The making of Jane and Emma, with Chantelle Squires and Melissa Leilani Larson [MIPodcast #84]
Chantelle Squires is producer and director of Jane and Emma. Among other things she also produced and directed “Reserved To Fight,” a feature length documentary that aired nationally on PBS. She won an Emmy for her work on the third season of “The Generations Project” with BYUtv.
Melissa Leilani Larson wrote the screenplay for Jane and Emma. She’s written and produced a number of plays including “Little Happy Secrets” and “Pilot Program,” some of which appear in the book Third Wheel from BCC Press. Larson also wrote the screenplay for Freetown, winner of the Ghana Movie Award for Best Screenplay and the Utah Film Award for Best Picture.
BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges. What you’re about to hear is the two-minute trailer for a film about to be released in theaters this month, October 2018. The film is called Jane and Emma. It’s based on the historical relationship of Jane Manning, one of the few black converts to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints during its infancy, and Emma Smith, who presided over the Church’s women’s organization, the Relief Society, and who was married to the prophet Joseph Smith. I know you can’t see the trailer, but it’s worth hearing even just to get a taste of the film’s incredible soundtrack. Jane and Emma.
It’s an emotional film that delves into some of the most sensitive issues in Latter-day Saint history, including racial tensions, polygamy, and the death of Joseph Smith. In this special episode we’re joined by the director of Jane and Emma, Chantelle Squires, as well as Melissa Leilani Larson who wrote the screenplay.
You can send questions or comments about this and other episodes of the Maxwell Institute Podcast to me at email@example.com. Now it’s Chantelle Squires and Melissa Leilani Larson talking about the film Jane and Emma.
BLAIR HODGES: We’re joined today by Chantelle Squires. She’s a producer and director of the new film Jane and Emma. Chantelle, welcome to the Maxwell Institute Podcast.
CHANTELLE SQUIRES: Thank you so much for having us today.
HODGES: Yes. And you say “us” because Melissa Leilani Larson also joins us. She wrote the screenplay for Jane and Emma.
MELISSA LEILANI LARSON: Glad to be here.
HODGES: Alright. Let’s begin by talking about the plot a little bit. Give us a little movie trailer. Is it okay if I call you Mel?
LARSON: Sure. That’s great.
HODGES: Go ahead.
LARSON: The basic storyline of Jane and Emma is that Jane Manning has moved away from Nauvoo in search of work and comes back, unsure of the reason why, and when she returns to Nauvoo she finds out that Joseph Smith has recently been martyred the night before. She decides to stay and spend the night watching over Emma, who is in a fragile state.
HODGES: So this is something that’s based on historical figures, but it’s a reconstruction. It’s an imaginative reconstruction of something that didn’t actually happen, this night that’s depicted in the film.
HODGES: How did you decide on that, rather than doing a biopic of Jane Manning James, for instance, that kind of shows the sweep of her life, which is really dramatic and tragic in and of itself.
LARSON: It is. It is. There are a lot of really interesting things that happened to Jane over the course of her life. But the difficulty with doing an epic biographical kind of survey of her life is that you’re covering a lot of years in a pretty short window. Usually with a film what you’re trying to do is to tell a pretty… The best stories are pretty compact. So what we wanted to do with this film—because we knew that we were going to be making something pretty low budget and simple, so we tried to confine things to a very specific space and time.
So we decided to tell this story over the course of a night, over the course of this night after Joseph Smith’s martyrdom, and focus on Jane and Emma and their friendship. Because drama is really interesting, when you’re putting a complex character in a situation where they have to make choices, and they have to make decisions, and things are volatile, and people and their feelings are vulnerable. It’s kind of like chemistry. You’re trying to make the perfect story where reactions will just go off at the right times.
So we decided to put this story on this one night when emotions were just really, really high, and see how these women would react to each other and to what was happening.
HODGES: To do like a biopic film of someone like Jane Manning James would be difficult because, like you say, you would have to try to compress it into an hour and a half, or maybe two hours.
LARSON: Right. Exactly.
HODGES: And so it would basically be just a series of short set pieces, like her conversion. Traveling to the west. Appealing for the ability to be endowed in the temple, and all of that.
LARSON: Yeah, because the difficulty with her history, while it’s fascinating, it is basically in vignettes. When you’re making a film what you need to do is you’re creating a narrative. You’re telling a story. You have to find a dramatic through-line to go through all of these events and connect them together. And it’s easier to—and “easy” is potentially not the best word to use—but it’s more effective to try to just make things as small and compact as possible.
So it’s like, we’re going to look at this one night. And we do use flashbacks to tell some of the story of Jane’s conversion and the traveling with her family from Connecticut to Nauvoo, things like that, and her interactions with Joseph and Emma when Joseph was still alive. We hit on those moments, but really the best way to get to know a character is to spend time with them in a specific time frame. So we wanted to keep things just really small and contained.
And also for budgetary purposes we’re like, I write plays, I write plays with two or three characters and we put them in a room because that’s the lowest budget you can with a play [laughs]. That’s what we wanted to do with this film, is to keep things really contained and small.
HODGES: Did that take convincing, Chantelle? Who kind of came up with that conceit and how did the process of locking into it go?
SQUIRES: Well I think just right from the beginning we knew going into it that we started out with no money, right? [laughs] So we were like “what’s the lowest budget that we can do?” And knowing, approaching Mel who is a playwright, that was really one of the first reasons why, because it was like okay, if we can have a film that’s contained within a structure that’s small then it’s affordable. So really it started out with that in mind. That was really the beginning of it.
I think, too, along the way as we kept it small it’s because as you’re creating a story, you have to ask yourself, “while this is interesting does it move the story forward?” And in any film, even when you’ve shot it, at the end of the day you have to make that decision. Does this move the story forward or do I need to cut it out? That’s what makes a better film. So it was always on our mind just because that’s how we do storytelling.
HODGES: It also makes for good bonus features on the Blu-Ray. [laughter]
Are there going to be deleted scenes, do you think?
SQUIRES: Oh, there’s a good one, if that’s the case. I’m not sure.
HODGES: Okay. If it gets a release like that. I’d say too, as I’m watching this, there were moments of the film—even though it’s an imaginative reconstruction again, it’s this night after Joseph Smith is killed, Emma and Jane are together there, sort of dealing with the fall-out of that, Emma being supported by Jane. There were also moments of the film where I recognized direct quotes from historical sources. So talk a little bit about that, about actually accessing history and what you did there.
LARSON: Oh, sure. Well I’m a nerd when it comes to history, and I love biopics and I love historical fiction. I love historical narratives. Though I will confess to being a little wary when you see a film starts “Based on a True Story,” I’m like, well how much did they make up? And what’s interesting about this story—to think about Jane and those vignettes of her life, these moments that we know about—the hard thing is that when you have a moment, like Jane and her family walking from Connecticut to Nauvoo, they walked eight hundred miles, and I can say that to you in a sentence, but to create that in a film I have to write dialogue to go with that, we have to think about the shots and the scenes, and there is actually a lot of it that has to be imagined. It’s really impossible to make a film that is historically accurate in the way that some people, I think, want it to be because what you’re doing is imagining.
The goal is not to create a historical document. The goal is take the historical documents that we have and make something interesting and entertaining out of it, and to help people to have an emotional experience.
So, for me, I was able to spend a lot of time with Jane’s autobiography that she dictated when she was in her eighties and several of her letters, documents that we have about her. There’s a really great interview that she did with the Young Women’s Journal at the turn of the century, and then also I spent some time with several books about Emma and Joseph and their relationship and their correspondence. There’s a really moving letter from Emma to Joseph that I just think is so—it gives me chills when I think about it.
So I look for those moments that I can take those historical documents and insert them into the fiction. Because it does have to be a fiction. That was something I knew going in. Here’s a woman who is so amazing and wonderful and we just have to take a guess at what she was like based on what we have. The information we have is just so limited. So we have to take a guess and hope that people will get to know her better and then, of their own volition, go and spend some time with historical sources.
So when I could quote things, the King Follett sermon—
HODGES: But even then the nerds will say, “But wait, that happened in a grove, not in the Seventies Hall!”
LARSON: Yeah, but we didn’t have money for that.
That’s the basic truth of it. It seems like it should be cheaper to shoot outside in the trees, but no, it wasn’t. Also because we were shooting in the winter.
HODGES: Yeah. Seasons. Sound. Lighting.
LARSON: There are a lot of things that you can control when you’re indoors, but you can’t control them when you’re outdoors.
HODGES: Well the nerds will still cry out. [laughs]
LARSON: There are some things the nerds are going to cry out about, but being a nerd, I feel good about what we were able to accomplish.
HODGES: Good. So both of you are Latter-day Saints yourselves. Latter-day Saint backgrounds, so I’m interested to hear your thoughts about what it’s like dealing with some of the sensitive topics.
You mentioned, Mel, dealing with Joseph and Emma, and this movie doesn’t over-sentimentalize their relationship. And Chantelle, some of the direction obviously—facial expressions, some of Emma’s memories, some of these flashbacks show tension in their marriage.
Talk a little bit about what it’s like to deal with sensitive topics like that in a movie, as a Latter-day Saint.
SQUIRES: You know, I think that the experiences we have in our own personal lives certainly come through the art that we make. And I guess I look at my experience as a Latter-day Saint with a lot more objectivity than I used to, because of certain things that I’ve gone through in my life that have kind of shaken my world, and realizing that, okay, I don’t have to have a perfect life. In fact, I don’t know who does. And when I realized this—and it took a lot of pain to get there, and a lot of trials that we go through to understand that life isn’t A plus B equals C.
So I came into this process believing that it’s very important to be real about the hard things. Because if we can’t address the hard things and talk about them as realities and truths and experiences that have been given to us, in a lot of ways entrusted to us, then how can we really become the people that we are supposed to become? How can we move forward, even as a church as a whole, in overcoming some of our behaviors and just the things that kind of hold us back. I really believe it’s so important.
So I think that was one of the great things about making this film is that you’re kind of creating a space to be able to share those things. I felt like both Jane and Emma gave us the opportunity to do that, because certainly Emma wasn’t having the time of her life. [laughs] We caught her in a moment where her husband has just passed away—has been murdered. So obviously that’s maybe the most intense night of her life, right? So that’s a heightened point of her life. But also then, as you’re talking about, going through the flashbacks and seeing her relationship with Joseph and there was the stress and she was dealing with these real things. Issues that she was having with the sister wives that were there.
I guess for me, as we would go through the script over the two years it was like, we have to put ourselves in her shoes and imagine what that felt like. Whether or not that’s what it felt like for her, we as Latter-day Saint women, we imagined what it would feel like for us. And we also took our own personal experiences and feelings that we’ve had and infused it into her experience. I think it’s so important that we can start really just talking about these things as a reality and learning how to see the truth as it is. Whoever’s truth you’re trying to see, you’re trying to see what that looks like and asking why does it look different than what I thought? And that’s okay. It’s okay for Emma to feel those things. It is one hundred percent okay, and I wanted to give that to her. I felt like that was really important.
And I would say the same for Jane.
HODGES: It didn’t feel over determined. So for example, speaking specifically of the way that polygamy comes up, Joseph Smith having multiple wives and Emma dealing with that. It wasn’t in the forefront of the plot, but it was there, and you also didn’t drive the interpretation of it in a way that would force people who are watching the movie to either condemn Joseph Smith or agree with what he was doing either, which I thought was really interesting. Institutional films will usually put a positive sort of faith-promoting gloss on difficult things like that. Like, “oh polygamy was hard, but they were faithful and it was wonderful.” You don’t do that. You also don’t say “Joseph Smith was a scoundrel and a terrible person, this was a horrible thing.” It seems like there was some breathing room that you left in there.
SQUIRES: Yeah, I really believe in filmmaking—and there’s definitely different ways you can take things and as a director that’s my job, to direct people. And I just feel like if I can help someone love the human being that they are watching, that would give the audience member a chance to step into that person’s shoes. Because you can step into her shoes and sit there and think, “Whoa, how would I feel?” So you can’t really judge how she feels or not, because you’re giving an open and an honest experience of what that person is going through.
That’s really how I really try to make all the films that I make. It’s just very much like, you know, there can be so many opinions on one side or the other, things can get so political. And I think a lot of times when you do that you eliminate a lot of people pretty quickly.
And I don’t know Emma’s truth. I don’t know Jane’s truth. I can’t assume to know anyone’s truth. So I just have to, as an artist, look at something and interpret it the way I can with as much love for that person as possible. And be real and honest but also allow them to have their own voice in the film.
HODGES: Was I imagining this, or was there a moment where it showed the Partridge sisters give each other a glance? Or was that just random people in the room? Am I imagining that?
SQUIRES: You seem to be very observant…
LARSON: Very observant. A wise observation. [laughter]
HODGES: Okay, well viewers, there you go. See if you can catch that.
It sounds, Chantelle, like this was a really personal project for you, then. You talked about bringing your own heart into it in the way the film was put together. Is that fair to say?
SQUIRES: Yeah. I think every film I do ends up getting there, because you have to have a personal connection with something if you’re going to spend two and a half years of your life doing it. And I really think as a Latter-day Saint woman there was so much that I was able to put into this film personally. Even just the experiences that they had, and growing up—I grew up in a home, my mother is from Peru, my dad is from Utah. I grew up in this home that was biracial. My experience there, it was not the easiest. I didn’t ever feel like I belonged anywhere. It was hard all through elementary and junior high and high school to really know where I belonged and who I was, and to understand the color of my skin—which I don’t think compares at all to being an African American. I know what it’s like to be Peruvian and have that conflict. But it opened my eyes to see how integrating two different cultures can be so hard. Because that’s what I experienced my whole life. I did.
And it’s only been the last five years that my mother and I have really come to this place where we really do understand each other. And she’s my mother! But she’s just so different culturally than everything around me, and that’s played a huge role in really giving me some empathy and understanding for the difficulty that Jane and Emma have, which really still exists today, integrating and “being one” as a people when we don’t treat people that don’t have the same skin color as us the same. We really don’t. It hasn’t resolved. It’s really so hard. It’s very hard. And you have to do a lot of work. You have to do so much work. It’s so important.
I would say that really was a huge thing for me and it kept me going, because it’s hard to make a movie. I would say that the topic and the sensitivities of this film, and trying to get it right, and really trying to tell the most honest and truthful story, it was very difficult. But I knew it was important. I think it’s so important.
HODGES: What would you say about…You mentioned something about how you can kind of know some of the ways Jane felt. She was a black member of the church at a time when there were hardly any black members of the church. Most everybody was white. And you have a Peruvian background so you kind of felt like you didn’t have a home. But you also said there were differences there. I’m interested in what those are and how this project maybe informed you. Did black Latter-day Saints consult on the project at all?
SQUIRES: Yeah, we actually collaborated with two women who are African American members of the church who many people may actually be familiar with. They are the Sistas in Zion, Tamu Smith and Zandra Vranes. So they were part of the collaboration of this film, and I think really helped bring some authenticity to the film itself.
SQUIRES: Also, we had a few other people that we collaborated with as well. But they were all working through the story. You know, we would talk about the story, we would talk about Jane and we would really dig into their experiences. And I think one of the most helpful things for me, it took—I don’t know how long it took, possibly a year, and I just remember feeling their pain. Not Jane’s pain, right? Like this wasn’t really about Jane. I was seeing the things that were happening in the church. I was seeing the things that they were experiencing in the church, and as different things would happen just in life, I was just watching—
HODGES: Like Ferguson happened for example. There were all these—
SQUIRES: Right. And Charleston.
HODGES: Charleston, Virginia. There were all these different difficulties in the United States.
SQUIRES: Right, because we’ve been doing this for two years, and as we would be sitting there trying to figure out who Jane is and they’d say, “Well, you know, I don’t think that this would happen,” so we’re like, “Okay, well why is that?” So that’s what I’m really talking about. The work that has to be done. We were like, “Okay, well then what about this? Let’s try this.” And then, along with that process, seeing what they were experiencing, hearing them and listening to them, I just remember one day just feeling the pain that black Mormons have.
Now that’s because our film is about Mormons. This is obviously outside of the scope of religion, obviously. But that was what I was experiencing and seeing, and I knew, okay, you have to feel that from Jane. Because it’s real. And I didn’t know. I did not know before this process. And that’s why I just feel like…It took—and it’s still hard, it’s hard to understand. And it’s hard to help people understand that you do understand. You know, like we as human beings just have this really hard time knowing how to have empathy. It’s like the trial of humanity.
I think obviously that’s this huge scope, and this film cannot solve that, but I would say that is something that I have really been learning, and I’ve been trying. [laughs] There’s a line in the film that’s like, “I’m trying!” I just think that’s what it has to be. We have to be trying all the time. Whether or not it’s perfect—and every person that watches this, whatever race they are, is going to say, “That’s the film.” It doesn’t matter. I feel like there are a lot of truths. I one hundred percent believe that. And I know that because people have been resonating with the film since we’ve made it. But the reason why we took two and a half years to make it was because it took that long to get it right. Because it was that hard.
HODGES: It was interesting because this theme of empathy and of racial issues within the church, which also transcends the church, was there throughout the film, but it was never explicitly foregrounded in any “in your face” way, I think, and the screenplay was pretty careful in not being hamfisted about this, but letting some of the things just be observed.
There was a scene, for example, where a neighbor comes to visit Emma and asks to “borrow Jane” (as though she’s property). Talk about that scene, Mel.
LARSON: Sure. Well I’m glad to hear that. That’s a relief to me [laughs], that the screenplay’s not hamfisted. I think that’s kind of the goal of what we tried to do here, is to tell a story and it’s got to be about the story instead of the message, and then the audience will take whatever message they need to take from it.
So with that scene the goal was to put Jane and Emma both in a situation where they are both faced with someone else’s, basically, blatant racism and how do they both deal with it and then deal with each other. There were a lot of different iterations of that scene that went a lot of different ways. And the one that we settled on—oh, spoilers. Spoilers! [laughs]
LARSON: But I feel like it’s really true to the problems that we try to tell in the film. The relationship between Jane and Emma, this kind of misunderstanding of what it is to be black when you’re white, and that is still a problem today, both as Mormons and as Americans, that sometimes it’s this matter of “yeah, we need to learn to listen, and we need to learn to empathize.” And in this situation, Emma just doesn’t know how to deal. She knows that this neighbor is in the wrong, at the same time that she doesn’t necessarily put her in her place, she doesn’t necessarily argue, she doesn’t take that moment to stand up for Jane. And Jane feels that.
And that to us was dramatically the most interesting way to say, “hey, this is something that happens all the time and we need to be more aware of it, and we need to be more active.” We have a tendency, I think, sometimes when we see a problem—and I think this is, I’ll make general statements…[laughter]
One of the problems we have with racial tension today is that we have a tendency to separate it. If it’s not happening to us directly, right here, right now, we’re like,” oh that’s really terrible, that’s really awful, it’s really sad it’s happening in another state on the other side of the country.” And you have to be just more aware and more active. We need to be more proactive about how we treat people and hope that there are ripples and it goes out, as opposed to just being passive and going, “oh, that’s too bad.”
HODGES: I thought it was an interesting decision to have Emma be the one to kind of drop the ball. Frankly, this isn’t a romanticized picture of Emma, especially in that scene. You don’t save her from the kind of mistakes that she may have made, and that a lot of people today still make.
LARSON: Right. I’m most interested in showing these historical and kind of iconic figures as human beings. That’s more interesting to me. I mean, perfect people make for a boring movie [laughter], so we wanted both Jane and Emma, and to an extent Joseph, to deal with things and to be real about it. I mean that’s what we go to the movies to see and to experience, is to see people, to find something that we as an audience can relate to, and in that situation you’re hoping that the audience will watch a scene like that and decide that they would act differently.
HODGES: Hmm. And there’s other moments too. I’m thinking for example there was a moment where a lot of people in the audience—we had a sneak preview here through the Maxwell Institute—a lot of people in the audience audibly gasped at this one moment when there’s an overt racial slur used really early in the film. Talk about the decision that went into that, because there are conversations about whether people should represent that, should use that kind of a term, and who gets to use it.
LARSON: Well the difficulty there is that we really wanted to have a moment, to have a scene where we just demonstrated what it was like to be black in America in 1844.
HODGES: And in some cases today.
LARSON: And in some cases today. I mean that’s the crazy thing about looking at this as a period piece, is how relevant and timely it is. To say we’re, what, one hundred and fifty years out—that’s probably bad math—and we still have these problems.
So that scene also went through a lot of iterations; there was a lot of discussion about it. It’s really hard. It’s a hard moment emotionally, and it’s a hard moment to watch because it is uncomfortable, but I kind of think that’s the point. We can’t take that moment out of the movie and allow the audience to be comfortable when that’s a discomfort that Jane lived with. She couldn’t turn it off. She couldn’t cut it out. And Black Americans today can’t turn it off and they can’t cut it out. I mean, the nice thing about a movie is you can edit out the things you don’t like. Okay, great. Life is not that way. So it was a hard scene. It’s a tricky scene. But we felt it was important to have it for that reason.
SQUIRES: Yeah, I mean it did have a lot of iterations. It was harder, actually, earlier on. And it was so important even just to start out that way. Because like Mel said, it is her life, and allowing people to have empathy for someone—you just can’t do that if you don’t get to feel how hard that is, or see how hard that is, or even just for a moment get uncomfortable. So it was just essential that it was in.
HODGES: How about the actor? How about directing that scene? Because the actor has to go in and say the “n” word while also being abusive, physically aggressive with her. Was that hard to shoot? What’s the actor’s process look like?
SQUIRES: Yeah. Actually it was, I wasn’t sure how it was going to work. I hadn’t shot a scene like that yet in this film. And so, he was very focused. He separated himself from us all the way up until that scene was being shot. We traveled together and everything. He just kept very distant so that he could do what he needed to do, and not see this as “we’re making a movie.” He needed to be in character. I respected that completely because it’s a very intense scene.
We worked through a lot of different variations on it, and I mean Jane also—Danielle Deadwyler, who played Jane, she’s able to carry so much in this film. She’s phenomenal.
HODGES: Was that scene hard for her too? I mean, I think that’s maybe the most frightening scene for her.
SQUIRES: Yeah. I think it was. I don’t know that anything was hard for her, she’s so good! But the intensity of the scene and the different things that I had them do—and we tried it different ways and I was very sensitive to it, but she was just “no,” she said, “This is so important.” She believed in the importance of it. So she was like, “no, no, don’t feel bad, this has to happen. We have to make this scene as good as it can possibly be, because it means so much to this story.”
So both of the actors were really great to work with.
HODGES: That’s Chantelle Squires. She’s a producer and the director of the new film Jane and Emma. It’s going to be released in theaters on October 12, 2018. Is that theaters in Utah and then hopefully moving out? How does that work?
SQUIRES: Yeah. On our website it shows exactly which theaters.
HODGES: Okay, check out the website.
HODGES: The movie is releasing on October 12. We’re also speaking with Melissa Leilani Larson. She’s written the screenplay for Jane and Emma.
So I wanted to talk a little bit more about Emma. There are old stereotypes that Latter-day Saints used to reckon with when it came to Emma. She stayed in Nauvoo after most of the church members moved to the west, for example. There were questions about her reliability or sanity. She later on would deny that Joseph Smith practiced plural marriage, for example. She didn’t stay with the main body of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. You’re depicting her in this film—it’s not a hero film for Emma, it’s not a villain film for Emma. She’s just there. Talk about Emma as a figure in this film and sort of navigating some of these stereotypes people might have about her, whether romanticized or villianized.
SQUIRES: You know, I think it’s very interesting because I feel like this night in her actual history, in her actual life, had to have been a turning point for her. That was really a conversation that we’d had a lot, where, before this—and to me she’s an incredible woman. I love her so much. I respect her, and I understand her, and I know that the only person that truly understands Emma is God.
So as we were trying to work on this story it was like, okay, well let’s put ourselves in her shoes, because how many of us do that? I mean, really, how many books have put people in her shoes? How many films? There’s just not a lot where we really give her that space. I think that to have all of these things that have happened—
I mean, not only that but yes, she was pregnant during this time. Right? So you think about what that’s like for all the hard times. She’s pregnant in all the hard times in her life. She has all of these things just kind of pile on. She’s in this intense time in her relationship with Joseph because of the other wives. We haven’t really addressed those issues, either.
So I think just really getting into her headspace and allowing this to kind of—I don’t know, for me I just kind of look at it as a little bit of a deliverance for her. Because sometimes we need that. I feel like this film gives her that space and people can take what they want from it, but I really wanted to be able to give her that.
HODGES: Does that resonate with you, Mel, as the screenwriter in kind of what you did with Emma?
LARSON: Yes. I agree with what you said about the stereotypes, and also I feel that usually when we think about Emma, you know, in a Sunday school context we tend to think about her just as an extension of Joseph. Like she’s Joseph’s number one fan [laughs]. She was so dedicated to him and to their family for the entirety of their marriage and his life. But we seldom try to think about her outside of that. We, I think, just sometimes are always looking at her as part of him and we don’t—We need to really look at Emma as her own person, because I think she deserves that. I think that’s what we all deserve. So it was really important to me to look at her, I wanted to just create as complete a character as I could, and to think about her outside of Joseph, but also in tandem with Joseph.
I was insistent from the beginning that polygamy be mentioned because I didn’t think it would be fair to do a dramatization of her and not at least mention it and have it going on. And also because it’s in Jane’s history. The Partridge sisters and the Lawrence sisters are both mentioned in Jane’s autobiography as living in the house at the same time. Because it’s true, it’s something that we just—up until this point—haven’t talked about. We need to look at Emma and her life, what she went through.
There’s a line where she says, “Strangers have dragged Joseph from my home before.” And I think about, yeah, what she had to watch, and what she was witness to, and what she had to deal with on so many different occasions, basically the fallout of what he was doing, his calling. And she was just always working so hard to support him, and their relationship is so deep and so real, and yet sometimes I don’t think we as members of the church give her a fair shake. Like if we look on Joseph with a bit of hero worship, it kind of bleeds over into her, but not really. And I think we owe it to her to at least spend some time and better understand what her life was like. So we hope to do that a little with the film.
HODGES: I think few things are as divisive amongst Latter-day Saint filmgoers as depictions and portrayals of Joseph Smith. Finding the right actor, putting the right words in his mouth, and all of that. So it almost seems impossible if you’re trying to please everybody. So talk about Joseph Smith as portrayed and as written.
SQUIRES: Well I’ll start with who we cast. That was really hard, because we had a casting call and Brad Schmidt, who plays Joseph Smith, was phenomenal. I really loved his audition. But there was always this question, does he look like Joseph Smith? I’m just like, I’ve got to get that out of my head because I don’t know. Of course we have images and things and I had such a connection to his audition. And when I did a callback with him and interacted there was just such a connection there that I was like, this is Joseph Smith. We can’t find someone that is exactly the same, but oddly enough he is thirty-eight years old, he was the same height, I felt like he had the same build. When we really got into it I thought, wow he’s strikingly similar actually to Joseph Smith. So I just had to trust that my connection to him and what we had done with this role was going to just be the thing that seals the deal for everyone else. He did a remarkable job. I felt like we—
HODGES: How long did he have to lie on a table, by the way? [laughter] Because his dead body is in the film for quite a bit of it.
SQUIRES: He actually, that’s him a lot of the time. If you don’t see his face then maybe…it might not be him. [laughter] But he was very willing to do it. He was all in, and that was the coolest thing, talking to him about doing this project. He had other projects that he pushed aside to do this because when he read the script he just felt so compelled to do this film. I think there’s maybe four or five real solid scenes of him, so when we would talk about them, they’re all portraying something very unique about Joseph’s personality. That’s what we really wanted to do. We could only give a glimpse—The film’s called Jane and Emma because they’re in most of the film, but he’s such a vital part of the story and so every scene that we have in there of Joseph is very deliberate.
So when I was talking through those scenes with him and giving him things to read and study before he came on set, he just really took everything to heart and was like, “Oh, this is a real human. This is so intense.” Every single thing, he was able to really capture Joseph Smith.
And also I would say while we were on set, he was probably the actor that I was able to have the most molding with in some of those scenes. Because I’m not Joseph Smith, I don’t know, but I am a member of the church and I’ve had experiences that I can bring to the table. So we would do a take and we would just start talking on a very deep level. We would understand the scene in a different way. And the cool thing was we were on set and he was like, “Wow, there’s just so much subtext in this script!” I was like, yes, yay! [laughter] And he was able to just see the subtext sometimes for the first time. He was like, “Wow! I didn’t know what we were talking about until I’m sitting here,” looking at Jane, hearing the words that are coming out of his mouth and he got emotional because all of a sudden it felt real bringing who he was, what he was trying to do for Jane, and for the church, and all the things that were going on in his life. And I’d just say like, “Hey, just remember, right now people want to kill you for what you believe. So to have someone like Jane come in, think of what that must feel like, to know that she believes. And just to see him just take that and own it and bring it to the screen, it was really really great.
HODGES: And talk about writing Joseph. There are moments when he seems very confident, to use a kind word, there are scenes where he loses his temper, other scenes where he’s more emotional. So talk about writing for someone like Joseph Smith, this prominent figure.
LARSON: Sure. It’s really easy to be intimidated, but I think the nice thing about this story, about Jane being the focal point, is that while unfortunately Jane is lesser-known to a lot of members of the church—and hopefully this film is going to help to change that—because she is lesser-known, using her as the POV to get to know both Joseph and Emma has actually worked out really really well for me dramatically because if you just write a film wherein Joseph is the protagonist it’s just really really hard, as you were saying earlier, to please everybody.
No, it’s not hard, it’s impossible. There are a lot of people that have a certain image in their head, I think most Latter-day Saints have thought of what Joseph was like. So you’re always going to have somebody who comes and said, “Oh, that’s not like the Joseph in my head.” And the nice thing about this film being focused on Jane is that I’m able to, I hope, take a little bit of what Jane said about Joseph as the starting place for what Joseph is like in the film, and then also for me to just take a chance and to take a guess at what he was like. But because he’s not the focus, because he’s a little bit in the background and we’re seeing him through Jane’s filter, I felt a little bit more of a freedom to try things with him, and I didn’t feel quite as intimidated by the history. I felt a little more free to allow the drama in the character to come to the forefront as opposed to the historical expectation. Does that make sense?
HODGES: Yeah. I think it does.
SQUIRES: I would love to add something to this discussion about Joseph along with Emma, and the actress that played Emma. I felt like she—and Jane—they all were able to look at their character as a character, because they didn’t bring a lifetime of Mormonism into this. None of them were members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. So they looked at the script, they read all the research that I sent them, and brought their characters to life in a way that I think is so unique because of what Mel wrote in the script and what we wanted to bring out in these characters, they saw that.
I remember having a conversation with Emily Goss, who played Emma, and we were talking about, “okay, how should we say this, and how should we do that,” and she goes, “well she had lost all these children,” and she just goes off on all of the things that Emma had gone through. And she was kind of fighting for Emma. And I just looked at her and was like, great! [laughter] We’ll go with that. Because I understood where she was coming from in her decision, and so she really, I think, kept the integrity of Emma’s character.
And the same thing with Jane. I don’t know that I could have asked for a better cast who cared more about the character of these people, integrity of these people, and who brought more to the table. And I think that’s what makes them so real and why you can watch Jane up there praying to God and just feel it with your whole soul, because she just became Jane. It was phenomenal.
HODGES: With all the emotions that go into filmmaking too there’s also just some logistical things about making a film like this. So I wanted to talk about that a little bit. There’s a photo, Chantelle, on your website where you’re in a little cabin where the movie’s being shot. You’re with Jane Manning and Isaac James. You’re bundled up, you’ve got this big puffy coat on and hat, and then they’re just wearing their regular sort of costumes. [laughter]
SQUIRES: We did not pay them enough that night. That’s for sure! [laughs]
HODGES: Talk about that.
SQUIRES: Well I think, yeah. When you are making such a low-budget film and you have fifteen days to make this movie and it’s just intense, you pray that everything goes well. I would say that it did. I really believe that we were blessed. That all the things that needed to happen happened.
This one night, for some reason, the temperature dropped like twenty degrees. It was March, so it was already cold, but we go out and we were planning on shooting out in this woodshed that didn’t have really solid walls, and then all of a sudden it just drops and there was a little snow that started falling, and my heart broke. My heart broke in half. I was so sad because I’m like, “Oh my gosh, there’s four pages that we have to shoot tonight, and it’s Isaac and Jane. This is so important.” The actors were freezing. We had to turn on the heater, the propane heater that made this really loud noise. So of course when we started shooting we had to turn it off so we could get good audio. So we brought ice chips and they put ice chips in their mouth and they had like these hot water—
HODGES: Would that prevent them from breathing the air or what would the ice chips do?
SQUIRES: For the first few lines that they would say, their breath would match the air. So you wouldn’t see the breath. But there were visual effects that we ended up having to do at the end of the day, but it would be like, “Take out the ice chips, turn off the heater, now go!”
HODGES: Now why no breath? Oh, I guess it was supposed to be summertime! That’s right. [laughter]
SQUIRES: And we never ran into an issue until that night. So that was a really sad night for me.
HODGES: It was a cold June that year in 1844…
SQUIRES: Yes. It was. [laughs] The great news is that the actors did amazing, so we got what we needed. So when you watch the film I don’t think anyone would have any idea that that scene broke my heart.
There were other moments in the scene that couldn’t make it because of what happened, so could-have-would-have-should-have, whatever, but I think it works. The scene does work really well. They have amazing chemistry and they do really well together. So they saved it.
HODGES: You come at it differently because you were there for the editing of it. Do you notice when you look at that scene? Are you like, oh man they’re freezing right now? Or do you get to lose yourself a little bit?
SQUIRES: Oh I notice everything. [laughter] My producers are like “Chantelle, no more visual effects shots.” But I’m like “please, please there’s like a little breath there. I can see it, take it out!”
HODGES: What other obstacles are there? Are there any other interesting obstacles that people that don’t make films might not think about in terms of making a movie like this?
SQUIRES: We had a lot of obstacles, but it was really amazing. We had such a great crew. Like, the best of the best. People were really invested in this story, so we ended up getting just the best people to work on the film. So that was a huge gift for this film because shooting a film in fifteen—we had a day in Nauvoo—so sixteen days total, it was really intense. And everything had to go as planned, like I said.
The day that we were shooting in Nauvoo the forecast said one hundred percent chance of rain, and Nauvoo rain is not like Utah rain. People were like, what are we going to do? We have to have a backup plan. We had an entire day of outside shooting that had to happen in this one day, and I was like, it’s not going to rain. And they were like, yeah, yeah, but if it rains—
HODGES: But when it does rain what should we do? [laughs]
SQUIRES: I was like, guys, it’s not going to rain. I’m telling you. This is not going to happen.
And we get out there on a Monday. It was pouring rain when we arrived. I had to buy boots because my shoes were soaked just getting out of the car. It was just crazy. People were like, oh my gosh, what are we going to do? How are we going to make this happen? We were like guys, it’s not going to be raining tomorrow. We woke up the next day, it was not raining. I had kind of anticipated, okay, it’s not going to be raining, and the sun’s going to be out, because we really needed the sun to be out. The sun didn’t come out, but it didn’t rain. The whole day it was overcast, which was perfect for lighting purposes, and it was cold, but everybody was there, we had heaters and the car, and we were able to get everything that we needed.
And then the next morning I went out with my cinematographer Wes Johnson and we just went to shoot some B-roll and as soon as we finished—Well, while we were out there the sun came out for a just minute. And I’m like “Get the sun, get the sun!” Then it goes away, he rolls on the camera roll, and starts putting the camera away and it just starts to rain. And I was like okay, we have had a lot of help with this film. And I am just really overwhelmed. There are so many other little stories like that.
HODGES: That’s Chantelle Squires, producer and director of the new film Jane and Emma.
Mel, I want to talk to you a little bit about writing this film because you’ve also been working on the church’s new institutional history, Saints. It’s a multi-volume history. So I’m interested to hear you put that experience alongside this one.
For one, you’re writing a more straightforward history. For another, you’re doing an imaginative reconstruction that’s just fiction.
LARSON: The great thing about working on Saints was that I was able to work with some really fabulous historians who know so much about Joseph Smith and his life, and the part of the book that I worked on was Joseph as a young man, Joseph as a boy.
HODGES: Was the bone surgery in there? [laughs]
LARSON: The bone surgery, yes—
HODGES: [laughs] Okay, sorry, go ahead—
LARSON: The bone surgery, and the volcano, the Tambora. And it was really great too, the project, the way that it was pitched to me was that we are looking to make history—I guess for lack of a better word—palatable to people who aren’t historians. So we’re trying to make things interesting so that teenagers in seminary are going to pick up this book and not put it down.
HODGES: Yeah, it’s a book people want to read.
LARSON: It’s a book that people want to read. So the goal was to take history that was as accurate and sound as possible, but to make it narratively interesting. So it reads like a narrative but none of it is fiction.
So I was actually working on that at the same time as my day job, so I’d come home and work on Jane and Emma which is kind of in an interesting way the flip, which is where, okay, I have a historical source that says Jane and her family came into this room with Joseph and Emma and Joseph’s friend Dr. Bernhisel and four of Joseph’s wives, and Joseph says, “Tell me the story of how you came here. Tell me about your travels here.” And that’s from Jane’s autobiography. And we actually have several snippets of dialogue in that scene that are from Jane’s record, which is awesome that we have that, but then also I have room to play with it to make it dramatic.
Then Chantelle and Wes, in the shooting of it, play around with how it’s going to look visually. So it’s interesting that in the one, Saints, I’m trying to craft the experience so the experience feels like fiction, and with the film we’re taking fiction and trying to make it feel like history. [laughter]
It’s like a dual life, doing both at the same time.
HODGES: What would you say to historians that come to this film? Some of them are going to have some particular expectations. I’m interested to hear—You’ve worked with historians on Saints, and you’ve also done this film.
LARSON: I’m hoping that historians—and I speak as an amateur historian—I hope that people will come with an open mind and understand that what we are presenting here is not a history, that it’s an interpretation. I think about Joseph and how there are controversies about supposed photographs of him. We have so many paintings of him, and they’re all kind of different. Then we have the actual description that people have of him, and so we’re kind of left to our own devices about what we think Joseph looked like.
And I feel like when we’re making a film like this I have often said that it’s kind of like painting a painting. We are taking a guess. I’m saying that this is what Nauvoo looked like at this time. This is what Joseph was like, this is what Emma was like, this is what Jane was like, in the story that I’m trying to tell. I’m hoping that historians and audience members are going to come to this and say, “Oh, that’s just a really interesting interpretation.” Because that’s what it is. And that’s all that it can be. It probably won’t—I guess if someone wanted to go through and say, “This is inaccurate, this is inaccurate, this is inaccurate.” Then I’m like, well, I guess you were entertained, so—
HODGES: You’re kind of missing the point.
LARSON: Yeah, you’re kind of missing the point. For me when I see a film like this and there is something historical that I go, oh, that’s a real thing! Oh, Joseph actually said that! That’s from Jane’s letter! I get excited about those things. So there are Easter eggs. There are moments, I think, for people who know the history they’ll get it. But I also hope that people just understand my goal as an artist is to make something that is emotionally resonant, and that is basically beautiful. That’s what I want to do. So I’m hoping that people will just appreciate it on that level.
HODGES: How did the relationship work out between you two, Chantelle, you and Mel working together? How did that come about and how do things work between a director and a screenplay writer?
SQUIRES: Mel and I have a really great collaborative relationship. We have the same sensibility, I guess I would say, in terms of our approach to storytelling. That’s a tricky thing. You notice there’s a lot of different films and they’re told a lot of different ways, and when you find someone that you connect with that way, and you speak the same visual language, I just think it’s so great to be able to have that. The things that you can create when you’re in tune like that and in sync like that, it’s just much better than if you’re trying to get the other person to see your vision. We just, from the beginning, really connected that way. I think both bringing all of our experience to the table as well, we ended up working really well together and I think that was such a great process for me as a director because there are a lot of writer-directors that are able to really, if there’s something that’s not working in the script, they go change it. And I’m an editor—
LARSON: Sometimes they shouldn’t… [laughter]
SQUIRES: And I’m an editor, so I look at things from an editor’s perspective. So I see something—
And I remember having a conversation one time where I was like, “Okay, Mel, I’m telling you right now this is going to end up on the cutting room floor. So I don’t want the whole idea to end there. So let’s rework this.” And she’s like, “Oh, I see what you’re saying. I understand the words that you’re trying to say. [laughs] And they will filter through me and come out beautifully on the paper.” [laughter] And that happened so many times.
HODGES: Is there any particular scene that that happened to? I’m interested, can you think of a particular example so when people go watch the film they’ll be like, oh that—
SQUIRES: Oh I wish we had written them all down.
LARSON: We should have written them down, because it did happen several times. I think that was probably the best thing about our working relationship, is that there were things where I could understand what she was saying but sometimes it took me a minute to get there. And I think sometimes artists have strong personalities, and sometimes someone will just say, “Oh you’re wrong, we’re not doing it that way,” and your response is to kind of brace up and kind of pout. But we figured out how to talk to each other in a way that we found a way to communicate what needed to be communicated.
So it was really great because as an editor, she has a really strong sense of story, which makes a difference. Sometimes a director will say, “Oh, this just doesn’t make sense,” and really that translates in my head to, “I don’t really like this.” But when she had an issue with the story, I knew it was because she has a sense of story, and I’m thinking in my head, okay, how can I fix it to be what it needs to be? So we did get to a place where we had kind of a working language between us, [laughs] and it made all the difference because we were both trying to tell the story the best we possibly could. I’m trying to think of a specific moment—
SQUIRES: I don’t know, but I think Mel knows more personal anecdotes of my life than anyone on this earth. [laughter]
LARSON: Well there were several times when we would be working late at night at her house, and there was this time when we would talk about structure—Because we have the course of the night, Jane and Emma going through this night in 1844, and then we’d intersperse it with flashbacks, and we tried to set all the flashbacks during the day to have a contrast. And we had all of the scenes on cards out on the coffee table, and her dog, who is just a puppy, comes in and he’s a big puppy, he just puts his snout on the table and just sniffles through everything. The cards go everywhere. [laughter] The experiences I’ve had with animals in her house during this film, it’s actually amazing we have a script because a guinea pig tried to eat the script.
SQUIRES: But when they got mixed up we were like, “well maybe we were supposed to change it!” [laughter]
HODGES: Yes, it was providence!
LARSON: Maybe that’s what was supposed to happen, it worked out that way!
SQUIRES: So, yeah, we’ve had a lot of meetings and spent a lot of time. Because I don’t know that we knew each other super well going into this process, but over the last two years we have established a really great working relationship now, and it’s like “okay, what’s next?”
HODGES: How long did that screenplay take to write? Was it complete before shooting started?
SQUIRES AND LARSEN: …yes— [laughs]
HODGES: I ask that because with Jaws, for instance, I didn’t know this until recently, but with Jaws they basically wrote that on the water. They went out there and shot it while they were writing it.
LARSON: Yeah. This process, what we tried to do is have the script, we wanted the script to be as solid as possible before going into shooting, and then there were some adjustments, and then there were also a lot of people that were invested in this story so there are lot of approvals. And that’s the thing for me if we’re thinking about obstacles, I think about when I write a play I’m the final say.
HODGES: Yeah, that’s it.
LARSON: And that’s it. And you know, [laughs] directors aren’t supposed to change lines, that’s not what you do. In this situation it’s much more collaborative. Also with a play when it’s written, different directors will direct it different ways in different places. And this is going to be made the one time, so there were a lot of people with a lot of say. So a lot of my job was to kind of take all of the feedback from so many people and balance it with what I’ve been trying to do artistically. So it’s like, I need to take all of this—and there are a lot of voices [laughs]—and to just kind of make the story as cohesive and solid as possible.
Sometimes the really great thing about us working together was that we were both trying to sort that out together, and just kind of be like, okay, this is the story that we’re trying to tell. And I think one of the strengths of the movie is that we were always on the same page about that.
HODGES: So how long before shooting did you write, do you think?
LARSON: I was basically writing constantly since we started writing, which was April of 2016.
HODGES: And then some writing happened during the shooting just as you kind of adjusted some things?
SQUIRES: Yeah, well when you’re making a film there’s three stages of writing. You write the script, then you shoot the script, and then you edit it.
HODGES: And writing can happen in that third stage.
SQUIRES: Oh, a lot. That’s what I knew going into it as an editor, that’s why I said “I’m going to cut this out, so if you want it saved we’ve got to rewrite it!” Because on set an actor will say a line and it’s like, that didn’t work, or maybe this works better. So sometimes directors will just take it and do it, and there were sometimes when I would call her from on set and people would be like, “who are you on the phone with?” And I was like “leave me alone!” [laughter]
I needed to make sure that I don’t lose the authentic voice of this film. That was one thing that I really fought to keep because there were a lot of voices that were great, and that’s the point, that we needed to do the work with all the right people and at the end of the day the voice needs to be very solid on the page. And I really carved a space there for Mel to do that because I even know, I’m on set and I’ve got two minutes and need to make a decision, I rewrite this line, I might cut it out because it’s not going to sound like Emma. But I haven’t been the one that’s been caring for what Emma sounds like.
HODGES: Even in words that she would use, or the way she would say it, even.
HODGES: Even if you knew what point you wanted her to make, you wouldn’t necessarily channel the voice that the screenwriter has got.
SQUIRES: Exactly. So we still worked closely on set.
HODGES: Did you get to go to set at all, Mel?
LARSON: I did a little. The hard thing about the day job was that they were shooting days. [laughs] So I did get to go sometimes. It’s fun. It’s fun to see it happen and to see it come to life. And to be there like “oh, we’re cutting that, okay, I’m not going to cry about it.” That was the nice thing is I think is there was a lot of trust and I knew—because usually when you give something to a director you hope that they’re going to interpret it right, that they’re going to get something along the lines of what you intended, and sometimes it’s a gamble and you don’t know until you see the finished product what it’s going to look like. But because we were communicating, and yeah, my phone would ring and I’m like “okay, something’s going on on set.” We would change things that way. It was nice to be involved and to not be cut out of the process.
And even in post, [laughs] when she was editing, to see things and to be a part of making decisions at that level as far as story goes was really great. Because it’s true, the script isn’t finished until the film’s finished.
SQUIRES: And there’s the essence of the scene. So it’s like, okay if I lose this do I lose the essence of the scene? You know? Were there too many words to begin with? Is that why it’s not feeling right? That’s why I love editing. Because I just feel like you do get to have that final… The actor’s going to bring something, and I think Jane in this film, she just brings so many crazy things to this movie that when I put in just a look or something I’d be like oh my gosh! that’s enough! or things that we didn’t know were going to happen, just even in the relationship between Jane and Emma. You just have to be prepared when you’re making a movie that it’s going to change.
HODGES: Yeah. It’s such an intricate process. That’s Chantelle Squires. She’s producer and director of Jane and Emma. It’s a historical drama releasing in theaters October 12. And among other things, Chantelle’s also produced and directed Reserved to Fight. It’s a feature-length documentary that aired nationally on PBS. She also won an Emmy for her work on the third season of the Generation’s Project for BYUTv.
We’re also talking with Melissa Leilani Larson, who wrote the screenplay for Jane and Emma. She’s also written a bunch of other plays like Little Happy Secrets and Pilot Program. She wrote the screenplay for Freetown, a film that won the Ghana Movie Award for “Best Screenplay” and the Utah Film Award for “Best Picture.”
So before we go I want to remind people the movie comes out on October 12, which is just a few days after this episode will come out. And if you’re coming to the episode later on hopefully it’s still in a place where you can see it. And if you’re not in Utah, hopefully it comes to a place where you can see it.
With that in mind, Chantelle, I wanted to ask you about audience. This is a movie that’s about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. What kind of audiences did you have in mind in making the film?
SQUIRES: You know, as we were working on this story, story was such an important thing for us. We really, as filmmakers, that was what we prioritized because when we go to the theaters we want to be entertained. We want to be on the edge of our seats. We want to feel something. That’s why I go to the theater, is to feel. Whatever it is I need to feel I will turn something on. That was the most important thing for us as we were working on this film.
Now that doesn’t mean it’s the only important thing of this movie. And I would say the really brilliant thing about our religion is that it’s so complex. It’s so beautiful in and of itself. There’s so much—it’s like a tapestry that we can put a story in front of and it just makes it more colorful, and makes it more intriguing and interesting. I’ve always found when I’m just being really honest about either this story or just my life to people that aren’t members of the church, they’re fascinated by it. I think it’s fascinating. I feel really strongly that we need to be telling stories within the historic idea of the Mormon church because there’s so much to tell there.
But at the same time, that’s the backdrop and the story is much bigger than that. And I think is resonates with audiences on a much broader level, and so I hope that it does reach out to a wider audience. I hope it does really well in Utah. It’s really important that people go see it so it can reach out into other theaters across the country and hit those larger audiences. Because the story—and that’s one thing I think we’ve learned along the way, that while story was such a focus for us because we wanted to make a really good movie, the topic and the issues that are addressed in this and that these actors bring to life and the script brings to life and everything brings to life, are so important and I think have the ability to resonate with a much larger audience.
HODGES: Yeah, I will say, personally, speaking having seen the film that I did feel like it was a human story playing out in a Mormon context, and not a Mormon story trying to enter into a human context.
Mel, did you have anything else to add?
LARSON: That’s the goal, I think, for me as a writer, because drama is about humanity. It’s about human experience. When we find something to relate to what we’re doing is looking for something universal. Usually with the story you try to do something that’s really, really specific and from that specificity people can relate to the characters on a universal level.
So the story is very specific. We’re looking at one woman and the potential of this one night and what might have happened and how she interacts with this other woman that we know historically that they had a relationship, but we’re trying to put them under the microscope of this one night. And my hope is that while these women are Mormons, while they shared this faith, they also shared a lot more. They shared a sisterhood and they shared a friendship and there was a lot to them. They’re much more complicated than just the faith that they practiced.
And faith is something that we all, for those of us who believe in it and who have it, it’s something that kind of enters in, it kind of infiltrates other things in your life and helps you to make decisions in how you interact with people. And so my hope with this story is that in just portraying faith as honestly as possible that someone is going to see something there that gives them a little more understanding, and maybe not in a faith context, but in some other aspect of their life where they just see how Jane was able to use faith to endure some pretty incredible things, and if they just take that and think about whatever’s going on in their own lives, that’s always the hope with me is that someone is just going to see something in the story and whatever it triggers in their head emotionally, as long as there is an emotional response, that’s what we’re going for.
HODGES: That’s Melissa Leilani Larson. She wrote the screenplay for Jane and Emma. We also met today with Chantelle Squires, the producer and director of the new film. Again, you can see that in theaters in Utah starting October 12th. You can find out where it’s playing at janeandemmamovie.com.
Thank you both for being on here. Mel, thanks for coming in.
LARSON: Sure. Glad to be here.
HODGES: And Chantelle, it was great having you.
SQUIRES: Thank you so much.
HODGES: Thank you for listening to this special episode about Jane and Emma. You know, usually you have to wait a whole month between my interviews. But not this time. I’ve got another interview coming up for you next week, this time with Max Mueller, author of the book Race and the Making of the Mormon People. Stay tuned for that.
And by way of announcement, I want to let you know about the Maxwell Institute’s conference about race, priesthood, and the temple coming up at Brigham Young University on October 12. The conference is called “40 Years: Commemorating the 1978 Priesthood and Temple Revelation.” You can learn more about it at mi.byu.edu/40years.
The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118)