INTERVIEW with the directors of SONS OF PERDITION: "They have no idea that I just spent four years publicly disparaging their God."
Sam from Sons of Perdition

Sam from Sons of Perdition

Sons of Perdition follows three boys exiled from their polygamist communities in Colorado City, AZ. Directors Jennilyn Merten and Tyler Measom provide viewers with an unseen side of the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints religion and its demanding leader Warren Jeffs through Bruce, Sam and Joe. Filmed over a period of three years, the boys stumble through life outside their faith — sex, drugs, and partying included. The directors, like their subjects, are also ex-Mormons, who left the faith in their 20s. "It wasn’t as traumatic as it was for the kids but it was a story that was kind of close to our hearts in terms of leaving your religion, struggling to find a new faith and dealing with your family," says Merten. I caught up with the directors via conference call as they spent time on opposite sides of the country — Merten in New York and Meason in Utah. Their film will be shown tonight as part of the PUFF screening series.

City Paper: How did you go about finding Bruce, Sam, and Joe?

Jennilyn Merten: We set out to find some kids and met a social worker who was helping some of them. He introduced us to a couple of the kids who weren’t real great, actually a couple of them told us to f*&% off. They’ve been taught their whole lives that outsiders are evil and they’re going to do horrible things to you. It took a little bit of work to gain their trust. But eventually we discovered this underground railroad community of kids, mostly boys living on their own.

Tyler Measom: We were really fortunate to find those three. We had met a number, but those three had each of their particular stories and each of their particular different determinations and backgrounds of sorts.

CP: It did add a lot to the movie that each of their characters are so different.

TM: Yeah, Sam just wears his emotions right on his sleeve for everyone to see and that’s something we really liked.

JM: And then Bruce is our comic relief, he kind of keeps things light but he also had a very extraordinary story with his dad being separated from his mom and being kicked out by Warren. And then Joe of course is our shy kid but he’s an old soul. His story happened unexpectedly when he started helping his mom and sister get out. But that also took off and became an additional storyline.

CP: There’s a moment in the film when you are with Joe as he helps his sister, Hillary, escape. Were you afraid something would happen to you because you were helping him?

TM: We were always looking over our shoulders anytime we were in Colorado City. They were definitely aware of us, but to be honest with you it just happened so fast that we didn’t have time to know what to do, what to say, what to think. In between trying to help her out we were also trying to cover it with two cameras going on at one time and record what was happening. So really we just went into auto-pilot.

JM: We had to do what needed to be done, but there were times where it was really scary. The movie only shows two or three escapes but we went through six or seven escapes with Hillary. We drove her across state lines, searched for her in the desert. It definitely was an intense experience for us.

CP: Did you decide from the beginning that you were going to have this kind of relationship with the boys or were there set boundaries from the beginning?

TM: I think it just organically happened. They were searching for, I wouldn’t say parental, but they definitely found something in Jenni and me as an older couple that would give them advice. We’re human beings first and filmmakers second. Or maybe third or fourth, depending on what day it is.

CP: What’s going on with the boys now? Are they following a lot of media surrounding the movie?

TM: In fact, I’m down here in St. George [Utah] right now. I drove through Colorado City yesterday to just kind of revisit the place. They’re very leery of outsiders and it was very strange to walk around them. I went into the dairy to buy a box of cheese and I realized they have no idea that I just spent four years publicly disparaging their God. It was a really strange experience. Sam is here and I saw him last night and we take [the boys] to the film festivals. We’ve done three film festivals so far and we’ve taken them to each of them. They love the adulation. Sometimes it’s very hard for them. People watch the film and they feel like they know them, like they just watched them grow up. People tell them 'it means a lot to me' and 'it changes the way I look at my family.' They’ve realized the gravity of it.

JM: The kids are very involved with the film. They’ve traveled with us, they get on Facebook and talk to people, and they get e-mails. They are still kids in a way but it’s been a huge growing experience for them. The traveling part of the film has been just as interesting to them as being in it.

TM: Plus they like the free drinks that come from the film festivals.

CP: I feel the same way as probably a lot of fans, I feel like I know them now. They did a great job just being honest.

TM: A good portion of it is that they didn’t know. They knew we were filming a documentary but they really didn’t know while we were filming that three years later there would be 400 people sitting in an audience watching it. Most of the time we set the camera down on the side so we could look them in the eye and they’d forget the camera was there. We had very different dichotomies with them. They wouldn’t want to open up necessarily in front of me so much, they wanted to be tough or funny. There were a lot of the times when Jenni would shoot and I would just calmly stroll out and she’d get something beautiful out of them.

CP: ...So the benefit of having two directors.

JM: And having a male and female. They still have very traditional sense of gender roles and things like that. So they would see me sort of their mom and be more emotional and personal with me because I don’t keep up the masculine front.

CP: Speaking of a masculine front, how did you guys get recordings of Warren Jeffs’ sermons for the film?

TM: From an exile who had left. They’re not allowed to listen to any music or unless it is approved by Warren Jeffs. So 90 percent of what they listened to is Warren Jeff’s sermons or Warren Jeff’s songs. Sure enough I actually stumbled upon him singing Bob Dylan songs. He would cover these songs and pass them off as his. When this woman left she had an iPod with a bunch of the sermons so I pulled them off of that. I mean we probably listened to 100 or more hours of these sermons.

JM: It was very brutal.

TM: Incredibly shocking some of the things he’d say. Just unbelievable.

Sons of Perdition, Fri., July 9, 8:30 p.m., free, Piazza at Schmidts, 1050 N. Hancock St.,
Originally published Friday, July 9th, 2010