By Nick Mattos, PQ Monthly
You already bought your tickets for Portland Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, right? Kicking off tomorrow night and running through October 6, this year’s installment of the festival brings numerous notable film premieres to our fair city. One of the most exciting, in our opinion: September 30th’s Portland premiere of The Falls, a locally-produced look at two Mormon missionaries who fall in love while trying to tell the residents of the Rose City the good news of the restoration of the gospel. PQ took some time with Jon Garcia, director of The Falls, to discuss the inspiration behind the film, its triangulation between the genres of queer and Mormon cinema, and some of the surprising ways that the filmmaker was able to make the movie authentic to LDS culture.
PQ Monthly: First off, how did the concept for The Falls emerge?
Jon Garcia: I initially intended to write a script that was about a young man living in the middle of Idaho — I thought that it wasn’t too far away, and that I could go shoot in Idaho. I chose the city of Idaho Falls randomly, without knowing anything about it; later, I went and had a drink with a friend and found out that he was from the city. He told me that there were a lot of Mormons in Idaho Falls, and that piqued my interest — I didn’t know very much about the LDS faith at all. So, I completely wiped this story that I was writing about this young man in the middle of Idaho struggling with his sexuality and the question of how to express to other people who he was, and started writing the Falls… It became the story of two Mormon missionaries, one from Idaho Falls and one from Salt Lake City, who meet while serving a mission in Portland.
I wanted to do as much research as I could — everything from watching the South Park episode to the Frontline documentary to other LDS movies — and then started attending the LDS church and meeting with missionaries. Everything that happened in my meetings with the missionaries ended up in the movie. The character of Elder Merrill is based on one of those missionaries, who I swore was gay himself; he seemed to be struggling with some of the same things that I wanted to explore in the characters.
In general, being authentic [to Mormon culture] was very important to me, in part because I want people of the LDS faith to watch this — I didn’t want it to be too risqué. There isn’t a curse word in the entire movie! I wanted it to be clean and watchable by all.
PQ: Totally — and part of that is accurately capturing Mormon culture, which is such a clean one that it wouldn’t make sense for there to be a lot of swearing.
JG: Exactly. We have characters saying “dang it” and “darn it…”
PQ: “Oh my heck!”
JG: “Flippin’ this” and “flippin’ that.”
PQ: What about Mormon culture was attractive to you?
JG: As someone who tries to study as many religions as I can, it was really interesting to me. I grew up Catholic in Texas, and seeing two guys on a bicycle riding through a neighborhood in ties and name tags was intriguing — I wondered what that was about. It was really fascinating to learn about the religion, and sate my own curiosity while I was learning the story. I tried to educate Nick [Ferrucci] and Ben [Farmer, the lead actors] all the info I found, sat down with a Mormon family to learn about the culture. Our Unit Production Manager Jenna [Bodell] grew up Mormon — although her family later left the church — kept us authentic as well. She even got us the temple garments…
PQ: Those are really hard to get ahold of!
JG: We managed to get two pairs, and I was really excited. When we were leaving the temple with the two bags of garments, I just held them and went “Oh my god… it’s a real Mormon movie now!”
PQ: So, you show the temple garments in the film?
JG: Yes. When I showed the movie to the local chapter of Affirmation [an association of GLBTQA Latter-Day Saints], they were kind of floored. “Are those real temple garments? How did you get those!?”
PQ: What did you find surprising about working on The Falls?
JG: Both of the lead actors are straight, and Ben is very religious, and he told me that some of the scenes were hard for him to do as a Christian. He was kind of concerned about how his parents and family would consider the film. I’ve been surprised by how my family and friends have reacted to it, too — some folks I haven’t seen in years have been a bit put-off by my making a movie about two guys on a mission who fall in love. I was surprised to learn that, after being up here in the Northwest where it’s very progressive, that the rest of the world hasn’t necessarily progressed nearly as far. Of course, we’ve come a long way in terms of gay rights and acceptance, but it’s not moving forward as much as I thought it would.
What interests me about queer cinema is that fundamentally they’re films about love — they’re all about love, which is precisely what drew me to this story. I didn’t realize it was a genre film when I was making it, or even consider that it was “a gay and lesbian film.” Later, people told me that I could play it in [gay and lesbian film] festivals, which didn’t even occur to me until I was done.
PQ: It’s interesting, because parallel to the rise of queer cinema there was also a rise in Mormon cinema — starting from things like Saturday’s Warrior to Richard Dutcher’s movies to The Singles Ward. Do you see The Falls fitting into both the genres, in terms of being both a queer film and an LDS film?
JG: I hope so! That was definitely the intent. I just showed the film in Vancouver, right after showing the film to Affirmation, and I walked into the screening wondering how those audiences that were exactly in the demographic I hoped to relate to the film for would respond to it. If they didn’t like it, I didn’t succeed! When we emotional climax of the movie, I was getting choked up, and everyone around me was getting choked up. Afterward, when I answered questions from the group, they were very kind and told me how much they loved the film — for me, that was very touching, and I don’t really need any more validation than what I got from them.
One gentleman stood up in Vancouver and told me that he was a returned missionary and that he… expected to be offended by the film, and that he never was. I wrote this movie to be neutral — I didn’t want to say that the Mormon Church was bad. It’s a more universal story, a look at being part of something and yet also unwelcome within it.
PQ: Do you know if the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints knows about the film? Has there been any response from it?
JG: I don’t know if the Church knows about it yet. I’m curious, though — I’d like to have a screening in Salt Lake City. A friend of mine invested in a movie called Latter Days, and he told me that the minute they took Latter Days to Salt Lake things got very complicated and warned me not to take it to Salt Lake for as long as possible. However, I think things have changed quite a bit since the early 2000’s, so I wonder if it’ll be such a big deal. It seems like the Church is doing more to provide a safer environment for queer youth, and perhaps it’s not as taboo as it was.
PQ: What are your next projects? Are you going to continue to explore Mormon themes?
JG: [Beyond the release upcoming supernatural thriller The Hours of Daylight and the soon-to-enter-production Amish rumspringa tale Webcam Girl], I was speaking with someone recently about doing a sequel for The Falls. I’m curious myself — what happens next between RJ Smith and Chris Merrill? There’s more issues, more things that are in the media right now, that could be well-represented by these two character moving forward. What happens five or six years after they serve their mission? To map this out would be really interesting. I’ll have to see how the film is received.
I think there are certain films that you can see — The Master, Black Swan, and Boogie Nights being just a few examples — that give you a view into a world that you’ve always been curious about and couldn’t otherwise peer into. Learning about a new world while telling a story is really what I’m interested in. I hope that The Falls succeeds in this, and that the next films do the same.
The Falls premieres at 6 PM on September 30 at Cinema 21 (616 NW 21st Ave, Portland) as part of the Portland Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. Tickets are $10 and available online as well as the Cinema 21 box office; full festival passes are also available and recommended by PQ!