By Diana Whitten

This series of posts highlights some of our local industry talent: on-screen and behind-the-scenes, established and up-and-coming.

In June of 2015, the US Supreme Court legalized gay marriage, requiring all 50 states to perform and recognize same-sex marriages. Paving the way to this monumental decision was the dedication of countless activists working across the country on movement-building initiatives and lawsuits that challenged the status quo. One significant but often overlooked lawsuit occurred here in Utah, in 2013, when an unlikely gay activist partnered with a small Salt Lake City law firm to challenge the goliath of political influence wielded by the Mormon Church to overturn Utah’s gay marriage ban. This struggle and ultimate triumph is documented in the film Church and State, which premieres theatrically this week at the Broadway Centre Cinemas. Utah filmmaker Holly Tuckett, who co-directed the film with Kendall Wilcox, has years of experience producing and shooting across genres in film. Church and State is her directorial debut. I connected with Holly about her experience directing the film.

What compelled you want to make Church and State? You’ve spoken about an initial hesitation to working on the film, why? And what made you decide to eventually sign on?

For me Church & State began with regret. Mark Lawrence – the founder of Restore Our Humanity, and the activist that had the grit to make the case to overturn Amendment 3 (the marriage ban in Utah) – had approached me in April of 2013 to make a documentary about the case and his organization. Like everyone Mark encountered on the way to making marriage equality a reality, I didn’t believe that he would be successful. Then, on December 20, 2013, Judge Shelby ruled that Amendment 3 was unconstitutional, and I sat in my office watching people marry on my web browser, while I was working on a different project. I kicked myself for not believing that he could do it. I got a second chance to be a part of telling the story, because Andrew James and Kendall Wilcox were filming at the December 20th spontaneous weddings and decided to team up and make a documentary about what was happening. I ran into Andrew at Sundance in January 2014 and he asked me if I wanted to help with the project. You don’t say no twice. 

What was the most inspiring part of the filmmaking process for you?

What inspires me about the filmmaking process is finding a character that you know will tell a great story, and trust you to go on a journey with them; in addition, finding a group of filmmakers that are passionate about the project. You begin to feel this electric synergy happening, where the sum of the parts make a great whole.

What was your relationship with the subjects of the film?

Our relationship was strained at times, but we all were aware of the historical  importance of the subject matter. I think the subjects are pleasantly surprised with the end result.

Talk about your filmmaking team, and the process of working with them.

Our team was a fairly small and tight knit group of storytellers.  As co-directors, Kendall Wilcox and I both were raised Mormon, and identify as LGBTQ persons. While we have those things in common, I don’t practice or believe in Mormonism any longer. Kendall is still very actively involved in helping move the dialogue forward within the Church, to try and effect a change in their stance on LGBTQ persons. Torben Bernhard, our editor and cinematographer, was a Mormon and is straight. Story consultant Jennifer Dobner – a journalist and writer who spent the better part of her career with the AP and the Salt Lake Tribune covering all things Mormon and queer – is also straight. Together, all of these differing perspectives led to a complex look at the topics and storylines explored in our film.  It was a very collaborative process, and we spent many days together at the “work house” (Torben’s editing office), watching selects, stringouts and reworking the overall structure to create a concise and accurate retelling of this historical moment in Utah’s time.

Talk about being a filmmaker working in Utah and being a part of the local film community here.

Being a filmmaker in Utah is both rewarding and challenging. It’s rewarding because there is a concentration of really talented filmmakers, who are very supportive of one another and rally around each other’s projects. It is truly an amazing community to be a part of. As example, many other local documentary filmmakers attended multiple test screenings and helped us with constructive and unbiased feedback. They also rally around each other’s successes by showing up for screenings and sharing in the publicity of each other’s films. It is challenging in that we have a very difficult time funding our projects, especially not being a part of the Hollywood system. 

You are currently on the festival circuit with the Church and State – how has that been going?

We have enjoyed a great reaction to our film at the festivals that we have attended. Audiences have been grateful that we have shared this story about the gay marriage battle, as this issue has affected themselves or family members.  We have screened both Nationally and Internationally garnering a Special Jury Award at the American Documentary Film Festival in Palm Springs, CA and a Best Feature Documentary Award at the Nice International Filmmaker Festival in Nice, France.

This is a Utah story, but one clearly resounding with national and international audiences. Talk about how audiences are connecting to it as a universal story.

Because many audiences are not from here, many didn’t know about the case, nor were they familiar with the workings of Utah’s conservative political and religious climate. But the response to the film has been very enthusiastic! The fight for equality for LGBTQ persons everywhere has been long and emotional. I think that is why so many viewers have felt moved by our storytelling.

You’ve said the film is about government and religion and how fear can “divide communities and shape the psyche.”  How does your film aim to do the opposite? How do you hope your film might contribute to the struggle for a more just world, especially given the current political climate?

The film’s protagonists share with audiences some deeply personal moments from their lives, before and during the case, which are both universal and relatable.  Anyone can find an echo of their own challenges within their stories. Similarly, most of us have also experienced conflict between individuals and institutions. I think that cis persons who see LGBTQ people in the film getting married will experience a new appreciation for the privileges which they may not realize they have taken for granted, and will be affected and moved to compassion. 

Talk about how making the film has changed you as a filmmaker and as a person.

This film was my first co-directing experience and first feature length documentary. I feel that it has made me a more articulate storyteller, and has challenged me to move from being a “one-woman band” to a much more collaborative director. The beauty of working with a small team is that the opportunity to sharpen the saw and become softened to other points of view ultimately improves the narrative. So it is really important to work with a team that challenges your ideas and helps you to see the story in a different light. Through making compromises in the way in which we told the story, I personally developed compassion for the Mormon church, and that really surprised me.

 How can people see Church and State?

Church & State will have a theatrical release here in Salt Lake City, Utah, July 13th – 20th at the Broadway Centre Cinemas, and starting August 10th it will be available online and on demand through the following outlets:  Amazon, iTunes, iNDemand, Comcast Xfinity, DirecTV, Vubiquity, Hoopla, Dish, Microsoft, GooglePlay, and YouTube.