Which more accurately portrays Latter-day Saints: ‘Under the Banner of Heaven’ or ‘The Other Side of Heaven’?
Director Mitch Davis presents an inside look at how filmmakers portrayed a true story about a Latter-day Saint missionary in the 2001 movie, “The Other Side of Heaven.”
Since its debut in late April, Hulu’s limited murder-drama series “Under the Banner of Heaven” has generated media attention about its own accuracy and the teachings, history and culture of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
A Hollywood film released in 2001 told a different story about the faith.
“The Other Side of Heaven” tells the true experience of Elder John H. Groberg, a farm kid from Idaho Falls crossing the ocean to serve a three-year Latter-day Saint mission in the Tongan islands during the 1950s.
In the last two decades, the PG-rated missionary adventures of Elder Groberg have been seen by millions of people in countries around the world through DVDs, television and piracy. Davis has received letters about the film from viewers in recent weeks from places like Ukraine and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The movie has a lifetime gross income of $4.7 million, according to BoxOfficeMojo.com.
Many consider “The Other Side of Heaven” the most successful Latter-day Saint-themed film of all time, although its footprint pales in comparison to productions like “The Book of Mormon Musical” and “Under the Banner of Heaven,” said Mitch Davis, the film’s director.
“It’s still living out there, which is an amazing thing,” he said. “But it’s disconcerting when you consider it was produced on a low budget 23 years ago. It’s a bit of an indictment of our culture, actually. ‘The Other Side of Heaven’ should have been the beginning of something, not the end, the bottom rung on a tall ladder.”
Davis spoke with the Deseret News about the making of “The Other Side of Heaven,” the important decisions made, the challenges involved and what resonated with audiences in portraying the worldwide faith on the big screen. Here’s how it came together.
One of the pivotal decisions producers made was to be forthright about the church and not shy away from the fact that it was about a Latter-day Saint missionary.
They intentionally used titles like “mission president,” the word “Mormon” and other terms.
Missionaries didn’t wear black name tags in the 1950s, which may have helped the film to feel more universally Christian, compared to later decades when they did.
“We didn’t want to preach sermons or Mormon doctrine or do things that would offend the common audience,” Davis said. “We just wanted to tell a true story about a Mormon and show they can laugh, cry and feel all the emotions of every other person of every other faith tradition or of no faith tradition experience.”
Less friendly landscape
Davis thinks it was much easier to portray the Latter-day Saint faith on the big screen in 2001 than it is today. The landscape is much less friendly, he said.
Back then, Disney looked at “The Other Side of Heaven” and said it was a “great coming of age story, a heartfelt, old fashioned, Walt Disney movie,” Davis said. “They put it out without a second thought.”
He doesn’t think Disney would distribute the film today.
“I think they would say it had too much religion in it and that it represented a faith tradition that is controversial,” Davis said. “I don’t think the same thing would have happened today, unfortunately.”
What resonated with audiences
The single scariest experience Davis had when promoting “The Other Side of Heaven” came when he was invited to show the movie to a film criticism class taught by Leonard Maltin at USC’s film school.
“I knew I was not going to be walking into a family-friendly audience that was dying to see a faith-promoting film,” he said. “How in the world is this movie going to get through to these people?”
Seated in the back of the theater, Davis felt a collective groan from the audience as the opening scene depicted a 1950s dance at Brigham Young University. Davis thought he was “in for it, I’m going to get flayed.”
But as the movie progresses with a young couple courting, dialogue with the church poking fun at itself and other moments, the crowed began to laugh and settle in.
“I felt everybody exhale. I felt a big ahhh, it’s going to be all right,” Davis said. “Once they figured out we weren’t going to preach to them, that we were going to poke fun at ourselves and that we knew we were human, they relaxed and we got a big ovation at the end of the film.”
The class ended with Maltin and Davis engaged in a Q&A session and Maltin offered positive words that Davis used to promote the movie.
“A film that wins you over ... good storytelling,” Maltin said.
“What won that audience over?” Davis said. “It was the fact that we were allowing ourselves to be human, not superhuman.”
That was one of the film’s goals — to put a human face on Latter-day Saints and show they are relatable and relevant. It also helped that no church members were cast in the film’s major roles, he said.
A second goal was to produce a film that would receive mainstream distribution, which it did through Disney.
Movie star power
Another factor that gave the movie credibility was the involvement of Anne Hathaway, who was just starting her career in the early 2000s but is now an Academy Award winner and among the world’s highest-paid actresses.
Hathaway, who played Jean Groberg, had less screen time than actor Christopher Gorham, who played the main role of Elder John Groberg. But having her face on the DVD, next to the Disney label, allowed more people to watch the movie with less suspicion or a religious shield.
“Movie stars have extraordinary power to propel a movie across the globe and to create credibility with an audience, such that they willingly suspend disbelief and enjoy the film without being defensive,” Davis said. “That’s an enormous, enormous amount of power.”
It’s not impossible to get a movie star if you have the right acting role and a deep pocketbook.
“If what their character gets to do is exceedingly remarkable, powerful and human, and you can pay them, they might say yes,” Davis said. “But it’s becoming increasingly difficult given all the anti-LDS detritus out there.”
More tools, resources and financial backing
“The Other Side of Heaven” was created more than 20 years ago with a budget of $7 million and good distribution.
It would be interesting to see what a Latter-day Saint filmmaker could do with a compelling story and $150 million budget like “Top Gun: Maverick,” including top cinematographers, production designers, actors, composers and other experienced personnel, Davis said.
“No LDS filmmakers have ever been given the tools,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how talented our filmmakers are or how great their stories are if they don’t have the financial capacity to make their movies and get them on the screen. Financial backers need to be as inspired and mission driven to make these movies as the filmmakers themselves.”
Along with having the right budget and resources, Davis would like to see the rising generation of Latter-day Saint filmmakers counter “The Book of Mormon Musical” and “Under the Banner of Heaven” by telling the church’s story in balanced ways using major motion pictures and streaming series on mainstream distribution channels.
“I think we need to find ways to be much more bold. I don’t think timidity is the answer,” he said. “To really make a difference, we need many more qualified filmmakers and financial benefactors to jump into the fray and produce bigger and better movies.”