Interview Helen Whitney
Producer and director of The Mormons

For how long have you been interested in spiritual subjects?

I am a filmmaker who has been preoccupied with spiritual themes, both in my life and my work, since the early 1980s. While my subjects have varied widely (youth gangs, the McCarthy era, presidential candidates, the mentally ill, the photographer Richard Avedon), I do feel an especial affinity with the spiritual landscape. A defining moment for me was the six months that I spent in a Trappist monastery in 1981, preparing to shoot a 90-minute documentary for the ABC Close-Up series. It was life-changing, personally and professionally.

“The ignorance about Mormons -- the depth and breadth of the misinformation -- is stunning. I hear it when I talk to my friends or as I travel around the country or, more recently, talking to journalists while publicizing my film.”

I got to know these men intimately. I pre-interviewed all 120 of them, and they confided in me their hopes and fears, their certainties and questions, their sexual longings, their mid-life crises, their closeness to God, and for some their estrangement from God, even their sense of being abandoned by God. The Abbot, Tom Keating, used to joke that I knew more about their inner lives than he did. I was called the "Mother Confessor." The monks were fiercely honest, flawed as we all are, and yet willing to face their weaknesses -- as well as those of their brothers -- honestly and compassionately. They represented an amazing cross section of America ranging from an Andy Warhol dropout, to a farmer, an electrician, a Dartmouth 60's radical, a MIT scientist, an advertising executive.

So coming out the monastery, the stereotypes were all broken. The monastery was not a refuge. On the contrary, the monastic life was tough and demanding, as well as joyous and fun. And it was a place where people were asking the big existential questions about ultimate meaning. Why are we here? Where did we come from? What is of ultimate value? Why must we die?

The monks were asking those questions all the time. And not avoiding them, as many of us do by immersing ourselves in our busy lives. Also, I came to understand that the monastic life is not exotic and other; it has many parallels with our own lives. From the early romantic enthusiasms that brought the young monks into the monastery (so similar to the early stages of a new relationship), to the mid-life questionings and finally to the confrontation with mortality and death. The monastic journey is truly the human journey writ large.

The Monastery aired in 1981 and since then in virtually all of my films there is some spiritual idea being explored even when the subject is not explicitly religious.

What are some examples?

I was looking at the redemptive power of love in my ABC Close-Up film about mental illness, They Have Souls Too. I was meditating on the problem of evil in my documentary about juvenile crime in another ABC Close-Up, Youth Terror: The View From Behind the Gun. In my portrait of the photographer, Richard Avedon; Darkness and Light, for WNET's American Masters series, I focused on the way he expressed his spirituality and obsessions through his portraits. In my FRONTLINE film about the presidential candidates, The Choice 96; Dole and Clinton, I examined the shaping influence of their respective religions on their characters. For Clinton, it was Southern Baptist; for Dole it was the Methodism of his early years.

And then, there were the two more explicitly religious films for FRONTLINE -- Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero that allowed me to explore the spiritual aftershocks of Sept. 11. People were so open in that national and private moment of vulnerability and were willing to ask the most searching questions about God, evil and religion itself. And in my biography, Pope John Paul II: The Millennial Pope I created a portrait of a towering figure whose life intersected with almost every important event in the 20th century. Yet throughout his public life at the center of world events, the central animating idea of his life was urging faith upon us all. He believed that man was the believing animal and was lost without faith.

And now there is your four-hour PBS series, The Mormons. Why the Mormons? Why did you choose this subject?

I am fascinated with radical religious commitment. It started 25 years ago making The Monastery and living with the Trappist monks whose commitment is total. And while superficially the monks and the Mormons are far apart in the way they lead their lives, they do share this radical commitment. Mormonism is not a Sunday religion. It is not practiced at coffee hour with the occasional helping out in the soup kitchen. It is all encompassing. People offer up a large part of their discretionary time as well 10 percent of their income. The wards are run by lay folks, so you can be holding two/three jobs at a time. It is hard for me to imagine devoting so much time to my church and also producing films and attending to my family and friends. And yet, many of the Mormons I have come to know have even more demanding jobs, larger families than I have and somehow manage to pull it off.

So when you started out on this project, how much did you know about the Mormon faith and its history?

I didn't know anything about Mormonism. But at the same time I didn't arrive with any stereotypes because I had known a number of Mormons when I was in graduate school in Chicago. And so I already knew that Mormons lived outside Utah, I already knew that Mormons can be/are very smart and fun, and I knew they weren't polygamists. Just by knowing a few Mormons, I became curious. They suggested that I read the Fawn Brodie's biography of Joseph Smith. It was riveting, beautifully written, and not, as so many feel, a debunking biography. Joseph Smith emerges from its pages as one of the most complex, contradictory and fascinating religious leaders of all time. And his life was so dramatic that if you scripted it for a Hollywood movie, it would be rejected as implausible. In fact, my co-writer Jane Barnes and I did write a film treatment for an HBO television movie years ago and it was rejected for precisely those reasons.

What are some of the special challenges facing a filmmaker like yourself whose beat is the spiritual landscape?

Just getting these films made. This is a near miracle. The polls tell us that we are an intensely religious country. Editors know that if you put Jesus in your title sales rise exponentially, but nonetheless executives are fearful of the controversies surrounding religion. It is raw, it is powerful, and it can be a third rail. Reporting on religion can be dangerous. Dante said it best: "Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Enter Here." Until recently, there weren't many documentaries about religion on the air. And Mormonism presses a lot of buttons. As one historian in our film said, "Thinking about Mormonism, and Joseph Smith in particular, is like a religious Rorschach test."

However, I have been lucky in my executives. Whether it was Roone Arledge at ABC News or the executives at PBS, they gave me the green light. And they didn't even blink when my co-writer Jane Barnes and I suggested the Mormon religion as our next film.

So what are other challenges?

The problem of access. This is always a problem for the documentary filmmaker, but it is especially so when the material cuts so close to the bone. People are reluctant to talk about their faith. Not many have articulated it well for themselves, or for those closest to them. It's extremely private. It's an explosive subject. You can make people angry.

Whether it involves persuading Trappist monks to let you inside their monastery to film "their hidden life," or in persuading the Mormon hierarchy to open their doors, access was essential. I couldn't have made this film without gaining their trust. This is a top down church, and while I could have spoken to many liberal or disaffected Mormons and all the historians in America, I would not have been able to explore the hearts and mind of the faithful if the Mormon hierarchy had put out the word: "Don't talk to her."

And, believe me, the average Mormon, after hearing from me, would check in with his bishop, and the bishop might check in with the LDS Church. Also, I couldn't have filmed in their wards, without the church saying, "Allow her to do so." And that permission is rare. Even rarer was having access to virtually anyone within the Mormon hierarchy including the Apostles and President Hinckley.

How did this happen? I think the church had decided independently of me that it was time to be more open with the media. Also, they had researched me thoroughly and obviously liked what they saw. By the time I met with Michael Purdy in the publicity department three years ago, they had done their homework. They had screened all of my films and appreciated what they described as my respectful but not uncritical tone with subjects as diverse as Trappist monks, survivors of 9/11 and John Paul II. Michael Purdy and I sat across each other in a conference room at church headquarters and started to talk and over the next few years established a trusting relationship.

Did the church have any say at all about the content of the film?

None whatsoever. The LDS Church played no role in the editorial content of the film. In fact they never saw the completed film until it aired last night.

Did you find that you came to this subject with particular biases? You mentioned that you had known some Mormons, so you didn't start out with the usual ones: The Mormons are a cult, they are all secretly polygamists, etc. But didn't you have a few lingering ones?

Yes, I think most journalists think about this. How do you properly make use of, but not be used by, one's own biases? And most of us bring plenty of them to the table when it comes to religion. And even more so if it is Mormonism.

I do have my biases. My preferences. I am a questioner. So are my friends, both the believers and the unbelievers. I am drawn to these people and I put them in my films. These are the people who are asking the big existential questions: Is this all there is? Why must one die? What is of ultimate value?

I am less drawn to those who seem to have all the answers. While researching my religious films I occasionally meet people with an almost surreal certainty. Their faith seems uninflected by doubt. It can be maddening. It can be infuriating. Some of the survivors of September 11 expressed to me their belief that they had been saved by God's plan and the fact that others had been incinerated through God's plan never seemed to bother them.

With the Mormons -- as varied as they are -- there is one useful generalization that can be made. This is a religion that emphasizes certainty. Doubt and questioning can be seen as undermining of the faith, as dangerous and not an organic part of Mormonism. For me, faith is a flickering of light in the dark and intimately connected to doubt. So I was stunned by my first testimonial meeting in the Mormon Church where people get up and use the word "know." Not believe, not hope, not intuit, but the ubiquitous phrases: "I know this faith to be true. I know that Joseph Smith is the one true prophet." These testimonials can be moving, but they can also sound rehearsed, inauthentic. But as I came to know many Mormons I began to understand that their certainty, initially so foreign and off putting to me, can also be a many-layered, complex response to the Divine.

Are there aesthetic challenges unique to this spiritual territory? Aren't people essentially talking about what is indescribable?

Absolutely. How does a filmmaker illuminate spiritual themes such as belief and unbelief, the absence of God, epiphanies, signals of transcendence? How do you find the apt image that is neither too literal nor too abstract? Sometimes you are lucky and find the perfect image. My favorite sequence in the film is the dancing scene on the trek blending in with the BYU ballroom dance team. Mormons danced their way through the dark days of the trek and Brigham Young built a theater before he built schools. Why? I suspected that dancing illuminated something subtle and profound about Mormonism. This visual image of dancing (and Terryl Givens' meditations on its significance) illuminates a core belief in Mormonism: That God is embodied, he has flesh and bone. Dancing became the perfect visual metaphor to evoke this idea.

What about the ways people talk about religion? Their language can be deadly at times. No?

Absolutely. This is a huge challenge. When words are necessary, how do you get people to talk about the ineffable with poetry and precision? As you prepare your subjects -- whether they be the monks in a monastery or Mormons, Apostles or the lay folks, how do you get them to strip away the generic language of piety, the dread spiritual jargon that can kill a film, to say nothing of a genuine human encounter? The success of your film depends on getting people to use language that is fresh and natural. It requires great tact, considerable preparation and an iron will. Sometimes, you will be blessed when a man like Marlin Jensen, a general authority, will need no preparation whatsoever. He will walk into an interview and speak with utter clarity, empathy and seem to embody the spiritual principles he is describing. It is rare; one in a million.

When you are presenting a new religion that is not known to most people, how do you avoid swamping the film with icebergs of information?

I am not sure whether we were entirely successful in doing so. There were moments when I did feel that we were sinking through an excess of information. As an example: Did we need to know that Nauvoo was originally called Commerce and was 18,000 acres? I don't think so. I cringe whenever I hear this in our narration. Let me rephrase your question: When does the film become a history lesson and not an experience? This is a question that bedevils all filmmakers but especially those with spiritual subjects. And it was an ever present problem with the Mormons.

To what extent do you honor the bricks and mortar of a religion's history, but at the same time recognize that you are dealing with a different subject than the history of a bank or the investigation of a corruption in a political party? To what extent do you bring the viewer inside so he can experience the ecstatic leap-of-faith element at the heart of all religions and also what is distinctive about a particular religion, in this case Mormonism? As always the devil is in the details.

In creating the portrait of John Paul II and of Joseph Smith, were there comparable difficulties? Are there any parallels between the two men and your treatment of them?

These are men who give new meaning to the word contradictions. And yet not for their followers. John Paul II is almost Godlike for the devout; for his detractors, he is almost evil.

Likewise Joseph Smith; For some scholars, like Harold Bloom, and for many believers, Smith is an unparalleled American religious genius. For his critics - and there are many - he is a transparent charlatan and a fraud. How do you avoid either the hagiography of the devout or the reflexive critique of the skeptics? How do you move beyond the extremes but without succumbing to another trap, the overly respectful, balanced portrait that is without edge and complexity? In the case of Smith, such a portrait would strip him of not only his in-your-face boldness and visionary insights, but also of his recklessness and occasional ruthlessness that made him both loved and hated.

There are absolutist claims inherent in all religions. How do you deal with these truth claims? Isn't this dangerous territory?

This is the money question. And yes, it is a minefield. Let me rephrase it. Do you bracket truth claims as most serious historians do and focus on the how the religion is lived out and why it does or does not succeed? While I was researching the film about the Mormons, I spoke about this endlessly with historians of religion throughout the country. The consensus was: Serious historians of religion would no more crawl inside Joseph Smith's revelations than they would into Joan of Arc's or Martin Luther's. They simply wouldn't do it. Ultimately we found a former member of the church, an amateur historian, though with considerable knowledge of Mormon history, who did explore some of the controversial questions hovering around Smith's character and claims. I like to think that our tone was right, and the way we did it was appropriate.

One of our most fascinating and illuminating conversations during the making of the film was with the Old Testament scholar, Jacob Neusner. When we brought up the question of truth claims and lack of "scientific proof" for the Book of Mormon, he reminded us -- with some amusement and impatience, the tone he reserves for journalists -- that the exodus from Egypt has not yielded archeological support of any kind, and that the Hebrew scriptures began with Creation, and there were no eyewitnesses. For him and many other great religious scholars, you judge these sacred texts by their power to change people's lives and by people's willingness to believe in these sacred stories. Sacred narratives can't be judged by secular plausibility. Otherwise, you are missing the point.

But Mormonism is so new, doesn't it invites the klieg light? It is making claims of miracles and angels that may work in ancient times, but not in the era of science? No?

For Neusner, a religion that begins in modern time has no more advantage or more disadvantage than a religion that began 3,000 years ago. He believes along with many other scholars that secular intellectuals under the guise of objectivity are applying a double standard when they focus on the messiness of Joseph Smith's religion. They are giving freer pass to the older religions who are lost in the mist of time and whose messiness is conveniently hidden. My conversation with Neusner, Harold Bloom, Martin Marty and Jon Butler about these questions was a true learning experience. I cannot say that we resolved any of these questions but we struggled with them.

What surprised you most about Mormonism?

The physicality of the faith. The literalness of it -- God has a body; there were gold plates; we are genetically, as men, related to God, who has flesh and bone; and there is an afterlife, literally, in which you will connect with your family. It is very literal. And this religion, at least officially, hasn't moved to metaphor in the ways that some of the older traditions have.

How well do Americans understand Mormonism?

The ignorance about Mormons -- the depth and breadth of the misinformation -- is stunning. I hear it when I talk to my friends or as I travel around the country or, more recently, talking to journalists while publicizing my film.

Many people believe that they're still practicing polygamy. I got a question last night after a large screening in a sophisticated audience of New York City intellectuals: "Do they watch television?" Or, do they all have large families? Are they all polygamists? Do they robotically march to the words of the prophet? What does happen in the Temple? Aren't they all rich and Republican? And, of course, they all live in Utah.

One of the most enduring stereotypes is that Mormons are still polygamous. Have you received criticism for spending too much time on polygamy? You devote an entire act to it in the film. Could you be perpetuating the stereotype?

Yes, we spent considerable time -- some Mormons feel too much time -- on polygamy. And my response to that would be that there is so much that is not known about polygamy and needs to be understood. First of all: I think what is not generally known among the literate laymen, the non-Mormons, is that polygamy was a serious spiritual principle for the Mormons. We needed time to develop this. Whatever one feels about the origins and/or sincerity of Joseph Smith's revelation, his followers practiced it with the utmost seriousness. It was central to their theology. It was tied to their salvation. Polygamy was as important in 19th century Mormonism as baptism was for Catholics. It wasn't a social experiment, like the Oneida community. It was a serious religious principle that Mormons sacrificed a great deal for. For anyone trying to understand the persecution of the early church, one must understand polygamy.

And another reason we devoted an act to polygamy is that I don't think people realize there was a protracted fight between the Mormons and the federal government and the Supreme Court about the Mormons' right to practice polygamy. That fight defined and set the limits of religious freedom in America. We are free to believe anything we want, but there are limitations about what we can or cannot practice. And this principle emerged, largely, from those court battles over Mormon polygamy. That is a chapter not only of Mormon history but of our national history that I don't think is terribly well known.

What do you hope audiences will take from your film, both Mormons and non-Mormons?

I'm hoping that the non-Mormons will be fascinated by this dynamic new religion and both see it as "other" and -- to use the word Mormons use -- "peculiar," with its own distinctive history and theology. But also I hope they will see themselves in this religion and they'll say, "I can see what's familiar about it. I can recognize myself there as well." Almost every scholar I've spoken to, including Harold Bloom, Jon Butler, Jacob Neusner, see Mormonism as re-enacting the origins of Christianity, among other faiths, right from the beginning, with all of its controversies and its claims made by prophets, the struggle over the canon, etc.

For the Mormon audience, I hope that they'll learn a little bit more about their history, and possibly be provoked by it. I hope that it will start a conversation between themselves and with those of us outside who want to learn more.