Episode 1: Melissa Leilani Larson
In this episode, Mormon Artist podcast host Katherine Morris interviews Melissa Leilani Larson on her screenplay for Freetown, a film about Liberian Mormon missionaries escaping the country during civil war; her upcoming play Pilot Program, a hypothetical about a contemporary Mormon couple who are asked to participate in polygamy; and advice she has for aspiring Mormon playwrights and screenwriters.
- Interview date: October 18, 2014
- Mel’s bio
- Mel’s website
- Trailer for Freetown
- Previous Mormon Artist interviews with Mel: 2008 and 2013
- Podcast song: “Blackberry’s Hedge” by Secret Jane. License: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 US
Katherine Morris: Today we’re talking with Melissa Leilani Larson. Thanks for joining us, Mel.
Melissa Leilani Larson: Thanks for having me. I’m glad to be here.
Katherine: Mel is originally from Hau’ula Hawai’i. She’s a writer, currently based in Provo, Utah. She’s the award-winning author of a number of plays and films, including Martyrs’ Crossing, Little Happy Secrets, and an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.
She holds a BA in English from Brigham Young University and an MFA from the Iowa Playwrights Workshop. To keep up with Mel’s many theatre and film projects, follow her on Twitter—her username is mel_leilani. Or check in at her website, which is melissaleilanilarson.com.
Let’s get right into the current project that—I guess you’re not working on it right now, but it’s in production. You wrote the screenplay for Freetown.
Melissa: Yes, that’s correct.
Katherine: Freetown is an upcoming movie directed by Garrett Batty, who directed The Saratov Approach. I was wondering if you could give us a little synopsis of the film.
Melissa: Sure. Freetown is inspired by a true story. It’s set in 1990 during the onset of the Liberian civil war in Monrovia, the capital city of Liberia, in Africa. And it’s the story of a group of native Liberian missionaries who, basically, make a desperate cross-country trip to escape the damage and carnage of the war.
Katherine: And how did you get involved with the project?
Melissa: A long time ago—and we’re not going to talk about exactly when—I was a student at BYU, and I had a couple of classes with Garrett. So, we’d been friends for a long time, and earlier this year, he sent me a Facebook message and asked me if I’d be interested in collaborating on a project with him.
And I was really excited at the possibility of working with Garrett, because he had just—was experiencing all this great success with The Saratov Approach. And I was excited at the possibility of working on a film with him that was actually going to get done, because sometimes that’s half the battle with film—is actually getting it made.
So, when he messaged me, I met with him and we talked about Freetown. And it’s a true story that he found in his research in Church history archives. And it’s a pretty amazing story.
Katherine: So, talk to me about the development of the script and kind of how you got started—what the challenges were.
Melissa: Well, the big challenge for me is it’s a little bit outside of my wheelhouse, my comfort zone. A goal I have as a writer is to make strong roles for women, and I feel like that’s something that I do well.
And so, this is a movie about missionaries. And not only are they male missionaries, but they are Liberians—they’re from another country. And so, I had to do some research.
I like to get into the shoes of my characters and walk around for a bit and try to figure out who they are. And so, that was a little more tricky than it usually is for me, but I think really rewarding.
So, I did a lot of research, looking at the original stories of the missionaries who were involved in this situation—and at the Liberian civil war. There were some really terrible things that were happening, and it’s kind of crazy to think about—oh, I was going through the drama of junior high school, and there was this civil war that was tearing up this country on the other side of the world. It’s really sobering when you think about it like that.
And so, the challenge was for me to find ways to make these missionaries full, well-rounded characters, and to also make them separate and individual, because there are six of them. And you’ve got six guys in white shirts and ties, and they all have to be individual people—because that’s what they are in real life.
And we also have a really interesting character, Philip Abubakar. He was a member of the branch presidency. And when the missionaries make their escape of Monrovia, they drive in Brother Abubakar’s Corolla. And he basically drives them across the border into Sierra Leone.
And he became a very important part of the story, and you could make an argument for him being the protagonist of the film—that he kind of is the one who carries us through. It’s his POV, and he’s experiencing things—it’s a little bit more of a civilian perspective, for lack of a better word, because he’s not one of the elders. But he’s experiencing everything right alongside them.
Katherine: So, one of the things that’s interesting to me about this film is that if there’s any sub-genre of Mormon film, it’s the missionary film. So, did you think about it when you were writing it? You’ve got God’s Army, States of Grace, The Other Side of Heaven, The Best Two Years. Christian Vuissa did Errand of Angels about two sister missionaries.
Melissa: Which is great. That hasn’t really happened before.
Katherine: Yeah. So, what is it like writing a missionary film, especially in light of the fact that there have been so many missionary films?
Melissa: Well, I think what makes it different, and what attracted me to the project, is that it’s about missionaries but not necessarily about missionary work, if that makes any sense.
I would say that a lot of those films you listed are about the experience of being a missionary, and the difficulty of teaching people, and the stress of the mission. And what I think is interesting about Freetown is it’s about a bunch of guys who were serving missions and who got stopped in their tracks. They really enjoyed teaching, but because of the war, they’re not supposed to teach. And they are like, well, we need to get to where we can teach again.
And so, they have to travel to Sierra Leone. They have to leave Liberia and get to Sierra Leone, so that they can proceed with their missions.
So, yes they are missionaries, and missionary work does play into the film, but it’s not the focus of the film.
Katherine: I see. That makes sense. So, what you’re saying is that there aren’t going to be any scenes where an elder makes a greenie eat some exotic food. Or—
Melissa: No, no, there’s not.
Katherine: —that’s really nasty—
Melissa: No one jumps up on a bus and yells, “Empanada!” No.
Because, while it’s about missionaries, and the mission culture is very much a part of the story, and it’s ingrained into things in the way that they talk to each other, and that they’re companions, and companions have each other’s backs—and it’s about them wanting to get to where the mission president is—all of that is really important.
But it’s also, I think, about how, potentially, investigators and non-Mormons might see missionaries. They don’t necessarily always want to see missionaries teaching; they want to see missionaries be normal human beings. And in the case of Freetown, the movie’s about survival. It’s about getting to the next stage so that you can teach.
Katherine: Yeah, I mean, all those videos on YouTube recently. The missionaries saving the ducklings.
Melissa: I love that one.
Katherine: And the missionary break dancing—although there was some debate about whether or not he was actually break dancing—still, people really liked those. I think you’re right—I think that more personal side of missionaries is something that’s really appealing to people.
Melissa: Yeah, I would totally agree. Because, I think the thing that makes people apprehensive about missionaries is they don’t necessarily want a lecture. They don’t necessarily want to be told that they’re wrong in their lifestyle.
There are certain stigmas about missionary work that non-members don’t want. And it’s understandable. You don’t necessarily want strangers coming into your home and spending 45 minutes telling you how wrong your life is.
Katherine: I mean, I know I do.
Melissa: Don’t you, though? Let’s call the missionaries right now. “Get over to Katherine’s house and tell her how wrong she is.”
Although, isn’t that what you have home teachers for? That’s potentially inappropriate. Anyway.
Katherine: If you can get them over.
Melissa: If you can get your home teachers to come over, they’re just going to spend time telling you—
I think sometimes people think that missionaries are robots, and all that they do is teach, teach, teach, teach, teach, and hope that someone catches a little bit of something and gets baptized. Because there’s a mysticism around Mormonism, for lack of a better phrase. The outside world.
And I think the hope for something like Freetown is that we hope to de-mystify some of that, by showing that these are ordinary guys in a really crucially dangerous situation—but they just happen to be LDS missionaries.
And how are they going to deal with where they are? And really, is it so crazy if you’re in a crazy death-defying situation to, you know, drop to your knees and pray? Is that so crazy when there are guns going off all around you?
(And I’m going to see how many times I can use the word “crazy” right on top of each other. Bam.)
Katherine: Well, that’s interesting. That carries the theme—one of the themes of The Saratov Approach. In that movie, I remember, there are these moments where they said, “Are we missionaries or not?” That was definitely a theme that I think actually made the film uniquely Mormon.
You couldn’t have had that particular hostage film without the Mormon elements in it, because it brings up this conflict: I’m here serving these people. My duty is to love them and show charity and teach them about their eternal potential—and almost see them as my children; definitely as brothers and sisters. And yet, they’re trying to kill me, and I need to protect myself.
So, that’s really interesting that that’s kind of a theme that has showed up in both of these works.
Melissa: It’s true. Because it’s not, I think, a way that people, either LDS or non-LDS think about missionaries. And yet, it’s very true to life.
Katherine: Yeah. It’s complicated.
So, one of the things that has been talked a lot about in Mormon arts circles over the last couple years is the lack of international Mormon art. And I’ve seen a lot of outreach to try to get more international voices. Tell me about this film and the maybe more global perspective it takes.
Melissa: Sure. I think that’s actually one of the aspects of the story that’s really, really interesting. To think about it being historically—it being a true story.
One of the elders involved, Elder Forkpah, was one of the first, if not the first, native African members of the Church to receive the Melchizedek Priesthood. And, so there are a lot of little things in the story that have historical precedence.
And that aside, the making of the film, I think, is a really great statement about this being an international Church. Because what happened was Garrett, and Three Coins Productions, and Adam Abel—who was the producer with Garrett (he produced the Saints and Soldiers movies)—Adam and Garrett and just a handful of other filmmakers from the States traveled to Africa to shoot the film for the month of September.
The rest of the crew that they hired, they hired in Ghana, where they completed principal photography. And most of the cast—the only two members of the cast who are not of African descent are the mission president, who was American, and his wife. And they are only in the film very, very briefly. The rest of the cast was cast on location in Ghana. So, the majority of the cast and the crew are Ghanaian.
And I think it’s really interesting—they are a mix of faiths. There are some LDS people in the cast and the crew. There are non-LDS people in the cast and the crew. And that also I think says something really powerful about what the Church is and what it represents globally.
So, it’s really exciting. Oh, I wish—I wish—I wish so much I could have been there. It just wasn’t financially viable for me to go, but it would have been really pretty awesome.
Katherine: Well, that’s the glamorous life of a screenwriter, huh?
Melissa: It’s true. I live in a very small room with a very big collection of pens, and I just write things all day. It’s very, very glamorous. I need a new lamp—it’s a little dark in here.
Katherine: The writer’s cave. It’s okay, because you live in the exciting world of your imagination.
Melissa: It’s so true. And in this world, I’m a very good actor, and I’m a very good director. So, look out.
Katherine: So, Freetown is coming out in April. You can watch the trailer on Hulu. Before we move on to what you’ve been working on recently and a couple of other questions I have, what would you say to our listeners that they can expect from Freetown? What was your experience—what did you get out of it; and what do you think our listeners will get out of it, just in a broad sense?
Melissa: There are a couple of things that I got out of it. I think the biggest for me personally, as an LDS artist, is—I did not serve a mission, and yet I feel like the work that I have been doing and the talents that God has given me are a mission of sorts.
That’s both comparable and noncomparable to serving an actual proselytizing mission. But, doing that research, and thinking about these men and what they went through is probably for me one of the closest and most complete understandings I’ve had of how missions work and what missionaries do. And it gave me a much stronger and deeper appreciation for that than I had had before.
And I hope that that happens for people who see the film who see that these missionaries were amazing men who had incredible—it took real guts for them to do what they did. Both to teach where they were living, and then on top of that you have a war.
It’s really an incredible story—and to think about it being true is kind of mind-blowing. So, I think that—I hope that people will have that experience and appreciate that, if they don’t already, maybe a little bit more.
Katherine: Yeah, that’s great. So, let’s talk about, also in April—April’s going to be busy for you.
Melissa: April is going to be so busy.
Katherine: Also in April, you have an upcoming play. So tell us, just briefly, about that.
Melissa: Sure. I have a play called Pilot Program, and it’s a drama. It’s a supposition. Actually, in the script, under the title, I have a subtitle that says, “a supposition.” It’s a hypothetical set in the very near future. It’s set in Holladay, Utah, in 2019.
And it’s the story of a happily married, active LDS couple—professional couple—in their forties who don’t have any children and who are called to participate in a pilot program in which the Church reinstates the practice of polygamy. And so, it’s about their acceptance of this calling and about some of the drama and awkwardness that comes with that.
It’s actually highly unlikely that the Church will bring polygamy back into practice, but it’s interesting to think about it in light of the recent law changes here in Utah, and the decriminalization of polygamy in 2013. And the fact that it is suddenly a legal possibility makes me wonder if things could change—and if they could change, what would it be like?
And that’s one of the really nice things about the theatre—is sometimes you can experiment with those questions and explore them.
Katherine: Yeah, and I really appreciate that you’re working on that project, because I think a lot of times—I mean, non-Mormons obviously feel uncomfortable with the plural marriage in the Church’s past. And most Mormons that I know feel pretty uncomfortable with that.
And what’s interesting is that a lot of people outside of the Church condemn it—even some people inside the Church, maybe who are not sure why it happened. There are a lot of opinions about what it meant, what the purpose was, but so often I don’t think that we actually think about what the lived experience was like, and that it was hard.
And that’s continually what you see in records of people who felt that they were called to live that—it was hard. And what was their everyday experience like? And what did they have to go through? I think that going through that mental exercise would probably make you feel some empathy, even if you feel some discomfort with the idea.
Melissa: Exactly. I mean, if I in my position today have discomfort with it, imagine the discomfort of the people who were part of plural marriages. I mean, because it has to be awkward and difficult. Marriage just between two people is a difficult thing. Relationships are hard.
Can you imagine if you have a difficult relationship between a man and a woman—and even in the happiest of marriages there are—that’s part of what a marriage is, is working through things. And if you put in another wife, and then another, and another—I can’t imagine; it’s so complicated. And it’s really difficult.
And for me personally, I mean, the answer to that question, being a single woman in a marriage culture—it’s like, well, am I supposed to be grateful for the possibility of someday maybe being somebody’s second wife? And that to me, today, being an independent person who—I do what I do, and I take care of myself, and I am for the most part successful at what I want to do. Am I supposed to say, “Yay” for being brought on to—tagged on to somebody else’s relationship? Somebody else’s marriage? Is that supposed to be attractive? Am I supposed to be thankful for that?
But then, me saying “No” is not something you write a play about. So what if the answer is “Yes”? And then that’s how Pilot Program came into being. Because, if she says, “No,” then it’s a very short play.
So, Pilot Program—I’m really excited about it. I’m excited about it in that terror-filled kind of way. I think that there are some important things that it says. It is about character rather than agenda, but I do think that it’s something—it was really good for me to think through it; and as you said, to use it as a mental exercise and experiment with those ideas as I was writing the play.
So, I’m hoping that audiences will appreciate that experience as well. The play has been selected to be on the current season at Plan-B Theatre Company in Salt Lake, and it will go up April 9th through the 19th of 2015.
Katherine: Well, Mel, what advice do you have for aspiring Mormon playwrights and screenwriters?
Melissa: When I’m teaching a writing class, the first thing it’s important to remember is that I think sometimes when you’re new at writing, you have a tendency to get really epic about things—and you think, not necessarily outside of the box but outside of where you are.
And I think one of the most important things as a writer is to realize who you are as a person and how that’s important to your art. And once upon a time when I was starting out as a writer, Mormon-ness was not something—I was fairly certain it was going to keep me from being famous. Keep me from being the next Robin McKinley—keep me from being the successful writer that I wanted to be. And I also, as a Mormon, didn’t think that I was interesting enough to write about.
Looking back on that now and thinking about how culturally rich and diverse Mormons are, especially now that Mormons are all over the world, that the LDS Church is an international Church—there’s so much to glean from experience and from spiritual—oh, there’s a word that’s missing—but, you know, that connection that we have because of the gospel to God and to each other is so important to who we are. And how it’s a beautiful thing, so why aren’t we writing about it?
And there’s nothing wrong with embracing who you are. There’s an adage that goes, “You should write what you know.” And there’s something to be said for doing research for something you might not know quite that much about and for getting to know it well enough to write about it. But should you be starting there? Not necessarily.
And so, sometimes when I write about Mormon topics and Mormon characters, I feel a little bit like coming home—I feel like this is important and this is a step in the right direction for us as artists.
I feel a responsibility to the story—to tell the story as best I possibly can. As honestly as I possibly can. If the story happens to be significantly LDS in its content, okay, I will not look down my nose at that the way I would when I was a freshman or a sophomore at BYU.
Mormon stories are important and need to be told. Those aren’t the only stories that I as a writer want to tell, but they are important.
And sometimes we have a tendency to get upset at people outside the Church telling our stories for us and telling them incorrectly. But, hey, if all we’re going to do is make a stink about it, we don’t really have a right to make a stink about it. We have to be telling those stories. We have to take ownership of who we are, we have to take ownership of our culture, and we have to make art.
Katherine: I’m going to transcribe that and make that the vision statement for Mormon Artist.
Melissa: There are probably too many em dashes in it. Let’s edit it a little bit, but yes. Oh, you made my head all big.
Katherine: I completely agree. Mormons have interesting stories to tell, and a unique perspective, and we need to tell them well. So, I appreciate what you’re doing.
Mel, thanks for joining us.
Melissa: It’s been great fun.
Katherine: It’s been a pleasure talking to you. We’ll have you on again, I’m sure.
Melissa: Oh, hey, that’s great. We should do that. ❧