’Falling’ Further :: Jon Garcia on ’The Falls: Testament of Love’
Jon Garcia’s film "The Falls" was a shoestring-budget movie that charmed and touched audiences. The film centers around RJ (Nick Ferrucci), a young Mormon from Idaho Falls who travels to an Oregon town for his two-year term of missionary service. While there, he’s paired up with Chris (Benjamin Farmer), a young fellow from Utah. Some of the most poignant moments in "The Falls" are flashbacks to RJ’s high school days in his home town, as he begins to understand that his feelings for men are the same as his friends’ feelings for women.
The idea behind pairing Mormon missionaries is that they will keep an eye on one another and not stray from the path or purity and righteousness; in the case of RJ and Chris, however, things work out a little differently. They are both gay, and curious about the world outside of Mormonism. Even as their attraction to one another intensifies, they begin paying visits to a shut-in war vet named Rodney (Brian Allard), who introduces them to secular wonders like weed, video games, and non-redacted movies with all the sexy and violent bits intact.
"The Falls" traced the young men’s journey from religiously-inspired terror about their own sexual natures (they fret about being condemned to "outer darkness" for the "sin" of making love to each other) to self-knowledge, self-acceptance, and self-confidence; by the end of the movie, when RJ faces a church tribunal and dresses them down ("Shame on you!" he thunders), you’re cheering for them.
But that’s not the end of the story.
On Nov. 26, Garcia’s new film, a sequel titled "The Falls: Testament of Love" will be available on DVD from Breaking Glass Pictures, with availability on Video On Demand (VOD) to follow. It’s rare for sequels to live up to the films that gave them rise; even rarer for a continuation to surpass the original material. "Testament of Love" succeeds at this, digging deeper into the characters and taking brave risks that pay off.
It’s five years later: RJ and Chris, having finished their mission work and spent some time traveling, have now been separated for a long while. RJ’s letters have gone unanswered; Chris has disappeared into silence and distance, leaving RJ to pursue his life half-heartedly. His relationship with loving new boyfriend Paul (Thomas Stroppel) suffers; even his job as a writer for a Seattle paper lacks the glamor it might otherwise possess, if RJ were fulfilled by having Chris at his side.
And where is Chris? As it turns out, he’s in Utah, having submitted to family pressure and married an unsuspecting young woman named Emily (Hannah Barefoot). Now that he’s a husband -- and a father to a young daughter -- Chris struggles with all his might to cling to a heterosexual identity that just does not fit him. It takes the death of their old friend Rodney to bring Chris and RJ back into contact, and from there the two wrestle once again with their still-intense feelings.
Indeed, "intense" is the only word for this film, which tackles the thorny questions of faith, family, sexuality, "reparative" therapy, and marriage, sparing neither the characters nor the viewer in its feverish explorations.
"It definitely was," Garcia told EDGE when asked whether writing the film was as intense as the experience of viewing it. "There was a lot of research -- more so talking to people who had been through something like this. I did a lot more research for the first film into Scripture and the Book of Mormon; this was more about talking to people who had been through these things -- talking to members of Affirmation [a GLBT Mormon group]... There were a lot of emotional conversations I had, with about 20 men who were Mormon, who had been through something like this. I didn’t take anything directly from their lives, but it was inspired by listening to their stories and what I thought would be the best story to tell for them and for their families."
Throughout, there’s a sense that sexuality -- homosexuality as well as heterosexuality -- is not, in fact, sinful, but rather a sacred gift to be cherished.
"There’s a scene in the film where I go into [the Scriptural reference, in John 20:2, to] ’the disciple that Christ loved,’ and the character uses the Bible as a way of saying to Chris, ’Look, I’m like you. I too am struggling,’ " Garcia recounted. That one scene, which unfolds between Chris and another married Mormon man, entailed "studying this passage, finding out more about the Book of John, and talking to a few priests and a few Mormons." Reckoned Garcia, "That was fine... the research part us always a lot of fun."
Religiosity permeates the film. One initial point of interest is the title itself, which uses the word "testament" -- a signal from the get-go that this film is a document that will defend same-sex love as something every bit as sacred as that between two people of different genders.
"For me it was more about what’s going in on the film," Garcia said. "It’s about RJ and the idea of a testament of his love for Chris."
That "testament" involves the sort of behavior on RJ’s part that only youth can explain and love could pardon. Traveling to Utah (ostensibly for work), RJ finesses his way into Chris’ household, and, eventually, welcomes his former lover back into his bed while wife Emily waits for him at home. At one point, RJ even intrudes upon an anniversary celebration for Chris’ long-married parents. There’s anguish, angst, and -- eventually -- relief, release, and hope.
The transition from a life of pain and lies to one of freedom and dignity is exemplified by a scene in which RJ -- who has tried to have it both ways, clinging to Mormonism while pursuing an identity as an openly gay man -- trashes his hotel room in a fit of regret and frustration. Needing to dress his bleeding hands, he cuts his temple garments (religiously mandated sacred underwear) into bandages. It’s a poignant scene that also carried a charge of defiance.
"I knew that the proper way to dispose of temple garments is to cut out certain spots [where sacred symbols are sewn into the material], and then they are just regular garments and you can throw them in the trash," Garcia told EDGE.
Actually, the proper disposal of the garments involves incineration, but "I didn’t want him to go so far as to burn them," Garcia said. "My idea was not to offend anyone, but to show what these young men are going through."
Still, the reference to Mormon traditions and ceremonies is sure to be provocative, even as they land right on target.
"There’s even a Temple wedding in the film," Garcia noted. But, authenticity and sensitivity were as present on his mind as making an unmistakable and definitive statement: "There’s a threshold between sacrilege and informative storytelling. We had one person working on the film who was a currently practicing Mormon and three or four [who were formerly with the church]."
Still, Garcia agreed with the notion that the garment cutting was a turning point for RJ, one loaded with symbolism. "Showing that, after everything that RJ and Chris have been through... for RJ, it symbolizes him leaving his religion because everything that happened five years previously has led to this string of events, where they are not living honorably to themselves and people have been hurt along the way -- including Emily. All these people have been hurt because Chris and RJ can’t live as they want to. Ultimately, what they want is what a lot of men who I’ve talked to have said they want: To be Mormon, and [at the same time] to be gay."
Looked at through this lens, the two movies seem like a single story divided at a natural break, rather like one long story told in two acts. The second film seems to proceed so naturally from the first, even as it delves into deeper and more complex emotional waters, that it was a little surprising to hear Garcia say he hadn’t originally intended the story to continue into a second chapter.
"I didn’t have any sense that there would be a second movie," he told EDGE, "and then I’d be hearing from a lot of... I guess you could call them fans. People are really touched by the first film, and people were asking about a sequel. I felt inspired to write one. I thought about where the story would go afterward, and I felt that Chris would have taken the path that he did, and RJ would have taken the path he took. I picked up the threads and wrote the story based on where I thought they would go."
And the actors? Was it hard to get Ferrucci and Farmer to reprise their roles?
"It was, schedule-wise, but honestly, they were able to just pick it up and be RJ and Chris again" once the camera started rolling, Garcia recounted. "We tried to keep them apart until we were filming that first scene -- the first scene we shot was when they are meeting in the café and catching up. The actors hadn’t seen each other in three and a half years, since we’d shot the first one. How that worked out was pretty cool -- they slowly got back into the groove and got to know one another again.
"We shot their scenes pretty much chronologically, and I think that helped them out as well," Garcia added. "But getting back into character was pretty easy for them. We had a scene where we put them back in their missionary outfits... it’s kind of a flashback. For all of us, that was pretty nostalgic."
The filmmaker is not Mormon, himself, which raises the question of why he chose to tell the story of two Mormon men who fall in love despite their church’s overt efforts to deny and deprive same-sex couples of legal equality.
As it happens, Garcia grew up in a home where religion was anything but doctrinaire, and exposure to other points of view was encouraged.
"I grew up Catholic and my parents were very interested in other religions, so we would talk about it and sometimes go to other denominations," Garcia told EDGE. "We talked about the LDS ["Latter-Day Saints," another name for Mormon] church, and I went to school with a guy who was Mormon. I’ve always been curious about it."
That curiosity, and spiritual Catholicism (no pun intended), is a thread that winds through in Garcia’s work. "My next film is about an Amish girl," the writer-director, who already has both "Falls" movies plus another film, "Tandem Hearts," to his credit, disclosed. "We start on that next March or April. And I made a paranormal thriller ["The Hours Till Daylight," now in post-production] that has a basis in Christianity; that’s been what I’ve been interested in as of late. I feel like there’s an audience out there for it. When you make a film about a social topic or religion, there’s an audience for it. The idea is for people to come in and watch these films; you want people to get something out of it, spiritually and emotionally. Religion has been a good vessel for that, to get through to an audience and to communicate.
"I was also very curious about the LDS church, and I wanted to know more about it," Garcia reflected. "I had also done a lot of volunteer work for a sexual minority youth resource center here in Portland, an organization that provides a safe environment for queer youth. They can be themselves, they can have fun, they can go there after school; I saw how happy they were to have this resource, and wrote a story about a young man living in Idaho who was gay and couldn’t relate to anybody. After a conversation with a friend, I decided to make the character a Mormon. Then I realized that this place in the middle of Idaho -- Idaho Falls -- is actually a predominantly Mormon community. That’s how I stumbled upon the LDS factor in these movies."
All his research and conversations with Mormons has paid off: Mormon viewers connect with the material in a way a filmmaker always hopes for.
"I hear from people at screenings, or I get emails and I hear, ’You told my story,’ and ’I went on a mission thirteen years ago and you took me back to a time in my life.’ One gentleman told me that after his mission, six of the 12 missionaries in his group all came out to one another afterwards. It was a very emotional experience."
Asked whether there might yet be a third chapter for RJ and Chris, Garcia waxed hopeful.
"I feel like there could be. It depends on if I have the means to do it, and how this film is received. I loved making both of these films, and I would do another one. I don’t want to force it, but I’ll know in time if there needs to be another one. I already have an idea of where it would go.
"I hope people like this film," added the filmmaker. "It has a lot of heart, and I’m very proud of it."