Researching further, he became a really compelling story that shows the diversity of our membership. We didn't even know there were members in Nepal. We were delighted to find out there is a small branch. —Jeff Roberts, producer
SALT LAKE CITY — The formula was anything but scientific.
When director Blair Treu and producer Jeff Roberts began making a movie aimed at introducing The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints through six dedicated members, they knew the film needed rich diversity with a good balance of men and women. They needed people living Christ-centered lives who were not shy in front of a camera. They needed stories that were entertaining, deeply compelling and appealing to all faiths.
Those they found included a humanitarian from Nepal, a college football coach of Samoan heritage, a Costa Rican mother who is also a kickboxer, an African-American bishop from Atlanta, a famous World War II pilot and the mother of a Mormon missionary from Utah.
"The short answer is we were led to these families. That's the truth," Treu said. "But the way we got there was kind of a long and winding road, if you will."
"Meet the Mormons," an 80-minute film, opens in theaters nationwide Oct. 10. The net proceeds go to charitable causes.
"Meet the Mormons" is intended to provide an overview of who Mormons are and a chance for people to get to know the LDS Church by going right to the source, said Treu, the film's director, executive producer and writer.
"We felt like the overall selection should represent the face of the church," said Treu, a California native and BYU graduate who worked for the Walt Disney Company for several years before striking out on his own as a director/producer in the 1990s. "People may not realize we have more members outside of Utah and the United States than inside, so it needed to have that diverse representation."
With 15 million members, there was a lot of potential for diverse stories. Treu and Roberts sought a good balance between male- and female-driven stories. Each profile needed to have an entertaining element and "a vehicle" for telling a deeper story of lives centered on the gospel. The filmmakers also wanted "Meet the Mormons" to appeal to all faiths.
Treu and Roberts took both a formal and informal approach to finding these stories. Formally, they reached out to leaders in stakes and wards across the world, seeking recommendations. Informally, they networked among their friends and colleagues by word of mouth, said Roberts, asking, "Who might be a good fit in this venture?"
"We tried to be organized and efficient, and anticipated we'd go through this nice casting phase and production schedule," said Roberts, whose career includes two decades of filmmaking experience and managing one of the largest private corporate broadcast satellite networks in the world. "In the end, the stories came to us or we were led to them."
The two filmmakers said they were given great latitude on the project.
"Other church productions have required a lot of approvals," Roberts said. "This was different. We kept people informed on what we were doing, the stories we were researching, and as we moved into production, everyone told us to just keep going. When making decisions, we often had a feeling if it was a story we needed to tell. That gave us confidence that we were on the right track."
The first story the crew filmed featured Atlanta bishop Jermaine Sullivan. The cameras followed Sullivan around for two weeks in 2011, showcasing him as a religious leader, in his profession as an academic counselor and as a father and husband.
"We were the guinea pig group," Sullivan said. "I think about how many people could have been selected, so many members and unique stories to tell all over the church. To have my story and my service as bishop be featured was an honor."
Roberts said they learned of Bishnu Adhikari, a humanitarian from Nepal, after reading about him in a newspaper article. Roberts wondered why a man from Nepal was visiting Salt Lake City. Adhikari was in town to attend general conference.
"Researching further, he became a really compelling story that shows the diversity of our membership," Roberts said. "We didn't even know there were members in Nepal. We were delighted to find out there is a small branch."
The duo were on their way to the airport when they got a phone number and the name "Niumatalolo" from LDS Church military relations. After they called the number, the man who answered said, "You might want to contact my brother, Ken. He's the head football coach at Navy."
They eventually visited Niumatalolo, and Treu said he was drawn to the contrast of this coach who trains and coaches muscular football players during the week and teaches little children in Primary on Sundays.
"As we walked out (of his house), we looked at each other and said, 'This is a great story. We need to tell this,’ ” Roberts said.
Because Treu is a licensed pilot and avid flier, he was drawn to a man he unexpectedly met at the LDS Motion Picture Studio one day. The man was Gail Halvorsen, the "Berlin Candy Bomber." He is famous for tying parachutes to candy and dropping it from his airplane to the hungry children in Berlin following World War II. Halvorsen was delighted to share his story.
"Here is a man of service; his life encapsulates that," Treu said. "He is a national treasure."
Halvorsen will turn 94 years old the day the film is released. The Arizona resident said it was an honor to participate in a project with so many impressive people.
"I feel like a sparrow in a flock of eagles," Halvorsen said.
Carolina Muñoz Marin's was another unique story. In addition to being a mother and serving in the church, she is one of the top fighters in Costa Rica's amateur kickboxing circuit.
"Her story illustrates that you can do a lot of interesting things outside (the home) and still be very active in the faith," Treu said.
Amid the display of diversity, Treu and Roberts wanted to be fair to Utah's large membership and feature the mother of a missionary. They contacted the church's missionary department to request the names of a few missionaries who would soon open their big white envelope so the moment could be captured on film.
"A lot of the world knows us through our missionaries, but they don’t know the background or understand there is a family attached to that missionary, and the sacrifice they are making," Roberts said. "As we try to build understanding, we felt that would be an important component."
They found a remarkable story in Dawn Armstrong, who was a struggling, single, teenage mother before her own life was changed after meeting Mormon missionaries.
Comedian and church member Jenna Kim Jones is the film's narrator. Jones lived in New York City while working for "The Daily Show" on Comedy Central.
Treu anticipates that some viewers will push back and say those featured are anything but "normal" Mormons. He respectfully disagrees.
"The reality is not many members are Division I football coaches. But when you drill down into the depths of his story, which is what it’s about it, what is he doing on Sunday? He is doing what every other normal, anxiously engaged Latter-day Saint is doing — he’s fulfilling his calling," Treu said. "All the stories have that. They are entertaining, but these are like the Mormons next door in every normal respect in terms of how they approached their callings and a Christ-centered life."
None of those who participated know how the film will be received, but they have high hopes that it will generate interest in the church.
Sullivan was released as bishop two years ago and then called as a stake president. He hopes viewers can discern the gospel's impact on families.
"Hopefully, people can see the influence of the gospel on families and individuals in the church," Sullivan said.27 comments on this story
Roberts said a highlight was spending time with so many remarkable people.
"They have taught me a lot about what it means to a member of the church, to be a servant and disciple of Christ," he said. "The thing I am going to treasure most out of all of this are the friendships that we developed with each of these families and individuals. If you met them on the street, or went to their homes, they are the same people you see on the screen. They are very genuine. That's one of the reasons people will resonate with their stories."