SALT LAKE CITY — Many filmgoers fell in love with “The Other Side of Heaven” when it was released in 2001. The Disney-produced film starring Christopher Gorham as Elder John H. Groberg — an emeritus General Authority Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — and Anne Hathaway tells the story of Elder Groberg’s mission to the Tongan islands in the 1950s and his courtship with the love of his life, Jean Sabin.
Moviegoers will soon get the chance to find out what happened after the events of the first film when “The Other Side of Heaven 2: Fire of Faith” opens nationwide on June 28 — and have the opportunity to see the original film in advance of its sequel.
Mitch Davis, director and producer of both films, along with Elder Groberg and Michael Dunn, managing director of BYUtv, took part in a news conference on Wednesday to announce special events, plans for a rerelease of the original film and a partnership for the sequel.
“Literally an entire generation doesn't know this incredible story,” said Dunn as he announced that BYUtv will show “The Other Side of Heaven” on June 23-24. “We’re about creating purposeful, meaningful entertainment and viewing experiences that families can enjoy together.”
Dunn also said that BYUtv acquired the rights to broadcast the original film and has obtained exclusive TV and streaming rights for “Fire of Faith” later this year or early 2020.
It’s been almost two decades since audiences first saw Elder Groberg’s mission portrayed on the big screen. The drama was based on his book “In the Eye of The Storm.” The sequel, which draws largely from his memoirs penned in “The Fire of Faith,” continues to follow Elder Groberg — again played by Gorham— who was called to serve as mission president in Tonga while in his early 30s. Elder Groberg is joined on his three-year mission by his wife Jean — portrayed by New Zealand actress Natalie Medlock — and their five young daughters.
“Making this movie was a war every day,” Davis said in a previous interview. “I think in many ways our movie was defined by adversity. I just felt it was going to be really hard, and it was.”
But the words of the Church leaders buoyed him in those trials.
“I kept hearing the voice of the LDS young women leaders in my head: ‘I can do hard things,’” Davis said.
‘An old friend’
Davis sat in an airplane more than 40 years ago and watched Argentina, his home for two years, tear away from his view.
“I’ve never recovered from being a missionary in Argentina in the 1970s,” said Davis about his time as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “I’ve never gotten over my fervent desire to share the good news of the gospel with everyone I possibly can.”
As a result of a spiritual experience during his mission in Argentina, it became very clear to Davis that he was one day supposed produce a movie about the “Mormon missionary experience.”
Initially, he had no inclination to make a movie. Davis planned to follow his passion and become a sports writer. But that spiritual prompting while walking down the streets of Cordoba, Argentina, shifted his goal of becoming a sports writer to a 21 year quest to become a filmmaker. It was year 20 of that quest he read Groberg’s book “In the Eye of the Storm.”
“When I discovered it, it was like I met an old friend,” Davis said.
Davis knew he must make the movie about Elder Groberg’s mission among the Tongan people.
After Disney’s “The Other Side of Heaven” was released, almost immediately people approached Davis about making a sequel.
Now Mitch, you know that I wrote both these books at the insistence of President Monson, and you know that he wanted both to become movies. I’m not getting any younger and neither are you. It’s time we do this.
The movie was a success and enough money was spent on it to make it a large scale Hollywood level production. But Davis didn’t want to do a sequel, even though financially it would have been a great idea. He didn’t want to make a movie that would be what he called “a 10-cent imitation.”
For more than 10 years Davis declined invitations to make a sequel. Then about two years ago Davis said he received an invitation to lunch from Elder Groberg.
“'Now Mitch, you know that I wrote both these books at the insistence of President Monson, and you know that he wanted both to become movies. I’m not getting any younger and neither are you. It’s time we do this,'” Davis recalled Elder Groberg telling him.
“The first movie, I really felt like I had the assignment from the Lord and felt the passion to make it real,” Davis said. “I think Elder Groberg felt that with the second movie.”
The storm before the calm
“From the moment at that lunch that (Elder Groberg) said ‘We’re doing this,’ until now, it’s been nonstop intense madness, getting the work done,” Davis said.
Soon after that discussion with Elder Groberg, Davis discovered that Fiji offered a 47 percent tax rebate or film incentive rebate. That was the “magic bullet” for Davis, as he could again make a big-budget film — Davis said the sequel cost several millions of dollars to make. But that good fortune would soon change.
A week before Davis’ group began principal photography in the early spring of 2018, Cyclone Josie hit the area. Three days before pre-production, Davis was involved in a skiing accident and would spend four and a half months in pain with his arm in a sling. Davis encountered visa issues, budget limitations and difficult remote locations and while he was able to overcome them all, the greatest challenge would require greater help.
On the first day of filming, Cyclone Keni, a category 3 cyclone, hit the Fiji Islands.
Davis recalled that all the businesses on the island were closed even as their film crew headed to the set to begin shooting. As the winds whipped the palm trees and pushed the water into shore, the group asked for a blessing.
“An LDS general authority, Elder (Adolf J.) Johansson, drove to Suva and pronounced a blessing upon our movie and our set,” Davis said. “He pronounced the blessing in Tongan and we didn’t know exactly what he said, but he rebuked the storm, is what he told us afterwards. And in fact, what he said happened.”
The cast and crew was evacuated for the rest of the day as the storm approached land. But then during the night it turned and went out to sea. Experiences like that helped the crew bond. It was during those challenges that Davis felt himself grow spiritually.
“It felt like we were in a war together and we were in some major battles together and we all grew because we all learned that we could do hard things together,” Davis said.
It felt like we were in a war together and we were in some major battles together and we all grew because we all learned that we could do hard things together.
Even before the cast and crew experienced these bonding battles, the group was excited to sign up for the sequel. “They were so enthusiastic to get back together,” Davis said. “When I went to Chris Gorham, he said, ‘Ah, you’re going to get the band together?’ So yeah, it was great.”
Besides Gorham, other returning cast members include Joe Folau as Feki, Elder Groberg’s beloved missionary companion; Miriama Smith as Lavania, who played the temptress on the original film; and Peter Sa’ena-Brown as Kuli, the father of Nuku, the little boy who fell out of the mango tree. Whetu Fala, the woman who healed Elder Groberg’s bloody feet and the character of Nuku will also return.
The most notable face from the first film that audiences won't see is actress Anne Hathaway, who Davis didn't attempt to sign due to budget constraints.
A new addition to the film may be a familiar figure for some audience members. Russell Dixon, a New Zealand-based actor, will portray then-Elder Thomas S. Monson, who was assigned to the South Pacific region when Elder Groberg served as mission president of the area.
Elder Groberg noted it was kind of a miracle that Dixon looks so much like President Monson, and Dixon told them that he listened to more than 30 hours of President Monson’s talks to get the right inflection.
‘Fire of Faith’
Elder Groberg modestly dismissed the fact that the film is about him. Instead he pointed to the movie’s messages of faith, love and family.
“I hope that because of these movies, that message will be able to get across to the whole world … because those are fundamental basic principles,” Elder Groberg said.
It's a wish that Davis, as director, shares.
“I'm hopeful that the audience for the second film will be encouraged in their faith and in their faithfulness,” he said. “I use the word encouraged very deliberately because it contains the word courage. The second movie tells the true story of a people whose faith and courage was tested in the extreme and they pass that test. And so I hope the people who see the second film will be emboldened in their faith. That the fire of faith will resonate after they've seen the film.”
Along with the BYUtv partnership to rerelease the original movie on June 23-24, a special mini-premiere of “The Other Side of Heaven 2” will take place at the Megaplex Theatres at Jordan Commons on May 15 with invited guests. Then starting May 17 the original film will screen at Megaplex Theatres in Centerville, Vineyard and at Thanksgiving Point for one week.
Several events will lead up to the June 28 nationwide theatrical release of “The Other Side of Heaven 2: Fire of Faith.” The film’s second trailer will drop on April 17. Live streaming missionary preparation events will be Sundays, April 14-June 9 at 7 p.m. on facebook.com/LDSMissionaries. The May 19 event will stream from facebook.com/othersideofheaven and will feature the Grobergs along with Davis. On April 20 at 10 a.m., Gorham, Davis and Groberg will be at FanX for a presentation, discussion and meet and greet. BYUtv also plans to show the original movie throughout the year. Jordan Commons will host a gala premiere of “Fire of Faith” on June 26 in advance of the June 28 nationwide release.