A father walks alone from Oregon through Colorado. A bride-to-be and her mom work to make a Latter-day Saint “cultural hall” into an elegant reception spot. A young woman moves to Nashville to pursue her musical dreams. A man works in the limbo of pre-existence, deciding which souls get to become human.
All of these are happening in movies opening in theaters in between now and August 6 — and they were all filmed in Utah.
“We had a 60-mile radius from downtown Salt Lake City,” said Reinaldo Marcus Green, director of the drama “Joe Bell,” which opens in theaters nationwide on July 23. “If you drew a circle around that point, we probably shot in it.”
In the based-on-a-true-story “Joe Bell,” Mark Wahlberg plays the title character, a working-class guy from La Grande, Ore., who decides to walk alone across the country to raise awareness about the dangers of bullying — a walk inspired by his 15-year-old son, Jadin (newcomer Reid Miller), who is tormented at his school because he’s gay.
“Joe traverses several states on his journey from LaGrande to New York City,” Green said in an email interview. “Utah offered the various topography we needed to sell how far he traveled.”
For the Latter-day Saint-themed “Once I Was Engaged,” opening in Utah theaters on July 21 and expanding through the western United States, director Maclain Nelson said they shot in 15 locations around the Wasatch Front. “We bit off a lot more than we thought we might be able to chew,” Nelson said in a phone interview.
Thankfully, he said, the production was able to get access to several locations because the people who own them were fans of the movie’s predecessor, the 2015 comedy “Once I Was a Beehive” — which was largely filmed in one location, a summer camp.
In the sequel, one of the first movie’s teen campers, Bree Carrington (played by Clare Niederpruem), is now a student at Brigham Young University-Hawaii, looking forward to going on her mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, followed by a career in marine biology. Those aspirations are imperiled when her rich boyfriend (Tanner Gillman) pops the question and Bree says “yes.” What follows is a whirlwind of wedding planning, spearheaded by Bree’s control-freak mom, Carrie (Lisa Valentine Clark).
The bulk of “Once I Was Engaged” was shot in Utah in 2020, Nelson said, though the production shut down briefly after “a couple of people” in the production contracted COVID-19. Production resumed in Hawaii — some things Utah film crews can’t fake — and finished back in Utah early this year.
“It was definitely a roller coaster of emotion, so it kind of mirrored the movie, or how we want the movie to be,” Nelson said.
Another Utah-based writer-director, Savannah Ostler, stayed close to home to make “Even in Dreams,” which opens in Utah theaters on August 6.
The movie centers on Sam Bradshaw (Monica Moore Smith), an aspiring singer-songwriter mourning the death of her big sister, Amber (played by Ostler). Sam becomes determined to move to Nashville to fulfill Amber’s dream of making it in the music business.
It’s a sequel, of sorts, of Ostler’s micro-budgeted 2019 drama “Twice the Dream.” This one boasts a small amount of star power Ostler’s first movie didn’t have: Alison Arngrim, known as the bratty Nellie Olsen on the beloved ‘70s TV series “Little House on the Prairie,” plays Sam’s manager.
Also opening August 6 (after New York and Los Angeles releases on July 30) is “Nine Days,” writer-director Edson Oda’s surreal drama that won a special jury prize at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.
Winston Duke (“Us,” “Black Panther”) stars as Will, who lives alone in a house and is tasked with an unusual job: He must interview “souls” and decide which one of them should get the chance to live a life as a human. Will also investigates the reason there’s a vacancy: The suicide death of a talented violinist Will selected years earlier.
The applicants include characters played by Zazie Beetz (“Joker”), Tony Hale (“Veep”) and Bill Skarsgard (“It”). Benedict Wong (“Doctor Strange”) also stars as Will’s colleague, a figure who might be God (though Oda’s script is deliberately ambiguous on this point).
Will’s “house” was built in a warehouse in West Valley City. For the exterior shots, Oda found his a perfect location for the pre-existence: The Bonneville Salt Flats.
“The salt flats give you the sense that you’re not really on Earth, but you’re somewhere else,” Oda told The Tribune before the movie’s Sundance premiere.
At the Q&A after the film’s festival premiere, Duke said, “the salt flats, the house, everything added the last character of the film. It added the final piece to the puzzle.”
With all four films, part of the appeal of filming in Utah was the ability to shoot fast and economically.
Green said the “Joe Bell” crew, which shot in Utah for 27 days, was like “a traveling band. We were lean and mean. No real trailers or trucks. Just a bunch of vans, and cameras that we could move around quickly.”
In New York — where Green made his 2018 feature debut, the Brooklyn-set drama “Monsters and Men” — “you have access to a few more toys than you do on the side of the highway in Utah,” Green said. “I wouldn’t have changed a single thing about that experience. Joe was on the road. He didn’t have anything but a cart and a phone for a camera. I wanted the film to feel like that.”
Oda shot “Nine Days” over three months in the summer of 2019, and the filmmaker had visited Utah before — when he workshopped the script at the Sundance Institute’s screenwriting lab in January 2017.
Oda said he enjoyed “working in Utah, hanging out there, getting to know the city, being in contact with nature.”
Nelson noted that his “Once I Was Engaged” star (and real-life wife), Niederpruem, is also a filmmaker; she directed the made-in-Utah 2018 modern-dress version of “Little Women.” (Local actor Bart Johnson, who was Zac Efron’s basketball coach in the “High School Musical” franchise, played the dad in both films.)
Niederpruem has directed eight romantic comedies for the Hallmark Channel in the last three years, Nelson said, while he has directed four — three of them with “Christmas” in the title.
“I call it my residency of filmmaking,” Nelson said. “We’ve been able to hone our craft, in a way that’s really hard to do as a director — to get that many opportunities.”
The Hallmark work, Nelson said, also gave the filmmakers more credibility than most independent directors. It may be one reason, he said, “Once I Was Engaged” was able to get the locations they did — and land a key cameo from a prominent Utahn (whose identity, if mentioned here, would be a big spoiler).
“It’s kind of special, the way all the different dominos had to fall to get these bigger locations, and make this feel like ‘My Big Fat Mormon Wedding,’” Nelson said.