To the Ramparts with Richard Dutcher
interview by Gregory Avery, 2 June 2000

During the early summer of 1993, I picked up the phone at my apartment in Eugene, Oregon and heard the news from my great and good friend Tim Hansen that he was off to Los Angeles to appear in Dutcher's film, a.k.a. Girl Crazy, a very pleasant little romantic comedy about a guy who loses his girlfriend and tries to win her back. Tim played the part of a guy whom the protagonist meets up with by chance, and who has also just lost his girl, and the two try to figure out what the best approach would be to getting them back. (And Tim gave a pretty good performance in the film. We miss you, kiddo.)

Dutcher was Richard Dutcher, who wrote, directed, and starred in the independently-made picture. Now, seven years later, he is back with a new film, God's Army, about a very different subject altogether: the experiences of L.D.S. (Latter-Day Saints) missionaries working in Los Angeles.*

Young men (and, in recent years, women) are encouraged to serve a mission in their eighteenth or nineteenth year, after graduating from high school and before attending college. It is voluntary work, and you have to save money to go, as missions generally last up to four years. (Serving a mission is also a non-paying job.) The experience tests both one's faith and one's ability to communicate with people, as it involves a lot of knocking on doors and asking total strangers if they would like to hear about the Church. Contact with one's family, friends and the outside world is limited. Transportation is usually by bicycle or on-foot. Dress and grooming is also regulated: white shirt, dark tie and slacks, polished shoes, and hair cut above the ear and the collar.

One must be determined, flexible, and able to take a lot of rejection. Daily study is required to be able to remain focused and to answer any and all questions. God's Army includes a scene where two non-members ask a pair of missionaries why black men could not hold priesthood positions in the Church prior to 1978, and why women cannot hold positions of authority. Missionaries cannot date, so girlfriends and fiancées must wait until their men are finished working in the field before they can get married.

And missionaries are assigned to where they will be working. If they are to serve in Germany, Brazil, or Japan, a crash course is required to learn the language well enough to converse fluently. I have friends whose mission experiences were not so terrific, and friends whose experiences were so profoundly spiritual that they changed for the rest of their lives by them.

Non-L.D.S. members may scratch their heads a bit over some parts of God's Army: What is the Melchizedek priesthood, and why all this business about whether to drink coffee or not? This should in no way affect one's appreciation of the film, as it addresses aspects ranging from coming-of-age to striving to be true to one's principals and beliefs. It is also very funny in parts, and a unique film that has an ability to stick with you longer than many other films currently appearing in the theaters.

Richard Dutcher made God's Army through a new production company, Zion Films, which has set its sights on making films about L.D.S. life, by L.D.S. members and for both L.D.S. audiences and general audiences. (After the closing credits for God's Army, I realized, to my surprise, that there was no profanity in the film: about the strongest speech one hears is when one character reacts by saying, "Oh -- golly,..." And, guess what: I didn't miss it a bit.) I suspect that Dutcher may be a filmmaker-to-watch in the coming years.

I recently had a chance to speak with him about the making of God's Army, his own current mission as a filmmaker, what we may look forward to seeing from him in the future, and the possible constructive uses for an Academy Award statuette:

Gregory Avery: I'll start with the inevitable opening question: How did you first become interested in making films?

Richard Dutcher: I first became interested in making movies when I was about six years old. It was Mary Poppins that did it. I was sitting in the movie theater watching what's his name, that little English boy in the movie who gets to float around in the air and dance around with Dick Van Dyke. [Matthew Garber, who levitated with Van Dyke, Karen Dotrice and Ed Wynn during the song I Love to Laugh.] And I was thinking first about how much fun that little actor must have had, and then second how that little kid couldn't act his way out of a wet paper bag and why couldn't I have played that part. Someday I'll do a re-make (and play that same part). So, since early childhood, I haven't really wanted to do anything else. I tried a career behind the counter at 7-11, but it just didn't work out. So I started acting early, then turned to writing in order to create some good parts to play, then turned to producing and directing in order to get my scripts produced so I could have good parts to play.

GA: How did you first become involved with film production?

RD: Girl Crazy was my first film, but I don't really want to talk about it. Enough said. Okay, I'll say more. It was a huge undertaking. It taught me so much about financing and making and selling films. I had to take it, start to finish, for $50,000. By finish I don't mean just a finished answer print. In this case, finish meant delivery of all materials: broadcast quality tape with promotional materials and the works. So, I'm proud of the work I did. I consider it my graduate school in filmmaking because I was there every step of the way. I wrote it, green-lighted it, raised the money, hired all cast and crew, directed, produced, starred, carried it through every step of post-production and marketing. As for the film itself, there are parts of it that are really quite good. Linda Bon was very good as Rachel. Tim Hansen's performance was wonderful. All the Tim/Tommy scenes were great. Rob Sweeney, the cameraman, did a great job with so little money. There are some funny lines and it's good-hearted, but the lack of budget kept me from getting the locations and the coverage I needed. So many of the scenes were filmed in one shot. But it wasn't worth spending four years of my life on. And the screenplay was not worth making. It was really made because [a] young director needed to make a film, any film, before he went nuts and ran naked down the middle of the street (Oh, wait. That was in the movie, wasn't it?). At the end of the day, it was just ninety minutes of pleasant, low-budget fluff. I watched it again just a few months ago. I'm surprised HBO picked it up. But I sure am glad they did.

GA: How is God's Army currently doing in release, both in Utah and in other states?

RD: God's Army is doing wonderfully. Well cross the two million mark in domestic box office within the next couple of weeks. Not bad for a movie that cost $300,000. The exhibitors are surprised at how well the film is doing outside of Utah, but I'm not. We've still got [two-thirds] of the U.S. left to cover, and video/DVD and foreign. So God's Army will keep us busy for a good while yet. So, the film is a huge commercial success for us. As for its critical performance, [there has been a] lot of good response from non-Mormon critics. We have had a couple of scathing reviews, but it seemed pretty evident in the reviews that the critics had a pre-existing problem with Mormons in general.

GA: Was God's Army one of those filmmaking experiences where everything came together easily?

RD: God's Army was incredibly difficult to finance. I spent the better part of four years travelling around meeting with wealthy Latter-Day Saints trying to convince them to invest in the film.

GA: Did you initially conceive of this as a film that would speak to a wide audience, since many experiences by L.D.S. missionaries -- first-time separation from home, practicing one's faith while facing seemingly overwhelming odds, and experiencing both acceptance and rejection from others -- contain universal dramatic themes?

RD: God's Army was made for my own people. I really didn't care whether non-Mormons liked the film at all. I zeroed in on my audience and tried to block out everybody else. Because I knew if I managed to satisfy even this one audience, the film would be successful enough that I could make another film. Also, I'm totally converted to the idea of specialized narrative/dramatic filmmaking. We don't have to make films for the entire world. We can make films for relatively small pieces of the total marketplace. And I think this is how the most interesting movies are going to be made. For instance, I want to see films made by black filmmakers primarily for black audiences. Those films would be so much more interesting than movies made by black filmmakers for the mainstream. And you could take the word "black" out and put in "Mormon" or "Buddhist" or "gay" or whatever. I believe the more specialized you get, the more honest you get and the more universal your story and characters become.

GA: To what extent did you draw upon your own experiences for this film?

RD: God's Army is based on my own experiences as a missionary. I served two years as a missionary in Southern Mexico. Write about what you know, they always say. I don't know why it took me so long to take that particular piece of advice.

GA: Can you give us some idea of how you think commercial cinema has misrepresented the L.D.S. Church? One example that came immediately to mind was how screenwriter Paddy Chayevsky re-wrote the story for the Lerner and Loewe musical Paint Your Wagon in order to introduce a jokesy depiction of polygamy, and thus create a dramatic setup whereby Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood's characters could set-up house with Jean Seberg's.

RD: One of the main reasons I wanted to make this film is because I was sick and tired of the way Mormons are portrayed in the mainstream:  almost always the butt of a joke. Either that or we are misportrayed to the point that we're not even recognizable. Some examples: Goodbye Lover, Donnie Brasco, Orgazmo, even a fleeting reference to radical Mormons in Starship Troopers. Those references deeply offend me. So I came to the realization that if we want our people portrayed accurately, positively, truthfully, we are going to have to do it ourselves. Being a filmmaker and a Latter-Day Saint, I saw myself in the perfect place to do something about it. Not through the mainstream, but through independent film, which can have a powerful effect in the mainstream. And I didn't see any other LDS filmmakers doing anything to help. If anything, with [Neil] LaBute's recent success, the LDS image was taking a good Bash, so to speak. [Neil LaBute, who is L.D.S., lives and works out of Provo, Utah. His recent collection of short plays, Bash, was performed last year off-Broadway, and was subtitled Latter-Day Plays. - GA]

GA: What do you do when you're not involved in the tangles and snares of film production?

RD: I see every movie I have even the slightest desire to see. And I try to read. I'm not too big on most mainstream writers, but I can get a kick out of a good book about first century Christians. My favorite novelists are Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chaim Potok, and Larry McMurtry -- go figure. And I spend as much time hanging out with my family as possible. I have three young boys and another child of undetermined gender on the way. And a sexy wife, so that keeps me busy as well. Sometimes, if I really need some space and time to think I go on a "driveabout." Last month I spent three days alone driving around the Southern Utah desert. I highly recommend it.

GA: Any favorite films?

RD: Jaws, It's a Wonderful Life, The Bicycle Thief.

GA: Are there any filmmakers whom you admire, past or present?

RD: John Sayles, for his career more than individual films (although I thought Matewan was brilliant). Scorsese, for his mastery of the medium (I thought Goodfellas could serve as a textbook of the language of cinema). Charlie Chaplin, of course, especially City Lights and Modern Times.

GA: What films are you looking towards making during the next several years?

RD: I see myself making all kinds of films that deal with faith, religion, man's relationship to God and Christ, morality, human relationships, sin, repentance, redemption, damnation, etc. Most of my movies will deal with Mormonism. My faith and the human spiritual and religious experience are what occupy my thoughts, almost constantly. But I think audiences will be surprised (L.D.S. audiences as well as mainstream audiences) at what a deep well of material this will turn out to be. The reason we haven't experienced much in the way of spiritual cinema in the past hundred years is because our filmmakers have rarely been spiritually inclined. I don't want to make any film that lies to people, that leads them to believe something that isn't true or that encourages them to behave stupidly or selfishly. I don't want to add to the world's pain. I hope that all of my movies will help to lift and exalt the audience. All movies teach. All filmmakers are teachers. As such, we're either teaching lies or teaching truth. I hope that all my films are solid and true.

GA: Are there any film performers or artists you would particularly like to have the opportunity to work with?

RD: As a director working with actors: William Hurt, Denzel Washington, among others. As an actor working with directors: John Sayles, the Coen brothers...actually just about anybody except John Waters.

GA: Both Susan Sarandon and Elizabeth Taylor said that they keep their Oscars in the bathroom at home, while Jack Nicholson uses one of his statuettes as a hat stand. What would you do with your Oscar?

RD: I have absolutely no idea. A problem I most likely will never have to confront. Turn it into a lamp? 

GA: Finally, I must add that I very much liked the ad line for God's Army, Saving The World -- One Soul at a Time. Whose idea was it?

RD: Yep, that's mine.

God's Army has recently opened in California, Oregon and Washington, and is currently showing in 10 states. It will be opening on the East Coast later this summer. Information on current and future showings can be obtained through the film's website,

Click here to read Gregory Avery's review.

*For those of you who are just coming in: I use the term "L.D.S." instead of "Mormon" because friends pointed out to me that "Mormon" connotes worshiping the prophet Mormon, which is not the case, whereas "L.D.S.," which stands for "Latter Day Saints," is technically more correct.  Copyright © 1996-2005 by Nitrate Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.