My first film at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival was Cleanflix (review), a documentary which explored the issues surrounding the sale and rental of edited versions of R-rated movies to observant Mormons in Utah. I knew that after seeing the film, I wanted to ask the creators many more questions than they could have fielded during the post-screening Q&A. So, thanks to David Magdael and Margot Hardy from TC:DM Associates, I was able to sit down for half an hour with the creators of the film during what must have been a very hectic week for them. In addition to co-directors Andrew James (on the left in the picture above) and Joshua Ligairi (on the right), we were also joined by producer Amber Bollinger.
Since the interview deals with some plot points in the film, it really makes sense to read my review first.
James McNally (JM): I’ll start by asking you how difficult it must have been to decide where to go with the film once the scandal around Daniel breaks. What were your discussions like about how much of the film you wanted to give over to that story?
Andrew James (AJ): In the beginning, we viewed Daniel more as a resource. It wasn’t until about two-thirds of the way into shooting that we realized that there was more to this Daniel guy, that maybe he could help guide the film a little bit, so we started focussing more on him. But it wasn’t until we started editing the film that we realized how significant he was to the film we were making.
Joshua Ligairi (JL): We were focussing on a couple of other store owners just as prominently as him that didn’t even make it into the film.
JM: I guess the contrast with Robert (another store owner), there was a real contrast between them.
JL: Which was nice. It was nice to see people who were doing it sincerely and then someone else who was manipulating the audience for their own benefit.
JM: In my opinion, you have about three films worth of stuff crammed into Cleanflix. One of the things I found interesting was just the exploration of Mormon filmmakers. You talked to Richard Dutcher, for instance. Strangely enough, there was just an article in Cinemascope magazine (here in Canada) about Richard Dutcher, and it got me wondering. What I wanted to ask was if you think there is any official encouragement given by the Church to Mormon filmmakers, to give people an alternative to Hollywood entertainment?
JL: No. The Church self-produces some films, but they’re more about the Mormon story, they’re about the founding story of the Church, they’re about Jesus and stuff like that. The Mormon cinematic movement that’s happening, in Utah especially, is not connected to the Church at all, although there’s appreciation for those films from the Church leadership.
JM: I know there are some that would never break out of Utah, but for instance Jared Hess has done really well.
JL: There was a World War 2 film, Saints and Soldiers, that won an Independent Spirit Award a few years ago, and stuff like that, so there are some crossovers.
JM: But the Church doesn’t have any official stance.
Amber Bollinger (AB): No.
JL: Richard Dutcher was actually very successful, but within the Christian evangelical culture in the United States, they’re not accepting of Mormons as Christians, so it was difficult to market those films to them.
JM: In the Cinemascope article, he talks about that and how he’s tried to make himself more of a spiritual filmmaker, but nobody trusts that. You’re either not spiritual enough, or you’re too spiritual. Why do you think that guys like Dutcher and Neil LaBute others end up leaving the Church? Do you think the pressure’s too much, that they can’t make films that explore spirituality?
JL: Both Richard and Neil have had very specific run-ins with Church leadership with regard to the content of their films, and I think that probably has something to do with it.
AJ: I also think there’s a constant struggle in how to reconcile your art with the values that the Church is espousing. Because they have very specific ideas about how media affects you. It’s talked about a lot in church. So I think filmmakers who are trying to be challenging really struggle with that. I know I do, and that’s probably one reason why I don’t go to church anymore. Josh is still practicing, and that’s great, but for me, I was having a hard time reconciling that, going to church and hearing people say all these things that I didn’t agree with.
JL: At Brigham Young University, in the film program, the guys there struggle with this all the time. They’re just starting out as film students and they’re trying to make these films that represent their artistic viewpoints, and even in university they’re not allowed to make some of the films they want to make.
JM: Just to give you a little bit of background, I have about 20 years of experience with the evangelical church, and have gone through the same process so I can feel where you’re coming from on a lot of these issues. I wanted to bring up that question of how working on the film affected your own faith. You’re free to tell me to mind my own business, of course. Andrew, since you’ve already told me about your struggles with your faith, do you think the film has had anything to do with that?
AJ: I don’t think so. It’s been an ongoing process for me. Without giving too much away, a lot of personal things in my life have led me down that path.
AB: Any chance for self-exploration, too. The film talks about, you know, why not, why not ask questions about what you believe? Through the film, if that’s part of it, or whatever means you can. I think media’s a great way to do that, to think about what it is you believe and why.
JM: My main criticism of the film is that I thought Daniel’s troubles allowed the audience to paint him as the villain, to enjoy that irony and then to forget about the issues that you’ve raised in the first part of the film. I was very curious to see how advocates of copyright reform from one side of the political spectrum would interact with people like Cleanflix from the other end of the political spectrum who are doing kind of the same thing but for a different reason.
JL: The sticking point for me and for those two communities is the censorship. I tend to come down on the side of the end user. The fact that they’re censoring something that they haven’t created is problematic for me.
JM: But are they not just “mashing up” the film?
JL: I think that’s something that Hollywood has to wake up to, and figure out how to have a relationship with those end users, because people are going to stop paying for it if they can’t do what they want with it.
JM: I think that’s what’s started to happen.
AJ: That’s a very interesting point. I totally see that point of view and I actually agree with that point of view. But it’s hard for me to wrap my head around it in terms of Cleanflix. I don’t feel like that’s what they’re trying to do.
JM: But aren’t we still fighting for the same thing?
JL: But that’s not what the mashup guys are trying to do either. They’re just trying to dance.
JM: Now we see video mashups too.
JL: We were talking about “Brokeback to the Future” or the Phantom Edit, where they took Jar Jar Binks out of the Star Wars Episode 1. I think now that editing technology for films is going to become as available as it is for music technology, we’re going to see a lot more of this stuff.
JM: And we do laugh at those because they’re entertaining, but the films that Cleanflix makes are entertaining to a different audience. I think there’s a really good argument from those guys’ perspective that they’re just doing the same thing.
AJ: I wanted to comment on your criticism. I feel that, at least for me, the film is not an issue film. We’re trying to tell a story, and so I feel that that is why Daniel works in the film. Obviously, there are issues being explored in the film, for sure, but we feel like we’re trying to focus more on telling the story. I feel like you can’t tell the story of Cleanflix without telling what happened to Daniel, and I think Daniel helps inform that story, he sort of personifies that story.
JL: And you can see where that community can go wrong, where those kind of ideals can take a dark turn.
JM: I can see that but what I was disturbed at in my screening was that the audience was so very smug, like “oh, we’re liberals and it just figures that that guy is going to…”
AJ: They took so much joy in it.
JL: Yeah, they were laughing at some really dark stuff.
AJ: We were uncomfortable with that as well.
JL: When we were filming that, Andrew was in tears.
AB: That reaction was absolutely surprising.
JL: Our Sunday screening was a different story. No one laughed. Different audiences are always going to take something different from the film.
AB: And possibly, the audience that went to see it on the premiere night were people who expected a certain message from the film. Possibly the crowd mentality of the premiere night, let’s see what this film is about. Maybe those people had preconceived notions about what the film was about. As Josh was saying, our Sunday screening was very different, people did not laugh at those same parts. And when Daniel was kind of, headed downhill, if you will, there wasn’t laughter. It was different.
JM: That’s interesting to hear. I was disappointed in the crowd I was with, but I just hope that it doesn’t overwhelm the film.
AB: I don’t think that it will. I really feel that it may have been a premiere type of reaction.
JL: I think people think they know what the movie is already. They think it’s going to be funny and quirky and making fun of Mormons or something like that, and it’s not really that movie.
JM: And your soundtrack, and your editing does make it feel like that a little bit. Which leads me to ask if you’re finished editing the film now, after seeing the audience reactions at the two screenings.
AJ: Maybe some minor changes.
JL: We’re pretty happy with the film, for the most part. Now that we’ve had some feedback, it’s good.
AB: And seeing it on a gigantic screen always changes things. You can watch it on your biggest 50″ screen at home but it’s just different seeing it, with a crowd, first of all, and also on a huge screen. You’re like, Oh, didn’t notice that before.
JL: Little elements of production value that we’re definitely going to work on now.
JM: Those are things that people probably didn’t notice, but you did.
AB: Yeah, seeing it a thousand times.
JM: I noticed that you don’t have anyone from the Church on camera speaking about this issue. Was that a conscious decision or did no one want to talk to you?
JL: We did have someone at one point and we just realized…there were a lot of things we would have liked. I would have liked to show the diversity of the LDS community, for instance, because we were just focussing on this one group that watches edited movies. But it wouldn’t have made the film better. It would have made for a more nuanced discussion, and I would have appreciated that, as someone who’s from that community myself and probably other people of faith would have wanted to see that stuff, but it wasn’t furthering the story aspect of it. We were getting bogged down in that first half, because the balance was, how much do people need to understand about Mormons, and how much do people need to understand about edited movies before we can start telling the story.
AJ: We interviewed a guy who was like a “pseudo” representative of the Church.
JL: He was a media representative of the Church, but he wasn’t a religious figure.
AJ: And he sort of felt awkward speaking for the Church, but he did say some interesting things about the R rating, and how it was a cultural sort of thing.
JL: He was kind of disappointed in the idea that people would like edited movies. He had also been a professor at Brigham Young University and he said we get these students coming in and they don’t want to think for themselves, they want rules. And that was really disheartening for him to see that, too.
JM: I think that’s human nature. People want rules.
JM: I’m curious to see how Church leaders react to people who are so desperate to follow the letter of the law but who are kind of ignoring the whole spirit of it. I mean technically they’re not breaking the rules, but you know…
JL: The thing with the Mormon audience, though, is that in their minds they’re following the spirit of the law because they’re trying to take it even further than the commandment they’ve been given. So the thing is to avoid a certain rating and they’re going even further. In the Mormon religion, they ask you to abstain from certain things like alcohol and coffee, and you see that taken even further. So now we don’t drink Coke because that has caffeine in it and maybe that’s why they said don’t drink coffee. So people are always trying to go further, and self-censoring, and that was what was really interesting to me. Our film isn’t a doctrinal film, it’s a cultural film. The Church isn’t necessarily enforcing this but people are taking it upon themselves to self-censor and that was interesting to me.
JM: But isn’t there an audience that says that even those edited films aren’t going far enough?
AB: Definitely. The sample of people in the film are the ones who are coming to Cleanflix so it definitely doesn’t represent every Mormon.
JL: There are people on both sides. There are people who say, I don’t care, I’m going to watch R-rated movies, and that’s a big portion too. And then there are some for whom Cleanflix isn’t good enough, who say we shouldn’t be supporting these Hollywood movies at all. Andrew has an interesting story about that, actually.
AJ: Yeah, I interviewed this woman who was a former employee at another edited movies store. One of the comments she made was “Who’s the creep in the back room watching R-rated movie after R-rated movie?” I think a lot of people have a hard time with the idea of Cleanflix, that someone actually has to sit through that filthy material, sort of to take one for the team. So there is a wide range of diversity on the issue. I think in a general sense, Mormons are trying to protect their families from what they consider harmful or evil elements.
JL: And in that respect, it’s not just Mormons. There are a lot of people throughout the world. This market is a big market, and I think people would embrace this if they knew…
JM: You guys must be reading my questions. I was going to suggest that the evangelical Christian market, which must be three or four times the size of the Mormon market, would be very interested.
JL: I think that’s why the Cleanflix guys tried to separate it from Mormonism, because they’re afraid that if it gets tagged as a Mormon thing, they can’t sell as many movies in the South.
JM: And I know that in Canada and parts of the States, there are conservative Muslim audiences, conservative Hindu audiences that would probably go for the same sort of edited movies. Do you know if the edited movie companies have tried to reach those markets at all?
JL: They were trying to reach out to those audiences when they were stopped, and they had 80 locations throughout the United States, they were doing online in Canada. They were spreading, and according to the store owners, everything was on the way up; they had just figured out their business model and they were about to capitalize on it when this all happened.
AJ: We could easily speculate that they would have had success in these other areas.
JL: We choose to focus on Mormonism because that’s where it started and that culture created it.
JM: You indicated too that some of these companies may still be operating online?
JL: That’s one of those things about the digital age. There’s no controlling it anymore, and it’s going to happen. And so if the studios were smart, I think they should figure out a way to handle this themselves because otherwise it’s going to happen without them.
JM: Did you get anyone representing the Directors Guild of America to talk to you?
AJ: We talked to their lawyers and PR people from the DGA who were fairly friendly and interested in helping us, but with all the big names involved and the bureaucracy, it was just hard for us to get at those people.
JM: Do you think they consider it a dead issue now?
JL: They would like it to be a dead issue, because they’ve won and they don’t want it to continue. So it’s good for them if it goes away.
JM: But you do reveal in the film that they do release edited movies for airlines, so what is stopping them from just expanding that?
JL: No one knows. The studios control the copyright and they’re not releasing them.
JM: I just wonder if they feel that the market is too small.
JL: They call it a small market.
JM: But it’s probably a lot bigger than they realize.
JL: An ABC News poll said 45% of the people in the United States would want edited movies if they could have access to them.
AJ: But the Hollywood Reporter said that the studios want to control this, and if people start editing, and releasing edited versions, demand would become too great and it might take away from the theatrical run of some of these films because people will wait for the clean version to come out on DVD.
JM: I guess they figure that the rating system is working well enough.
JL: They like the way it’s working for them.
JM: Have you seen Kirby Dick’s This Film Is Not Yet Rated? A lot of the same issues come up in that.
JL: Yeah, that film was a big help to us as we were getting into this.
JM: I wondered if you’d seen another film here at TIFF, called Dogtooth (review). It’s a Greek film about a guy who keeps his family locked in their house. His children are now in their 20s and they just play games all day, they’re kind of infantile. The director said it was about the extremes to which people will go to protect their families. Of course, it doesn’t end well. And I guess neither does your story. I wonder why the Church feels that keeping bad things from outside is going to make us better people?
AJ: There’s a lot of fear. People are afraid. I’m not going to speak for the Church, but I think culturally there’s a lot of fear that these things are going to get in and affect you, you know to pervert your sexuality as someone says in the film.
JL: If you open that door…
AJ: People don’t trust themselves. You know, if I look at this, I might have some bad thoughts and do something that I might regret.
JM: But you think of it as an outside influence and never something inside of us?
JL: It’s a question of purity, and the idea is that these things stain you, you can’t get rid of that stain. I mean they believe in the idea of repentance, but it’s better if you keep yourself pure of this stuff, and that’s better for you.
JM: I mean I’m curious, because the Christian doctrine is that we’re already born sinful and that we need to be forgiven.
JL: It is part of Mormon doctrine that we’re here to make mistakes and learn from them, but you avoid those mistakes and obedience is the big thing.
JM: So they think you learn more by not making the mistakes?
JL: I don’t know.
AJ: Totally. Yeah, that’s really weird.
AB: It’s not just the media. The Church also teaches you to surround yourself with good people, surround yourself with good things. You know, cleanliness is godliness, there are so many things.
JM: Which is totally common sense.
JL: And it’s not all avoidance. Within the culture it becomes avoidance. Within the doctrine of the Church, it’s “seek after good things.” One of the kids in the films says “I’d rather read a good clean book and watch a good clean movie.” Find the good things, but within the culture it’s easier to follow a rule.
JM: How do you know what’s good until you discover it?
AJ: One of the things that’s interesting to me about this is that I think a lot of these films could help open their eyes to some different issues, help them become aware of cultures in different parts of the world, human experience, help them build empathy with other human beings. And so by shutting themselves out from these films, when you’re living in Utah, or actually, anywhere. But if you’re living a sheltered life, sometimes a film is the only way to expose yourselves to outside things and I think it’s really sheltering to say no.
JM: Another film that this reminds me of is Son of Rambow. Have you seen that?
AB: Yeah. It’s the same.
JM: It’s the same idea. You need some way to connect with the outside world and unfortunately some might choose bad ones, but you can also recommend good ones. What are your plans for screening the film in Utah?
JL: We would love to have our American premiere in Utah.
JM: But it’s going to be R-rated, isn’t it?
JL: We’ve joked about making a Cleanflix version of our movie, and it’s a joke but it would also be a great way to target that audience. Hopefully there are issues discussed in the film that they could benefit from.
JM: A lot of the humour came from showing both the unedited and edited stuff, though. I was just amazed at films like Fargo and The Big Lebowski being edited. I mean, how long was the edited version of The Big Lebowski, 30 minutes? So some of that stuff adds a lot of humour to it.
JL: Yeah, that’s unfortunate, but even with The Big Lebowski and Fargo, there’s a chance we could still get a PG-13 in the United States, and keep those clips in.
JM: I also find this issue in the evangelical Christian community, that violence is not as bad as sex, for some reason I don’t understand, and swearing is also bad, but you can shoot somebody. Somebody’s making these rules, but…
AB: That’s definitely cultural. That’s not doctrine from the Church.
AJ: That goes back to the idea of purity, don’t you think? Like swearing and sexual images.
JL: I mean if you’re not going to do that, you’re definitely not going to kill someone. And that’s another thing in the Church. It’s those little things. They’re guarding themselves against all those little things.
JM: I guess so. It’s a slippery slope. Can I ask you about what your next projects will be?
AJ: We’ve each got our own separate projects which are each exciting on their own terms. I’m working on a documentary about a guy from Peru, during the 80s strapping cocaine to his torso, creating this whole operation smuggling drugs into the United States disguised as a Mormon missionary. And he would take it to Utah and deal it himself and then he’d go back to Peru, go to the jungle and get his cocaine. He did this for two years, made a ton of money, and then eventually gave it up and became a US citizen. It’s his story, this man, and how he became American and his journey and asking some questions along the way.
JL: I’ve got two projects I’m working on. One is about gay Mormons, and that one is a little more Utah-centric, and there’s another project I have that’s more issue-oriented, it’s a little bigger in scope, it’s about people who are robbing Native American graves and then selling the artifacts to big collectors and to museums and other people who don’t know that they’re getting stolen artifacts. There’s a twist, that there are these guys who believe they are being cursed for robbing these graves. Horrible things are happening to these people, suicides, deaths, and they’re happening to all these people who are involved with it. And then we’re also just trying to enlighten people so that they’re not buying the stolen artifacts, we’re trying to highlight the artists and people who are doing it properly and then expose the people who are doing it illegally.
JM: Well I hope that all of those are successful. We also have Hot Docs here in the spring.
JL: Yeah, we would love to be involved with Hot Docs.
JM: Amber, are you working on one of those?
AB: Yeah, I’m actually working on the one with Josh.
JL: It’s called The Skeleton Picnic, the Native American one.
AJ: That’s a great title.
JM: Well, they all sound good. I’m looking forward to seeing more from all of you guys. Good luck with the film and enjoy your time at TIFF!