Elizabeth Smart told herself she would never make a movie about her kidnapping.
“I also said I was never going to write a book and I was never going to speak about it, and I have and do both,” Smart said in an interview with the Deseret News. “I think, honestly, I think everything’s kind of just come in steps and, I guess, levels.”
In November, Smart will tell of the horrific circumstances she endured and her miraculous rescue through the Lifetime movie “I Am Elizabeth Smart,” which she narrates and helped produce.
Smart said she had received several offers through the years to make a film, but she never felt like it was quite the right time.
“I always wanted to make sure it was done right,” she said. “I wanted to make sure it was accurate. I wanted to make sure that it was realistic. I didn’t want it to be sensationalized or things taken out of context.”
But now that the film is completed, Smart said it’s turned out the way she hoped.
“Now that it’s made and I’ve gone back and I’ve watched it, it’s extremely accurate,” she said. “It’s the best movie I never want to see again.”
The Deseret News recently spoke with Smart about the film and the impact she hopes it will have. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Deseret News: What misconceptions did you want to clear up?
Elizabeth Smart: I think it’s probably true of anyone who goes through anything that anytime you share (your experience), you’re sharing words — whether it’s written or spoken in the moment — but to actually have a visual and a feeling for what it was like (is different). I can sit here and say all day that I went through terrible sexual abuse, that I was raped multiple times a day, but then actually getting kind of a feeling and a visual for what that is actually like, I think there’s a huge difference.
Yes, I’m sure everyone’s sick of hearing my story — aren’t we all? — but I mean actually being able to have kind of a window into what it was really actually like I think is vastly different than just reading words on a page or listening to me speak about it. I felt like it was a good opportunity to do that.
DN: You said you never wanted to make a movie about your experience. What made the circumstances right so that now was the time to make this movie?
ES: I couldn’t have just come home and written a book and made a movie and started speaking. I couldn’t have done that. I needed time to readjust back to my family, refigure out my life again and move on enough so that when I looked back on my life, I didn’t just see my kidnapping. I think that was really important for me. Then little by little, I became more and more involved in advocacy and through advocacy and my dad, speaking, and then a book.
I had a lot of offers over the years of people who wanted to work with me to make a movie, and I never felt the time was right and I never felt like it was the right thing to do. Then I met Joe (Freed) and Allison (Berkley) from Asylum Entertainment, and they talked to me for over a year about it. At first, I kept on saying, ‘Thanks, but no thanks. Thanks, but no thanks,’ and they were very persistent.
But it wasn’t their persistence that convinced me. They’d come and they’d listen to me speak and it’s kind of like they became a part of my life, and so I got to know them on a pretty personal basis. Then I realized after getting to know them — and it wasn’t (them) continually (saying), “Elizabeth, do this. Elizabeth, do this. C’mon Elizabeth, you should do this” — I realized they didn’t have any interest in doing it unless I was involved — unless I was heavily involved. … I just felt like (this Lifetime film) was another opportunity to share my story, to help — hopefully — other victims realize that they’re not alone, and nobody deserves for these things to happen to them, but they do (happen), but that no matter how hard it gets, don’t give up.
DN: What reservations did you have going into the project?
ES: I’ve always wanted … to come off genuine in everything I’ve ever done. I’ve always wanted it to be genuine and authentic and accurate, so thinking about having another person trying to portray me, trying to portray my captors, trying to act out my story, that was always a really scary thought because you can say things when you speak and you say them how you want to say them, or hopefully you say them the way you want them to be said. … Then taking that to another level, a movie, at least for me, I feel like that puts me in an extremely vulnerable position because the more people you involve, the more ways it can be portrayed, the more people’s opinions come involved. I just have always worried that the truth and what really happened, what it really was like, would get lost in everyone’s opinions, and I didn’t want creative liberty to be taken in overdramatizing certain moments to make it more compelling or more interesting or less in any way, I just always wanted it to be very much the truth and so that was a huge reservation.
Plus, it has taken up a considerable amount of time in my life. When I speak about my story and when I do my advocacy work, it’s because I choose to do so, I choose to go back to those moments, but in doing a movie and a documentary, those are not necessarily my deadlines that I have to go by and it does take up a lot of time, and sometimes it is a struggle to go from Elizabeth Smart to Mama, back to Elizabeth Smart. Reading the script, that takes time and I’ve got two little kids now who both need a lot of attention, and I want to make sure that I’m there to give them that attention, and I’m not just physically there but mentally and emotionally available to them as well. Going back to those dark times, sometimes it’s challenging to come back to this moment.
DN: What kind of coping mechanisms did you use to be able to switch back and forth between having to live in that world that you never wanted to return to and then be there for your children?
ES: When I was going over the scripts, I’d try to do it before I went to bed, after they went to bed so that they didn’t need me and I was not able to be there for them 100 percent. I tried to do that, and then I’d have the rest of the night to decompress and be ready for them again in the morning, so I tried to do that.
There were a couple times when that wasn’t always an option and I just had to deal with it. There was a deadline, I had to hit the deadline (and) I had to be there for my kids, so I just had to read it, and as soon as I was done reading it and critiquing it, I just had to set it aside and keep moving forward with my own life.
Going back to what my mom told me the day after I was rescued, I can’t allow these people to steal any more of my life away, and I need to move forward with my life. I need to do those things because feeling sorry for myself and living in the past, that’s only allowing them to steal more of my life away from me and they don’t deserve that. So just remembering that advice and knowing right now I don’t have a choice, right now I don’t have the time to sit and feel sorry for myself, so I’m going to keep moving forward, I’m going to be here for my kids and then maybe later on during their nap, I may need to go work out or I don’t know, watch “The Great British Bake Off” or something.
DN: What will this movie do to help others, both those who know your story and those that might not be as familiar?
ES: I have a lot of hopes for it. I hope it really gives it that third dimension to really understand what victims and survivors go through, to give you a real taste of what it was like because I know that yes, there were a lot of parts of my case that were unique, there’s a lot of parts that aren’t so unique that victims go through every single day. Kidnapping? Happens every single day. Rape? Happens every single day. There are so many individual elements of my story that constantly happen to so many people every single day, and I hope that when these stories come on the news that (the movie) gives people more compassion. …
I hope that it can open up conversations in families to talk about basic safety things. I know we feel like we have the basic things down like if you catch on fire, stop, drop and roll; don’t talk to strangers. (Those safety measures are) great, and my captor was a stranger, but most abductions that take place, they’re not strangers. Most abuse that takes place, not a stranger. Usually someone you know, actually, usually someone you trust. …
There’s three things I always try to stress because inevitably when I have a speech and I do a Q&A afterwards, the question comes up, “What should we be teaching our children? What should we go home and talk to our children about?” There’s a lot of things you can talk to your children about, but the three I feel are most important are … (first, that) you love them unconditionally, and make sure they understand what the word unconditionally means.
The second one is that nobody has the right to hurt them. It doesn’t matter who it is. It doesn’t matter if it’s a family member, if it’s a church leader, a school teacher, a friend, someone from work, it does not matter who. Nobody has the right to hurt you or to scare you or make you feel afraid. And thirdly, is if someone hurts you or makes you feel afraid or uncomfortable in any way, then tell. Tell you, preferably, but they need to talk about it. And if someone says, "If you tell your mommy or if you tell your daddy that I’m doing this or we had this conversation, I’m going to hurt them," if they ever are threatened, that is a red flag that they absolutely need to tell.
Do I talk to my children about this already? Yes, I do. My son’s 6 months old so I don’t know exactly how much he soaks in, but I think he does know that he’s loved. And my little girl, I tell her all the time, “I love you Chloe and you tell Mama if anyone hurts you,” and she’s like, “OK Mama.” Even as young as a 2-year-old, they understand that you love them and they know what it’s like to be hurt. Hopefully their hurt is just small, but they know enough to know what hurt is, so then they understand that they need to tell you when they’re hurting. Even that young, I don’t think you necessarily have to go into great detail when they’re just little small children, but I think that conversation does need to grow as they grow.
DN: How did your faith play a role in making this film?
ES: I think it’s just reminded me of all the things I have to be grateful for. Certainly the people who prayed for me and searched for me, but I think it’s also made me grateful for the faith that I do have, for the belief that I have in God, that he loves me, that he’s there for me, that I can turn to him whenever I need him. That for all these bad things that I’ve experienced in my life, I have a Savior who loves me and who has felt those same feelings and gone through those same things and who understands where I’m coming from, and if I do fall short, he understands why I fall short, so I think it’s been a great reminder of that.
“I Am Elizabeth Smart” premieres Saturday, Nov. 18, at 8 p.m. ET/PT on Lifetime. A two-part documentary titled “Elizabeth Smart: Autobiography” will premiere Sunday Nov. 12, and Monday, Nov. 13, at 9 p.m. ET/PT on A&E.