"I had a few defections from the crew, people who felt that I was mis-portraying the Mormon people or that I was making us look bad," said Dutcher, 36, the writer, director, producer, and star of "Brigham City," which opens today, and last year's Mormon missionary drama, "God's Army." "Things aren't so simple. I think everybody sees the world a little too clear-cut."
After he created a $2.6 million U.S. box-office draw with "God's Army," Dutcher's PG-13 murder mystery rolls out this month to 87 theaters in Utah and heavily Mormon areas of Arizona, Idaho, and Nevada, plus California, Hawaii, Illinois, Colorado, Oregon, Texas, and Washington.
The evangelical optimism of "God's Army" earned it unofficial admiration from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, though Dutcher neither shows his independent films to Mormons leaders before they're released nor seeks church funding or approval.
The films are decidedly different Mormon stories. The upbeat "God's Army," which was set in Los Angeles, was multiethnic and enjoyed repeat business from a devoted, Internet-savvy Mormon fan base which appreciated its positive but still precise portrayal of missionary life. "Brigham City" is set in overwhelmingly Caucasian small-town Utah, with young all-American Mormon moms tending to daughters as pretty as the plot is ugly--a serial killer walking their streets.
During a long lunch interview, Dutcher said his new film seeks "to actively portray Mormon people, bring them down to earth. It's not the Madison Avenue view of who we are, which is what we get far too often. This was just me trying to tell a story about my own people...."
In "Brigham City," Dutcher plays Wes Clayton, the soft-spoken sheriff of fictional Brigham in Utah's fictional Kirtland County, where he also is a local Mormon bishop. A widower who survived an accident that killed his wife and son, Clayton wants to keep evil from his Mormon oasis of blond families, parades, and well-scrubbed sons. But an out-of-state woman's body discovered outside town prompts a FBI probe. Then Brigham's beauty pageant queen is killed, and a female convenience store clerk is kidnapped.
"He doesn't destroy himself because he's a bad person, it's not like his vices bring him down," Dutcher said. "He's too trusting, he's too good-hearted, he thinks the world is better than it is, and because of that he brings about his own downfall and hurts a lot of people."
The film has two climaxes; when the killer is found and when Clayton starts to accept God's forgiveness by taking Mormon communion bread at his chapel's Sunday service. "The climax of the thriller happens six, seven minutes earlier than [a typical] Hollywood climax," Dutcher said. "But for me the real climax of the film, the spiritual or the emotional climax, happens right there at the very end of the film."
Clayton's receiving communion was, he said, "the absolute center of the film. I, as his [film] creator, I still love the guy, with his faults and the wrong things that he does.... For me it was an acknowledgement [that] yes, he did incredibly stupid things that some people are never going to forgive him for. But his Creator forgives him, understanding why this happened and how this happened."
While "God's Army" was shot in 18 days on a $300,000 budget, the $600,000 "Brigham City" budget allowed for a five-week Utah shoot, with veteran actor Wilford Brimley hired for a supporting role. "God's Army" funding came mostly from non-Mormons, including an elderly Christian Scientist, while the "Brigham City" budget was almost exclusively Mormon money, a key film investor being Utah Jazz basketball team owner Larry H. Miller.
The film was shot in and around Mapleton, Utah, a small town 55 miles south of Salt Lake City where Dutcher lives with his wife and four children and also runs his Zion Films production company.
One Brigham City scene required the art direction team to rent box covers of some 50 pornographic movies from a Salt Lake City adult video store.
"They were driving around with all these video boxes in the back of their car," Dutcher chuckled, adding the scene was shot quickly, but getting the box covers embarrassed the art director, a young Mormon father. "He was a little red-faced about it."