As the Church commemorates the bicentennary of the birth of the Prophet Joseph Smith next year, a new giant-screen motion picture about his life will premiere at the Legacy Theater in the Joseph Smith Memorial Building.
Now in production with the working title "Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration," the one-hour presentation will be the successor to the theater's first film "Legacy," and the one currently being shown, "Testaments of One Fold and One Shepherd." It is anticipated to premiere in December 2005 to coincide with the birthday observance for the Prophet, who was born Dec. 23, 1805, in Sharon, Vt.
"Filming has already begun in and around Nauvoo, Ill., and will also occur in other historic locations in the Eastern and Mid-Western United States," said Elder Donald L. Hallstrom of the Seventy, who is executive director of the Church's Audiovisual Department, during an announcement to news media that production of the film has commenced.
Elder Hallstrom made the announcement Oct. 25 at the Church's Motion Picture Studio in Provo, Utah, where news reporters and photographers were invited to watch the filming of a scene for the motion picture. The setting was the construction of the Erie Canal in 1820 Palmyra, N.Y., where a crowd of workers is depicted gathered around a fistfight that is broken up by a brother to Joseph. One of the toughs says, "Mind your own business, Smith. You'd better worry about your brother." Seeing a teen-age Joseph in the distance, he shouts, "Hey, Joseph, had any visions lately?" The crowd then erupts with mocking laughter as Joseph walks away.
The scene was shot under an overcast sky and intermittent showers. Asked if he ordered a rainy day for the shooting, producer Ron Munns said, "No, but we'll take what comes!" Actually, the dreary weather and muddy canal bottom seemed to lend themselves well to the gritty ambiance of the scene, which was augmented by two rolling wagons, three parked wagons, 10 horses, two yoke of oxen and costumed extras cast as 65 dockworkers and 20 citizens.
Brother Munns said the production team will do some shooting on location near Palmyra at Rome, N.Y., where "there's a section of the canal that's kind of to period." Other locations will be in Utah, Illinois, upstate New York, Wisconsin and other sites being considered.
Filming commenced Oct. 1 at historic Lincoln's New Salem Village near Springfield, Ill., and moved to Nauvoo for the week of Oct. 14-19, where it attracted the attention of local news media.
Producer Munns said a search was made throughout the United States, Europe and Australia for potential candidates to cast as Joseph Smith. The field was narrowed for screen tests, and the First Presidency made the final selections of four actors portraying the Prophet at progressive stages of his life from 7 years old and up.
Nathan Mitchell, originally of Springfield, Ore., who portrays Joseph from about age 21 to the end of his life, said that being selected for the role was both exhilarating and intimidating. "As an actor, I came to the conclusion that I just have to portray the Prophet as a person, as the man that he was, and that through the telling of the story, his grandeur and his majesty will come through."
Brother Mitchell said he prepared for the role by reading all the books he could find about the Prophet and by interviewing religion faculty at BYU. But he noted, "In retrospect, I guess in a sense I've been preparing all my life." Pressed for elaboration, he added, "I've always heard the stories and loved and revered the Prophet Joseph. And I've always tried to keep myself worthy, to keep the standards of the Church."
The actor portraying Joseph from age 17 to 21 was careful to introduce himself as Elder Dustin Harding from Orem, Utah, as he had been serving as a full-time missionary and had been in the Missionary Training Center for five days at the time of the shooting. His emphasis on the title elder seemed to lend an extra sense of consecration to his work on the film, one that bears additional significance considering the fact that his assigned mission is in New Hampshire and includes the Prophet's birthplace of Sharon, Vt.
Elder Harding's likeness is familiar to many Latter-day Saints from his depiction of the young Prophet Joseph in "The Restoration," the production sent in DVD format last month to subscribers of The Ensign magazine. In fact, that movie was shown in the Missionary Training Center after Elder Harding entered it. That, and the fact that he was asked to forgo the regulation missionary haircut until after the filming gave him a prominence he hadn't anticipated.
How does he deal with being so recognizable? "If I had any other acting job and I portrayed someone else besides Joseph Smith, I think it would become a little annoying," he said, "but I've kind of looked at this as an opportunity to bear my testimony. Every time somebody comes up to me and asks if I portrayed Joseph Smith, I have an opportunity to bear my testimony about the Prophet Joseph Smith and tell them how much I love that man."
It is a testimony, he said, that has been strengthened by previous and current roles he has in portraying the Prophet. "I had a testimony of the Prophet before, but with these opportunities, I've grown to love the Prophet with all my heart, and I've come to know him."
As with the previous two Legacy Theater attractions, admission to "Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration" will be free. Elder Hallstrom said its expected run would be for a period of years.
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