“How Rare a Possession,” Ensign, Jan. 1988, 14
For forty years, Vincenzo di Francesca eagerly anticipated baptism in the Lord’s true church. For the first twenty years, he followed the precepts of a book he had found with the cover blank and the title page missing. Then came the day when he finally discovered in a dictionary the title of the book—the Book of Mormon—and, ultimately, the name of the Church. Two world wars, unsettled conditions in Europe, and lack of authorized priesthood holders in Italy prevented him during the next twenty years from being baptized. Now, once again, he is writing Elder John A. Widtsoe of the Quorum of the Twelve, a friend he knows only through correspondence, hoping to arrange at last for the ordinance.
“I have tried to the utmost of my ability to live the laws and commandments of the kingdom of God, and my greatest desire is to receive this essential ordinance from an authorized servant of God.” Vincenzo looks up from writing, thinks for a few seconds, and adjusts his glasses.
This is a brief but crucial scene in the recently released Church film How Rare a Possession—The Book of Mormon—a chance to distill in a moment years of waiting and struggle. The actual moment when Vincenzo wrote his letter has long since passed, but the moment has been recreated and preserved on film, to be seen and felt over and over again. Is it any wonder, then, that the film crew shot that scene more than ten times to get it right? Not only must viewers think that they’re seeing Vincenzo in his apartment in Sicily, but they must understand the desire behind the words he is writing.
How Rare a Possession actually recreates the stories of two people who sacrificed much to accept an ancient record of God: Parley P. Pratt, who sold his farm to search for a fuller gospel than what was then had by man, and Vincenzo di Francesca, a Protestant minister who sacrificed his ministry and friends for the sake of a book he knew was scripture. Flashbacks to Book of Mormon events and people help us understand why Parley P. Pratt, Vincenzo di Francesca and others like them have sacrificed so much for the book.
In the shooting of the letter-writing scene, the actor portraying Vincenzo looks up several times. A large book with leather binding, perhaps a Bible, lies on the corner of his writing table, with old copies of the Millennial Star on top. The actor tries the scene using a writing box set on the table top. To the left of the table is a translucent screen, with a light shining through from the other side. On the right stands a woman holding a cardboard reflector to make sure the lighting on the actor’s face is right. A man reads the exposure in front of the actor’s face with a light meter.
During his writing, a few people adjust Vincenzo’s hair, glasses, and hand position ever so slightly. Vincenzo also adjusts the speed of his writing to match the speed of director Russell Holt’s voice reading aloud the words of the letter. A few feet away, in front of Vincenzo’s face, is a camera and a cameraman on a large crane, with several people assisting.
The actor who plays Vincenzo, Mark Deakins, a student at Brigham Young University, has been aged through makeup for the day’s shooting. He says that the main difference between acting for film and acting for theater is technical. “In the theater, an actor can hardly see the audience. But in film, the actor is surrounded by equipment and people. Shooting out of sequence is a major difference, too, and duplicating an action over and over can make the acting stale.”
When asked how he manages to portray a scene convincingly despite these problems, he answers, “I don’t have a problem shutting out the people around me. As long as I’m convinced that what I’m doing is authentic, it will work for others.” Understanding the character helps, too. “It’s not too difficult to get into emotions. The film and character have made me rediscover how blessed, how lucky we are to have the Book of Mormon. We don’t have to search and search for it as Vincenzo did. The role has taught me a lot about perseverance.”
The blessing of having the Book of Mormon—that is the theme the Church Curriculum Department asked Russell D. Holt, a writer and filmmaker for the department, to stress as he wrote the screenplay. “I spent weeks looking through hundreds of stories about the Book of Mormon before making my proposal,” he said. “Then additional research and writing the script took another five months.”
The film’s five-fold purpose, as approved by the First Presidency, is to create a deeper appreciation of the Book of Mormon; to encourage members to read, study, and apply its teachings; to strengthen testimonies of the scripture; to give members an awareness of their spiritual heritage; and to encourage nonmembers to read the book.
Peter Johnson, the producer of the movie, said during the filming, “We want to make a film that will move people so strongly that they’ll never be able to look at the Book of Mormon again without realizing the great sacrifice that’s gone into it.”
The production is the largest-scale motion picture the Church has ever done. Each scene is a big production, even though it may be on the screen for only a few minutes, sometimes only a few seconds. The movie covers over 120 years of modern history and 1000 years of ancient history, so costuming and sets reflect a multitude of styles and changes. Some of the sets are quite elaborate: an entire street from 1910 New York City, the temple at Bountiful, and Nephi’s ship, for instance. Then, too, some scenes in New York, Sicily, London, and Switzerland were filmed on location.
The motion picture was a joint effort between the Church Curriculum Department and the BYU Motion Picture Studio. Peter Johnson, director of the studio, selected Russell Holt as the film’s director, giving him the opportunity to bring his screenplay to life.
Because of its scale and complexity, the motion picture required some of the best personnel in the film industry. “Our sound editor, Mike McDonough, is one of the most respected soundmen in the business,” said Brother Johnson. “He was responsible for creating the entire sound effects for the Disney animated feature The Black Cauldron. Dick Jamison, as another example, is a wizard on sets—he can create anything for film. The film’s beautiful and often stunning photography has received special commendation from Church leaders. Gordon Lonsdale, who directed the photography, is a particularly gifted photographer with credits that include films made by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. The list goes on—all our personnel are professionals, and they’re all dedicated to the gospel.”
The film also brought together a unique cast of actors. Almost all of them are LDS, and most are professionals. Kathy Biesinger, the casting director, said that she had to hold auditions for thirty principal speaking parts and find nearly six hundred extras. For the principal characters, she looked for people who conveyed strong will and loving emotion. In one scene, for instance, Vincenzo faces an investigation into his use of the Book of Mormon during his sermons. The investigation is conducted by his pastor, a man who must do his duty but who loves Vincenzo like a son.
The Parley P. Pratt role, too, called for someone who also had the spiritual qualities of innocence and a willingness to follow God at all costs. Bruce Newbold, who has played, among other roles, a detective on Hill Street Blues, said, “It’s satisfying to know that my training has finally gone into something so pleasing and worthwhile. It’s been exciting to relive Parley Pratt’s life.” The actors and the film crew often echoed Kathy Biesinger’s words: “It’s a real joy working with people who love the Lord, who love to give.”
John Greenwood, a nonmember, played the role of Moroni. The part called for a short man, muscular, with a strong profile. He was selected from many applicants. Naturally curious about the character, he was astonished to learn that Moroni had affected the lives of millions of people. He immediately noticed the singular purpose and unity of the film crew and other actors, and throughout the filming, he studied the Church and attended some Church functions.
The film crew often worked long hours to prepare for scenes in order to meet deadlines. Yvonne Robertson, the wardrobe designer, explains: “We began research for costuming in the middle of March, then began making costumes in early April, using four seamstresses. More than two months later, we were still making costumes. For instance, we’ve had to prepare ancient costumes for three hundred extras—more than four hundred pieces of clothing, five hundred if you count layering.
“We had to create what would look like the Nephite and Lamanite civilizations. The people lived in hot, humid climates and knew something of weaving techniques. We looked at Guatemalan, Peruvian, and Mayan techniques, colors, and styles. Since the Nephites kept the law of Moses, we kept them fully clothed. We used long strips of cloth—draping with little sewing. The Lamanites wore skins. Our goal was to create something different yet familiar.
“We experienced little miracles. We needed lots of natural fabrics—cottons, coarse weaves, knits, and so on. One time, for example, while my scissors were being sharpened, the woman helping me mentioned that she had just brought in mill ends of natural fabrics to sell. We were able to buy very expensive fabric at 50¢ to $1 a yard. Much of it had exactly the patterns we needed.”
Peter Johnson says that filmmaking is the art of illusion—what appears on the screen must look complete and authentic, though it is only the illusion of reality. In the temple at Bountiful scene, for example, the set and construction crews created an open-air marketplace and two temples. One of the temples was much smaller than the other. It was placed just behind the first temple, resting on top of a wheeled flatbed. On film, it looks like a far-off temple.
In the marketplace, baskets were supposedly filled with almonds, pinto beans, dried peas, dried apricots, lentils, pecans, yams, mangoes, crisp cracker-like bread, melons, dates, figs, grains, sugar, and salt. Actually, the baskets were filled with foam and covered with a thin layer of food.
After a set is complete, scenic artists will go through and make it look used, adding smudges, dust, and other features that make the set look lived in. “We deliberately make it look less than perfect,” Dick Jamison, the art director explained.
“Look at that gate to the temple courtyard. We broke the surface of the column. The structures in ancient America were often built of stone, then covered with plaster. We thought that some in the audience would see our walls and wonder how they were made—if they were real. So we broke off part of a column to show the stone underneath. Of course, the rest of the column is styrofoam.
“Building the temple required the work of nine carpenters—it involved as much work as a full-scale home. The walls are in eight-foot sections. The foundation and stairs are wood, but the temple and courtyard walls are made from our basic building material—styrofoam. It’s naturally yellowish, so we add a base coat of paint, then spackle it. The wood came from our New York City street scene, and when we finish the temple shooting, we’ll reuse much of the marketplace for our ship scene. We’ll also need to set up a small village for Lehi’s family,” said Brother Jamison while the filming was underway.
How Rare a Possession is a powerful movie about the Book of Mormon and its effect on people’s lives. Making the film was also a powerful spiritual experience for those involved. Russell Holt said, “During our research, we interviewed many who knew Vincenzo. No one could talk about him without getting a little emotional—they knew his sacrifice, what he went through to join the Church. Late one night, I walked through the empty sets of Vincenzo’s Italian home and his New York apartment. I thought, ‘Vincenzo, I hope you’re pleased with the way we’re portraying your life.’ I think he would be happy to know his story is going to bless so many people—and ultimately help point them toward the Savior.”
Dick Jamison describes the feelings he had when the filming of the ancient temple finally started. “I knew that an actor was portraying the Savior. I knew that our temple wasn’t real. But when I saw the Savior extend his hands to the people, I had to go off and cry. I was seeing the visit—not just imagining it—for the first time, and I thought, This is how it may have been. This is how the people may have felt.”
After the filming of the scene, Stan Bronson, the LDS actor who portrayed the Savior, was asked to remain seated on the temple platform so he wouldn’t get his robe dirty. In a few minutes he was surrounded by children, and during the next hour he talked with nearly every child there. Stan said later, “It’s quite a privilege for me to look into the faces of the crowd and understand a little better what this means to them. In a sense, this film has given us a chance to walk a ways in His shoes.”