A BYU film prof described States of Grace as "a spiritual journey couched in Mormon doctrine, but it's more universal than that. He has done something really brave." Do you think you're brave?
Dutcher: I don't know if I'm brave or stupid. I never really wanted to make films that serve anybody else's agenda. I really see film, especially spirituality in film, as an opportunity to explore things and make some kind of spiritual progress, through the filmmaking itself. What interests me is to take something that I'm grappling with, or some dilemma that I have, and explore it throughout the filmmaking process, and then throw it out there into the community and start a conversation.
I'm not going to turn away from a story that I feel like I need to tell simply because somebody is going to get angry about it. Now I don't have any ambitions in any church—LDS or otherwise—as far as achieving any kind of position or notoriety or anything like that. I'm just a guy with a fairly varied religious background and who has an intense interest in religious and spiritual issues.
I recognize that I'm going to be constantly angering people. If I do something that depicts Mormons or Mormonism other than 100 percent positive, it's going to offend a lot people. But if I portray Mormonism too positively, that's going to offend a lot of people. I made peace long ago with the fact that whatever I do, I have to hold true to my own standard, trying to be honest to my own life experiences and philosophies, and to recognize that by doing that, I'm going to anger a lot of people. That's just the way it is.
What did you make of that incident where the box office worker told customers that States of Grace is not a "Christian movie," but a "Mormon movie"?
Dutcher: The poster had some quotes about it being "a great example of Christian filmmaking." [The controversy] came from people who have knee-jerk reactions about any depiction of Mormonism. But it's not like we were hiding anything. The poster also said, "From the director of God's Army and Brigham City." And if anybody had taken even the most surface look into what the story was about, they would have seen that two of the main characters are Mormon missionaries.
I can't imagine anybody actually sitting through the film to the end and having any problem with it. But there's a division between Mormons and evangelical Christians, which to me is really weird because, again, I come out of both communities. I just feel like getting everybody and sitting down and talking about it. I expect it will probably take generations for all those conversations to happen.
Do you bristle at being called a "Mormon filmmaker" or having your films called "Mormon movies"?
Dutcher: Yes. Five or six years ago, when there was no such thing as "Mormon film," I was proud of it. It was a title that didn't have the negative associations that it does now. But I felt like that was a temporarily accurate description to try to communicate to people what I was trying to do—at the time. I don't think that's accurate any more—half because of what springs to people's minds when they think of Mormon movies, and half because of my own spiritual journey that's making me look into the wider world.
I have a hard time now even when people ask me, "Are you Mormon?" I don't know how to answer that anymore, because although the answer is technically "yes," I know what those people have in their minds and the kind of box they put me in. It's almost like you have to sit down and say, "Okay, well, let's talk about what that means to you." It's like a giant philosophical discussion.
Many evangelicals think Mormonism is a far-out sect or even a cult. Why do you think many evangelicals feel that way?
Dutcher: I think the problem is that a lot of Mormons don't understand their own religion. I think this film has been judged very harshly by Mormons whose religious outlook seems to be focused more on God's justice than on God's mercy. And I think that's where I think the real breakdown occurs between evangelicals and Mormons, because as much as the Mormons want to say they believe in the grace of Jesus Christ, there's still at the fundamental core of Mormonism this psychology of needing to earn salvation.
Salvation by works?
Dutcher: Exactly. It's very much there. A lot of Mormons who saw States of Grace rejected it simply because they felt that it preached easy forgiveness—which if they'd look, that's what their own doctrine teaches anyway. But that's where the difference is, between the actual doctrines of Mormonism and the psychology of contemporary Mormonism. It has crept into the Mormon psychology that if you sin … the idea of repentance … [Dutcher pauses.]
I'm trying to be very careful here. But I tried to address some of this thinking in the film—like when the father [of a Mormon missionary] says he'd rather have his son come home in a casket than come home dishonored. I mean, that is such an expression of traditional Mormon psychology—that it would be better to have a child dead than to have a child who made a major moral mistake.
In some ways, that's what this film was about. It's about saying, "If Christ is central to Mormonism, what does that mean?" That was something I was grappling with and studying.
Do you believe the Book of Mormon is the Word of God, like the Bible?
Dutcher: You're not supposed to ask me that!
That's not on your approved list of questions?
Dutcher: [Laughing.] That's right. I've gone through a real evolution in my religious views and in my faith over the past four years, so I'm reluctant to get too far into that. I could give an answer which is accurate, and yet the ramifications of that would be misinterpreted. Does that make any sense? Do you know what I'm getting at?
Yeah, it sounds like you don't want to answer the question?
Dutcher: Well, uhh, I guess I don't have a problem answering it, but it needs to be a pretty long answer. Let's just say that my religious views are much more universal than one would expect from someone raised … I'm starting to sound like a politician now. But I don't believe that Mormons have any special claim to God. I don't believe that Mormonism has any special doorway to heaven.
There's a scene in States of Grace where the missionaries find a homeless guy passed out on the street. One missionary wants to take him back to their apartment and feed him, but the other says it's "against the rules." What rules? Something from the Book of Mormon?
Dutcher: He's talking about the rules for missionaries.
That you can't help a homeless person?
Dutcher: That you can't have anybody in your apartment except other missionaries.
There's nothing in the Bible that would imply that. Is there something in the Book of Mormon that would support such a rule?
Dutcher: Absolutely not. In fact, it would be quite the opposite. The Book of Mormon is right in line with the Bible as far as that. The idea would be absolutely, be a good Samaritan, take care of him. But if you follow the missionary rules, it often could prevent you from doing acts of Christian service. So it's one of those ironies.
Your publicist told me the label of "Mormon filmmaker" will disappear with your next movie, Falling, coming in 2007. Why would that film convince people to drop the label?
Dutcher: Probably because the Mormon community itself will probably disown me (laughs). But it's just a film with deeply spiritual Christian and Mormon themes, but it speaks that message in … Well, basically it violates the Mormon aesthetic in pretty much every way possible. It's on the street, it's violent, it's edgy. For those to whom their sensibilities are more important than the message, it's probably going to offend a large percentage of those people. It's about a lapsed Mormon, and I wanted to depict that truthfully. It will definitely be rated R.
Are they going to kick you out of Utah?
Dutcher: It's possible. I guess I can go back to Illinois, where I grew up. They'll take me back in Illinois, right?
Does your wife ever say, "Richard, would you just quit trying to tick everybody off??
Dutcher: Well … She certainly supports me. In fact, the idea for States of Grace came to me when we were moving to Utah to push God's Army. On the long drive out here, I was thinking, If I ever did do a sequel, what would I do? That's where the story was born. I told her about it, the whole story of the gang stuff and of the missionary who has a moral fall. And she said, "Well, it's a great story, but you're not really going to do that, are you?" She's there to remind me how my ideas might be received. But then she just gets behind me and very actively helps me to get things done.
Has that made things awkward for her, going to an LDS church as the wife of the rebellious Mormon filmmaker?
Dutcher: Oh, absolutely: "She's the wife of that guy." And, "Oh, poor Gwen." She's so kind and good, but she just has this cross to bear—me! But it's been awkward for me as well. It's strange, because there are people in the Mormon community who have put me on a pedestal, like I'm some kind of a church leader. And then there are others who think I'm the son of Satan. But I just wish everybody would come to a middle ground where they just realize I'm just a guy making movies. And I'd like to be thought of as a person who's making meaningful films, someone who's spending his life actually trying to do something that has meaning.
Without the labels?
Dutcher: Yeah. Without the labels. Because people equate Mormonism with proselytizing so heavily. But honestly, I try to tell people that I have zero interest in making any more Mormons in the world. And I have zero interest in making any fewer Mormons in the world. I'm just trying to tell my own spiritual story through film.
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