Ryan Little is both a filmmaker and a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But he doesn't really consider himself a maker of Mormon films.

"There's certainly nothing wrong with wanting to do that, to make movies specifically for the LDS audience. It's worthy work, really," he explained by phone from Arizona.

"However, that's just not what I'm interested in doing at this point in my career," the Canadian-born, 37-year-old director continued. "I'm trying to make films that will appeal to a wider audience. You know, good, old-fashioned popcorn movies."

Of course, while most of Little's movies to date have been crowd-pleasers, they've also had content and messages consistent with his LDS beliefs.

"I guess I'd be a bit of a hypocrite if I didn't at least try to say something positive in each of my movies," Little said with a laugh.

So far, he's built a small but loyal following with his feature-length works. His theatrical debut came in 2002 with the dance drama "Out of Step," which he then followed up with the World War II drama, "Saints and Soldiers" (2003), and the made-for-television romantic comedy, "Everything You Want" (2005).

His latest is "Forever Strong," a sports drama based on stories from the very successful Highland Rugby of Utah program.

This fictionalized version of events stars Sean Faris ("Never Back Down") as Rick Penning, a teen ne'er-do-well who's given a second chance by Highland rugby coach Larry Gelwix (played by Gary Cole).

Little said he originally thought the movie would be something "quick and easy to do," but quickly discovered that wasn't the case. "I thought that staging war scenes was difficult, but they were nothing compared to what my crew and I had to go through staging rugby games."

He even says he bought a book called "Rugby for Dummies" for background, and let screenwriter David Pliler do most of the "heavy-lifting" with the research.

"But we really had to take our time and make sure we got all this stuff right," Little said. "You may think you can get the gist of rugby by watching it on television or on tape, but there's no substitute for being out on the field with someone like coach Gelwix."

The veteran was "invaluable" to the production, according to Little. "Larry is about the nicest, most gracious person you'd ever want to meet and work with."

Little also had praise for his cast. And he claims to have been "pleasantly surprised" when he learned that some recognizable names wanted to work with him. They include Cole, Julie Warner, Sean Astin and Neal McDonough, "who really, really wanted to make a sports movie."

A couple of them even claimed to have seen Little's award-winning "Saints and Soldiers." "I was very flattered to learn they knew who I was already and that they had liked my movie."

Speaking of that film, "Saints" was made for less than $1 million. While it cost considerably more, "Forever Strong" was still a "modest" production. (Little would not disclose the exact figure, but said it was made for less than $10 million.)

Timing had something to do with that amount. For example, Little and his producers were able to land rising stars Faris and Penn Badgley (TV's "Gossip Girl") before they "became much, much more expensive."

"We did get a few lucky breaks here and there," he said.

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Filmmaker Little is a Steven Spielberg fan, citing Spielberg's 1975 smash hit "Jaws" as a major influence and saying that "he's what I aspire to become.

"I'm still learning my craft and am trying to grow as a director with each project, though," he added. "If lucky enough to make something that's as memorable, I could die happy."


E-mail: jeff@desnews.com