Earlier this month at BONCOM I had the privilege of hearing filmmaker Stephen Frandsen talk about Duck Beach to Eternity, a full-length documentary feature about Mormon single life that he’s created with Hadleigh Arnst.
The movie, which traces the real lives of four 20- and 30-something LDS singles as they take an annual Mormons-only pilgrimage for spring break in North Carolina, sparked two reactions in me:
- Excitement that remarkable and original cultural expressions like this film are coming to light in the Mormon community; and
- Wells of gratitude that I was already happily married by the time I converted to this religion, and never had to cope with the hazards of life as a Mormon single. Thank you, Jesus.
In other words, the movie reveals great humor and not a little pain. I hope it gains a wide audience, both Mormon and not. Its 82 minutes are entertaining and thought-provoking, and at least two of its main subjects had me cheering. (One even made me cry.)
Tonight is the movie’s sold-out premiere in New York City, and starting next week you can download the movie online. I interviewed the filmmakers for the lowdown. --JKR
JKR: Stephen is Mormon, and Hadleigh is not. How did you come together to make this movie?
Hadleigh: I heard about Duck Beach through friends of friends. The excitement and details of the event seemed kind of surreal to me, and fascinating. So Stephen and I sat down at the beginning of 2011 to figure out if we wanted to take on a feature like this project. A lot of my friends in the city were Mormon or had grown up Mormon, so I had a general curiosity in the culture.
Stephen: I thought it was a brilliant idea. At the time, I was dating Hillary, and we were close to getting married. [ed: After ten years on the Mormon dating scene, Stephen married Hillary, though they didn’t meet at Duck Beach.]
JKR: How did you get these four subjects in the documentary to let you follow their stories?
Stephen: In any documentary film, casting is one of the biggest obstacles -- building trust with your subjects. We gained credibility by having a non-Mormon viewpoint, an active Mormon viewpoint, and an ex-Mormon viewpont. [A third filmmaker, Laura Naylor, was not at the interview.]
Hadleigh: It’s hard, given that it’s our first documentary, to demonstrate our integrity and intentions.
Stephen: We’d done a documentary short that had treated the same material with condor and sympathy. But trust was key. Ryan and Melissa [two of the film’s main subjects], once they heard I had a calling in my branch, wanted to be part of it. They wanted to make sure I had a calling and was an active temple-goer before they knew they could trust me. I knew Brian and Stacey from other walks of life, and they were OK with it.
JKR: What was the main story you wanted to tell?
Stephen: I think the main story was that we wanted to show some contradictions and complexities that single Mormons face today. I think just going to this weekend party is a contradiction. It’s a spring break weekend, so you party, but you have this thing hanging over your head all the time that if you don’t get married, you won’t reach the highest levels of the Celestial Kingdom.
Hadleigh: By outward appearances, with a weekend party and the beach, it looks like any other party. But it’s not. There’s this whole other dimension.
Stephen: We as Mormons manage to party without stimulants.
JKR: Your production values look great. How much did the movie cost, and how did you fund it?
Stephen: We raised about $17,000 on Kickstarter, and the actual cost of the movie is somewhere between $80,000 and $100,000. It’s essentially self-funded through donors and short-term loans. We expect to recoup the costs within a year.
JKR: How has it been received by your early test audiences?
Stephen: Very well. We played it in Seattle to sell-out crowds, with nothing but positive reviews.
Hadleigh: The most fun is that at every screening and focus group we’ve done, it always ends with lots of questions and discussions. This is a film about a world within a world, something that most people would never have the opportunity to see. If you show people an aspect of human culture and help them understand how it relates to their own lives, with characters who are open about their strengths and their struggles, the audience takes on their story and their cultural factors.
Stephen: The movie is like a Rorschach test, in how people can see themselves in it.
Hadleigh: It’s about relationships and marriage, which is something everyone can relate to on some level.
JKR: I often encourage Mormons to make their own art and culture, rather than just allowing themselves to be defined by others. I feel like this movie accomplished that.
Hadleigh: It was important to us to have every single voice in the film be a Mormon voice. And almost everyone we interviewed is single. It’s the idea of telling your own story, and telling about the things in your own culture, and this small piece of your culture.
* Religion News Service acknowledges that what constitutes “wild” may differ from one faith community to the next. In the case of Mormonism, “wild” may in fact connote a single keg of root beer. Yes, really.