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

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.

"You can't tell Mormon stories without telling specifics of Mormonism," he says. "I had no interest in making Mormon doctrine look just like any other Protestant religion. Why would I do that? Why not make it some other religion, like other Mormon filmmakers. There are tons of Mormon filmmakers who are telling Mormon stories and then take Mormonism out of it. It's cowardly and greedy. They do it because they think they'll make more money at it, but they're doing a disservice to their own people."

Though stung by the criticism, Dutcher says the response has been mostly "positive." He says he received "a ton of response" about "God's Army;" many people wrote to say the movie inspired them to serve missions or to be baptized. Dutcher says he even received "positive feedback" from an LDS general authority about "God's Army," "but I don't want to say any more. It's not for public consumption. It was a private conversation. I don't want to use that as a marketing ploy. But it would shut these people up."

This new mix of Mormonism and movies has proved touchy. Dutcher was even taken to task by some Mormons for violence in the murder mystery "Brigham City," although the actual violence was not even shown on camera. Others were offended that he showed missionaries playing practical jokes on one another and acting, well, like 19-year-old boys, never mind that Dutcher served a mission (in Mexico) and wrote the script based on personal experiences.

That notwithstanding, Dutcher is just getting warmed up. "I will stick with the Mormon themes until they stop making money," he says. "And if that happened, I'd move on to make money, so I could make some more of them. If I had the money, I'd make movies till I ran out of money."

Dutcher has aspired to make movies since he was a young teen, but it has been a long and winding road to reach that point. He spent his early years in Mount Vernon, Ill. His father, Lyle Hill, was a truck driver, meatpacker and bartender. He also was, in Dutcher's words, an alcoholic and a womanizer who came home "loud and rowdy" after his binges. He remembers visiting his father at his bar, riding his tricycle between the tables and playing pinball while his father worked.

"The first seven years were pretty grim," says Dutcher. "We lived in tiny houses, there was no money; Mom worked and Dad was gone all the time. In one of our houses you could see the dirt through the holes in the floor."

Dutcher's parents divorced when he was 6. "He went his way, and I didn't see him again till I was 23," he says. "I tried. I didn't harbor ill feelings. He had problems with alcoholism, and those were the reasons the marriage fell apart. It was good to meet him and talk to him, but it's hard when you've grown up without a father and learned to do without him. It's hard to create a relationship. We talk every couple of years, but there's not a lot to talk about except the Cubs."

His mother remarried a man named Harold Dutcher about a year later. He was a businessman whose knack for failed businesses kept the family on the move in search of a new start. From Illinois they went to Wisconsin, Kentucky and then Utah, just in time for Dutcher to begin his sophomore year at Hillcrest High.

It wasn't until years later that Dutcher learned his stepfather carried a dark secret. He was convicted of molesting a young girl shortly after Dutcher returned from his church mission. Later, other similar cases came to light. Harold is in prison, scheduled to be released in 2007.

"I get a phone call every now and then (from his stepfather)," says Dutcher. "He saw 'God's Army.' He liked it."

And how did his father react to the pedophile father who is mentioned in the movie? "He never mentioned it. I never mentioned it. I was interested to see how he would react to it, because I was very forthright about it in the movie."

Harold's one legacy is his religion. Dutcher and his family converted from the Pentecostal faith to Harold's LDS faith. "The first time I attended an LDS meeting I remember immediately liking it," says Dutcher. It wasn't until he was 14 that Dutcher says he was truly converted through an experience he would later recount through the African-American missionary in "God's Army." The family was visiting Mormon historical sites in Illinois, and he had been praying for months to know if the church was true.

"I had read the Book of Mormon a couple of times, as well as the Bible, and I had been very active, but I never felt that experience of having personal revelation that it was true," he says. "I was at a crossroads, if I was going to keep going. I was sitting in the Carthage jail where Joseph Smith was martyred, and I bowed my head and asked if it was real. I began sobbing and I couldn't stop. Everybody was looking at me and wondering what was happening. It was powerful and wonderful. I was just filled with light. It didn't come from within; it came from without. I was just a participant. It is still something I draw on and go back to."

Just before the start of Dutcher's senior year at Hillcrest High, the family moved again, this time to Kansas; Dutcher remained behind. He stayed with one family and then another, but it proved uncomfortable for both. He was kicked out of his second home at Christmastime and was on his own.

Dutcher spent part of his senior year living out of his beat-up, bumpers-falling-off '71 Mercury Comet. He slept in his car and showered at school or at friends' houses. He had little money, which was nothing new. He had just two pairs of pants to wear, and he survived on macaroni and cheese and 29-cent hamburgers from Dee's.

"I had just enough money to keep gas in the car and eat a little," he recalls. "If there was a choice between seeing a movie or eating, I'd choose the movie. . . . I remember wishing that someday I could buy a can of soda and it would not be a big deal."

Despite his meager circumstances, Dutcher earned good grades, edited the school newspaper, acted in school plays, worked various jobs to support himself and served as student body vice president. He was offered several scholarships, and accepted one to BYU.

"He was not a wild guy, but he marched to his own drummer," recalls Shellie Jorgensen, a Dutcher confidant and former classmate. "He dressed differently than everyone else. Preppy was the fashion, and he wore a black leather jacket, jeans and the same shoes the whole year. He was short and scrawny. Anyone who didn't know him would think he was a nerd, but he wasn't. Everyone who knew him liked him. He was always very kind and very independent, and he was a hard worker. He didn't ask for anything from anybody."

Says Gwen, "He's so free of baggage for someone who went through what he went through. It astounds me. He's got confidence. He had to be independent at an early age. At 14, if he wanted clothes he bought them, and if he wanted meals he cooked them. I admire him for how he was able to come out of it without resentment and with a positive outlook on what he can achieve."

There was never any doubt what Dutcher would do someday. Not in his mind or anyone else's. He never made an announcement or a conscious decision; it was just understood.

"I never considered doing anything else," says Dutcher. "It would be either films or novels."

Says Jorgensen, "He always had a real passion for writing and acting. For years my husband and I have been waiting for him to do this. I told my husband when we got married that this guy is going to be famous someday. He has that something about him."

His love of writing and storytelling came at least in part from growing up alone. His mother was working, his father was gone and his older brother (by 2 1/2 years) was off with his own friends. "I had to make up stories to entertain myself," he says. "I didn't have any money, so I couldn't go anywhere." He wrote his first novel when he was 11. (Years later he realized it was a rip-off of "Alive.")

When he was 13, Dutcher was profoundly moved by an article he read in the Ensign, an LDS Church magazine, in which church President Spencer W. Kimball urged LDS artists to tell the Mormon story.

"It was exciting, thrilling," he says. "We had a really big lawn in Kentucky, an acre and a half of grass that I mowed with a push mower. That's how I would occupy my time, thinking about stories or how to make films or novels."

His love for telling stories came to include the art in all its various forms — writing, theater, movies, acting. It was all the same.

He wrote a play in high school — "It was terrible," he says — and he began acting in plays.

"People loved to see him in our school plays," says Jorgensen. "He'd improvise during the play and have the place roaring with laughter. It would throw the other actors for a loop. It was great. You could see he had an absolute talent for it. He was constantly writing things and acting."

Dutcher spent a year at BYU and then took a series of jobs to pay for a church mission. He pumped gas and changed tires in Arizona, and he cooked pizza, worked in a nursing home, pressed apple cider and drilled for oil in Kansas. Through it all, he would come home at the end of each day, clean up, write his stories, send them to publishers and wait for the next rejection slip.

"I thought the only way to get out of those jobs was to publish a book or sell a script," he says.

After serving his church mission, Dutcher returned to BYU and began to audition for locally produced movies. He had small parts in church films, TV movies and independent films. After graduating from BYU in 1988, he moved to Los Angeles to find more movie roles, but they were hard to come by.

During his 10 years in L.A., he was a substitute schoolteacher and worked the graveyard shift at 7-Eleven while pursuing a career in movies and supporting his wife and children. For a time, he stayed home with the kids, writing scripts and managing apartments on the side while Gwen worked. An art major at BYU, she was a master sculptor for Disney's collectible porcelain figures — Winnie the Pooh, Cinderella, Thumper.

"We certainly got to see what it was like to struggle financially, but they were incredibly happy years," says Gwen. "That's what I expected when I married an actor and filmmaker. We lived paycheck-to-paycheck occasionally. The worst it got was when we maxed all our credit cards. All we had was our gas card, so we'd get our groceries at the gas station."

Dutcher waited for the big break that never came. Nobody was going to discover him, he realized, so he decided the only solution was to make his own movie. He wrote, directed, produced, marketed and raised money for "Girl Crazy," a romantic comedy. He made the movie with $50,000 and no name actors.

"That's where I learned how to make films," he says. "That was my graduate school."

It took five years to complete the project, and Dutcher put every dime he had into it. He sold the movie to HBO, but didn't make enough to cover his costs. When Dutcher met with a distributor about international sales — which would have provided him with significantly increased profits — he was told that he must add nudity every seven or eight minutes. Dutcher, who had become so entrenched in Hollywood and making movies that he was slowly drifting away from his religion, was at a crossroads.

"It was at that moment that I wondered what am I doing here," he says. "I knew I wasn't going to do that. I walked out really in despair. I thought there is no way I can be LDS and be a successful filmmaker. It was a real turning point. I thought I was going to have to give it up. I had come to a place where I had to choose. I knew the formula (for a successful movie) by then. I even had the film in my head that if I made it I would have everything I needed — recognition and money. Then suddenly you have a career. I even started shooting the film.

"I was lying in bed one night and saw where I was heading and it wasn't a good place. I was really going down the wrong path. I wasn't being true to the kid. These weren't my stories; I was just responding to the market. Mormonism was a big part of it. These films could have been made by anybody."

Dutcher quit the movie business and planned to become a full-time schoolteacher and novelist. Or so he thought. One day he was barbecuing hamburgers in the yard when his eye fell on the L.A. Times movie section.

"There were four new gay-themed films opening in L.A.," he says. "I was so frustrated. Why do they get to make movies, and I don't? Why can't Mormons do the same thing? Each film doesn't have to be for the whole world. Just appeal to enough people to get your money back. Even if only LDS liked the films, that's enough. It was so clear. It was as if someone shook me. I sat at the picnic table and started to work it out. Up to that point I was writing mainstream stuff. I wondered what kind of story can I tell as a Mormon that no one else can tell. It was a totally new place. I began writing. I'd be weeping at the computer. Just going through these stories that moved me and taught me. I realized I had spent five years on 'Girl Crazy' to make 90 minutes of fluff. It was cute, but it didn't mean anything. It was totally disposable entertainment, and it almost drove me to bankruptcy. I decided five years of my life was worth more than that, and at least I was going to make something that matters so I could look back on it and say it was worth it."

He wrote a script for a Mormon Western and even started to raise money for it when he realized the film would be too expensive for an independent filmmaker to produce. There was no way an investor was going to give him $2 million to $3 million for a movie that targeted an untested market. To make a movie he could afford, Dutcher decided it had to be set in L.A, it had to be in present day and it had to use young actors (read: cheaper, nonunion). Then it dawned on him: Missionaries.

"What better movie to lead off with?" he says. "I drew on my own experiences. I took two years and condensed them. They tell you to write about what you know. I knew this was absolutely right."

He met plenty of skepticism along the way. It took him four years to raise $300,000 and produce 'God's Army.' Dutcher played the lead role in part to save money. "It was hard to find

the right actor on that budget," he says. "I almost cast someone else. But at the last minute I thought I'm not going to do all the work and let someone else have all the fun."

"God's Army" was largely a husband-wife production. Gwen, who was a line producer for "Girl Crazy," helped with costumes, marketing, sets and publicity. "She would use her maiden name so we wouldn't sound like a mom-and-pop outfit," says Dutcher. "It was just Gwen and I until a couple of weeks before the movie actually opened. I was working constantly. We were in over our heads." They even booked theaters and hand-delivered prints of the movies to Utah theaters before signing with Excel Entertainment.

The movie, of course, took the industry by surprise. "God's Army" played in 240 cities nationwide last year, grossing $2.6 million at the box office before being sold to video.

That paved the way for Dutcher's next film, "Brigham City," another film that went mainstream, albeit not as successfully as "God's Army." Now Dutcher has turned his energy to another Mormon-movie project: "The Prophet: The Story of Joseph Smith Jr."

It will be by far his biggest undertaking, with a production cost of $10 million and financial support from Larry H. Miller. Dutcher will use "recognizable actors" this time and will play only a minor character in the movie. Most of the filming will take place in Canada, New York and Missouri. Dutcher expects to complete the film in a year and a half.

"I feel peaceful about it," he says. "There's something very fitting, going back to that experience in Carthage jail. It feels right. I'm surprised nobody has beaten me to it."

Dutcher has done extensive research on his subject and consulted with Richard Bushman, a Joseph Smith historian, but the movie is likely to rankle a few Mormons again.

"Most of us don't really know that much about Joseph Smith," he says. "I found that out myself. I'm very familiar with the scriptures, but when you go into historical facts and his story, well, I had no idea. They're not bad things, or good things, just the particulars of his life. I think it's better when you see him as a man. We have elevated him to Godlike stature. There's nothing wrong with revering him and honoring him in his divine mission, but there is something wrong with believing that while he was here he was perfect. It leads us to a false understanding of the role of prophets. I find it comforting. If the Lord can use flawed people to do his work, there's hope for all of us."

Dutcher, meanwhile, wonders why other Mormons aren't telling Mormon-related stories when their religion is such a central part of their lives, but then he seems to answer his own question — "Maybe it's because they realize they're not going to get rich." After years of financing films with personal credit cards and loans and "always living right on the edge" — he was $30,000 in debt when he started "God's Army" — he still has never owned a home. He's still renting a house in Provo but recently purchased an acre of land in the area. He also splurged and bought himself a second car — another first for him.

"It feels good to have something," he says of his land purchase. "Hopefully, with another movie, we can start building a house. I don't want to take out a huge loan from the bank. I've never had the living that could guarantee a certain salary. . . . I feel better, but I'm very aware that I might be back there again in a couple of years. Filmmaking is a pretty precarious, unstable way of living."

Not that he's complaining. He is living the boyhood dream of making films and telling stories and loving it. He typically writes in the morning and puts on his producer's hat in the afternoon and then dotes on his children — Lucas, Ethan, Eli and Issac — and his wife. By the way, you can see Gwen in "Girl Crazy," in which she is identified in the credits as "sexy neighbor." And that's Gwen being baptized in the ocean in "God's Army," and that's her again in the picture on the wall of his house and another on his desk in "Brigham City," identified as "Wes' sexy wife."

Looking back on his two latest films, Dutcher says, "It feels good. It feels really good. I hope I get better at it — better at storytelling. I'm not satisfied with what I've done. Someday I hope to make a film, sit back and say, you know what, there's not one thing I'd change about it."

E-mail: drob@desnews.com