Lights. Camera. Prayer. A mini-Hollywood grows in Utah
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Lights. Camera. Prayer. A mini-Hollywood grows in Utah
Film crews capture a scene in one of the "Book of Mormon Videos" produced at a studio owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in Provo, Utah, Sept. 3, 2019. Movies made by the church are an important part of a film and TV ecosystem in northern Utah — and there’s not an R-rating in sight. Kim Raff/The New York Times.

by Elizabeth A. Harris

PROVO, UT (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- In the heavy quiet of the Utah desert, past fields of alfalfa and fruit trees, past the Goshen trailer park and a big, sprawling dairy farm, the domes of Jerusalem rise up from the patchy grass.

Set way back from the road, this maze of open-air passageways and courtyards is about the size of two football fields, an unusual vision of limestone bumping up against the Utah Rockies. It has played host to Mary and Joseph, John the Baptist and Jesus — as well as Lehi, Amulek and Alma the Younger.

This is the Motion Picture Studio South Campus, owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Jerusalem set, near Goshen, Utah, is part of the church’s substantial film and media production arm, which includes full-time producers, editors and animators, and a fully equipped studio in Provo, complete with sound stages, editing bays and a clutch of 19th-century Americana houses constructed on a backlot.

The church is an important piece of a film and TV ecosystem in northern Utah, which includes a small world of independent films that cater to the Latter-day Saints market, BYUtv (part of Brigham Young University, which is affiliated with the church), as well as mainstream commercials, television and movie productions that film in the state, drawn by a generous rebate program and its proximity to Los Angeles.

Taken together, it’s like its own little Hollywood in the mountains. For the country’s 7 million Latter-day Saints — 6,709,072 according to the church — it is also an answer to a culture that often does not speak its language, and a way to reinforce the conservative values it finds lacking in much of popular entertainment.

Here, the faithful can see their own stories — films about prominent church figures or a series reenacting Bible scenes — without the mockery (sometimes gentle, sometimes not) they’re often subject to, like in Broadway’s “The Book of Mormon” musical. And there is not an R rating in sight.

A Bounty of Work
Ben Hoopes, a carpenter with a slow, rolling voice, builds sets in Utah. Last December, he made one for a church Christmas concert. Then he put together a talk show set for BYUtv, before moving on to “High School Musical,” a Disney show filming in the area. After that, he worked on the church’s most recent big project: a video series that visualizes (not dramatizes!) scenes from the Book of Mormon; it began releasing episodes on Sept. 20.

On a sunny September morning, Hoopes was out at the church set near Goshen patching up the “limestone” walls after a stretch of shooting for the “Book of Mormon Videos.” This Jerusalem (or Bethlehem or Mesoamerica or wherever the church needs it to be) has a concrete foundation and wooden frame, but the facade is made of Styrofoam coated in a stucco and then painted a nice sandy color. Birds like to nibble at the stucco.

There is a whole community of crew members, directors and producers who, like Hoopes, carve out a living working freelance in Utah. “I’ve always had an abundance of work here,” said Chantelle Squires, a director and producer based in Utah who has worked with the church, BYUtv and in local independent films. “I’ve always felt like, why would I leave?”

This year, BYU Broadcasting, which owns BYUtv, is in production on 25 shows including TV movies, scripted dramas, reality shows, religious content and a cooking show. It is staffed by 158 full-time employees, more than 200 students who work part time, and a small army of freelancers who operate in just about every job, from directors and producers to grips and production assistants.

The network says its audience is growing, and its sketch comedy show Studio C, which is like a G-rated “Saturday Night Live,” has nearly 2 billion views on YouTube. But it still sometimes brushes up against a barrier that holds it apart.

Take “Dwight in Shining Armor,” a comedy that premiered this year about a 21st century teenage boy in the suburbs and a warrior princess who awakens there after being asleep for 1,000 years. Michael Dunn, the managing director of BYU Broadcasting, said the show was tested with focus groups in Dallas (“heavily evangelical,” Dunn noted) and San Diego (“very heavily agnostic”). He said that the audiences, made up of parents with children, loved the show. But there were a few who said that because it was made by BYU, they wouldn’t watch it.

“People have bias,” he said. “You can’t get around that.”

Still, there is enough demand for this kind of content to beget a streaming service called Living Scriptures that is geared specifically to Latter-day Saints (the church and its followers no longer refer to themselves as Mormons). Its 2,500 titles are arranged into Netflix-style categories with a distinct tilt, like Church History, Animated Book of Mormon, Must See LDS Films, and Miracles Collection.

And then there are the actors. Most Americans probably wouldn’t recognize Kirby Heyborne’s blond waves — but many Latter-day Saints do. Along with a number of national commercials, including a Snickers spot with Mr. T, Heyborne has played Elder Calhoun in “The Best Two Years,” a movie about four missionaries in the Netherlands, and Jared in “The R.M.” (“Returned Missionary.”)

“Just today, I was at Walmart picking up some chocolate milk and the bagger was really friendly to me,” Heyborne said one day last month. “At the very end — and you can kind of tell, people get a little twinkle in their eye — he very kindly said to me, ‘Do you like it when people recognize you?’”

But Heyborne has also caught some criticism from the faithful. In 2008, he was in a commercial for Miller Lite, a decision for which he still sometimes gets a scolding. (Latter-day Saints are supposed to abstain from alcohol, coffee, tea and tobacco.) Heyborne is hosting a new show on BYUtv called “Making Good,” and under a promo video posted on YouTube, one commenter wrote, “He drank beer. I hate him.”

Heyborne, who is a member of the church, said he did not actually drink the beer.

While actors in Utah can become something of a face, they generally cannot convert that into a proper living. Jasen Wade, who has crisp blue eyes and the kind of chin you could use to shave ice, said that when he works as a leading man in these independent movies — most of which are low-budget affairs shot in just a couple of weeks — he makes $200 to, occasionally, $450 a day.

“In my entire career, I’ve probably made money on three films,” said Wade, who works at a power plant and just got his real estate license. “Other than that, I either break even or I’m in the hole because I have to take off work to be there.”

By the Book
On the set, one camera was trained on a group of women dancing in flowy, midcalf skirts, swishing scarves around their heads in a demure nod to seduction. Another focused on the wicked King Noah who drank wine and flirted with concubines from beneath an elaborate hat.

Nearby a producer named Aaron Merrell, who works full time for the church, draped a well-worn copy of the Book of Mormon across his lap, “Season Three” printed neatly in permanent marker along the outer pages. This was a shoot for the church’s “Book of Mormon Videos,” and Merrell was keeping an eye on their scripture to make sure the action stuck to its source material.

The church teaches that in the early 19th century, its founder Joseph Smith discovered inscribed golden plates buried on a hill near his home in Palmyra, New York, which he then translated into English, creating the Book of Mormon. Among other proclamations, the book holds that Jesus Christ appeared in the Americas after his resurrection. That book sets the Latter-day Saints apart from other Christian denominations, who even today often view the relative newcomer faith as suspect — or even apostate.

The “Book of Mormon Videos” are being put on YouTube (viewable in internet-friendly snippets of a couple minutes each) so anyone who wants to watch them can: Missionaries who will use them as proselytizing tools or members who might show them to their kids. And, the church hopes, perhaps even nonbelievers who are curious about the faith will watch.

The church also makes self-help and inspirational videos that live on YouTube, on topics like addiction, bullying and how to recover after discovering that a spouse watches pornography. There are videos for use in its temples, as well as instructional videos on topics including how its clergy should protect children from abuse, directions for missionaries on diet, hygiene and exercise, and even advice on how to maintain a church parking lot.

“The goal of all of our productions is to create messages that invite all of God’s children to follow Jesus Christ,” said Scott Smiley, director of film and video for the church. “That goes from parking lot maintenance videos all the way to the Bible and Book of Mormon videos.

“Really,” he added, “that means to act as he acted.”

Randy Astle, author of “Mormon Cinema: Origins to 1952,” said that the first church-sponsored movie was a silent film called “One Hundred Years of Mormonism” made in 1913, and that the effort has continued steadily since 1953. Now, with movies and videos as a regular part of religious classes, church and cultural activities, “it just permeates all aspect of Mormon culture,” he said.

“The church also kind of positions itself as providing an alternative to Hollywood,” he said. By offering up its own content and steering members away from what it sees as problematic, it’s telling followers, “You need to look for this good moral content,” he added.

But its productions, he said, are not likely to make film critics particularly effusive.

“Films we see as classics challenge us,” Astle said. “They probe dark subject matter, they challenge our beliefs. When they’re made by the church, the people who pay for them don’t want that. They want them to affirm belief. To answer questions, not to ask them.”

The technical production, however, is impressive, he said, so they can look like Hollywood movies.

But on set, it is quickly made clear this is not Hollywood. To kick off every day of shooting, the cast and crew gather around the monitors or the cameras, and they pray.

And they are all praying the same way, because just about every person on a church production — actors, directors, carpenters, script supervisors — is a Latter-day Saint themselves. Merrell, the church producer, said that exceptions can be made if a particular specialty needs to be filled, but it is “generally preferred” that crew members be church members. Those in good standing are given what is called a temple recommend, a little wallet-size card that attests to their status. (A church spokeswoman said there are exemptions for religious organizations that make such hiring preferences legal.)

Becky Swasey, head of the hair and makeup department on the “Book of Mormon Videos” project, has worked on movies made by AMC and Francis Ford Coppola. She said there is a vibe on set that comes from a shared sense of mission and purpose. But the shoots feel unusual in other ways, too.

“People don’t swear — I’ve got to watch my mouth!” she said. “There’s no coffee or tea. And people tend to be a little less divalike.”

A First Family Screening
John Hajicek arrived at the Megaplex Theaters at Jordan Commons in Sandy, Utah, dressed in a sharp blue suit, clutching a locked briefcase in each hand. Inside, he carried what he said was precious Latter-day Saints memorabilia. He had copies of the Book of Mormon that appear to have been printed in the 19th century. An early pencil sketch of Joseph Smith. A suede map Smith supposedly carried around in his pocket.

Hajicek had been invited to a film screening that night for “Out of Liberty,” a movie about a jailbreak, in which one of the people doing the breaking is Joseph Smith.

The director, Garrett Batty, also invited some very special guests: members of the Smith family.

“To all the descendants of Joseph and Lucy,” Michael Kennedy, one of those descendants, said from the front of the theater, “would you please stand up.”

Several dozen people put their popcorn aside and rose from their seats. The room took it in (“Wow!” a woman breathed), and then burst into a firm and gracious applause.

And with that, the movie could start.

© 2019 The New York Times Company

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