Richard Dutcher, Mormon moviemaker

Published: Sunday, June 17 2001 12:00 a.m. MDT

Richard Dutcher, creative force behind "God's Army" and "Brigham City," wants to tell "Mormon stories," not offend his key audience.

Johanna Workman, Deseret News

PROVO — If Richard Dutcher, the Mormon moviemaker, ever runs out of movie ideas he could mine material from his own life.

He could tell the story of a young boy who fills his long hours at home alone by writing his own novels, and years later, after long days working in oil fields and pizza joints and nursing homes, he writes more stories.

He could write the tale of a father who chases women and works behind bars and a stepfather who chases girls and is locked behind bars.

He could tell a Disneyesque story of a scrawny high school kid who lives in his car and looks the part of a rebel with his scraggly hair and black leather jacket except he is a student body officer and editor of the school newspaper and much more.

He could tell the classic tale of a starving actor who has to buy his groceries at a gas station because it's the last place that will give him credit, and then after spending five years making a movie he is told he must add nudity and sex scenes — so he quits the business and resigns himself to being a schoolteacher.

Dutcher, the writer-producer-director-actor for "God's Army" and "Brigham City," could turn his life into a movie, and, for that matter, he already has. Parts of his life were spread among the various characters in "God's Army," his movie about missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The missionary with the pedophile father? That's Dutcher and his stepfather. The missionary who had the emotional religious-conversion experience? Dutcher again.

Maybe he is a devout Mormon, a member of his ward's elders quorum presidency and a returned missionary and the first Mormon to take Mormon movies to the big screen, but he didn't exactly grow up in Happy Valley with church on Sunday and Family Home Evening with Jell-O on Mondays.

"I've had some dark, ugly kinds of experiences I'd rather not experience again," he says.

By all accounts, Dutcher has emerged from it all remarkably unscathed, an energetic, devout, driven man of 37 years with four children and a talented, sculptor wife.

"He has succeeded through an incredible force of will," says his wife, Gwen Dutcher. "Like pushing a huge boulder up a hill."

Dutcher was a down-and-almost-out filmmaker in California when he stumbled upon the idea of making movies for an audience he knew, or thought he knew: Mormons. He wrote "God's Army" based on his own missionary experiences, then moved to Provo to baby-sit the project. Right from the start, he had decided he didn't care if the movie offended non-Mormons; after all, he reasoned, people had been poking fun at Mormons in films for years. This movie was for Mormons. But by the time the final credits rolled, it was Mormons — some of them anyway — who were offended by his movies and bashed him for it in letters to Utah newspapers.

"There's a vocal minority who think I'm a child of Satan, and then there's the non-Mormon community who compare me to Frank Capra," says Dutcher. "You can't be both. I'm just a normal guy. They see one movie, and they think they know the guy. I've been called egotistical and blasphemous. It kind of hurt. It felt like I was being judged by my own people. Suddenly, I was outside the culture to these people. I wasn't one of them. Then it got very personal. They questioned my honesty; they say I just want to make money off the church. People who don't know me at all. It's hard to read about yourself in the paper and have people describe you as something that you're not. They're writing about this character Richard Dutcher that doesn't feel like me at all."

Apparently, it's acceptable to show Catholic Mass or Catholic confessionals or Jewish bar mitzvahs, but to some it was unthinkable to show a Mormon church meeting or a sacrament prayer or a healing. Dutcher of course disagrees.

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