SALT LAKE CITY — Sixteen years ago, Disney distributed a movie about a Mormon missionary. “The Other Side of Heaven” told the story of Elder John H. Groberg, an emeritus General Authority Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who as a 19-year-old served as a missionary in Tonga. In the end of the movie, Elder Groberg returned home and married his faithful girlfriend, Jean, played by Anne Hathaway, and they lived “happily ever after.”
But as is typically the case, there was more to the story of John and Jean Groberg, and on Tuesday, Excel Entertainment, a subsidiary of Deseret Book Company, announced that Mitch Davis will write and direct a sequel to “The Other Side of Heaven," with filming to start in April of this year.
TC Christensen ("17 Miracles") will work as director of photography. The film is scheduled to be released in April 2019.
"Other Side of Heaven" star Christopher Gorham will reprise the lead role, with the story following the true story of Elder Groberg’s return to Tonga with his wife and five little girls — just 10 years after his time as a young missionary — to serve as mission president. A pivotal storyline in the film will focus on the birth and illness of the Grobergs' first son, according to Davis.
“The entire nation of Tonga, all the people of every faith united in fasting and praying for that little boy’s life,” Davis said. “So the message of this movie, I think you’ll be surprised how ecumenical it is, it’s not a Mormon movie at all. It’s a broader movie about faith and love.”
However, Elder Groberg wants to be clear that while he is the subject of the film, its purpose is bigger than his story.
“It’s nothing to do with me,” Elder Groberg told media Tuesday. “It’s the story of people who are willing to serve missions and to take their families into places that otherwise they probably wouldn’t go and do things that they otherwise wouldn’t do.
"I think that’s the great story, that there are people today in our earth that are willing to do things that are beyond their capacity, beyond their ability, because of their faith in the leaders and ultimately their faith in the head of the church and their faith in feeling that this is what the Lord wants them to do.”
Davis said he was initially hesitant to make a sequel to the first movie, unsure if he would have a sufficient budget to do Elder Groberg’s story justice. But thanks to a Fijian 47 percent tax rebate for films made within the country, he now feels confident that they have the means to move forward with the project.
Elder Groberg revealed that he wrote his book, “In the Eye of the Storm,” which inspired “The Other Side of Heaven,” after encouragement from then-Elder Thomas S. Monson, who had been assigned to the South Pacific region during Elder Groberg’s time as a mission president.
“John, I want you to write a book about your missionary experiences in Tonga,” Elder Groberg recalled President Monson saying, later following up several times on his idea before eventually giving Elder Groberg a firm assignment.
“Finally, he could tell that I wasn’t that serious about it so he said, ‘John, I want that manuscript on my desk in one year from today,’” Elder Groberg recalled. One year later, Elder Groberg placed a manuscript on his desk.
New Zealand actor Russell Dixon, who Davis said looks just like the former LDS Church president, will portray President Monson in the film.
Arthur VanWagenen, director of Excel Entertainment, said that he believes it is important for Mormons to continue to tell their stories.
“I’ve just become convinced in the last five years of this doing this job that there’s never enough. We have to be able to tell our stories,” VanWagenen said. “Other people can tell them too but Mormons have to be able to tell their stories so that we can own them and learn something about ourselves.
“It’s not dissimilar to watching ‘Black Panther’ this last weekend. We’re at sort of this zenith of black filmmaking and a renaissance of black filmmakers and that’s beautiful and good and Mormons need to be able to embrace their own stories and their own movies,” VanWagenen said.
And while telling those stories may require money, Davis says he believes it’s worth it.
“How big is our story? What budget level is appropriate to the Mormon story? Well, I think it’s pretty big and I think we should think big and not be afraid to swing hard for the fences," Davis said. "That doesn’t mean that every movie has to be big. … But the realities of the movie business are … you have to have a certain amount of raw production value inherent in the film.
You gotta look like a big movie, you gotta sound like a big movie, you gotta have a couple big actors’ names in your movie, otherwise you get stuck inside a market box.”
Speaking of big names, noticeably absent in the sequel cast, is Academy Award-winning actress Anne Hathaway whose influence on the film’s success is not lost on Davis.
“Why did the original ‘Other Side of Heaven’ do what it did? It’s not because I’m the most brilliant filmmaker in the world, it’s because Anne Hathaway was in it,” Davis said. “That’s the secret sauce. Because Anne Hathaway was in it, Disney wanted to distribute it, everybody wanted it in the nation, worldwide.”14 comments on this story
However, in the years since the film’s release, Jean Groberg — who will be played in the new film by New Zealand actress Natalie Medlock — has filled notebooks collecting letters and stories from people who have shared the film’s impact on their lives. And that, said Davis, has nothing to do with a Hollywood star.
“It’s because the spirit of the Tongan people and the spirit of Polynesia and the spirit of the Lord that these movies contain. They have a certain magic to them and they do good,” he said. “People see them and they feel something and they change their lives and really what a cool thing to create a movie that just kind of works its way around the world, does its own thing and without compulsory means affects people.”