ST. GEORGE – A movie written and filmed almost entirely in Washington County completed shooting on August 28. "Ben Banks: The Movie" attracted Hollywood stars Mischa Barton ("The O.C."), Melora Hardin ("Monk," "The Office"), and Katharine Towne (HBO's "Tell Me You Love Me"), among other acting talent.
"Ben Banks," which was written and directed by Dixie State College graduate Bryce Clark, is being submitted to the Sundance Film Festival. Production company Signal Films plans to have local screenings of the movie in early 2011.
The story behind "Ben Banks" is as fascinating as the plot of the film itself. It all began in the communications department at Dixie State College of Utah.
"I sold a screenplay about three years ago," Clark said, "and watched as it got taken away from me and I lost control of it. I realized that in order to control my scripts, I needed to learn how to direct."
So Clark enrolled in the film program at Dixie State College, which he graduated from in 2009. While directing his first assignment, a commercial for Evans Hairstyling College, he noticed an interesting man handling equipment.
That man was Ben Banks.
"There was just something about him," Clark said. "I don't know what it was. He just piqued my interest and I started learning more about him."
The more Clark learned about Banks, the more intrigued he was. Eventually he began to write a screenplay about a character based on Banks.
Clark stressed that the movie is not a telling of Banks's life. "The character is based on Ben," Clark explained. "The story is fictional."
Clark originally intended "Ben Banks" to be a comedy and detective story, but the script began to evolve into something more.
"Themes started emerging in the script and the detective part of it sort of fell away," Clark said. "It's kind of a stoner comedy that tackles the Atonement (of Jesus Christ)."
Clark understands that some people may balk at the idea of a movie that combines marijuana smokers and religious themes. At first, one of his critics was his own father.
"My dad is the president of BYU-Idaho. When he heard a lot of the stuff that was in this movie, he bristled at the idea." Clark said. "He was like: 'Wait a second. It's about stoners, and there's an ex-porn star—what movie are you working on here?' But when he saw what we were doing with it, he became really supportive."
A main theme of "Ben Banks" came from Clark's experience with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Clarks left the Church for many years, and when he returned, some people in the Church didn't accept him because of his past.
"When I was in the midst of not being active in the Church," Clark said, "I was doing everything that you could think of doing that's not consistent with Mormonism. But in my heart, I believed some of the things."
The Atonement and the rejection that Clarks experienced when returning to the Church are both prominent themes in "Ben Banks."
In the film, Ben starts dating Amy (played by Mischa Barton). Before dating Ben, Amy worked in hardcore pornography. During their relationship, Amy is trying to get out of that industry. But when Ben finds out about Amy's past, he freaks out.
"He really handles it badly," Clark said. "He judges her, hurts her feelings, and he loses the girl."
Gunner, Ben's best friend and a stoner, is the character that comes out with an unexpected insight that forms the theme of the movie.
Gunner reminds Ben of the New Testament story of Jesus saving the adulterous woman from death by stoning. When Ben thinks he understands the point – that he should forgive Amy – Gunner delves deeper.
Clark illustrated Gunner's explanation to Ben. "This story isn't just some guy forgiving some girl," he said. "(Jesus) is going to go die for her. He's going to go suffer for the exact thing that she did. So what does he do – how does he handle it? Does he upbraid her, does he condemn her, is there some big speech? No. He forgives her and lets it go. And if Jesus can do that, if he can let it go, then you should let it go."
This realization changes Ben. "That's really the only time we talk about the Atonement in the movie, but it's this pivotal moment," Clark said. "Ben realizes that he's been judging (Amy), but also that he's been looking at himself with too critical, judgmental eyes as well."
The idea in "Ben Banks" is that everyone is a sinner, and that the Atonement of Jesus Christ allows us all to go on with our lives. But this theme isn't portrayed like it would be in a Church film.
"What I like about this movie is that it doesn't ram anything down your throat," said Jonathan Dodart, Locations Manager and Regional Casting Director for the film. "You see how (these characters) are just normal people and you see how normal people can forgive themselves and forgive others. You realize that we're all people at the end of the day."
Dodart is a resident of St. George and a Dixie State College student, but he has prior experience in the entertainment industry with NBC/Universal. Dodart was Production Coordinator for the movie "21," which starred Kevin Spacey, and has worked on "Miss Universe," "Miss USA," and Bravo's "Top Chef."
"("Ben Banks") is a movie set in St. George. The cool thing with the movie is that it's showing St. George as St. George." Dodart said. "(St. George) is not the backdrop, like in some other films. Like High School Musical 3 – when they filmed here they called it somewhere else, even though it was St. George."
Actors who came out to St. George from Los Angeles worked well with the environment.
"The celebrities we had in the film did such a great job, I thought, of conveying the St. George energy," Dodart said. "Obviously, the spectrum of people we have in the movie may not necessarily be the same spectrum of people we have in St. George, but they did such a great job of conveying the energy: that at the end of the day, people are good in St. George."
Audiences will definitely see St. George in "Ben Banks." Filming locations included Jazzy Java, TwentyFive Main restaurant on Main Street, and residential areas in St. George.
Jessica Merrill, Dodart's assistant and a communications major at Dixie State College, helped manage filming locations. This was her first experience in film.
"We had to pretty much take over Main Street, which is a pretty busy street," Merrill said. "I was sitting out there a lot of days just waiting for cars to leave and putting cones up."
Despite sitting outside in the heat for all those hours, Merrill wouldn't trade the "Ben Banks" experience for anything.
"Working with the crew, the producers, the directors, the talent, everybody – we became kind of like a family, almost, in those three weeks," Merrill said. "It's one of those experiences that's invaluable.…There's connections and friendships that were made that I'll never forget, beyond the movie. That just makes it that much more special."
Dodart was impressed with Merrill's professionalism, especially considering she had no previous background in film.
"She was like a fish in water – she adapted so quickly! I think that really goes to show a lot of the training that Dixie State College gives to its students. They teach them to be very socially adaptable to any climate. That's something that I've been able to be proud of, that I've gone so long at Dixie State and that I'm a part of that type of framework." Dodart said.
The last day of shooting "Ben Banks" was an emotional time for Clark.
"I'm hoping there's no behind the scenes footage of after the last scene," Clark said. "I kind of lost it. It was just an overwhelming experience.…When we finished shooting this movie and realized…it's a wrap…(it all) just sort of came crashing down…I started hugging everybody."
"Everybody in the entire crew broke out in hugs," Dodart said. "Everybody! I've never had that happen on an entire set. But Bryce (Clark) really shared his vision with us, and his dreams and his goals. It was a huge honor to be a part of that. I think all of us, in a small part, shared that joy and excitement and relief that we did it and it turned out so well."
"Ultimately, with this movie, I just want to entertain people," Clark said. "But if they take something away from it, then that's great too."