Episode 3: Blair Treu, director of Meet the Mormons
In this episode, Mormon Artist podcast host Katherine Morris interviews film and television writer and director Blair Treu. Blair wrote and directed the film Meet the Mormons, which is just finishing its theatrical run in the United States. In this podcast, Blair tells the backstory of Meet the Mormons, reflects on its United States run, and talks about upcoming international and Internet distribution.
- Interview date: November 1, 2014
- Meet the Mormons
- Podcast song: “Blackberry’s Hedge” by Secret Jane. License: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 US
Katherine Morris: Hello and welcome to the Mormon Artist podcast. Today we have joining us Blair Treu.
Blair Treu: Hi, Katherine.
Katherine: Hi, Blair.
Blair Treu is a director and producer, originally from Huntington Beach, California. He has experience in documentary film, narrative film, episodic television, and commercials.
Some of his more well-known films are Just Like Dad, The Paper Brigade, Wish Upon a Star, Phantom of the Megaplex, and Little Secrets. He also has directed twenty-two episodes of the Power Rangers series and two episodes of the live-action series Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as well as some projects for BYUtv. He has an episode of Granite Flats coming up that he directed. And more recently, he has directed and written the film Meet the Mormons.
Blair: Exciting times.
Katherine: Exciting times, yeah.
So, Blair, how was the idea for Meet the Mormons originally conceived?
Blair: Well, it’s funny—it was a long time ago. It was about four years ago this month when there was a group of us gathered, and it was our responsibility at the time as a group to come up with new and innovative ways to kind of assess where we were as a church with its media and talk about ways that we can do better in reaching our audiences—and coupled with that—ways in which to use social media to reach those audiences.
I’m not a social media guru by any stretch; I’m a filmmaker, and so, in that room we had guys that had that other body of expertise. So, it was kind of an eclectic mix of a broad array of backgrounds.
And in that meeting one day, the topic of the Legacy Theater came up. We had been asked by the First Presidency to come up with some new ideas to replace the film that is running in the Legacy Theater right now, just kind of on its last bit—its last hurrah. And that’s Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration. So, we were asked to come up with ideas to replace that film. And this grew out of that.
We started batting around ideas, and my hand just kind of—I just felt strongly that rather than do a narrative film (which is interesting, because that’s what my training has been primarily in—a narrative film defined as working with actors and scripts and sets and going with a very detailed script)—I just felt like, hey, what if we just did a documentary that explored the lives of Latter-day Saints and it didn’t have much of an institutional voice, but it was more about not so much who we are—not so much the details of our belief—but who we are as attempting to live those beliefs. In essence tell our own stories.
So, we kind of thought that through and felt like, hey, this could be something worth exploring. And so, I put together a little presentation, sent it on up the line, and there was interest there from the First Presidency. And President Monson said, you know, is it possible to give me a little taste of what this might look like? Can you make a little trailer, as it were, about what this is?
So, I thought—at first I thought, well how do I make a trailer for a film that doesn’t exist? But, then I started—you know, after thinking about it for a few days, I thought, you know, we can certainly throw together a little trailer. We’ll just use kind of these fictitious stories and families, and I’ll go out and create something really quick that just has kind of a flavor or what this documentary might feel like.
And so, based on that trailer, came back with a cut trailer, and it was only a few minutes long. And he, and other members of the Twelve and First Presidency saw that—and he felt like yeah, that is the direction we should go. And that’s kind of what launched us, almost four years ago.
It took a while to find the families and locate what we thought were a good complement of stories that would represent us as a church and as a people globally. So, it was kind of a lengthy process, but that’s how it really began—was just a simple idea. And then, you know, when you get in a room with really creative people, it just kind of builds from there. That’s kind of how it started.
Katherine: Mmm hmm. Okay, so, one of the things that people have commented on about this film is that it isn’t about Church history or Church doctrine, but it is those stories. What made you feel like that was the direction to go in?
Blair: Well, on a personal level, you know, growing up in Huntington Beach, California, I was certainly in the minority—a religious minority, I should say. Lot of great people living out there, and there was also with that a lot of misconceptions and misperceptions about who we are and what we believe.
And that kind of hit me smack dab in the face as early as the third grade when, reading about Mormons—our teacher would pull out articles about Mormons—it was interesting; she would read about all kinds of different things. But my ears kind of perked up when one day she read something about Mormons.
And it was all about multiple wives, and it was all about all these things that are kind of the cliché things that people still bring up, thinking that they know us. And it really kind of broke my heart. Because I remember thinking, you know, if these people just knew us for who we really are, that would go a long way toward dispelling common misconceptions. So, the idea of—and I think that whole thing has been borne out through studies that have been done that indicate that those who know a Mormon don’t seem to be hampered by those common misconceptions. And so, as a kid, I remember just feeling if people just knew us, they wouldn’t say such awful things; they wouldn’t think such awful things. They would be a little more open-minded. And I think that’s typical of any faith—of any group where you fall prey to stereotypes.
That’s where this whole notion came from—was kind of from my childhood. I think many other people feel the same: if they just knew us a little bit better, they’d be a little more open. You know, human tendency is to be fearful of the unknown, so once you get to know something, you tend to set aside those notions that come from pop culture and the like. So, I think that’s kind of where it came from.
Katherine: So, at the beginning of the film, it starts out with Jenna Kim Jones interviewing people just on the street in New York City, asking them what they know about Mormons. And that’s interwoven with these clips from films and television shows like The Simpsons and South Park, about people commenting about Mormons. And it brings up all of these stereotypes. Are some of those that you included stereotypes that you have encountered over the years?
Blair: Absolutely. Absolutely—almost every one of them in a certain way. You know, a lot of people think that we’re just a Utah church, for example. They have weird notions about our holidays. Do you guys dance? I mean, if you guys knew us—I mean, Mormons—absolutely we dance. I mean, when you think about some of the top dancers that have been on a lot of these dance shows come out of the LDS culture. And look at BYU and their dance program. And so—and do you guys vote? Well, of course we vote.
People do know we don’t smoke and we don’t drink, and that’s kind of played up. But yeah, I think a lot of these things—I think the whole opening, really was just an acknowledgement to kind of say to audiences, hey, here you go. It’s right in front of you. You see—these are the things that you’ve been fed all of these years through popular culture through television, commercials, pretend documentaries—mockumentaries.
It’s an acknowledgement of us to the world, saying, you know what? We know this is what you feel about us. We’ll even have a laugh with you—and that’s okay, if that’s what you—we don’t want to make you feel bad. But we want to make you understand that in a not so subtle kind of way that, yeah, these things are out there—and they still are quite prevalent. And that’s okay. We’ll have a good laugh with you. But, if you’ve been relying on popular culture for your information, you might want to think twice. Especially if you consider yourself an open-minded person and a person who wants to gain actual knowledge, rather than rely on the medium of pop culture.
So, it’s kind of a fun—and sometimes even back-handed way—to say okay, we’ve had our fun, but now let’s really dig down and learn the truth about who Mormons really are.
Katherine: Yeah, well, I thought it was actually quite good-natured and light-hearted. And they were funny clips. There were quite a few I hadn’t seen, actually. I’d seen the South Park one, actually. I took an LDS cinema class at BYU, and we watched that episode.
But, it was interesting to me that one of the reviews I read about Meet the Mormons—they found that intro—they said it was kind of defensive because they said it assumed things about the audience.
But, the funny thing is that any Mormon watching it would nod. I mean, I was looking around me and people were laughing, but there were also—there was also—in kind of a knowing way. Like “I’ve encountered that before.” And, I think what people don’t realize is that, just like any minority in the United States that—I mean, any Mormon that you talk to has a story about facing some kind of stereotype like that that was included.
Blair: It’s very common. And the thing is that it was fun for us; because as we played this for test audiences—you know, any time you make a film and it’s going to be played—and in this instance, it was primarily just designed for the Legacy Theater at the beginning—we wanted to run it for audiences of people who are not of our faith.
So we actually filtered out anybody who was LDS. We wanted to hear from those who are not of our faith—non-members—kind of what they thought. And we just watched their reaction. And what was interesting was we found that it was a great way of just kind of lowering that defensiveness in them—to say, oh, well these guys can laugh at themselves. So, yeah, I’m going to be more apt to hear what they have to say.
And so, humor is kind of a great way to lower defenses and help people loosen up a little bit and say, look, we don’t take ourselves too seriously. We take our beliefs seriously, but we don’t take ourselves so seriously. So, I guess that’s what—that was part and parcel what that opening was designed to do—is to kind of get us laughing—to open us up a little bit.
Katherine: Yeah. And the funny thing I was thinking of is that you guys probably had to get licenses for all those clips that make fun of Mormons.
Blair: Well, actually, we started down that path, but we realized we didn’t have to get licenses, because in legal definition and in the way they’re used in the film, they’re what’s called “fair use.” Because they’re so brief, and we’re not changing the context of the films or the TV programs from which they came, we can use them under fair us. So, all we had to do is give them credit at the end, which we would have done anyway.
But what was interesting is that many of them—when we first went down that path—for example, the creators of South Park were really excited about us using the clip, because though they poke fun at Mormons a lot, you know—they are also the creators of The Book of Mormon, which is playing on Broadway, they still generally really like Mormons—
Katherine: Yeah, they say that in interviews. We really like Mormons. We make fun of them, but we really like them.
Blair: And yeah, so, you know—we can agree to disagree on some things. But they were ones that we initially approached, because we knew we wanted to use those clips from South Park. And had we been forced to get permission from them, they would have granted it. They were very open and willing to do that. And so, they were really cool about it.
Katherine: So, going back to the original intention of the film to put it in Legacy Theater. How did it go from that to a national theater release?
Blair: Well, as much as I would love—and I think Jeff our producer, who also worked very closely with me on this whole thing—as much as we would love to say we knew this was going to happen—it was going to be a big success—the reality was, we felt we were going to make a great film, and we felt like it would reach its audience. But we never imagined it going to this degree, because our heads were down; we were plowing straight ahead with the idea that this was something that this was going to be prepared for the Legacy Theater.
So, the backstory is that this is all that was going to happen—this was going to go to the Legacy Theater. What brought us out to a national release, really—the short answer is it was the audience. It received such a favorable review from people of all walks of life—those who are not of our faith—I mean, obviously, members of the Church are going to like this film; I mean, it’s been really well-received by members.
But non-members—we measured several of their—we took surveys after the movie was over, we asked them what their favorite vignettes were, their favorite stories were—and asked them to give us overall marks, you know, a percentage—how many of you would recommend this to a friend? And it was really shocking—I mean, I was thrilled.
So surprised were we with the data that came back with in the first location and the test we did in Los Angeles that we then had to double-check that. And we then tested it in New York and Texas and Connecticut and the Carolinas and a couple other places—Vegas, I think, as well as Salt Lake—and it was all consistent.
What we came back with was that those who were not of our faith were recommending this film to their friends. About, I think, 75% said they would recommend it. And that’s a pretty high number for those, especially not necessarily religious. Because they found the themes were universally identifiable. They liked them. They weren’t offended in any way. They didn’t feel like we were putting down anybody else of other faiths.
So, as a result of that finding, the Brethren just felt like, gosh, maybe we should take this out and kind of give our members and their non-member friends the Legacy Theater. So, let’s take the Legacy Theater experience to them, rather than make them come to Salt Lake to experience the Legacy Theater.
So, it was a way to get a lot more eyeballs on this thing. You know, the Legacy Theater only seats about 500 people. It’s a big theater, but when you consider it can only show one at a time—compared to theaters all over the country running it at the same time—it makes for a lot better exposure.
So, this was the first of its kind; it’s never been done before—a commercially-released film. And we’re excited, of course, to partner with the American Red Cross, because they get all our proceeds.
But that’s what really—the audiences. They were the ones that told us, hey, you need to make this thing more broadly available, rather than just in one venue in Salt Lake. And it still will play at the Legacy Theater, of course, when it’s done with its theatrical run. But that’s really how it came to be.
Katherine: Okay. Yeah, that’s really interesting. So, you said in an interview on the Mormon Channel that Elder Bednar gave you the charge to “Be authentic; be real.” Of course, when you’re crafting something—a work of art—there’s editing involved. You choose where you point the camera. How did you negotiate that charge to be authentic and be real with these stories?
Blair: Well, from the outset, kind of the feeling that we had was that we want people when they’re finished watching these sequences about these families to come away with the same exact opinion about them that the would have had had they spent time with them if they actually moved in and lived with them.
So, that was kind of the barometer or the yardstick by which we measured success on if we’re being authentic. That combined with the fact that we’re sharing multiple stories gives the viewer a sense of who we are from a global perspective. We didn’t just want to limit it to one family.
So, I don’t know if that answers your question, but I think, yes, you have to make creative choices, and you have to then edit stories—but at the end of the day you want the viewer to come away with the reality of who these people really are, even though it’s a condensed story. Okay, that’s going to be our barometer by which we make decisions—does this really represent who these families really are?
Katherine: Okay. So, a lot of people have had questions about how you’ve chosen the stories in the film. I’m sure you considered a lot of stories. In an interview I read, you said that it was a spiritual journey and you felt guided to these people.
Katherine: Is there one story that you could pick and tell us a little bit about how you felt guided or how you found the story?
Blair: Well, in a general sense, the answer to the question is yes, we did feel guided. I mean, we started off with great fear and trepidation. We’ve got 15 million members. How are we going to choose? There’s going to be way too many to choose from. There’s going to be so many great options. And that proved to be the case.
All of them came to us in varied and different ways. Jeff and I—the producer Jeff and I—went down this path together, and we said whatever we do we’re not going to move forward with any story unless we both feel really good about it. And so, to answer your question—it’s really kind of a two-parter.
First of all, we had criteria by which we were using to make these selections. And then the other one is how did we actually find the families. Let me in a round about way try to answer that as best I can.
When you look at the very last story in the film, Dawn Armstrong, we felt that one of the stories should have at its core something that is very common and very typical with all Latter-day Saint families—almost everybody—and that is what it’s like to go through to prepare a young man or a young lady to go out and serve a mission. In this case, what does a mom go through when she has to send out her oldest son?
So, we asked the Missionary Department to send us five mission calls and the contact information of these families. And then we called these families and said, “We have your son (or in some cases your daughter’s) mission call. We’d like to come out and just photograph what actually happens.”
And that’s what we did with the Armstrong family, not even knowing their backstory. We went out and shot the young Anthony opening his mission call. And then I think we also shot three or four others. And then as we finished that evening, we had a great feeling about that.
We then started interviewing the family—got to know them a little bit. And Dawn Armstrong—her backstory came out as a result of just digging a little bit deeper in her story. And she never really thought much of that. She didn’t think that was of any real consequence. But what we saw is a great redemptive story, and we just thought, “This is a story we have to tell.” So, that’s how we were led to her story.
Every story came to us in different and varied ways. It was very much a kind of leap of faith, where we would dig, we would hunt, and we would read articles, or we would do a Skype interview with someone.
We talked to people in our network of people that we knew. You know, we work all over the world at any given time, and so we had people that we knew in all different countries. We would lay out for them our criteria of what we were looking for, and they would say, “Well, how about—have you considered this guy, or this family over here?”
And so we—just through the process of emails and Skype calls, we kind of eliminated, kind of narrowed that down to a select group, and we felt like—in the end I guess we just felt that we had covered a broad array of stories that collectively put kind of a face on who we are as Latter-day Saints.
You know, we realize we’re not going to get everybody; we’re not going to cover every conceivable situation, every story. But we realize that we wanted to do the best we could, to give a global view of who we are collectively. That we come in all sizes and shapes and colors. That we’re not just a Utah church.
Katherine: So, one criticism of the film might be that these families are from a lot of different places—they’re ethnically diverse—but that they’re a little bit too perfect. They don’t represent the normal experience of the everyday Mormon. What would you say about that?
Blair: Well, I acknowledge that not all of our members are Division I football coaches or candy bombers. But the reality is if you really peel back kind of a fun vehicle or the shell of these stories that we used to tell to project the stories forward, when you look at Coach Niumatalolo: yeah, he’s a head coach and not many of us are. But when you peel back the layers, you realize that there’s an aspect of his life that’s very typical and very normal.
Whether you’re a CEO or whether you’re in an entry-level position, when you’re in church, all those labels, all those hats come off. And what does Ken Niumatalolo, head coach of a Division I football team at the Naval Academy do on Sunday? He teaches primary. And that’s very typical and very normal.
And so all these stories have that element. And some don’t even—Dawn Armstrong, for example, we’ve talked about. Her story’s very normal. It’s a pretty dramatic story, but it’s not unusual.
When people ask me, “Well, so, do you have any normal families?” I always respond by saying, “Well, what is normal?” If you really think about people you know—who of us—what does “normal” mean?
And the same thing with our candy bomber. There are aspects of his life that are very typical: he’s a home teacher, he’s very active in his community. When he walks into church, he’s very normal. He’s not a celebrity in any stretch. And the bishop from Atlanta, or the kickboxer from Costa Rica. Yeah, she has an interesting hobby, but she’s just—in every other respect—is a very normal LDS mom. Just has an interesting hobby.
Katherine: So, what would you say the film’s successes have been so far?
Blair: Well, the only way to truly measure success of any film is the hard numbers at the box office. We had a wonderful opening weekend, and we’ve had good strength as you look back on the last month—it’s been good, steady numbers from the very beginning.
Film does have a drop off—films do drop off after that first weekend, and we experienced that. But we had a real staying power from the subsequent weekends and weekdays. The bottom line is—I don’t know where we are right now—but we’ve well surpassed the five million mark. That has put us in the top 30 grossing documentary films of all time. So, that’s a pretty significant benchmark for a religious documentary. So, we’re really excited about that.
And based on the strength of its domestic theatrical debut, it’s now going out in theaters in upcoming weeks. So, we’re really excited about that. And we think that now opens up a lot of other opportunities in network television, both domestic and abroad, DVD, pay per view, Netflix, Redbox—all the different mediums that typical Hollywood releases go through.
Had we not had a successful opening weekend, we would have disappeared very quickly, and it would have just been a little blip on the map and we’d be done. But, we’re still opening in new theaters domestically. Other theaters are running down because it’s kind of run its course in certain areas. And now we’ll just go out to new areas.
So, we’re really excited about it. I think by any measure—I think everybody views it as having been a huge success.
Katherine: So, you cut out there for a little bit there at the beginning. Did you say it’s going to be opening in other countries?
Blair: Yeah. Based on the strength of the domestic theatrical release, it now has the potential to open in other countries internationally. So, it’s going to be going down in Central and South America, up into Canada. I don’t know the exact timeline, but pretty quickly it’s going to be opening in theaters above and below us. And then probably over in some other areas as well—in, possibly, Asia, Europe. We don’t know what that looks like yet, but we’re really excited about it. And had it not had a great opening weekend, it wouldn’t have taken that direction internationally.
Katherine: Okay, so it’s going to be going international. And then you said that it’s also going to be—there are going to be some other opportunities for distribution in other places.
Blair: Once it’s finished with its international theatrical run, it then goes the typical distribution avenues that other Hollywood films experience. So, it’s going to go out on pay per view and DVD. It will have some television presence, I think in some of the foreign markets, especially network television. And then it should be available eventually in Redbox, Netflix, and possibly Hulu Plus. Those kinds of things. So, it will eventually be available down the road to a much broader audience by virtue of their access to the Internet.
Katherine: Okay, so what would you say you’ve learned from this experiment? Because it was an experiment. What would you say that you’ve learned from it?
Blair: It was. Well, first of all, I think we’ve learned that there is an audience out there who will support a well-made film. It’s hard for me to say that because I’m the least biased guy—I’m the most biased guy in the room. This has been kind of my baby and our baby, so I’m the last guy you’d want to ask about is this any good.
But I think the audience response to it has shown it’s been well received. And there is an audience who have an appetite for films like this—for the members of our church in a wide variety of locations. So, I think it’s definitely proven that.
The other thing is that—I hope—it’s just priming the pump for more to come. I don’t know what that is yet. Certainly nothing has been determined about that. We’ve been so busy making this, getting this ready for marketplace, that we don’t know what’s next.
But I certainly hope there is something on the horizon. We’ll just have to see what that is. So, it’s been an experiment, and it’s turned out pretty well so far.
Katherine: Well, Blair, thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk with us.
Blair: You’re welcome.
Katherine: Well, good luck on your upcoming projects.
Blair: Well, thank you. Thanks for the opportunity. ❧