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'Joseph Smith' filming proceeds at a fast clip

LDS movie must be done by 2005 anniversary date

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 26 2004 1:00 a.m. MDT

Cast and crew members gather to film a scene for "Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration" at the LDS Church's Motion Picture Studio in Provo Monday.

Keith Johnson, Deseret Morning News

PROVO — Alvin Smith is trying to break up a fight between workers using pickaxes and shovels to carve out the Erie Canal near 1820 Palmyra, N.Y. Rain falls on campfires, tents, mules and yoked oxen.

One of the brawlers takes exception at Smith's intervention and bellows in a Scottish brogue, "Mind your own business, Smith. You should worry about your brother."

Just then Alvin Smith's 14-year-old brother, Joseph, appears on the bank above the crowd of ruffians.

"Hey, Joseph," the brawler hollers. "Ya seen any visions lately?"

The men laugh as Alvin and Joseph Smith retreat, and then a director yells, "Cut." Filming for "Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration" at the LDS Motion Picture Studio in Provo is done for Monday morning, but a relentless schedule awaits.

The film has a firm deadline — President Gordon B. Hinckley of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints wants it done in time to debut at the Joseph Smith Memorial Building in Salt Lake City for the 200th anniversary of Smith's birth in December 2005. The year is also the 175th anniversary of the church's organization.

A script by co-director Gary Cook kicked around for several years, but in January church leaders decided to fast-track the movie for the anniversary.

"We're doing this film now because President Hinckley wants it done now," producer Ron Munns said. "We feel some good pressure. The brethren have indicated they'd like to deliver a film in the theater by the anniversary. We're on schedule."

Previous church films about Smith — "The First Vision" (1976) and its 2004 remake, "Restoration" — are about the boy prophet's story of a visitation by God and Jesus Christ. Tackling a biographical film about his life has been called "the Mount Everest of Mormon filmmaking" by LDS director Richard Dutcher, whose own independent full-length feature film, "The Prophet: The Story of Joseph Smith Jr.," has been marked by several false starts.

Originally due in 2003, Dutcher has expressed a desire to complete his film in time to make it a birthday present for Smith in 2005.

Church leaders have kept a close eye on their own project, planned for 60 to 65 minutes in length. The script has been vetted by historians, the church's correlation committee and by the highest authorities of the church whose 12 million members consider Smith a prophet chosen to restore Christ's church.

"We've had long meetings about the script," said Elder Donald L. Hallstrom of the church's First Quorum of the Seventy and executive director of the Church Audiovisual Department. "Members of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve have taken a very personal role to be comfortable with the way the life of Joseph is portrayed."

Munns called the script "a labor of love but a real labor. It stood up to a lot of scrutiny." The scrutiny was time-consuming but necessary.

"A film never really gets better than its script," he said. "It is doctrinally sound, historically accurate and very appealing, very engaging. Hopefully people will learn some things and feel some things and like it."

Shooting began Oct. 1. Filming for fall will end this week. A winter unit will resume shooting in December. After spring and summer scenes are completed in June, the project will be turned over to editors and composers.

The church began showing free films in the Legacy Theatre of the renovated Joseph Smith Memorial Building in July 1993. Nearly 5 million people watched the first film, "Legacy," which recounted the early history of the church through a fictitious pioneer family.

Legacy was replaced in March 2000 by "The Testaments: Of One Fold and One Shepherd."

Elder Hallstrom said "Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration" will replace "The Testaments," which likely will follow "Legacy" to DVD and video after a waiting period.

The church hasn't discussed the budget for "Joseph Smith," but Elder Hallstrom said, "It'll be a major production in the realm of what 'Legacy' and 'Testaments' have been."

He said the deadline won't be the first priority.

"The quality of the film is the most significant aspect for us," Elder Hallstrom said. "We have every hope it'll be done by December 2005 in a way and manner acceptable to us."

That manner will include some of Joseph Smith's difficult moments, including primitive leg surgery when he was 7.

"We think this film will appeal to those not of our faith," Munns said. "We hope this will help them to appreciate this great man, the challenges he overcame and the church he organized, to see him as a man and not just a prophet."


E-mail: twalch@desnews.com

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