very attractive in principle, but the reality may not be nearly as attractive as the abstraction. Many mortal parents have children who ultimately feel ambivalent about them. Or even resentful. And maybe those who obtain lower kingdoms that will lack the interaction of our Father and Mother in heaven are just happier in that state of existence. No doubt this may be heartbreaking for the parents, but heartbreak and sorrow for the "world" and for decisions made by our offspring is plainly defined as a characteristic of God. For all we know, inheritance of the Celestial Kingdom assumes an incredible amount of responsibility and action from the inheritors that many souls simply do not want to undertake. Creating worlds? Let's face it, some folks in mortality choose to not even hold down a job.
So what about "billions and gazillions of years" that make up the fabric of eternity? Just what are those who inherit telestial glory going to be doing ten gazillion years from now if not attempting to progress to a higher kingdom? Well, again, this logic, assumes way too much based upon our mortal understanding of time. The same flawed arguemnt could be placed upon the past as well as the future. If we have "always" existed, why did it take so doggone long to even get to the point of coming into mortality? See the problem? Again, we are trapped by our lack of eternal understanding. The "veil" is hindering our comprehension. As the scriptures often hint, "God's time is not our time." And it may be that time itself is a "thing" created strictly for mortality. Deep stuff, and totally beyond our comprehension. But that's the whole point. "Universalism" is a doctrine born of that lack of understanding. It's a doctrine born of a lack of faith. And born of grave impatience.
Here's the clincher: "Universalism" really DOES make me want to go out and do any darn thing I please. It makes me feel okay about sin. The scriptures say there are consequences??? "Universalism" makes me say "Whatever!" As a carnal, self-serving human being I am prone to respond, "I'll worry about consequences later and seek out all my self-gratifications now" or to paraphrase the scriptures, "Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die!" This notion really is reenergized in my psyche if I were to accept "universalism" or any doctrine like unto it.
So I feel to resolve this argument we must go back to the Book of Mormon (paraphrasing Mor. 7: 16-17) : "That which pursuades men to do good and believe in Christ is of God. That which pursuades NOT to do good is NOT of God." Such puts universalism squarely in the trashheap of the "doctrines of men." Though I am sorely tempted by the carnal comfort I receive from the concept of "universalism," I cannot ignore that such comfort is essentially laziness and does not contribute to our Spirit-driven desire to repent and do better day by day.
And lest there are some who believe that this rejection could only be born of a universal power struggle, a desire to stomp upon my fellow man and declare some to be superior to others, or born of an essential lack of compassion for humankind, I declare that this is not an accurate representation of what I feel. We see through the veil darkly. Human logic does not replace the eternal light of revelation. So until the Lord reveals more (or finds us humble enough to receive more) I think it's much safer ground to remain rooted to the understanding about repentence and living the commandments that we have been given by our Church leaders since our days in Primary.
Friday, August 8, 2008
At last the numbers are starting to roll in, and to our relief and joy, that landscape looks very positive and reassuring.
This week was the annual LDS Bookseller's convention that takes place at the South Towne Expo Mart in Sandy, Utah. Mostly, I was at this event to publicize the release of my newest novel Eddie Fantastic. (Technically, this is a re-release of Eddie since the original version of this novel was published in the early '90s. But the newest version is so different and improved from the older version, it's hard not to think of it as a new release.) In any case, the story of the day seemed to be Passage to Zarahemla. At this convention, LDS retailers from around the world (but mostly in the US) gather for a week to rub shoulders with LDS publishers and artists. And the picture presented through various reports from my distributor and from LDS retailers were very positive indeed, and seem to indicate that the movie is performing better in their stores than any LDS-themed movie that has been released since 2004. (There is one exception that had a budget seven times as large as ours, but with all the advertising spent, and eventual blowback (units returned) on that title, the perception is that this "exception" film was a disappointment for retailers.) What I received from LDS retailers was a heart-felt "thank you." And one was so bold as to say "Thanks for making us a lot of money this slow summer!" Generally I am somewhat skeptical of praise that comes to me in person. Not many people are so brazen as to tell a writer/director to his face that his movie sucks (unlike anonymous lurkers who don't hesitate to do so on the web). But when such reports enthusiastically mention specifics from the film, I might accept their comments more readily.
I realize that some might wonder who would even care about this kind of aggrandizing update, but I get so many emails from fans asking me how the movie is "doing"--perhaps as a result of the obsession that so many Americans feel for "box office"--that I felt some kind of a report on the DVD's retail journey was warrented. Yes, we're tooting our own horn. And proudly.
For the last 10 weeks the Passage DVD has been the top-selling movie for Deseret Book (check out their website!) and Seagull, as might be expected, but we also got a glowing report from Wal-Mart, who expressed sincere pleasure with the performance of the DVD in the approximately 40-50 outlets that sell the product in Utah. Though the initial placement was light, (it is the off-season, after all, and what with uncertainly about the economy, etc., etc.) our re-orders seem to be brisk from independent LDS retailers. Several major outlets have also sold through most of their stock and are expected to reorder. Also, certain vendors who were skeptical in the beginning have now started to get into the act, including Hollywood Video. Prior to this, the DVD was only available for rent at Blockbuster. And we personally started receiving many complaints--that's right; customers were complaining to us, the filmmakers!--that the DVD never seemed to be on the rental shelves. No worries. Hollywood Video will jump in the fray as early as next week. (For a while we'll likely avoid Redbox. I know, I know. Many of us have grown addicted to one dollar rentals. But we need to wait for a while, as the producers of Singles Second Ward did, so we don't undermine our other retailers who frankly offer a better wholesale cost.)
The result of all this for us, the producers, has been a collective sigh of relief. It seemed so odd and curious at the very outset of the DVD's release that there were numerous bad and so-so reveiws from various bloggers. Though I'm sure many of these were from genuine, honest-hearted saints who simply thought the movie stank, many others seemed to be from "fringe" Mormons, or anti-Mormons, who viscerally wanted to believe that there was no such thing as a "good" LDS film, never would be, and that all LDS filmmakers should give up the quest. Some of the initial condemnation from such reviewers might have been expected for a movie that unapologetically celebrates LDS doctrine, but in the end, sincere appreciation seems to have won out and the number of positive reviews now seems to far outnumber the negatives. I'll offers some links. Unfortunately, links to some of my favorite reviews are no longer working. Oh well. Here's some samples:
So what does all this mean??? Nuthin' much. Just that the movie has been worthwhile to certain viewers. Now, by focusing only on the positive, some bloggers love to point out arrogance and overconfidence. So I'll also admit that there are reviews you can find that focus on "cheesiness" or "too much violence" or "plotholes." I believe all of those things are in this movie for many viewers. But we hope as time passes that we are most recognized for the sheer achievement. Namely, the most ambitious LDS movie to date on several levels, and a hearty attempt to introduce fantasy and adventure to the LDS consumers.
Sunday, July 27, 2008
Okay, so it's official (more or less). I spoke with powers-that-be at one of the primary producers and distributors of LDS films, and they confirmed that as far as theatrical releases in the near future, the horizon is bleak. Errand of Angels is it. However, they feel as far as LDS subjects (features) coming to the small screen (direct to DVD) the future is very healthy indeed.
Some of the movies that have been direct-to-DVD for LDS consumers include Rescued, Singles Second Ward, Take a Chance, and others. Maybe we can hope for some improvement as far as scripts and performances, but still, I am highly encouraged that many of these project are profitable. Whatever you might think of them, they were produced for so little money (usually around 100K) that turning a profit has proven very do-able. That marks a big difference with what has happened with many recent LDS films that have had half-a-mill to a million-dollar budgets.
Now, I'm of the theory that if quality remains low, it will become difficult even for these mega-low budget movies to pay back their investors. But the model itself is nothing to be sneezed at. With the advent of such technologies as hi-def cameras and relatively cheap editing programs, like Final Cut, the prospect that LDS cinema will continue seems certain.
Okay, I hear some groaning. Not many of us hyper-critical movie affectionados have been impressed with what mega-low budget, straight-to-DVD-type cinema has produced so far. But don't sell your stock just yet. Many of the individuals who are producing and/or directing such movies are genuinely talented. Rest easy that they DO understand what good movies are and what good storytelling is. They're just in the middle of the learning curve with regard to how to "bring about" such things. And over time I feel confident that the quality of their projects will improve.
There's a feeling of hush-hush with regard to some of the projects being pursued, but I hear rumors of a sequel to Emma, a movie about Elivs's relationship to the Book of Mormon, as well as a film about boy scouts (there's my plug for you, Garrett) and many other projects that will, even if they are not directly LDS, strongly promote LDS values. Now, my personal objective is to see more films with Latter-day Saint themes and subjects. But it's very important that filmmakers understand that the most important feature (so far) of these profitable low-budget, straight-to-DVD movies is that they have been CLEAN.
In case you haven't heard, there are now MANY Latter-day Saints who will not even allow PG-13 movies into their homes. And considering what I've personally seen in so many PG-13 movies these days, I fully understand. So the number of saints who totally reject not only R, but PG-13 cinema, is growing.
My own film, "Passage to Zarahemla" received much flack for being PG-13, and I'm certain that this hurt our receipts in conservative LDS circles. And I don't feel inclined to whine or complain about this. Who am I to dictate to a family seeking celestial glory that they should change their rules just for my measly little movie? Yes, I'm proud that my film has no profanity or immorality and that it attempts to espouse noble LDS family values. But (let me whipser this) it does have violence.
Though I did my level best to try to keep direct violence offscreen (like when an obsidian sword kills a bad guy, you never actually see the wound), I came to realize that sometimes NOT showing violence can have a more powerful impact on a viewer. In one of my scenes of "violence" I show the bad guy's face very plainly as he is dying. This may be more dramatic and impactful than if I had shown the blood. It's something Hitchcock understood very well. Psycho , for example, has very little direct onscreen violence, and except for a cut on Martin Balsam's face (he's the guy who falls down the stairs) we never actually see wounds. Okay, so we do see blood in the shower scene. But Hitchcock deliberately made this film in black-and-white because he didn't want the bright color of blood to distract from the story. Now THERE'S a unique concept for modern filmmakers!
So to finish the point, Passage to Zarahemla lost some conversative LDS patrons because of violence. And all my efforts to "soften" such didn't change that fact that it was there.
Maybe some of the future stright-to-DVD stories will be able get away with a certain amount of violence. Violence or the threat of violence is sometimes the very essence of conflict, which is the root of all storytelling. It's all in how it is portrayed. But it should be noted that all of the successful small screen DVD releases so far have been VERY sensitive to the fact that they will not cross the lines of a G or PG rating. So let that be the first lesson to those who wish to pursue this medium.
As an artist, I know that many other artists will howl at the idea of being "boxed in" by such rules. They want to tell the stories they want to tell, and they scoff at any philosophy that encourages them to think differently. Well, I can only tell you what I would have done if I had Passage to Zarahemla to do over again. If I could go back and reshoot portions of my movie, I would have indeed reworked the way certain scenes were filmed in the hopes of obtaining a PG rating. I don't know if I would have succeeded. I would not have been able to compromise the appearance of the Gadianton Robbers. I would have felt a stronger loyalty to follow the description of these villains as found in the scriptures. But I might have been able to change many other scenes that viewers have mentioned over the course of time. Many of these scenes were cut for the "Less Intense Version" found on the DVD, and I can't help but wonder if the movie needed some of those "more intense" scenes in the first place. Also, I believe I would have changed the "mcguffin."
For those who are unfamiliar with that term, let me try and give a simple definition. A mcguffin in a story is the "thing" that moves the story forward. In a James Bond movie it might be a top secret microfiche the size of your thumb nail. In Radiers of the Lost Ark it was, of course, the Ark of the Covenant. In the first half of the original Star Wars (I doubt I will ever be able to call this movie "A New Hope" since I still consider it the best of all Star Wars films and because I have "half" of a wish that none of the first three had ever been made) it was R2D2 and the little hologram he had of Princess Leia.
In the Passage to Zarahemla it was the gym bag with drugs. I never showed the drugs. Never showed drug use. But just the fact that the mcguffin involved something directly related to drugs was another element that drew a PG-13 rating from the MPAA. Silly, I know. But those are the rules. I wouldn't have known so at the time. But I know it now. So I think if I were to do it again, I would have filled that gym bag with money or something else. It really didn't matter.
But despite my warning that all small screen movies should be as clean as possible, I'm sure some will still think they can cross the line. This may be unfortunate, because right now, oddly enough, LDS consumers trust our small screen movies. They will buy Beauty and the Beast with motives that have nothing to do with the movie's quality. They just want to be able to have something their kids can view without supervision and have no fear whatsoever that the subject matter will cross the line. And so far, that's what LDS producers of straight-to-DVD projects have given them.
I have a strong feeling that if my next project isn't another Tennis Shoes book, my entire career will be invalidated. So that's what I'm going to be doing for the next 6-to-12 months. But afterwards, I could definitely be enticed to do something for the small screen--a DVD with an LDS subject. If the only things lacking so far in this medium are decent scripts and strong stories, then I feel like I have an ace in the hole. Those I feel I can write. I've never had to fight very hard to think of good story ideas.
Now, before anyone thinks they have the inside scoop on my future, let me remind the reader that many things can happen between now and the completion of Book 11 of the Tennis Shoes series. I've also discussed with my investors the prospect of making A Return to Christmas, which would put us right back up into higher budget, theatrical release realms. But I have no qualms about going small screen to tell certain stories that are in my head. And I heartily encourage other LDS filmmakers to do the same. But please, try not to spoil what seems to be a valid, lucrative medium by proliferating bad scripts. We can hope that this doesn't matter and that the cream will always rise to the top. But I fear if we continue to pump out lower quality, this will not be the case. I would recommend that all producers, before you approach your rich uncles or mortgage your homes, allow your scripts to be read and critiqued by professionals--not just family or friends--but also experienced storytelling professionals. Give the LDS public the most powerful stories that you can. And secondly, put the bulk of your budget into actors. Nothing can hurt a great story more assuredly than poor performances. And finally, keep it G or PG. You can moan about this all you want, but that's simply what LDS consumers want.
Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Now here's a prophecy wherein I hope I am dead wrong. I don't want to see this happen. But I fear LDS filmmakers are entering a dark, silent tunnel.
First an update. The DVD for Passage to Zarahemla is doing . . . okay. Its success seems to be steady, but as of yet it is still underperforming our expectations. Ah, heck. Maybe it's just a bad movie. Maybe it's only pride that keeps me in denial. But if I judge the situation while wearing my business hat, I can honestly say that the biggest challenge for us has not been bad reveiws, but bad public perception of all LDS movies. So many audience members decided about two or three years ago that there was no such thing as a good LDS movie. Others will politely point to "Saints and Soldiers" or "Best Two Years" as their "favorites", but the fact is that they really aren't placing those films on a very high pedestal either. I've been flattered by the many bloggers and reviewers who now put Passage to Zarahemla in their list of favorite LDS movies (usually alongside the other two I mentioned). But secretly, I wonder if this honor has much meaning. The pressures against the success of an LDS movie are still too strong.
I've stated my opinion before that there are really only three or four LDS movies (besides my own, of course) that are worth remembering. The rest are not worth remembering. In fact, many are downright embarrassing. And the list of non-memorable films is so long compared to memorable films that many saints now cringe at the mere mention of the genre. Yes, the shine is off the apple. Such movies are no longer viewed as new or unique. But if the quality had remained high (I think it was remarkably high in the first few years), this shouldn't have mattered.
Now LDS audiences are burnt out. Their trust has been betrayed too many times. Many LDS consumers now enjoy lampooning LDS movies. In short, they take actual pride in their rejection of the whole lot. This is especially true for younger audience members--those who are, say, 15-30 years old (and coincidentally, those who buy most of the theatre tickets). I can only compare the phenomenon to something like a fad that has become passe, maybe the way Hillary Duff became passe, or the way Miley Cyrus may soon become passe. In other words, people look back on LDS film and think, "I can't believe I actually watched those things." They have become "uncool." And to associate oneself with them makes one uncool by association. Only a young person could relate to this example, but think of your reaction if some kid came up to you and said, "Oh, I LOOOVE Pokemon." You'd make a face, right? You'd smile at them painfully. The meaner set would laugh and demean the poor kid until he was in tears. Unfortunately, LDS film, to some extent, now finds itself in that same category.
I've often said that the most common reaction I get from viewers of Passage to Zarahemla is that they are suprised how good it actually is. If I read between the lines, this means that they had very, very low expectations to begin with. Perhaps even getting them to view it in the first place was a monumental chore. I don't want to belabor this too much, because some have honestly hated my film. But I think I can neutralize my emotions enough to say that most have expressed far more positive feelings than negative ones. But I have another good example of a film underperforming expectations.
Look at the movie Emma. This film isn't bad at all. It has nice cinematography. It has tacit General Authority approval. After all, it uses the same actors as the well-known Church production on Joseph Smith, and despite its low budget, the Church granted these filmmakers the luxury (as an act of good public relations with the Emma Smith Society) of using HIGH budget footage from the Joseph Smith movie. Yet despite all of these home-run driving factors, the film has barely broken three quarters of a million at the box office. Is there anyone out there who feels that this movie is less important than, say, The RM? The RM made more than 1.1 million in box office revenues. That means it did at least 30% better than Emma. Does that seem logical or right? Okay, I will admit, I found Emma a little slow and was disappointed that it felt more like a documentary than a drama. But still, just as an LDS subject, it should have attracted far more interest and viewers. But it didn't. Why?
I believe the reason is because there have been so many downright bad LDS movies that the negativity has dwarfed even our sentiments toward the good ones. (Were they really that good?) And LDS consumers simply have little-to-no faith in the genre. Some might rather forget that it even exists.
There's an important reason for this animosity--one that nobody has yet discussed (at least none that I have read). This factor has hurt the genre more than any other. And here it is: Too many LDS movies have made viewers embarrassed to be Mormons. Some have been literally ashamed of what non-members or less-active members have thought of the Church after viewing one of these films. Some well-meaning saints may have even fallen into the trap of using an LDS movie to introduce someone to the gospel, and subsequently found themselves squirming in their seats. (Can you imagine someone using The Book of Mormon Movie with that object in mind?) This breach of faith, for many, is simply unforgivable. The feelings of Latter-day Saints toward their testimony is too poignant, too personal, too deep. And for a movie to make them feel ashamed of the thing they love most in this world . . . Well, you don't bounce back from that resentment very quickly. And this is why I predict that before LDS film makes any kind of comeback, there will be several years of relative silence.
Oh, I'm not saying there won't be a few blips on the radar. I've heard that Christian Vuissa's new movie on sister missionairies called Errand of Angels is actually a very cute film. It better be since I consider Christian's first feature, Baptists at Our BBQ, one of the most eggregiously bad LDS films of the lot. (I beg forgiveness now of the five people who think otherwise. They sometimes get VERY testy.) Nevertheless, unless Errand of Angels is truly remarkable, I predict it will not do particularly well at the box office. I hope I'm wrong. I wish no ill upon ANY LDS artist who attempts to celebrate the gospel. I feel so strongly about this that until I learn differently by actually viewing it, I will publicize this film enthusiastically, just based on the feedback of the people who have viewed it (people who I trust).
I've always wanted to believe that simply a good film would find its audience, but experience and observation have forced me to rethink that. For example, I actually thought Mission Impossible 3 was the best of the trilogy. But by then Tom Cruise's couch-dancing and Brooke Shields-dissing antics had put such a bad taste in consumers' mouths that the film's actual quality became a moot factor in its success.
Some might say, "Well, there's always the mega-low budget LDS movies that go straight to video." But unfortunately, if the quality of these movies continues along the same lines as it has, it will shoot bullets into the already-mortally wounded psyche of consumers and actually prolong any comeback.
I cannot say this more strongly: A bad LDS movie is an insult to the religion of the Latter-day Saints. And the saints will not tolerate being insulted. They will reject such products in earnest. Some with viciousness and venom. You can't change this. The sentiments and testimonies are too deeply rooted. Maybe it's the fact that LDS filmmakers were too casual in their understanding of this that has been the root cause of our current situation. Therefore, I would urge all future LDS filmmakers who desire to pursue LDS subjects to brand this concept on their brains. True religion deserves the highest standards of excellence. Any less will and should be rejected. If LDS artists will internalize this, it may serve to keep a lot of genuinely bad LDS projects from ever being greenlighted.
I think what LDS film needs to come out of its pit of darkness is three, four, maybe even five absolutely stellar productions. Budget doesn't matter. Only quality matters. (Yes, budget does often help quality, but not by much if talent is lacking.) And only after these films hit the market--some still suffering financially from the backlash of what has come before--will LDS audiences give the genre a second chance.
I hope this happens soon. Only time will tell. After all, only time invariably heals all.
Thursday, July 3, 2008
LDS teachers and artists have often tried to encourage a certain type of storytelling from fellow Mormons that has sometimes sparked philosophical debate among writers and readers. Should our art simply reflect our unique culture, and therefore make it palatable for non-members? Or should it serve as a tool for proselyting?
A half century ago I believe the vast majority would have favored the proselyting objective. But today it seems that the mere idea that an LDS writer or filmmaker may try to force LDS doctrine down the throats of unsuspecting non-members by using a tool as (allegedly) seductive and sublime as storytelling would be uncalled for, and in many LDS intellectual circles entirely frowned upon. I personally think some of this is because too many Latter-day Saints have come to fear their image in the world, and they do not want to be accused of doing something so (allegedly) deceptive as using storytelling or allegory to push religious dogma.
Personally, I feel I fit somewhere in the middle. Most know that I have written many novels and that I have also directed a feature film (based on one of those novels called "Passage to Zarahemla"). I sometimes smile as I listen to some young whippersnapper talk about how a story that attempts to preach or be didactic makes for a very bad story. This isn't true at all. Only BAD preaching and didacticism makes for bad storytelling. The fact is that it's only bad if the story gives the reader the distinct and overwhelming feeling that they are being preached at. The best lessons are always taught by example. Not by screaming in someone's face. But does someone who teaches by example have a motive any less pointed than the person who is being overtly didactic? The motive remains the same. To teach. To testify. And hopefully to provoke thought, and perhaps even (incredibly) to inspire a spiritual experience.
I know that this is always my motive in every story that I have ever written. But I'm also experienced enough, or saavy enough, or just creative enough to recognize that you don't change people by preaching. You change them by doing. By showing. In short, I don't have to have my characters testify to the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon at the end of my books. Goodness! I tell stories about Nephites and Lamanites and time travel! I don't need to set up the reader so that I can stand on a soapbox and preach religious doctrine to them. If I were to do this, it would betray the very reason that a person picks up a book or watches a movie in the first place--to escape, to be entertained, to suspend their disbelief for a while and relax. But is my motive really any different than the old-time LDS novelists of the first generation (the 70s, I mean, when LDS novel-writing took off) who had their characters convert or testify of the truthfulness of the gospel in the last chapter? Really, I'm not sure if my objective is that much different. And yet I've always found that with the arts I seem to create a much more moving experience for my "customers" if I aim my themes "just past the mark." In other words, I believe the best storytellers explore areas where they don't have all the answers. And I'm no different. If we were to set a ruler on a table and measure how much Latter-day Saints know about the universe compared to other human beings, I do feel our knowledge would be a few centimeters further along the stick. But that measurement of our knowledge (compared to all of the available knowledge in this universe) would still be inside the first inch of the yardstick (or less!). As children of our Heavenly Father, I believe there is still so much to learn, and so much that will one day be poured out upon us. Perhaps this is why it is a distinct doctrine within Mormonism to be ever learning, ever seeking and soaking up knowledge. We are told that this knowledge will literally be useful to us in the next life. Not sure how, but it will be.
So when I create a story, I make no effort to "convince" my reader that my religion is true. That testimony is simply inherent in the story itself. I make no apologies for it. And yet I would be lying if I said that I was not cognizant of the fact that some of my readers have frail testimonies that are strengthened by the fact that I feel no need to question my faith. Yes, I know other LDS artists feel it a badge of honor to question their faith. I never have. My convictions flow through me and often seem as natural to me as breathing. So in my view the Book of Mormon is simply true. It's not just a culturally interesting artifact. It's the word of God. And I feel certain that anyone who reads my stories comes away knowing that this is my conviction. It's what I am able to do in my stories beyond that conviction that I find the most interesting, and the most satisfying as an artist.
For example, in my current Tennis Shoes Book (tentatively entitled "Thorns of Glory") I have an opportunity to explore a subject which has been explored many times before, and by many artists and filmmakers of many different Christian persuasions--Catholic and Protestant. I am offering a (fictional) point of view of the crucifixion of our Savior. (I'm also offering one the first detailed fictional accounts of the battle at Cumorah, but that's another point.) However, even though everyone from Mel Gibson to William Wyler has offered their take on these events, I have been suprised to discover that none of them has offered the same perspective that I intend to offer. Some of the subjects that I will explore have never been explored in fictional accounts of this event. Some of them have only barely been discussed in scholarly accounts. This is what will make this project fun and interesting for me as an artist. But never once in the entire course of the story will I step back and ask whether these events actually took place. The dramatic question is how they took place and what it would have been like to be a first-hand witness.
I've certainly read the treatises of LDS educators and artists who promote the idea of telling stories only from a cultural perspective. They applaud Jewish artists like Chiam Potok or Catholic artists like Flannery O'Conner who can discuss their religion from a cultural perspective and thereby make it palatable for those who are not of that faith. I have some problems with this. First is my basic philosophy that, because the Latter-day Saints got it right--because they really DO have the true religion--that Latter-day Saints really don't have a culture. At least not a culture per say. That will sound very strange to some who want to point out all the Utah-isms and traditions like Family Home Evening and the Moroni spires and pioneers and the like. But I still contend that even if these things may define some kind of culture that surrounds the saints of today, it really doens't define the saints of other dispensations. Sometimes it doesn't even define the saints of other countries. My books (gulp) are good example of that. It's possible that a majority of English-speaking Latter-day Saints have heard of my "Tennis Shoes" books. But if you ask saints in Nigeria or even Chile, chances are they have never heard of my books, and have hardly an inkling of the whole phenomenon of LDS fiction. And yet they still partake of the true gospel of Christ! Yup. I confess it. I'm a rather insignificant player in the vast orchestra called the "stone rolling forth to fill the whole earth." Still, I'm very, very happy to play the small part that I play.
My point is that gospel culture to a Nephite would be entirely different than it would be to a 1st century Christian as it is entirely different to a modern Utah Mormon. The true Church really does not have a culture, and the more it tries to define itself by way of its "culture," the less appealing it is to the inhabitants of the earth. Really, what the gospel of Jesus Christ seeks to do is to marry ALL the cultures of the earth into one faith-centered and mighty family. And my personal belief is that storytellers or artists who seek to make Mormonism palatable to non-members by defining our religion strictly in cultural terms will do Mormonism a serious disservice. Doctrine becomes muddy. Convictions are watered down. And all in some strange effort to be accepted or celebrated or revered by the "world." I say (in my best Italian-American accent) "fa'get about it!" Don't ever shy away from your religious convictions in your storytelling. That kind of effort will inevitably come off just as phoney as the preachiness of a storyteller who blatantly tries to convert the reader.
An artist can never escape who he is. I've often told young artists that if they want to hide the flaws of their personality, don't become a storyteller. Maybe you should become a sculpter. Because a storyteller sticks it all out there for everyone to see, whether they want to or not. Your weaknesses will be visible. And I firmly believe the most spiritually astute will immediately be able to make a sound judgement regarding the state of your testimony. It's just the nature of the beast.
So here's the rule: just be honest. If you believe this is the true Church, don't hide it. And yet at the same time, don't feel the overt need to preach. Your testimony will shine through despite your best efforts to disguise it. For many this should be welcome news. We can so often be such an uptight people. And the notion that we can just relax, be ourselves, and tell whatever stories we want without having to worry about what our bishop may think is a very liberating concept. Or at least it SHOULD be. Honestly, I often second guess choices that I make in my books. I DO worry about how kids might react to my words and images. But that's okay too. That's called trying to follow the Holy Ghost, and I believe seeking to follow that force is an artist's best course. I reject all artists who feel they are somehow honored or blessed for the talents God gave them. I believe artists are first and foremost servants.
So serve well, fellow artists! And in the end, you may discover that celebrating the gospel with storytelling is much easier than you first suspected.
Friday, June 13, 2008
You can feel it whenever you bring up the subject. You can sense it when old LDS movie titles creep into the conversation. Mormon filmgoers are terrified of the genre. Trust has been compromised. DVDs have ripped off too many consumers. And now the subject itself is a joke. A hiss and byword.
We sensed this phenomenon in the air even before our movie, "Passage to Zarahemla" hit the theatres. There were even some newspaper reviews posted of "Passage" in the Tribune and Des News before the movie had even been seen! Folks were already lampooning the idea of a movie about Nephites. Frankly, most of it just sounded like a general lampooning of LDS movies in general, and a total lack of faith that there would ever be anything worth viewing from this genre again. (Indeed, many felt there never HAD been anything worth viewing.)
What a mountain this left for us to climb! And we hadn't even delivered our product to customers! I've sensed some of that feeling with the release of the DVD last week, but some of the ice seems to be melting. Though the "low budget" characteristics of "Passage to Zarahemla" are not invisible, the overwhelming consensus is, invariably, "That's not as bad as I thought it was going to be." This comment is so common I can almost ask someone who just watched it, "So how was it? Not as bad as you thought it was going to be?" "Yeah! How'd you know???"
Wow. It's amazing just how much preestablished prejudice we had to overcome before folks would just relax, sit back, and take the movie in and enjoy it for what it was worth? And though there have definitely been naysayers who have brutalized the film from the get-go, most of these kinds of reviews or comments don't seem genuine--like there was an axe they wanted to grind long before my film gave them a possible opportunity. So many people just HATE LDS films! And, sadly, this is something LDS filmmakers brought upon themselves. In many ways, we deserve this sentiment.
Still, I'm very pleased at all the positive responses we've received. The most common complaints seem to be too many subplots, or Kiddoni's wig, or the fact that I wore so many hats. (Chris did WHAT? He wrote it, directed it, acted in it, AND wrote the music? Can you say meglomaniac???)
Some of these criticisms are certainly valid. But overall, I'm thrilled with the things people have NOT criticized. Such categories would include: the performances (of main characters), the make-up, the costumes, the Gadianton Robbers (except that small children were sometimes terrified), the production design (love Gary Sivertson's rift!), the weapons, the special effects, the casting choices (except for me) and (proudly) the music. Yup, no one has yet criticized the quality of Sam Cardon's score or the appropriateness of my songs. (Though some have thought it was weird that a director would write songs. (What about the dirctor's wife who wrote the Academy award-winning song for "Return of the King?")) Sentiments about the story are sometimes a mixed bag. People like to use the word cheesy on occasion, especially when describing that kiss at the end. (Kisses are ALWAYS cheesy to some--usually teens.) But overall the story seems to have held people's attention. Do you realize how hard that is? No one has ever expressed to me that they were BORED. Not one single critic. And most seemed highly entertained--even some who still only wanted to give it three out of five stars.
And in such cases, I'd like to think I earned those three stars when compared to ANY Hollywood movie, not just low-budget LDS movies. If that's the case, then MAN! we've done remarkably well!
Here's the facts. I know the film has flaws. I was there, remember? But I'm still very proud of what was acheived. No one but me and those closest to the production and post-production will EVER know what nightmares we had to endure to acheive final results. And I express my pride for this movie with making no apologies for the low budget. Our special effects had to compete with every other effects film out there, and we've received surprisingly little, if any, criticism for such quality. Two factors insured that--my relentless insistence that we would not compromise on quality, and the talents of Stephen Sobisky's crew at Sandman Studios. In short, the effects added to the story. They did not detract.
Still, it's been difficult to outmaneuver the wolves who want to tear the movie apart, in most cases just because it's an LDS movie. These wolves are, for the most part, "out-maneuverable." But I feel confident that time will allow this film to float to the top of the heap as far as LDS movies are concerned. I'm certainly not a neutral party in making that prediction. But I feel I can, in quiet moments, disconnect myself enough from the movie-making experience to say that, "This one works rather well." We'll just have to see if time, and history, prove me right.
Friday, June 6, 2008
Meet Chris Heimerdinger, author, director, producer, and even music composer, of "Passage to Zarahemla" at one of the following appearances and DVD signings-
Friday, June 6
West Jordan Seagull Bookstore
1625 W. 9000 S., West Jordan, Utah
Saturday, June 7
5720 S. Redwood Road, Taylorsville, Utah
316 N Marketplace Dr, Centerville, Utah
Deseret Book Layton Hills Mall
1096 Layton Hills Mall, Layton, Utah
Saturday, June 14
American Fork Seagull
218 W. State Road, American Fork, Utah
Spanish Fork Seagull
1052 N. Main, Spanish Fork, Utah
Wednesday, June 4, 2008
We may have shot ourselves in the foot.
With "Passage to Zarahemla" the most revealing and disheartening thing that we learned (at least in the theatrical phase) was that party is over. A multitue of mediocre LDS films have taken their toll upon the interest of LDS moviegoers.
As LDS filmmakers, we earned it, we caused it; we wrote the script of our own destruction. As far as LDS films, I have my favorites. "Passage to Zarahemla" being number one, obviously. Not just because I made it. (Well, okay, that may be a VERY big reason.) But because I love fantasy and I love the Book of Mormon, and this is still the only option out there that fills both those needs simultaneously.
Otherwise, I'd have to go with "The Best Two Years" and "Saints and Soldiers." I also enjoyed "Singles Ward" and "The RM" though I know that both those films also have very strong detractors. I enjoyed them! I laughed. So what can I say?
Way back when this genre first began I remember telling Adam Anderegg (director of "Charly," which is my daughter's favorite LDS film) at a time when there was only one or two LDS movies even in the pipeline, that before this was all over there would be a lot of blood on the cutting room floor. What I meant was that the (gold?) rush to make LDS movies was attracting a lot of mediocre talent, and that the cumulative effect of this would be to diminish the overall interest in the genre in the minds of LDS movie-goers. I'm usually the worst prophet in the world, but on that one, I got it right.
I won't name all of the mediocre movies. Many of these filmmakers are my friends, and I've also learned that even a movie where 99% of the viewing public despises it, there always seems to be one very enthusiastic fan who is mortally offended if a particular movie is panned.
I recall vividly that many LDS filmmakers had the clear ambition of using the genre of LDS film as a stepping stone to making big-time NON-LDS or general market films. Such was the case with Richard Dutcher, Halestorm, Ryan Little and others. They had come to "see the light" that there simply wasn't enough money to be made by limiting an artform as expensive as filmmaking to only LDS audiences.
As far as "Passage to Zarahemla," we only garnered about 300K at the box office. Our initials orders for the DVD from Wal-mart and LDS retailers is much more enthusiastic, so we hope our investment eventually pays off. However, the box office take on "Emma" was not much better, at least when compared to the 2.7 million dollar take of "God's Army", or 4.5 million dollar take of "Other Side of Heaven," or even the 1.2 million dollar take theatrically of "Saints and Soldiers." LDS film-goers have simply become very skeptical. This is where we shot ourselves in the foot. Instead of producing better and better movies. Instead, and in most cases, our movies got progressively worse. Also, the novelty has worn off, and a theatre-goer who looks at the side-by-side marquees of a half-million dollar budget LDS film next to a 100 million dollar mega-Hollywood blockbuster just can't bring him/herself to spend 8 bucks on the low budget Mormon movie. So is DVD/home theatre release the only hope for LDS filmmakers? For now, this seems to be true. It's very true for "Passage to Zarahemla" and seems to be true for "Emma."
In theory, "Emma" should have done gangbusters at the theatre. It had tacit Church approval. Heck, they even got to use multi-million dollar budget material!--unused (and used) clips from the "Joseph Smith" production that is shown in the Joseph Smith Memorial on Imax. Even the same actors were used!--a coup that could only have been pulled off by the fact that the same director and cinematographer were employed in both productions) and extremely talented and experienced crew members. But theatre-goers were few, and its best hopes now lie with DVD sales, which I expect to be brisk.
Other LDS theatrical releases are forthcoming, including a sister missionary movie from "Baptists at our BBQ" director Christian Vuissa (hope I spelled that right). But with the shine off the apple, and fewer LDS movie-goers willing to support a low budget LDS production, what is the long term future of LDS movies?
First, perhaps we should define what makes a movie "LDS." There are, in my estimation, only three primary subjects that "sell" or define an LDS production: The Book of Mormon, LDS Missionaries, and Restoration Church History. These seem to be the most sure-fire subjects for LDS movie-making. I'm determined to pursue other concepts that I believe will sell, but this is for the future. In essence an LDS movie is one that makes no apologies for the fact that the Mormon faith is true, and discusses such sentiments in the context of the story, and/or has story points that only work in conjuntion with LDS doctrine.
This is an important definition to draw. I personally believe that LDS theology is so unique that it can spawn an exponential number of stories. I have no qualms with LDS filmmakers who choose to pursue non-LDS subjects, but who still keep their moral compass in check. In fact, I applaud it. But as far as LDS-genre movies, the future will depend solely upon the skills of the filmmakers and storytellers. Since the simple numbers do not allow for any potential profit if an LDS production spends much over a million dollars, we must, for the forseeable future, expect that LDS movies will remain low budget. This may also mean that for the forseeable future the arena for LDS filmmaking will primarily be DVD/home theatre.
I eagerly look for exceptions. And I would love to make a few more of my own. But there's only three ways that LDS filmmakers will be able to make LDS-genre films that can compete with bigger budget Hollywood productions. 1. Find angel-investors (like Larry Miller?) who seem fine with the idea of sinking a ton of money into a project without any concern for making a profit. In other words, they do it as a personal "mission." 2. we convert a ton more Mormons and thus, increase our potential audience. Or 3. (And this is a toughee) we write a script that successfully crosses over to non-members without hiding the fact that it is, at its core, LDS. This has never yet been done. Some might put "Saints and Soldiers" in that category, but "Saints and Soldiers" never confesses it's "Mormonness." It is kept carefully secret, and is only obvious to fellow saints. So although 3 has never yet been successfully done in a cinematic project, I still look the time when it will be done.
Filmmaking is such an expensive hobby. It's also extremely stressful and taxing on families and other personal ventures that meet the filmmaker's financial needs. (I am a case in point on those fronts.) So for the forseeable future, I would expect LDS movies to remain most popular on the small screen. Still, I heartily welcome dissenting opinions, and hope that I am proven wrong. There's no cinematic experience that compares to the big screen, sitting in a dark audience with strangers, laughing and feeling the energy of the people around you, as well as that massive surround sound. But it may be some time before LDS movies experience success in that arena again. I'd love to hear the thoughts of others, particularly the thoughts of those who are, or plan on becoming, LDS filmmakers of the future.
Tuesday, June 3, 2008
Be sure to watch the half-hour documentary on the making of "Passage to Zarahemla" on KTVX Channel 4 in Salt Lake City. Time is Sunday, June 7, at 2:30 PM. (It might be 3:00 PM. Not sure.) Channel 4 broadcasts throughout Utah and in parts of Wyoming and Colorado. (Idaho?)
It's inevitable that no matter where a director goes, he will approached by folks who boldly (or timidly) ask, "Can I be in your next movie?" or "I have a nephew who really loves your books and he would like to know when you are casting your next film?" or "How do I find out about auditions for other LDS movies?"
The most important thing that I should communicate--at least when it comes to any project that I direct (and this would also apply this to what I do when casting voices for my audio books or whatever)--the first place that I will always look is with professional talent agencies.
I learned a lot with the casting process behind "Passage to Zarahemla." Mostly, I learned that I am very picky. Perhaps more picky than some other LDS directors. Or maybe it was just that "Passage" had, by its very nature, more difficult roles to perform than some other LDS films. I really didn't want to waste too much time with inexperienced actors who were more interested in telling their friends they were in a movie than they were in giving me a great performance. But I also had a promise to keep on "Passage to Zarahemla." So many of my fans had for years followed the whole drama from writing the screenplay, to publishing the novel, to raising the money for production. As a result of this, the requests to try out for the movie were overwhelming. So I advertised such an opportunity to any fan who wanted to give it a go. But the lesson that I learned from this is that good acting is much harder than I thought. I was sure I could direct a good performance out of anybody, no matter what their talent level. Even if I had to mimmick the whole performance, offer line reads, etc. But as time went on this simply became exhausting. Suddenly I became so braindead that when someone auditioned who actually knew how to act, it was like a breathe of fresh air.
"Passage" had a much longer casting phase than most other films. It began in March of 2005 and didn't officially end until July. I had a talent agent named Jennifer Buster who was there beside me every step of the way. And admittedly, our efforts to audition actors in Utah from totally amateur sources turned out to be very fruitful. Summer Naomi Smart, who played the lead role of Kerra, is a great example of this. Prior to "Passage to Zarahemla," Summer had done nothing on film. All her talents had been reserved for the stage. From her experience on "Passage" she was immediately hired for two other productions, a Liken the Scriptures movie called "Esther" and a Brian Brough movie called "Beauty and the Beast." Both of these roles were garnered for her because of how impressed folks were with her performance on "Passage." Brian, for example, was a producer on "Passage" and got to see her talent first hand. He had her specifically in mind when he went searching for his character in "Beauty and the Beast." (Admittedly, Summer was also performing at Tuacahn that season and playing Belle in the Disney musical version of "Beauty and the Beast," and that may have also had some influence.)
Another great find from amateur ranks was Moronai Kanekoa, who played the Nephite warrior, Kiddoni. Both he and Summer auditioned on the same day when from the theatre department at BYU. Since both Moronai and Summer were amateurs without agency representation, I suppose this could be considered proof that someone can get a major role in a movie just on their own talent and merits.
But overall, most of the actors in "Passage to Zarahemla" came from talent agencies. Mostly, they were cast from local agencies in Utah (one single agency called TMG would account for over half of these). But even using professional Utah agencies, I still found that I was unsuccessful filling several roles and ended up letting my casting director spirit me off to Los Angeles to cast two final roles--that of 11-year-old Brock (Brian Kary) and bad guy, Hitch (Alex Petrovich). Perhaps a boy of 11 who could perform as well as Brian was here in Utah somewhere, but that person didn't audition. And I just couldn't seem to find the right kind of gang member for Hitch here in Utah either. I wanted someone who could pass for caucasion or ethnic, and Brazilian born Alex filled that role perfectly.
I think all the time and stress that I exerted trying to fill each of these roles with just the right actor paid off. I'm very proud of the performances and considering my own inexperience, I am pleased that when I think about the entire movie, there are only one or two actors that I might have been miscast. Overall, for a low-budget movie, the casting was no less than miraculous.
So my advice to any person who wishes to do any acting, but particularly those who wish to act in an LDS movie or in some other production that originates here in Utah (or even in a movie that comes here from Hollywood!) is to get yourself connected with an agent. If no agency will yet represent you, I would recommend acting classes. Some talent agencies offer acting classes along with representation. But be careful here. I found that most of these kinds of agencies did little to help me as a director by screening talent beforehand, and I lost a lot of time dealing with agencies that obviously made most of their money doing acting classes, rather than getting commissions from actors landing parts. The most reputable agencies in the Salt Lake City area, and the ones that were the most cooperative with me on "Passage to Zarahemla," were TMG, McCarty, and Urban.
Also, for you young actors, never pass up an opportunity to be involved in theatre and play production at your local schools and community theatres. This is where you "find your chops." Read extensively. Practice. Do stand-up comedy. Sing in Church. Whatever gets you in front of a crowd.
I am a great believer in the future of the arts in the lives of all Latter-day Saints--especially in those who will inevitably contribute great works of art to the world. Acting is one of those arts. But it may be a while before the LDS film community is producing enough material to keep an actor employed full time. Until then, be prepared to stand up for your values. I firmly believe the Lord will support those who stand by Him.
Thursday, May 29, 2008
"Passage to Zarahemla" was first conceived as far back as 1998. It was written first as a screenplay and later as a novel. I wrote the novel before we had raised a single dime of money to make the movie, but was bold enough to put the words "Soon to become a motion picture" right on the cover of the book. It was all intended to help bring about the reality of a movie.
I get very emotional about story projects that I undertake. Novel writing is very difficult, and after I've finished the final chapter of a book and turn it in to the publisher, I always tend to sink into a kind of depression, knowing that I have to start all over again, and fearing that I could never endure the process even one more time because of what it takes out of me.
That same emotion would have to be multiplied X's 10 with regard to making "Passage to Zarahemla." Every single phase is sooo mentally taxing. Over a million decisions have to be made--everything from which shoes a character should wear, to which camera set ups need to be scrapped in order to make a day of shooting, to which distributor will best serve the DVD. Most of the time such decisions can be divided between a producer, writer, director, song composer, and actor. But when you decide to do all five, you're asking for a mental overload of nightmare proportions. The result is the DVD that was/will be released on June 3rd.
The insane thing is that I would do it again. And I HOPE to do it again for other projects in the near future. But first...I'm going to finish the next Tennis Shoes book.