Interview: Director Mitch Davis on the Interfaith Appeal of THE OTHER SIDE OF HEAVEN 211 min read

By Jonathan Decker

With The Other Side of Heaven 2, director Mitch Davis has crafted a powerful interfaith epic meant to unite Catholics, Evangelicals, and Latter-day Saints. Telling the true story of Elder John Groberg's return to Tonga with his wife and children over a decade after first serving there as a missionary on his own, there is so much to be inspired by here. Recently Mitch was kind enough to answer my questions about the film. 

What inspired you, 18 years later, to return and create a sequel?

This sequel came directly out of inspiration Elder John H. Groberg received as a result of encouragement given him by President Thomas S. Monson, both while he was living and after he passed away.  Neither I nor lead actor, Chris Gorham, were interested in producing a sequel because we felt the first film had been done well and we didn't want to produce a cheaper imitation for the purpose of making money.  So we both said no to the sequel for many years.  But Elder Groberg recently made clear to me that not doing the sequel was not an option, at which point I repented and quickly gained a vision of what this sequel could actually be.  This new film is a tribute to the faith and vision of Elder Groberg, as well as his fidelity to President Monson who, Elder Groberg stated, has been advocating for this movie from the other side.

What effect has the first film had on people since its release?

Hundreds of millions have seen the first movie all over the world in both legal and pirated form on TV, DVD, and streaming.  It continues to be actively distributed and the Grobergs continue to receive emails and letters unsolicited from missionaries and converts all over the world who came across the film and were forever changed by it.  That is a mighty, humbling thing.  And it all started with a relatively small group of Church members — about a million — seeing it inside U.S. theaters.  That fortunate fact propelled the first film out there into the world's zeitgeist where it continues to thrive 20 years later.

Elder Groberg just talked with a mission president fresh back from three years of service in Africa.  He told Elder Groberg that, everywhere his missionaries went, they were best received as representatives of “Kolipoki's church.”  The funny thing is, we never distributed our movie for profit in legal form anywhere I know of in Africa.  But it's all over Africa, doing good, and has been for 20 years.

What has been the feedback you've been getting on this one? How is it impacting people?

There is something truly unique about the spiritual impact this movie possesses.  One sister told us, “Your movie turned the theater into hallowed ground.”  I think this movie goes beyond being emotional and dramatic to being something else.  I think it possesses and delivers what it's subtitle refers to — ‘the fire of faith.'

other side of heaven

Chris Gorham, who is not a member of our faith, respectfully and accurately captures the spirit of a believer in both films. How do you both, as director and actor, achieve that? What is his attitude towards Latter-day Saints?

This is Chris's third film in which he portrayed a Latter-day Saint main character, including the two times he played Elder Groberg in our movies and his actor/director debut in I Love You Sally Carmichael.  He knows Utah well and loves many members of our faith, especially John and Jean Groberg, with whom he has spent a lot of time. But he is not Latter-day Saint and has no plans to join our church.  He told me he really tries to empathize with and understand all the characters he plays without immersing himself so much in their personas that he gets lost himself.  He said, “I sometimes play despicable, dark characters, and I really don't want to take them at home at night with me.”

Tell us about location shooting for this. Where did you shoot and what benefits/challenges did it provide?

We shot most of the movie — including a snowstorm taking place in Idaho Falls — in Fiji, mostly on the wet, Suva side, but we also spent several days on the west side of the island, which is drier and sunnier.  We were also able to do some second unit work on Tonga itself, which was very important to us.

Shooting in Fiji made this entire movie possible from a financial standpoint as that country offers a 47 percent rebate on all monies spent shooting movies there.  This is a big movie requiring a big budget and we could not raise enough funds to make the movie as big as it needed to be until we discovered the Fiji rebate.  Suddenly every U.S. dollar we spent in Fiji was worth almost twice what it was worth here.  And the Fiji dollar itself was depressed to less than half the value of the U.S. dollar.  So we got two Fiji dollars for every U.S. dollar we could raise, and we got half of that money back in the form of a rebate.  In effect, we were able to quadruple our U.S. spend by producing the movie in Fiji, which is what allowed us to make such a big movie for such a modest price.

It's a big screen, theatrical movie.  It is not a small picture.  

In what ways have you seen the hand of the Lord in the making of this film?

This is by far the hardest thing I have ever been a part of, and I think it was the same way for a good number of our cast and crew.  We encountered a lot of opposition before, during and after production.  We got hit by two cyclones and had accidents and injuries on set that were quite serious.  Our own faith was severely tried over and over again as we produced this movie about faith.

The film very clearly bears witness of Christ. What are your hopes for its influence in the world?

Yes, this movie doesn't really beat around the bush when it comes to bearing witness of Jesus Christ.  When it comes right down to it, it's all about John 3:16 — God loving the world so much he gave us his only begotten son.  But it comes to that conclusion through a series of very honest, real, dramatic, human stories.  And we have heard from a good number of people that they are kind of overwhelmed by the spiritual wash that occurs when they realize that all these stories of different fathers and their sons are really parables for God the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ.  I didn't set about writing the script with that deliberate end in mind.  It just sort of happened through the creative process and related promptings.  I am grateful we have been able to put that story out there so unabashedly and affirmatively.  We have heard from Catholic nuns and Evangelical ministers that they were profoundly moved by that aspect of the film.  

Anne Hathaway has been replaced by Natalie Medlock, who I thought was excellent. What were her thoughts on following in Anne's footsteps and how did she make the role both her own and true to the actual Jean?

Natalie just owned the role from the minute of her first audition.  She tried to not even think about Anne Hathaway, rather, to focus on correctly portraying Jean Groberg.  I think she nailed it and so do all the audience members who have commented to me on her rich, emotional performance.

I try to lead my actors with love and encouragement rather than doubt and fear so I came up with a little acronym I used to congratulate Natalie with after I thought she had done a particularly good job.  I'd walk by her and say, “BTAH,” which only she knew meant, “Better Than Anne Hathaway.”  After a couple weeks I upped the ante and started saying, “BFBTAH,” which meant, “By Far Better Than Anne Hathaway.”

Tell us about Russell Dixon as Thomas S. Monson. How did you find this dead-ringer for the prophet? What did he do to prepare?

Russell Dixon was such a great find for us!  He is such a kind, good man, and as soon as our New Zealand casting director sent me his photo and resume I knew we had our man.  He is the spitting image of President Monson, and he studied General Conference footage of him on YouTube and in other places before coming to set.  He read articles and biographies about him and, when he arrived in Fiji, he tried to behave at all times in ways he thought the real Thomas S. Monson would behave.  I remember Chris Gorham complaining to me one time about “how nice Russell is all the time.  I mean, don't you think he is taking this a bit too far?”  It really did feel like we had President Monson on the set whenever Russell was around.

The film is still in theaters after over a month, which is frankly pretty amazing for an independent religious film during summer movie season. To any who are waiting to see it at home, why would you say they should pony up and head to the multiplex?

Everything about this movie is big.  Our great director of photography, T.C. Christensen, shot it in widescreen, rather than standard aspect ratio.  The South Pacific landscapes are vast and gorgeous and defy the limits of even the largest home entertainment centers.  The sound is enormous, especially during some of the storm sequences.  And the orchestral score is massive and rich.  Everything about this movie is made for the big screen.  Seeing it anywhere but inside the theater is not doing it justice.  Full stop.

Beyond that sort of selfish reason for seeing it inside a theater, however, there is a legitimate selfless reason for doing so:  The performance of this movie inside U.S. theaters will have a direct bearing on how widely it is distributed outside the U.S. in foreign territories such as China and Africa and Iraq and Saudi Arabia.  Movies that do well inside U.S. theaters get a gold pass to wander the earth doing good for another 20 years or so.  That is why we have gone to the trouble and expense of putting it in so many theaters in the U.S.

For most locations outside of Utah, the movie has already come and gone from theaters.  Is it too late for everyone living in outlying areas to see the movie in theaters?

NO!  Elder Groberg has instructed us to do a series of “encore” screenings of the film starting on Monday and Tuesday, September 16 and 17.  For any group of Church members who can guarantee us they will fill at least 50 theater seats — just enough to cover our costs — we will book a theater and ship the movie to a theater near them for one screening on one or both of those nights.  This is brand new news, hot off the press, and we are going to do this nationwide.

But the requests have to come to us.  We can't afford to do it the other way around anymore.  If anyone who missed the movie the first time around wants a second bite at the apple, they need to let us know right away and we can and will get the movie to them in their area next month for at least one screening.  

Many stakes and wards have already done this by hosting group family nights on Mondays and youth firesides on Tuesdays.  That is what we are trying to facilitate.  But we can't spend any more money trying to coax people into seeing this movie.  If they build us an audience, we will bring them the movie.

How can people in outlying areas make this happen?

Email us right away at [email protected].

My thanks to Mitch for sharing his talents and creating this incredible film.

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.

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