RICHARD DUTCHER didn’t set out to become a filmmaking messiah. Before he became known as “the father of modern Latter-day Saint cinema,” Dutcher was simply a writer-director-actor hustling for movie work in late ‘90s Los Angeles. That is, until the devout Mormon took stock of an underserved filmgoing community -- his own.
“There was Indian cinema for the Indian community. Gay and lesbian cinema was starting to mature. There was black cinema,” Dutcher recalled. “I realized there’s 12 million Mormons in this country and we don’t have a cinema of our own. I thought, ‘Holy cow! If I could make a movie for this demographic that’s successful and other people could start making Mormon films, it could be a vibrant thing.’ ”
“God’s Army,” the low-budget drama about missionaries proselytizing in Hollywood that Dutcher wrote, directed and starred in, garnered nearly $3 million at the box office, a smash by indie-movie standards. The 2000 film had higher production values and asked bigger theological questions than was typical of the straight-to-DVD Mormon movie fare before it. But, more important, it ushered in a new era for Mormon film. He became the first Latter-day Saint filmmaker to land a movie about Mormons, intended primarily (but not exclusively) for Mormon viewership in theaters across the country.
But after filming several other of the genre’s touchstone works, Dutcher renounced Mormonism last year, citing a theological evolution he calls “a very frustrating enlightenment.” And he tendered his kiss-off to LDS cinema, “leaving Mormon moviemaking to the Mormons,” as he put it in a controversial opinion piece that ran in the Daily Herald of Provo, Utah.
Now, after incurring scorn in the Mormon movie world, the faith-based auteur is back with his most personal film to date, “Falling.” Glibly marketed as “the first R-rated Mormon movie” in Utah, it opened in Los Angeles on Friday for a one-week engagement at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills.
Focused on an ambulance-chasing videographer (played by Dutcher) who haunts Hollywood’s mean streets, crime scenes and bloody accidents for footage to sell to unscrupulous media bottom feeders, “Falling” is, at its core, the story of a man’s anguished search for salvation after repudiating his faith. (The L.A. Times review called it “one of the best small pictures of its kind in recent memory.”)
Viewed against the writer-director’s real-life religious odyssey, however, the film can be seen as the culmination of Dutcher’s spiritual existence -- the product of a moment of self-realization followed by an existential crisis, a sudden plunge into what he terms “an earth-shaking moment of spiritual terror” that caused Dutcher to literally lose his religion.
“In one moment, I went from being a true believer to knowing that everything I had thought about God, everything I thought about the universe, the way I looked at the world might be off,” Dutcher said. “Ironically, it’s the films that allowed me to progress spiritually to the point I left Mormonism. If I hadn’t been making films, I doubt I would have reached that point.”
When “God’s Army” began to connect with audiences in 2000, a handful of movie reviewers in and around Salt Lake City seized on it as a cultural tipping point, anointing Dutcher “the father of Mormon cinema.” “At that point, the representation of Mormons on TV and in movies had been pretty negative -- it was all polygamy and crazy people, really extreme and marginal,” Dutcher said. “One of my main impulses was to portray Mormons as real people.”
Rather than repeat the formula of his breakout feature, Dutcher followed “God’s Army” with 2001’s “Brigham City,” a faith-based work about a serial killer set loose in an idyllic Mormon town. The film’s unusual subject matter prevented it from connecting with audiences as did “God’s Army.” And less than half a decade after having launched a new wave of Mormon film -- a batch of nearly 40 movies made by and for Mormons -- Dutcher began to fear that LDS cinema was “dying.” A casualty of what he would later describe as “too many badly made films in the marketplace, too few good ones” in that widely publicized 2007 piece for the Daily Herald.
More confounding for the Illinois-born 44-year-old Brigham Young University grad (who converted to Mormonism at 8 when his mother remarried): He underwent a consciousness-rattling realization that he says shook him to his spiritual core. It was a life-changing event that left him feeling “enlightened” but that ultimately compelled Dutcher to leave Mormonism.
“One day in prayer, all by myself, I asked myself the question: What if it’s all not true?” Dutcher recalled. “It was an earth-shaking moment of spiritual terror, such a profound experience. It was such a sense of loss. I felt my faith leaving me and never coming back.”
The retiring Dutcher, who in conversation at a Culver City postproduction editing facility seemed more apt to make his point with a shrug than by banging his fist on the table, takes pains not to disparage Mormons or Mormonism. And although spirituality remains one of Dutcher’s abiding concerns, he officially left the church last year. Nonetheless, in a frenzy of productivity right around the time of Dutcher’s religious disconnect in 2004, he churned out screenplays for two more Mormon-themed movies: “States of Grace” (a harder-edged “semi-sequel” to “God’s Army” that also follows LDS missionaries in L.A.) and the spiritually disquieting “Falling.”
Released in 2005, “States of Grace” was greeted by mixed reviews and some outrage in the LDS community for what some felt was not an altogether positive depiction of Mormons -- buffeting Dutcher’s reputation as the father of its cinematic vanguard.
“Richard became a local lightning rod because he accepted what might be called an ill-informed and premature title like the ‘father of Mormon cinema,’ ” said filmmaker and Brigham Young University professor of media arts Thomas Russell. “He didn’t make it up, nor did he ask for it, but I think he’s also done little to distance himself from it.”
That is, unless you take into account some of the more outre moments in his new movie. In addition to nudity, violence and coarse dialogue, you’re unlikely to encounter in any other “Mormon film” -- R-rated or otherwise -- the amoral paparazzo protagonist Dutcher portrays in “Falling” hurls an F-bomb at God in a moment of despair and openly regrets having wasted 12 years of his life in the church.
To hear it from Dutcher’s wife, Gwen, her husband’s crisis of conscience added a layer of meta-narrative pathos to what is certainly one of the year’s most self-excoriating performances. Then on top of his crisis of faith there were the vagaries of shooting a movie on a shoestring $500,000 budget.
“What you’re seeing on his face is exhaustion and despair,” she said. “It was excruciating. An unbelievably difficult time.” Dutcher, who splits time between Los Angeles and Utah, parlayed his indie renown into writing and directing his most mainstream (and biggest budgeted) movie to date: the supernatural horror thriller “Evil Angel,” which stars Ving Rhames and will hit theaters in 2009.
Despite its provocative handling of LDS faith, Dutcher insists “Falling” is, in effect, a Mormon movie insofar as its themes and imagery will be most meaningful to Latter-day Saints (never mind that, by default, they are embargoed from seeing an R-rated film). But then, doesn’t that still make him a Mormon filmmaker?
“At the beginning, I was proud to say, ‘Yeah, I’m a Mormon filmmaker’ because then, I was defining what a Mormon filmmaker was,” Dutcher said. “It quickly got completely out of my control. Now, no one wants to call themselves a Mormon filmmaker because you’re associating yourself with a genre that’s fallen into disrepute. It’s like having porn on your resume.”