Before viewers get a glimpse into the lives of the six individuals profiled in “Meet the Mormons,” they’ll get a taste of how popular culture perceives the faith.
The film, which hits 316 theaters nationwide on Friday, opens with a slew of clips from movies and television shows referencing Mormons in odd, head-scratching and humorous ways. They range from Homer Simpson mistaking aliens on his doorstep for Mormon missionaries to Alec Baldwin explaining the absence of a Mormon co-worker by saying, “you know how they are about Leap Day.”
The clips come rapid-fire, interspersed with man-on-the-street interviews conducted by narrator Jenna Kim Jones on the streets of New York. They’re intended to help Latter-day Saints laugh at themselves and to disarm viewers who may be skeptical, according to producer Jeff Roberts and writer/director Blair Treu.
But this sampling of media perceptions is also meant to convey a key point.
“If you’re relying on pop culture for your information … maybe you ought to consider the source,” Treu said.
Treu called the opening of the film “an out there, upfront, open acknowledgment” of what popular media has portrayed Mormons to be.
“Both Blair and I felt strongly that the beginning of the film needed to help people understand that we recognize that there’s a viewpoint of members of the church (that) people perceive us as being kind of odd,” Roberts said. “So we felt like it was important to kind of recognize that and also demonstrate that we can laugh at ourselves. We’re cognizant of the fact that there are those perceptions out there, and we can have a little fun with that and also perhaps point out where some of those misperceptions come from.”
The film then transitions to, “Let’s see what we’re really like,” Roberts said. What follows are individual profiles of Atlanta bishop Jermaine Sullivan, Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo, Costa Rican kickboxer Carolina Munoz Marin, “Candy Bomber” Gail Halvorsen, humanitarian Bishnu Adhikari and missionary mom Dawn Armstrong.
Christian Jacobs, co-creator of the popular Nick Jr. children’s television show “Yo Gabba Gabba!” felt the opening sequence accomplished exactly what it needed to. Jacobs, who is also part of the band The Aquabats, said as a Latter-day Saint working in the entertainment industry, he faces stigmas and misperceptions.
“That’s something that I’m constantly broiled in,” Jacobs said following a Tuesday evening screening of "Meet the Mormons" in Sandy. “I thought that was funny, and a key, important part of the film because it showed (that) … the perception of Mormons is very shallow. Then you get this really rich, deep experience with real people that are great people.”
Former Deseret News film critic Chris Hicks was a “great resource,” according to Treu, and provided the filmmakers with multiple Mormon movie references that they weren’t aware of. In the end, they had hundreds of clips at their disposal, dating back to the silent movie era. Editor Wynn Hougaard and Treu “did a fantastic job of ultimately shaping it into what it is,” Roberts said.
The clips that ultimately made the cut come from the irreverent Comedy Central TV show “South Park,” the 1985 comedy “Fletch,” the NBC comedy series “30 Rock,” the long-running Fox animated series “The Simpsons,” and Hollywood films “Six Degrees of Separation,” “Peggy Sue Got Married,” “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” and “Burn After Reading.” The filmmakers decided that audiences would better relate to and find humor in more current material.
But compiling this cultural snapshot — described by Treu as a “retrospective” — was instructive for the filmmakers. A first cut of the film featured a scene from a silent movie that was “very inflammatory.”
“This has been going on for more than a century,” Treu said. “… In a general sense, pop culture I don’t think has treated us all that well. And I think it’s evident in some of the clips.”
Treu and Roberts both acknowledge that popular media is focused on entertainment rather than accuracy. But they are hoping their film can help combat some of the misperceptions that have been reflected in movies and television over the decades.
“I think there’s just been a lot of misunderstanding, and so there’s opportunity in terms of pop culture. … They’re looking at ways to entertain, to make people laugh or make a point about something, and there’s certainly some elements of our (Mormon) culture that can lend itself to that,” Roberts said. “But in doing so, we end up being a little mischaracterized. What I’ve kind of learned is, generally speaking, it’s not that (people) have a misunderstanding; they aren’t even really aware. They don’t really know what a Mormon is. … So part of this is just simply to increase awareness, but also to increase understanding and help change some of those misunderstandings, those misperceptions that have been established over the years.”