A large group of men, women and children dressed in authentic costumes kneel on the earth under the hot July sun. They are surrounded by styrofoam walls designed to look like an ancient city.
Outside the walls, another group of cast members rest in camping chairs under a shady tree, sipping from water bottles, while production crew personnel bustle about, attending to last-second details.
All conversations cease when a man with an electronic ear piece and utility belt announces with a loud voice, “Quiet on set.”
With cameras recording, an actor dressed in a white robe, representing the resurrected Lord Jesus Christ, walks among the people and quotes scripture.
The Deseret News interviewed cast and crew as well as leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints during a recent visit to the secluded set of Book of Mormon videos, Season 4, near Springville, Utah, where is filming episodes featuring Christ’s appearance to the Nephites from the book of 3rd Nephi.
“This is the central part of the Book of Mormon — the appearance of the Savior,” said Elder LeGrand R. Curtis Jr., a General Authority Seventy and the Church Historian and Recorder.
Elder Curtis said everyone is thrilled to be “open for business again” after a yearlong delay due to COVID-19. A cast and crew of more than 1,000 have been filming for two weeks and expect to finish by the end of August. The new videos are scheduled be released in 2022.
From building styrofoam city walls, to selecting the right actor to play Jesus Christ to making authentic costumes, here are six noteworthy, behind-the-scenes facts from the set of the Book of Mormon videos.
1. ‘The experience of Christ’
The fourth season of Book of Mormon videos focuses on the ministry of Jesus Christ among the Nephites, as recounted in 3rd Nephi.
Sister Reyna I. Aburto, second counselor in the Relief Society general presidency, joined Elder Curtis on the set. For her, the pandemic delay was a blessing because it gave everyone more time to prepare to recreate such a “special” part of the Book of Mormon.
The desired outcome is that more people will turn to Christ, read the scriptures and understand them better as they watch the videos, she said.
“We all feel this is the central part of the Book of Mormon because it contains the words that Jesus told those people,” she said. “It contains his teachings and his doctrine. The sole purpose of this project is to testify of him and to increase faith in him.”
Adam Anderegg, one of the project’s directors, believes this portrayal of the Savior will resonate with people of all faiths.
“It’s a lot of people’s favorite section (of the Book of Mormon),” Anderegg said. “You’ve got a personal, intimate portrayal of the Savior interacting, ministering, touching, healing and talking over multiple days. I think people of all faiths are going to really respond to that.”
Elder Curtis and Sister Aburto were part of a committee that reviewed each script. The episode Elder Curtis is looking forward to most is found in 3rd Nephi chapter 17.
“The experience of Christ changing his schedule to stay and be with the people. And to heal them. And to bless the children. And the angels coming and ministering to the children,” he said with moist eyes. “To me, that’s as spiritually powerful as anything.”
2. Two Latter-day Saint apostles visit the set
Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf and Elder Dale G. Renlund, both members of the church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, recently visited the set with their wives during production and each spoke to the cast and crew.
The Book of Mormon videos will help the church to spread the gospel message in a sophisticated, technological world, said Elder Uchtdorf, who oversees the project as chairman of the church’s Priesthood and Family Executive Council.
“As we share the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ with the world, we need to realize that people often prefer to learn via visual impressions and virtual means,” the apostle said in a news release. “We see this across the globe with Facebook, Instagram, and other social media when missionaries and members use these technology tools wisely to touch the hearts of the people with the beautiful gospel message.”
Elder Renlund hopes the Book of Mormon videos will guide viewers to develop a relationship with Jesus Christ.
“My hope is that as people view this Book of Mormon videos they will have a firm knowledge and know that Jesus is the Christ, the Savior of the world,” Elder Renlund said in a video interview. “That’s my hope, that it helps people begin that path.”
3. How the actor who plays Jesus was chosen
After the church released the first Book of Mormon video episodes portraying Nephi, Elder Curtis received a letter from someone saying the young prophet wasn’t muscular enough.
“Casting is tricky because you are not going to have what everybody is expecting in their own mental picture,” he said with a smile.
The memory came back as Elder Curtis described the process used to select Anthony Butters, a native of New Zealand, to play the role of Jesus Christ.
Many qualified actors were considered for the pivotal role. Many filmmakers reviewed audition videos, and Butters was ultimately recommended to the steering committee, which is made up of church leaders. The committee made the final decision, Elder Curtis said.
“Part of our job is to make sure that what we’re doing on film is authentic to what the (Book of Mormon) is like,” he said. “As we looked at him and talked to the producers, we felt like he could do this in a way that wouldn’t just be him, it would be authentic to how it reads in the Book of Mormon.”
Butters looked the part as he stood outside the city walls in a white robe, with long hair and prosthetic wounds in his hands and feet. Despite the countless hours it took him to memorize his lines, the overall experience has become a significant highlight in his life, the actor told the media.
“It really is as fun as it looks,” Butters said with an accent “It’s probably the most fun I’ve had on set.”
A stand-in double named Cleve Panike helps keep Butters fresh for each scene.
Panike, a junior at BYU, has the same height, weight and skin color as Butters. He dresses like Butters and stands in his place to prepare lighting, camera angles and background actors for each scene before he’s replaced by Butters.
“We don’t want him tired, dry throat or sweaty because the Savior obviously wouldn’t appear that way,” Panike said.
4. Ancient city made of styrofoam
The church was filming scenes with King Benjamin’s temple in Hawaii for earlier episodes when the idea of building a set out of styrofoam due of limited materials was first introduced, according to John Munoa, the project’s art director who also plays the role of the prophet Moroni.
The high price of lumber forced crews to innovate when building the Book of Mormon city “Bountiful” for Season 4.
“When lumber skyrocketed to 300-400% of its normal cost, we thought, ‘OK, how are we going to do this?’” Munoa said. “We basically made all these pieces at the Motion Pictures Studio in Provo, trucked them out here and put them together. ... I think it looks great. Bronze panels, wood, plastered walls — it’s all just styrofoam.”
The use of styrofoam allowed filmmakers to create a bigger set than they would have otherwise, Munoa said.
5. Neutrality on Book of Mormon geography
As emphasized with earlier episodes, the Book of Mormon videos are committed to location neutrality, focusing more on what took place in the book, not where it took place.
Geographic neutrality was carefully considered when selecting a location for filming, designing the set and creating the wardrobe of costumes. Filmmakers focused on shapes, colors and styles, rather than discrete elements, while researching cultures from Central and South America to the Pacific.
“We try really hard not to do any cultural appropriation,” Munoa said. “We do walk a fine line in trying to be location neutral.”
The Book of Mormon videos ultimately focus on Jesus Christ, the art director said.
“Even though we have to create something that looks legitimate for the actors to act in, it can’t upstage the sacred stories and the sacred nature of the scriptures,” Munoa said.
6. What does it take to outfit a Nephite?
Creating an authentic Nephite wardrobe is a fairly intense process that requires a lot of people, according to Jacqui Newell, the costume designer from the beginning of the project.
It started with assistance and insight from Rory Scanlon, a BYU professor who has spent 40 years researching garments from the estimated time period of ancient scriptures.
“He had done a lot of sketches from carvings. I looked at a lot of photos of carvings from the temples and things that were in Central and South America,” Newell said. “Everything that was available, we looked at. Then we tried to remove elements that would tie it to one culture or people.”
Sketches of costumes based on the research are approved through a steering committee, then fabric is selected and costumes, from head to foot, are made by hand.
“We have a big team working all the time at sewing,” she said.
A small army of workers then help each cast member transform into a Nephite. Wardrobe and makeup artists have been known to work up to 15-hour days.
“It’s a pretty intense process that takes a lot of people,” Newell said.