Rick Stevenson: Capturing Mormonism Through a Protestant Lens

rick stevenson

Debuting between General Conference sessions and a hit on BYU-TV, Rick Stevenson’s entertaining and engaging documentary Two Brothers follows a pair of Latter-Day Saint youth (the director’s nephews) across ten years of their lives, capturing heartbreak, inspiration, tragedy, and triumph along the way. The first in a series of films that will display the lives of adolescents as they mature through the years, Two Brothers has been earning praise both inside and outside of the LDS faith for its authentic capturing of Mormon culture and beliefs. It may surprise some viewers to find that the director, Rick Stevenson, is actually a Protestant Christian. I had the pleasure of chatting with Rick about his film, his faith, his views on LDS people and beliefs, and his passion project, 5000 Days.

Jonathan Decker: First of all, let me say that Two Brothers took me completely by surprise. I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, but I didn’t know what to expect, so I didn’t expect much. However, I was emotionally engaged from the start and my wife (who was sitting next to me and who, ironically, is not a huge “movie person”) actually put down the book she was reading about three minutes into the film and never picked it back up. My brother-in-law walked past, and though he’s of the age that he probably thinks documentaries are boring, he ended up sitting down and getting sucked in, as did his friend. What has been some of the feedback you’ve received that has been most gratifying?

Rick Stevenson: Thank you so much for telling me that.  First, it’s always good for the filmmaker when the reviewer goes in with low expectations:)  Second, I’m a big believer in the power of film to change lives–but it has to be interesting first.  And for me, interesting means authentic—and these are two of the most authentic kids around. I was blessed to work with them.

To answer your question, the ones that have been most gratifying include ones from individuals who have told me they’ve gained hope for their sibling relationships or have wanted to strengthen their faith as a result of seeing the film. On a broader level, I really like what someone named Jeff said and I reprinted it below:

“So often we Mormons are overly concerned about image–and understandably so: we want to be a perfect light on the hill, attracting all to the gospel’s light that gives our lives meaning. That desire to be a light is a good thing. But the fact is there is only one Perfect Light. All other lights are imperfect–even the Mormon ones. In fact, sometimes holding up a “perfect” light can, rather than lighting the path for others, actually be a stumbling block because they feel they can’t possibly reach the “perfection” we project. I’ve come to believe that projecting perfection diminishes our ability to bear testimony of the Savior because it says we have no need of Him. In essence we say, ‘Jesus’ sacrifice was for sinners, for the imperfect…but, luckily, that is not us.’ Yet the reality is that it is us.

“If I can’t see people overcome through Christ, then how can I know that I can do likewise? I think this is why we have the stories of Saul and Alma the Younger- two prophets, yes, but also two vile sinners. It would have been easy to edit out the persecuting the saints parts and make us believe that Paul and Alma always had it together. But that’s not what was done. Instead we have the record that allows us to see what happens when individuals who, after years of attacking the Savior and His people, turned their imperfections over to Him and in so doing became better. I understand that. I can try to follow that.

“Sorry for the soapbox…but I just wanted to say that because I’m grateful that Sam and Luke…were so brave in being so honest and vulnerable. That honesty, although it may have been difficult at times, was beyond generous. It was true charity. It brought a powerful authenticity to the film that is so frequently missing from our LDS media. Like [Sam] says about one of the lessons of his mission: his willingness to be vulnerable, to be honest with his emotions, to love deeply, is what makes the difference. And that can be hard. But it is also the most rewarding.”

Actually, I think this applies not just to Mormons but all Christians.  And, in fact, all people whether they’re believers or not.  The 5000 Days Project is all about allowing kids to pour out everything they’re feeling and sort those things out in a safe, healthy way without being judged. The resulting self-knowledge is hugely empowering and just like a wound, once bad feelings are exposed to air, they can start to heal.

rick stevenson

JD: Wow, you just opened up on so many things that I wanted to touch on. First of all, as a family therapist, I was deeply moved by the trajectory of the boys’ relationship; there was real pain there in the beginning, which I see all the time because the ones we love have the most power to hurt us. The developing bond between the siblings, and the very real obstacles they overcame in that relationship, was inspiring to watch as it unfolded. I think your viewer’s feedback was spot-on: it was the imperfections in the boys that both made them relatable and made their change and growth through Christ that much more powerful. What’s more, I thought the struggles and failures made the successes and strengths all the more meaningful. What more can you tell our readers about the 5000 Days Project overall, how Two Brothers fits into the grand scheme of things, and what we can anticipate on the horizon? Will we be seeing more of these two siblings?

RS: I’m a strong believer that we’re actually drawn to each other because of our weaknesses, because of those things that make us human, not because of those things that make us divine–because only He can make us divine. I think the bottom line in all Christian witness is that Heavenly Father is bigger than any and all of our problems and when we suggest otherwise by not admitting to them, we diminish Him.

I love that you’re a family therapist.  It’s no wonder you have the insights that you do. My goal with the project is to find a way to bring it to every kid in the world(I know, I know) whether through interviews or the video diary I’m developing that asks kids really challenging questions on an annual basis causing them to think about who they are and who they want to be. I’m working with Dr. John Medina (Brain Rules, Brain Rules for Baby) who is this amazing Christ-centered scientist on the age-appropriate questions.

If you go on 5000DaysProject.com there is a description of the project’s private side (that which is solely dedicated to getting kids to gain self-knowledge, whether their stories are ever told) and the public side (which involves having kids share their stories in the interest of making other kids aware that they are not alone).

If I have discovered one thing in interviewing these kids, it’s that at 13-14 years old, no matter what the background or how happy the family, every one of them feels alone in their problems.  Hopefully these stories can help.  The TV Series we’re developing with BYU Broadcasting called Listen will feature 17 kids over 13 weeks—in each half hour segment.  It premieres April 2012.

Regarding the future of Two Brothers, I was actually in Cambodia filming Luke on his mission when the film premiered on BYUTV.  He asked me slyly “will any of this ever end up in another doc?” I told him I had no idea but the chance to stand in waist deep flood waters in Cambodia filming my nephew was too good to pass up.  That does not answer your question but I’ve been given the opportunity to follow them this far so Heavenly Father must have something in mind.

My hope is the Two Brothers will help bring the perspective that only a longitudinal study can bring and through that perspective, people can have faith that healing is possible in all relationships, especially those based on faith.  I would also like to offer up a 5000 Days Project Video Diary for all of those who would like to participate and start a worldwide LDS 5000 Days Project where sixty kids from scores of different countries share their stories about themselves, their countries and growing up in their faith.  I think that Two Brothers represents just the tip of the iceberg.

JD: I have to say, this is an impressively ambitious project, and I love that you’re using your passion for filmmaking to actually help youth. My last question is about your faith. I thought it was wonderful how, being a Protestant Christian yourself, you were able to let these Latter-Day Saint boys speak for themselves about their faith and culture. In terms of strengthening interfaith relationships, I think your film has great potential because it makes no apologies for who these young men are, nor does it water anything down, but it also is clearly not meant to proseletyze. It just shows good people living good lives, and the role of their faith in shaping their character. Some of the best, most influential people in my life are not Mormon (including a psychology professor at BYU). I think Two Brothers gives people who aren’t LDS a chance to learn and be inspired by the beauty of our doctrine and culture. I, for one, would love to see you do similar films on evangelical, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and other youth, because I think people far too often focus on differences instead of similarities and virtues. What are your thoughts on interfaith unity and appreciation, as well as insights as a Protestant Christian making a film about Mormons?

RS: My gosh, Jonathan. Not to scare you but I think we were separated at birth. You are voicing my main themes. For me this journey began when I met and fell in love with my wife in 2000.  She’s Mormon, I’m born-again.  We thought this is either a cruel joke or God has something in mind.  We prayed about this and the message was clear: our similarities were far more numerous and important than our differences. We would focus on our similarities and manage our differences. Eleven years later, we have an amazing marriage and four great kids. Clearly, while we each need to listen to our own inspiration from the Holy Spirit, ours is a big God with large arms who is able to include us all.

At one point my father-in-law (who is a devout Mormon) and I were discussing some of our differences and eventually I said to him, “I wonder if Jesus really wants us obsessing about these things or if He wants us to obsess about loving people”.  We both smiled at one another and immediately knew the answer. I, in fact, got interested in covering Sam and Luke in part because I was upset that, out of ignorance, some people thought my wife and step kids were not Christians. I don’t see how any intelligent person can watch these two boys and doubt their commitment or devotion to Christ.  

In late August, we did a family screening in my back yard of the fine cut of the film and my neighbors, who are strong humanists and travel the world in their sailboat, watched from their deck.  Afterward, the father came up to me and said, ‘Thanks for sharing this insight into this misunderstood culture. I have seen Mormon missionaries all over the world and have always felt they were robotic and simply doing what they were told to do. After seeing these wonderful boys struggling with such important things, I will never look at those missionaries the same again.

You will be pleased to know that I am following other kids of different faiths (including a Muslim) and am anxious to tell their stories as well. If these pieces can be used to help people of faith focus on their similarities instead of their differences, I would feel blessed.

As to your last question regarding my Protestant insights about Mormons, I can say that I have huge respect for the faith and its people.  I love the Mormon desire to ‘do the right thing’ and while sometimes it unfortunately results in too much image control (which as I stated before seems misdirected), it does result in great works which speak for themselves. I love their values, I love their focus on family and I love their struggle.  As witnessed through Sam and Luke, it is beautiful.

JD: Thank you so much, Rick. I agree with everything you’ve said. I look forward to keeping in touch with you as your projects unfold. It’s clear to me that you have a beautiful soul. I’ll drop you a line when this piece runs. Thank you for your time and thoughtful responses. Take care, and God bless.

RS: It has been MY pleasure Jonathan.  Thanks for doing what you do.  I look forward to staying in touch as well. God Bless.

Two Brothers is available for purchase, download, or rental here.

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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