Producer Scott Swofford describes the sequel "The Work and the Glory: American Zion" as a considerably "darker" movie than its predecessor.
"I think a few people are going to be surprised," Swofford said during an interview in his Murray office. "This is not a happy period of history that's being shown in the movie. Bad things happened to a lot of good people."
Still, Swofford said he was a bit taken aback when the "American Zion" received a PG-13 rating for "some violence."
He conceded, however, that there are a few gunbattles in the movie, as well as a scene in which a major character is tarred-and-feathered. "Violence in a film is taken more gravely by the (Motion Picture Association of America's ratings board) when that violence is committed against a character which the audience has come to know and love."
"American Zion," opening today, continues the story of the fictional Steed family, who are witnesses to crucial events in early LDS history. The film is based on the second of LDS general authority Gerald N. Lund's best-selling series of Mormon-themed historical novels, and features founding prophet Joseph Smith as a prominent character.
This is not the first of the Mormon-movie genre to receive a PG-13 rating. Richard Dutcher's 2001 mystery-thriller "Brigham City" also got a PG-13, as did the recent World War II drama "Saints and Soldiers."
Swofford admits that the filmmakers are "taking a chance here. There are some faithful church members, and some other Utah audiences, who won't go see a PG-13 film. But we've done our best to keep true to the spirit of the books and still be truthful to the time. We haven't done anything to compromise the material. We haven't tried to be exploitative or edgy."
Swofford, who also produced the official LDS Church films "The Testaments" and "Legacy," said the content in "American Zion" isn't that much more extreme. "I know that parents who felt fine with those films can feel confident in bringing their kids to see this one."
Actor Andrew Bowen, who plays Brigham Young in the film, said he believes "American Zion" will appeal to those outside of the obvious target demographic. "Our movie looks at a unique piece of American history, one that hasn't been told on film before. And its themes of man's inhumanity to man are universal.
"Also, I hope I'm not saying too much here, but the second film ends with a cliffhanger. I dare anyone who sees it to tell me they don't want to see the third movie to find out what happens next." ("The Work and the Glory: American Zion" and the third film in the series, "The Work and the Glory: A House Divided," were filmed back-to-back earlier this year.)
Swofford agrees, and said that was one of the factors in the decision to release "American Zion" more aggressively than the the original "Work and the Glory"; it opens today on nearly 250 screens in 80 cities between Spokane and Orlando.
"We're showing that we believe our film has mass appeal," Swofford said, adding that "getting the film into as many theaters as we can before the next 'Harry Potter' movie creams us and everything else out there." ("Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" opens Nov. 18.)
Swofford, who has produced such IMAX-format hits as "Mysteries of Egypt," called the "Work and the Glory" films a labor of love. He befriended Lund after producing "The Testaments," and conversations about film adaptations of his books followed. "He told me he thought the books had a lot of cinematic elements in them and I agreed."
But filming them didn't become a reality until Larry H. Miller got involved. The prominent Utah businessman and entrepreneur served as executive producer on the films and put up the money for most of the production budget for "American Zion" and "A House Divided."
Swofford said it was not a foregone conclusion that there would be sequels to the first "Work and the Glory." "However, Larry began discussions almost immediately, to see what ideas we had," Swofford said. "It's a big investment for him, but he's a smart businessman and wouldn't have taken the risk if he didn't believe it was worth it."
Shooting the second and third movies back-to-back saved on production costs, and ensured that there were as many returning cast members as possible.
There were a few cast additions, including Bowen, who is better known for comedy than drama (he was a cast member on Fox's "MADtv" from 1998-99 and has appeared in supporting roles on Comedy Central's "Reno 911").
Bowen had "heard of Brigham Young" before taking the part. "But if I had known how important he was to this culture, I might have had more reservations about playing him," the 33-year-old actor said with a laugh.
However, he enjoyed the challenge of "humanizing" the LDS Church leader just as actor Jonathan Scarfe did in his role as church founder Joseph Smith.
"Brigham obviously had a great sense of humor," Bowen said, "and I hope I've done this great man justice."
"American Zion" also features a new director, Sterling Van Wagenen, one of the co-founders of the Sundance Institute and Sundance Film Festival. And there was a new screenwriter on board, Matt Whitaker, who also co-wrote "Saints and Soldiers."
Speaking of writer/director Russel Holt's work on the original "Work and the Glory," Swofford said, "We were very happy with the job he did with the first movie. But this film has a very different, darker tone, one that Sterling was perfect for."
Since shooting wrapped this summer, the filmmakers have been busy in the editing room. In fact, according to Swofford, they haven't even started the editing process for the third movie yet. (Current plans are to release that film sometime next April or May.)
E-mail: [email protected]