How Rare a Possession

The making of a new Church film

The market is bustling. Young goats bleat as the crowds brush past them. Birds twitter in split-bark cages. Baskets are heaped with fresh fruit, displayed for purchase. The makeshift stalls, pitched outside the courtyard walls surrounding the temple, are made of animal skins stretched on wooden frames, offering some shade from the bright tropical sun.

Young Nephites, dressed in handwoven cloth tunics and jute sandals, laugh, and the sun glints off of the braces on one girl’s teeth. They are talking about getting out of school for the summer. Several young boys are practicing juggling with some lemons. They laugh when the one in the sunglasses loses control and drops his lemons. They step out of the way when a man dressed in jeans and a T-shirt walks over and moves a palm tree several feet to the right.

Wait a minute! Nephites in sunglasses and braces? Moving palm trees? Getting out of school for the summer? Is this 1987 or 1,987 years ago?

Time periods often merge on a movie set, and this Nephite market, outside the walls of the ancient temple at Bountiful, is indeed a movie set. Brigham Young University Motion Picture Studio is hard at work recreating for film one of the most significant events in the history of the American continent—the appearance of the Savior to the Nephites.

In a new film commissioned by the Church called How Rare a Possession, the Book of Mormon is featured as the main element in two important conversion stories: the story of Parley P. Pratt, and the lifelong search for the Church by Vincenzo Di Francesca, an Italian pastor. The film also recreates several significant scenes from the Book of Mormon such as Ammon’s visit to King Lamoni, Nephi building the boat to transport his family, as well as the climactic scene of Christ appearing in America. The hour-long film will be broadcast Churchwide by satellite on November 8.

Several young people have made significant contributions both in front of and behind the cameras in the making of this film. Mark Deakins, a BYU student from Spokane, Washington, has a lead part as the young Italian, Vincenzo Di Francesca. His part is particularly challenging since he plays most of his scenes alone.

About his character, Vincenzo, Mark comments, “He hardly says anything. Most of the show, he’s acting without speaking. There is a voice over that’s telling you what’s happening. The thing I discovered about film was that you are surrounded by 40 people, cameramen, lighting technicians, guys that are taking measurements off your face all the time and powdering you and all this, and then they are ready to roll and say, ‘Okay, do it. Be emotional.’ On stage you have a chance to get all prepared and feel the energy of the audience, but on film you are called to go out there and do it over and over and produce real feelings for the camera. That is a hard thing to do.”

But Mark has been able to call on some of the experiences he had on his mission to Switzerland in playing his part. In one important scene in the film, the young pastor that Mark portrays is reprimanded by a governing council for teaching scriptures from the Book of Mormon to his congregation. Mark says, “That scene reminded me very much of times when I was a missionary and people would be railing against me basically saying, ‘It’s all a bunch of lies what you believe,’ and it came down to testimony. You cannot defend it logically. It comes down to your saying, ‘I feel it, I know it, and it’s true, and whatever you say will not change that.’”

In the film, three actors portray the character Vincenzo. The story starts when he is a boy in Italy, progresses to when he is a young pastor in New York City and a soldier in World War I, and builds to a conclusion when he is an elderly man again in Italy.

Michael Molling, 12, from Orem, Utah, was selected to be the young Vincenzo. For Michael, being cast was a pleasant surprise. He and a friend had been handed a flyer in the local shopping mall. He went to the studio, filled out a card with his name and address, and had his picture taken. He was called to come back for another picture-taking session, then received a phone call telling him he had the part.

“They called and said I got the part,” Michael explains. “After I hung up I ran and did somersaults and jumped all over the couch. I was happy.”

For his scenes, Michael had to learn to quote scripture in Italian. And he had to learn to put up with makeup and old-fashioned shoes several sizes too big as part of his costume. “The hardest thing,” says Michael, “was memorizing the words. When I would start to talk, I would start moving my knees, and the director would have to tell me to not move my knees. I didn’t even know I was doing it.”

One of Michael’s scenes is in a schoolroom with other boys his age. These boys are extras, called in to dress in costume and fill up the rest of the desks in the background. Erika Anderson, 18, is working as extras’ coordinator for the film, and it is her job to see that the boys are where they should be when they should be. Erika is rather young to have such an important position, but she’s been working in films for several years. Her father, David, is a film distributor and producer, and Erika has had a chance to work in different ways on films since she was 10.

“The first thing I ever did,” says Erika, “was be an extra. Then I worked on a commercial shoot in New York. I was a production assistant. My dad was in charge, and I helped run errands and time the shots.” Erika was recommended for the BYU film job, and Peter Johnson, the producer of the film and director of the Motion Picture Studio has been pleased with her work. “She shows such integrity in her work. She’s always there, always on time. We give her instructions, and she does what we ask. We never have to follow up with her.”

Erika has learned a lot about the importance of doing a good job. “What I’ve known all along is whenever a job is given to me, I have to get it done because someone is expecting me to do it. If you don’t hold your end up, everything can fall apart. I learned that at 13, so I’ve been practicing for a while.”

As extras’ coordinator, Erika describes her job this way, “When there are kids, I’m in charge of the kids. When there are adults, I’m in charge of telling them where to go and getting them all there and getting them committed to do it. It’s really hard, but it’s rewarding to see it all come together.”

Erika’s first thoughts after being told that they needed 250 extras for the scene in the marketplace outside the temple at Bountiful was, “Where am I going to find 250 extras on a Tuesday?”

Erika and her supervisor, Kathy Bessinger, casting director, did find them. They sent the call out to wards in Salt Lake and Orem areas. Then buses were arranged, lunch and dinner ordered for the crowd, and makeup and wardrobe people alerted. On this Tuesday, they had the crowd of extras they needed to shoot the scene.

Russ Holt, the director and screenwriter, explains how the project was initiated. “It started with President Benson’s call to the membership of the Church to increase their study of, interest in, and use of the Book of Mormon. It really originated with that.”

As the director, Russ has worked with a group of professionals that have translated the script into beautifully photographed scenes on film. Russ explains, “There are times when as a scriptwriter you envision this scene, and when it finally gets on film, it surprises you because it’s better than you imagined. Take the scene at the dock at Palermo, Italy. I thought we were going to do a simple little scene, but the art director, the cameraman, and others had a concept of what that could become, and they turned that scene into something gorgeous.”

Making the film has been a huge undertaking, lots of hard work and long hours. Because a film is produced in bits and pieces and then put together in the editing room, the actual day-to-day work is often not highly charged emotionally. Peter Johnson, the producer, explains, “We are magicians in the film business. The process that you see is not glamorous, and it’s not that emotional. When it’s all put together, then it reaches you.”

In this age of video, Peter also explains that seeing a movie about the Book of Mormon in no way replaces the experience of actually reading it for yourself. “You cannot replace through watching television or motion picture the actual one-on-one experience that you have with the Lord when you are reading scripture. That cannot be duplicated. I hope that the work that we do stimulates people to have a desire for that personal experience like Parley P. Pratt and Vincenzo Di Francesca had with the Book of Mormon.”

[photos] Vincenzo, played by Mark Deakins, seeks to find the source of the wonderful book of scriptures he found with the front page missing. Actor Michael Molling plays Vincenzo as a little boy.

[photos] The climactic scene of the movie is Christ appearing to the people of the Americas. In separate scenes, extras play the parts of the adoring crowd and the Nephite villagers, on a set built in a desert location.

[photos] During breaks, three young extras relax in a makeshift hut used as part of the scenery. Erica Anderson keeps several youngsters entertained while the crew shoots the schoolhouse scene.