PROVO — A small sign on the side of a Provo road is the only indication there’s something remarkable at the end of the lane. But past the guard gate lies an ancient American village, nestled among trees that add an air of privacy to the sets at the LDS Motion Picture Studio.
Straw and wood structures cover tables of trinkets and pottery from a bygone era while hanging herbs and fruit sway in the light breeze. Though palm trees surround the village, the Provo mountains tower in the background.
While Utah County may seem a far cry from ancient America, it’s home base for the actors, directors, scriptwriters, camera operators, producers and extras working on The Book of Mormon videos, set for release Sept. 20.
Here’s a sneak peak at the filming of a scene from the new Book of Mormon videos. First one will be released Sept 20. pic.twitter.com/ZjSB2fmS72— Liesl Nielsen (@liesl_nielsen) September 5, 2019
Several years ago, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints released videos depicting various scenes from the New Testament, called “Bible Videos.” Starting at the end of September, the church will release similar videos of The Book of Mormon on ChurchofJesusChrist.org, in the Gospel Library app and on the new Book of Mormon Videos YouTube channel.
Faithful Latter-day Saints consider The Book of Mormon to be holy scripture that acts as a companion to the Bible. While the Bible depicts Jesus Christ’s work in ancient Jerusalem, The Book of Mormon documents Christ’s visit to the ancient Americas.
The book begins in Jerusalem about 600 B.C., when a man named Lehi receives a vision from God, warning him the ancient city will be overrun by Babylonians. God tells Lehi to take his family and flee, eventually leading them across the “great waters” to the Americas.
The Book of Mormon’s title hails from a man Latter-day Saints believe to be the book’s principal author: an ancient prophet named Mormon who summarized the history of Lehi’s family and his descendants in the new world, including Christ’s visit after His resurrection.
The Book of Mormon videos will chronologically depict the stories contained in the scripture but will be slightly different than their Bible counterparts. While the Bible videos were mainly short snippets between one to five minutes long, The Book of Mormon videos will be released in “episodes” that are between 13 to 20 minutes long.
The first episode of the first season will be released Sept. 20, then an episode will air each week afterward for seven more weeks. The second season will be released early next year with another eight episodes.
The cast and crew are nearing completion of the third season, which will come out in 2020, and the fourth of a total of five seasons will be released in 2021, according to a church news release. The episodes will be published in 15 languages.
The Book of Mormon videos will also stray slightly from the style of those of the New Testament.
“The Bible videos were very much a one-to-one, so when you see it on the page, it was shot that way as well. With the Book of Mormon, one thing we’ve actually tried to do (is) add a little bit more story,” producer Jaelen Petrie says. “Character arcs and characters are formed, and we go through it with them.”
Members of the church often bill The Book of Mormon as “life-changing” and say it contains “the fullness of the gospel of Jesus Christ” — something they believe the Bible has lost after passing through so many hands and translations. For faithful Latter-day Saints who have spent their lives reading The Book of Mormon, watching the story come to life will be a special experience, director Adam Thomas Anderegg believes.
“(This is a) visualization of the Book of Mormon, as opposed to a dramatization. As a director, my job is to dramatize, to bring it to life, to block and to have actors pit their objectives against each other and all those kinds of things. But this is visualizing what’s actually in the book. So when you watch it, you feel like you’re there. And it doesn’t feel necessarily like high-octane action like a movie in the theaters, but it definitely feels like the book is alive in front of you,” Anderegg says.
Actress Amber Weiss’ eyes light up as she tells the story of Abish, the character she’ll portray in the upcoming videos. One of only a few women specifically named in the scripture, Abish is a pivotal character for Lehi’s descendants, who find themselves at odds (and often at war) with one another.
“I’ve had training as an actress, but I haven’t been acting. I’m a stay-at-home mom, and that’s kind of where my focus is right now,” Weiss says. “Honestly, (auditioning for the role) was just a ‘for fun’ thing. I did not expect to get this far.”
She’s grateful she has, though, especially because it’s given her the opportunity to portray a character she says teaches women “we are powerful, and we have the ability to do big things.”
Actor Ryan Wood is also thankful for the role he’s played, though he’s felt a bit of pressure bringing to life Abinadi — a character who only appears for a small amount of time but whose influence lasts throughout the rest of the book.
“It was a real honor to be able to play him, but at the same time, you want to do justice to something like that, because it’s a very well-known story,” Wood says. “(And) he’s martyred at the end, so we had to shoot that. I guess I won’t give that away but, he dies in the end.”
But portraying a character whose words Wood used as a missionary to “help people understand their worth to God and worth to this world” is a true privilege, he says.
“The central message of the Book of Mormon is Jesus Christ as the son of God and the savior of the world,” said Sister Reyna Aburto, second counselor in the presidency of the Relief Society, the church’s worldwide organization for women. “That’s the message we are sharing with these videos, that He is our savior and our redeemer, and hopefully people will … have the desire to know more.”