By James Greaves
People stop him on the street to say they love his movies, but when he asks them which ones, they say “The R.M.” or “The Home Teachers” – films he didn”t make.
Films he despises.
Richard Dutcher, contrary to popular belief, has only made three LDS-genre movies – “God”s Army,” “Brigham City,” and “States of Grace” – movies he describes as “very, very good.”
To him, most everything else has been fluff.
“I”m not comfortable with the title of the father of LDS cinema because the children don”t seem to want to listen,” he said. “If you did a DNA test you”d see that I had nothing to do with their conception.”
Since the first Mormon films piggybacked the success of “God”s Army,” which was released in 2000, Dutcher has been fiercely critical of what he calls “mindless, trivial, numbing.” Never mind he made a cameo as Wes the neighbor in “The Singles Ward,” he said he has watched in horror the direction the genre was heading.
He takes Mormon cinema personally because he feels he instigated it, and because his movies are him. Dutcher”s work is deeply personal and uncompromising as it looks into the issues the artist sees in everything around him, and it has been a difficult journey.
According to him, not all LDS-genre movies are bad, but there is too much that is. Still, he should know, his first film was fluff too.
Three years before “God”s Army” he had been in L.A. finishing up “Girl Crazy,” a film about a man who loses his little black book. It was a five-year ordeal that kept the Dutcher family in chronic poverty, and resulted in a straight-to-cable special.
Like the following two movies he would make, Dutcher wrote, directed, produced and played the lead due to budget constraints. His wife, Gwen, whom he met at BYU, did wardrobe, hair and makeup, again not from preference but necessity.
“At the end of that I looked at the movie and realized it was trivial,” Dutcher said. “If I was going to put that much of my life into something, it better be something I cared about.”
The film was sold to HBO, but not for enough to regain expenses. Soon thereafter Dutcher was negotiating with European television a deal that would put him back in the black.
“They wanted me to put in nudity every seven minutes,” said Dutcher, who at the time was close to leaving the church. “That was a real turning point for me. I had to decide what was important.”
That decision led him back to Utah, where he would awaken a genre.
There are some that call him the father or godfather of LDS cinema, and there are those that credit him with merely an awakening. Either way, the original “God”s Army” opened up a market that had just not been there, grossing $2.4 million at the box office and a further $2.5 million in video and DVD sales.
Critics of the movie called it inaccurate (for things like a missionary being buried in a suit) and verging on blasphemous (remember the toilet scene). Dutcher said he was merely telling it like he saw it.
“It”s very autobiographical, but not in a literal sense,” he said. “When I”m telling a story I”m trying to reflect the world as I see it. If I were to portray Mormons differently than I see us, that would be an act of disservice.”
And as far as his audience is concerned, he isn”t worried. He is trying to explore, not teach, and not entertain, he said.
“There will always be people that won”t agree with what I do,” he said. “I”ll show ordinances in my films, I”ll make a PG movie, I”ll make an R rated movie.”
Following the success of “God”s Army,” Dutcher moved on to “Brigham City,” a crime thriller set in a small Mormon town. For him, he said, Mormon movies should be more than just films about religion. They should run the entire gamut of human emotion, from comedy to dark thriller.
For Dutcher, art is life. He is constantly looking to explore the deeper human motives and emotions, constantly asking questions. Those who work near him call him talented, deeply motivated and passionate about his art. He believes so much in this expression that he has invested heavily in all of his movies.
“The Mormon soul deserves to be expressed,” he said. “The lofty doctrine, the eternal progression, we have such amazing doctrines.”
Dutcher said he invests everything into his work because he any movie may be his last.
“Brigham City” was a more artistic film than his first and failed to hit home with his audience.
After releasing two movies in two years, things went quiet in the Dutcher camp as he set his eyes on a more lofty goal: what he would call his Everest.
Ever since he started making genre movies, he had wanted to film the Joseph Smith story, he said. This relates back to a personal experience he had in Carthage Jail, his own spiritual conversion, and his desire to capture the “birth of Mormonism.”
But his efforts to make the $10 million movie were met with resistance. He said it was just too hard to keep his funding together. Others claimed investors were scared away by his uncompromising commitment to tell it like he saw it.
“Mormons will always be imperfect in my movies because I”ve never met a perfect Mormon yet,” Dutcher said. “The same way, I”ve never met a perfectly evil person. When I do portray Joseph Smith he definitely will be a real human being.”
When he realized it might be impractical to make, Dutcher switched his vision to something more conventional – a sequel.
God”s Army 2, “States of Grace,” was originally released in November, but was quickly trodden under the feet of holiday juggernauts like “King Kong.”
“I completely overestimated the enthusiasm of the audience,” he said. “Coming back with “States of Grace” it was a drastic change. The level of enthusiasm was 15 percent of what it was during the “Gods Army,” “Brigham City” stage.
In the time between the two “God”s Army” films a lot had changed.
“LDS film has completely lost the respect of the audience,” he said. “Far too many bad films.”
Others would claim it wasn”t the quality, but the quantity of films – as many as three or four a year – that had caused a “slow down” in the market. Dutcher disagrees.
“I don”t think it”s too many movies,” he said. “I just think it”s been too many bad movies. Hollywood comes out with several new movies every week, and we don”t get tired of that.”
Still, that wasn”t the only thing that has changed in the last five years. The sequel is grittier, heavier, some would say darker, as it struggles with some of the deepest issues in Mormon culture – the worst sins among Mormons, even missionaries, and those of other faiths, and the power of the atonement to save everyone.
If Dutcher is his work, then he”s a lot more pessimistic about a lot of things. He”s grown a beard and takes time to visit other churches to try to gain a better perspective on his own religion.
He forsees the demise of the genre he started and is looking back with regret and bewilderment.
Mormon cinema didn”t live up to its call.
“What I have always wanted for the LDS cinema is for it to be the producer of spiritually inspiring films,” he said. “There are things I have done with a movie camera that nobody else has ever done before. That”s exciting. How many times have you felt a real connection with God in a movie theater. It just doesn”t happen.”
As for the future, he forsees a time when there will be no more million-dollar budget Mormon movies. He will continue to make movies, but instead of every 18 months, they will be every five years, he says. After all, he”s going to need to make a living somehow.
And even though he said his movies have become more Christ-centered, the end of the current era is in sight.
“The end is in sight absolutely,” he said. “In some ways I”m prepared for it the way you have an elderly parent. It”s profoundly sad for me. Mormon cinema has become nothing like I thought it would be. It”s like any personal loss, you roll with it. It will just become more difficult.”