The Plot Thickens

“The Plot Thickens,” New Era, Oct. 1986, 38

The Plot Thickens

A lot more went into the making of the seminary series “Free to Choose” than what you’ll see on the screen.

Can a restless, rebellious teenager find true happiness in her tiny hometown? What’s a guy to do when he’s called to a position that he doesn’t know if he can handle? Will a father who deserted his wife and children ever return?

For the answers to these questions and more, stay tuned to your seminary class, where they’re showing the latest episode of “Free to Choose,” the newest Church Education System media series.

Since the 1986–87 course of study is the Book of Mormon, each segment of the series takes a specific scripture and applies it to a latter-day situation. The script is based around a group of teenagers living in a small Utah town, but the feelings and reactions are universal to almost all teens.

The series takes its title from 2 Nephi 2:27, which states: “And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil.” [2 Ne. 2:27]

“The series shows that we are all free to choose, but that we must then accept the consequences of our choices. We tried to explore some of the outcomes, both good and bad, of the choices teenagers make,” said Randall Hall, manager of seminary curriculum.

Over the next eight years, more than 700,000 seminary students will be watching the series, which focuses on the exploits of the Parker cousins and their friends. The series will be translated into 13 different languages—Dutch, Finnish, German, Norwegian, Swedish, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, and Korean.

Tim Taggatt, the audiovisual manager who headed up production, said, “The series will help kids see what happens when they make unwise choices and what happens when they choose the right. We hope it has a strong influence.”

Even before the first segment was shown in a seminary classroom, a number of people were already influenced by the series. The people who played the parts in the films can’t deny the impact the experience had in their lives.

They were just a group of ordinary, high school kids sitting in a Brigham City, Utah, seminary class, when the announcement was made that a media series would be shot in the area and local students were needed to participate. The students went through a number of interviews and trial photo sessions, and faces were chosen to match the script that had already been written. The students selected thought the project would be fun, but they had no idea of the time involved and the spiritual fringe benefits they would receive.

“They told us that being in the series would strengthen our testimonies,” said Cyndi Andreason, who plays Lisa Parker, “but I didn’t understand how it would.” She was soon to find out. When they began filming, Cyndi was going through a period of questioning. “I was active in the Church and I did everything,” she relates, “But I had a lot of doubts. I wondered if it was really worth the effort.”

After working more than 300 hours on the series, Cyndi realized that it was, indeed, worth the effort. “I saw what can happen when you don’t follow the teachings of the Church, and I didn’t want that to happen to me,” she said. Cyndi is probably more like the cheerful, obedient character she plays than anyone else in the series, except maybe for Dan Wilcox, who plays the part of Benjamin Parker, Lisa’s cousin.

Dan had recently moved to Brigham City from Washington and really didn’t know many people. When a man dressed in a suit and tie walked into his seminary class, pointed him out, and announced that he wanted to talk to him, Dan was sure he was in big trouble. But when the man explained that he was the one they wanted to play the Nephi-like character Ben, Dan was more than happy to comply.

Dan rearranged his schedule as a lifeguard so he could give his time to the project. When he asked his boss for permission to be out for the last day of shooting, his boss took him into his office and showed him a long, detailed list of all the hours he’d missed for the filming. Then he computed that into the dollars and cents that Dan would have earned. It was quite a sum, but Dan didn’t mind.

“The film really helped me,” he said. “It brought my testimony way up. After playing a character that was a lot like Nephi, it made me feel closer to him—like I knew him. I can really relate to his story in the Book of Mormon.”

Of course, many of the actors were nothing at all like the parts they played. Cliff Peterson, who plays Carl Parker, a very wayward older brother, has been a student-body vice president, and is currently attending Weber State College in Ogden, Utah, on a grant earned by displaying outstanding scholarship and leadership abilities. Matt Huff, who plays the rowdy and careless Ron Kirby, was actually the Box Elder High homecoming king, president of the Lettermen’s Club, and is currently playing football at Snow College, in Ephraim, Utah, while he prepares for his mission. Then there’s Reed Price, who plays Mitch, the handsome, superficial Romeo. In real life he’s a happily married construction supervisor and the father of a beautiful baby girl.

You’ll see the most striking difference between character and actor when you look at Natalie Green. She plays Karen Parker, who makes progressively worse choices through the entire series. In real life, Natalie is a lively senior at Box Elder High School, where she’s an avid participant in the drama program. Away from school, she loves outdoor activities, including fishing, camping and rodeo. She’s a far cry from the questioning, sulking Karen.

Yet even with such a negative character, Natalie learned and grew from her part. She remembered catching the missionary spirit from the segment where the cast works to convert a nonmember friend. When one of Natalie’s theater acquaintances began asking questions about the Church, Natalie drew from the knowledge and spirit the script had given her. Soon Natalie and her friend were sharing membership in the Church as well as a place on the local stage.

Alan Braithwaite, who plays Brent Johnson, says he grew in a unique way from his association with the series. His character represents the entire Nephite nation. He prospers when he’s humbled, but becomes haughty with the abundance of blessings and needs to be brought down to earth. In real life, Alan is an excellent athlete and student leader, yet very genuine. He did benefit, though, from the association the filming provided him.

“My dad died about nine years ago in a motorcycle accident,” he explains. “I was about nine years old. Because I hadn’t had a father for so long, it was harder for me to relate to the older men and talk to them. It was difficult for me to get used to having a father in the film. I had to hug him and call him Dad, and it was really good for me.”

One actress even believes that the benefits of participating in the project extend to fulfilling a part of her patriarchal blessing. Linda Anderson, who plays Bev Parker, the mother of some of the more wayward characters, was camera shy and reluctant to accept the roll the directors offered her after spying her in sacrament meeting one day.

“My patriarchal blessing promised that I would touch the lives of thousands of youth, but I always wondered how I would do that. I live in such a small town, and I’ve never been called to a position in the Church where I’ve worked with youth. I’ve been a teacher of little tiny kids, but most of the time I’ve been in the library, a secretary, and now I’m a counselor in the Relief Society. But when they called me and asked me to do this, a little flash went off in my mind that said, ‘Maybe this is what my blessing is referring to,’ and I thought maybe I should take the part.”

Sister Anderson learned some invaluable lessons while working on the film. “You know,” she says, “kids aren’t the only ones who pay the consequences for their actions. Their parents pay too.” Sister Anderson’s real children, and there are seven of them, ages 4–18, don’t cause nearly as much trouble as do two of her film children, Carl and Karen.

Sister Anderson says the film taught her some lessons for her own family too. “I’m not a very patient mother,” she’ll tell you. “But in the film, I was always very calm and contained. I wasn’t allowed to scream and holler at my kids when they came home late, the way I would at home. When I started to play a woman who always had her act together, I started to pull my act together a little bit more with my children.”

What Sister Anderson realized, what the entire 150-strong cast (including extras and those who recorded the voices of the characters) realized, and what those who watch the film will find out, is that the situations we’re in today are not so very far from those mentioned in the scriptures. “If you don’t apply the scriptural principles to your life, there are going to be some struggles,” said Brother Hall. “If you do, then you’ll be blessed.”

The Free to Choose series has already taught several people that lesson, and about 700,000 more will have that opportunity too.