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Director finds success in 'Work and Glory'

Published: Friday, Nov. 17 2006 12:00 a.m. MST

Director Sterling Van Wagenen prides himself on being "an actor's director."

Vineyard Distribution

In one respect, Sterling Van Wagenen already considers his historical drama "The Work and the Glory III: A House Divided" — which opens Wednesday — to be a success.

Van Wagenen prides himself on being what is referred to in show business as an actor's director, one who can get "moments of real honesty and truth" from cast members. And he believes he was able to do that with this third and final film in the "Work and the Glory" trilogy, inspired by Gerald N. Lund's best-selling novels about early LDS Church history.

"There were times when I could see my actors really got to that one perfect, real moment," Van Wagenen said. He offered examples with Sam Hennings, who plays the fictional Benjamin Steed; Brenda Strong, as his wife Mary Ann; and Jon Scarfe, who portrays LDS Church founder Joseph Smith. "Sam, Brenda and Jon — they all had it."

Not that Van Wagenen is worried about his film's potential for box-office success. The first two certainly weren't flops, though their relatively high production and promotion costs — estimated at close to $9 million and $5 million, respectively — were massive by LDS filmmaking standards.

"I think there's reason for optimism that the movie will do well," Van Wagenen said during an interview in the offices of the film's distributor, Excel Entertainment. "And there's always a certain hope from this group of LDS filmmakers — be it Richard Dutcher ("God's Army"), be it Mitch Davis ("The Other Side of Heaven") or myself — that we'll be the one who makes the film that really crosses over with audiences."

So far, the biggest box-office smash by an LDS filmmaker is Jared Hess' "Napoleon Dynamite," though that film wasn't LDS-specific. "Maybe that's the way to go," Van Wagenen said, "keeping that out of the movie entirely. Who really knows? But that really wasn't an option for me."

"A House Divided" and its predecessor, "American Zion," marked a return to feature filmmaking for Van Wagenen, after a lengthy hiatus since "Alan & Naomi" in 1992. During the mid-'90s he was busy heading up the film program at the University of Central Florida. (Among that program's students were Dan Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, of "The Blair Witch Project" fame.)

"(The success of 'Blair Witch') was really exciting to see," Van Wagenen said. "When they started, they only really hoped they could pay off their investors."

Those students' enthusiasm also helped Van Wagenen rediscover his love for filmmaking. So when producer Scott Swofford, a longtime friend, suggested he direct the second and third "The Work and the Glory" films, it was an offer he couldn't refuse.

The two films were actually shot back to back in Tennessee, though screenwriter Matt Whitaker had to scramble to complete the third script as shooting on the second film wrapped early last year. "It was pretty crazy, but it was rewarding, as well," Van Wagenen said. "I learned a lot about myself making those two films and wouldn't trade that experience for anything."

In addition to his filmmaking and teaching experience, Van Wagenen was also one of the co-founders of the Sundance Film Festival and the Sundance Institute.

He said he's taken note of the festival's increasing devotion to documentaries, especially since he's made a few himself (including a 2001 piece about the Dead Sea Scrolls). "Documentary filmmaking is definitely growing as an art form, which has piqued my interest. It's a huge change of pace from making a period piece," he said, adding that his next project will explore Islamic art.


E-mail: jeff@desnews.com

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