Friday, June 13, 2008

LDS Movies--A Frightening Phenomenon

They're scared.

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.

Chris Heimerdinger

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Friday, June 6, 2008

Meet Chris Heimerdinger at DVD Signing Sessions

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
Redwood Seagull
5720 S. Redwood Road, Taylorsville, Utah

Centerville Seagull
316 N Marketplace Dr, Centerville, Utah

Deseret Book Layton Hills Mall
1096 Layton Hills Mall, Layton, Utah
4pm- 5pm

Saturday, June 14
American Fork Seagull
218 W. State Road, American Fork, Utah

Spanish Fork Seagull
1052 N. Main, Spanish Fork, Utah

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Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The Challenge of LDS Filmmaking

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.

Chris Heimerdinger

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Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Documentary on Sunday!

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?)

Chris Heimerdinger

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Casting for an LDS Movie

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.

Chris Heimerdinger

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