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Mormons at our movies

The latest LDS film is an adaptation of a popular novel

"Baptists at Our Barbecue" marked a series of firsts for Provo filmmaker Christian Vuissa:

— It was his first feature-length film.

— It was his first comedy.

— It was the first time he adapted someone else's material.

"While I'm very happy with the way the movie turned out, this wasn't really how I envisioned my first film," said Vuissa, a 34-year-old Austrian transplant whose name is pronounced voo-WEE-saw.

"I don't want to sound like I didn't enjoy making the film," he explained during an interview at the Deseret Morning News. "It was very rewarding. But it was a lot more of a learning process than I realized."

Vuissa admits that he is an unlikely choice to direct "Baptists at Our Barbecue," which opens in theaters today. His short films "Roots & Wings" and "Unfolding" have won awards at various local film festivals, but they tell dramatic stories with very little comedy. (Both shorts are available on DVD in some local bookstores.)

But author Robert Farrell Smith's LDS novel is heavy on comedy.

"I don't necessarily think of myself as a funny person," Vuissa said with a chuckle. "So it was a challenge."

Smith and his family were heavily involved in the film project as its producers and co-screenwriters. So they were the ones Vuissa had to convince in order to land his first freelance directing job. "I told them I had never really done any comedy, but I think they saw how much I really did want to do the movie . . . how much I wanted to do it justice."

With that major hurdle out of the way, Vuissa then had to find the right actor to play the film's main character, Tartan Jones, an LDS forest ranger who finds himself in the middle of a feud between Baptists and Mormons in the tiny fictional town of Longfellow, Utah.

The role of Tartan is played by Dan Merkley, a local actor last seen in the spoof "The Work and the Story," who impressed Vuissa and the producers. "Dan is just so likable. He's got an everyman quality, which is what Tartan needs to have," Vuissa said.

He also had the required chemistry with his co-star Heather Beers (the title role in "Charly"), who plays Tartan's love interest, Charity Hall. "When you see the two of them together, you believe they could be a couple. And it doesn't hurt that they're both such good-looking people," Vuissa said.

The two stars are also locals, which was an asset, given the film's limited (less than $1 million) budget. Vuissa had to shoot entirely in Utah, and he estimates that he and his location scout put thousands of miles on their respective vehicles to find a variety of settings. "It was one of the many times I've been thankful to live in this state.

"We were able to find our Baptist church in Payson, our canyon in Springville (Hobble Creek Canyon) and actually parked our double-wide trailer in Lehi. And that was just in Utah County."

After the film was finished, a deal was struck with local film distributor HaleStorm to get "Baptists" into theaters. "We wanted to shop the film around, but they seemed like the perfect place to take it," Vuissa said. "Most of (HaleStorm's) films are comedies, so that's what people have come to expect from them. And they told us they loved the film." (HaleStorm produced "The Singles Ward," "The R.M." and "The Home Teachers," and earlier this year distributed another film it did not produce, "The Best Two Years.")

Vuissa said he has attended some test screenings and audiences are laughing in all the right places. "That's all you can ask. It sure feels good, though."

Vuissa said he's already planning his next movie, which will return him to his dramatic roots. "This was very rewarding, because now I feel I'm more confident in my filmmaking. But now I would like to get back to something that's a little more personal, more heartfelt for me."