Actor Brandon Ray Olive ("Mosaic," "Logan Lucky") nervously walked into the Megaplex theater Sept. 3. His new movie had just finished screening to a packed theater, and he was scheduled to give the post-screening question and answer session. He had done these sessions before, and typically with ease. But this one was different.
As he stepped to the front of the auditorium, he could feel the audience’s gaze. They wanted to get a glimpse of the man who would bring such an important historical figure to life. Olive plays the iconic role of Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint founder Joseph Smith in the new film "Out of Liberty." And the audience was more than 200 of Joseph Sr.'s and Lucy Mack Smith’s direct descendants. They had an opinion of what Joseph Jr. should be like and if Brandon didn’t meet that, who knows how they would respond. Being nervous is understandable.
"Out of Liberty," the new western thriller from writer/director Garrett Batty ("The Saratov Approach," "Freetown") doesn’t open until Sept. 13, but already it’s gaining significant interest from a variety of audiences. And it’s easy to see why. With a cast of leading men, a veteran team behind the camera, and topics that are as relevant today as they were back in 1839, "Out of Liberty" is poised to become the breakout hit of the fall, leading Latter-day Saint cinema into new territory.
One of the main draws of "Out of Liberty" is the bold casting. Batty worked with casting director Sally Meyer to assemble a cast of leading men, including Jasen Wade ("17 Miracles," "Saints and Soldiers: Airborne Creed") and Casey Elliott of the musical sensation Gentri. Corbin Allred ("The Saratov Approach"), joined the cast, bringing a scene-stealing take on legendary figure Porter Rockwell.
Allred, who left acting five years ago to complete medical school, jumped at the opportunity to return to the screen. “To get a call from Garrett, offering the chance to play one of my favorite historical figures? I’m in 100 percent.”
Also joining the cast are Adam Johnson ("Charly," "Once I Was a Beehive"), Larry Bagby ("Walk the Line," "Saints and Soldiers"), and of course, Brandon Ray Olive.
“This cast is a dream for any director,” says Batty. “The amount of talent and care they bring to their roles adds a human authenticity that each character and each audience member deserves.”
The filmmakers sought to maintain a level of authenticity throughout the entire production. Crews constructed an exact replica of the interior of Liberty Jail, matching the 14-foot by 14.5-foot by 6-foot cell that held the prisoners. Director of Photography Jeremy Prusso thrived on coming up with creative ways to showcase the jail, bringing life and texture to the confined space. The white stone exterior of the jail is both isolated and imposing, transporting audiences to 1830s Missouri.
Adding to the authenticity was the decision to portray the prisoners with scruffy beards, matted hair and tattered clothing. Olive worked with hair and makeup artist Becky Swayze to match his hair color to a lock of Joseph Smith’s actual hair. The wardrobe was aged and dirtied. The dialogue was pulled from period journals and historic accounts. Every element of production contributes to the overall experience of an authentic western.
When Batty first began work on "Out of Liberty," something caught his attention while researching the history. He was intrigued with the obituary of the jailer, Samuel Tillery, which painted a more complete picture of the man responsible for holding the prisoners. Often thought of as a lawless and merciless jailer, Tillery’s obituary described him as an “esteemed citizen,” and a “loving father.”
Batty worked with fellow screenwriters Stephen Dethloff and S. Mckay Stevens to craft a script of the story through the eyes of the jailer. “We were able to uncover a classic western anti-hero, caught between the two groups: Missouri’s most wanted prisoners, and the mob that wants them dead.”
The three-way conflict between these iconic characters set the stage for a classic western. Thematically, the film resonates with audiences because it is surprisingly timely and relevant. Batty explains, “We have two groups, both passionate about their beliefs, oftentimes hurling insults and ridicule, with little tolerance or understanding for those on the opposing side. Sounds a lot like what I see in the news and social media today.”
The film encourages all — regardless of sides — to respect the right of others to have opposing opinions. Understanding each other helps reduce hate and hurt, regardless of opinion.
And judging from early response, the message and its delivery are appealing to a variety of audiences. The film was immediately picked up for theatrical distribution by Purdie Distribution ("Meet the Mormons") and worldwide distribution by Samuel Goldwyn Films ("Fireproof," "Facing the Giants").
"This is an entertaining and powerful film, worthy of being seen by a theatrical audience,” says Brandon Purdie, head of Purdie Distribution. Ben Feingold from Samuel Goldwyn adds, “Worldwide, audiences love a good western, and 'Out of Liberty' absolutely delivers.”
The early screening for the Smith family descendants was packed, and applause filled the theater as the credits rolled. The director and cast, including Olive, were ready to take questions from the discerning audience.
“Why did you choose to cast someone that looks different than traditional depictions of Joseph Smith?” one descendent asked. Olive’s stomach dropped.
“Because it was definitely the right choice.” At that moment, the entire auditorium began to applaud, and Olive's nerves eased. He knew that every audience member would have an opinion, and his deserved to be heard.
"Out of Liberty" opens in theaters September 13th, but Batty will gather the cast again for the worldwide premiere at Megaplex Jordan Commons on 11th of September at 7:00 pm. Tickets are available to the public at outofliberty.com.
Audiences that night will also have the opportunity to see historical artifacts including Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery’s personal copies of The Book of Mormon, pencil sketches of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, an original first edition of The Book of Mormon from Grandin’s Press, Joseph Smith’s leather plat map of Farr West, Missouri and more.