Seventeen years after going to “The Other Side of Heaven,” filmmaker Mitch Davis and actor Christopher Gorham are going back to continue the true story of a Mormon missionary in Tonga.
Filming is scheduled to start in April in Fiji for “The Other Side of Heaven II,” Davis announced Tuesday at the Salt Lake City offices of Deseret Book, which owns the LDS movie distribution company Excel Entertainment. Excel and Utah-based Purdie Distribution will distribute the movie, Davis said, and it is scheduled to open in theaters nationwide in April 2019.
The sequel to the 2001 movie continues the story of John H. Groberg, now an emeritus general authority for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, based on his memoirs of his days as a missionary in the Pacific island nation.
The first movie, one of the early entries in the “Mormon Cinema” boom, detailed Groberg’s adventures, from 1954 to 1957, as a wet-behind-the-ears missionary. The sequel, Davis said, “tells the true story of his return, 10 years later, with his wife and five daughters. His wife and children have the same kind of adventures, and tragedies and trials of their faith.”
Davis said he was encouraged by Groberg to make the sequel, to tell the complete story of the missionary experience.
“He came to me and said, ‘I’m not getting any younger, and neither are you, so it’s time,’” Davis said. “When he has a certain kind of faith, things do happen.”
Gorham will reprise his role as Groberg, with New Zealand actor Natalie Medlock playing his wife, Jean. In the original, Jean was played by Anne Hathaway, then 19 and in only her second movie role (after Disney’s “The Princess Diaries”) — a casting coup that Davis credits with the movie’s crossover success.
Some of the actors who played Tongans in the first film — including Joseph Folau, Nathaniel Lees and Miriama Smith — will return in the sequel.
Making a sequel, Davis said, has been held up by one major factor: money.
“I have resisted, for 18 years, that opportunity,” said Davis, who recently directed the ensemble comedy “Christmas Eve” and the family drama “The Stray.” “The first one was made at a certain production-budget level that was big. … I just thought we couldn’t necessarily do the second one at the same level.”
The movie’s seven-figure budget is comparable to what the first movie cost to make, Davis said. That budget will go further than it might because the nation of Fiji offers a 47 percent tax rebate for film production. Between that and a favorable exchange rate, Davis said, “we get to make a big movie.”
The crew will be half from Utah, including veteran cinematographer T.C. Christensen. The rest will be drawn from New Zealand and locals in Fiji, Davis said.
After “The Other Side of Heaven,” Gorham has had a steady career that included leading roles on the TV shows “Ugly Betty” and “Covert Affairs.” He made his directorial debut last year with the Mormon-themed comedy “We Love You, Sally Carmichael,” which was filmed in Utah and written by local actor/filmmaker Daryn Tufts. Gorham played the lead, a serious author embarrassed by the cheesy yet successful woman-meets-merman romance novels he writes under a pseudonym.
Groberg told reporters that he was always reluctant to tell his story. After he became a general authority in 1976, it was Thomas S. Monson — who later became the LDS Church’s president and prophet — who prompted him to write his Tongan memoirs.
“‘If you don’t, that will be a chapter of church history that will be lost,’” Groberg recalled Monson saying.
When Groberg finally turned in his manuscript, Monson asked why he didn’t include his account of his service, a decade after his first missionary term, as mission president. “‘So you don’t consider being a mission president a mission?’” Monson asked sternly, according to Groberg, who then wrote that part of his memoir.
When “The Other Side of Heaven” came out in 2001, Monson, then-first counselor in the church’s First Presidency, was similarly enthusiastic. After seeing the movie, Groberg said Monson’s first question was “When are you going to make the second movie?” “I said, ‘I didn’t make the first movie.’”
Seeing the sequel being made, Groberg said, makes him happy “mainly because I feel like I’m doing what Elder Monson, President Monson now, felt should be done.” Monson died in January at age 90.
Monson, who was Groberg’s supervisor in the Pacific in the ’60s, appears in the film — played by New Zealand actor Russell Dixon, who Davis said is a dead ringer for the LDS leader.