By Jonathan Decker
Note: This interview originally ran in Meridian Magazine.
Director Christian Vuissa, in addition to founding the LDS Film Festival, has been responsible for some of the best films in the genre. Here he discusses Errand of Angels, One Good Man, Baptists at Our Barbeque, and Joseph Smith: Plates of Gold (all of which can be streamed right now on Living Scriptures streaming).
In the past decade there’ve been quite a few solid films chronicling the life of Joseph Smith, such as the new first vision video, The Work and the Glory films, Joseph Smith- The Prophet of the Restoration, and, indirectly, Emma Smith: My Story. What sets your film apart, or in other words, why should audiences give this a look if they’ve seen all the others? What led you to tell this story?
All the films you are mentioning are either films that feature Joseph Smith as a side character or that are produced by the Church (which are usually shorter in length and often serve a different purpose and are played in a different environment). I think this is the first independently produced motion picture portraying Joseph Smith as the main character. Additionally, we zoom in on a very specific period of time in his life and capture everything leading up to the publishing of the Book of Mormon and the founding of the Church. In that sense, the film is not only about Church history and Joseph Smith but also about the Book of Mormon itself. People who have seen the film usually confirm that. They draw closer to the prophet but also gain a deeper appreciation for the Book of Mormon.
Other LDS dramas have had epic backdrops and extraordinary events to heighten their drama and add to a cinematic feel. Some examples are war in Saints and Soldiers, hurricanes and famine in The Other Side of Heaven, a serial killer in Brigham City, gang violence in States of Grace, terminal illness in Charly, and so forth. In contrast, your films One Good Man and Errand of Angels, on paper, don’t sound much like gripping drama: a bishop tries to balance work, family, and church responsibilities; a sister missionary struggles with a foreign culture and a difficult companion. But the characters are so rich and the trials so relatable that I found myself connecting to those films in a big way. You have a talent for inviting audiences into the day-to-day lives of your characters. How did you bring those grounded sensibilities to the extraordinary events of Joseph Smith’s life?
I believe the gospel is very much about the everyday experience. It’s that part that asks us to endure to the end. Maybe we have a tendency to belittle the day-to-day drudgery of our lives. But the real growth lies in those daily struggles. And in our interactions and relationships with others. I find it rewarding to search for these human elements and capture them on film. My goal is to use the screen as a mirror that reflects an image back to the audience in a way so they can recognize themselves. And for those who see their own reflection in my films, it can be a very emotional, even spiritual experience. The Joseph Smith story has a lot more drama, but the goal was still the same. Joseph had to be relatable in order to become alive as a human being. I had to find that human element that mirrors an image back to the audience they recognize as their own. And by doing so, people would come away knowing and loving the prophet instead of just admiring or revering him.
It seemed that you were aiming to give audiences more of Joseph Smith the man, while other features have focused on Joseph Smith the prophet. Joseph here comes across as more human and grounded; he’s not so much larger-than-life. He feels fear. He’s overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task before him. He’s nervous to speak to his future father-in-law. He’s gets giddy, and dare I say a tad dorky, about falling in love the way a man in his early 20’s would. Your opening scene, in particular, is brilliant in sending a specific message: “We’re going to show Joseph for the great man that he was, but let’s be clear, he was also just a man.” In that scene he grieves, he makes an attempt at patience, he gets visibly annoyed and upset, and then he does something playful to vent his frustration. It felt very real to me, like something I’d recognize one of my friends doing. Tell us about working with Dustin Harding to create this portrayal of the young prophet.
Before I talk about Dustin I want to ask the following question: Why did God choose Joseph? What qualified him over others? As a filmmaker I had to find an answer to that question, at least for myself. We all have an image of the prophet and it’s probably impossible for any actor to satisfy everyone’s perception. But at the heart of this story is that one quality that qualified Joseph regardless of his youth and other shortcomings. And for me that quality was his deep sincerity.
If you look at the story of the restoration, you can track everything back to Joseph’s deep desire to do the right thing before God. He had to decide which church to join. And he was so uncompromisingly sincere about it that it eventually led him to the Sacred Grove. And I think this same deep sincerity is eminent when receiving, protecting, translating and publishing the Book of Mormon. I felt Dustin had the unique ability to portray this deep spiritual sincerity that drove and guided Joseph. And this deeply nurtured desire to do the right thing before God is exactly the human element that connects the audience with Joseph and makes him human and relatable.
You came into the church in Austria when sister missionaries taught your family. What can you tell us about how you gained a testimony of the restored Gospel?
I really think I gained a testimony of the gospel when I was a little boy, but my father didn’t want us to get baptized at the time, so my mother was for many years the only member of the Church in my family. But in my early twenties I had a spiritual homecoming when I started reading the scriptures and on several occasions felt that God was directly addressing me and telling me that it was time for me to repent and be baptized. And it really changed my life completely. I still draw spiritually from this very special and precious time in my life.
Errand of Angels was the first film to capture the missionary experience from the perspective of females. What drove you, as a male, to explore that territory? What preparations did you make to make sure you got it right and were true to the emotional/spiritual experiences of sister missionaries? What can you tell us about filming in Europe?
I served my mission in the Germany-Leipzig mission and my whole mission experience was overwhelmingly positive. When I decided to study film after my mission, I wanted to make a film about my mission experience. Soon after that, God’s Army came out, and I gave up on the idea. Then one day, Heidi Johnson, the daughter-in-law of my mission president approached me and asked me if I would help her make a film about her experiences as a sister missionary. She had collected a number of stories that she thought would make a great movie. I was intrigued and began to take these stories and weave them into a narrative, and it ended up being a very rewarding collaboration with Heidi.
When I was working on the script, I searched for that overarching thread that would connect these stories into a larger whole. And what I found was that sometimes we are so eager to change the world that we forget the people closest to us and we can’t see the forest for the trees. For Sister Taylor it’s her relationship with Sister Keller, but for most of us it’s our family relationships. I just read a wonderful quote from Mother Teresa. When she received the Nobel Peace Prize she was asked, “What can we do to promote world peace?” And she answered, “Go home and love your family.” I think this is one of the lessons Sister Taylor learns in the film. It was a wonderful opportunity for me to pay tribute to sister missionaries.
Only after the film was already finished, I realized that I owed my knowledge of the gospel to two sister missionaries who introduced the gospel to my family in Austria when I was a little boy.
Your film One Good Man would be my answer to the question “What movie best represents the modern lives of Latter-Day Saints?” I think it captures our culture and beliefs so well and makes a terrific case for wholesome, virtuous living when so many outside would see our lifestyle as bland and boring. There’s a great warmth to that film. What can you tell us about how that film came to be, what your inspiration was.
I only remember that writing the script for One Good Man came very naturally. It almost wrote itself. The idea was to tell the story of an everyday-hero, someone who dodges the bullets of everyday life, a good man, who stands out not for one big heroic act but for a multitude of small efforts. It’s an “action-packed” film where the hero is being tested by everyday challenges.
I also asked myself the question how we as a people are different and unique. I was always fascinated by our family values and the sense of family that is nurtured in the Church. And I saw the idea of service as another characteristic of our lifestyle. And how better to combine all these elements than by telling the story of a father of six children, who not only is the sole provider for his large family but is also called to be the bishop in his ward.
The original title of the film was Father in Israel, altered from the bishop’s role as a judge in Israel. I felt being a bishop was an extension of fatherhood. Only much later I found a quote by Pres. Ezra Taft Benson, where he says, “Oh, husbands and fathers in Israel, you can do so much for the salvation and exaltation of your families! Your responsibilities are so important. Remember your sacred calling as a father in Israel—your most important calling in time and eternity—a calling from which you will never be released.” I think One Good Man captures this idea nicely.
A decade ago you founded the annual LDS Film Festival in Utah Valley. In what ways has the festival impacted your life? How has it evolved over the past ten years? What advice would you give aspiring young LDS filmmakers?
The festival has allowed me to stay in close contact with most of the LDS filmmaking community and bring them together at an annual event that draws enthusiastic audiences each year. There is such a tremendous goodwill among LDS filmmakers in sharing their time and experience with others. I would encourage young aspiring LDS filmmakers to meet more experienced filmmakers at the festival and get to know them and learn from them. People are really accessible at the festival and it’s a great place to network. They can also participate in our 24-hour filmmaking marathon or submit a film to the short film competition. It’s unbelievable to me how much our film community has grown over the last 10 years. It will be interesting to see where we will be in 10 years.
As someone who is passionate about Mormon Cinema, can you give us your favorites from the genre?
I think The Best Two Years is the quintessential LDS film with the right portion of humor and spirituality. New York Doll is a wonderful documentary and portrait of a convert to the LDS faith. Saints & Soldiers is a very impressive and well-made movie that reached a wide audience within and outside the LDS culture. There are many other LDS films that have accomplished some very nice and unique things. Most LDS films were produced for very small budgets and if you know what it takes to put together a feature film, you can appreciate the individual efforts a lot more.
What are some stories from the scriptures or from church history that you’d like to tell, or would like to see told, on film?
There are hundreds of personal biographies that would make great movies. Historically, I look forward to a Porter Rockwell movie. There are plenty of other great historical figures in Mormonism, including Brigham Young, Parley P. Pratt, or Wilford Woodruff. The Book of Mormon obviously contains many great stories and characters as well. A film about Jesus Christ from an LDS perspective could also be an intriguing project. Historical films are more costly, otherwise we’d probably see a lot more of them.
As a writer and director, I imagine that audience feedback can be both very rewarding and punishing. What has been some of the most meaningful feedback you’ve gotten about any of your films?
I find it most rewarding when I can reach someone on an emotional or spiritual level, and when the characters stick with the viewer for hours or days after seeing the film. As a filmmaker you can never accomplish 100% of what you set out to do. A feature film consists of hundreds of scenes, thousands of images, and you always have to make the best of what you have. But with each film I set specific goals of what I want to accomplish.
And when audiences “get” it, when they experience my films in a way I was hoping they would, it’s very rewarding and meaningful.
I thought your choice to premiere the film in the East Coast and Europe before release in Utah was intriguing. What was the rationale for that? Did it pay off? What experiences would you be willing to share with us from that tour?
We actually premiered the film in January at the LDS Film Festival in Orem, Utah. But our goal was to find a way to offer audiences across the United States and Europe the same viewing experience that is usually only available to members in Utah. And so far, it has really been very rewarding, with thousands of people seeing the film in Europe and on the East Coast and responding very well to the film. Some people travel over an hour to see the movie in a theater. And they don’t regret it. So far, over 99% of our audience stated that they would attend a similar screening in the future.
I understand that this is the first of a planned trilogy of films about Joseph’s life. What can audiences expect in the future?
I hope we can continue to tell the story of Joseph Smith. I am currently working on several other projects, so I’m not sure when the time will be right for Volume 2. My guess is that it will take a few years to produce a sequel, but I certainly look forward to continuing my research of early Church history.
Jonathan Decker is the clinical director of Your Family Expert. He is a licensed marriage and family therapist, husband, and father of five. Jonathan earned a masters degree in family therapy from Auburn University as well as a bachelor's degree in clinical psychology from Brigham Young University. He is an actor, author, and television personality.