Filmmaker Richard Dutcher arrived on the cinematic scene with a major splash, scoring a hit with his 2000 drama "God's Army." He quickly followed that with the 2001 thriller "Brigham City."
The last time anyone heard from him, he was hard at work on "The Prophet," a movie biography of LDS Church founder Joseph Smith — an ambitious project he likens to "climbing the highest peak of Mormon filmmaking." Dutcher calls it his "Everest."
Unfortunately, it has also seemed ill-fated, since several failed attempts to mount the film have, so far, failed.
For a time, Dutcher was confident that it was a go, and that Val Kilmer would star as Joseph Smith, with F. Murray Abraham as Illinois Gov. Thomas Ford.
"You need those kind of names to get the kind of financing needed to make this kind of film," Dutcher said in the Deseret Morning News offices. "Val read the script and really liked it. He wanted to play the part but obviously that never happened," he recalled with a sigh.
In the meantime, Dutcher had a brief cameo in 2002's "The Singles Ward" and was the subject of (in fictional form) the 2003 mockumentary "The Work and the Story," in which he also briefly appeared. And when "The Prophet" went into cinematic limbo, Dutcher moved on to other projects — at least for now.
"I came to the realization that if I was going to survive and make a living as a filmmaker, I had to actually make a movie and have it in theaters so people could see it," the 41-year-old filmmaker said.
Hence, "God's Army 2: States of Grace" — which is actually less a sequel and more of a "follow-up," according to Dutcher — opens today in Utah and Idaho theaters.
He is tight-lipped about the film's story line, except to say that the film is again set in Southern California, and that four of the supporting characters from the first film return. "It was important to have some continuity from the first film, but I didn't want to use the same main characters. In essence, I'd be making the same movie over again, and I didn't have any interest in that."
While Dutcher admits that making a sequel to his biggest hit may seem like desperation, he says the film was not borne out of that. The concept for "States of Grace" came to him while he was moving his family to Utah in 2001. "I told my wife Gwen I had the perfect idea. She had two reactions. The first was, 'Wow.' The second was, 'So, are you really going to do that?' "
As for the film itself, he caustions, "If you think you know what's going on from the trailer, you really don't."
One of the returning cast members is DeSean Terry, who reprises his role as an LDS missionary named Banks. "Fortunately, I was able to get the same writer, producer and director to come back, and I got him fairly cheaply," Dutcher said with a laugh, referring, of course, to himself.
"States of Grace" was shot in Southern California — specifically, the Santa Monica area — for a budget of less than $1 million. Dutcher said he enjoyed being back in the area, where he was living when he made the first "God's Army." And in fact, while he was there, he also shot another film, "Falling," which he's even more tight-lipped about. "I'm really not sure how it will be accepted when it's released but it's something that I can really be proud of." (He was equally tight-lipped about the film's release schedule.)
Another badge of honor for Dutcher is his role as the father, or perhaps even godfather, of modern Mormon cinema. The success of "God's Army" has led to a slew of LDS-themed films, including "The Singles Ward," "The Other Side of Heaven" and "Saints and Soldiers."
However, Dutcher cautions local filmmakers about becoming complacent and less creative. "We can never be too pleased with ourselves, and always need to be pushing the envelope."
One of the ways he would like to do that is by reviving "The Prophet." "If I could, I'd start work on it right now. I'd even like to have Val play him, but the clock is ticking. Let's face it, none of us (is) getting any younger."
Dutcher's is not the only film project on Joseph Smith. The "Work and the Glory" movies feature Smith as a central character (played by Jonathan Scarfe), and Gary Cook and T.C. Christensen's "Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration" has been produced for the LDS Church and will open in the Joseph Smith Memorial Building on Dec. 23 — the 200th anniversary of Smith's birth.
Still, Dutcher believes his version could be the definitive one. "I'd like to be the one to climb Everest. I know I could do his story justice."