Matt Barats was a struggling actor, waiting for a payout from a pizza commercial — a commercial that was delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
So Barats decided to direct a movie — about a struggling actor waiting for a payout from a pizza commercial.
That movie, “Cash Cow” — a documentary-of-sorts that takes a detour into the history of Joseph Smith, founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — will have its premiere at the Slamdance Film Festival.
“It plays like a comedic essay, personal documentary and d.i.y. diary film,” Barats said in a recent interview. “I wanted it to feel sort of like a PBS field correspondent was left alone to make something and was slowly unraveling.”
The nagging inevitability of waiting led to Barats’ frustration — which he channeled into the movie that blurs the line between documentary and narrative fiction as Barats shows a depiction of himself killing time by taking off on a tour of historical locations important to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
In particular, Barats’ tour hits sites that connect back to the life and death of the church’s founder and prophet, Joseph Smith.
Barats grew up in Idaho, so he grew up around the Latter-day Saint faith, he said. But it wasn’t until he went to college in Chicago that he read a book about the “Mormon wars of Illinois.”
“Non-Mormons don’t really have a further deeper understanding of early Mormonism,” Barats said. “It’s kind of a great, somewhat forgotten, story of American history, and it seems like the church does a pretty good job of controlling the narrative.”
One particular historical site he visited — Nauvoo, Illinois, where thousands of Smith’s early followers lived at the time he was killed by a mob in 1844 in nearby Carthage — really struck Barats.
“That city is the most incredible place, it’s still preserved in so much interesting stuff that happened there,” he explains.
“Cash Cow,” though, isn’t a dry travel guide. Barats’ narrative depicts him sometimes playing the character of Matt Barats — and sometimes delivering frank commentary that obscures the line between Barats’ real self and his character. His deadpan voiceover is reminiscent of when characters look at the camera in “The Office.”
Even with that unconventional approach, “Cash Cow” has some serious moments. At one point, Barats reflects on the changes in content creation during the pandemic, like when actors switched to TikTok.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Barats said, he saw people experiencing “this kind of creative desperation,” which led to “a lot of cheap internet content happening.”
He also talks about dealing, as an actor, with “imposter syndrome” — an element, he said, where his journey parallels Smith’s.
There were moments, as Barats depicts in the film, where the actor’s journey and Smith’s mirror each other on a basic level. For example, Barats’ character hits rock bottom in Missouri — a state where, Barats notes in his commentary, Smith and his Latter-day Saint followers faced persecution and threats in the 1830s, before being driven out and forced to resettle in Illinois.
Barats made his movie on a miniscule budget — out of necessity, since he was still waiting for a payout for that pizza commercial.
“I truly was out there thinking I’d pay for [the film] with money from this commercial,” Barats said. When that money kept getting delayed, Barats realized he’d have to do “whatever it takes to make it on his own.”
In the end, Barats and his character work things out, though there are some small differences — which won’t be spoiled here — between what happened in his real life and how the film ends. “Cash Cow” offers a humorous look at soul-searching, guided by a thread of fitting religious inspiration.
“Cash Cow” is scheduled to screen in the Slamdance Film Festival. The first screening is set for Saturday, 11 a.m.; a second screening is scheduled for Wednesday, 7:45 p.m. — both at the Treasure Mountain Inn, 255 Main St., Park City. For tickets, go to slamdance.com.