Monday, August 23, 2004

Mormon Movie alla Woody Allen

Spending the summer in the LA 1st Ward afforded me the opportunity of meeting a lot of cinematic Saints (I hung out with the Napolean Dynamite lead actor, who's actually a pretty attractive guy when you get rid of the wig and gaping-mouth-expression). I also made friends with an up-in-coming producer who's fairly well-connected in the LDS film world and for whom I have agreed to write the script for a Mormon dramedy that will begin shooting in June 2005.

As has already been discussed in previous blogs, LDS film is a complicated subject. Beyond dilemmas of normative aesthetic philosophy there lies the simple issue that we as a people desperately need a cultural cache that we can be proud of. The last thing I want to do is to write another "RM" or "Single's Ward." Instead of cheap slapstick, I'd like to do something more along the lines of a Woody Allen film, something that is at once funny, entertaining, and culturally probing. I'd like to give you the story's basic hook, and then invite your suggestions / caveats.

Jarom Merrill, a mid-20's Saint who has just moved into Chicago brings his two new roommates, one Jewish, the other Catholic, to a friend's LDS wedding reception. While there, Jarom runs into his old Stake President, now a wealthy CEO, to whom he introduces his roommates, who are both under-employed with large educational-loan debts. Distracted by meeting an old mission companion, Jarom leaves his roommates to chat with the Stake President, who thinks they're both LDS. The Stake President probes them about Jarom's dating habits, then relates Jarom's mother's worry that Jarom will never marry. The roomates say anyone who put any effort into it could set Jarom up and get him married in 6 months. The Stake President puts them to a wager that if they can get Jarom married in the next 6 months, he will give them both great jobs at his company which will easily allow them to pay off their debts; if they can't, they have to come and work minimum wage in the mail room for a year. They agree.

The problem? The roommates know next to nothing about Mormon culture. They try various gimics to get him engaged. First, they invite over all of the women they know who are desperate to get married and throw a party for Jarom. This doesn't work. After a few similar attempts, they decide he must be gay. After this is straightened out, they decide that maybe he's only interested in LDS girls. They next infiltrate a single's ward. First, they show up and, seeing a high concentration of women, unscruopulosly sit in on a Relief Society meeting. Second, deciding that they need to plant subconscious visual reminders of Mormon weddings around the apartment and, hearing that all weddings happen at the temple, they try to go inside the Chicago temple. The old man at the desk stares at them expectantly. They stare back. He asks for their recommend. They say, "Recommend? Oh, sure, we can recommend you something. Great restaurant down the street. Called Elise's. Wonderful Trout..." The old man stares at them, bewhildered, then adds, "From the Bishop..." The Catholic roommate says, "Oh, right... from the Bishop... I can take care of that." They go to a Catholic bishop.

The whole while, Jarom is actually falling in love with his Jewish Roommate's sister-- the one woman in the world his rommate doesn't want him to marry! Jarom, the sister, and the roommate's worlds are all turned up-side down as cultures clash and social norms are put to the test under the strain of true love.

You can see the basic plot arc of the movie. What I'm looking for in the way of suggestions are two things. 1.) Suggestions on more funny "Fish-out-of-water" scenarios like the Relief Society or Temple scenes. The comedy should revolve around possible mis-understandings in crossover of religious / cultural institutions from Catholicism or Judaism to Mormonism. 2.) I need your suggestions on the ending. Would it be too alienating to audiences for both Jarom and the Jewish girl to marry outside their respective faiths? Would Jews find it insulting if the Jewish roommate himself decides to convert after spending all this time around Mormonism?

I'm excited about this movie because it's a blend of Mormon and non-Mormon characters. It's also told from the perspective of "Outsiders" looking in, which should make the film more accessible to non-Mormon audiences.

Any thoughts?

24 Comments:

At 8/24/2004 04:35:00 PM,

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At 8/24/2004 04:39:00 PM,

Sorry about that.

J.D. - What happened to the T.V. series idea? I feel like your story line (which I quite like) could be portrayed so much better in a sit-com type situation. Each of the stories (temple recommend, relief society, etc.) would make a great 15-min episode. In addition, you could explore many more facets of Jarom's relationship with his Jewish girlfriend without having to worry about a consistent plot. (ala our favorite TV relationships: Zach and Kelly on "Saved by the Bell" or Ross and Rachel on "Friends").

However, given the current plight of sit-coms and rise of "Reality" TV, a movie may be the most plausible path. I kind of get the "Perfect Strangers" feel when I envision scenes from your storyline (maybe it's the Chicago locale), but I like what you're doing.

Chris made a great point in the previous blog about this
topic that the show must be entertaining. I think the
reason the Cosby show was so popular (and effective) was
that it was entertainment first, and black-issues
second. The Cosby's were portrayed as a normal family
because the show addressed normal problems for teens (not necessarily unique to the black community).

Those issues aside, some additional sub-plots might include:

1) If Jarom really does marry his Jewish girlfriend, his roommates (especially the brother) are going to have to deal with the exclusive temple ceremony and the fact that family may not be invited.

2) I remember sitting behind a Jewish kid in one of my
philosophy classes who wore a hand-made yarmulke with the NY Jets logo painted on it. I think the sub-culture for kippas are very similar to the Mormon sub-culture of CTR rings (or garment materials - cotton over mesh, my friends).

3) If you wanted to cater to the "Insider" crowd, the Church in south-side Chicago is full of "interesting" stories. Aside from hosting U of C alumns like DH Oaks and Rex Lee, there are some pretty crazy stories from the Hyde Park ward which include a "wife swap" between the bishop and EQ Pres., polygamy...you name it. Admittedly, these stories are not Ensign material, but do draw a historical connection for Mormon insiders, and address issues of Church membership, excommunication, etc.

4) Some more serious issues you could address (interspersed between the comic routines) are issues of abuse (very relevant), the role of women in the Church, the "gay divide," and other hot-button social issues of the day.

5) Lastly, you might think about some stories to which any Church-goer could relate, i.e. having Jarom's father visit him at Church and sing the tenor line EXTRA loud, or having somebody faint while speaking in Church, etc.

Anyway, I really like where you are going with this. My wife grew up in Chicago and your storyline reminds me of a book that her brother wrote - kind of like a Mormon "The Chosen" - which included a bunch of funny stories about growing up Mormon in that area. I hope you keep us all updated here on the blogger as your plans move forward. I'd love to hear how your story develops.

 
At 8/25/2004 01:44:00 PM,

JD-
Before I make some comments, I need you to clear one thing up. What is the target audience? Are you aiming primarily at lds people a la "singles ward" but hoping that b/c it's more accessible, others will join in too?

 
At 8/26/2004 01:34:00 PM,

You could have a bit about dietary restrictions. For the wedding, someone going down a list --
"No pork, no shellfish, no alcohol, no coffee . . . Oy!" And/or perhaps a big mix-up where the Jewish cooks inadvertently make a wine dish, the Mormon cooks inadvertently cook a milk dish in a meat pan, and at the end, the only food anyone can have at the reception is matzoh-ball soup and green jello.

 
At 8/26/2004 01:58:00 PM,

I like it. I seems more like a Big Fat Greek Wedding than Woody Allen.

A friend of mine married a Chinese girl, who was a member, and they had both the Temple Ceremony and a traditional Chinese Wedding, for her parents, as well as a reception. Perhaps a full blown Jewish ceremony could be cause for some comedic situations.

The Conversion issue could be a thorny one. Mmmmmm. . . . Perhaps you can make him go for the Catholic roommate's sister, but make him an out-of-the-way non-white bread Catholic, perhaps Hungarian, Iraqi, Vietnamese, etc. It seems strange, but this might not cause the narrative problems of having him marry a Jewish girl. You could even have the Catholic go for the Jewish roommate's sister and have him convert to Judaism, who knows?

 
At 8/26/2004 01:59:00 PM,

Okay, another idea:

An old Jewish uncle gets very upset at the idea of his neice marrying a Christian. There is a bit of a scene, yelling, etc, people not very happy.

Finally, the Catholic friend defuses the situation by explaining to the uncle that Mormons aren't Christians. They run and grab a brochure that explains this. That satisfies the uncle's concern (while the Mormon guy is trying not to laugh in the background).

 
At 8/26/2004 02:17:00 PM,

One of the roommates could distract the person at the desk at the temple checking recommends, while the other slips in and discovers...

Well, let's make it a dream (you could have a lot of fun with this). He discovers what looks from all appearances to be a bar mitzvah celebration (or something equally unexpected) that the participants pass as some sort of temple ceremony. Who says Mormons don't know how to have fun?

 
At 8/26/2004 02:49:00 PM,

What would be a wonderful ending is you have the couple get married, but neither of them convert. They love and respect each other for who they are, and don't try to change anything about each other becuase of that respect. That way you avoid any superiority issues on either/all sides. Just a cute love-story where 2 people fall in love, as is.

Ryan S.

 
At 8/26/2004 03:37:00 PM,

Please, PLEASE, don't have anyone convert at the end. Such a trope is reserved for only the most formulaic stuff at the mid-level of Bookcraft's youth fiction list.

However, a movie about Mormon's that is as sophisticated and observant as Woody Allen's 70s work would be a breakthrough of the highest order. The problem with Woody as a model is that all of his movies are actually quite nihilistic, and that kind of film would be hard to market to folks used to seeing "RM" and "The Silly Hometeacher" or whatever.

--Greg Call

 
At 8/26/2004 03:49:00 PM,

Something to seriously consider is what material to use or not. I think the Singles Ward was great. And mostly it poked fun at mormon culture. Where I was turned off a lot from the RM because it seemingly poked more fun of doctrine. Lying about your mission, drinking, stealing and lying in court are not as humorous as a dance or other dating situatious.

There are also a lot of skit type scenes that when spliced together don't work for a congruent story. Just some cautionary thoughts.

As for some fun, what about a scene where everyone on the Jewish side and Mormon side are trying to coordinate a time to go out. Can't do Sunday, can't do Saturday, what other days are left?

Possibly an alternative would be comments from the roomates during the reception regarding a basket ball court in the chappel, "maybe thier (mormons) are onto soemthing!"

Or crashing enrichment night rather than RS. Lots more embarasing things can happen at enrichment!

-Charles

 
At 8/26/2004 03:54:00 PM,

Do you guys have any connections? How about Wierd Al Yankovic with a cameo as the wedding singer. Accordian and all.

 
At 8/26/2004 03:55:00 PM,

Well, I guess this settles it. I can never go into film. Curse our Mormon parents and their unimaginative names. No, wait. I'm just mad at your parents. I like my name, and I've had it longer. You're the copycat, not me. So there.

--JOHN DAVID PAYNE

 
At 8/26/2004 05:07:00 PM,

How about having them bring a non-member girl to a sacrement meeting where Jarom is doing a musical number that will impress her. She finds it great and ends up being the only one to clap, publically humiliating her. This happend to a couple of Jehova's Witnesses that came to our sacrament meeting once after a remarkable violin number.

Personally I love the mormon aren't Christian joke.

 
At 8/26/2004 05:11:00 PM,

After running the credits or during them, run some skits of common LDS groaners. There's good news and bad news Pope. Or some otherwise rediculous one liners.

 
At 8/26/2004 05:12:00 PM,

The Stake President Wager:
The Stake President should have a copy of a Covey book, or something like that, which he credits with giving him the idea to be 'proactive' about our young friend's marriage situation.

The recommend:
It would be funnier if they went to see a Mormon bishop thinking it was something like a Catholic bishop. maybe the Jewish boy has his head full of misconceptions and is agonizing about whether he could in conscience kiss the Bishop's ring.
Also, they should probably try to talk their way into the temple more.

More emphasis on having the two guys try to masquerade as Mormons at church.

Since the emphasis doesn't seem to be on the Mormon kid anyway (he's more of a plot element), his wedding shouldn't be the climax. Maybe he meets some nice Mormon girl that he marries all on his own. Meanwhile the Jewish and the Catholic boy should end up, like you say, marrying each others sisters, or marrying girls they met and were trying to set up with the Mormon boy, or else marrying people they thought were Mormon but aren't, much like themselves.

 
At 8/26/2004 07:02:00 PM,

Thank you all for your great suggestions. To answer a few of your questions...

Doug-- The T.V. series idea is still in the works. I agree that this subject matter lends itself much more to series format, however the producer I'm working with wants to go for a feature film, and I am still an un-established, "up-in-coming" writer, meaning I take what I can get.

Chris-- I am aiming at both LDS and non-LDS audiences. The point of having the main characters people who aren't LDS trying to understand the faith / culture is that it gives any potential viewer an "in" by which to access the story. I want the humor to be very human, things that will be aparent to anyone watching the film.

I will respond more to the other questions raised in the other posts later on, but for the moment, I have to go run and cook a pasta carabonara.

--JD

 
At 8/26/2004 07:27:00 PM,

whether or not the main character marries some one in the movie or not- I think you shouldn't have any one convert in the end. I agree- it is way too bookcraft.
There are so many story ideas here that are absolutely great- but I worry that even the good ones could come off very singles ward depending on how things were done.

 
At 8/26/2004 08:43:00 PM,

While there are some good reasons for the non-conversion at the end of the movie, would the Mormon movie goers, who are perhaps the most likely to see the film, not see the ending as somewhat tragic, making the movie somewhat of a "bummer." Like it or not, part member families sometimes have an air of tragedy in Church culture.

 
At 8/27/2004 02:45:00 AM,

Could I make a plea for a complex female character? I think the primary weakness (for me) in all the mollywood movies I've seen thus far is the cardboard female characters on the shrill side of annoying (self)righteousness. It's like the women were written by a fourteen year-old boy trying to figure out how a proper Mormon woman should act and not putting much thought into it.

I did find Single's Ward humorous, but for the life of me I couldn't figure out why that woman was supposed to be attractive, or how a romance was supposed to blossom out of two people bickering a lot then ka pow, it’s love. Maybe it’s a boy thing, and that’s how love works in the strange man mind, but as a woman, the whole love angle of that movie was just trash.

Also, IMO, if you’re just writing for silliness, I think your plot is fine. But if you’re trying to write something that will ring deeper, truer, you’re going to have to rethink the “unlikely bet” plot. It’s just not the type of thing that decent, thoughtful, real people do. Your motives will ring false and while people will probably laugh, they won’t really believe it. The Stake president is the first problem. Why would he make this bet? What does he have on the line? For the Mormon kid’s mother to be happy? Why would this matter to him so much that he’d be willing to give two unknown kids cushy jobs? Not to mention the moral ambiguity of making such a bet? Does he feel it is somehow is leadership duty to marry him off? I don’t know, his motive is iffy, his tactics are iffy. I’m just not believing him as a character.

Then you have the problem of the roommates. Why are they so convinced that they can succeed? They don’t know their Mormon roommate (he just moved there), they don’t know anything about his culture or his preferences (not even if he’s gay)? Would they really be willing to risk a year of servitude on a bet that they aren’t in a good position to know they can win. Maybe if they’re supposed to be on the dumb side this would be okay.

But then I was under the impression that these two guys are supposed to be your protagonists? Do you want the audience on their side as the stumble through Mormon culture? I’m not sure how much I’d believe-in or even like two guys who made this kind of bet, would I be cheering for them as they bumble through? Is that even what you want?

 
At 8/27/2004 10:01:00 AM,

I don't think the bet is too implausible- I have known too many people willing to do something like that- but a bit of support or back story would be good.

Second- I think that the stake president should quote covey but should not have a copy of a covey book. I think that is the singles ward/rm type line. Subltle references are funny and everyone who would like the joke will get it any way. beating some one over the head makes it too sophomoric.

 
At 8/27/2004 04:29:00 PM,

JD: where does the drama of "dramedy" come in do you think? My Woody Allen experiences are all largely unclear except for "Celebrity" and "Deconstructing Harry"--the earlier more dramatic relationship ones are fuzzy in my memory.

Does Jarom feel the intense, salvific need for marriage in order to fulfil what he knows is expected of him? Is that a uniquely Mormon view of marriage? Also, with love outside of the faith, will we see his struggle with that decision as a truly life-changing and maybe uncomprehensible decision for a Latter-day Saint?

My personal bias/interest/impression w/r/t adopting a woody allen model for a mormon relationship film is that it deals thoughtfully and, yes, neurotically almost, with the priorities, expectations, and reasons for the relationship that a Latter-day Saint would bring to the relationship. Is this good pioneer descendant full of faith? What does he imagine as his relgious and eschatological future if he did that thing that he is taught he cannot do without implicitly denying at least a part of his faith?

Making it THIS kind of W.Allen style would depend heavily on the dialogue and maybe require fewer hilarities, I think.

But my question is essentially where is the drama?

 
At 12/27/2004 01:38:00 PM,

I thought about an in-depth comment here but discovered that since you didn't put any thought into your plot, I wouldn't put too much thought into this. For one, where is any woody allen comedy come into play here, and since when was a woody allen film instantly funney? It sounds like some half-baked attempt to describe your film venture that is, by the way, nothing more than another rm or singles ward.
I can't believe that I am wasting time writing this. In conclusion, if you must make this film, don't use any temple scenes. Please, do every member that has a very personal and sacred belief in the temple a huge favor and don't use the holy House of the Lord like some comedy scene to pass off your witless movie. Please
 

Posted by Ryan

 
At 1/28/2005 02:14:00 PM,

It seems to have been quite awhile since these post's is this still in the works?
 

Posted by Brian

 
At 1/30/2005 03:03:00 PM,

Here's a twist...after reading through just about everything...

It might be confusing, but definitely lend to thought...
further complicate the comedy by having the Jewish girl like him alot, and want revenge on her brother. So, knowing her brother and realizing what he is doing, she introduces Jarom to some friends of hers, one being a very dedicated young mormon girl, parading as a Jew for a college study? Then, the two girls convince Jarom's jewish friend that it's the jewish sister that Jarom is interested in...puts a little pressure on the young Jewish man to learn how to marry Jarom off, before it is too late. After all, looks who keeps sneeking around parading to be LDS in their attempts to marry Jarom. What's good for the goose is good for the gander, eh?

Idealistically, the young lady is a former interest who was around before Jarom's mission, excusing the short engagement. :) Gotta keep up those hi-falutin' lessons we want to express to the young folks that love comes around in God's time...not our own.

I further agree with a number of the posts above that conversion is perhaps a bad idea on any occasion...we are taught not to be judgemental, and there are many mixed religion marriages even among celebrities. It would be enough, if Jarom did marry a young lady of another faith, that they truly loved each other. It could also add to the misunderstandings and miscommunications for further humor.

However it turns out, you've got a great story, and I love your attention and storyline thus far! You're doing great and I look forward to seeing the movie in theatres soon! 

Posted by Tess

 

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